THE BOOK OF FORM AND EMPTINESS

Ruth Ozeki’s  5th novel, and a book I couldn’t wait to get my hands on.

Synopsis –  amazon.com

One year after the death of his beloved musician father, thirteen-year-old Benny Oh begins to hear voices. The voices belong to the things in his house – a sneaker, a broken Christmas ornament, a piece of wilted lettuce. Although Benny doesn’t understand what these things are saying, he can sense their emotional tone; some are pleasant, a gentle hum or coo, but others are snide, angry and full of pain. When his mother develops a hoarding problem, the voices grow more clamorous.

At first Benny tries to ignore them, but soon the voices follow him outside the house, onto the street and at school, driving him at last to seek refuge in the silence of a large public library, where objects are well-behaved and know to speak in whispers. There, he falls in love with a mesmerising street artist with a smug pet ferret, who uses the library as her performance space. He meets a homeless philosopher-poet, who encourages him to ask important questions and find his own voice amongst the many.

And he meets his very own Book – a talking thing – who narrates Benny’s life and teaches him to listen to the things that truly matter.

The Book of Form and Emptiness blends unforgettable characters, riveting plot and vibrant engagement with everything from jazz to climate change to our attachment to material possessions. This is classic Ruth Ozeki – bold, humane and heartbreaking.

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but on finishing the book, I experienced a lingering  dis-satisfaction.

I enjoy Ruth Ozeki’s novels, and have no quarrel with her writing, or the difficult story line she pursued: grief, mental illness, coming of age (always tricky), homelessness; or the fact that she used a familiar trope, that of the energetic Zen nun who revives a decaying Zen temple and serves a dying master.

If the above sounds grim, be assured the book is not unremitting doom and gloom, there are vivid characters peopling the story, for example, the *Aleph aka Alice, who acts almost as a guardian angel over Benny as he navigates the darker side of the city, and the night-time mysteries of the Public Library

And Benny’s hapless mother Annabelle, who  unconsciously succumbs to hoarding because she’s overwhelmed by grief and circumstance.  I’ve watched, with horror, TV programmes on hoarders, but this is the first time I’ve encountered the illness in fiction. Ruth Ozeki is not afraid to tackle difficult topics of modern life.

A sub-theme of the story is that of the urban homeless, many of whom use the Library as a Daycare Centre – very necessary in the harsh North American winters.  For instance, there’s Slavoj, the drunken philosopher poet, obsessed with Walter Benjamin. He ‘s an influential figure in Benny’s Life, as is the enigmatic Aleph.

The novel is a long, meaty read and I think perhaps it was  the abrupt ending  that did not sit well with me after such a long, and detailed build-up. This said, don’t be put off the book, it’s a great read.

. * Not to forget the intriguing reference to the Aleph of the Borges short story.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Aleph_(short_story)

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BLISSFUL BROWSING

What a joy to be able to enter a Public Library, and spend time wandering amongst the shelves, stopping in front of the displays of new books, picking out a book to study the back blurb, or read a few pages!

Who would have thought, pre-Covid, how special this activity would become two years down the line? I missed many things during the hard Lockdowns, and visiting the Library was high on my list.

I had a glorious time at Koeberg Library, just browsing. It took me a while, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? There’s no substitute for holding a book in your hand, reading the reviews, flicking through the pages, reading the opening paragraph and the indecision : am I in the mood for this type of story? is the print too small or will I manage? have I had enough of this author ? should I give the author another chance? or – drat! I’ve read this one. Decisions, decisions.

Eventually I made my choices and here’s what I chose:

Heyns, Mulgrew and Winkler and South African writers. I’ve enjoyed Michiel Heyns’ books before. He’s an Afrikaans writer, but usually translates his own books. Luckily for me, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to enjoy his novels. And Matt Haig is an old favourite of mine, particularly one of his early – if not the earliest – book Whatever Happened to the Radleys? Its a wildly quirky novel about a family of vampires trying to reform their lifestyle and stop preying on the rest of us. Written, as I recall, in a deadpan style. I regret selling my copy.

Any comments or suggestions?

JANUARY 2022 READING ROUNDUP

My first read of 2022 was memorable. A debut novel by Zimbabwean author, Petina Gappah – The Book of Memory. See my review on 21 January, https://thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/2022/01/21/my-first-read-of

I followed it up with another very different, but spellbinding read by prolific Turkish author, Elif Shafak.

                                               

FICTION

10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World – Elif Shafak. What a marvelous story-teller  this Turkish Writer is – she has mastered the art. Leila is a street walker who is murdered,  and her fading consciousness reveals her five close friends, and how their relationships started and grew. All  the women are social outcasts, ostracized by rigid social norms, but vibrant human beings. The novel glitters with the Istanbul background, rich with sensual detail, and is an immersive read.  I loved it.

The Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom – John Boyne. An epic tale of humanity over two millennia, the themes of love, loss, vengeance, violence, fathers and sons, the dismal fate of women endlessly repeated. The constant change of country, background setting, and new cast of characters was confusing and exhausting. Not for me, but I’m sure Historical Fantasy fans will love the book.

The Authenticity Project – Clare Pooley.  A light read, set in London. “Desperate to confess the deep loneliness he feels, Julian begins The Authenticity   Project – a small, green notebook containing the truth about his life, to pass on and encourage others to share their own”. The results are explosive, dramatic, funny, sad, wildly unpredictable, involving recognisable, contemporary people; I was rooting for all of them. A  thoroughly enjoyable read. If you want a feel-good read, with a satisfying ending, this is it.

The Paper Palace – Miranda Cowley . Summer, sea, sun, sand, swimming, sex and family complications, including several dramatic and horrifying childhood incidents which extend tentacles into present adult lives. I’m tempted to label it as a Beach Read, but the writing deserves a better rating, due to the descriptive writing of the coastal area. Action and history unfold between the American East Coast states & NYC . Blurb used words like ‘immersive’ and ‘addictive’. An OK read for me.

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People –  Farahad Zama. Have I saved the best until last? Possibly. I always enjoy Indian novels, chiefly for their colour, rich, spicy atmosphere, peopled with characters who stand by their very decided opinions. Great insights into the Indian system of arranged marriages, such a foreign concept to the modern, Western world. But given our divorce rates, their system may have considerable merit. This novel ticked all the boxes: setting, characters, dialogue, plot, satisfying ending. And, I’m delighted to discover that Farahad Zama has written 4 more books in the series, all available on Kindle. I can’t wait!

All in all, a good start to my reading year. How has yours been ?

MY FIRST READ OF 2022

My first read of 2022 was memorable. A debut novel by Zimbabwean author, Petina Gappah – The Book of Memory.

Synopsis from Faber & Faber:  Memory, the narrator of The Book of Memory, is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder. As part of her appeal her lawyer insists that she write down what happened as she remembers it. The death penalty is a mandatory sentence for murder, and Memory is, both literally and metaphorically, writing for her life. As her story unfolds, Memory reveals that she has been tried and convicted for the murder of Lloyd Hendricks, her adopted father. But who was Lloyd Hendricks? Why does Memory feel no remorse for his death? And did everything happen exactly as she remembers?

Moving between the townships of the poor and the suburbs of the rich, and between the past and the present, Memory weaves a compelling tale of love, obsession, the relentlessness of fate and the treachery of memory.

Petina Gappah  paints an unforgettable picture of modern Zimbabwe, warts and all. Albinos live a perilous existence in Africa. They are often murdered for their body parts, used in traditional muti.  We have rural tradition colliding with modern urban life.  Tribal superstition playing out in an urban setting. The corruption of modern African dictatorships beating down its hapless citizens. Not to overlook the persistent  vexed question of homosexuality, and attitudes to mental illnesses,  in the African traditional  context.

Apart from these hefty themes which run throughout the book, PG also gives us evocative portraits of people living  under difficult circumstances,  chiefly Memory who narrates her  story through the lens of childhood. And then there are the prison warders at Chikurubi Prison. Tyrannical, newly converted Christian wardress Synodia, with her speech defect, still lingers in my mind. She’s a menacing, comic figure.

Despite the grim events and themes, the book has short chapters and is very readable.  I highly recommend you give it a try, if you’re interested in exploring contemporary African writers, and/or learning more about Zimbabwe.   

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The book had a very personal resonance for me, because I met our previous neighbour, Wally Stuttaford,  a few years after his release from Chikurubi.  It was deeply shocking to see this once confident, successful man who was an MP in the last Rhodesian government, reduced to a gaunt wreck, utterly haunted by his 308 days spent as a prisoner in Chikurubi, undergoing torture during this time. He died in South Africa in May 2000.  See links below.

https://www.upi.com/Archives/1982/10/14/Zimbabwe-re-arrests-acquitted-member-of-parliament/24644034160

A FEW BOOKISH THOUGHTS TO OPEN A NEW READING YEAR

I’m definitely ditching Goodreads in 2022. Apart from the fact it’s a  tiresome chore to log on to the site,  hunt up my books, then label my reads with their unhelpful star rating system, at year’s end GR never, but never, get my year-end total reads figure correct.  Reverting to my Stone Age tools i.e. my Book Journal and a ballpoint pen, I keep a running total of my reads.  It never coincides with GR’s figure.

I’ve flirted with the idea of swapping over to another electronic book app, but no, I’m done with book apps. One of my friends is a whizz at spreadsheets, and will set up a comprehensive spreadsheet for me. Trick is, of course, to keep adding the data.

Yet again I will be refusing all Reading Challenges, continue  abandoning any book that does not either entertain or inform me, and rambling through the Back Lists with a happy song on my lips.

I’m also debating whether I am finished with my Read more African Writers project. Last year I won a number of books via the Goethe Institute’s generous  Virtually Yours Zoom sessions, some of which were a great success, whilst others were not. I still have two recent  Indian Ocean novels* highlighted on my Wish List, which are very tempting, but on the whole, I think I’m done with the project.

And yet again, I will dive into my TBR shelf, which is actually very modest. I’ve read recent Book Bloggers’ posts wherein they admit to a hoard of +200 books. Einah! One good thing about the wretched Pandemic is that it’s kept me away from the bookshops and Charity Book Sales. Unfortunately, the online booksellers have been very obliging.

One good innovation last year, was registering with the LIBBY system, which the Cape Town Municipal Library system joined.  Such good news to be able to read e-books without having to fall into the capacious jaws of amazon.com .  

And finishing on a happy note: friends of mine are currently in the UK, and will be making forays into the Charity Book shops, with my Wish List added to their own. I can’t wait for them to return. Whenever I read UK Book Bloggers’ accounts of picking up book bargains for 50p per book, I could weep; we have no such bargains here.

So there we have it: no grand plans or target, just happy to be able to continue reading. Happy reading to everyone!

  • House of Rust –  Khadija Abdalla Bajaber  and Blue Dragonfly Sea – Yvonne  Oadihambo 

TAMING THE TBR

Title: The Shadow King

Author: Maaza  Mengistu

Published:  2019

Length: 428

What it’s about: Amazon synopsis:

A gripping novel set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.

With the threat of Mussolini’s army looming, recently orphaned Hirut struggles to adapt to her new life as a maid in Kidane and his wife Aster’s household. Kidane, an officer in Emperor Haile Selassie’s army, rushes to mobilize his strongest men before the Italians invade. His initial kindness to Hirut shifts into a flinty cruelty when she resists his advances, and Hirut finds herself tumbling into a new world of thefts and violations, of betrayals and overwhelming rage. Meanwhile, Mussolini’s technologically advanced army prepares for an easy victory. Hundreds of thousands of Italians―Jewish photographer Ettore among them―march on Ethiopia seeking adventure.

What follows is a gorgeously crafted and un-putdownable exploration of female power, with Hirut as the fierce, original, and brilliant voice at its heart. In incandescent, lyrical prose, Maaza Mengiste breathes life into complicated characters on both sides of the battle line, shaping a heartrending, indelible exploration of what it means to be a woman at war.

When I got the book: August 2020

How I acquired the book:  Birthday gift vouchers

Why I want to read it:  During my “Read more African authors” period. Plus the many rave reviews.

Lisa, at Book Shelf Fantasieshttps://bookshelffantasies.com/2022/01/ – hosts a weekly Wednesday feature called Shelf Control, which prompted me to write this post. Thanks for the wake-up call, Lisa – much needed.

READING ROUND-UP DECEMBER 2021

FICTION

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke. An elegant concept, and elegantly constructed in the telling. A Chinese-box sort of novel, gradually revealing its secrets. Curious as to the title, I googled the Italian Piranes, which helped my understanding and enjoyment of the book. A wildly different novel, that will  haunt me for some time to come.

A Mumbai Murder Mystery – Meeti Shroff-Shah. The thing I most enjoyed were the  descriptions of the mouth watering food served frequently to  the Jain family that are involved in the murder mystery. Sure, I puzzled over  the whodunnit aspect, but the background and setting stood out for me. I hope Ms SS  gives us another murder mystery  soon.

The Bear – Andrew Krivak. A Re-read. Just as moving, the second time around. The natural world continues its age old cycles of  birth, life and death, the seasons change, the equinoxes wax  and wane, and so does human life. An adult fable elegantly written in sparse prose. Probably a masterpiece.

What are you going Through – Sigrid Nunez. A thoughtful, reflective quiet novel about friendship,love, death and dying. Wise and  compassionate but not an easy read. Fans of Literary Novels and Sigrid Nunez will enjoy the novel.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – Barbara Comyns. A Virago Press reprint. The two things I enjoyed about the book were the catchy title and striking cover. Other than that,  London in the 1930s, Bohemian artists’ life, poverty, children, selfish, immature characters did not appeal. The book was promoted as funny, but didn’t tickle my funnybone. Fortunately the book was a quick, short read.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Café – Toshikazu Kawaguchi. Appropriately, my last read of 2021, came from my TBR shelf. On my second attempt to read the book , I reached the last page, but with relief.  Whether due to  the author’s natural style, or the translation from Japanese, the story was stilted, which was a pity, because the premise of the book is time travel. Visitors to the café can travel backwards or forwards in time, but must return before the coffee in the cup turns cold. Four stories of guilt, grief and regret unfold: husbands, lovers, sons, surrogate fathers all wanting to make amends, or explain . The book was a big hit in 2019, but not with me. You can’t win ‘em all.

NON FICTION

Dear Reader. The Comfort and Joy of Books –  Cathy Rentzenbrink.  I devoured the book,  what a joy to share Cathy’s love of books and reading!  She’s my soul-mate.  A book to keep, treasure, and re-read many times. A must for booklovers.

Underland  -Robert MacFarlane. I’ve found my quintessential Desert Island Book. If permitted only one book for my Desert Island sojourn, I wouldn’t hesitate to pack Underland. It is a marvellous mosaic of science, history, culture, personal memoir, a veritable treasure chest of facts, travel writing and stories. A slow, thoughtful, delightful read.  Highly recommended.

Bon Appetit! – Peter Mayle. With his customary charm, the foodie writer par excellence,  shares his travels around his beloved  France, visiting Festivals and food fairs en route. The book is sub titled: Travels through France with Knife, Fork and Corkscrew. A neat summation of a delightful, atmospheric read. Perfect armchair travel with a light touch.

DECEMBER DIPPER

Zen Dust.  A Journey Home through the back roads of South Africa – Anthony Osler. A couple of pages daily is balm to the soul.  A mixture of gentle humour, wisdom , travel notes, the occasional poem or haiku fragment, together with elegant black and white photographs.  Occasionally a glimpse of a beloved teacher or local Sangha member that I know,  make the book personal for me.  Another book to treasure .

MY 2021 READING HITS

My 2021 reading year was brightened by the  discovery of three new authors, who illuminated my year in bursts of glory. 

Novelist Nicola Barker –  endlessly inventive, wildly creative, completely original. Thus far I’ve read and loved: 5 Miles from Outer Hope, I am Sovereign and The Cauliflower. I can’t wait to read more of her work.

Humorist Ben Schott – who has written two brilliant homages to the Master of British humour: P G Wodehouse. I own Jeeves and the King of Clubs and Jeeves Takes a Chance. Schott has channelled  The Master’s style, frothy plots and witless characters; and of course featuring  the brainy Jeeves. Both books were a tonic in a difficult year.

SF Writer Becky Chambers –  her Wayfarer series has provided hours of entertainment, plus intriguing ideas, fresh possibilities, with  future scenarios peopled by vivid characters. Her series has a strong feminine slant, and not a raygun in sight. This is thoughtful, philosophical young writer with a fresh take on the Universe. She has taken SF writing into a  fresh dimension.

On the Non Fiction side, I discovered Robert MacFarlane, via his wide ranging  book, Underland, which is a rich and varied reading experience. I  knew RMF was a Nature writer, but I had no idea that his approach was so eclectic,  including  elements of History, Myth, the Anthropocene, and  Travel, to mention but a few. His book is both literary and scholarly (it took ten years to write) but the writing is lyrical,  vivid, thrilling ….  I shall treasure and re-read the book.

And the Misses? I decided to let them sink quietly into the depths of my hard-drive. Of course I had Did Not Finish and Definitely Not for Me reads during the year, but after a hard year I’ve no wish to re-visit past disappointments.

 Ten Terrific Reads 

  • Motion of the Body Through Space – Lionel Shriver (novel) #1
  • Little Family – Ishmail Beah  (African novel)
  • Hum if you Don’t Know the Words – Bianca Marais (South African  novel)
  • The 100 Years of Lenni and Margo – Marianne Cronin (novel)
  • Patron Saint of Liars – Ann Patchett  (novel)
  • Word Freaks – Stefan Fatsis (Non-Fic) Scrabble
  • The Salt Path – Raynor Winn (NF) memoir
  • Look at Me – Nataniel (NF) memoir
  • Vesper Flights – Helen MacDonald (NF) nature writing
  • The Library Book – Susan Orlean (NF) Libraries!

My book of the year. After some agonising I am nominating the novel Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke. Apart from the strange and wildly original story, the book itself is a thing of beauty with the  metallic copper lettering on the black cover, plus a dust-jacket executed in the same black/copper theme, plus an elegant faun playing his Pan Pipe, atop a slender classical column.

The book offered a missing person mystery as a sub-theme, but the major theme was : the existence of a different corporeal reality, into which people from our world are inserted. Followed by another theme: what is personal identity ? and another question: what constitutes mental derangement? A haunting read. .

Wishing my readers an enormous pile of gift wrapped books during the Festive Season, and another splendid reading year ahead in 2022. May we all be safe, and be well.

2021 YEAR-END BOOKISH REFLECTIONS

Could you sum up your nomination for your  Most Memorable  Book of the Year in a brief, 60 second voice note? If you could, then perhaps you entered Cape Talk Radio’s Book Club competition which announced the winning entries yesterday. Dictating a brief summary put readers in the running for a 15 book hamper to the winning entry. 

I listened to the selection of entries which revealed a mainly female readership, only three men entered  their choicess. Perhaps Cape Talk edited the entries, but I would guess that  women form the bulk of our national readership.  I’ve noticed the same phenomenon on Facebook reading group pages, nearly all the posts are from women.

The winning entry came from a  woman who  nominated Rise, by  Siya Kolisi ( the Springbok rugby captain). No surprise, because South Africa is sports mad, and rugby mad in particular.  Categories  were limited to kids’ books, Sports Books, non-fiction, fiction .   

Sports: that’s one of the genres I never read: I read widely, but I do exclude Romance and  Horror,  plus I tend to avoid historicals, and I seldom read crime.

At this time of year there are lists galore and posts by the dozen on the theme: Best Book/s of 2021. I read many of them, always interested in other people’s choices and  reviews . In fact, I post my own annual Best Books of the Year on my blog.  

I keep a running list of Best Reads throughout the year, but its difficult to cut it down to the best Ten Books.  Many readers opt for this number, which is illogical, given our 12 month calendar system. Maybe December is a bad month, too much shopping and partying,  and perhaps  in  the height of summer, even  dedicated readers go outdoors.

I refuse to set annual Reading Target.  Reading is not a competitive sport, for goodness sake!  According to my Book Journal I read 103 books in 2021. Consulting my tatty Journal, via Stone Age technology, i.e. pen and paper – Excel spreadsheets continue to elude me – I totted up the totals and carried out a rough (very rough!) survey. 

My reading was predominantly Fiction, with a small non-Fiction component, consisting mainly of Memoir and Nature writing. Otherwise it was Fiction all the way. Horror, Sport and  Romance didn’t get a look in, but General novels and Literary novels featured large.

I read far too many cozy mysteries, plus more SF than in previous years, and I lay the blame squarely on the pandemic. 

Because I read for pleasure and entertainment, this earnest analysis doesn’t matter one little bit. I read some spectacular books this year, which will be listed in my next post. Watch this space.

READING ROUND UP NOVEMBER 2021

FICTION

Transcription – Kate Atkinson. The murky world of spies in Britain, during WWII and into the post-war cold war period. The opaque, nothing is as it seems atmosphere and characters kept me glued to the pages. This was a read-in-one-sitting book. Recommended.

A Shot in the Dark. A Constable Twitten Mystery – Lynne Truss. Lynne Truss is a British columnist, writer and broadcaster. She’s produced a hilarious whodunnit, set in Brighton, that combines cosiness with cake, a series of murders, whilst  taking  a satirical swipe at  police procedure. Its such good fun that you don’t even notice the wildly improbable plot. Highly enjoyable.

Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers. The life stories of five characters, Exodans living in the Fleet i.e. a huge colony of human migrants  in space. The book explores  not only the philosophical ideas of an exodus from dying planet earth and  re-starting in space, but also the logistical minutiae of surviving generationally in space.  Many fascinating ideas chanelled through the 5 disparate characters: one older woman, two middle aged women  , one  young male adult, and a teenage boy. Not to mention a many tentacled Harmagian cultural anthropologist on a visit. I’m a fan of Becky Chambers’ approach to SF.

To be Taught if Fortunate – Becky Chamber. A novella relates the story of  four astronauts on a 4-planet space exploration mission ,that ends starkly despite  their success. Thought-provoking and philosophical. Recommended.   

Transient Desires – Donna Leon. Good old Comissario Guido Brunetti is still solving crime in Venice, this time in the brutal world of human trafficking. Donna Leon always delivers an atmospheric, flavourful whodunnit and this book ticked all the boxes. Enjoyable, despite the grim subject matter.

The Tearoom – Gretchen Haley. Tubby Reddy is a cook, a husband, father, a dreamer in the little coastal town of Usendleleni, Kwa Zulu Natal.  He ‘s in love with Yogi, who works in his kitchen; he dreams of another life with her, away from his volatile, pious wife Lynette. He’s waited patiently until both his kids are adults, and is poised to start  living his dream life , but …. You will have to read on. An original novel, featuring the KZN Indian community. The bittersweet ending was bravely authentic  – life seldom provides neat, tidy solutions. Recommended.

The Victory Garden – Rhys Bowen. A feel-good read set in WWI Britain. Middle class  Emily joins the Land Girls to her parents’ horror, and gains independence, a lover, a knowledge of gardening and herbs, and ultimately freedom on her own terms. Plus wartime romance and tragedy. An enjoyable light read.

NON-FICTION

The Library Book – Susan Orlean. What a marvellous book! It relates the history of the Los Angeles Public Library, a seemingly  dull topic but as Adrian Liang, Amazon Editor, says: Orlean can peer through the keyhole of a seemingly picayune topic and see endless fascination on the other side of the door.  Every page offered colourful anecdotes, library history both local and global, plus a detailed account of the devastating fire that swept through the Library in 1986 inflicting devastation in its path. A must read for readers and book lovers.

P.S. The book is worth reading for the history of eccentric journalist, adventurer, Charles Lummis who was appointed City Librarian in 1905 – despite having no prior training in the field! The Library Board  summarily dismissed the current City  Librarian, Mary Jones, simply because she was a woman – infuriating to read this! However,  Lummis proved to be a mixed blessing. To describe him as a colourful character is an understatement. The Library Board should have stuck with their female Librarian!

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Fletcher_Lummis