Reading Challenge update Part 1: from Bob Ross approved to book from my birth decade

Hello book friends, good news! I’ve finally reviewed some books for my reading challenge with The Redolent Mermaid: Bookish Jay and the Reading Mermaid challenge. The bad news, depending on how you look at it, I write too much for my brain to handle more than 5 at a time. I’ll be adding 5 more every week or so, because the best news of all is that I have been reading tons this summer. I can’t wait to share them with you.

Blood, Water, Paint | Joy McCullough (A title Bob Ross would appreciate–I may have gone extremely literal with this one)★★★★☆ 
 

The setting: Rome, Italy, 1610. Climb the cold stone steps to a dimly-lit attic studio, push open the heavy wooden door and happen upon sixteen year-old Artemisia Gentileschi. Watch her struggle for the same freedom handed to her brothers by birthright. Observe her labor over every detail of creating; grinding paints, stretching canvas, stiffening the fabric with rabbit glue. Toil over every brushstroke, knowing all the while the credit for her work goes to her father. Her transcendent portraits become so lifelike, they will lift Artemesia from the brink of despair and ruin after a betrayal. Hold your breath and listen to her subjects’ stories as well, for they have much to tell.

Told in verse, this true story feels urgent, raw, concentrated. All pretense is stripped away as the events unfold in brief lyrical stanzas with pitch-perfect tone and deadly earnestness. A powerful, inspiring account of another nearly forgotten figure, whose suffering reverberates through the centuries. Artemisia’s fight was for more than her reputation, or her art. She fought for dignity, for agency, for her very self and for us. The writing scorches the page and leaves a mark, but not one you’d regret earning.

TW: references to rape, carefully told in the young adult genre

I will show you

what a woman can do.

p. 291

Clearly after such an emotional, eye-opening read, a comforting book was required. Enter the Hygge-ified cover of this little-known story from 2014.

The Awakening of Miss Prim | Natalia Sanmartin Fenollora (Hygge) ★★★☆☆

A throwback from another era told with humor and nostalgic charm. Time seems to stand still in the seaside village of San Ireneo de Arnois. As exceptionally learn-ed Prudencia Prim accepts a private librarian position for an eccentric employer, she is bewildered when a man of such intellect balks at formal education and challenges her beliefs at nearly every turn. In time, the quirky residents of San Ireneo work in unison to show Prudencia the error of her modern ways, and convince her that she too is a romantic fugitive who needs rescued from contemporary life.

I appreciate a novel setting which acts as prominent as a character itself. Any place that upholds the principle that the workday never lasts more than 5 or 6 hours, time must be devoted to reading and study, and steaming cups of tea and cakes are mandatory at every occasion is one I’d like to call home. But not everything Fenollera serves up goes down as sweet as honey. First the ludicrous names; Prudencia Prim (I get it, both snooty and proper), townsfolk Herminia, Hortensia, and Horatio, the children, Teseris, Septimus, Deka and Eksi (just why?) and the leading gentleman, “The Man in the Wing Chair” whose name is never given, keep the characters at an almost indistinguishable distance. The numerous antiquated literary references, the moralizing tone that one would never know what one is missing till finding religion, and the Feminist League’s role in fetching husbands for single women of San Ireneo all felt a bit too quaint and preachy.

My biggest problem, other than the man-splaining, is that the love story falls flat. With all of the references to Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth’s contrarian relationship, I expected more. I never felt the growing infatuation of the central couple, not once. I didn’t even find fondness for the children who were mostly absent. Beset by lost opportunities, a wealth of style, and not enough substance, Miss Prim is an underdeveloped experience about as comforting as a lukewarm bath.

We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around The World | Malala Yousafzai (Passport Required-country you’ve never been to) ★★★☆☆

Malala heralds simple truth in complicated times, essentially this: girls have the same human rights as boys but are denied those rights to free safe and quality education. Gathered stories of multiple young women, not in a single far off place “over there” but from around the globe. Girls caught in the middle of a conflict which forced them to leave everything and everyone behind. Malala urges us to look past the numbers, which are, “so staggering that you forget these are people forced to leave their homes.” In that, she is successful.

They are doctors and teachers. Lawyers, journalists, poets and priests. And children, so many children.

The accounts are eye-opening, the determination to survive inspiring, and yes, the sheer numbers astounding, when one considers each girl’s story represents tens of thousands more. While reading, I got the feeling that this book would be important to the larger world, but also to me personally, although I don’t yet know how. I do know that Malala’s torch burns even brighter today as she passes it on to other displaced women, taking the reverent light upon her and shining it onto them. Young women emboldening each other rather than tearing each other down is one of the best writing outcomes that I think possible. My only criticism being–the stories are too brief, a mere inkling of the refugee issue. I wanted to know more about Muzoon’s education efforts in the settlement camps, the uncertain existence of the Rohingya who fled Myanmar in the face of brutal genocide, and to learn if Zaynab will ever see her sister Sabreen again. Especially, I wish to uncover the reasons behind their displacement. But I don’t think that is the point. The purpose is simply to make one aware that each refugee has a story, that it is a human story, and in doing so, render incapable the ability to look away.

Shoeless Joe | W.P. Kinsella (You’ve seen the movie, now read the book) ★★★1/2☆☆

Based on one of the greatest sports-themed movies of all time, Field of Dreams, a forever favorite from childhood. I can just about quote it verbatim and thought it past time to read the source inspiration. My expectations may have proved too high, because I really waffled on rating it between 3 and 4 stars. Of course, I loved the idea of it. The concept is inventive, magical, the stuff of dreams delivered with quotidian realness. A love of baseball, passion for literature, heck even a fondness for farming, and the powerful wish to reconnect, one last time, with a loved one who was lost leads to a reckoning in a homemade ball field in Iowa. It’s a beautiful story of convergence, but the prose just got in the way. The writing is occasionally overwrought, drawn out in parts, going seemingly nowhere in others. And ohh the hackneyed metaphors. Must every moon reference compare it to a “softly glowing peach” and each patch of green as “bright as limes”? I wished the execution lived up to the inspiration, paid better tribute to family and ended in a more satisfying way, but I can always watch the movie for that.

Instead, I’ll quote my husband’s review of Shoeless Joe, read after I did and tapped into the heart of the book better than I could. “I love baseball and this book. But mostly I enjoy the book because it makes you reflect on what you love and how those things make you happy.” 

“For some reason, I recall the question at the bottom of the form sent by the Baseball Hall of Fame to everyone who has ever played organized baseball: ‘If you had it to do over again, would you play professional baseball?’
The historian at Cooperstown, Clifford S. Kachline, said he couldn’t recall even one ex-player answering no to the question. I wonder if any other profession can say the same?”

His favorite quote-p. 163

All The President’s Men | Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward (Book from my birth decade) ★★★★☆ 

I’ve always been fascinated by the world of journalism and good old-fashioned investigative reporting. This riveting account of the Watergate bugging, uncovered by two unknown reporters at the time, fed my fascination. All the knocking on doors and cross-checking of sources became information overload in parts. Largely though, the writing managed to capture a novel’s worth of dramatic tension, even with the outcome a foregone conclusion.

It’s easy to take a stand if you don’t have to make a sacrifice.

Ben Bradlee

It’s easy to forget the events of the Watergate reporting occurred during a presidential election. Woodward and Bernstein operated in a somewhat mundane environment compared to today’s political climate. Honestly, the crimes seemed garden-variety too, in light of recent election tampering revelations. The discoveries were groundbreaking at the time–the privilege of the executive to manipulate, the extensiveness of the cover-up and the shrugging off of the Constitution. I don’t know if Bob and Carl would have support from their editors or even get the story out there today. It would be lost to a sea of sponsored news networks, Twitter trolling, and limited attention spans of the constant news cycle. At the Post they took needed time to lay it out piece-by-piece. Got it done with shoeleather, resourcefulness and persistence. Today, their doggedness might even be considered harassment. Although they weren’t unerring, they were undaunted. And their book is a satisfying peek behind-the-scenes into the breaking of the biggest American news story ever.

There are many lessons to glean from All the President’s Men, but none more essential than this: a free press is critical to open government, in other words, to democracy.

In the next wave of reviews I’ll share my favorite book of the year, possibly the decade. See you soon.

5 thoughts on “Reading Challenge update Part 1: from Bob Ross approved to book from my birth decade

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  1. Do you read more than one book at a time? Wow, that’s impressive. I can’t – I just need to stick with one thing, one story, at a time. It’s totally limiting, though, if you’re not feeling whatever you’re reading, because it can just drag and then that’s how you wind up only reading a dozen books in a year.

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    1. I do, but let me explain. Before switching jobs from public service to an office environment, I averaged 1 fiction and 1 non-fiction per month. Sometimes listening to audio books on my longer commute. Cut to: current office job where I keep my earbuds in nearly all day and I’ve gone through just as many/more audio books than paper ones.
      Currently, I’m cutting a non-fic for Speech, listening to an audio, reading a physical book on the weekends, and have a short audio book for my now shorter commute. It’s tiring, but a definite perk of my position. Plus I can jam to TOP whenev I damn well want;)

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      1. Oh, that’s lovely. I’d love to be able to listen to music while I work. I used to do legal transcription, in court and after-the-fact, and I couldn’t do anything but just sit there and listen to the tapes – nothing but sighs and exhalations, weird breathing, mispronunciations and odd bouts of shouting. I would have done ANYTHING to listen to TOP!

        How is your new-ish job going, by the way? Are you settling in? But there’s a commute? Audio books are so great for that. I used to have hours of buses every day, and I found podcasts pretty great for that, or just plain old jamming to music. I’m not so into audio books, though. Their success hinges too greatly on the vocal talents (or lack thereof) of whoever’s reading it.

        When I was a kid, we had this show here in Canada called CUCUMBER, which was a live action program about a beaver and a moose who run an underground newspaper in the woods called CUCUMBER (or Children’s Underground Club of United Moose and Beaver for Enthusiastic Reporters.) The beaver and the moose were a couple of dudes in furry suits, and the whole show was about writing and reading and journalism. Like, for real, these are the shows we had when we were kids. No wonder I love my country so fucking much! No idea if it’s on YouTube or not, but I’d recommend checking it out.

        If only to catch I think the moose’s voice, which had this super cartooney, galumphy kind of “Well, gosh!” cadence to it. Anyhow, in grade 9 we were studying Shakespeare, and our teacher brought in a filmed production from Stratford of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that starred the guy that played the moose as one of the two. And we were all DYING of laughter throughout the entire thing, much to our teacher’s annoyance, because it turns out the moose dude’s voice was EXACTLY that of the moose – this big, boisterous, cartooney voice. It was utterly hilarious. I remember that so much more than the actual content of R&G, so that makes my point about how a great narrator can make or break these things. 🙂

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        1. Lol, today, work’s been a mess, but otherwise it’s alright. Kind of a big life change, it’s faster paced, lots of office politics. All new experiences, but I’m growing more confident. Thank you!
          I have a shorter commute than previously, so I get less audiobook time on the road. But on some days I can churn through 3 hours of downloaded audio books at work. I love a good narrator and wouldn’t get through 1/2 my list w/o them.
          As for music, I’ve been in more of a Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton mood of late. I am listening to Of Monsters and Men’s new album, Fever Dream.

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          1. Dope. I’m listening to the soundtrack to the Nightmare Before Christmas overlay Disneyland (Cali) does on its Haunted Mansion. Danny Elfman very clearly recorded it – it’s so messed up. Holy grail of Disney right there, BTDubs.

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