Book Review: The Dig by John Preston (Other Press, 2007)

At some point during the pandemic, my husband and I watched the Netflix original film The Dig (Netflix, 2021) starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan. We were both quite taken with it. I immediately googled it and found that it was based upon a work of historical fiction of the same name by John Preston. My next step was to request a copy of the novel from my library.

After months of waiting in line for a copy of the novel, and then several weeks spent reading other things for NetGalley, I finally opened Preston’s slim book. What I found between the covers of this battered library paperback was a story just as intriguing and charming as the movie. Preston’s fictionalized retelling of the story of an archeological dig in Suffolk, England, was inspired by his learning that his aunt had actually participated in the 1939 excavation of an Anglo Saxon burial ship, discovered in a mound on farmland owned by Mrs. Edith Pretty.

Peggy Piggott, portrayed by Downton Abbey‘s Lily James in the film, was on her honeymoon with her first husband when he is called to Suffolk to participate in the dig. She is asked to help as her smaller and lighter frame was more beneficial in the excavated and delicate remains of the ship. Piggott was born Cecily Margaret Preston, and after divorcing her husband in 1956, had a second, unsuccessful marriage to Luigi Guido, a Sicilian. In her later years, she and her first husband, archeologist Stuart Piggott, reunited to share a post with a historical society in Wiltshire.

With the country on the brink of entering WWII as a backdrop, Preston tells his story in alternating 1st person narratives in the voices of Basil Brown, Edith Pretty, and Peggy Piggott, starting and ending with Basil Brown, whom Edith Pretty, the wealthy landowner, has hired to conduct the initial dig. The story moves along swiftly, with the main characters guiding the reader through the ups and downs of archeology as well as the ups and downs of relationships of the characters involved in the dig.

One of the things that I found so charming in the book is the genteel way in which Preston handles the relationship between Mrs. Pretty and her servants, both those inside the great house and those who work for her outside the house. They are all very protective of Mrs. Pretty, who was widowed at a young age and left with a small boy to raise on her own, and Mrs. Pretty, who by all accounts is acknowledged as the woman in charge, is truly gracious and respectful to them in return. In the book, Mrs. Pretty appears to be suffering from some malady that is not discussed. In the film this is represented more directly. Another slight difference is that Preston handles his aunt’s first marriage with great discretion, while the film does pull away the curtain a bit more.

Usually, I recommend that you should read the book before seeing the movie, and on only a few occasions have I veered from that. One notable exception is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. The Hitchcock film is every bit as good as the movie, and I don’t think it matters which comes first to someone unfamiliar with them. The Dig will be another exception to my rule. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book, even though I was “forced” to visualize the characters in the book with the faces and voices of the actors from the film, something I usually do not enjoy. The actors cast in their roles so perfectly fit the characters in the book it was no hardship at all to continue with them in their parts.

If travel is still out of the question for you due to COVID restrictions, take a literary trip to the countryside of England while reading Preston’s fine book, and finish off your getaway with a viewing of the Netflix film. You won’t be sorry.

HSPT Prep Course

Do you have a rising 8th grader planning on applying for admission to an area Catholic high school? If so, the High School Placement Test is required at many of the DC area Catholic high schools. Three of the five sections of the test are language arts-based, which just happens to be my specialty! Sign up for my virtual prep course by emailing me at michardillo@gmail.com.

Interview: Eman Quotah, author of Bride of the Sea

See my most recent published piece for Washington Independent Review of Books: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/an-interview-with-eman-quotah

Holding Hands for 32 Years

From almost the exact moment that we became a couple, my husband has held my hand. If we are sitting in different chairs on either side of a table watching tv at night, he will reach across the table and hold out his hand for me to grasp. When we are out together in the car, and the traffic isn’t too bad, he will hold his hand out for me to take it for a few minutes. If we get out of the car to go into a restaurant or store (you know, in the before times), he will reach behind to clasp my hand in his as we cross the street or walk up a set of steps, even just one step from the driveway to the sidewalk of the shopping center. He always walks slightly ahead of me “to block traffic” which is a long-standing joke of his.

We had a very small wedding, in my Louisiana hometown, about 60 miles southeast of New Orleans, just family and a few very close friends of our parents. Our only non-relative friends present were people who participated in the wedding itself: two musician friends, my maid of honor. The size of the guest list had a little to do with money as neither of us had any, and my parents were paying for the flowers, invitations, stipends to the church and musicians, and a small reception at my parents’ house after. It also had to do with the fact that my husband and I grew up in small towns about 100 miles apart from one another. At the time of our wedding, my husband had just completed grad school in Virginia and I was working and living in Maryland. We didn’t want to burden his Virginia friends and my Maryland friends with a decision of whether to fly to Louisiana or not, especially since my hometown really had no hotel, motel, or inn. So, rather than hurt feelings by inviting some but not all, we just didn’t invite anyone outside of our families.

Neither of us minded how small the wedding and reception were, because for us, it was all about just the two of us starting our life together. Nothing else really mattered. I bought a tea-length dress off the rack on my lunch hour. We took the bus to a nearby mall for him to buy a new dress shirt and tie for a suit he already owned. But, I remember with great clarity all of the Mass, us holding hands during our vows, our hands together when we exchanged rings, and even holding hands during the homily, which I am sure was frowned upon in my very conservative hometown Catholic church.

A family friend from my hometown had become a photographer, and he took our wedding photos. Once when I was showing them to a friend here in Maryland, she remarked that Tom is holding my hand in every single photo, and often, he is holding my one hand with both of his hands. After the wedding, we took a picture under the giant oak tree in my parents’ yard, the breeze from the Mississippi blowing in our hair, and yep, he is holding my hand in both of his, while I hold my bouquet in the other. When our parents offered up toasts in my mom’s living room, we are each holding a glass of champagne, and he is again holding my free hand.

June 10, 1989, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Port Sulphur, LA

Once my friend mentioned it, I couldn’t help but look for it in all photos of us after that. Sure enough, in almost every photo we have taken celebrating our anniversary having dinner out over the years, he has reached across the table and taken my hand just before the photo is taken.

Mykonos, Rockville, MD – 26th anniversary

I read an article once that said you should hold hands with your partner when you are arguing, as it will remind both of you of the bond you share, rather than the difference that is causing the argument. Full disclosure: we do not do this, and we argue just like everyone else. But, still, I wonder if Tom’s frequent reaching for my hand is one of the reasons why we are happily together after 32 years, even after the 24/7 together time of the pandemic.

Our parents (two-handed clasp here!)

I have another friend who offered up a more cynical thought on this subject. She said that he is holding on to me, like a possession, to keep me from getting away. I laughed, but inside I was thinking, “Get away from what? I’m right where I want to be!”

During the pandemic when we didn’t go anywhere, and especially to the no-appointment hair salon we had been going to for decades that was always swarming with people and chairs so close together, Tom’s hair got longer and longer. He’s Italian on both sides, so it’s thick and wavy, and in it’s longer “style” it could qualify as what we used to call “big hair” back in the 1980s. He thinks he looks like Elvis; I think I like it better short and neat, but it’s his hair so I’m mostly mum on the subject. However, now that he is back in the office every day, he has told me about all the comments he is getting about his hair, mostly compliments on the longer length, and mostly FROM WOMEN he works with. I’m not really the jealous type, but . . . I’m not entirely crazy about this situation, lol. I feel like showing up to his work one day and having him walk me around the office while I hold his hand.

Tom’s maternal grandmother (still holding my hand!)

Today, June 10th, is our 32nd wedding anniversary. We started it the same way we do every day now that I’m no longer teaching, having coffee together. And, as you might have guessed, he did reach out and briefly hold my hand across the table before he left for work. We’ll have dinner out tomorrow night, ask a server to take our picture, and of course, we’ll be holding hands. Happy 32 to us!

Book Review: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Random House, October 2021)

My last in-person visit to my local public library was on Thursday, March 12, 2020, to pick up a bag of books “just in case” the whole coronavirus thing was really a thing. Ha! The K-8 elementary school where I taught sent us home that day with instructions to be prepared to teach via Zoom starting on Monday, March 16, 2020. Little did we know!

Standing at the new fiction shelves, doing my favorite kind of shopping (not a shoe girl, a handbag girl, or even a jewelry girl when it comes to shopping), one of the librarians walked by and said, “Have you read Olive Kitteridge?” I told him no, and went to look for it, but their copy was checked out.

Fast forward to November of 2020, when I had long ago exhausted the bag of books from the library and had started to use Libby/Overdrive to feed my obsession with reading, I remembered that conversation with the librarian and downloaded Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Within just a few pages I realized that I wasn’t reading an ordinary book written by an ordinary author. This was something completely different. I was torn between flying through it in one setting or dragging it out to make it last longer.

Because I was late to the Strout party, I was lucky enough to download its sequel, Olive Again, just a few months later. After I blew through that one, I I read I Am Lucy Barton. Once I was fully vaccinated, I made my maiden voyage to my favorite used bookstore and bought copies of all the Strout titles there. I’m so happy I have some from her back list to still read: Anything is Possible (which I think is part of the Lucy Barton storyline), The Burgess Boys, Abide with Me, and Amy and Isabelle. Needless to say, I am a fan for life.

And then, NetGalley listed Strout’s latest novel, Oh William! Of course I requested it immediately. And just like the others, I could not put it down. I don’t know how she does it, but it only takes a paragraph or two and I’m fully immersed in whatever world Elizabeth Strout chooses to create.

To be honest, Oh William! to me is quite different from Olive Kitteridge and her sequel. Where I found Olive’s story to be inspirational and uplifting, I found Lucy and William to be raw and disturbing. How can I like both ends of the spectrum? Well, I guess that is the magic of Strout’s writing for me.

In promotional materials for Oh William! Strout said it was inspired by the deep secrets being unearthed by the DNA ancestry testing now available. While that is one of the story arcs in Oh William!, I didn’t consider it to be the main one. For me, the book is a continuation of the continuous untangling and re-tangling of the relationship between Lucy and William. In both Lucy Barton and Oh William, there were things I loved about both Lucy and William, but there were also things I hated about both those characters as well. Just like in real life, nothing is all good or all bad, and these two people are perfect examples of that. Strout even has a quote on her website that drives this home, “It is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives.” Murky completely describes Lucy and William’s relationship, where each individual is a character in the story and their relationship is another character entirely.

For fans of Elizabeth Strout, Oh William! will be another home run. If you are new to Elizabeth Strout’s work, may I suggest you start with Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009. There you will find the brilliance of how Strout intertwines thirteen short stories with Olive being the constant that ties it all together in her flawed and fascinating way.

Thank you to NetGalley for an ARC of this new novel.

Book Review: The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey (Soho Crime, June, 2021)

Author Sujata Massey brings us once again to 1920s colonial India with the third in a series featuring protagonist Perveen Mistry, the first female lawyer in Bombay, India. I discovered the series while recuperating from a broken ankle during the summer of 2019. As I was house-bound (relying on crutches and/or a knee scooter to get around) for over twelve weeks, I gobbled up books about foreign places from different historical time periods. Massey’s were some of my favorites.

I know quite a lot about the UK during this time period, thanks to a lifelong obsession with the British royal family, however, I knew almost nothing about India, other than Queen Victoria (who reigned from 1837-1901) being named Empress of India during her reign. While England held most of India beginning in the early 1600s, the Massey series takes place in the last decades of colonization, just before India’s independence from England in 1947.

In books 1-3 of the series George V is monarch of England. For a quick look at the last four monarchs, to orient yourself as to time periods, see my graphic below. It’s interesting (at least to me, lol) to note that in the year 1936 there were THREE monarchs: the death of George V in January, the abdication of Edward VIII in December, and the ascension to the throne of George VI in December, all in 1936, yet there has been only one monarch on the throne since 1952: Elizabeth II, who on September 9, 2015, surpassed Queen Victoria as the longest ruling monarch. Victoria ruled for 63 years and nine months while Elizabeth II as of this date-May 25, 2021-has ruled for 69 years, 3 months and 2 weeks.

Book 1 in the series, The Widows of Malabar Hill (Soho Crime, 2018), introduces the reader to Perveen Mistry, and her family’s law firm. (Perveen does first appear in a prequel novelette which was published in a story anthology called The Usual Santas, Soho Crime, 2017.) In this book, which moves at a fast pace with strong writing, everyone must come to terms with Perveen’s ground-breaking entry as a female into the practice of law where she is sent to investigate a will being disputed by the three wives of a wealthy Muslim mill owner. Only she can handle the legal work in this case as the three wives live in purdah and only speak to males through screens like nuns living in a cloistered convent.

Book 2, The Satapur Moonstone (Soho Crime, 2019), takes place outside of Bombay, deep in the remote Sahyadri mountains, where Perveen is sent to settle a dispute with the females of the Satapur royal family, once again something she is uniquely qualified for as the women in the family also live in purdah and do not speak to men outside their family.

Book 3, The Bombay Prince, takes place in November of 1921, when all of Bombay is in an uproar over the pending visit of Prince Edward (later to become Edward VIII in 1936 for just ten months before his abdication). Bombay is divided between those who are seeking independence for India (including Mahatma Gandhi) and those who wish to remain under British rule. Perveen is swept up into the mystery of a female college student’s suspicious death, which occurs just as the Prince’s entourage is making its way through the streets in front of the college. Was the student murdered because of her secret involvement with a radical student group? Did she commit suicide as a political statement over the Prince’s visit? Did a family member silence her for going against her father’s wishes?

One of the things I love most about this series is learning about the history of India during this time period, but also about the Parsi, people of the Zoroastrian faith who fled Iran following the Muslim conquest of Persia in the 7th century. Perveen’s family is Parsi, and through her and the cases she and her father work on, the reader learns about the unique customs of the Parsi in India. Given the time period and the conservative religious nature of the Parsi people, Perveen adheres to a strict social etiquette between men and women, as well as between women of different ages and social classes. This also adds interesting texture to these cozy mysteries. I also love the relationship Perveen and her family have with their servants, particularly Mustafa the butler and John the cook.

The Bombay Prince was very good, demonstrating an ongoing confidence of Perveen in her work and appreciation of it by her father, further development of the friendship of Perveen and Alice, good news for Perveen’s brother and sister-in-law, and a continuation of a relationship between Perveen and a British gentleman that started in book 2. However, I did not find the pacing as quick and exciting as book 1, nor did the writing seem as sharp in this third installment. In trying to find the killer of the young college student, Perveen racks up quite a list of suspects, and the trails of each of these red herrings began to blur a bit for me. In the resolution of the plot, I felt as though there were many loose threads still dangling from the red herrings. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I look forward to Perveen’s next adventure, where I hope her British gentleman becomes a more prominent part of her personal story.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an e-book of this novel pre-publication.

Grammar for Grownups

Good writing is writing that is clear and concise. Not all verbs are interchangeable. Check out this graphic that shows some of the most commonly confused verbs and how to use them correctly.

Need a grammar refresher course? Contact me for info on fun and helpful Zoom sessions to improve your writing!

Source: https://me.me/i/confusing-verbs-lend-borrow-vs-to-give-something-for-a-ec66c70d2496477cb3faf7a2c7541d4b

Book Review: The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson

I’ve been a fan of Kwame Alexander since I read his Newbery Award winning novel The Crossover. “Fan” might be a bit of an understatement. I confess that I follow him on all his social media platforms, have a Google alert set up for news about him, follow him on Amazon and on Goodreads – basically I could practically tell you what he ate for breakfast this morning. (Just kidding…no need to get a restraining order or anything like that.)

Reading The Crossover changed me as a teacher. It changed me as a reader. And, it most certainly changed me as a writer. In fact, I wrote about my experience with this ground-breaking book for Nerdy Book Club’s blog. Initially, I incorporated The Crossover into my 7th grade curriculum to try to reach a group of reluctant readers. Boy, did I do that, and then some. If you haven’t read The Crossover and its prequel Rebound, I highly recommend you do so. 

Just a week prior to the shut down of life as we knew it in March of 2020, I had the opportunity to hear Kwame Alexander speak to a group of school librarians. The setting was a high school library (one of my favorite places on earth), and the star of the evening was Alexander himself, along with his musician friend, Randy Preston, who plays background guitar for Kwame Alexander’s appearances. You know, sort of like a rockstar on tour with his backup musicians. He talked about his writing life, his books, his family, his recent move to London to be “poet in residence” at the international school his daughter attends. The icing on the cake was his reading of his most recent book, The Undefeated, a picture book illustrated by Kadir Nelson. 

When I say “reading,” it was more like performance art. Alexander doesn’t just read his work, he breathes life into it so that it dances and sings all around you, sort of like staring up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and experiencing Michelangelo’s famous painting The Creation of Adam, where with one touch of his finger, God gives life to Adam. Am I fangirling a bit too much to compare Kwame Alexander to Michelangelo? Maybe, but when it comes to getting kids to read for pleasure, to getting kids hooked on books, to creating stories where kids of color can find  likenesses of themselves, I don’t feel embarrassed at all by stalking following the career path and creative brilliance of Kwame Alexander. 

The Undefeated, with its gloriously bold illustrations, tells the stories of Black Americans who persevered and endured to become the artists, athletes, and activists who brought color to the history of this great country. In the pages of this picture book you will find the never quit attitudes of MLK, Jr., Maya Angelou, Jesse Owens, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, and more. The illustrations jump off the page at you, and the words – like poetry – envelop you and propel you forward in time. 

Picture books are not just for kids. If you are a middle school or high school teacher, The Undefeated can be wonderfully paired with studying slavery or the Civil Rights Movement or analyzing MLK, Jr.’s “I Had a Dream Speech.” Reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? It works great to set the stage for that. Looking for “official” validation of this work of art? How about a Caldecott Medal, the Coretta Scott King Award, and a Newbery Honor Award? Sure, this book also ticks all the boxes for Black History Month, but why wait for February? Read it now. Experience it now. Breathe life into its words and its portraits of these movers and shakers, these “dreamers and doers” as Alexander puts it, who were, in fact, The Undefeated. 

Book Review: Twenty-one Truths About Love by Matthew Dicks

This book was just not for me. Some readers have noted that the format was not to their liking, but I didn’t mind the story unfolding in list format. I’ve read other books not told in traditional narrative prose, such as Bridget Jones’s Diary told in journal entries and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen told in emails and inter-office memos, and enjoyed the newness of both of those. However, the content of this book was a different story. While I love novels about bookstores and booksellers, there wasn’t enough of that in this book to hold my interest, along side the lists of the less savory parts of Dan’s life. In fact, I just didn’t like the main character Dan enough to care about his lists. Not every book is for every reader, and I’m happy to read another of Matthew Dicks’ books to see if they suit me better!

Thanks to NetGalley for the e-book of this novel.

Book Review: Learning to Talk to Plants by Marta Orriols (Pushkin Press, June 2021)

From the publisher: “By turns devastating and darkly funny, Learning to Talk to Plants is a piercingly honest portrayal of grief – and of the many ways to lose someone.”

The publisher’s quote above really says it all for this book, at least for me. I rated this book a 4/5, mostly because it was so painful to read. I personally didn’t find the dark humor noted above, but there was quite a bit I found devastating.

Marta Orriols has truly taken the reader to a dark place, albeit she works herself out of it and into a better place. The writing is strong, however, there were times when I was unsure who she was talking to, or if it was a flashback vs. the present time. Since it is written in first person, protagonist Paula, a neonatal physician, is often talking to herself, to the object of her grief, or to a coworker. Because everything in the novel becomes marked by “before X happened” or “after X happened,” flashbacks taken out of present time but still written in present tense are sometimes a bit confusing.

The book is peppered with medical jargon, most of which is self-explanatory taken in context, but it seems realistic for a doctor to speak—and think—that way, even when we hear her inner dialogue. I found Paula’s professional life, also filled with darkness and loss, to be interesting. I was not as intrigued by her post-trauma love life and attempts at returning to the vitality of her pre-trauma life.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an e-book version of this new novel.