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What I’m Reading Now (Novel Habits of Happiness)

As mentioned, I loaded up the iPad with books before I left for Japan and managed to read some en route and upon return. The Novel Habits of Happiness is another of the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith. In this case it was not terribly memorable, including the title, maybe because it bore little resemblance to the contents of the book.

This one gets off to a slow, slow start. Then it feels rushed, not up to the quality of the earlier mysteries. Isabel agrees to help a woman whose young son believes he lived with another family and needs to goes back to them even though he’ll be dead. Also, Isabel’s niece Cat, who has a new lover in pretty much every book, shows up with one who upsets Isabel more than usual, despite the calming effects of her husband, an earlier Cat lover. And the men who tried to kick her off the Review of Applied Ethics are back in town. Too much action for a mere 189 pages.

There is one major redeeming quality here. The descriptions of the bleak beauty of the highlands and the Ardnamurchan peninsula suit the work – and my mood.

What I’m Reading Now (Twelve Tribes of Hattie)

Ayana Mathis’s Twelve Tribes of Hattie has been on my to-read list for years, and I’m sorry I waited so long. Early in the novel fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd, her mother, and sisters flee the backwoods of Georgia as part of the Great Migration, landing in Philadelphia. Even as she marvels that black people are not subjected to the brutality of southern racists, she watches her first-born twins die of poverty. As the years pass, she bears nine more children but never recovers from that early loss.

Each subsequent chapter tells the story of one child. Those narratives could stand alone, but together they show the pain and occasional triumph of people who began life with more than two strikes against them.

It was odd to read of a place at once so familiar and so foreign. Philadelphia had changed a great deal by the time I arrived fifty years later, but the neighborhood where Hattie struggled might as well have been the same with more cars and people.

The most vivid of the characters is Six. Called to preach as a youngster, he dazzles – especially the women – and follows in the footsteps of many men of the cloth where a chasm yawns between words and action.

contains among the best descriptions I’ve encountered of the Vietnam War experience, alternating with a clear representation of the disintegration of a marriage.

Again my only reservation had nothing to do with the contents but with the clunkiness and inflexibility of reading ebooks. I find the iBooks friendlier than Kindle but still nothing to paper and ink held in the hand.

Cats and Their Writers

“The Cat in a Ruff”

Often when I am in despair – a frequent state these days – I turn to Simon’s cat. Actually to the pitch-perfect videos of the way Simon’s cat and attendant kitten maintain ultimate control over Simon, the house, and all surroundings. Favorites are the dirt tracked in just after Simon has cleaned and the mayhem when he’s sick in bed.

This blog post offered much more of substance, demonstrating  that cats have over the years become support, muse, inspiration for writers. Some are familiar — Poe, Twain, Eliot.

The impetus for this post came from “The Cat in a Ruff,” which my friend Christy Billings bought at the Mark Twain House. Here’s my favorite Twain/cat story. He posted a sign after a theft of silverware, presumably sterling.

To the Next Burglar: There is nothing but plated ware in this house now and henceforth. You will find it in that brass thing in the dining-room over in the corner by the basket of kittens. If you want the basket put the kittens in the brass thing. Do not make a noise, it disturbs the family…

Cats were so much a part of Papa H’s brand that I met the some of the descendants of the clowder at Hemingway House in Cuba in the 1980s.

Other cat lovers were a surprise, mostly because I don’t know much about the authors. The drawing of Edward Lear’s makes him look like a jolly ancestor Simon’s cat. Every cat owner will appreciate Lost Cat.

Ann Petry should be on that list. She had cats from the time she was a little kid and wrote a book for children, The Drugstore Cat, about a kitten who has trouble controlling his temper.  Some publisher needs to reissue this book.

Later feline residents were Mehitabel (named after the cat in Archy and Mehitabel) and Tobermory, Toby for short, named for the talking cat in the Saki story. Later my cat Leo took up brief residence when I was transitioning from one apartment to another. He gained four pounds — a quarter of his body weight under Mother’s TLC.

William Burroughs, Edward Gorey, Sylvia Plath, and Truman Capote should join to the legions of cat loving writers. May their cohort increase.

And even though he didn’t belong to one particular scribe, Firbank inspired many writers and readers as he presided over the Book Trader  when it thrived at Fourth and South in Philadelphia before the area became Gap-i-fied.

What I’m Reading Now (Song of the Lion)

As mentioned, it was a thrill to learn that Tony Hillerman’s daughter had continued writing his series about the Navajo tribal police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee and that Anne Hillerman had added a lead female character.

Song of the Lion has Lieutenant Leaphorn, the more assimilated of the original pair, retired in name but keeping his hand in as much as the effects of a stroke will let him. Sergeant Chee has married fellow Navajo Officer Bernadette Manuelito who takes the lead here.

The action in Song of the Lion starts with a literal bang as a car bomb explodes, killing a man, outside the biggest high school basketball game of the year at Shiprock High School. Manuelito, who is smart and efficient and just as good an officer as the others of course must battle sexism along with the racism of the white state cops and FBI as they all investigate what they believe is an attempt to derail a mediation over a proposed mega development in the Grand Canyon.

Anne Hillerman continues the themes of her father’s works – the uses and abuses of the environment, conflict between Hopi and Navajo, the latter group’s need to spread out across the land even when it might belong to someone else, reverence for the elders, and the need to maintain traditions.

At times, the voices didn’t feel as clear as they were in The Blessing Way and Talking God, but the narrative arc is just as engrossing. And the dénouement left me gasping.

Mostly, though, it was a pleasure to be reading about a culture that values nature and the wisdom of age while exploring Japan, another culture that does the same.


Double Thank You

We interrupt the “What I’m Reading Now” series to post this thank you to the artist and writer who helped to usher in  the new edition of Harriet Tubman Conductor on the Underground Railroad. It  is addressed to artist Kadir Nelson and writer Jason Reynolds.


The new edition of Harriet Tubman Conductor on the Underground Railroad arrived today. After I gasped for joy, I cried — because of the glorious image on the cover and because Mother and Mrs. Tubman are not here to appreciate it. Then a voice said, “The ancestors know.”

Your contributions are doubly appreciated. Of all of Mother’s works, I considered Harriet Tubman “my” book. It was the first one she wrote after I was born,  so it has been part of my life since I was a small girl. She dedicated it to me. In short order it became and has remained the most popular of everything she wrote, reissued and excerpted.

Kadir, when I learned that you were to create the cover art, it was clear that Mother and Mrs. Tubman would approve. Your Eustace Tilley was already my favorite — on the cover of a magazine that my parents read faithfully until their deaths. Your Obama portrait joins my list of favorite works of art. It is at once heartbreaking and uplifting, more so all these months later.

Jason, I confess that YA works are not top of mind these days, but when I mentioned your name to a librarian friend, she raved, saying that your writing was stellar and that your target audience adored your books. I nabbed All American Boys, the only title available and  concur wholeheartedly with my friend’s assessment. Your foreword to Harriet Tubman, with your personal story of discovery adds much to the global message of Mrs. Tubman’s struggle and victory.

Thank you both for giving new and meaningful life to “my” book.



What I’m Reading Now (Swing Time)

When I opened Swing Time on the flight from Honolulu to Tokyo I had the distinct impression that I’d read it but couldn’t remember the details. Soon I was captivated by the alternating stories of two poor mixed-race girls living in English council flats told from the point of view the one whose mother is Jamaican and father Irish. Her opposite number, Tracey, has a white mother and a Jamaican father who supposedly dances with Michael Jackson. The swing time refers to the alternating present-day/flashback scenes, to the music that both girls adore, and to the question whether one person succeeds because of another’s failure.

Eventually I figured out why the book seemed familiar. I was so far behind on New Yorker magazines, I had recently read “Two Step,” Alexandra Schwartz’s review, which appeared November 14, 2016. Anyway Schwartz laid out the outlines of the novel, a series of quick-moving scenarios. The girls take dance lessons. The unnamed narrator lacks serious talent, but Tracey hopes to ride the dance train out of the slums. They visit a white friend’s house where Tracey goes into a rage that the narrator’s mother attempts to quell.

Ms. Smith draws her characters with exquisite detail. There is Mr. Booth, the “very old white man” who accompanies the little dancers and who encourages the narrator to sing. There’s Lamin, the Senegalese fixer who appears when the narrator’s employer decides to become a philanthropist in Africa. There’s Uncle Lambert, her mother’s brother, who smokes weed with her dad and commiserates with him.

The two people I wanted to encounter in more detail were the mother, a Socialist who educates herself and becomes an activist.  And  Aimee, a true rock star who elevates herself out of back-of-beyond Australia and in the process becomes Super Diva.

As with a number of contemporary works of fiction, Swing Time sustains its narrative and the clear voice of its narrator until just before the end. Like its much lighter-weight fellows California (Edan Lepucki) and Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn), I had the feeling Ms. Smith didn’t know how to end the book. In this case, however, the disappointment was tempered by the brilliance of the rest of the novel and of Ms. Smith’s luminous writing.

What I’m Reading Now

As mentioned in the November 21 entry, I continued my travel practice of choosing books about places at complete odds with my surroundings. Previous excursions included reading Angela’s Ashes on the beach in Hawaii and getting furious with Mexican men as I read The Feminine Mystique in and around Guadalajara.

Large numbers of old (early 2107) New Yorker magazines occupied the beginning of the trip. Downloads on the iPad included The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, a Great Migration story, and several Alexander McCall Smith novels. The title of The Double Comfort Safari Club featuring Precious Ramotswe promised a cozy mystery in Botswana. Isabel Dalhousie’s philosophical meanderings always challenge, so I added The Novel Habits of Happiness and The Perils of Morning Coffee. They ensured I’d be sipping coffee in Edinburgh while sipping green tea in Nara.

At the Honolulu airport I bought Swing Time by Zadie Smith and Song of the Lion, which to my delight features the return of Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn – plus a woman police officer. Did not know that Tony Hillerman’s daughter had continued the franchise.

Long plane rides and down time in hotel rooms meant that I finished most of what I carried, along with a couple of editions of English-language newspapers, which contained international news to put all but the biggest American papers to shame.

Over the next weeks I’ll write about each, ending with The Double Comfort Safari Club, which I started on the flight to Connecticut and haven’t had chance to finish.

Odds and Ends

The Japan blog posts were running long. Here are some items that need to be added.

All the train stations have restaurants, food shops, and vending machines, for food, water, and soda. I loved the colors and funny names including “Polar Sweat,”  which seemed to be a type of bottled water.  Those machines not just in the stations, either. They’re ubiquitous.

That’s a one-hundred-year-old beam with recessed lighting in the ceiling of the living room of Hiro’s studio in Nara.

Great Buddha

My pictures didn’t capture the image properly, so this is from a postcard I bought at the Todaji Temple gift shop where all the proceeds go to support the temple. (The Buddha’s supposedly ferocious guardians encourage giggles rather than terror.)

This banquet facility near Hiro’s studio had the best of many worlds – at the edge of the park, next to the river, and hard by the main shopping action in Nara. I didn’t have the guts to see whether it was real copper.

On a serious note, there were few signs of abject poverty, but in Kyoto a handful of homeless people were sleeping or sitting on benches or on the lawns. They mostly congregated along the river and on the grounds of the emperor’s palace. At one point I spotted a pile of abandoned belongings – broken umbrella, torn jeans, a dirty hat.

On a lighter note, the use of language revealed the serious cultural divide. Kathryn said she heard someone say, “Fuji-san is being shy today,” meaning fog had enveloped Mount Fuji. And when the concierge was giving directions, she said, ‘You go through the door – oh, but the door is hiding.” It was around a corner. I had to restrain myself from laughing at the image of a door peeking out from behind a wall.

To end on a happy, happy note. Friday November 3 was a holiday in Japan to encourage cultural awareness. Families visited museums and parks, some dressed in traditional garb. The line for the National Museum was never less than thirty minutes with people standing three and four deep. These tykes showed so much patiences as their  family took multiple photographs, which allowed me to snap this one.

Leaving Japan

The view from the Okura

Breakfast was again the enormous hotel buffet: miso soup, salmon both regular and smoked, excellent winter vegetables, umeboshi plums, rice that claimed sixteen grains of millet, pickles and one small cup of coffee.

The usual fast, efficient service took us by bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo featured. There was not much of “wow” to look at. A marina or two broke up stretches of open water. A few rice paddies elided into suburbs and then into vast sprawl. From the main Tokyo station we took a local train and then a monorail to Hameda airport, which is much smaller than Narita, where we landed.

The flight boarded quickly, and the crew thanked us for our efficiency. Amazing! The seats weren’t as nice as on the outbound plane but still comfortable. The little girl (7? 8?) across the aisle kept up the barrier to separate her from her mother for the entire flight. She watched cartoons with English subtitles long after everyone else had put out their lights. Then her mother had to push-pull-shake for many minutes to wake her before we landed.

Dinner again featured excellent veggies and rice along with a tiny serving of fruit. Queenie, the flight attendant, seemed delighted that I had ordered a vegetarian meal.

Even though it didn’t feel like it, I must have slept because at one point I was vaguely aware that we were flying through turbulence, but it barely registered.

The feeling of complete disorientation when we landed persisted for a number of days. We left Tokyo at 7:45 p.m. on November 9 and arrived in San Francisco at noon – on November 9. Otherwise our arrival was unremarkable. The area where we landed was empty except for our flight. Immigration was all electronic. An e-reader scanned the passport, a kiosk took a photo and away I went.

Customs proved bumpier. I filled out the same declaration twice, once on the plane, again at the airport. Then finally I talked to a human being, all over nothing to declare.

Ashley arrived it seemed within seconds of our stepping out of the terminal. Then we sat in traffic for forty-five minutes to get across the Bay Bridge. At one point I thought we’d spend as long on the highway as we had in the air.

Despite all the political insanity rampaging through the country, it felt good to be stateside.