Episode 400 – My Mexican Bookshelf: The Final Chapter

It’s been a lot of fun exploring the bookshelves in our winter rental. There’s certainly an eclectic mix of reading material here, and I’ve tried to take advantage of that to read a few things out of my usual comfort zone.

That said, all the composers’ biographies and opera librettos remain safely untouched – except for the massive sort, cull, and reorganization we did early on in our stay (with the owner’s permission, of course).

The living room book & CD shelves. Ted and I made some inroads into listening to the music collection while we read. The shelves are more than 8 feet tall but look small because all the ceilings in the house are 18 feet tall!
The master bedroom bookshelves.

Here are March and April’s reads:

When Karin and Al visited in March, Karin noticed Aztec Revenge, by Gary Jennings and Junius Podrug, on the shelf, and suggested I read it. While it’s well into the Aztec series of books, and while the Yucatán is Mayan as opposed to Aztec, it was still an enjoyable read (in fact I might have to find the earlier books in the series when we get back to Canada and I’m reading online library books again). The story is narrated by a young mestizo who manages through a series of lucky encounters and sheer audacity to lift himself out of the beggar’s gutter that is considered the only place fit for illegitimate mixed-race children in colonial Mexico to infiltrate high society. It’s an adventure story with a bit of a Spaghetti Western vibe to it, but also a well-researched insight into the treatment of Mexico’s indigenous people by the conquering Spaniards.

A Christmas Party by Georgette Hayer is a British period mystery in the style of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. It doesn’t matter that it’s not Christmas when there is a cast of interesting characters and vivid descriptions of an English country house to keep you interested.

Ted and I saw the movie Philomena, starting Judi Dench, a few years ago, so I was naturally curious about how the book might have differed from the movie. The book touts itself as “the story of a mother’s 50 year search for the son she was forced to give up”, but the book is really about that son’s 50 year search for his mother – not the other way around. It’s a sad book, and yet another glimpse into the damage the “well meaning” Catholic Church did to children in its care, this time in 1950s Ireland.

This Is A Book, by Dmitri Martin, won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, because humour is such a subjective thing, but I found 99% of this book absolutely hilarious, from the quirky captioned drawings to the “conversations” between unlikely characters (if you were an alien species, would you think Miss Universe was the supreme ruler of earth?) to the chapter on “Palindromes for Special Occasions” and another on the unintended consequences of “militant” vegetarianism.

Tina Fey’s Bossypants is a modern memoir in the same gentle, self-deprecating vein as Carol Burnett’s that I read earlier in our stay, except that Tina’s is funnier. If you’re a fan of her Saturday Night Live years, like me, or her sitcom 30 Rock, you’ll get both insights and bellylaughs from her stories about both, as well as insights into the childhood that she credits for making her so funny.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker, is a vividly imagined glimpse into the lives of the servants of Pride and Prejudice’s Bennett family, during the same time period as that novel’s action took place. It was a lot of fun reading about the “real” people that ran the household that allowed the Bennett family to maintain their veneer of gentility. As usual, their lives are much more fascinating than those pf their employers.

Yes We Have No (Adventures in the Other England), by Nik Cohn, is best explained by the blurb on the back cover (below). It’s full of interesting (and sometimes shocking, or sad) insights into the kinds of people most of us would just walk past, and the “reality” behind the quaint villages and tourist hype we associate with England. The book was written in 1999; in the more than 2 decades since there will have been lots of changes, both for better and worse, but Nik’s odyssey through England is a snapshot in time worth studying.

The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown, is narrated in a really interesting way by the “collective” sister voice, so that you’re never quite sure whose head you’re in. Rose, Bean, and Cordy (christened Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia by their professor of Shakespearian literature father) return to their childhood home to help deal with their mother’s illness, but as adults they’re no more in tune than they were as children. Yet, each of them needs the connection of common experiences to become, finally, complete. The book is funny, poignant, and beautifully written, as well as peppered with snippets of Shakespeare, because if books and the bard can’t solve all life’s problems, what can?

I really enjoyed Christopher Moore’s Sacré Bleu earlier this winter, so when I found You Suck on one of the bookshelves, and read the cover blurb that reminded me of the mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, I just had to read it. It’s a “love story” between a newly undead vampire and his maker, with some silly twists and turns, frozen turkey bowling (three words I never expected to see together) and a supporting cast that includes a goth-girl minion (to run those pesky daytime errands), a pair of hapless bribeable police detectives, and a blue-painted Vegas call girl. An absolutely hilarious read.

Gulp (Adventures on the Alimentary Canal), by Mary Roach, is a non-fiction science book unlike anything I’ve ever read before: a coffee-snortingly funny book all about the human digestive system. Biology classes were never this fascinating ; chewing, swallowing, “food processing”, flatulence, the relationship between smell and taste – and the scientists who study these things – were never so graphically or entertainingly described. (Even the science behind what makes processed pet food tasty to pets is revealed.) After reading Gulp, I felt smarter … and also a teensy bit grossed out. If you’re thinking “why would I want to read that?”, spoiler alert: in Chapter 12, which is all about burping, fire-breathing dragons are explained!

Little Bitty Lies, by Mary Kay Andrews, is a hilarious Southern romp through the aftermath of an embezzling husband’s sudden disappearance and the lengths to which his deserted wife (aided and abetted by her best friend) will go to protect their teenage daughter from the reality of his leaving. Nothing could go wrong with pretending he died instead of deserting them , right?

Returning to well researched non-fiction, I was absolutely engrossed in Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra – A Life, which reads as easily as any great dramatic novel (think Gone With The Wind, for instance). Pieced together from accounts largely written by Romans during her lifetime (no Alexandrian records survive), this biography attempts to balance historical fact and the “editorializing” of the era’s historians who painted her alternately as a weak woman, a wanton seductress, or a conniving power-hungry queen. (Sound at all familiar in our era of celebrity-bashing and fake news?) It’s a riveting portrait of the woman and the times in which she ruled.

Where We Belong, by Emily Giffin, is definitely not my usual kind of book at all. The story is told in alternate chapters by Kirby, an 18 year old adopted girl, and Marian, the woman who gave her up when she was just 18 herself. It’s sugary sweet sappy fiction about a daughter with two loving adoptive parents, who goes looking for her birth parents. Perfect as an afternoon by the pool or beach read. No deep thoughts required.

The Tiger’s Wife, the debut novel of Serbian-American writer Téa Obreht, won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. It’s almost impossible to synopsize this book, or to quantify how very much I enjoyed it; it reminded me at times of The Cellist of Sarajevo in its imagery (set in this case in an unnamed Baltic country) and its hopefulness. I absolutely fell in love with the main character and her deep affectionate relationship with her grandfather, whose story really is a second main character. There is hardship and hope; history, legend, and superstition; unvarnished inhumanity and incredible life-affirming humanity in perfect juxtaposition. This is a book I’ll remember for a long time, and without any doubt the book I’d most highly recommend of all this I read this winter.


  1. Wow! I’m impressed how much you read. Actually, I’m impressed with anyone who reads! Not to mention that I got mentioned in your blog. That’s really neat. Gulp is the book that peaked my interest the most. Maybe I’ll pick it up. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That author has written a couple of other non-fiction books (one about dead bodies, called Stiff). A young pharmacist friend of our #2 son highly recommends her books.


  2. Thank you for this. Off to the library I go. I don’t read as much, or as quickly as you do, so these suggestions are always appreciated.
    Frohe Ostern, Rose and Ted. We enjoyed a rambunctious morning brunch with the granddaughters and parents, and now are enjoying a quiet evening. We need these quiet evenings, as you know. Stay well, you two.

    Liked by 1 person

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