Tag Archives: Review

Two families face housing crisis and changing worlds in Kingsolver novel

When I saw a novel by Barbara Kingsolver sitting on the “New” display at Barnes & Noble before Christmas, I snatched it up conspiratorially. I bought it and hid it because I thought for sure someone would be giving it to me for Christmas, I’m such a fan of Kingsolver fiction.

unshelteredBut I was safe. No one gave it to me for Christmas, so Unsheltered was the first book I cracked open when I made a New Year’s resolution to read 26 books this year.

As much as I anticipated it, it was a weird one starting out. Another reviewer described the beginning as a lecture in world economics, finance and domestic politics. Kingsolver also introduces 10 characters in two families living in two centuries in the first two chapters. It wasn’t easy to keep everything straight but I persevered, and I was rewarded.

It’s a thinker, tackling difficult subjects like parenting, unemployment and entomology. If you’re looking for an escape from your unending bills or your insufferable in-laws or your know-it-all 20something kid or the ants in your yard, you won’t find a respite here—they all play a role in Unsheltered.

As usual in Kingsolver novels, she throws in some history, some real people, some food, and some memorable characters. She mixes all the prickly parts together and gets a pretty good story, heavy on metaphor, I think. If you’ve read Kingsolver’s Lacuna or The Poisonwood Bible, you know what you’re in for.

As for the real people, one of the historical figures in this story is Mary Treat, a lady scientist who lived in Vineland, New Jersey, during the second half of the 19th century, when the historical part of this novel is set. Kingsolver’s noteworthy research brings Treat to life on these pages. Another real person is the Bullhorn, clearly a description of Donald Trump, who was running away with the Republican primaries during the course of the modern part of the book. Just a warning: If you’re a Trump fan, you might not like Unsheltered; Kingsolver is clearly not a fan, and Trump is a two-dimensional villain here.

The novel’s title comes from another character in the book: A house in Vineland where both families live. It’s falling down in both centuries, a crumbling, leaking, poorly built structure that barely keeps it together through the story. The title also addresses how the world looks when it becomes apparent the emperor has no clothes. In the late 19th century, the world is faced with scientific discoveries that turn religious belief, especially the belief that God created man from his own image and woman from one of man’s ribs, on its head (Charles Darwin plays a big role in Unsheltered). In the 21st century, the main character Willa, who believes people who work hard deserve a nice house and their children deserve more than their parents, is confronted with evidence to the contrary.

As mentioned, Unsheltered makes one think. About economic growth. About what babies and aging women deserve. About recycling. Even about press freedom. And if a fictional novel can do all that, it’s saying something. That’s a story worth reading.

Killing Monica doesn’t exactly kill it but it hits the mark

Would I have liked the book better if the title had been Amazing Monica instead of Killing Monica?

killing monicaNope.

The Monica in Candace Bushnell’s story is a fictional character (to be clear, she’s a fictional character in a book of fiction), so whether she lives or dies is of no consequence to my enjoyment of a book with my first name in the title.

Killing Monica was my trashy novel for the summer, and in a word, it was good.

About a third of the way into this book, I hated it. It read like a modern-day fairy tale only instead of a poor girl oppressed by her stepmother and forced to clean the fireplace while her Prince Charming roams the kingdom with her glass slipper, the protagonist was a victim of success, her cheating soon-to-be ex-husband and her very expensive shoes. In fact, I started dog-earring pages of Bushnell’s entirely implausible phrases and scenes. Like who pours themselves a “nice tall glass of white wine.” A “nice full glass of wine,” maybe, or maybe a character pours white wine into a milk glass, but wine glasses are not “tall.”

But I reconsidered when I read the book flap–I thought maybe Bushnell was writing something more semi-autobiographical (she created Carrie in Sex in the City), and I thought maybe she was trying to say something about feminism, pop culture and celebrity. I think she more or less accomplishes this, but I still wasn’t loving it (whatever Bushnell’s “trademark humor” is, I didn’t get it, but them maybe I’m too literal about tall glasses, too).

I hung in there until the bitter end and wow! Mind blown. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I found the ending to come out of left field and be very satisfying at the same time (even though Bushnell leaves loose ends all over the place).

For a trashy novel, it was definitely worth the summer reading time.

A tour of west coast wines + 4 things I learned at wine tastings


A sunny vineyard in the Napa Valley—beautiful.

Can you ever have too much wine?

Yes, actually, you can. You can have too much wine when you’re traveling in an RV, storing all the favorites you’ve collected during your travels, and you nearly break a slide-out.


That’s us.

Definitely over the limit.

The average bottle of wine weighs nearly three and half pounds, so our 29 treasured bottles purchased in California and Washington state would weigh 100 pounds. When we left the campsite in Washington state, where we purchased the most wine, the slide-out where we were storing our vino was behaving badly. A little detective work revealed we should not be storing our bottles in the slide-out.

Don’t you worry. They’ve been moved. Not destroyed.

wine in total

29 of the best wines on the west coast: For want of a rack, use a picnic table.

That’s what happens, I guess, when you’re traveling for weeks through the West Coast and one of your favorite pastimes is wine tasting. The wine is good. Great even. So you pick up souvenirs of your experiences, and pretty soon you’ve got 29 bottles.

But let’s begin our story in Texas, where we tasted wine in early February at three vineyards just outside of Fredricksburg. More than 50 vineyards are located in the area called Texas Hill Country, and the scenery is spectacular. The wines? Not so much. One place was charging $99.50 for a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. It was neither our flavor nor our price range. But still, a fabulous way to while away a winter afternoon (especially Grape Creek Vineyards—dazzling locale on a sun-drenched day).

Then we spent nearly two weeks in April in the Napa Valley. Why? Because Napa. Duh. There are more than 500 vineyards and tasting rooms in the valley; one could spend a lifetime there tasting wine. But we found two weeks was actually too much time. Much of the wine there comes with an attitude. We must have heard a dozen times about the Judgement of Paris, a wine competition in 1976 in which French judges did a blind tasting and named a Napa cabernet sauvignon the winner. The attitude comes with a price tag. But there were a few refreshing exceptions:

  • hess tour

    Hess boasts some of the oldest vines in the valley.

    Miner Family: This place was sincerely welcoming, and their wine was mighty tasty, the syrah in particular.

  • Hess Collection: We enjoyed a thorough tour of the grounds and some extra special wines here. Hess’ cabernet sauvignon measures up to the hype and is lip-smacking good.
  • V. Sattui Winery: The wines were modestly priced, the on-site deli had a thousand cheeses, salamis and crackers, and the grounds were mesmerizing. Buy a bottle there and have lunch on site after your tasting.
  • CRU @ the Annex: This little tasting room off the beaten path is worth a stop for their perfectly curated charcuterie boards (or popcorn!) and their smooth (if a bit pricy) wines.

Our favorite place to winery hop on the West Coast turned out to be southeast Washington, where we spent some time last May. These vintners were our people, and their wines are a tasty as they are affordable.

Our favorite wine by far was Maryhill Winery’s albariño. Never heard of it? Neither had we. It’s a crisp fruity white with no oak (I hate oaky chardonnays). Maryhill is known for its outdoor amphitheater overlooking its vineyards and the Columbia River where marque bands like Santana, ZZ Top and Steve Winwood play. I only wish I lived nearby to take in one of these summer concerts.

We Loved-with-a-capital-L Longship Cellars tasting room in Richland, and the young proprietor there suggested we visit the Walter Clore Center in Prosser, where 50 up-and-coming wine makers were doing a tasting event the next day. We enjoyed ourselves so much we left with a case of wine (this is where we probably started getting ourselves into trouble with weight).


Medals AND the bottles to put them on.

And then we paid a visit to Zerba Cellars in the Walla Walla Valley (technically we were in Oregon at the time, but we could have tossed a coin into Washington state). This winery has won innumerable awards, all deserving. We liked their offerings so much we joined the club. After hearing the wine club pitches of more than a dozen other wineries on our travels, it says something that we took Zerba up on the offer.

After spending several afternoons drinking vino in various wineries, here are four things I learned:

  1. More expensive doesn’t mean better. An expensive wine might only mean it’s more scarce (Exhibits A & B: Texas wines and the cabernet sauvignons from Napa), but that albariño I mentioned? Only $20 a bottle.
  2. Red wine tastes better aged. Duh. I’ve heard this before but never really paid attention to the year on the label. We tried different years of the same varietal at a couple of wineries, and the older wines tasted smoother and more nuanced. If you’re going to sit on anything, let it be one of those tanniny cabernet sauvignons.
  3. The glass matters. The wineries in the Yakima Valley of Washington exclusively use Riedel stemware in tastings (a girl traveling in an RV with only plastic stemware notices such things). At Zerba Cellars, we tried wines using both a syrah glass and a cabernet glass, and the difference in flavor was stunning.
  4. Many bottles of wine are not just one varietal, even if that’s what the label indicates. A wine labeled as cabernet sauvignon is only required to be 75 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes. My Beloved and I have learned we’re fans of blends, and I’m not gonna feel like a rube about it anymore.

Now we’re slowly consuming our bounty (let’s be reasonable, no reason to hurry through paradise), and here’s my bottomline. If it’s the setting you’re after, try Fredricksburg in winter; if you grew up in Minnesota, nothing beats sunshine in February. If it’s California wines you want to taste, go to a well-appointed liquor store and buy yourself a case or two of different California wines. I can assure you, you’ll spend a lot less than you might in Napa (where tasting can run you $50 a person for five swallows of wine). And if you’re planning a wine vacation, seriously consider visiting Washington state, where you’ll find some tasty wines and some mighty nice people.

Confessions of a ‘dirty lib’: Trump’s latest book is, well, worth reading

Before diving into my review of Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again by Donald J. Trump, I feel compelled to remind you that Minnesota Transplant’s About page describes natives as “politically schizophrenic.” Minnesota once elected the most conservative senator in the U.S. Senate and the most liberal one. At the same time. And yes, we’re the state that called Jesse Ventura “governor.”

Full disclosure: I voted for Jesse.

And I would again.

Because I believe in the citizen legislator. Or, at least, the citizen executive.

No one really likes career politicians. Sure, we praise long tenures of people like John Boehner, but we admire their tenacity, not their career choice. (The ugly truth is, we hate everyone else’s career politician, but when they’re representing our district, we love our incumbent.)

That’s why I find Trump interesting. He’s shaking things up. He’s anything but an incumbent. He says what he thinks with no regard to political correctness or his donors. Because he is his own donor.

Crippled AmericaBy confessing some interest in Trump, surely I will offend the sensibilities of my liberal friends, but please know my Adored Stepson, who gifted me Crippled America for Christmas, has often called me a “dirty lib.” (This is an unfair characterization; I have said I don’t mind paying taxes for good community projects like roads, libraries and public safety and I’m generally against government legislating morality, but “dirty lib” goes too far in labeling me as an immoral socialist.) Perhaps Adored Stepson was attempting to convert me. But, fan of citizen executives as I am, I am open to Trump’s “brainwashing.” He’s refreshing.

I’m also a big believer in books, so I consider reading Trump’s tome to be a duty to the written word. And as a former member of the Fourth Estate, I know how “news” can be twisted into “entertainment.” Not all reporters are unbiased. So I wanted to hear Trump’s presidential intentions from the horse’s mouth. Or, if you prefer, from the horse’s ass.

Here’s the bottom line: It’s a good book with a poor title (“Crippled” reminds one too much of “cripple,” a sometimes offensive term, but then, Trump doesn’t care if he offends).

Anyone else who brags as he does about his accomplishments and riches would be considered arrogant. But a braggart he’s not: His schtick is not “loud, empty boasting”– it’s true. He is rich. He has built and restored a lot of beautiful buildings. He was host of a No. 1 rated reality TV show (yes, I am a fan of “The Apprentice”).

Would it be so bad to have a man who’s handled multi-million dollar budgets and large complex construction projects in charge of America?

You think his idea of a wall between the United States and Mexico is discriminatory? Not so fast. He wants to stop illegal immigration, not all immigration. Isn’t this a good idea? He’s anti women? Because he insults female television commentators and his female competition? He insults everyone, not just women. Don’t like his take-no-prisoners approach to public statements? OK, let’s support someone more polite.

Chirp, chirp.

Right, I can’t think of a long list of polite politicians I would trust with the White House either. Honestly, Trump evokes history with his tart opinions. Despite their erudition, integrity, and philosophical genius, the [Founding fathers of America’s revolutionary era] were fiery men who expressed their beliefs with unusual vehemence (Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2010).

Oppose his policies if you like (tax preparers, for example, would lose their livelihood if he gets his way with simplifying the tax code and fans of Obamacare and gun control will be disappointed in his policy direction), but don’t dislike him just because he’s brash.

I like a politician with an opinion, and Trump stands behind his in Crippled America. And whether you like him or hate him, you owe it to yourself to hear his story without television news’ addiction to outrageous quotes and outraged talking heads.

A movie worth seeing, even if you’re not into highly dangerous space travel

The protagonist in The Martian — the guy who survives against all odds for a year and a half on an isolated barren plant — is admirable and highly worthy of emulation.

But he is so not me.

I would cry my eyes out, lie down and give up.

Whenever I get caught up in a conversation with someone about doomsday and my survival comes down to protecting my tuna cans and bottled water in an armed battle against a marauding horde, it’s my Beloved who is aiming between the eyes. I’m the one huddled in the closet, crying while the zombies climb over the fence.

I guess I’m too willing to go with the flow, and when the flow is running uphill, I throw up my hands.

So if it was me trapped in a no-win scenario, I’d be the expendable red shirt in the Star Trek episode where someone dies before the opening credits.

However, Matt Damon as the never-say-die astronaut in The Martian is highly entertaining, and the movie was riveting for nearly three hours. 

Even if I can’t relate.

So count this as another endorsement for the movie. And maybe even worth springing for the 3D upgrade.

Finishing this book releases me from the Bondage of an unfinished assignment

Thirty years ago, my Thematic Writing teacher — Mr. Mickelson, I think, but it might have been Miss Sharp — assigned me to read Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.

I’m happy to report I’ve completed my assignment. On my Kindle, no less!

Of Human BondageAs part of my PopSugar 2015 Reading Challenge, one of the books I was to read was “a book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t.” I know I didn’t read Of Human Bondage because I dutifully reported it in my diary as “a book I was supposed to read for Thematic Writing.”

It’s the coming of age story of Philip Carey from the time of his birth the late 19th century in England until about age 30. An orphan with a club foot, he is brought up by his strict and religious aunt and uncle who hope he enters into a pastoral profession, but he yearns to travel the world freely.

Philip ends up studying in Germany, painting in Paris, hating accounting in London and, finally, taking up medicine. In the meantime, he meets all sorts of people who Maugham generally describes as homely and disgusting in some way. Most horrifying is Mildred, a bitchy waitress (and later, hooker) who repeatedly takes advantage of Philip’s adoration and kindness.

This book is written in formal English (no Valley Girl speak here) and it’s interminable. I can see why I didn’t finish it (or even bother to start it) 30 years ago. But it kind of grew on me. I didn’t care for the way Maugham chose to make his protagonist so indecisive: “He was afraid that Sally by speaking would break the spell, but she said never a word, and he wanted to hear the sound of her voice.” Did Philip want her to speak or not? And I absolutely hated Mildred and longed for Philip to hate her, too, but alas, it was not to be. But Maugham covers a lot of philosophical ground about faith, art, beauty, money and the meaning of life, so this book is a thinker (and believe me, only thinkers are the type to tackle a 30-year-old English assignment). And, I’m happy to report (because I actually got to the end), it has a happy ending (surprise!).

Remarkably, one of the characters commits suicide and twice, Philip seriously considers taking his own life. Also, there’s Mildred as a painted lady and brief references to venereal disease and teenage pregnancy. This is a book assigned to high schoolers to read? I mean, I would let my teenager read it (how impressive would that be!), but I can imagine some parents freaking out.

With Of Human Bondage, I’ve read 38 books this year, which puts me squarely nine books behind schedule to accomplish my goal of 63 books. With three months left in the year, it’s not looking good. But hey, I finished one of my high school reading assignments today, so I’m feeling totally, like, rad, um, ya know?

Deep, weighty and a tiny bit too dark to be a good summer read

If you want to know the meaning of the strange imagery and predictions in the book of Revelation, do not look for it in Jonathan Kirsch’s A History of the End of the World.

kirschHowever, if you’re interested the meaning one man applies to the last book in the New Testament, this is for you. Kirsch tells you want he thinks it all means, and then you get to decide if you’re buying what he’s selling.

A History of the End of the World came out in 2006, and I finally picked it up and read it because I’ve liked other works by Kirsch, namely King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel and The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible. I intend to read his biography of Moses at some point, too.

This book is a summary of the book of Revelation’s impact on history from the time it was written in the first century until now, and how all the crazies in every age have interpreted and reinterpreted the weird visions chronicled in it. Kirsch knows his Bible history and is keen to describe meanings and alternative meanings of the original language of the various books of the Bible. But his analysis of the book of Revelation is controversial. If you’re a literalist and you believe Jesus will actually come down from the clouds on a chariot, you’re not going to like A History of the End of the World.

Kirsch argues (quite convincingly) the book was written by a man named John who was not the well-known Son of Zebedee and disciple of Jesus. Instead, the author the book of Revelation was a bit of an outlier who was predicting God’s revenge on the Roman Empire, of which the John of Revelation fame was not a fan (to put it mildly). Kirsch also states very directly, and I quote, “Neither the word nor the concept of the Rapture is mentioned anywhere in Revelation.” So if you’re a believer of everything the Left Behind series espouses, you wouldn’t like Kirsch’s book either (although, after Kirsch rips apart the concept of the Rapture, I’m tempted to pick up a Left Behind book just to see what all the hubbub is about).

I’m a questioner, and I appreciate reading Kirsch’s perspective, especially on the Devil described as über evil only, according to Kirsch, in the book of Revelation. I’ll also be even more suspect of the nut cases who insist the end is coming (because, as Kirsch points out, very adamant soothsayers have been predicting that for 2,000 years and they’ve all been wrong).

In retrospect, A History of the End of the World probably wasn’t a good choice as a summer read. It was very heavy, very deep and a little bit depressing. But I’d recommend it to fellow questioners who can take a little bit of foundation rattling.

One word to ‘solving virtually all our problems’: Mindfulness

Ellen J. Langer’s Mindfulness makes a compelling argument for being mindful — that is, actively noticing new things — in a way that makes me want to be one of those 3-year-olds who’s constantly asking “why?”

mindfulness with frameMindfulness is one of those heavy thinkers. It’s got 20 pages of footnotes in the back, for example. But Langer attempts to strip the jargon and the statistics of more than 50 scientific experiments to reveal greater psychological truths regarding aging, creativity, work, prejudice and health.

I’m always looking for ways to be more present in my life. Since I’ve left corporate America, I’ve learned to slow down and smell the roses so to speak. This blog is one way I try to notice and savor life as it is instead of life as I wish it to be. My email has “mindful” in it to constantly remind me to be present. That’s why I picked up this book (and also because it fulfills the requirement to read a book with a one-word title in the 2015 PopSugar Reading Challenge).

Mindfulness first came out in 1989 and is considered a psychology classic. The edition I read is the 25th anniversary edition, fully updated with a new foreword by Langer. If you like Malcolm Gadwall’s more modern works, you’ll like Langer’s.

To be clear, Langer’s definition of mindfulness is not Eastern meditation in which one breathes and empties one’s mind. The mindfulness that Langer is talking about is being more conscious of what we see and hear and feel. For example, the doctor is not always right and assuming they are can have dire consequences. Nursing homes with too many safety features do not make residents happy, only safe. Disabled people are not disabled in every circumstance (a blind child, for example, might be really good at hitting a piñata).

My takeaway from this book is to wake up and notice what’s really going on — with my body, with my friends, with society. To notice those “hidden” cues that trigger my emotions rather than simply being a slave to them. A good read, even 25 years after it was the first time.

Good books never go out of style

Bad books are like skim milk. Thin. Forgettable. Sometimes regrettable.

Good books are like the fabled cream–they rise to the top.

Thank goodness for good books (and, for that matter, cream).

ShafferMany years ago (don’t we all marvel sometimes at how time flies) after reading a memoir set about the same time, my friends Courtney and Lorna recommended I read the novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Well, I started it. Twice. And though I’ve culled my collection of books at least four times since 2011, I still had my unfinished copy of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ novel about the writer Juliet in my library.

So, by directive of the PopSugar 2015 Reading Challenge, which required me to read “a book you started but never finished,” I pulled out the story of a fictional literary society on the island of Guernsey south of England. And finished it. And I liked it very much.

The story is told almost entirely in the form of letters to and from Juliet, which is quite clever. It’s set post-World War II, when Europe is still remembering and recovering from the terrible atrocities of the war (including tragic descriptions of meager meals required to accommodate the island’s occupation of German soldiers–which will make you crave a swig of stomach-filling milk). So despite being fictional, it is quite illuminating. There’s humor. And an orphan. Don’t forget the tonic-pushing witch. There’s a love story, too. And a message about the underlying redemptive value of books (which, for a person who’s pledged to read 63 books this year and is currently four books behind being “on track,” is message I can appreciate).

There’s pretty much a little of everything to appeal to everyone (except a recipe for Potato Peel Pie, which is excusable, given its description), and I can’t believe it took me four years to finish it. Quite a shame. Because it’s a delightful book (and there’s just no other word for it). So if you haven’t read your copy, pick it up right now and force yourself to get past page 67, and you’ll be hooked.


I loved how 16 writers stake claim in minority position

I’m not sure people with children would find Meghan Daum’s book as absorbing as I did, and it’s too bad, really, because it’s quite deep and thought-provoking.

Selfish Shallow and Self AbsorbedSelfish, Shallow & Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids is very well-rounded since it provides the perspectives of 16 different people who chose not to have children (they’re all writers, of course, but isn’t it good to leave books about childlessness to writers?). There’s the funny one, the angry one, the woman who had a terrible mother, the woman who thought she’d make a terrible mother, the gay perspective, the story of the woman who actually tried and failed to procreate and the one who calls “maternal instinct” a modern invention (!). Plus nine more. And a well-summarized introduction by Daum. It fulfills “A book with a number in the title” on my 2015 PopSugar Reading Challenge.

For someone who thinks she’s covered every argument for having and not having kids like a religious woman who’s handled her prayer beads until they were worn away, even I had all kinds of a-ha moments reading this anthology.

The childless are a unique bunch, I guess, but I never really considered how unique (and diverse and thoughtful) we are. Most people do have children. And most people don’t think about it at all (certainly many think about with whom and when but they don’t necessary think about if they should or shouldn’t, if they want to or not).

The book makes a compelling argument that the childless are not selfish, shallow and self-absorbed like some people may believe (and I emphasize some because most people who ever discussed it with me are not so judgmental — at least to my face). I think people who choose not to have children would like this book, as would writers and anyone interested in sociology. But I think people with children might like it, too.