Tuesday, April 9, 2024


We're having our floors redone, and in order for that to happen I had to empty my bookshelves so they could be moved. I pulled out a few books that I wanted to reread -- with the plan to donate or share them afterwards because I REALLY need to do something about my book problem. One step at a time. :) It's always interesting to reread a book that I read as a child; we cannot help but read it differently. 

I think I originally read this when I was thirteen or so. I found it interesting that in her letter of 1947 that opens the second edition of the book, Betty writes of her gratitude for various people, including "a person who caused me much anguish because the grief made me grow up emotionally and gave me a little more understanding." (!) I enjoyed the story of a plucky, poor girl in Brooklyn. But there are parts of this book that suggest Smith is conveying her strong opinions and exorcising some of her own demons.

The book opens in summer of 1912 in Brooklyn. Francie Nolan and her brother Neeley live there, with their hardworking mother, Katie, and their shiftless but loving father, Johnnie, who cannot hold a regular job and is frequently "sick" (drunk). Aunt Sissy is scandalously sexual. The coming-of-age arc includes some ordinary and some striking moments: Francie finds the library; her father helps her attend a better school; the children earn a Christmas tree by standing still while an unsold one, on Christmas Eve, is literally thrown at them; after seeing an unmarried woman Joanna having stones thrown at her in the street, Francie "hated women. She feared them for their devious ways, she mistrusted their instincts"; Francie is attacked by a man in her building -- "the pervert"; her father dies; her mother remarries and they move out of Brooklyn.

Certain scenes feel polemical, or pedagogical, and often the author steps in to moralize. When Francie must get vaccinated for school, the doctor says, 

"Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they're poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap. Just look at that arm, nurse." ... Francie stood hanging her head. She was a dirty girl.... [And then the author steps in:] A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the boot-strap route has two choices. having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise about it and never forget it and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for those he has left behind him in the cruel up climb.

Here's another interesting statement: "Married women were not allowed to teach in those days, hence most of the teachers were women made neurotic by starved love instincts. These barren women spent their fury on other women's children in a twisted authoritative manner. The cruelest teachers were those who had come from homes similar to those of the poor children. It seemed that in their bitterness towards those unfortunate little ones, they were somehow exorcising their own fearful background."

"An answer came to Katie. ... Education! That was it! It was education that made the difference! Education would pull them out of the grime and dirt!"

There is an extended section where Francie and Neeley argue over the existence of God -- if he's good, why did he let Father die? Francie recovers her faith within a few chapters. 

I also got the feeling Smith was representing some of her own struggles in writing -- I wonder if she's mentally "outing" a teacher who gave her bad advice. Francie writes stories and ends up with a C- from her [narrow-minded] teacher who only wants her to write about nice things: "But poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn't write about them." 

Significant sections read like a cautionary tale for unmarried young women -- another horrible story is about a sixteen-year-old girl out in Maspeth; her father kept her on a diet of bread and water to weaken her so she and her child would die in childbirth.

And finally -- the various groups were singing on New Year's Eve, and the Germans won. Francie shivered. "I don't like Germans," she said. "They're so ... so persistent when they want something and they've always got to be ahead." Given that this was written in 1943, reissued 1947, it's not surprising.  

The book is sixty years old, so it's dated, but it's also timeless, similar to the way other coming-of-age MG/YA books are. I'm glad I reread it, but after 40 years on my shelf, it's going in the donate stack for someone else to enjoy. :)

Monday, April 1, 2024


 5 stars

This is a nonfiction account of the author's journeys with explorers venturing into the deepest parts of the ocean in submersibles. With engaging anecdotes from others as well as her own experiences, Casey writes in an accessible, familiar way, leaning into her own wonder and into the natural suspense of these adventures, with machines that have systems that fail sometimes, when they are miles below the surface. (There's an account of being in a submersible, on the ocean floor, with water leaking in and another with the batteries failing...!) I appreciated the history, including how "nature-crazed Victorian England ... was enthralled by any aquatic discovery." I also enjoyed the color photographs [in the hardback edition] of the bizarre lifeforms in the deep ocean -- some of them truly otherworldly. James Cameron and his fascination with the Titanic appears as an interesting side story. The most significant part of the book, however -- a ball that doesn't really get rolling until later -- is the significance of the ocean for the climate of our planet and the dangers we face if we don't protect it. "It's the engine that runs the climate system." For example, "Since 1970, it has gulped down 93 percent of the excess heat and 30 percent of the carbon dioxide we've generated from burning fossil fuels." What is scary is that there are groups increasingly determined to mine the deep -- scrape the bottom for the nuggets of minerals on the ocean floor -- a process that will disturb the ecosystems for thousands of square miles, rendering them uninhabitable and disturbing their ability to sink carbon and regulate temperature for us. There is a group called the ISA -- International Seabed Authority -- with 168 member nations -- that is ostensibly independent and supposed to evaluate mining contracts for their environmental impact. But the ISA seems to have cozied up to metal companies, granting 31 mining exploration contracts covering seabed the size of Alaska. (They have never turned down a proposal.) The other scary thing is plastics. There are amphipods that have plastic microfibers embedded in its guts. "Along with microplastics and synthetic fibers, scientists have found that the hadal trenches are thick with every toxin we've ever unleashed -- PCBs (industrial poisons), PBDEs (flame retardants), DDT, ... lead, mercury, pharmaceutical waste, and radioactive carbon from nuclear bombs. Form the ocean's surface to its deepest sediments, all the way up the marine food chain, we have left our mark." I'd recommend to anyone who wants to understand the role of the oceans in our world. [Read for bookclub.]

Monday, June 26, 2023



Late Victorian London is my happy place, so I was looking forward to this one. The novel is beautifully written and atmospheric (I love the details), with a bit of magic (rather like BABEL) in the enchanted timepieces, and with a love story at its heart. 

The main character is a lonely, hardworking man named Thaniel Steepleton, who wanted to be a musician but became a civil servant to support his sister and her two children. Thaniel has the interesting trait of synesthesia (which is real but feels a bit like magic), by which sights and sounds intermingle - so, for example, the "gold [of the pocket watch] caught the ember-light and shone the colour of a human voice." His life changes when he is given a mysterious gift of a pocket watch that saves his life by warning him of a bomb set by Clan na Gael (the Irish Republican Brotherhood) to destroy Scotland Yard and the Home Office (1883 true history). The watchmaker, Keita Mori, is Japanese and can predict the future; when he wrongfully comes under suspicion for aiding the bombing, the selfishness and prejudices of others nearly destroy him. By turns wryly humorous, suspenseful, and big-hearted. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 12, 2023


Read on my back patio, Park City. 

Told from multiple perspectives, with a dual timeline (college, and the 10-year college reunion), this novel rises above the average "whodunit" mystery for me. Yes, there is a murder, and the narrative winds toward finding the truth about who committed it, but what I appreciated about this book was the scrupulous and searingly honest attention paid to the dark side of intense friend groups that form in college -- the hierarchies, shifting loyalties, and secrets that haunt these seven friends.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Christina Baker Kline, A PIECE OF THE WORLD

This is one of the best historical fiction novels I've read all year. Told in first person, it is the purported memoir of Christina Olson, from the painting *Christina's World* by Andrew Wyeth. The narrative shifts back and forth between Christina's early life (late 1800s through WWI) and her later life, after Wyeth appears and takes up unofficial residence at the small, rather hardscrabble farm in Maine that Christina shares with her brother Al. Exploring themes of loss and resilience, betrayal and loyalty within a family, and the relationships among art and labor and intimacy, this book is an immersive, nuanced reflection on a woman's life.

Kline reflects in the afterword that she spent years sitting in front of the painting, researching, visiting Maine, speaking with people who knew Christina Olson and those in her life, and it shows in the tightness of the story, the clarity of the images, and the distinct voices of the characters. (IMHO, this is Kline's best novel.) Highly recommend.

Tuesday, June 7, 2022


Set in 1925, the novel is told mostly in first person by Miss Nan O'Dea, mistress to Agatha Christie's husband Archie. Nan's voice just sings, for it is intense without being overwrought (as, alas, some historical novels are), delicate and blunt by turns, and profoundly truthful. Nan's account is spliced with chapters in third person, focalized through Agatha, whose 11-day vanishing act after her husband declares he is leaving her is the impetus for the book. We come to sympathize deeply with both women. Immersive and beautifully written, with sentences that verge on poetry. Highly recommend.

Saturday, February 19, 2022


As always with Finch’s Victorian mysteries, this is an engaging and entertaining read, with the charming, urbane detective Charles Lenox, now middle-aged and married to Lady Jane and with two children, and with a narrator who delivers wry observations that make me chuckle inwardly as I read.

The book begins in London 1878 (a period I know and love). In the aftermath of a fictionalized version of the (true) corruption scandal that shook up Scotland Yard, Lenox’s potential presence at the trial is awkward, and PM Disraeli sends him off to America on a diplomatic mission. However, once in America, Lenox is waylaid by a case of murder, which takes him to Newport, where a young woman’s corpse has been found on the beach below the famous Cliff Walk. For those who are watching Julian Fellowes’s THE GILDED AGE, you will find some of the characters here, most notably Mrs. Astor who throws the ball that occurs toward the end of this book. 

One thing I love about the book is that Finch knows the period so well that the details that immerse us in this other world are feathered in organically, and I always learn something new. For example, the word “backlog” comes from the “back log” in a fireplace. Shrapnel—gunshot loaded inside hollow cannonballs—was created in 1784 by a lieutenant named Henry Shrapnel. There was a tavern in Greenwich Village where officers used to meet during the Civil War, with spies, “called the Old Grapevine” (hence the phrase, heard it through the grapevine). I always enjoy those tidbits, like a raisin in a scone. 

I also love the nimble, allusive language that captures nuances and small moments. Quoted passages are never as good out of context – but here are a few, just to give those readers unacquainted with Finch a sense for his prose. As the third one suggests, Finch has some of Austen’s tendency toward humorous understatement and shrewd observation of character.

“For the next two days London was layered in a fog so dense that according to the papers now fewer than eight men fell into the river from the West India Docks. All of them had been fished out quickly, fortunately, and none worse off than a glass of rum would cure, but as the papers said—still! A pretty pass things had come to, when men and women couldn’t walk the streets of the capital without the prospect of barging straight into a lamppost.” 

Regarding Delmonico’s in NYC: “Lenox might have queried the wisdom of police commissioners meeting in the same place as the criminals—but it fit in with New York, where everything seemed to happen inches from everything else.” 

“Most single young gentlemen of large fortune he had known were drunk with their own high valuation of themselves, knowing it was held by others too; few Mr. Bingleys to be found anywhere, at any time.” 

“… the article’s writer … was identified as J. Gossip Gadabout, a name which Lenox, with his years of practice in detection, strongly suspected of being a pseudonym.”

If you haven’t read the previous novels in the series, you can begin here; it works as a standalone.