In the Name of the Family ~ by Sarah Dunant

I’ve read a couple books by Dunant over the last few years ago and have not been impressed.   The prior books were “Sacred Hearts” and “Blood and Beauty”,   Dunant’s 1st book in this series about the Borgias.   Nevertheless, several members of one of my reading groups adore her work and  I succumbed.

In the Name of the Family
by Sarah Dunant
2016 / 480 pages
read by Nicholas Boulton 14h 11m
Rating:  7.5 /  historical fiction 
(sequel to Blood and Beauty) 

I generally enjoy historical fiction,  but there are some highly regarded novels which can grate on me and I’m at a loss to know why.  I have a suspicion they have too much historical information which is too closely intertwined with the fictional elements.

In my opinion,  it would be a good idea to have some background in the story of the Borgia family prior to reading the book.   Blood and Beauty is a good start but unless you read the books back-to-back it’s probably not enough and even then,  In the Name of the Family goes on through the births and deaths of many of the major characters.

Following the daily doings of the Borgia family is one thing,  but making up possible events and dialogue and feelings to accompany the history is different for me because I start wondering about sources – letters and diaries and court documents?   And in the case of the Borgias much of it turns into speculation because what sources there are happen to be seriously biased.    I’m perfectly aware that several of the popes of this era produced children.  (That might have been a shocker back when I was in the 8th grade).

Using Machiavelli as a character from whom we get a decided perspective Dunant points at those events from which The Prince came.   Those are kind of “aha” moments if you’re familiar with The Prince.   (I am but I read it long ago.)

I’m also not particularly fond of over-written and cliche-ridden prose which it sometimes felt like, although it shone in other places.   I suppose that kind of style fits the time and place,  I’m just not fond of that kind of rich and powerful arrogance.  (You cannot write about Pope Alexander IV with simple prose like you would Pope Francis or someone.)

On the plus side –  yes there is a plus side with several aspects  –  the characters of Lucrezia and Machiavelli are wonderfully well drawn and the Duke of Ferrera is viscerally ugly.   Seeing Lucrezia and Machiavelli presented in a sympathetic light is interesting – if not new in Lucrezia’s case.    This is no Wolf Hall with the interior monologue of a revisionist Thomas Crowell,  although there seem to be light leanings in that direction with Machiavelli’s mental consideration of all that transpires around him.

The setting is abundant with the details of household life for the family, especially that of the women involved.  It feels a bit like Dunant is showing off her research although it never gets obtrusive.  Still,  when Leo da Vinci and Michelangelo’s David show up along with Machiavelli it seems to get a bit much,  even if they certainly were all in Rome at the time.
I was a bit confused when it came to the battles and political solutions – I suppose it came out in the end.  The health concerns are an intriguing peek into the concerns of the times and women’s issues.

Interesting re the historical Lucrezia Borgia and her wealth:

These characters are still mysterious and intriguing to us today in the 21st century and at this point it’s probably impossible to tease out the truth from the plethora of evidence even if period legal documents are available.  So if you like fictionalized history which is what this is –  enjoy!

Nicholas Boulton does an incredible job of narrating.


Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Hot Milk ~ by Deborah Levy

Sofia Papastergiadis is a very bright young woman trying to finish her PhD in anthropology, but who is stuck working at a coffee bar in London.   Mainly she has some family and personal issues.   For one thing she’s almost terminally attached to her mother Rose who has been divorced from her father for a long time.    Rose has apparently lost the use of her feet and she’s also very sensitive to many things including water.

Hot Milk
by Deborah Levy
2016/  224 pages
rating –  8.25  –  general fiction- literary
(Man Booker Short List – 2016) 


Sofia and Rose travel to Almaria on the Mediterranean coast of Spain to see a specialist,  but Doctor Gomez has some unusual ideas – he may actually be a quack and a rather dangerous one at that.  Rose is probably a hypochondriac, anyway,   blocking her own ability to live a full life and tying Sofia down to care for her.

Meanwhile,  Sofia’s father has lived in Athens for some time and has married a much younger woman.  Together they now have a new child.  This presents more problems with immature entanglement.

While they’re spending about a month in Spain Sophia  meets a few people at the beach between her mother’s appointments.  There’s Ingrid who is a kind of goddess and ____,   a young health care worker who rubs her back with ointment to soothe the jellyfish stings,  there’s a horse trainer and a masseuse.  And there’s Ingrid’s boyfriend.   There’s also a cafe owner and his dog Pablo.

There are a myriad of themes running through this wonderfully well-written novel.  There’s freedom and love and entrapment to start –  fraud and self-delusion.   I suppose those are the major themes Levy explores as she maneuvers her characters into various combinations while the first-person Sofie works on becoming more “bold”  and take risks.  Sofia is hugely sympathetic – at least to me – she’s smart and funny and sweet,  but really kind of pathetic.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Words on the Move ~ by John McWhorter

John McWhorter is an academic, a popular writer and an associate professor at Columbia University.  I listened to his book,  The Story of Human Language a couple or three years ago – (a Great Courses audio),  enjoyed it tremendously and although I wanted to read another since then,  nothing really caught my eye.   Words on the Move was on sale though so … well … what’s a good girl to do?


Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)
by John McWhorter
2016 / 272 pages
Read by:  John McWhorter 7h 1m   
Rating:  8 /  non-fiction – language/linguistics

This book is nowhere on the level of the Great Courses lecture, but it’s fun.  McWhorter is fun.   Where do words like “well,”  used as an interjection,  come from?   It’s the same with the  online “lol.”   English is an evolving and  “literally” living,  language.  It changed, is changing and will change again.  We have a lot of words which are no longer necessary for a variety of reasons but we use them out of habit.   And we have a lot of new words from cyber to “lol.”   Where did they come from and why?  How is our language evolving and why?

And then there’s the business of vowels in English and how they’ve been pronounced at various times and places throughout.   Vowels will make or break an accent or a word pronunciation.  There’s been notable shift,  or movement, and in almost predictable ways.   Syllables also show movement in the language –  the natural movement of old traditional ways of saying things to newer ways – how language changes.  I suspect some of this is conjecture,  but I’m not a linguist and it’s quite interesting.

And then there’s the simple creation of new words from old ones by compounding them or by reducing them,  by associating them with other words.   And then there’s the word “like”  –  from a similarity to “‘the room was taken,  like a family had booked it already…'” or –   “I answered the door and it was like … her!”   Or there are other meanings to the word “like”  because the language is changing – it’s on the move.

McWhorter has a very well-trained ear and a nice sense of humor and is a good advocate for going with the flow,  not fighting the changes.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Book of Joy ~ by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

In my wanderings around the net I kept seeing this book and started wondering … and I listened to a bit and was intrigued …  so I got it from Audible.    And then I was listening as I drove and at about Chapter 2 (!)  I realized I needed to have it in my hands and see the words –  I downloaded the Kindle version.   And then I read and listened and listened and read deliberately going over parts twice and highlighting as I went.   Wonderful book,  meant to be studied and USED.

book of joy.jpeg
“The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World
by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu”  ~ as told by Douglas Carlton Abrams 
2016/  354 pages
read by Douglas Carlton Abrams and cast 10h 12m
rating 10 /  spiritual 

I’m not really a Christian,  I’d call myself a Jewish/Buddhist, and the authors of the substance of the book, the main participants in the discussions,   were a Tibetan Buddhist and an Anglican Christian with a Jewish translator or narrator.   This book was totally perfect for me.

The discussions on which the book is based took place at the Dalai Lama’s home in exile,  Dharamsala,  on the occasion of his holiness’ 80th birthday.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu , age 82 at the time,  came to visit and participate in a week-long series of discussions on the subject of joy.

Eight pillars of joy are identified,  divided by mind (perspective, humility, humor, acceptance) and heart (forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, generosity).   The daily lives of the men are told and some input about the personalities of these two Nobel Peace Prize winners.

I suppose it’s a sort of “self-help” book for those who want to learn about joy through enhanced meditation practices.   Kind of a guide to meditation in various ways,  beyond simple escape from the daily grind and aimed at joy.  The main sections include

  1.  The Nature of True Joy  (Day 1)
  2.  The Obstacles to Joy   (Days 2 and 3)
  3. The Eight Pillars of Joy  (Days 4 and 5)

Then there is an appendix kind of part (?)  which goes further and outlines what are called “Joy Practices”  very specifically but not in any way rigidly.

I’ve been trying some of the suggestions augmenting my old meditation ways,  especially “analytic meditation.”    I’ve done this kind of thing before but adding it to meditation will be powerful stuff.

I’ve discovered that I tend to read spiritual books and then procrastinate about actually doing what they say.  I’m not always that way but it’s happened.  We’ll see –  I’ll read this again if necessary.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dark Matter ~ by Blake Crouch

Don’t bother.   I read it for a reading group- had bad feelings but went ahead anyway.  The idea is not all that impressive –  it was floated around back with Stephen King’s  11/22/63  showing alternative realities in a possibly multiplex world  with a “Joker” in control.  This time the scientists who isolated the means to traveling in those worlds are at the fore,  one is the protagonist who travels one different path  while the other is the actual developer who travels the alternative path.  These are both the same person originally but they have morphed into two life journeys –  and of course there are other possibilities.

Dark Matter
by Blake Crouch
2016 / 354 pages
read by Jon Lindstrom  10h 8m
Rating:   C-   /  sci-fi / romance

Jason Dessen, a brilliant physicist currently working as a professor at a small Chicago college,  is living quietly and very happily with his wife and son when he is snatched one night and taken to a place of many Jasons –  the lives he would have led had he made different decisions.     He only wants to get home to Daniella,  his wife,  but there are other “Jason”s around who want to take over his life.

This is just too far fetched for me.  I mean,  having a beer with myself in a bar somewhere?  –  How about with three or seven of my own selves – almost but not quite identical?   Each is identical up to the point of some decision – but each one is different after that decision.   Would I be willing to kill all these alternative selves to win the love of my life?  (There’s the romance.)

This is as much a romance as it is strung-out sci-fi –   there’s very very little science in the book.  It’s mostly speculation.  It’s kind of dumb but I did finish.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hidden Figures ~ by Margaret Lee Shetterly

I probably would never have read this book had it not been for the fact it was an All-Nonfiction group selection.   And I would have missed a bunch but it’s not up to the hype of the movie.    Like probably most Americans,  I had no idea that black women were instrumental in the space race – or any women for that matter,  at least until later.   I knew women were important as “computers”  in the development of computer technology from The Information by James Gleick – there are maybe two sentences in his book –  but not specifically black women anywhere (that I remember).

Try this:


Hidden Figures:   The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
by Margaret Lee Shetterly
2016/  368 pages
read by Robin Miles  10h 47m
Rating:  7.5  / history-biography

As probably most culturally aware folks  know by now,  this book was made into a movie as well as into a young adult book.   The film got highest honors and reviews and it occurs to me the book might be pretty blah next to the movie.

Apparently the film producers invented a few scenes for the sake of drama and visual effects,   but overall it’s said to be historically accurate.  It’s probably better organized and leaves out a bunch of socio-racial  information as well as the complex material about Langley administration.

See Bookriot –  for a great analysis of how the movie differs from the book.   A snip:

“The film shows the three women as close pals, but their personal successes were spread out of over decades, and the book doesn’t present the three like a buddy movie. Dorothy Vaughan was made a supervisor in 1949, and Mary Jackson became an engineer in 1958, well before the film timeline. “

The main subjects,  Dorothy Vaughan,  Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson,  each came from different places in the South. Vaughan and Johnson were from West Virginia while Jackson was from Virginia.  But they were all mathematical whizzes from a very early age and after struggles with the educational system and early careers as school teachers, came to be employed by the NACA and NASA as mathematicians ultimately instrumental in the space race.

These main characters are pictured below.   In real life there were many more black women working in the labs than these three.  And they all faced pretty much the same difficulties.  Dorothy Vaughan was one of the very first and she was eventually promoted to the highest position possible for her skills.


There are biographical sections on each woman and how she made her way from childhood prodigy  to the lab at Langley and what they did there. .  The book kind of rambles in disorganized fashion into the science and mathematics part as well as the administrative organization of Langley on top of the social issues of the times.  It talks about the segregation of bathrooms,  education,  restaurants,  etc and how that affected Langley.

Good stuff about the actors and facts:

I was basically bored –  the idea was great and yes,  I very much wanted to know about this  in general,   I guess there was simply a bit too much about the personal lives and all the social issues accompanying the material.  I’m not the target audience – I know most of this already.   But!    I’m very glad it hit the movies with general historical accuracy because that’s probably the only way to get any information about or sense of  history through to people these days.

This link is about the whole group and how it was but a subset of the other female mathematicians:

All three women (Vaughan, Johnson, and Jackson) worked at West Area Computers section of the Langley Research Center in some capacity and at some point.     It’s almost more about the feminist and race issues during the era than about these women.  I can’t find out if these women even knew each other –  one joined Langley in 1943,  the others in the mid-1950s.  There were many other black women working there at the time.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Born a Crime ~ by Trevor Noah

I’d seen this on the recommendations lists and reviews from various places,   then my sister recommended it and after a few months I caved.   Yup – it’s pretty good.  And I needed something a bit funny or light weight.   This fit the bill because although serious topics come up and it has some very sobering ideas,  Noah is a comedian by trade and his escapades, with his narration,  shine through.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood 
by Trevor Noah 
2016 / 304 pages
Read by Trevor Noah –   8h 50m
Rating 8.5

Trevor Noah is a  33-year old TV-/radio host and comedian who was born and raised in South Africa.  He’s of mixed heritage having a black mother and a white father.  When he was born it was illegal for blacks and whites to have sexual relations so at that time he was “born a crime.”   There were many class distinctions in South Africa during apartheid –  white, black, mixed and coloured.   Chinese were black but Japanese were white for political reasons. .   Most “coloured” people were the products of long prior relationships dating back to the original Dutch settlers and the native women.

Apartheid officially started in about 1948 and finally ended in 1991.  Noah was born in 1984. Noah’s mother was black and his father was white so Noah had light skin but kinky hair.   He was mixed from birth rather than heritage and it was confusing to people and to himself after awhile,   but they had to deal with it as did he – all in their own ways.

He spent a lot of his childhood alone with no playmates and little acceptance largely because of his being “mixed” race.  Not a fun time for him.  But he chose his own place with the blacks because of his mother.

There is a fair amount of politics in the book,  but it’s basically a memoir of a mixed-race child who lives in Johannesburg with his black mother and who knows and loves his father.  He is loved by his parents.   We follow his life from birth through various schools and family situations until he’s relatively full grown and moves out of the house –  in his early 30s,  probably.    There is only a general chronology woven through the stories.   But it’s a funny,  sad and  sometimes poignant look at post -apartheid South Africa with it’s completely irrational attitudes and laws and how they affected an individual life.

Many of the stories are about his mother who was/is a fiercely religious woman, but totally unique in her belief in freedom and love and perseverance as well as a disregard for irrational laws.   Also,  Noah has some really keen insights into racism,  crime, language and skin color.   The book goes beyond the life of the subject into some ideas in general.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment