BOOK REVIEW: The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides

by Jeffrey Eugenides

Five sisters, teenagers ranging in age from 13 to 17 years, all commit suicide within the span of one year. Each suicide is separate and unique from the others. Each is pondered, discussed, analyzed, and contemplated even years later by a group of neighborhood boys obsessed with the Lisbon girls.

The Lisbon family lives in a large suburban home. Dad is a teacher in the local high school. Mom is a homemaker who cooks and sews and watches over her family. The house is filled with love.

The girls are undeniably overprotected and the rebellious nature of teenagers comes through as the girls sneak around and conspire to go against the rules. The girls are vivacious, demure, flirtatious, friendly, affectionate. They have not a mean bone nor an angry thought. The suicides do not appear to make sense. Although the parents are certainly quirky, whose aren’t?

Fortunately it is a relatively short book. The book’s greatest achievement is describing six different modes of suicide (including the first failed attempt). Mr. Eugenides apparently had good editors to help him launch his career with this book, editors that he should have later employed when he wrote the never-ending Middlesex. Nevertheless, the book seemed as if it might be more interesting to adolescents. For me, it did not work.

Upon completion of the book, I then watched the movie, hoping that another perspective might help. It did not.



by John Williams

William Stoner is sitting at the table in the weathered old farmhouse kitchen. His father speaks of a recent visit by the county agent who talked of a 4-year college program in agriculture. Just as matter-of-factly as he tended his chores milking the skinny cows, collecting small eggs from scraggly chickens, and tending the nutrient-stripped fields after spending long days at school tasks, at 19 he agrees to leave his family and go the long 40 miles away in pursuit of that education. The reader is privy to this intimate discussion of few words and no emotion and is drawn into the life of William Stoner.

We follow Stoner to college where he finds a new passion for English studies and abandons his parents and his farm and all that came before for a scholar’s life. Upon earning his PhD eight years later, he becomes a member of the faculty at his alma mater where he remains until his death. Life along the way has its trials and tribulations but in many ways parallels his poor, lonely farming life.

To me this book is more than the life story of one William Stoner. It is more than the contrast between rural life and academia. For me, it is a study of parenting. We witness Stoner’s stoicism, perseverance against all obstacles, and social detachment learned at the hands of his parents, Edith’s frigidity, manipulation, and need to control like she experienced at her father’s knee, and finally we watch their only child Grace grow into womanhood without passion, without pleasure, and without attachment to her parents or to her own child.

It is difficult to be with Stoner in his last months yet he comes to terms easily with his condition. When Edith refers blandly to Willie’s impending death (only she called him Willie), I could only wonder if she were talking of the man or of his body part.

Stoner is a very ordinary man leading a very ordinary existence, but Stoner the book is far from ordinary.

Purrfect Organizers

I can’t discard them! They must have a purpose!

Tidy Cat cat litter comes in waterproof 20-lb plastic containers, each with airtight lid and carry handle. It is boldly colorful. Its heavy duty construction and attention to detail scream to be used again and again. If only it did not boast of its original contents.

With some leftover acrylic paints from an art course Sir Braver took a few years ago, I decorated a few of the buckets I had accumulated with a geometric design. Now the buckets sit proudly on my balcony, each one containing homogeneously grouped items. One contains toys for water play for the grandchildren to use. Another is filled with soil waiting for next spring’s planting picks. A third contains planting supplies (fertilizer, decorative pebbles, trowel, etc). A fourth, yet to be decorated, will house small pots and saucers.

Colorful, decorative containers now adorn our outdoor space.

My First Book Club

Pageturners. It is the book club run by my local library. It meets the first Thursday of every month at 2:30 in the afternoon. It is conducted by an enthusiastic, energetic, and very organized retired librarian.

I arrived a few minutes early and found the large room to be set up with long narrow tables arranged concentrically within the square room such that all chairs faced a vast empty central area. Two women were seated at the far end of the row of tables nearest the entry. I joined them and introduced myself and we engaged in some chit chat about names and books and book clubs. They are both regulars.

Within a few minutes the room filled and almost all seats were occupied. I counted 17 people in attendance, 3 of whom were male, and all attendees except one gentleman were (my guess) in their 60s. He was maybe in his 40s (probably younger).

It turned out I was seated at the very back of the room with the librarian opposite me, though actually quite far away. She introduced herself and made some announcements, none of which I could hear. Then she asked everyone in turn to tell what they think of this month’s book selection: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. She asked the person on her left to begin, and I quickly surmised that there were 9 people ahead of me and, as these things go, it would probably never be my turn. But I was wrong. I had my turn. Everybody had a turn.

Person after person indicated they did not care for this book. Some said they enjoyed the first half but nothing after that. Some complained the book was geared for young people under 30. Some did not like the fantasy elements. One person said she does not like mysteries, and one person admitted she did not read the book but instead read a review and that was enough for her. And lastly Elaine spoke. She said her son had told her to read it, that she would love this book. And she did, she really loved the book. It is now her favorite book of all time. It is unique, well written, wildly funny, and she got it! She really got it. She explained a lot that really helped make sense out of the book. She was quite the eye opener. (The author’s close relative perhaps?)

At the end of the session, the librarian asked what everyone now thinks of the book. Witness mob mentality: everyone now loves the book. Everyone but me. (I was never much of a follower.)

All in all, I enjoyed hearing the various viewpoints and reactions. I enjoyed learning tidbits that I had missed. I gained understanding. On the other hand, I was uncomfortable about not being able to hear what 2 members and the librarian were saying; all others were audible enough although I had to strain to hear, which was awkward and tiring. There was a lot of name dropping (book titles) which I never heard of or just couldn’t hear, and the not knowing made me feel less smart than the rest.

I will attend next month: Stoner by John Edward Williams.

BOOK REVIEW: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore is a small quiet bookstore that is only rarely visited, with purchases few and far between. Clay Jannon is hired as store clerk for the graveyard shift. A mystery is uncovered in this odd world of antiquated print volumes, a mystery that has been actively pursued for 500 years by members of a secret society. It takes high tech 21st century knowledge, thinking, and gizmos to finally solve the mystery.

Although the mystery is the story, Robin Sloan has several themes running through this book. He pits old world technology against modern technology (print versus digital books) and pokes fun with his creation of a super-high-powered portable scanner constructed of cardboard. The author also illustrates the narrow, obsessive-compulsive focus and quirkiness of special interest groups, cults, and secret societies. There is no flaming romance, no heart-pounding adventure, no death-defying thrill except as perceived among the bookish geeky nerds who are excitedly immersed in tech talk.

This tale of the search for the secret to immortality as written by a 15th century great thinker and preserved in code smacks of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code and its search for the Holy Grail. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is written with an easy-going  lightness with moments of humor and contrasts dramatically with the darkness of The DaVinci Code, but the basic elements are there.

Google plays a prominent role in this novel. Google apps and Google tools, Google brains and Google organization are drawn upon, cherished, and adored. Perhaps this book would be best named Google Awe. This book is a good choice for a society of Google lovers.

Life’s Lessons

The granddaughters were here for a weeklong visit and I sure learned a lot. The 3-year-old was full of wisdom to share. I learned, and I quote:

  1.  Tiny tushes make tiny poop.
  2. I am not a grownup, so I don’t understand.
  3. This book is very unusual:

With wisdom comes an inquiring mind. So the question of the week is:

Uncle Ken is a grownup, right?

Finally, some wisdom and inspiration for all my gentle readers who must prepare a meal for a crowd (more than 2, at least 1 of which is a picky eater) – Tortellini with meat sauce. Quick and easy to prepare, it appeals to children of all ages and was rejected by none!

Explain, Please


I hate my camera. As I have complained previously, my camera has a habit of pinching the skin of my finger and not letting go. It is the pop-up flash that pops up and down at will, usually taking my finger with it. I will dump this camera one of these days – when I am feeling flush. Until then, I suffer.

I have since discovered that my camera has other odd behaviors, as well. I noticed oddities but dismissed them as something I must have done to cause such events. Naturally it had to be my fault, not the fault of the camera. For example, after taking just a few snapshots, I had uploaded them to my computer to find that in addition to the snapshots, there also was video recorded. Surely the camera did not turn on the video recording setting all by itself. Obviously I accidentally hit the record button, and while recording, I managed also to depress the shutter button and so capture the desired stills. It was me unknowingly creating video. Right?

However, today I uploaded 61 pictures from my camera to my computer. These were pictures taken over the course of the past week while my precious daughter and two darling granddaughters were visiting. The camera was used by each one of us at various times. (You will have the pleasure of seeing the 3-year-old’s handiwork, too.) So over the course of a week, 3 adults and 2 children all had their hands at this camera and the picture-taking spanned a 7-day period of time. Somehow the camera captured video recordings without anyone’s knowledge – not every day, not every time the camera was turned on. The remarkable thing, however, is that the camera combined some of those video recordings into one final recording – one video that spans an entire week in time. The trips to the children’s museum, the playground, the park,  the birthday party, the cousins, and so much more were not included!

I did not sew small videos together. I did no editing. I present to you, gentle readers, my camera’s video production of a weeklong family get-together – the good, the bad, and the ugly! Unedited.

Okay. please explain what happened here!




The explanation:  Sir Braver uncovered the answer. It seems the camera was set to “hybrid movie mode” which has the camera do exactly what was described above – something I would never choose to do! And, as we have seen, the camera is not a good judge of desirable picks.