"Aunt Dimity's Christmas"

Aunt Dimity's Christmas by Nancy Atherton

This is apparently part of a series of "Aunt Dimity" books that I'd never heard of till now. I bought it online mainly because the title sounded sweet and Anne-of-green-gable-ish, the perfect formula for a Christmas story. It wasn't quite what I expected.

It started ordinarily enough, but took a surprising turn when the main character, Lori Shepherd, sat down in the study of her house with a blue book open on her lap and read as the deceased Dimity's handwriting began to appear on the page. Yes, indeed. Dimity is dead. She communicates with Lori by writing her thoughts on the blank pages of this one particular book. Not your typical Christmas story.

The plot built around this oddity is quite good. I liked the characters and thought them plausible and well written, and the story had no problem holding my attention. It was quite interesting but I think it could have been done successfully without the input of dear departed Dimity. I didn't find that she added much to the story.

Had I started this series at the beginning I'm sure I wouldn't have found this book so peculiar and if you are interested that's where I'd suggest you start because jumping in mid-stream with this one is just too strange.

A Merry Christmas To You!


The best words I have ever heard to describe what Christmas means to me come from two well known Christmas Carols, songs we know so well that it's easy to lose their meaning. The first is It Came Upon A Midnight Clear and I'm writing out the lyrics here in hopes that even one person may stumble upon this page and in a quiet moment be encouraged.


It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men, from Heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing,
And ever over its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife and hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!

For lo! the days are hastening on, by prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.

The other carol that means so much to me is O Little Town Of Bethlehem. There is one verse that answers all the questions I have ever had about Christmas. When I was a young girl and learning the harsh realities of life I used to ask what possible difference a baby born so many hundreds of years ago could make in my life today or in the lives of ordinary people all over the world. In these words I find the answer, that though Christmas began long ages ago, it did not end then:

How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given,
So God imparts to human hearts the wonders of His heaven.
No ear may hear Him coming, but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.

And so, with meek souls everywhere I celebrate today, and with God's help everyday, the wondrous gift of love and light, Jesus.

God bless us everyone!

"Christmas On Mill Street"

Christmas On Mill Street by Joseph Walker

I loved this little book! There are similarities to the last one I read, "Wishin' And Hopin' ", and to the movie "A Christmas Story", but I guess that's inevitable if you read enough Christmas books and watch enough Christmas movies, which I do. 

This one is about young Sam Andrews whose family has recently moved to Utah from Arizona. He's trying hard to fit in at school, where the other boys are all talking about sledding down the hill to beat all hills.....Mill Street. It's a sharp drop with two very tricky turns, and before Sam really knows what he's doing, he hears himself agreeing to try it, though he has never been on a sled or even seen snow.

Sam has one hope that keeps him believing he can do it - the hope of getting a shiny new "Flexible Flyer" sled for Christmas. With a sled like that he knows he can do it. And besides, he has a secret weapon in Clara Morgan, a woman who gives the kids shivers, but who knows the secret of mastering Mill Street hill.

I've got two short Christmas books left that I hope to finish before the end of the year. I have a feeling that by next year I won't be able to remember any of these books from the others. I'm already getting the characters mixed up. There's an up side to that though - they'll all seem like "new" books again next year (one of the few perks of aging!).

If you get a chance to read this, do. It delivers everything that great cover promises.

" Wishin' and Hopin' "

Wishin' And Hopin' by Wally Lamb

The year is 1964 and Felix Funicello is a ten year old fifth grader living in small town Connecticut. He attends Catholic school where there are lots of rules and kids to break them. His parents operate a lunch counter at the local bus station which brings some interesting characters into his life, and at home he has two older sisters who tolerate him, but just barely.

Felix is like other boys; he has his ups and downs and makes good choices and the other kind. He knows and uses a few bad words, he's learning about things like french kissing and he laughs at dirty jokes even when he doesn't know what they mean.  He's smaller than the other boys his age but on the other hand he has something they don't have: his third cousin is famous actress Annette Funicello, whose posters line the wall at the lunch counter.

The story begins at some point in the fall and leads up to the Christmas Concert at Felix's school. If that sounds a little like "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" by Barbara Robinson that's because it has a similar story line. In both you get some background on the families and become familiar with the characters, all leading up to the night of the big Christmas concert. This one is a little longer I think so you get to know the characters better and it's funnier too - to me that is, humour is a subjective thing - though both are quite entertaining with some hilarious moments.

A very enjoyable read - just don't share it with your kids as there is a bit of language and a couple of jokes you probably won't want them to learn. Do read it for yourself though. You'll fall in love with Felix and more important at this hectic time of year, it will make you smile.

"Corked"

Corked by Kathryn Borel

Philippe and Kathryn Borel are a father and daughter on a wine tasting tour of France, a trip proposed by Kathryn when she realized that she barely knew her dad. He had raised her trying to teach her everything he knew about wine, a subject in which she took no interest until she came to see that if she wanted to really know her father she should try to understand what he had spent his life doing.

I started the book with the expectation that it would be a quaint story in the same vein as Peter Mayles' Provence books. I was spectacularly wrong; it is anything but quaint. For one thing there's a lot of swearing and for another France and wine serve more as the backdrop to the working out of the father/daughter relationship.

Having said that, there is a great deal to learn about wine from this book. The descriptions of different wine regions, growing conditions, varieties of grapes and different methods of making and bottling wine are well explained and make for interesting reading. Surely it is everyone's dream to take a trip like that - two weeks driving through the French countryside tasting great wine at old family owned vineyards. It sounds close to perfect to me.

But that isn't the real story here. The real story is how Kathryn and her father connect, butt heads and finally get to a place of honest emotion and acceptance of one another. And that's emotion with a capital E. It gets raw and leaves you feeling like you've been through the wringer, but it's worth it. Knowing it's true and about real people gives you hope that just maybe the rest of us can work out our less-than-functional relationships too.

It took a few chapters to get into because at first it seemed too centered on Kathryn's feelings. In fact both she and her father were so self-centered that I almost gave up on it. The angst and self-analyzing got monotonous and Philippe was just plain obnoxious most of the time. But about half way through Kathryn got to me and I started to care. From that point on I couldn't put it down. She's an interesting writer, very articulate. She uses metaphors - a lot of them - that no one else would ever think of. Her writing is fresh and original and easy to read. 

I think this book is worth reading. The gut wrenching honesty and lack of ego needed to put this story out there in public are admirable. She has things she can teach us. As mentioned earlier, there is a lot of "language" so if that's a deal breaker for you, you may want to give this one a pass. If you can get past that, it's worth it.

In spite of the more or less happy ending, I found the last few lines of the story sad. Kathryn and her father joke that something they have in common is how much God hates them both. I know it's meant to be funny, but they've fought their way through such hard situations and come out stronger and closer to each other, and I feel so bad for them that they don't see their worth in God's eyes, how much He cares about them. To end it like that - this story that tells so well how the love between father and child survives the hard times and becomes a healing force in both lives - leaves me wanting more for both father and daughter.

"A Christmas Carol"

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I am embarrassed to confess it, but I have never read this book until now. I've seen countless versions of the movie, some pretty good and some awful, but I put off reading it because I made the mistake of judging the book by it's movie. Every version I've seen has been a bit stuffy and preachy, and more than a bit over-the-top and maybe that's to be expected; it wouldn't be Hollywood if it wasn't overdone. And let's face it, Christmas movies are seldom subtle. In spite of that I watch one or more versions of it every year, but could never bring myself to risk reading the book and being disappointed with my beloved Dickens.

As it turns out, my fears were groundless. I loved the book. It wasn't stuffy or preachy or overdone. It was beautiful. The same lessons are there but it feels more sincere, more grounded. Another thing - and this was a surprise - the book was less old- fashioned than the movies. It felt like a more current story, much easier to put yourself in the middle of. The characters are more believable, the story flows better and the final chapter, where Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning a changed man, is more convincing than any I've seen in movies.

The writing is typical, wonderful Dickens. No one can make a point like he can. After an eleven line description of Scrooge's... um, scrooginess, he says: "No wind that blew was bitterer than he...". You can feel the chill. Another passage I admire is "...every idiot who goes about with "Merry Christmas" on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!".  Harsh, but very witty.

I loved this so much I want to read it again already. I'll be adding it to the list of things I do every Christmas, because truly, how could anyone not want to be reminded of this at the close of each year:

"I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round - apart from the veneration due it's sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that - as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-travelers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

If you've never read it - and I realize I may be the only one so foolish - then go out right now and get yourself a copy. Merry Christmas to you!

"Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast"

Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast by Bill Richardson

Finally, a Canadian book that isn't all darkness and angst and swearing. Ok there are a couple of swear words but overall this is a wonderful book. 

Hector and Virgil (who in my mind is the spitting image of the authour) are middle-aged twin brothers who have turned the house they grew up in into a bed and breakfast on Canada's west coast. The brothers are book lovers who see their home as a retreat for readers. Their guests are welcome to use the brothers' well-stocked library or to bring their own books with them. They cater to people like themselves, the "gentle and bookish and ever so slightly confused". That description alone had me hooked before I even started reading.

There is no plot, just a casual revealing of the brother's personalities and personal lives and the daily routines of the B&B. I have no objection to a good plot, but a book that is character driven has a much better chance of ending up on my "favorite reads" list and this is completely character driven. These endearing and oh-so-humanly flawed brothers move quietly into your world and make you wish they and their reader's retreat were real.

The chapters are written alternately by Hector and Virgil with letters from guests in between. Hector and Virgil write about their lives as innkeepers, their pasts and each other. The guest's letters tell their own stories and fill in details about the setting and the experience of being the brother's guests.

The lovely old house, the surroundings and the simple lifestyle the brothers offer their guests is nothing short of delicious. Reading the book is getting away for a quiet weekend, relaxing and comforting with enough humour to keep it fresh. Amazingly (because it happens often with books like this) it never becomes trite or even worse, cute. The brothers are quite realistic and that makes them all the more appealing.

The cover says "This quiet charmer is a bibliophiles delight" and that's exactly what it is. Other cover quotes say "a funny, cozy tale" and "a whimsically gentle fiction". I couldn't argue with those descriptions either, though the word "cozy" is dangerously close to "cute" and is recklessly overused in describing fiction. I love this book and I love it's witty, intelligent language. I was sorry to come to the last chapter but fortunately there is a sequel. It's called "Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast Pillow Book". A somewhat odd title, but hopefully it will be as good as this one was.

"Up In The Old Hotel"

Up In The Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

There's a lot of reading in this book and very good reading it is. Joseph Mitchell was a reporter in New York city during the 1930's and 40's so he knows how to tell a story; "Up In The Old Hotel" contains 37 of them. It takes a while to get through this book but it's pleasant reading and interesting stories so I don't think you'll mind the time.

The people in these stories are (for the most) real. They are the everyday people he got to know on the streets and in the diners and taverns of the city. There are many of them, so I'll just highlight some that stood out to me.

First, meet the Rev. Mr. James Jefferson Davis Hall, a street preacher who doesn't approve of soda fountains, dry-cleaners or modern women. "They've gone hog-proud and hog-wild. Wearing britches, wearing uniforms, straining their joints for generations to come with high-heeled shoes...their mouths smeared and smiddled and smoodled with paint, and their cheeks and their fingernails." The Reverend spends his days answering calls - he gives out his phone number and invites people in trouble to call him - and his nights walking Broadway, standing in the doorways of bars and preaching the consequences of drinking.

Then there's Jane Barnell, the bearded lady who began her career at the age of four, when she was given away to a traveling circus. She's had four husbands and in public wears a veil and a scarf around her neck to hide the beard.

Mazie P. Gordon is the "bossy yellow-haired blonde" who works the sidewalk ticket booth at a movie theater seven days a week from 9 am to 11 pm. She knows everybody and hears all the neighbourhood gossip. After work at night she walks the bowry handing out cakes of soap and change to people who need them.

And there's Phillipa, a 9 year old girl with an IQ of 185 who has been writing music since she was three years old, and John Smith, who writes big cheques and  gives them out to people who are nice to him, untroubled by the fact that he has no money at all.

One of my favourites is Arthur Samuel Colbourn, head of the Anti-Profanity League. Arthur, know as the "No-Swear Man" has handed out over six million cards asking "Please do not swear, nor use obscene or profane language. These cards are for distribution. Send for some - they are free. "His address is included on the card.

One story, called "A Mess Of Clams" is about the day he went out with a "buy-boat" off Long Island that came back carrying 145 bushels of clams destined for various markets and restaurants in the city. Another story is about the KKK, and another about the rodents that live in and around the city.

One story was very different. It was a sad account of a lonely man living in a furnished room. Short, and unique in that the authour wasn't involved in the story in any way, it had a completely different feel, like fiction. Mitchell does say in the introduction that though most of the book is true, some is fictional. I don't think it will matter to you when you're reading, because in the end it's all just good. 

I recommend this one to anyone who's looking for something interesting to read; it's not a page-turner so if that's what you like it may not be for you.

Favourite quote: 
                 "...it takes almost a lifetime to learn how to do a thing simply."

"Bay of Spirits - A Love Story"

Bay of Spirits by Farley Mowat

Another great story from a master story-teller, this one subtitled "A Love Story". It's the story of his first meeting with a beautiful woman named Claire and how their feelings for each other developed, but it is another love story too, of his years living in and exploring the outports of Newfoundland. His appreciation for the people, waters and wildlife of Newfoundland bring this story to vivid life.

Farley Mowat can capture the flavour of a place and it's people beautifully. A picture may to be worth a thousand words, but with just a few lines Mowat breathes life into a place like most pictures couldn't. It's an amazing gift he has.

Speaking of pictures, Bay of Spirits contains some wonderful shots showing a way of life that is mostly gone now. There are beautiful harbours with square wooden houses sitting precariously on the surrounding rock, fishing boats and wharves that look like they've been there forever, whales, dogs and people. It's the people that got to me, the faces, weathered and lined and real; amazing people who built lives out of little more than rock and water and were satisfied with what they had.

There are so many stories in this book: names, places and history, a wealth of information and experience that brings the reader so close to being there you can almost smell it. The hospitable nature of the people and communities all along the Newfoundland coast took the authour into the houses and personal lives of families who were willing and eager to share what they had. Over countless meals of fish and bread, boiled dinners, cups of tea and glasses of rum, people's stories were told and friendships formed. These are priceless glimpses into what it means to be a Newfoundlander and though I was born and raised in another east coast province, the stories gave me a very satisfying sense of place and roots.

There were aspects of the book I didn't find as interesting as the people stories; I learned far more than I ever wanted to know about boats and fishing. I couldn't even begin to sort out the various watercraft mentioned: schooners, skiffs, ships, whalers, motor launchers, herring seiners, steamers, smacks, longliners, longboats, motor boats, destroyers, draggers, dinghies and dories. And as confusing as it got trying to figure out these things they were putting in the water, some of what they were taking out of the water also gave me pause: cod, haddock, herring, lobster, dogfish, wolf fish, lumpfish, sculpins, redfish, squid, flatfish, minnows, blue mussels, horse mussels, moon snails, rock crab and scarlet mud worms. Eww.

Several stories highlight Mowat's well known concern for animals of all varieties. On a storm-tossed ship he finds a dog left caged and unattended on deck, making sure the dog is fed and finding a safer place for him to ride out the storm. When whales are stranded in a harbour and the local people make sport of slaughtering them, he is moved to tears. In another incident, the community gathers and gleefully fires bullets into a stranded whale, stopping only when they run out of ammunition. Mowat is stunned and horrified: "It was beyond me even to imagine the mentality of men who would amuse themselves filling such a majestic creature full of bullets."

As the subtitle indicates, this is also the love story of Farley Mowat and Claire Wheeler. This beautiful girl steps onto his boat and with one smile, in his own words, "I was lost". He writes about making love on a deserted beach and romantic nights aboard his boat. It's a sweet love story.....until he reveals that he is a married man with two small sons. In a world where this happens every day it's not so shocking I guess, but it is a little bit shocking (isn't it?) that he doesn't mention having any qualms about it. He doesn't try to fight his feelings for Claire, but, pardon the pun, jumps right in. As he tells the story of their developing romance it feels as though we are meant to celebrate with him this finding of the love of his life. The only time he expresses any concern about his family is when it's time to go home and tell them he's leaving them for someone else.

Normally, of course, this would be none of my business. But here's the thing. A writer has to give his readers a reason to believe what he's telling them. What he reveals about himself helps you decide if you should trust the theories, philosophies and stories he's asking you to accept. Here, he's asking us to accept that he has a deep compassion for wildlife while he shows very little compassion for his own family. His apparent lack of feeling for his wife and children, his children for pete's sake, leaves the reader with the uncomfortable suspicion that he may not be as compassionate as he would have you believe. I'm not saying he had no compassion for his family, but he has chosen to express none here and that's all a reader has from which to form conclusions.

I love his writing style and admire his amazing skill as a story-teller, and I do recommend the book. But I need to be able to trust that true stories are true and I've got questions now, so I guess that leaves me not quite as firm a fan as I was before this book.

"Christmas On Jane Street"

Christmas On Jane Street by Billy Romp, with Wanda Urbanska

This is a nice little holiday read, perfect for when you need a quiet hour with a cup of tea in the midst of the all the Christmas chaos. I have a few of these small Christmas books that I like to re-read every year, but this one is new to me. The title was vaguely familiar though and I'm wondering if there might have been a tv movie with the same name. It's a pretty good plot for a holiday movie.

"Christmas On Jane Street" is a true story, and that always makes things a little more interesting, but the writing in this one was lacking a certain something that might keep it off my "favorites" list. I find I'm sometimes disappointed with stories that are told "with" an authour who is helping get it down on paper. They feel a little stiff to me.

Favorite or not, it's still a good story with all the requisite elements for a satisfying Christmas story: family relationships strained and restored, friendly neighbours coming to each others aid and children testing the boundaries and spreading their wings. It all adds up to a low level of sappiness that is more than tolerable in a Christmas story. If you can watch "It's A Wonderful Life" with it's off the charts sap level and enjoy it, you'll be fine with "Christmas On Jane Street".

The corner of Jane Street and Eighth in New York City is where Billy Romp, his wife and three children set up their Christmas tree stand every year. They live on the tree lot in a tiny camper from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve and become part of the neighbourhood where they are welcomed and taken care of by local residents and shop owners. This is the best part of the story to me. It's reassuring, life-affirming to read how generous and helpful people truly want to be even when there is no material reward in it for them.

The story centers around Billy and his relationship with his oldest daughter. Like all parents he's having difficulty letting go of the tight control we keep over our kids when they are little and he feels the pain we all feel when they begin to step away from us and out into the larger world. I'll leave it at that and let you discover the rest for yourself.

I enjoyed this book. I do wish I had waited till tomorrow to read it though because our first big snowstorm of the season is coming and this would have been the perfect book for a snow day. I think it's time to move my Christmas books up from the bottom shelf and see what I can find for a lovely long day of reading and watching the snow fall. That sounds quite picturesque but in truth we usually get a wicked wind that drives the snow sideways past the rattling front window and we often lose our hydro in a storm. That, however, is reality and I don't think I'll consider it right now. Tomorrow will be here soon enough.

"How To Read Slowly"

How To Read Slowly by James W. Sire

I love this book! What's not to love in a book about reading? The authour's purpose is to help us read better for greater comprehension. He says "Our goal in reading carefully is not only to understand what is being said explicitly but to see why it is being said. We want to learn to recognize the world views of writers and speakers, and thus to know what their basic assumptions about life really are. It will help us decide what kind of attention to pay to their comments or proposals no matter how modest or immodest."

The second chapter deals with non-fiction, the next with poetry, then fiction and it wraps up with a chapter called "A Time To Read: Knowing What To Read and When". What I love about this book is that it leads you through reading exercises and explains point by point what to look for. Sire is a good teacher whose book, according to the publisher's blurb, "has been widely used in higher education classrooms to reach reading comprehension". I found myself underlining a lot of it because there is so much that is pertinent and helpful. I want to read it a few times and start applying it's principles to my reading until it becomes second nature. Not that it's all new ideas; at one time or another you've probably heard most of it before, but if you're anything like me you've probably forgotten some of it too. This authour has a clear and logical way of getting his ideas across that is both highly readable and very effective.

The chapter on poetry was fun. Sire quotes a few short poems and has us read them several times looking for specific things. As you follow his direction the poem begins to open up and you see more in it than you did on the previous reading. He compares understanding a poem to looking at blueprints to understand a building: "...and just as an architect or building engineers know what to look for when they examine the building, so do good readers." This is what he's teaching us: what to look for. He gets into metrical structure, image and sound structure, etc, but not deeply, just enough to help us unscramble the riddles poetry often presents. I found this the most interesting and practical chapter of the book.

In the chapter on fiction the topics of plot, character, theme, point of view, tone and style are looked at, again not in depth but enough to be helpful. He doesn't focus on any particular aspect of fiction but says "There is no point in paying close attention to details if we fail to experience the whole work and, as it were, to perceive it at a glance - to drink it in, savor it's succulent tastes and smells, feel its philosophy of life, see its vision of reality and come to grasp more fully what it means to be human.".

James Sire is a Christian and makes references to that throughout the book. He wants Christians to be better readers, more aware of what is going on in the world and what writers are saying about it. But whatever philosophy of life you hold to, this book is for any and all readers who want to get more out of what they read. As he puts it: "I don't expect any reader to imitate my own lifestyle nor to adopt point for point the precise values that I would at my best affirm. But I do want to announce at the beginning that I love reading and would like to help others love it too - and do it better."

I don't agree with everything Sire says and some of his comments seem a little stuffy but that's not hard to overlook when you consider how very useful his teaching is. I hope I haven't made it sound dry because it really isn't and at only 168 pages there isn't time to get too academic so it moves along and stays interesting. I expect this book to make a real difference in how I read. I recommend it to everyone.

"The Tears Of The Giraffe"

The Tears Of The Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith
(Book 2 in The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency series)

In the first book in this series we met Precious Ramotswe, an African woman who opens a detective agency in the small town of Gabarone, Botswana. She is a wonderful character, neither young or old, of "traditional build" (not-so-skinny), plainspoken, sensible and living by the moral code of " Old Africa" as her father had taught her.

Her detective skills are used this time to help a man who is worried his wife may be seeing someone else, and an American mother who is trying to find out what happened to her son when he disappeared in Africa ten years earlier.

In this volume the relationship between Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni continues to develop with the addition of two orphan children bringing a whole new dimension to their life as a couple. On the business side of things, Mma Ramotswe's secretary, Mma Makutsi begins to take a more prominent role in the story as she is promoted from secretary to "assistant detective".

I didn't enjoy this book as much as I did the first one, but can't quite put my finger on why, other than that Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni was referred to as Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni every single time he was mentioned. Even his fiance called him Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni. And there's something about the characters' way of communicating with each other that doesn't feel natural. It may be a cultural thing, but it seems like they are overly formal with each other, all the time.

I am enjoying what I'm learning about African life. It's all so completely foreign to me but that alone makes it interesting. I had wondered as I was reading why even the most ordinary of people seemed to have maids and was fascinated to read this: "It was a social duty to employ domestic staff, who were readily available and desperate for work. Wages were low - unconscionably so, thought Mma Ramotswe - but at least the system created jobs. If everybody with a job had a maid then that was food going into the mouths of the maids and their children. if everybody did their own housework and tended their own gardens, then what were the people who were maids and gardeners to do?" That's such a different mind-set than we hold in our society where we feel almost guilty about getting help. I have someone come in for an hour once a month to scrub my floors and after eight years I still feel uncomfortable about spending money on this luxury. I wish I could believe I was merely being a good citizen by paying someone else to do it for me.

Toward the end of the book, I came across a phrase I'd never heard before. Mma Ramotswe was pondering the moral dilemma of having to do a wrong thing to achieve a right thing and wishing her favorite detective magazine would make room for such discussions within it's pages so she could ask for advice. "Perhaps she could write to the editor anyway and suggest that an agony aunt be appointed; it would certainly make the journal very much more readable." What the heck is an agony aunt?

Turns out the definition of agony aunt is exactly what you would surmise from the above quote: "a newspaper columnist who gives advice to people having problems". I found all kinds of them online, mostly women but there are also "agony uncles" out there. Sometimes there is one name used , but with a team of people behind it giving advice in an "agony column". Dear Abby and Ann Landers are agony aunts. I feel rather silly now for not knowing that.

I have the next two books in the series on my shelves now so I'll read those and then decide if I want to go any further. Maybe I'll like the next one better; I had high hopes for this series and I'm not ready to give up on it just yet.

"Who Has Seen The Wind"

Who Has Seen The Wind by W. O. Mitchell

Brian O'Connal is a little boy living on the Canadian Prairies with his parents, his grandmother and younger brother Bobbie. This is a gentle and touching look at his early years in a small town where everyone knows everyone else and it's hard for a boy to get away with anything.

The authour takes us inside Brian's home life and school life, his ups and downs with friends, neighbours and a new puppy, and then (spoiler alert) the tragedy of losing his father when Brian is still a young boy. His father's affectionate nickname for Brian was "Spalpeen" and the reader can feel Brian's aching loss, knowing he will never hear his father speak that name again.

The writing is quite beautiful. One of my favourite things about reading is coming across a line that perfectly describes a thing I have thought or felt but never found words for. One such in this book is "Within himself, Brian felt a soft explosion of feeling". Isn't that wording lovely? Another line I love is "The poplars along the road shook light from their leaves". So perfect and I can see it, can't you?

Mitchell seems to create that "small town on the big prairie" feeling effortlessly. It's nice to read something that makes you want to slow down and savour every word, breathing in the airy atmosphere that feels safe and yet wild and uncontrollable at the same time.

The copy I read was a library loan and I was lucky enough to get the illustrated version with lots of monochrome, and a few full colour, sketches. It was a sizable book, probably 14"x10" so the artwork was large and, like the writing, easy to get lost in. I recommend this beautifully written book to everyone. 

"War And Peace"

War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I finished it. The whole thing. Every. Last. Word. And I feel as though I understand the word epic better than I ever have before, and tome and other words that mostly just mean really big book. Now, with fear and trembling, I will attempt to articulate what I thought of it.

First I have to say I liked the "Peace" parts more than the "War" parts, but more than either of those I loved the parts where Tolstoy left off telling the story and talked about his own philosophies of society, history, war and peace. That is where his brilliance as a thinker shines brightest, in my opinion, and that's all it is, an opinion. I haven't studied this novel, I have only read it. I don't pretend to offer anything but a very simple response to a complicated work.

I've decided I'm not a fan of Russian Literature. I had the same problem connecting with the characters in this that I did with Anna Karenina. On some levels I believe that people are the same all around the world - but, there are cultural differences that go deep and these sometimes leave us scratching our heads at behavior we don't understand. The thing about Tolstoy's characters that frustrates me is how quickly their moods change. They can go from ecstatic to desperate and back again several times in a mere few minutes depending on what thought flits through their minds or what they read into someone's glance. I get that they are a people of strong feeling, but all that emotion every minute of every day wears a bit thin for me and makes the story heavy and plodding. For me the melodrama is exhausting, something I could take in a short story perhaps, but this, as we are all aware, is no short story.

The "Peace" parts tell the stories of several well-to-do families, their children, their struggles, their romances. And of course, their efforts to get through the war years without their menfolk. I found these sections easier reading and more interesting even with the "all drama, all the time" characters. The Russian names did present a bit of a problem; I spent so much time trying to figure out the right pronunciations that I frequently lost the line of the story and had to go back and pick it up again.

The "War" parts just about did me in a couple of times. I found the long passages about battle strategies and troop movements mind-numbing. Try as I might I can't seem to work up an interest in military things. And that Russian intensity looks almost crazed in the soldiers' obsessive need to impress their leaders, to be noticed or touched by them. They positively swoon if their Great Leader stoops to speak to their lowly selves.

Tolstoy has some pretty good insight into the human condition, as shown in the following great quotes:

"It was as if the thread of the chief screw which held his life together were stripped, so that the screw could not get in or out, but went on turning uselessly in the same place."

(He) was one of those who purposely put themselves in most depressing conditions to have a justification for being gloomy.

"Pfuel was one of those theoreticians who so love their theory that they lose sight of the theory's object--its practical application. His love of theory made him hate everything practical, and he would not listen to it. He was even pleased by failures, for failures resulting from deviations in practice from the theory only proved to him the accuracy of his theory."

"At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal power in the human soul: one very reasonably tells a man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of escaping it; the other, still more reasonably, says that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger, since it is not in man's power to foresee everything and avert the general course of events, and it is therefore better to disregard what is painful till it comes, and to think about what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally listens to the first voice, but in society to the second."

It is that insight that kept me going when I wanted to quit the book altogether. I had to see how his characters turned out, where he took them and who they became. I didn't really connect with them at all but I did enjoy reading what they believed and how they looked at life.

Now for my favorite parts of the book, those where Tolstoy leaves the story and addresses the reader directly. I love his logic, the clarity of his thinking. I'm probably the only person on the planet who doesn't already know this but I need to do a search to see if he has written any non-fiction. He's fascinating to read when it's his personal thoughts and philosophies he's conveying. He writes eloquently about history, human nature, society, etc.

Throughout the book, particularly at the beginning of chapters, there are passages that reveal his feelings about war in general and the War of 1812 in particular. Book 9 Chapter 1 begins with this almost angry comment on the criminal nature of war:

"On the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes

Another topic he's keen on is Napoleon. He talks about his rise to and fall from power and makes it clear he's not a fan: "Napoleon, with his usual assurance that whatever entered his head was right..." and "Napoleon- that most insignificant tool of history who never anywhere, even in exile, showed human dignity...." I feel I know Napoleon better after reading this book than I did after reading others where he was the main subject.

Another target of Tolstoy's criticism is historians. He frequently takes shots at them for portraying history in ways that accomplish their own purposes and have no regard for truth. He presents clear, practical arguments for his case that recorded history is wrong about the war of 1812 and that things were not as historians have portrayed them. He is not at all hesitant to point out their errors and to hint strongly at their deliberate falseness and stupidity.

There's an impressive discourse on "greatness of soul" and what that means, and then in the second epilogue, a wonderful essay on understanding "freedom" and "inevitability" as causes of historical events. Even if you never read the whole book, that section is worth looking at.

All in all I found lots to appreciate, and lots I couldn't appreciate, in War And Peace. The sheer volume of it is intimidating but it's not difficult to read. Boredom was my chief adversary but I conquered that by reading other books at the same time and taking War And Peace in small doses over a long period of time. Having finished it, I can now recommend it. Truthfully, I don't think I will ever read the whole thing again but I do expect to reread some of the more philosophical parts, especially the second epilogue, which I found fascinating.

Leo Tolstoy certainly deserves the literary world's admiration. He can at times drone on and on about things (like his endless comparison of the emptied city of Moscow to a queenless beehive that felt like it went on forever) but there's no denying his genius. I can't begin to imagine what would inspire anyone to undertake such a huge endeavor or how anyone's mind could hold all of this story from beginning to end, let alone the tenacity to keep going and getting it all on paper. And without a computer!

So this monster that has intimidated me for ages has been faced and found not so terrifying after all. It is with great satisfaction that I cross this one off my list. And though also intimidating, the writing of this post wasn't really so bad either. It is the longest review I probably will ever write, but then it's the longest book I probably will ever read. And the very best thing is: I didn't hate it!

"Breakfast At Tiffany's"

Breakfast At Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Another one I can mark off my guilt list, and such a quick read. At only 111 pages it's a long short-story or I guess "novella" is what they're calling them now, it had no chapters, and I was able to finish it in a couple of sittings.

The main characters are Holly Golightly and the narrator, referred to by Holly as "Fred" though that is not his name. Fred is basically just a talking head that we never learn much about. He is trying to be a writer and he's living in his first New York apartment. That's about it. Holly is a young socialite who seems to flit hither and yon with no definite plans. That's what she does; she flits. She doesn't seem to be bothered by any kind of moral restraint or any need to treat others well. She's rather self-centered and shallow, and her affections can be purchased by the highest bidder, but in spite of all this, every man she meets falls in love with her.

There's no real plot at all, just 111 pages about Holly. I don't know if readers are meant to find her as irresistible as all the men in the book do, but I'm afraid I didn't. I'm told the movie with Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard strays far from the book and I'm thinking that must be why everyone seems to love it so much.

Capote's writing is of that spare style that I find pleasant to read, a little like Hemmingway. He uses a few words/phrases that were in common use at the time (early 1950's) but they sound dated reading it now. It reminds me of the language I used to hear on early tv shows like "Dragnet" which totally impressed me with it's sophistication when I was a kid but now sounds a bit....dorky.

Included in this book were three short stories of Capote's: "The House Of Flowers", "The Diamond Guitar" and "A Christmas Memory". I read the first two and enjoyed the reading but didn't like the stories. That's the thing about Truman Capote; I don't like the stories or the characters and yet I enjoy the reading experience. I like the uncomplicatedness of his writing, which I should be able to call the simplicity of his writing, but I can't because it isn't the same thing. I did enjoy "A Christmas Memory" more than the others, maybe because the characters were more likeable.

I'll leave you with a few of my favorite passages:

"...the army of wrongness rampant in the world might as well march over me."

"...our understanding of each other had reached that sweet depth where two people communicate more often in silence than in words: an affectionate quietness replaces the tensions, the unrelaxed chatter and chasing about that produce a friendship's more showy, more, in the surface sense, dramatic moments."

"...her smile was fragmentary, it clung to her lips like cake crumbs." (from "House Of Flowers")

"...singing a song that sounded as jolly as jingling coins." (from "A Diamond Guitar")

"Blessed Are The Cheesemakers"

Blessed Are The Cheesemakers by Sarah-Kate Lynch

In my search for a "pleasant" book I thought I had hit the jackpot. This one had two eccentric old guys, Corrie and Fee, making cheese at their dairy farm in County Cork, Ireland, a long-lost grand-daughter come to recover from a bad marriage and a just-fired, self-destructive stockbroker sent there to get his head straight. Great setting, lots of cheese (and wine) talk, a plot that might be a little sappy but still hopefully comforting, a bit of romance, a bit of humour..., what could go wrong?

Ugh. There was a lot of swearing that served no purpose I could see other than shock value and it didn't even work for that. I think this authour could have done better. There were huge holes in the story. The tying up of loose ends went way over the top with people who were supposed to be dead but weren't and one who was supposed to die but didn't and one who wasn't supposed to but did. There was at first an appealing hint of the mystical and magical about the cheesemakers and their dairy farm but then absurd coincidences pretty much took over and it got so silly I just skimmed the last couple of chapters to get to the end. The best I can say is I found it ridiculous.

I wanted to love this book and to be able to recommend it, but I didn't, so I can't.  Maybe I'll have better luck next time.

"Hot Water"

Hot Water by P. G. Wodehouse

I finally got to read P. G. Wodehouse. The great reviews of other readers had pointed me to the "Jeeves" series of books but I didn't want to start them till I could locate all of them and as yet I haven't.  It was certainly no problem finding other titles. The library copy of "Hot Water" that I borrowed listed over 80 of his books on the back cover.

The story is set in the seaside town of St. Rocque in France, where a Mr. and Mrs. Gedge have rented the Chateau Blissac and are inviting guests for the weekend. Her intent is to pull some strings and get the powers that be to appoint Mr. Gedge Ambassador to France. Meanwhile, in a bar in town plans are being made by small time thieves to break into the chateau to steal the diamond jewelry Mrs. Gedge keeps in her bedrom safe.

What ensues is a comedy of identities. Hardly anyone is who they claim to be and as the motives of one character after another come clear and chance meetings threaten to blow cover stories the plot gets complicated and comical. What begins as a pile of puzzle pieces falls neatly into place creating a clear and tidy picture by the end.

Wodehouse's language is great fun to read. Slightly more than tongue-in-cheek  and slightly less than sarcastic, it's witty and wry and slightly mad. How satisfying it is to know there are so many of these books to come back to; this is the kind of writing that fits into my "comfort reads" category and it's a rare thing now for me to find anything that qualifies so I'm thrilled with these.

I'm pretty sure you've all been reading Wodehouse for years now, but on the off chance you've been living under a rock like me and have missed the fun of these books you should beg, borrow or buy one immediately. They're that good.  

"The Canterbury Tales"

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (Edited, introduced and translated by Peter G. Beidler, building on an earlier edition by A. Kent Hieatt and Constance Hieatt)

My book club read this a couple of years ago but for some reason that I can't remember I wasn't able to go and that gave me license to ignore it. Since then it's been sitting on a shelf staring at me and accusing me of laziness and other dire character flaws; I got tired of feeling guilty whenever I walked by it and finally picked it up.

The copy I have has 643 pages (see why I dreaded starting?), but I was delighted to find it only half that long because it's a side-by-side translation: old English on the even pages, modern English on the odd pages. I was surprised and relieved at how easy the translation was to read. I was also surprised at how raunchy the "tales" are. In one breath the tale tellers are talking about religion and holiness and Christ paying the price for their sins and in the next they're talking about the lusty behaviour of one knight/prince/hero after another.

Now that I've read it I still question what the appeal is. I didn't mind reading it but that's not much of an endorsement is it? I think it's one of those books that has to be studied to fully appreciate it; I'm sure there's a lot more to be seen in it than a casual reading will reveal. Alas, I have no desire to study it. I might have enjoyed a serious study in school, but that ship has sailed and a casual reading was quite sufficient to satisfy my curiosity. There were some good moments when I was able to get interested enough to follow a particular tale, but there were also many times I found myself bored and reading only to get to the end. 

As I said earlier, I found the language quite manageable to read; the modern English flows easily, though it loses the rhyming couplets in the translation. Chaucer is sometimes plain spoken in describing romantic encounters (until there's no romance left at all really) as in lines 1106-1109 in The Merchants Tale:

"Ladies, I ask you not to be angry with me;
I cannot gloss, I am a blunt man.
Without warning, then, this Damien
pulled up his smock, and in he thrust."

As I said; plainspoken. And there is lots of talk about women being defiled and then taking their own lives rather than live with the shame. There is no mention of the defiling men or their shame. Huh.   

Some of the tales are more memorable than others; I expect that's a matter of personal preference more than anything else. The one image that has planted itself in my brain and will probably stay there (because of it's utter ridiculousness) as a permanent icon for "The Canterbury Tales" is from "The Merchant's Tale". At one point in the story the merchant is sitting under a tree while his wife and another man have sex in the tree above him. If only I could erase that unfortunate picture.    

I'm putting it back on the shelf now where it will not make me feel guilty anymore. I'm moving on to something far more entertaining: "Hot Water" by P.G. Wodehouse.

Friday Blog Hop Sept 30 - Oct 3

Wow I had no idea how long it had been since I'd taken part in the blog hop. I think it's such a great idea and when I began this blog it introduced me to dozens of other book blogs and hundreds of great books. It got me started and helped me get to know some people I would never have connected with otherwise. I'm very grateful for all the work Jennifer at Crazy-For-Books  puts into the hop; it's a great service she performs for all of us.

Each week Jennifer includes a question in her post that we are to discuss in our own Friday Blog Hop posts. This week's question is "In honor of Banned Books Week what is your favorite "banned or frequently challenged" book?" I had no idea there was such a thing as "Banned Books Week" and I had to check out her lists of banned books to even know what I had to choose from. One of the books on the list was "The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-Time" by Mark Haddon which was apparently banned from a summer reading program somewhere in Michigan in 2010 after parents complained about the "foul language".

I read this book last year and found it profoundly moving. Written from the viewpoint of an autistic boy who is investigating the death of a neighbour's dog, it put me inside an autistic person's mind. I experienced his thought processes and gained an understanding of the disease and how it affects people that has literally changed the way I look at people. It's one of those rare books that made a real difference in my life.

I loved the book. I didn't enjoy the swearing and I wish all books were written without it. I wouldn't have given it to my children to read before they were adults, but still, I loved the book. I wouldn't presume to tell other adults what is right or wrong for them to read and I wouldn't want anyone trying to tell me either. I don't think banning books is the solution to much of anything. There may be some level of evil so destructive that I'd agree to banning books that spewed it's venom, but this one certainly isn't it. On the other hand I think that most people who object to certain books believe they're doing the right thing. Of course there are some control freaks who want to run everybody's lives; I just don't think that the majority of parents who express concern are trying to do anything but protect their children, and that is their job.

Hop on over to Crazy-for-Books and check out some of the other books that have been banned at one time or another. While you're there visit some of the other blogs listed to get some great reading recommendations.

Have a great weekend!

"Saltsea"

Saltsea by David Helwig

The Saltsea is a hotel set on the shores of Prince Edward Island, though there are few references to the place other than a mention of the red mud so it could just as well have been set on any other island. The hotel was once the summer home of a wealthy family whose daughter and grand-daughter play major roles in this story. I figured that with a combination of beach, old hotel and interesting guests I couldn't really lose; I had to like this one.

And it was very promising in the beginning. I was enjoying the writing and characters and thinking how great it was to be once more reading something I didn't want to put down. Then the language deteriorated, the plot took a nosedive and the characters began to get weird until, in the last two chapters, they all just sort of lost their minds, doing things their previous behavior had never even hinted at. I read in a state of stunned confusion as the story descended into the dark underside of the characters lives. There was barely anyone left to like by the end.

Giving credit where credit where credit is due, I will say the authour did a bang-up job of surprising me. I only wish some of the surprises hadn't been unpleasant. By the time I turned the last page most of the characters were annoying at best, disgusting at worst.

I did enjoy some of the writing and found passages I thought particularly meaningful, like these ones...

"It was beautiful, and then gradually it wasn't, and maybe that was the way things would always be."

"...without Eileen to approve or disapprove he wasn't sure what any of his words or actions meant."

"...objectivity was going out of fashion everywhere, the world an apotheosis of vagueness and mood."

I truly wanted to like this book but I find myself in serious need of a story without despair, and this sure wasn't it. Surely there are still authours who can write well, tell a good story, create realistic characters and do it all without a lot of cursing, violence and raunchiness. I know I'm inviting derision here, but seriously aren't there any pleasant books anymore? I loved The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and would like to find more like them. I guess it's a comfort read I'm looking for, but not fluff. I really don't want fluff. 

So please, I'm open to suggestions if you have any. Send lots; I'd love to have a long list of gentle books to choose from for those times when more serious reading leaves me somewhat disenchanted. I patiently, impatiently, eagerly await your recommendations.

"Cool Water"

Cool Water by Dianne Warren

This was one of those books that left me wondering whether or not I liked it. I didn't love it, and I didn't hate it, I was simply disappointed with it. It kept me entertained well enough for a couple of days but I don't expect to remember the plot or even the characters very long.

There are five stories taking place simultaneously. The first one is about Lee, the adopted son of a farmer and his wife who died and left the property to him. Lee is trying to run the farm on his own but most of the story we are told about him is played out as he rides a stray horse many miles away from the farm and back again.

Then there are the Shoenfield brothers, Ed and Willard. Willard had lived with Ed and Ed's wife Marion, and since his brother's death Willard has lived with the fear that Marion would move away leaving him alone.

Blaine and Vicky Dolson have six children and serious financial problems. Vicky tries to keep up with all that raising six kids entails; Blaine becomes more and more frustrated as the financial pressures mount and their relationship begins to feel the strain.

Next is Norval and Lila Birch. He is the bank manager, she is a control freak and their eighteen year old daughter, Rachelle, is pregnant and planning her wedding.

The fifth story is about a truck driver, Hank Trass and his wife, Lynn, who runs the Oasis Restaurant. Lynn suspects Hank is not faithful to her and she's taking her anger out on the restaurant staff.

These people all live in and around the small town of Juliet in the Canadian prairies. They all know each other and sometimes their paths cross in the course of the story but I thought this felt more like a series of short stories with overlapping characters than a cohesive novel. There isn't a very clear plot line running from start to finish. I think if I put more thought into Cool Water I would see more of what the authour intended, but I just can't summon up enough interest and I have other books calling my name.

I think the problem for me is that there are too many stories to deal with effectively in the 328 pages given to them. The characters themselves are well constructed and authentic but the book ended just as I was getting involved. I'd have liked it more if there had been fewer stories told in more depth.

Having said all that I still recommend the book, because it's well written with good characters. You might love it as much as others have. I wish I had, and I  hope you do.

"The Factory Voice"

The Factory Voice by Jeanette Lynes

This is the story of four women, Audrey, Muriel, Ruby and Florence, all of whom work at Fort William Aviation, a military aircraft factory in Ontario. The year is 1941 and women are filling the jobs left vacant by the men who have gone off to war.

These women couldn't be more different in situation and personality. The authour has created fresh, believable characters as unique as any you would find in real life. These are the kind of people who work their way into your head and stay there long after you turn the last page of the book. I'm always impressed when an authour can do that - we've all read lots who can't - especially in a debut novel as this one is.

Audrey is 16 and, well.....zippy. She's eager to grow up and get a job and start living her life. Speaking pretty much every thought that crosses her mind, she blows into the factory like a mini-hurricane and endears herself to almost everyone.

Ruby is a typist and writer of the employee newsletter "The Factory Voice". Ruby has big dreams and can't wait for the day when she can put this drudgery and all these sad little people behind her. She knows she is meant for something better.

Muriel is 36 years old, has overcome polio, earned herself a Masters degree in Aeronautical Engineering and is starting a new job as Chief Engineer at the plant. She's a more complex character than some of the others and is my favorite. I'd like to read more about her.

The fourth woman is Florence. She's been at the factory for five weeks, but remains on probation because she has a German last name. The other workers wear yellow head scarves; those on probation wear red and Florence hates sticking out in the crowd. Awkward and uncomfortable around people, she just wants to be left alone to do her job.

Around these four is told a story that has something for everyone. Drama, romance, intrigue, a little heartbreak and a little victory. I liked this book, even if a couple of characters made me wanna smack'em sometimes. It's a good story - different, interesting, worth reading. And isn't that just a great cover?

"Heave"

Heave by Christy Ann Conlin

The title of this book comes from a line in a song called "Farewell To Nova Scotia":
"When I am far away on the briny ocean tossed
Will you ever heave a sigh and a wish for me?"
The lyrics and the Celtic lilt of in the music stir up a sadness, a longing for something better that perfectly describes the tone of this book.

The book opens with Seraphina Sullivan, a troubled 21 year old from rural Nova Scotia, fleeing - in wedding dress, veil and high heels - from the church in which she was about to get married. She bolts from the church leaving pieces of her gown in the door, crying and laughing, runs through the town and all the way out a country road to her parents home. She takes refuge in an outhouse, one of several that her father has collected and placed around the property.

From there, "Serrie" looks back over her life - her stint in rehab, her sudden and unexplained flight to England, and the time she spent in an asylum - trying to figure out how she got to this point in her life. We learn about her mother and brother, her gentle father, her grandmother, a practical woman with a sometimes scornful and always pointed way of sharing her opinion (my favorite character in this book), and her best friends Dearie and Elizabeth. The characters are all as quirky and hard to fathom as real people and are what make this book tick, far more than the plot.

On the cover of my library copy a reviewer says this book is "a wildly energetic debut" and another calls it "astonishing" and "gorgeously fun". I didn't find it wild or energetic, astonishing or even that much fun, but I did the like beautiful Nova Scotia setting and the wonderfully flawed, so very human characters. I didn't like some of the language, the fairly creepy cover (mine was somewhat more weird than the one in the picture) or the way the book ended. Actually it didn't feel like an ending to me at all. I was left thinking "Ok. So then what?".

So...I liked "Heave" to a point, but not enough to recommend it. I chose it because other reviewers talked about the rural N.S. landscape and the endearing small town characters; it just turned out to be a little grittier than I'd expected. It certainly has it's good points; it just wasn't what I was looking for.  

"Tipperary"

Tipperary by Frank Delaney

Charles O'Brien is nine years old when he witnesses a neighboring Irish family being evicted from their home and the house being pulled down as mother, father and three young children run toward the safety of the forest with only the clothes on their backs. The evicted family and their ancestors had worked the surrounding fields for hundreds of years, and the father had lost a leg while a soldier in the King's army, but none of that mattered to the ruling English. What Charles saw that day haunted him for the rest of his days. At his father's urging he wrote the story down and it became the first chapter in what he called his "History".

This is a novel and Charles O'Brien is a fictional character but you will meet some real people in these pages as Charles crosses paths with such well known names as Oscar Wilde, William B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. And behind all of them, behind his training and career as a healer, his persuit of a woman who felt nothing for him but scorn, and the reconstruction project of a castle he had always dreamed of owning is the story of Ireland struggling for independence; Ireland's story is as much a part of this book as Charles'.

The solid, detailed writing is a pleasure to read; the story has lots of twists and turns and brings to vibrant life a period of history that I never get tired of reading. I did find it just a little slow getting started, but I make exceptions for Ireland and it had so much going for it I stayed with it and in the end found it a very satisfying read.

I like the way this book is structured. Sections of Charles "history" alternate with the voice of a present day narrator, entries from Charles' mother's journal and letters written by the woman he falls in love with. There are ten chapters, each separated into short segments that give the reader plenty of places to stop, or maybe make it easier to read just one more section...or two...

Some of my favorite lines from the book...

"'A thing doesn't have to be true', he said, 'for a person to get joy out of it;
what it has to be is not evil or malicious'".

"...he had been born with the poetic advantage of living in a beautiful land."

"Revolutions are born when the drudgery of life aches from 
serving the grandeur on the hill."

I have no idea where or when I got this book, but I recently found another Frank Delaney novel on my book shelf as well. It's about three times the size of Tipperary so I'll have to put it off for a while, but it looks like a great read for a long, cold Maritime winter.

Next up: Heave by Christy Ann Conlin

"The Postmistress"

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

Iris James is the Postmistress in Franklin, Massachusetts in 1940. Frankie Bard is a "radio gal" in London reporting on the nightly bombings and hoping to convince Americans to get involved. Their two lives couldn't be more different and yet they find themselves in a situation that brings them face to face and changes them both.

This book has something for everyone: romance and war, small town and big city, drama and destiny, a solid story, interesting characters and good writing. I loved it. Well most of it. There's a fair bit of cursing that I didn't think added anything to the story at all, but other than that, I really did love it.

There's a sexual scene in the book that would keep me from recommending it to younger readers and those who don't like that sort of thing in their reading. I have to say that it's done in very good taste though and is quite beautiful and not (in my opinion) lewd or obscene. The book is worth reading even if you want to skip that part when you come to it.

This is one of those books that leaves you missing the characters when you close the cover. I want very much to travel to Franklin and find Iris and have a cup of tea with her. I feel like she's someone you could just sit with and enjoy the silence. These characters are likeable, so as a reader you find yourself caring about them and it saddened me when some of them didn't survive to the end of the story. (I don't think that's a spoiler because 1] it's wartime so some deaths are expected and 2] I'm not revealing names).

As I said earlier I found the writing enjoyable to read, but I do have to mention one thing that struck me as odd. Toward the end of the book I found a whole sentence repeated and only 25 pages apart. It can't have been intentional; there seems to be no reason for it. On page 265 it says "She brought the canceling stamp down on three letters in a row with a satisfying thump, then turned and tossed what she stamped behind her in quick impatient flicks of her wrist." Then on page 290, "From the door, Frankie watched as she brought the canceling stamp down on three letters in a row with a satisfying thump, then turned and tossed what she stamped behind her in quick impatient flicks of her wrist. I don't remember ever finding a repeat like this before and I'm baffled as to how it got to the printer like that. Anybody else ever seen something like this?

All in all I do recommend this book highly. I found it a very satisfying read and am looking forward to seeing what else this authour has to offer.  



 

"The Poems Of John Keats"

The Poems Of John Keats

It seems I have found a poet I don't like at all. I know his poetry is loved by many, but I fear I will not be one of them. Granted I have read only the 21 poems found in this book and I really don't know how many more he wrote, although dying at the way too young age of 25 didn't give him enough time to be really prolific. Poetry is such a subjective thing that it's difficult to explain why one likes some and not others but I'll try to pinpoint some of the things that kept me at arm's length.

Keats' language is too flowery and too sweet for me. It makes me wonder if he ever had simple thoughts like the rest of us, though it's probably closer to the truth that he had the simple thoughts but never thought to express them simply. When he writes about love, it positively drips. And for me there's too much talk of dew and mist and moon and such. I realize that this is all a matter of individual taste and I don't mean any disrespect to Keats or his fans. It simply doesn't appeal to me.

These poems are saturated with references to mythology and fairy tales that I am unfamiliar with. That is my lack of education of course and no fault of his, but it's a struggle to stay focused when I have no idea what he's talking about.

On a positive note I did enjoy the rather lengthy poem "To My Brother George". It was wordy but I found it easier to read than most of the others. I liked Keats' thoughts about the legacy of the poetry he will leave behind and how it may one day serve to stir people to action and inspire them to goodness. To be honest I shouldn't really say I enjoyed it, I just sort of disliked it less than the rest of the book.

I read this book through Daily Lit, a web site that will send you short installments of a book over as long or short a time period as you choose, by email. This one was sent in 21 installments whereas War and Peace has over 600 installments. I am finding it a good way to read books that I might never otherwise get to.You can check out their library at dailylit.com.

"Stories I Only Tell My Friends"

Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe

I've been a huge fan of Rob Lowe since I fell in love with Sam Seaborn on The West Wing. I still believe that show is the best ever made, even better than The Waltons and I practically made them my family. I've watched all seasons of The West Wing three times and still I never watch an episode without seeing something in it that I missed before. And I've never found it hard to watch Rob Lowe for an hour. So when a friend told me about this book I was eager to read it and she generously loaned me her copy when she was finished with it.

I don't know why I don't read more biographies and autobiographies. People are so fascinating and it always amazes me that each of us is so different. There are no two lives alike among all the people who have ever lived on this planet. That's just mind-boggling to me. Every single person has a story to tell and I'd like to read them all.

In "Stories I Only Tell My Friends" Rob Lowe talks about how he grew up, got into show business and all the ups and downs a life in the public eye brings with it. He is candid about his wild days of drinking, drugs and sex but it's told tastefully. He isn't bragging about those times but using them to illustrate how money and fame can insulate a person from reality and lead to unhealthy excesses that could destroy your life. Fortunately, he was able to get off that road and start making wiser choices.

We meet a lot of other well known actors who were in Lowe's life at various times. He was a neighbour of Marin Sheen and his sons Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez, and while still in his teens he worked with Tom Cruise, Ralph Macchio, and Patrick Swayze. I had no idea he had started acting at such an early age and to tell the truth I had never heard most of what he reveals in this story. I guess that means I'm not so great a fan because it seems to me that diehard fans of actors, musicians and sports figures know every little detail of their hero's lives. I just knew he was really cute.

It came as a complete shock to me as I read that I've never even seen most of the movies and tv shows he did. He's been in movies since he was 15 and I guess I didn't really know much about him at all until The West Wing started. So now I'm on a mission to educate myself in all things Rob Lowe. If you are interested in seeing what movies and tv series he's been in go to Internet Movie Database and you'll find a complete listing.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. The writing is pretty good and there is humour as well as drama. I will confess to a little disappointment that Rob Lowe is not actually Sam Seaborn. Once he matured and got his life back on track though he did become more and more the man of integrity and noble character that Sam was. It's safe to say that Rob Lowe and I will never meet so it won't hurt anyone's feelings if I keep thinking of him as my Sam. Now, back to The West Wing. Season 1. Episode 1.

"Half-Broke Horses"

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

This is the second book by this authour that I've read, the first being "The Glass Castle" which impressed me so much I put it on my list of "best books ever". This one was also good, but for me it doesn't come close to the other one.

This book is the story of Jeannette's grandmother, Lily, a tough, feisty woman who never let anything get in the way of what she wanted out of life. She grew up in the western US in the early 1900s and her life was anything but easy as she and her family tried to make a living on a cattle ranch. She learned to work hard and take care of herself and when life knocked her down, she got up, dusted herself off and moved on.

The story is told in the first person from Lily's point of view, though the authour's source of information was Lily's daughter, Rosemary (Jeannette's mother), and not Lily herself. Because of that she calls this a "true-life novel" rather than a biography or memoir. I don't think I'll be shelving it with fiction though. Having read "The Glass Castle" and met some of this book's characters in that, I definitely see it as a memoir.

Jeanette Walls is an excellent story teller. She can bring people to life and make them so vivid that you never forget them and her great writing keeps the story moving along and has, on occasion,  made me forget to stop reading and go to bed. I thoroughly enjoy reading her work and I hope there will be a lot more of it.

 From what I've read about this book on other blogs the majority of readers finish the book impressed with Lily's grit and head-on way of dealing with life. I, too, can admire her, but from a distance. I don't think she and I would ever have been friends because she intimidates the heck out of me. She's so confident and capable and brave, all things I want to be but, alas, am not. She had some pretty good theories about life though and at times showed real wisdom. My favourite quote is "When someone's wounded, the first order of business is to stop the bleeding. You can figure out later how best to help them heal."

I read this mostly because "The Glass Castle" got to me in a very personal way and I wanted to know more about Jeannette's background so I could try to understand some things. Well, that and my book club chose it for July's selection. I'm glad I read it. It did shed more light on Jeannette's family history and what made her mother (Rosemary) the very unique woman, and incredibly strange mother, that she is.

I recommend this authour highly. I think anyone who appreciates a good story would enjoy "Half Broke Horses" as well as "The Glass Castle".

"Therefore Choose"

Therefore Choose by Keith Oatley

George is a medical student at Cambridge where he meets and becomes good friends with Werner, a German boy also attending Cambridge. In the summer of 1936, George travels with Werner to Werner's home where the growing military force is visible everywhere and political tensions are rising.

There Werner introduces George to his friend Anna and George falls in love. The rest of the book tells the story of how George, Werner and Anna's relationships develop and change in the pressure cooker that was Europe in the late 1930's and throughout the war.

I've read a lot of books set in wartime, but it isn't often we get a look at WWII from inside Germany and from the viewpoint of German citizens. The authour gives us an interesting glimpse into what war does to people and the kind of group thinking it is so easy to get caught up in. The book also looks at the dynamics of friendship and love and how they are altered by war and the decisions we have to make to survive.

I liked this book because it's a quiet story. There are no dramatic battle scenes or things blowing up; it's more the philosophy of war and friendship and love. The story unfolds in what the characters think, feel and discuss so it's not a page turner, but it is a thoughtful, insightful book, well written and well worth reading. I like quiet books. I love quiet books and would be happy to find more of them.   

I would never have chosen this book because I really don't like the cover. Sad isn't it (me, not the cover)? Fortunately I won this copy in a contest hosted by John at bookmineset and since it's a Canadian authour (not born in Canada, but now living here) I decided to make it my first selection for the 5th Canadian Book Challenge, which is also hosted by the same site. So, thanks John; it was a very good read.

"Heaven Is For Real"

Heaven Is For Real by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent

I must admit I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to people who say they’ve been to Heaven. I am a believer and I am convinced Heaven exists and that I’ll be going there when my life here ends, certainly not because of any merit of my own but because Jesus’ death paid for my sins, and the sins of all who are willing to trust Him. In spite of my faith, my human reason finds it hard to accept, or maybe just thinks it’s too good to be true, that a person could experience Heaven and then return to earth to tell the rest of us what it’s like. I have no problem with the Heaven part, just the coming back part.

This story is particularly touching in that it’s a young child who is sharing his experience of Heaven. And he didn’t just go, come back and start telling his story. What he experienced slowly seeped bit by bit into his everyday conversation with his parents. Because he was so young, he was unaware that what he experienced was not a normal event but a spectacular look into the afterlife that very few people ever get to tell about. He thought it was what happened to everybody so his telling of it was in matter-of-fact bits and pieces as various topics came up over time. That slow unfolding of the story is what makes it so believable for me.

The first indication that something out of the ordinary had happened to their son, Colton, came when he said that he recognized the hospital as the place “where the angels sang to me.” When his parents questioned him, they heard more: “I was sitting in Jesus’ lap” and “Dad, Jesus had the angels sing to me because I was so scared.” Then, when Colton told his parents where each of them had been and what they were doing while he was anesthetized and in surgery, they didn’t know what to think, but it was becoming clear that something big had happened.

Everything Colton said about his experience in Heaven was analyzed by his parents until they had no choice but to believe it. He knew things he couldn’t know and he talked about meeting family members already gone when he was born. Even when asked about things he had already told them, they couldn’t trip him up. There are of course many who will say the parents made it up, or Colton made it up, or it was a dream or the effects of the anesthetic, but I figure I’ve got two choices. I can believe it and look forward to the kind of life that awaits me in Heaven, or I can dismiss it merely as the fantasy of a small child and forget about it.

I choose to believe it. It’s beautiful and inspiring and hopeful, and I get more good out of believing it than not believing it. I read the entire book looking for something that would make it not credible, but didn’t find it. There is a lot more to Colton's story than is told here so check it out for yourself and let me know what you think.

I recommend “Heaven Is For Real” to anyone who could use a little hope, a little happiness. Suspend your scepticism and disbelief for a couple of hours and read the book. What have you got to lose?
 

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