When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

 As I was reading this book I realized I had “met” one of the characters before — Jackson Brodie. I saw “Case Histories” on “Masterpiece Theater” and thought it was good. It was fun to run across him again. Now I plan to track him down in all the books he’s in.Don’t you love that the British love mysteries? I’m so glad they respect them and seem to afford their authors as much respect as novelists and other writers. I’m an anglophile and a always attracted to a British mystery. My Netflix queue is full of them. My son is disgusted that every time he turns around we’re watching another one. Anyway, When Will There Be Good News was a good book. It starts with the story of a horrible, random murder of a mother and 2 of her children as they were walking home from the bus stop. The 3rd child, the middle daughter, runs away, hides in the tall wheat and survives. After telling that story it cuts to a man who seems to be stalking a little boy and possibly preparing to kidnap him. Then it starts a chapter named “The Life and Adventures of Reggie Chase, Containing a Faithful Account of the Fortunes, Misfortunes, Uprisings, Downfallings, and Complete Career of the Chase Family.” Reggie is a young woman working as a nanny for Dr. Hunter.Pretty soon all of this connects and you realize who is who. It may sound confusing but I promise you if I can understand it, anyone can. I don’t often work hard to retain a lot of details as I’m reading — or maybe I should say I am not able to retain a lot of details as I’m reading — and I got what was going on and the back stories with no problem. Probably most people would have understood it all sooner, but, whatever, it’s not an issue, in fact it’s just a fun book to read.I liked the characters. It was fun to be in Reggie’s head and hear what and how she thought. Jackson Brodie is a good character who’s interesting to get to know. He’s an ex-detective, by the way, who ends up being instrumental in solving the mystery. Louise, the actual detective, is also someone I liked getting acquainted with. Even the minor characters, even the ones who do bad things, are well written.

As far as the plot, Dr. Hunter and her baby disappear and Reggie is pretty much the only one who doesn’t believe Dr. Hunter’s husband’s story that she went to be with a sick aunt. There’s a big railroad crash that eventually connects Reggie with Jackson, and she also tries to get Louise to investigate the disappearance. At first Louise dismisses Reggie, but she comes around.

I pretty much devoured the book, just kept reading and turning the pages and loving being in it. I believe I’ll be starting a Kate Atkinson “jag” any day now.

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Still by Lauren Winner

Lauren Winner’s website

I heard Lauren Winner speak at the Faith & Writing Festival one year. It was several years ago and she seemed quite young but I liked her a lot. I liked the way she just said whatever, even if it wasn’t something you’d expect from a literary, highly educated writer.

This book, Still, has the subtitle “Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.” It’s written shortly after Winner divorced her husband of, I think, 7 years. Winner grew up “with a Jewish father and a lapsed Baptist mother who had agreed to raise my sister and me as Jews.” She writes that she loved Judaism and everything that went with it – the food, the songs, even “every letter of the Hebrew alphabet.” But in college she had a dream about Jesus, read Jan Karon’s Mitford novels, bought a Book of Common Prayer and after graduating from college she was baptized. After seeing her at the Festival I read and enjoyed her book Girl Meets God: On the Path to Spiritual Life.

I suppose you could compare Lauren Winner to Anne Lamott, who I love, but I didn’t even think of that until now, when I was trying to figure out how to write about Winner and this book. It is a memoir about faith, as some of Lamott’s books have been, but Winner has a very different style of writing. She’s more serious, for one, although not heavy or preachy or anything like that.

Winner is writing about “middle” in this book. She feels she’s in a mid-Faith crisis, when she is no longer as certain and joyful in her faith as she was in the past. Yet even while she expresses doubt, I never felt she’d lost her faith. One thing I thought was notable is that she continued to go to church, to kind of go through the motions, even when she didn’t feel like it, and she found that was good. It helped. That’s good to hear.

I liked all the meditations and musings on the word “middle.” I had never heard of the “middle voice,” a grammatical term. She says that we don’t have the middle voice in English but it’s found in ancient Greek, Sanskrit and some other languages. She says it’s “somewhere between the agent and the one acted upon. When you have something done to you. I will have myself carried. I will have myself saved.” She said she started listening for hints of the middle in English and heard it in sentences like “That scotch drank smoothly; politicians bribe easily.” She says the middle voice is used “when the subject has some caracteristic, some quality, that makes it partly responsible for whatever has happened in the sentence…The subject is changed….but the subject is not just being…acted upon; something in its own qualities…is necessary for the action, too–if the scotch weren’t smooth, it wouldn’t drink well.”

I don’t know why I think that is so interesting, but I do. She writes about middle verbs being verbs that “name a change in bodily posture but not much motion (lie down, kneel). Also…verbs for speech actions with emotional overtones (confess), verbs of cognition (think), and verbs of spontaneous happening (grow, become, change) and she says “these middle verbs…are religious; they are the very actions that constitute a religious life: to forgive, to imagine, to grow, to yearn, to lament, to meet, to kneel.” Cool. Never thought of that.

Finally she writes, “If I could make English speak middle, I would use it to say this: I wait; I doubt; as the deer yearns for a drink of water, so I yearn. I long. I praise.”

I highlighted this quote from a historian Christopher Grasse who, she said, was writing about the religious late-eighteenth-century America: “Faith…meant more than intellectual assent to a set of doctrines. It was a commitment of the whole self, a hope and trust that, if genuine, ought to be the foundation of an entire way of life and vision of the world.”

I also liked this: “I am not a saint. I am, however, beginning to learn that I am a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God.”

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Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

“Fresh Air” interview w Isaacson

Steve Jobs is a fascination. He was so mysterious. You heard so many rumors about him, you saw him on t.v., you heard him quoted, you were amazed at the products his company produced, he was like a rock star for many of his years yet he disappeared from the news for quite a space of time. He started Apple, they kicked him out, he came back, Apple became amazing.

Reading this biography was very enjoyable to me. I wanted to know more about Steve Jobs, what he was like as a person and as the man who ran Apple. It was great that Jobs gave Isaacson so much access to himself.

I came away thinking that it would have been hard to live or work for Jobs. I have a feeling I would have been unhappy if I’d actually ever been around him. He was unkind, more than that he was just plain mean to people. He loved his wife and kids but he was still odd and basically selfish.

One thought in my mind after reading about how Apple started and some of the people who worked there and had the ideas that produced the products such as the ipod, ipad, the Mac and so on was I wondered if he, or Apple, would have been as successful as they were if he had not been such a difficult person to work for. Would they have succeeded if he’d actually treated his co-workers with respect?

Some people who worked for him said they didn’t think so. They felt like when he made them feel so bad, it inspired them to prove him wrong. I’m sure that’s true for some people. But I thought that one incident in the book showed he probably could have succeeded without being so mean. There was one time when Jobs was talking to a supplier about what he wanted. The supplier was saying there was no way he could give Jobs the product he wanted and no way do it in the time Jobs wanted. Jobs stared at him in the way he was famous for staring at people, and said something like yes, he could do it. And he told the supplier not to be afraid, he knew he could do it. And the supplier did it. To me, that shows that he could have worked that way with others and gotten results, too. But who knows?

Anyway, I thought it was a good book. I plan to reread it sometime to refresh myself on the details. There’s no doubt he was an incredible person who made a company that created some amazing things.

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Blue Nights by Joan Didion

New York Times Article

I liked Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking and I liked this one, too. They are similar in that they are both memoirs about the death of a beloved family member. Magical Thinking was written during the year after her husband suddenly and unexpectedly died, and Blue Nights is about surviving the death of her daughter, who died tragically young.

You’d think these would be depressing books but for some reason they did not affect me that way. When other people say about a book that it has beautiful writing, I immediately become skeptical that I won’t like the book. I’m all about the story, I think, and often say. But these books by Joan Didion are not books with a story of the traditional sort – with the beginning at the beginning, then the middle, then the end. They are like listening to Didion’s thoughts.

I could say that I like them because she so eloquently says what I feel, what I think we all feel when such sad, inexplicable things happen. One of the reasons I admire writers is their ability to do that — to express what I feel, but so much better than I can. And that is one of the reasons I like these books.

But you wouldn’t think that would be enough to make you turn the pages and keep reading the whole book. Just because she is so good at expressing feelings isn’t enough. But I can’t really figure out how to say much more than that about why I like the books.

Another thing that makes my liking of the books somewhat surprising is that Joan Didion has no faith, or at least she does not profess any faith or belief. She doesn’t even bring up the subject of what she believes. She certainly does not say that her faith is giving her strength and helping her to get through these tragic events. And it seems impossible to me to even understand how anyone can get through things like this without faith. Yet I admire the way she gets through them.

I read this book from Kindle on my iPad. A nice little bonus in that format is it includes three videos of Joan Didion reading chapters 1, 2 and 7. The filmmaker does a good job showing scenes of Joan in her apartment, in New York, the city skyline, and so on. I love the smell, feel and look of paper books, but I do also love the richness of this kind of additional material in digital books.

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True Compass by Edward M. Kennedy

So, yeah, this is Ted Kennedy’s memoir. I probably would not have picked it from a shelf, but someone loaned it to me and said they’d enjoyed it. Now I can’t remember who loaned it to me. I thought it was my friend Sally but she says it’s not her. I can picture her face in my mind telling me she’d gravitated to the biographies and picked this up — but I’ve got the wrong face in my brain. Hopefully it’ll come to me or someone will ask.

Anyway, I did enjoy the book. It was interesting to read about him growing up in that nearly mythical Kennedy family. Ted was quite a lot younger than Jack and Robert but he was highly influenced by them. And they did a lot for him.

I liked the tone of Ted Kennedy’s book. He wasn’t bragging and he wasn’t being defensive. He seemed to be trying to be honest. I believe that by the time he was writing this he knew he was near the end of his life.

I wondered what he’d write about the “Chappaquiddick incident.” He didn’t go into a lot of detail, but he did tell the story. I actually never heard any accounting of the whole story — only the bits about how he had gotten himself out of the water but not the woman he was with, Mary Jo Kopechne.

He wrote that they were only acquaintances who’d met that night at a gathering. When she needed a ride to the ferry, he was happy to have the excuse to leave. Then there was the accident and the car slipped off a bridge into the water. He says that he can’t even remember how he got out of the car and he dived back in for Mary Jo many times and couldn’t see her. He hoped she’d gotten out but was afraid she hadn’t; he got help and others also dived in and could not see her.

About the hours after the accident he wrote that they have been “copiously recorded….my devising and rejecting scenarios with Joe and the others…; swimming across the channel…; elaying in reporting the accident. My actions were inexcusable.” He also said he’s lived with the guilt of causing an innocent woman’s death for years and felt that he should atone for it.

After reading about all that he did and tried to do, I think it’s a shame that he was not able to make the big changes in healthcare that he was working for. I wish he would have succeeded. Our healthcare is so terribly messed up, and he did honestly seem to have devoted most of his political life to trying to ensure that everyone, regardless of their income or status, would have the basic health care that everyone needs.

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Sadness and Hope

Tonight I have been thinking of my brother Dan and of my cousin Brian, both family members who died unexpectedly at a young age. My sister wrote about it in her blog, and posted a photo of the two of them.I look at them, sitting there at a family picnic, living, breathing, talking. Who would ever think that a few short years later they’d both be gone? Our friends are staying with us while they care for their 26 year old daughter who is dying of cancer. We never know what is coming in life.

I have a Dutch tile in my kitchen with a sentence that translates to, “In the concert of life, no one has a program.” Isn’t that the truth? Except God.

In a 9-11 sermon (starting at 46:57) that our pastor gave he talked about the hope we have in Christ, even when faced with the horror of that terrorist attack. We don’t understand why these terrible things happen but we know it can’t be because God doesn’t love us (from The Reason for God by Tim Keller). I can’t imagine how people can live without faith. Knowing that God is here, walking beside me, holding my hand — I am so grateful.

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Where our tastes differ

Once in a while I get a chance to hear “This American Life” on the radio while driving, but usually I end up only hearing part. Today we were on a longer ride and when “This American Life” came on, this conversation ensued:
Me: Yeah, we can listen to “This American Life.”
The show starts.
Randy: What is this about?
Me: Break-ups.
Randy makes a face.
Me: Could you not hate it? I’m happy I get to hear it. Isn’t that a good thing?
Randy (in his best Eeyore voice): It’s what I live for.

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