"Missing Mom"

Missing Mom by Joyce Carol Oates

Missing Mom covers one year in the life of Nikki Eaton, a 31 year old newspaper columnist known for her off-beat attitude toward life. Her choices in clothes and hairstyles and her current romantic attachment to a man with a wife and two children are a source of frustration to her sister, Clare, and confusion to her mother, Gwen.

Shortly after the story opens, Gwen is killed in a horrendous criminal act in her own garage. The already shaky relationship between Clare and Nikki is pushed to the limits and beyond by the horror and grief they experience. Families, jobs, everything changes in the months following their mother's death as the police investigation continues and they wait while delay after delay after delay postpones the trial.

As Nikki deals with the aftermath of her mother's death, cleaning out the house and talking to relatives, she begins to see Gwen as more than just Mom - she was a woman with a life of her own, a woman Nikki can begin to relate to. But while she's moving closer to her mother, her relationship with Clare is falling apart. Neither sister understands the words or actions of the other and things deteriorate until they both lose the one person they might have had to lean on.

 Nikki is an interestingly written character; Joyce Carol Oates is an interesting writer. I don't think I've ever read such an in depth experience of grief. It's uniquely personal and goes on and on and is never really understood by others. And isn't that the way grief is? The things we do out of feelings of grief can be difficult for others to connect back to those emotions and as a result people get confused, impatient and angry with the grieving person. Grief is slow, and it isn't easy on anyone.

Though the story is sad, it's life-affirming too. The sisters grow in acceptance of people who think and behave differently than they do, Clare learns that the life you don't have isn't always better than the one you are living right now, and Nikki begins to grow up, becoming less self-centered, less careless about life and the people in it. It's a well-rounded story that takes you beyond the suffering and leaves you with hope for what's next.

In most books there are lines that jump out at me, lines I love for the truth they contain  or the way the words are arranged and it feels strange that I didn't find any this time. I didn't particularly enjoy Oates' writing style - it seemed abrupt or odd or...something...in places. I can't quite put my finger on it. I think we are meant to read it as Nikki's thought process and I understand that, still, I found it awkward sometimes. I probably won't remember the writing but the emotion, the grief, will be with me for a long time.

I recommend "Missing Mom". Most of us have mothers we will either lose one day or have already lost. Even if you've never had a mother figure in your life there is still the common to us all experience of grief that every reader will be able to identify with. I think this book has something for everyone.

"The Lacemakers of Glenmara"

The Lacemakers of Glenmara by Heather Barbieri

Kate Robinson is hiking her way across Ireland, trying to forget the man who walked out on her without warning after 5 years. Her career in fashion design had been faltering, so with nothing to keep her in Seattle she traveled to Ireland, taking the trip she and her mother had intended to take together until cancer ended those plans forever.

After a month in Ireland, Kate has wandered into the tiny village of Glenmara, staying in the house of a recently widowed woman named Bernie, who, along with a group of other local ladies, are crafters of hand-made lace. Kate becomes their student.

There is of course a single man living up the road, and the requisite rocky romance ensues. Actually it's not as predictable as that. Well, yeah, I guess it is. But - there are a number of good stories told around that one. The village women all have their own relationships, families, joys and sorrows, blessings and tragedies, stories that bring a lot of depth and interest to it overall. It's really those stories that provide the real interest and make the book worth reading.

This book isn't great literature, but it is a nice piece of light summer reading, a gentle place to slip away to for a few hours. It's enjoyable if you don't expect more from it than that. And what a great cover!

My favourite line:

"She'd been a quiet person at home, had let the gregarious people in her life - Ethan, her friend Ella, even her mother - take the lead, happy to be the soft spoken sidekick who offered the occasional sage remark, witty aside."

"Lady of Quality"

Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer

It's never a good sign when you can't decide if you liked a book. That is the position I find myself in with "Lady of Quality". I enjoyed some aspects of it but on the whole found it a little disappointing.

 It opens with Miss Annis Wychwood and her paid companion, Miss Maria Farlow, traveling back to her home in Bath after visiting her brother, Geoffery. Miss Wychwood is 29 years old, rich and beautiful. Miss Farlow is of indeterminate age, poor, and annoying, but she is a necessity if Annis wishes to live independently in her own home without causing a scandal.

On the way they come upon an accident scene involving a young girl, Lucilla Carleton, whom Annis decides to take under her wing until the girl's family situation can be worked out. With the seventeen year old heiress is a young man, Ninian Elmore, (seriously...Ninian? Wonder was his nickname was.) whose protective feelings toward her led him to set out after her as she rashly attempted to run away from home.

Once back home with her new charge, Annis is quickly made aware that everyone disapproves of her decision to take Lucilla in. Her brother Geoffery and his wife Amabel, Maria Farlow, and Lucilla's uncle, Oliver Carleton are all angry and frustrated. Mr. Carleton comes to Bath to make his position clear, which he does forcefully and repeatedly, and Annis for some inexplicable reason is attracted to him. He's very tiresome really, but I think we're supposed to see beyond his arrogance and insufferable rudeness and find something likeable underneath. I never did.

I've read reviews that compare Georgette Heyer to Jane Austen so I had high - too high - expectations. Jane Austen makes me feel like I'm living in the story. Georgette Heyer makes me feel like I'm watching a tv show. The language feels contrived, the characters stereotypical and the plot stale. This story, written in 1972, about life in Regency England doesn't hold up to Austen's writing done in that actual time and place. If I had to give it a rating out of 10 I'd probably say 5. It's not awful, just not very good. I do enjoy novels set in that time period but I found this one weak, insipid.

Will I read any more of her novels? Maybe, sometime when filling my mind with anything but my own reality is what I need. I have a list of authours I turn to when I want only harmless distraction and Georgette Heyer will be on it.

"The Kalahari Typing School For Men"

The Kalahari Typing School For Men by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the 4th book in McCall's "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series and I hate to say it but I'm getting bored. Maybe reading them closer together would help me stay interested. I don't know. I just know I'm not enjoying these much anymore.

In this story Mme Ramotswe takes on a client who wants her help finding a family he stole from when he was young, and a girl he had used then abandoned when she needed him most. Decades after those events he has matured into a man of integrity and he wants nothing more than to right those wrongs.

Mma Makutsi, assistant to Mma Ramotswe and the only other employee of the Detective Agency, is struggling to make ends meet financially and is considering various money-making schemes, among them the possibility of opening a typing school for men. Without giving too much away I will say that Mma Makutsi is in for some romance in this book, while Mma Ramotswe's relationship with Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni doesn't develop much beyond what it was in Book #3.

In spite of my growing indifference toward this series it has lots of things to recommend it. The characters have a lovely innocence about them, a sort of purity that I find very refreshing. The story lines are fairly uncomplicated and moderately paced. They are gentle, humourous and positive and I should love them, so why don't I?

Theses books are hugely popular so don't let my dwindling interest influence you. They have become favorites for many people and I hope you'll give them a try. I think I'll move on to one of the authour's other series to see if I like it better. I can't say if I'll read any more of these. I'm disappointed but you can't win'em all I guess.   

"The Poisonwood Bible"

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

This one is from my guilt list. It was published in 1998 and of course I saw it everywhere and heard it praised by everyone who read it. If it wasn't for this not-completely-sensible thing I have about avoiding hugely popular books, I could have enjoyed it long ago. Instead it went on the list of books I feel I should have read at some point in my life and there it stayed until a friend suggested it was too good to miss and I really should read it. So I did, and it was....epic.

The story begins in 1950 when evangelical Pastor Nathan Price takes his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo to live and work at a small village mission. They are absolutely unprepared for this new life in spite of bringing with them everything they thought they would need, including cake mixes for the birthdays the girls would celebrate during their one year mission.

The girls range in age from four to fourteen and are mostly the responsibility of their mother, Orleanna, because children are considered woman's work. Nathan pretty much just preaches at them and doles out punishment when he thinks they need it. He isn't much of a husband or father, but he is true to what he feels is his calling: trying to get the African people to believe in God by beating them over the head with the gospel.

This is where I have a problem with this book. The plot technique used in many movies and books of making the professing Christians the "crazy" people, is becoming rather stale. This guy, Nathan Price, may know some lingo and have some Scripture memorized but that simply doesn't make a Christian. The lack of love and respect he shows his wife and daughters is not a true characteristic of a man who chooses a life of obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ. He's a self-centered, arrogant jerk. He may talk the talk, but, as always, actions speak louder than words. My point is, don't mistake the religion in this book for true Christianity.

Other than that it is a brilliant story. The authour tells it through the eyes of Orleanna and her girls in alternating chapters, which gives the reader an incredibly personal connection with them. They are believable characters, each with a very distinctive voice. I felt quite close to some of them; at least one I was happy to see the end of.

The story of the Price family is set against the larger political one of the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium. Themes include the status of women in African society and among white missionaries, marriage, and family dynamics, but freedom is the focus: for the Congo, freedom from Belgium; for Orleanna, freedom from Nathan's oppressive control; for the daughters, freedom to become individuals and choose their own lives. Running through it all is the intense daily struggle of the African people just to survive. It was a lot for any authour to take on but Kingsolver handled it all amazingly well. 

My favourite quote: "I decided right then and there to stop pretending I knew more than I did. ....Watching my father, I've seen how you can't learn anything when you're trying to look like the smartest person in the room."

I recommend this one highly. I waited too long to read it but once I got to it, it delivered. It is a powerful story and I do think you'll like it.

"The Stone Carvers"

The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart

In the opening years of the twentieth century, Klara Becker and her brother, Tilman, are growing up on a farm in Ontario, Canada. Klara is learning tailoring skills from her mother and carving skills from her Grandfather, Joseph, and Tilman is a wanderer who can't resist the urge to follow the road wherever it leads.

Decades earlier, a priest in Bavaria, Father Gstir, receives a letter telling him he is being sent to a remote Canadian village to establish a church. There he will meet the young Joseph and enlist his help carving statues for the new church.

When Klara becomes a young woman, she is courted by local boy, Eamon O'Sullivan. By this point, her brother is long missing and her mother has never recovered from the trauma of losing him. Then WWI breaks out and Eamon goes off to fight for his country.

Now fast forward several years to Europe, where Toronto sculptor, Walter Allward, has been comissioned to carve a massive stone war memorial at Vimy, France. Klara has been reunited with Tilman and has convinced him to take her to France to take part in the memorial project.

It sounds a bit convoluted but it isn't when you read it. It's a good story, well told, with each piece fitting perfectly into the bigger picture. The human need to commemorate, to remember the people, places and events that shape our lives is the thread that runs through it all and gathers it together into a moving tale of love, loss and art.

The characters are convincingly human. They experience life deeply but are refreshingly reserved in expressing their feelings. The writing is clean and intelligent, moving along at a comfortable pace. Altogether an enjoyable read that will have me seeking out the authour's other novels and adding them to my TBR. I recommend this one.