Frans Hals’s 1633 “Portrait of an Elderly Lady”

The Good Books of July and August in Our Year of the Pandemic, 2020.

Hi reader buddies,

I came across an article the other day written by someone who was not just wearied by the lockdown and virus but confessed he was also tired of staying in touch via video chats. He quoted Gianpiero Petriglieri who had tweeted this, “It is easier to be in each other’s presence, or in each other’s absence rather than in the constant presence of each other’s absence. “

Well that’s a solid observation on the ever-expanding fire ignited by the virus. It’s sucking the air out of everything, even Zoom. But I am fighting lock-down sluggishness the same way I wrestle with the encroaching dark of winter. Up here in the northwest corner, fall and winter evenings come early and the darkness can still everything by 4 p.m. It’s a challenge to punch through the dark wall and stay energized throughout the many hours after sunset. It’s the same with this damn virus. That the virus has broken apart the whole there is no doubt, but beautiful bits persist and I entertain myself seeking out and enjoying what remains.

Between luxuriating, cat-like, into the long summer days and heading out on field trips with Andy to discover natural beauties, these last few months I have read and read….

Here are most of the books I’ve enjoyed in July and August in our year of the pandemic, 2020.

The Lightness by Emily Temple is her debut novel which takes place in a summer camp, but with a twist, it’s a Buddhist boot camp for bad girls. The protagonist is Olivia whose father, a perpetual Buddhist retreat goer, disappeared at the same site a year ago. Olivia attends the camp hoping to solve the mystery but is side-tracked by a group of young women. This group is attempting to learn how to levitate, in secret, on their own, in the woods. Their levitation work is inspired by a rumor that the camp sits in the only place in the US where levitation is possible and the camp’s gardener (surprise! he’s sexy and has a top-knot) has the capability to do so at will.

I like book pairings and a perfect fit for The Lightness, is Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoch’s, What Makes you Not a Buddhist. This slim book is written in a Western cadence, making the concepts discussed within more easily comprehensible for our dull Western minds.  What Makes you Not a Buddhist covers the Four Dharma Seals of Buddhism in-depth:

  • All compounded or fabricated things are impermanent.
  • All emotions are pain.
  • All phenomena are illusory and empty. Not one thing exists inherently.
  • Enlightenment does not exist within the spheres of time or space.

If you don’t accept all Seals then you’re not a Buddhist and it is best to simply try to be kind to one another, as the Dalai Lama has urged Westerners to do. Seems that is about as close as we can sidle up to Buddhism and even this small command feels impossible. I mean,  just  look  at   us.

Buddhism is likely too much for our Western brains to comprehend and The Lightness illustrates what a mess we can make of Buddhism when we think we know what we are doing.  What Makes you Not a Buddhist delves into the specifics of why.

Here’s another pairing, my two favorite books of the summer (so far):  My Absolute Darling and The Gifted School.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent is the story about Turtle who lives in a decrepit home in the wilds of northern California. Turtle is one of those kids who has been taught survival skills since she was a small child, her instructor is her sociopathic father, Martin.

When the story begins, Turtle is performing poorly in school despite her obvious intelligence. Finally when a teacher intervenes and begins to ask questions, Turtle, like many survivors of sexual abuse becomes protective of her abuser and lies…about everything.

Well, I won’t lie, the abuse passages are tough reading and at first I couldn’t summon much sympathy for Turtle, who keeps up an angry internal dialog through the first part of the book against anyone who offers kindness or help. But Tallent carefully reveals Turtle’s strengths and I began to root for her and kept fingers crossed as she grew more independent even though each step forward was followed quickly by the violent reach of Martin.

The story explodes with hope when two goofy sweet boys are saved by Turtle after their day hike has gone crosswise. The two boy characters are delightful wits and their abundant admiration of Turtle’s mad survival skills infuse light into the story. Even though My Absolute Darling can be hard to read in places, it is beautifully written and ends on a mountain of hope.

The Gifted School written by Bruce Holsinger is a dramedy of manners that gazes into the collective soul of a privileged group of friends living in an exclusive community in Colorado. The four central characters met at a baby swim class and a decade later, where the story begins, they remain close friends.

Now, all four are working to get their kids into a newly opened gifted school which has a rigorous entrance exam. The story depicts the length to which white privileged parents will lie, cheat, and steal to improve their child’s chance of getting accepted to the prestigious school -and then tout the accomplishment as ‘merit-based’.

The Gifted School is a good hard look at a specific demographic, those folks – as they saying goes – who are born on third base and believe they have hit a home run. This was an enlightening read for me and I really enjoyed the cringeworthy moments – and there are plenty.

It’s summer (still) and that means your mystery novel reading must continue.

Lucy Foley. 21st century Agatha Christie.

Lucy Foley is a rock-solid contender for the title of 21st Century Agatha. Both The Hunting Party and The Guest List are excellent mysteries and read like updated Agatha novels. The Hunting Party takes place in a remote Scottish lodge in winter and The Guest List  is set on the wild western coast of Ireland. Both have tangible and yummy atmospheres wrapped around good whodunits.

I’ve written about Kate Atkinson before. I have read 10 of her books and haven’t regretted picking up any one of them. Her latest, Big Sky, is a continuation of Jackson Brodie’s story; Brodie is Atkinson’s recurring character, a private eye. I love Brodie (he may be my favorite fictional boyfriend), his messy personal life, the places he lives (small town England and often by the sea), and his running old-guy internal dialog – he cannot give himself or the people around him a break.

Pretty Things by Janelle Brown is a story about a second generation grifter targeting a rich family from her past. The story mostly takes place in Tahoe in a sprawling old mansion stuffed with unhappy family memories and valuable antiques. Brown takes her time fleshing out the two principal characters so the reader becomes sympathetic to both the mark and the con. This is a stellar grifter story.


And finally, I just finished a different kind of memoir, Becoming Duchess Goldblatt by Anonymous.  The special thing about this memoir is there is no Duchess Goldblatt. Let me explain…

Myrna’s Twitter Page

Social media platforms aren’t generally a happy place unless you have acquaintances that are wont to share cheesy platitudes. To even out the dark and the dumb on Twitter I follow some fun folks, accounts with handles such as: Effin Birds, Not A Wolf, A Bear, I am a Bird, and Myrna Tellingheusen (self-described in her twitter by-line as: Retired executive secretary for Mr. Stanley Bogenshoots, Senior Vice President at Hughes Aircraft. Living the good life in Southern California. Loves God.)  I am not 100% sure that Myrna is a fraud but nonetheless her tweets are pure gold:

Molly sustained a choir bell injury. I’ve long suspected she has weak wrists.

I enjoy wrapping with young people about God.

I also follow Duchess Goldblatt whose Twitter by-line reads: Beloved inspirational author of Feasting on the Carcasses of My Enemies: A Love Story; An Axe to Grind. These last few Twitter years I’ve learned that the Duchess lives in a town called Crooked Path and has a middle-aged daughter called Hacienda who just happens to be incarcerated. The Duchess has likely detailed the inside skinny on this in another book she has authored, Not If I Kill You First, which she confides is a heartwarming meditation on the relationship between mothers and daughters.

The Duchess’ tweets trend toward the literary and fanciful. She has at least 25 thousand followers who fawn over her charming tweets like:

I’m heading to the Crooked Path cranberry bogs to see the baby cranberries. They’re still blind and flightless, but in six weeks they’ll be ready to come home.

Loyal friends don’t grow on trees. They grow on little vines near the ground and have to be harvested by hand. Huge pain in the ass, frankly.

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt is Anonymous’ story of the person behind the Duchess. The author reveals that before creating the Duchess she was in deep despair after her marriage ended. But creating the Duchess on Twitter gradually turned Anonymous’ life around. It’s a wonderful uplifting story. And just like the Duchess’ tweets, the memoir is well written and, in the end, completely charming.

Frans Hals’s 1633 “Portrait of an Elderly Lady” is Duchess Goldblatt’s avatar.

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