"Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm"

Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

I settled down to return to Cold Comfort Farm for a Christmas visit, fully expecting to get reacquainted with some old friends and enjoy a few days of their deliciously odd behaviour,  when what to my wondering eyes should appear...but a collection of short stories, only one of which is set on the farm and only two of which have any connection to Christmas at all. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning unwrapping a present and finding clothes inside.

I read the first two stories and loved them, and though there were disappointingly few Christmas settings, the stories were all entertaining and well written. If you're familiar with her short stories, some of the titles included here are: To Love and To Cherish, The Murder Mark, Sisters, The Walled Garden, Golden Vanity, More Than Kind, Cake, and Mr. Amberly's Brother.

I don't usually like short stories much. I find it hard to get to know characters in so few pages and the story always ends before I'm ready to let it go. I don't know quite how she does it in so little space, but Stella Gibbons made me feel like I knew these characters personally and understood their lives. Her stories tell you enough, but not too much, and they end at just the right point. If there are other short stories, and short story writers, this good out there, I think I might become a fan.

I know for sure I'm a Gibbons fan; I want to find and read everything she wrote. The list is not nearly long enough and I'll hoard them for awhile to make them last, but I don't want to miss one word. Her writing suits me perfectly and her books are some of the most enjoyable reading I've ever encountered.

"How Far To Bethlehem"

How Far To Bethlehem by Norah Lofts

This is a fictional account of the events surrounding the birth of Christ. Mary's story is here but most of the book focuses on the three wise men, who they were and how they came to be together at that point in time.

The copy I read is an old, cheap paperback that has a number of typos, which for me can lessen the experience. One or two isn't bad, but when there are a lot of them I end up thinking that if the publisher cared that little, maybe the book isn't worth reading. I know it shouldn't bother me that much but it always has.

I've read several of these fictional accounts over the years and am always amazed at how different the stories are. This one for me was just average. I found myself drifting at times but most of the story was fairly interesting. I was looking for something to inspire me to think more about the reality of Christ's birth and how it affected the lives of all the various people involved in the story, and this book accomplished that for me.

I recommend it, not as great writing, but as a good read for the Christmas season.

 

"Moon River and Me"

Moon River and Me - A Memoir by Andy Williams

I am such an Andy Williams fan. Does anybody even know who he is anymore? That easy smile and smooth voice - those sentimental songs and those corny Christmas specials. I have some of those old shows on dvd and re-watch them every December. They seem so innocent now. Forty years ago we were content to be entertained without cursing and dirty jokes. Whatever happened?

Andy Williams began singing with his 3 brothers, performing as "The Williams Brothers" while he was still a child. Later his brothers went their own way and he struck out on a solo career. He got parts on radio and tv shows and in a few movies. In the early 60s he starred in a tv show of his own on NBC: The Andy Williams Show. It was a variety show with different entertainers in guest appearances, including the Osmond Brothers. This is where Donnie and Marie Osmond got their start.

The show ran throughout the sixties with a few specials airing after the weekly show was cancelled. I remember sometimes gathering in the living room to watch the regular shows, but the Christmas specials were something special that we looked forward to for weeks. Back then Christmas shows were filled with gorgeous Christmas scenes, costumes, trees and snow and every song sung was a recognizable Christmas tune.

I love to read how people's careers began and developed and Williams' history is an interesting one. He met and worked with most of the big names in music of his time - Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope - and was quite close to the Kennedy family. He writes, too, about his personal life. There are stories about his parents and siblings and then later about his romantic relationships. He married and had children with the incredibly beautiful Claudine Longet. Later, he met his second wife, Debbie Haas, who he was married to for many years, until his death in 2012.

His theater in Branson, Missouri is still operating and annually puts on a Christmas show that is supposed to be somewhat reminiscent of his tv specials. Some of the Osmond brothers still sing there.

There's far more to his story than the little I've mentioned here, so if you're a fan, do pick up a copy of this enjoyable memoir.

"Red, White, and Drunk All Over"

Red, White and Drunk All Over by Natalie MacLean

This is an entertaining journey through the world of wine that's written in - surprise!- language we can all understand. I've read - or at least started reading - others that only experts would be able to get through. For a nowhere-near-expert they were beyond boring. This is one you can understand and enjoy. It may even give you the courage to experiment a bit.  

She begins with a chapter called "The Good Earth" in which she explains how the grapes are grown in various regions. This is followed by Harvesting Dreams then The Merry Widows of Mousse which is about Champagne. That was my favourite chapter. Who knew just talking about champagne could be so much fun?

The next is "Purple Prose with a Bite", about wine writing, then A Tale of Two Wine Stores, comparing two different retail marketing styles, and "A Glass Act" which is a look at what types of wine glasses are available and what works best and why. The remaining chapters are Partners at the Table, Undercover Sommelier, which is quite funny, and Big City Bacchus.

Well written, entertaining, and down to earth, this book is filled with great stories of the author's experiences with wine. It's probably the un-stuffiest wine book you'll ever find. It has lots of helpful information, and is utterly lacking in the silly wine snobbery that tries to make us ordinary folk feel inadequate. This author is someone you could enjoy having a wine conversation with even if you're just a beginner. She's fun rather than intimidating and when you're talking about wine experts, that's not something you often get to say. This book is definitely worth a look if you want to learn a little more about wine and pick up a few suggestions on what to order with dinner or what to stock in your cellar.


"The Paris Wife"

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

My inexplicable fascination with Hemingway, especially his Paris years, made me buy this book. His "A Moveable Feast" is one of my favourites but I'm not that keen on his other books so I really don't know what it is that appeals to me so much. I can't say I particularly like him as a person. He was rude and self-centered and often controlled by his dark moods and temper. Maybe it's the bad boy image, or maybe it's just the idea of being in Paris at a time when it was filled with writers, artists and other creative sorts.

This is one of those tricky novels that is based on the lives of real people. I find it gets hard to separate what I've learned about these people in biographies and memoirs from what I'm reading about them in the fictional story. I love reading these novels, but I get frustrated later when I realize that my view of them may not be accurate at all because part of it came from fiction.

Hadley Richardson was Hemingway's first wife and this book is written from her point of view. It's very well written, with vivid, utterly believable characters. McLain is able to make you feel Hadley's excitement as their relationship develops, her growing uneasiness as her life with Ernest begins to fall apart, and her heartbreak when it is finally over. You can't help but like and admire her as a good person and a strong woman who is capable of great love, but also able to be independent and make the hard choices that need to be made.

The book does a good job of describing life in Paris during the years after the first world war when so many American writers were living there and writing the books that would make them famous. Nights were glittering and carefree, but the reality of morning always followed. Ernest and Hadley started out very much in love, but the lifestyle of constant partying, heavy drinking and overt flirting was hard on relationships. Marriage didn't stand much of a chance in that atmosphere, but then marriage to Ernest Hemingway wasn't a very good bet in any atmosphere.

Published in 2012, The Paris Wife was named one of the best books of the year by several newspapers and magazines and I agree it is a compelling read. It's one of those atmospheric novels you can easily lose yourself in and I have to say I very much enjoyed getting lost.



"Evelina"

Evelina or The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World by Frances Burney


An epistolary novel published in 1778, it originally showed the name of  Burney's brother as author because at that time it was considered improper for a woman to read or write novels. Once it achieved success, the true author came forward. This novel is said to have been an influence on the writings of Jane Austen, which fact alone, I think, makes it worth reading.

It is the story of a young girl who was raised and educated in the sheltered environment of a rural clergyman's home, the man who stepped in after her natural father was tricked into believing a different child was his own daughter. She is grown now, and at the invitation of friends, and with her guardian's reluctantly given permission, Evelina sets off on a journey to visit friends. While at their home she meets her maternal grandmother who has plans to take Evelina into society where she can learn the ways of the world and enjoy some of the entertainments a city has to offer.

The grandmother and her entourage are loud, ill mannered and at times obnoxious, not at all what Evelina is accustomed to. Her trusting and innocent nature gets her into some uncomfortable situations, including a meeting with her biological father meant to convince him she is his rightful heir. She is taken to many and varied social events, at one of which she is introduced to a young Lord, a handsome gentleman with courtly manners who offers her his friendship and who is more suitable in every way than most of the young men who are being shoved into her path. Evelina is very much aware, and appreciative, of the difference.  

There are a number of, let's call them lively, characters, some a bit over the top for me, but no doubt as realistic in that age as in this. Evelina herself is a bit too good all the time. I'd have liked to see her lose her temper or do something slightly selfish to prove she was human. Not that I didn't admire her; in fact I spent most of the book wishing I could be as kind and good as she was.

You can easily imagine how the story ends, still, getting there is fun with some of the situations she relates in her letters being comical for us, if frustrating for her. There are also several tenderly written expressions of gratitude and affection for the man who raised her. Their relationship is quite beautiful, one I'm sure many of us might envy.

I read this on my e-reader, taking a chance on a free version, and it was a mess. The formatting got worse as the novel advanced, with words running together, sentences out of place and huge gaps on several pages. It was not an enjoyable reading experience. You get what you pay for. I'd like to get a hard copy just to have it in my library. I may not read it again, but I do think it's worth having on my shelves.

"The Invention of Wings"

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

This is the story of two nineteenth century women, one black, one white, each struggling in their own way to find the freedom denied them by their time and culture. The narrative alternates between the two vibrant characters, Sarah and Hetty, who grew up together, one a slave, the other a slave owner's daughter. Their struggles are very different, but each longs for a life without constraints and both eventually find the courage to take the dangerous paths that will lead them there. Neither were born with the wings of freedom, so they had to invent them for themselves, each finding their own individual way.

The book covers a span of 35 years. At her 11th birthday party, Sarah is presented with Hetty as a gift. Even at that young age, Sarah feels the evil in the concept of one human being owning another and she refuses the gift. That is the beginning of a lifelong struggle against her mother's societal edicts.

Sarah and Hetty develop a close friendship in the innocence of childhood, but as the years begin to reveal the vast chasm between them, they grow apart. I thought the author did a good job of telling their separate stories, even when their lives became separated by distance as well as circumstances. The bond formed in childhood stays alive even when they are worlds apart and have no idea what is going on in the other's life. Later, in their attempts to create meaningful lives for themselves, they are drawn together again to stand in even greater solidarity as adults.

Our book club discussed this one last week and we all felt awkward talking about the freedom denied to a slave in the same breath as that denied to a white woman. No one wanted to equate the struggles, or deny either one, and I don't believe the author is implying those two forms of repression were equal. She is simply telling the story of two women who were, in vastly different ways, denied their freedom.

I don't know what it is to be a slave or what it is to be a wealthy slave owner. I do know what it is to have my thoughts and opinions dismissed as trivial based solely on the fact that I'm a woman. Also, pain, loneliness and hopelessness are common to all human beings and I could empathize with those things. I could only be horrified at some of the other aspects of their lives. At times it was heartbreaking; sometimes at the end of a line I'd have to stop for a moment till I could cope with the inhumanity I'd just read.

With both women's stories, the author was able to avoid cliches and trite sentimentality and she thankfully stayed away from sensationalism. There were cruel punishments dealt out to people and those things were openly described, but not dwelt on to make them the focus of the story. The focus was the fight for freedom in the lives of these two women who had very little influence on anything around them. These characters felt very real, and in fact are based on real people. Several of the characters in the novel are actual historical figures.

This is an excellent book, most definitely worth your time and effort.




"A Short History of Nearly Everything"

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Well it wasn't particularly short, but it was full of information about our universe and our place in it. It begins with space and what we know of what is out there, then it zooms in to earth and its plant, animal and human inhabitants. It doesn't attempt to answer the big questions as much as to review what it is that we already know (or, in many cases, assume) and what yet remains to be discovered.

The first part covers some of the same territory as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of the World, but I found this one easier to read. I enjoyed Hawking's book but would find myself reading the same section over and over to try to get my head around it. This one felt lighter and it certainly had more comic relief. Bryson has a knack for using everyday things to explain huge concepts, a skill that makes this book fun to read and hopefully will help me remember some of it. I haven't read a lot of his work, but from this book I would say that's his outstanding characteristic: taking big ideas that are hard to understand and expressing them in smaller, more common terms that normal people can get their heads around.
   
There were a couple of sections I found boring. He talked for quite a while about scientists and scholars arguing over who should get credit for various discoveries (apparently this is a common argument in scientific circles), and there was a section on mosses, about where and how they grow, that I thought would make a great lullaby. I'm sure there are people who are interested in such things, somewhere.

Here, as in everything I've read about earth's formation and history and about our history as a species, there is so much conjecture that it's impossible to get what I want: a nice tidy answer to all the questions. Much of it starts with "we think", or "it's probable that" or "it would seem". Things the experts were sure of a hundred years ago have been dis-proven by new discoveries, and as science continues to advance many of the things believed now will likewise be discarded in light of new evidence. As much as I love science I find it frustrating when sweeping assumptions are made every time some new thing comes to light. Billions of never-even-imagined things are still hidden and as they are uncovered our theories will change....again, and again, and again. We need to stay open to the possibility that some - or all -  of our assumptions could be way off.

What I came away with is a renewed sense of awe at how truly impressive the universe and the human body are. There is so much going on in our bodies at the cellular level at any given time that it seems impossible any of us could survive for even a few seconds; that we grow and thrive is almost beyond comprehension.

Bryson writes well and leaves you with lots to think about. If nothing else, you'll be reminded of just how vast and unknowable the universe is, and how very small a part we play in it. It's humbling, but it's good to be humbled once in a awhile.

"What Jesus Would Say"

What Jesus Would Say by Lee Strobel

This is another one I've had on my shelf for years and finally read as part of my plan to increase my spiritual reading. I didn't realize quite how old it was but some of it is quite dated. Having said that, I still think it's worth reading for the truth it contains.

The author's concept with this book is to look at what Jesus might have to say to various high profile people in today's word. When the book was written "today" was 1994 so much has changed. Some of the people are deceased and in 20 years the lives of the others have changed dramatically. The list of subjects are Rush Limbaugh, Madonna, Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan, Bart Simpson, Donald Trump, Murphy Brown, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Mother Teresa, David Letterman and "You", as in all the rest of us.

The thought of telling anyone what Jesus would have to say to them sounds presumptuous, and even arrogant, but the author bases everything he says on scripture and he does it with humility and kindness. I think a lot of us would expect some scolding if not outright condemnation, but there is none of that. Every chapter is encouraging and hopeful and that, I think, makes it worth reading even if some of the references are a bit outdated.

Rather than condemnation for the less admirable things these individuals have done with their lives, there is encouragement to use their positions of public influence for good. We, the readers, are urged to be agents of real change by praying for people in public positions rather than spending our time making fun of them and criticizing their mistakes, a habit all to easy to fall into even when we have good intentions. The final chapter addresses the rest of us - the non-famous, ordinary people - with a similar message of hope and encouragement to live our lives spreading love and peace instead of scandal. That's a message that will never be outdated.

"The Anthologist"

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

A delightful surprise is the best way to describe this book. The main character, Paul Chowder, is a published poet trying to write an introduction to a new anthology of verse. Rhyming verse to be precise. He has a fascination, perhaps an obsession, with rhyme though he is incapable of it himself and writes only free verse. He doesn't merely love rhyming verse, he believes in it and in its power to say more, mean more and reach more people.

Unfortunately, Paul has a bad case of writer's block and cannot come up with anything, not even a beginning sentence, for his introduction. His attempts, and the things he allows to keep him from it, make for a funny, smart and cunningly educational story. What he is telling us about rhyme and meter are what he wants to tell his readers in his introduction but he hasn't got that figured out yet. In the meantime we stand to learn something about poetry. We may even be inspired to read more of it or put pen to paper ourselves.

I would hazard a guess that if you don't like poetry (or poets) at all you might not find this book terribly interesting. I'm a fan, so I think the book is great. I'm not knowledgeable about poetry at all, I just like what I like and I don't like the rest. I keep a hand-written journal of my favourites so I'll always have them together in one place when I need them. That's the thing about poetry - sometimes you don't just want it, you need it. My favourites are old, dear friends that offer me comfort and make me feel like there is, indeed, someone who understands how I feel.

If the world of poetry holds any interest for you I think you'll enjoy reading about Paul Chowder and his struggles, personal and literary. I love the guy. He's so honest, and artless - a funny word to apply to a poet now I think about it. Paul and his theories are worth getting to know. And, bonus, I came away with a list of poets/poems to check out.

I'll leave you with a quote and the hope that you will enjoy this thoroughly enjoyable book.

"It turns out that helping is the main thing. If you feel that you have a use, if you think your writing furthers life or truth in some way, then you keep writing." 

"Nobody's Fool"

Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo

It took me about a week to get through all 549 pages of this novel and the truth is I considered quitting several times. I'm not sure what kept me going except that I quite liked one of the characters and wanted to know what would happen to her.

I'm trying to reconcile the book I read with all the reviews that refer to it as a hilarious comedy. I can see the humor in some of it but I found the whole story more sad than funny. It's a small town setting with ordinary people living ordinary lives and while that can be fertile ground for humor, most of the humor here is at the expense of other people. I know people say and do stupid things but I got tired of certain characters always being the butt of jokes. Not only was it repetitive, it was mean.

The cover of my copy has a picture of Paul Newman playing the lead character, Sully, and because I was always a fan of his it made me like Sully better than I would have otherwise. Even so, I didn't like him much. Maybe if I were to watch the movie I'd change my mind. He plays a 60 year old guy who has basically failed at everything in life: he has an ex-wife who hates him, a son he barely knows because Sully ignored him all the time he was growing up, a deceased father he enjoys despising, and a part-time girlfriend who is married to someone else. He doesn't have a steady job, he's rude to everyone and he drinks too much. He has moments of compassion for other people that make you think he's not so bad but then he does something so completely outrageous and thoughtless of others and their welfare that it's hard not to just write him off as a jerk. I can see though how he could be made into a sort of lovable character in a movie if some of the more ugly displays of selfishness were left out.

I think my biggest problem with Sully is not that he behaves like an idiot - we all behave like idiots at times - but that he never seems to learn anything from his colossal mistakes. He knows he's screwing up, but he never decides to improve. He never sets a goal to change his behavior or become a better person. He's sixty years old, still acting like a spoiled teenager and quite willing to accept that that's the way it has to be. Had the book been shorter I might have found it funnier, but 549 pages of this guy making the same mistakes over and over got monotonous.

There were characters I liked, but only two or three and they weren't enough to make me really enjoy the story. I did think it was interesting the way the story was written. It was almost like hearing it told by someone in a small town - unhurried, with a few sentences told about a situation, then veering off onto a side trail about the people involved or a bit of history related to the story, then back to it, then veering off again. I like small towns, small town people, and small town stories told that way.

I'm still a little confused about the ending. There's a moment when Sully's landlady, an elderly woman who used to be his eighth grade teacher, looks at him and see's in him a man who is "much harder and more dangerous" than she has ever known him to be. The moment passes and things return to normal. I don't understand what the reader is supposed to take from this. Is it a warning? Why wait till the very end of the novel to throw it in? All along we are led to believe that under all of Sully's immaturity and foolishness there's a good heart. Are we meant to think otherwise now? I believed right until the very end that Sully was especially fond of his landlady and would always do whatever he could for her. Now I don't know. Whatever the author's intention, I found it an unsatisfactory, and slightly creepy, way to end the novel.

"As For Me and My House"

As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross

As one of the saddest books I've ever read, this one had me quite eager to get to the last chapter and end the pain. Not the pain of a bad book but the pain of a tormented main character, one so terribly inconsequential in her own mind that she never even gives us that most basic and personal piece of information about herself, a name. She remains throughout the book just her husband's wife, Mrs.

Mr. and Mrs. Bentley have just relocated to an unpromising little prairie town called Horizon, where he will be the pastor of a small church. The unfortunate thing (actually one of many) is that this particular minister of the gospel doesn't believe in God and hates standing in the pulpit every Sunday and lying. He does it only to earn a living, and because he doesn't have the courage to be what he wants - and has the talent - to be, an artist.

Their new town is miserably cold and barren in winter, miserably hot and barren in summer; the church members are judgmental, unkind people who rarely think of anyone but themselves except as topics for gossip; and the house provided as part of his painfully insufficient wage package is small, dilapidated and unattractive. This turns out to be a perfect setting for the excruciatingly strained relationship between the two of them. I know it sounds like I must be exaggerating, but it really is that bad. Again, not the book, but the situation.

The writing is good, the characters credible and the situation truer to life than is altogether comfortable. There were a couple of times when reading it that I found my mind wandering and I had to force it back to the narrative, but I don't see that as a flaw in this book. Everything about it, everything, reinforced the numb ache of Mrs. Bentley's life and her hopeless attempts to make a life with a man as unyielding as the climate itself.

The uncomfortable reality is that many people live this life. Different towns, different times, but the same feeling of invisibility, the same vulnerability to the impulses and  inclinations of someone they love and believe they cannot live without, even in the face of the loved one's obvious lack of love in return. This woman made me feel anger because she wouldn't see her husband as the mean, selfish fraud that he was, then sadness because her pain was as deep and constant as the blood throbbing in her veins, and finally almost hopeless, because sometimes life just seems too, too hard.

In the end I found myself asking who the real coward was. Was it him for choosing the easier way, a life of lies that would poison his own soul and batter hers, or was it her, for giving in to the notion that she was better off being mistreated by the man she loved than living life without him? I have no answer.

Obviously I did not read this as a disinterested observer; I'm not sure any woman could. It's painful and sad, and disturbing on a raw emotional level. Still, it is a good book and one I'd recommend to most adult readers, with the possible exception of anyone dealing with depression or grief because it does leave you with a deep and lingering sense of melancholy.

"The Introvert Advantage"

The Introvert Advantage - How to Thrive in an Extrovert World by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D.

I'm iffy about this book. The first part really just explained the differences between introverts and extroverts, much the same as I've read in similar books. The second part focused more on introverts and had what I considered more helpful information.

One thing the author said that I've never heard before is that introversion and extroversion are the two extreme ends of a continuum. Very few people, if any, are at the extremes. Most of us are somewhere along the line with a combination of introvert and extrovert traits, though closer to one end or the other. I find that theory more reasonable than just dividing people into the two categories and leaving them stranded there.

The book contains a lot of helpful suggestions for coping with introversion and practical helps for a number of situations. Still, she didn't convince me that introversion is an advantage at all. In fact, it seems to be treated more like a handicap with which we should learn learn to cope.

Maybe I'm too sensitive - too introverted an introvert. Maybe I'm just tired of feeling wrong all my life. Maybe I've read too many of these helping books and don't feel like I've advanced toward the extrovert end of the continuum at all. Maybe I'm just resentful that I never hear of extroverts being encouraged to be more introverted, or if they are it's considered a joke. Or maybe I'm just in a really bad mood. I guess time will show if I got anything out of the book or not. If I find my thoughts/feelings/behaviour changing in any way that reflects what I read in this book, I'll come back to this post and update.

I'm sorry if I sound negative, and, seriously, if you are looking for help, by all means read this book. The last thing I want to do is discourage anyone else. Heaven knows we could all use some honest encouragement. The author is sincerely trying to help and is qualified to do so. I don't doubt there is help available here for people who are just beginning to look at the introvert/extrovert conundrum. I hope you find in it what you need to become more comfortable in your own skin. For me, I think it's probably just too late.  

"Russian Winter"

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Alternating between two time periods, Russian Winter takes us through Nina Revskaya’s years as a star of the Bolshoi Ballet in her youth and then to her current life in Boston where, as an older woman wanting to close the door on her past, she is putting up for auction her amazing collection of jewelry, most of which was lavished on her as gifts from devoted fans of the prima ballerina.

Nina grew up, trained and danced under the communist regime, where it was common for people to be taken away in the night and never heard from again. One careless comment could get you sent to prison; no one could be trusted. When she married Viktor, acclaimed poet and love of her life, and things got difficult, she looked around at all the signs and believed that she, too, had been betrayed.
    
Decades later she is living in Boston and auctioning off her jewels to raise money for the city’s ballet corps. Twice she has been contacted by Grigori, a professor of Russian, who has an amber necklace in his possession that seems to match a set of her earrings and bracelets. He doesn’t know his family history, but thinks there might be a connection between them. He wants to find his past but Nina, wanting to forget hers, has refused to talk to him.

When Grigori puts his necklace up for auction too, Drew, an associate at the Auction House, gets curious and begins digging into their backgrounds. What she finds is the key to Grigori’s past, a past Nina has been keeping secret for half her life and has no intention of telling now.  

There were things about this book that I enjoyed, and a few I have reservations about. The history, life under the Soviet regime, the Bolshoi setting, the dancer’s life, the auction house setting all opened up new worlds to me and I found them fascinating. The relationships between Nina and Viktor and their best friends, Vera and Gersh, were well written and the characters well developed. That story had suspense, romance, intrigue, art…a bit of everything.  Those were the parts that I couldn’t wait to get back to.

The current timeline was less interesting. Grigori was fairly well developed but I found Drew’s character flat and uninteresting. The older Nina seems to be a completely different person than the Nina of younger years. Young Nina was loving, brave and strong; old Nina is just grumpy. A major disappointment for me was that there is only the barest mention of her story in between to link the two and explain why she is the way she is. Yes, she had a difficult past, but surely there had been mediating experiences in her life since. It seemed like a cop-out to me to ignore all those years and just leave her an unhappy old woman based solely on events of 50 years prior. 

There’s a bit about a journal belonging to Drew’s grandfather that didn’t seem to hold up. I found it a bit of a stretch that her unknown grandfather also happened to be Russian. What are the odds? She had a journal of his that for some reason the family didn’t have translated into English until Grigori came into the picture. It's hard to believe that no one had ever thought to have it translated before, especially given that they lived in a university town where it would probably not have been difficult to find a translator. I question even what the purpose of the journal was in the story as it didn’t move anything forward and the mere detail it added to Drew’s life seemed too coincidental to be quite real.

My final grumble is that the ending comes too abruptly. I have no problem with open endings - most of the time I enjoy the options they give the reader - but this open ending was quite sudden and left me feeling like I had missed a chapter.

All that said, I recommend Russian Winter. The early timeline is quite interesting with characters that are too good to miss. The later timeline's characters aren't so bad, they just aren't quite as good. The book is worth reading. 

"The Rosie Project"

The Rosie Project  by Graeme Simsion

Don Tillman is one of the more memorable characters I've come across in a while. A genetics professor, he is logical, highly organized, awkward and utterly sincere. He'll frustrate you but you'll fall in love with him anyway. All Don wants is to find a mate, a partner for life, but he hasn't got the first idea how to go about it. His few attempts at dating have been disasters so he figures he's not suitable as a husband or father and it's best if he just settles for living alone. 

Then he hits upon the idea of creating a questionnaire for prospective mates. It turns out to be a 16 page, double sided test on everything from likes and dislikes to education, eating habits and how they feel about punctuality. He leaves nothing to chance and sends it out to hundreds of candidates found on internet match-making sites. 

Then out of the blue Rosie walks into his life, looking for help finding the identity of her biological father. No girl could be farther from his ideal, and yet there's something about her. The one thing they have in common is that they are both a bit peculiar. Watching them try to cope with their various quirks is funny and sad, and it makes for an entertaining story. It's original, well written and well paced, and hard to put down once you begin. Don Tillman will make you crazy but you'll also find yourself rooting for him because he's such a good guy. He's innocent and lovable, a bit like Sheldon Cooper, only he isn't the self-absorbed jerk that Sheldon can be.   

Smart and funny, sweet and serious, this is a genuinely engaging story that I'm sure you will enjoy. 

"Dorothea's War"

Dorothea's War by Dorothea Crewdson

Dorothea was brought up in England where she trained to be a nurse with the Red Cross. In 1915, at the age of 28, she and her best friend, Christie, were posted to a military hospital in France and Dorothea began keeping these diaries of her experience there.

Between 1915 and 1918 she was stationed at three different hospitals where she did everything from changing dressings to waiting on tables. Living conditions were poor, mostly huts and tents that were too hot in summer and too cold in winter. There were times when there was no water or electricity in the hospital wards and times when sleep was interrupted by German bombers, when they huddled in underground bunkers waiting nervously to see how the night would end . She nursed patients suffering from diseases like influenza, dysentery and diphtheria; and those who were brutally wounded on the battlefield.

Dorothea was a sensible woman, capable, responsible and hard working, but fun-loving, with a good sense of humor. I think her resilience, more than anything, impressed me. She tended to look at the positive side of any situation, finding things to like and admire even in people who were difficult to live and work with. She was friendly with patients, soldiers and nurses alike and was well-liked in return. In her off hours she walked miles, exploring the villages and coastline and enjoying all the charm of the French countryside. She took part in whatever activities were available to her, joining choirs, a book club and helping put on shows to entertain the patients.

It was refreshing to read a first hand account like this that included all the ordinary, daily things that had to be managed under the most difficult conditions. Movies often make things so dramatic that reality is missed, but here we get to see how an ordinary woman did ordinary things in the most extra-ordinary situation. It was inspiring, and well written besides. The author has a good vocabulary and descriptive skills, providing lots of detail without rambling. And her own sketches are scattered throughout the journal entries, allowing even more of a first hand look at her life.

Journals and memoirs that transport us to a different time or culture are the best way to experience a life that is not available to us. Dorothea's War will do that for you and I think the experience will stay with you a long time.

"Left Neglected"

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

Having loved Still Alice and disliked Love Anthony I put off reading this one because I didn't want to be disappointed. However, Left Neglected is excellent, a powerful drama dealing with all the big life questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is really important?, as well as all the nitty-gritty details of daily life with a debilitating illness. A beautiful story, well told and with just enough comic relief to keep it from being overwhelmingly tragic.

Sarah Nickerson is a wife, mother and corporate executive who goes at full speed all the time. Her husband is just as busy with his company, but they have a solid marriage, a healthy family, and they are happy with their lives. Then on her way to work one day Sarah is involved in a serious car accident. She awakens in the hospital, soon realizing that something is horribly wrong. Her brain is suffering from a condition called "left neglect", a state in which it does not recognize the left side of anything. If someone is standing on the left side of the room, she will not see them until they move into her field of vision. It's not that she has a vision problem - here eyes are fine. Her brain just doesn't tell her about the left sides of things. She knows she has a left arm and a left leg, but she doesn't know how to use them because she doesn't know where they are. She eats what's on the right side of her plate but she leaves what's on the left side because she doesn't know it's there. She reads the right side of pages but the text makes no sense without the words to the left.

Her recovery is slow and difficult, the process turning their fast-paced, high-end lifestyle upside down. Can they survive the changes? At what cost to their family? You'll want to read the book to find out. And to learn more about this fascinating condition that I'd never even heard of until I picked up this book. Seriously, this is very, very good book. You won't forget it any more than you could forget Still Alice. And once you do pick it up, you're going to find it very hard to put down.

Three Quick Reviews

Upstairs at the White House - My Life with the First Ladies 
by J.B.West with Mary Lynn Kotz

J.B. West was Assistant to the Chief Usher, then Chief Usher himself of the White House through the Presidencies of Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. His responsibilities included the daily operation and maintenance of the White House, coordinating activities with the President's family and guests, planning parties, weddings, state occasions and any other social event that came up, as well as supervising all the White House staff. With every new President came a  new way of doing things, new decorating tastes, new routines, preferences and quirks. The author took all the changes in stride and adjusted to each situation as it came. His memoir is an intriguing and amusing look into the family lives of the American Presidents. I particularly appreciated his respectful care of their reputations. There is no salacious gossip here, just a terrifically interesting account of how families adjusted to their new always-on-display lives and how the First Ladies worked to protect their husbands and children during these sometimes glamorous, often harrowing, years of their lives.  


The Book Shop by Penelope Fitzgerald

With this book I'm still trying to figure out what the fuss was all about. It's short, 123 pages in my copy, and more about style than plot. Usually that appeals to me, but not this time. The story is set in 1959 in a small town in England where Florence Green, middle-aged and widowed, is opening a bookshop. Hers will be the only bookshop in town so she feels it's a safe investment, but she doesn't win the town's approval. Things don't go particularly well and I won't say anymore in case you haven't read it. Oh, one more thing, the shop is haunted. Now that I think of it, the ghost may be the thing that kept me from enjoying it. I just don't like ghost stories, even if they are in the perfect setting of a quaint bookshop in a windswept seaside town.  


The End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson

Ambrose Zephyr is a 50 year old advertising executive in London and his wife, Zappora, or Zipper, is editor of a fashion magazine. They have a strong marriage and a happy life until Ambrose is diagnosed with an incurable disease that will quickly - within a month - take his life. His wife is grief-stricken and angry but Ambrose, always fascinated with the alphabet, convinces her to go with him on a flying trip to his favorite places and those he has always wanted to visit, in order from A to Z. The result is a touching, sometimes comical, story of the last month of Ambrose's life and the fading days of Zipper's happy marriage. This little book can probably be read in one sitting, a couple of hours as I recall. I read it right after a bigger, more epic story and I think I missed a lot of the subtle goodness in it with my head still roaring from the previous adventure. It deserves more attention so it's going back on my fall reading list and I expect I'll get more from it than I did the first time.  

"The Photograph"

The Photograph by Penelope Lively

This is quite an original story idea and for that reason I enjoyed it. The plot revolves around Kath, who is already deceased when the story opens. Her husband, Glyn, has more or less adjusted to life without her when he comes across a photograph he has never seen before. In it, Kath is holding hands with another man, her sister's husband, Nick. Glyn is stunned by what he sees in the picture and sets out on a quest to uncover the truth: did his wife have a lover? The quest really just consists of talking to the people who were closest to Kath and asking the right questions to get at the truth.

Everybody seems to have loved Kath, mostly because she was beautiful. I don't feel I got to know enough about her other than that she was beautiful. They talk a lot about her being beautiful. It was a bit frustrating that her character wasn't delved into more deeply, but then again maybe she was meant to be just a pretty face without many other redeeming qualities. The fact that she had an affair, and the fact that she chose a silly, shallow man with whom to have it may be all we need to know.

I liked the book while I was reading it, but at the end I had that "so what?" feeling. Never a good way to end a book. I think the problem for me was that I didn't get invested in any of the characters. They were interesting enough but none of them stirred any emotion or made me root for them. It was a quick read, interesting enough for summer reading. I liked it but I didn't love it.


"The Company of the Committed"

The Company of the Committed by Elton Trueblood

I wanted to get back to some spiritual reading this year so I grabbed this off my shelf and started reading a couple of pages every morning. It's older - published in 1961 - but most of it is completely relevant for today or any other time in history. There are a few dated references but they don't interfere with the message of the book at all and the book still feels current.

What he's saying through this book is that every Christian is a minister, that we can't just hire someone to do the job so we can go home and comfortably forget about it.  We are all part of a task force left here to spread Christ's influence. The message is not new of course, but the way he says it doesn't let the reader shrug it off. He forces you to look at yourself and ask what you are doing with your time. He doesn't do it with guilt, he just, in his unassuming way, gets you to open your eyes and face your own personal reality.

I found it honest and straightforward, yet gentle at the same time. The writing is absolutely beautiful. And there was so much good material in it that I read it through twice and have by now underlined about half of the book. These are some of the most helpful passages to me:

"They are looking for a bold fellowship, and what they find is a complacent society concerned to an absurd degree with its own internal politics or so unimaginative as to suggest that the world can be saved by three hymns and a sermon or Mass."

"A Christian is a person who confesses that, amidst the manifold and confusing voices heard in the world, there is one Voice which supremely wins his full assent, uniting all his powers, intellectual and emotional, into a single pattern of self-giving. That Voice is Jesus Christ. A Christian not only believes that He was; he believes in Him with all his heart and strength and mind. Christ appears to the Christian as the one stable point or fulcrum in all the relativities of history."

"Our commitment is outside the spirit of Christ if it involves an effort to ride over other men, to use them for our cause, or to see anything else as more important than the individual welfare of individual persons."

"Somewhere in the world there should be a society consciously and deliberately devoted to the task of seeing how love can be made real and demonstrating love in practice. Unfortunately, there is really only one candidate for this task. If God, as we believe, is truly revealed in the life of Christ, the most important thing to Him is the creation of centers of loving fellowship, which in turn infect the world. Whether the world can be redeemed in this way we do not know, but it is at least clear that there is no other way."

I wish I could memorize this entire book. I need Trueblood's wisdom to stay in my head until it becomes second nature and I'm actually living it. It is so very easy to be distracted by less important things. 

If you're looking for a book to encourage you in your spiritual life I hope you will check this one out. It is truly a breath of fresh air. 

"Tennyson's Gift"

Tennyson's Gift by Lynne Truss

Well this isn't what I expected at all. I don't remember why I bought it - it's been quite a while - but the cover picture led me to expect a serious story. Instead it's a clever, comical tale of several egotistical, artistic personalities meeting on the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1864 and it's very funny.

First, there is Alfred Tennyson who is on the island with his wife and sons and spends his days reading his own works aloud to himself. Surly and unfriendly, he has very little tolerance for anyone but his own family. Juliet Cameron is a photographer with such an obsession for the good opinion of others that she forces unwanted gifts on everyone she meets. G. F. Watts is a painter who lives off the charity of others and who is married to a beautiful woman with whom he has never been intimate. Then there is Lorenzo Fowler and his daughter, Jessie, American phrenologists who are on the island to put on a show and find new clients. And finally, there is a mathematician called Charles Dodgson, who is actually Lewis Carroll. Once he enters the picture the story begins to take off.

It could be called a comedy of manners, except that most of these people don't have any manners - or they have them but feel no need to use them. I think it would be more accurately labeled a farce. It's quite light-hearted and witty but underneath the comedy are some deeper issues that I think are as well handled as the humour.

All in all Tennyson's Gift made for an entertaining summer read but don't let the fact that summer's over hinder you. You'll enjoy this one anytime.

"Tales From Willowshade Farm"

Tales From Willowshade Farm - An Island Woman's Notebook by Betty Howatt

Betty Howatt is a native Prince Edward Islander who farms with her husband, Everett, on land that has been in his family since 1783. Howatt's Fruit Farm, formerly called Willowshade Farm, is known for their fruit, vegetables and honey.

There are stories in this book about her personal history and what it's like now to be a full time farmer. It's full of interesting information about the history and the flora and fauna of the area and anecdotes about her family's farming experience. The sections of the book are titled The Howatt Farm, My Younger Years, Farming for a Living, Creatures of the Wild, In the Garden and Feasts from the Farm.

Published in 2003, it's a wonderful look at operating and making a living from a small family farm and a lifestyle that is too quickly disappearing. The stories were gathered from broadcasts presented by the author on a CBC radio program.

 I tried to find out if the farm is still operating but the internet didn't yield any current information, just some old references from four or five years ago. If anyone out there knows if they are still open for business please do leave a comment letting me know.

"Persuasion" and "The Incident Report"

Persuasion by Jane Austen

This is not my favourite of Austen's books but I love reading it anyway. In this one the main character is a woman who, in her youth, broke off a relationship with the man she loved because of her family's disapproval. All of Jane Austen's novels end happily ever after and this one has the same predictable outcome when the man shows up in her life after a few years and they renew their acquaintance. I wish there was more dialogue between these two characters, but there are only a few very brief meetings before they finally get together and reveal their feelings for one another. Until then it all happens in her thoughts, which is a bit disappointing. As I said, I like her other novels better. I'll keep reading them all though because there's simply nothing like Jane Austen's writing. It's in a class by itself.




The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

This wasn't what I expected. I'd read reviews saying it was the (fictional) record book of a librarian writing up reports on various incidents taking place in the library, but the tone and the direction the story took were quite a surprise. Because the main character is a female librarian I was thinking it might have a "Miss Read" or "Anne of Green Gables" feel to it. Wrong. It started out with a couple of funny incidents but the stories get much more serious as it continues. This is an edgy librarian - two words not often used together, I suspect. Many of the incident reports are about her personal life, though the book was supposed to chronicle events happening in the library. Toward the end it gets much more intense than anything I expected. I wasn't disappointed with it, just a bit disconcerted because it was so far off what I was expecting. I think I liked it. I know I'll remember it.

"Without A Guide" and "A Tale of Two Cities"

Without a Guide - Contemporary Women's Travel Adventures edited by Katherine Govier

This is a collection of short travel stories from some of the world's best known female authors, including Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Annie Proulx and Carol Shields. The stories are meant to be some of their more memorable travel experiences, but I was a bit disappointed to find them focusing less on the places they were visiting and more on what was happening to them personally at the time.

I am usually a big fan of travel storiesI'm not able to travel myself so I devour other people's travel experiences with great expectation and excitement. These stories, though all set in different places around the world, didn't make any of them seem appealing. Many of the stories are about negative experiences and one, called "On The Train To Hell And Can't Get Off", is just weird. It closes by telling us that the author is still on the train, that we are with her, and that none of us are ever getting off. Not your usual travel tale.

I did find the writing a pleasure to read, if not the stories. These are, after all, proven authors, so though  I can't say I enjoyed the book, I don't feel my time was wasted.


A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

There's no way I'm going to review a Dickens novel, but for those who don't know the story, it's set during the French Revolution and takes place in both London and Paris. It's tragic because it's set in a tragic time, but it's not all unhappy. As it says in its famous opening line:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only." 

The closing line is also a famous one, one I never really understood until I read the novel in spite of its being quoted frequently in other writings:

"It is a far, far, better thing that I do, than I have ever done;
it is a far, far, better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

What else can I say? It's Dickens. If you love Dickens, you'll love A Tale of Two Cities.

"Sweetland"

Sweetland by Michael Crummey

Moses Sweetland lives on a tiny island, also called Sweetland, off the coast of Newfoundland. The federal government has offered the residents of Chance Cove, the only settlement on the island, a hefty relocation incentive if, and only if, every household on the island agrees to take it. The last two holdouts are Moses and his neighbour, Loveless, until finally Loveless gives in and leaves Moses Sweetland to stand alone. As the community tries to talk, badger, then threaten him into taking the package, he resists them all.

Moses lives alone, next door to his brother-in-law, niece and her son. The boy, Jesse, has taken a liking to Moses and follows after him when he's trapping rabbits and fishing. The affection is mutual, but Moses is not given to emotional display; he shows he cares by letting Jesse into his life.

There are a lot of stories on this tiny island. The residents and their parents before them grew up here so their lives are all intricately intertwined. Although Moses Sweetland says he will never leave, circumstances lead him to eventually give in and agree to take the settlement. Agreeing and going, however, are two very different things. If his plan succeeds, he will be the only living resident of Sweetland.

Words cannot say just how much I loved this book, in spite of a lot of cursing/bad language that for me usually takes away the appeal of even a great story. Just as I didn't really understand my ambivalence to the last book I read (Noah's Compass), so I don't really understand my strong reaction to this one. I was nothing short of mesmerized by it. The characters became so real to me that I felt a terrible loss when they left the island. And Moses, he's inside my head all the time. But the thing that really got to me is the island itself. As I approached the last chapters of the book I could feel the dread of finishing it growing in me. I didn't want to leave, but those words "didn't want" don't really express it. I was heartbroken to leave it. I am so homesick for this place I've never been that I'm avoiding putting the book away. Somehow it feels closer with the book nearby. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but there you have it.

Looking at more tangible things, the writing is also very good. I can't remember which author said that his rule when editing is "If it sounds like writing, take it out.", but he'd be happy with this one. It never sounded like writing. It's one of those books that make you feel as if you're living the story, not reading it. It's that vibrant, that immediate. I don't remember there being a lot of descriptive passages, and yet many details about the place and its people clearly stand out even now, after finishing the book. The dialogue was very natural, blending in with the narrative so well it was barely noticeable. This guy can write.

It's been a while since I found a book worthy of adding to my "favourites" list, but this one is truly something special. I hope you'll read it and enjoy it, too.        

"Noah's Compass"

Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler

At sixty-one years old Liam Pennywell is forced into early retirement when the private school where he is a teacher downsizes. He's not all that disappointed at the loss of the job because, divorced with grown daughters, he has no one else to support but himself. His savings and pension will allow him time to think over whether he needs or even wants to look for another position.

He does some downsizing of his own, moving into a smaller apartment and discarding anything that won't fit into his newer, more spartan existence. The first night in his new bedroom he falls asleep satisfied with himself and the direction his life is taking.

The next morning he wakes up in the hospital, with absolutely no memory of what happened to him. He's told he fought off an intruder who gained entrance through an unlocked patio door but he can't remember anything at all. Recovering those memories becomes his focus, as much as he can be said to focus on anything.

 His ex-wife, his sister and his daughters come and go in his life with all the usual family tensions. Then he meets Eunice who actually works as a "hired remember" for someone else and who Liam thinks will be able to help him. What he gets is far more than he bargained for.

I'm having some difficulty deciding if I liked this book or not. It was interesting enough, but when I got to the end I found myself asking - so what? I've had that experience with the occasional movie but never before with a book. I'm not sure what it means, maybe just that I'm not in a place to get anything from it. Books and movies say different things to a person at different times in your life.

The reviews for this book were great. USA Today said "Gracefully written tragicomedy...seasoned with poetic images [and] gentle humor." The Observer (UK) said "...an elegant contemplation of what it meant to be happy..." I feel bad that I didn't get more from it, but there you have it. You might love the characters and the story; I was unmoved.

"Apples To Oysters"

Apples To Oysters - A Food Lover's Tour of Canadian Farms by Margaret Webb

Margaret Webb is a food writer who for this book traveled across the country visiting farms and restaurants and talking to the farmers who work long, hard hours to produce the best product possible for our tables. She listened to their stories of getting started, trying to maintain what they had built and to their hopes for expansion. In too many cases it seems that it's a losing battle with every imaginable thing against them, but they are passionate people and their stories of dedication and perseverance are both moving and inspiring.

The book is structured like a meal, in three courses. "Appetizers" takes in oyster farming in Prince Edward Island., Grand Manan (NB) dulse and the scallop fishery in Nova Scotia. "Mains" covers Newfoundland cod, Manitoba pork, Saskatchewan flax, Alberta beef and Yukon potatoes. The last section, "To Finish" takes us to British Columbia for apples, Quebec for cheese and Ontario for icewine.

What stands out to me in this book are her remarkably vivid descriptions. She does so much more than just tell you about a place - she puts you right there with her with wonderful detail. She makes it an exciting journey by taking part in the actual work of each farm and telling us what that's like, and by using vibrant language that makes every scene come alive. When was the last time you read a book about farming that was actually fun? This one will have you breathing in the salt air of the east coast and feeling the warm earth on your hands as you dig up a Yukon Gold potato. It was almost as good as a vacation. Well, maybe not so much for her.

Reading this book will leave you hungry so it's a good thing a couple of recipes are included at  the end of each chapter for anyone who can't wait to get to a restaurant where these products are featured. The book will tell you where those restaurants are as well. I haven't yet tried any of the recipes but the Yukon Gold fries (oven made) are on my menu for this week.

I wish this book was required reading for every Canadian so we'd all have a better idea where our food comes from and how much work goes into producing it. Full of eye-opening stories and a lot of information, it was never dry but fun to read from beginning to end. Try it, you'll like it. :)

"The Taste of New Wine"

The Taste of New Wine by Keith Miller

A book about finding spiritual renewal, it seems to be directed more toward those who are in leadership positions in the church. It's central theme is the awakening of lay people to new purpose, a new relationship with Christ, and to their true position as ministers of the gospel, but I think Miller's purpose was to show church leaders that this is a movement that has already begun and to encourage them to get on board.

The problem is that as church members, most of us have always assumed that evangelism and witnessing are the job of the paid ministers and pastors and we have happily let them them take responsibility for that, even though it contradicts what scripture tells us about all believers being ministers of the gospel. The real job of the salaried minister or pastor is to equip the laypeople to go out and live a life of evangelism. The church I hold to has long taught the priesthood of all believers so this wasn't new teaching to me.

It was written in 1965, but truth is truth in any era so it didn't feel outdated. In my copy there were three blank pages so sections of the text were actually missing. Unfortunately that meant not knowing where he was going with certain points or not finding out the ending of  a particular story he was telling. It was hard to stay interested with those huge gaps but I finished it because it's been on my shelf for a long time and I wanted to get it done.

"Tell"

Tell by Frances Itani

This is a funny book. Well, not funny ha ha, but funny different. Several of us at book club didn't enjoy the first half but later found ourselves thinking what a good book it was. We talked about various aspects of the story but never came up with a reasonable answer as to why it took us so long to get into it. When I think back on the first half, I don't think I disliked it, but it didn't draw me in even though it's a good, solid story.

It begins with a prologue - then chapter one starts a year previous to that.  Prologues can be a little off putting at first because they don't relate to what's going on in the beginning of the story. I even tend to forget them once I get into the story. At the end of the novel, though, I find it satisfying to go back and reread them because of the clarity they bring.

There are two main story lines. One is about a returning WW1 soldier, Kenan, who is suffering from PTSD (they didn't call it that then) and his wife, Tress. Tress is trying to hold things together as her injured husband adjusts to life without the use of one arm and with considerable damage to his face. The other story line is about another couple, Maggie (Tress's aunt) and Am, whose marriage is slowly disintegrating in the silence which for years has surrounded a tragic loss.

The setting is a small town in Ontario, the prominent feature of which (for this story) is a skating rink built on the frozen bay. The main characters all spend time alone and with companions on the ice, which becomes a place of solace to many of them. It represents a sort of freedom from the lives in which they are trapped.

Having begun with a prologue, the book ends with a letter summing up the changes that have taken place in the year since the end of the story. It's both happy and sad, as life always is.

I love the title: "Tell". I think the author is telling us that talking would have made everything different. If Maggie and Am had shared their pain in words it might have kept them from growing apart and made it less likely that one of them would stray. For Kenan and Tress, telling is what makes it possible for them to accept the changes in their marriage and move forward.

I recommend this book for it's good story, well-constructed characters and enjoyable writing.


"Home"

Home by Marilynne Robinson

Anyone who has read "Gilead" will know the characters of this book. Gilead told the story of that time from one man's point of view; "Home" tells it from another. If you think that sounds dull, think again. I was quite hesitant to read this because Gilead was so incredibly beautiful that I was sure nothing could measure up. I don't know what I was thinking. It's a different book with it's own beauty and the two shouldn't even be compared. It's like asking which is more perfect, this perfect thing or that perfect thing.

They are different character's stories set at the same time in the same place. It was curious, and intriguing, to read about something happening that I'd read before from a different perspective.  Each book stands on it's own, but reading Gilead first took this story to another level, giving me a broader understanding of every character's actions and motivations.

In "Gilead" retired Rev. John Ames tells of his growing up years, the loss of his first wife and child and how, in his later life, he came to be married to a younger woman and having a child with her. His neighbour and best friend of many years, Robert Boughton, also a retired Reverend, is a major part of his life. In "Home", the Boughton family's story is told. Rev. Boughton is a widower with several grown children, one of whom - his daughter,Glory - has returned to Gilead to care for him as his health declines. The major story line is the return of his son, Jack, who hasn't made an appearance in 20 years. Jack had been the misfit, the one who always did or said the wrong thing, who found trouble wherever he went. He tells Glory that when he was a child, he had watched the rest of them and wished he could live in that house the way they did, could come and go like he belonged there. He did belong there, but he never felt it.

I don't think I can adequately express how I feel about these books. Actually, it's not so much how I feel about them as it is how they made me feel. I fell into them and did not want to come out. The writing is hauntingly beautiful. The author's insight and honesty about what it is to be human make this one of the most gently realistic stories I've ever read. I think anyone who reads it is going to find something of themselves in here. There's a ring of truth about these books that is sweet relief in a society numbed by the phoniness of Kardashians and other false realities.

As corny as it sounds, reading "Home" felt like going home, both because the place and characters were familiar and because the writing is so comfortable. It just feels right, like it fits. I love these books and can't recommend them highly enough.

Still - Notes On A Mid-Faith Crisis

Still - Notes On A Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren F. Winner

This is the personal story of Lauren Winner who was raised Jewish and later converted to Christianity, an experience she wrote about in a previous book "Girl Meets God". In the beginning days of her journey with Jesus she felt His presence and talked to Him easily, but life got hard and things began to fall apart. She lost her mother just before she got married, then her marriage failed. Anxiety, grief and guilt took their toll and doubt crept in. She questioned her faith and the very existence of God. This is her journey through that darkness.

It's rare to find an author who can be honest about her personal life while still maintaining discretion. Ms. Winner does it beautifully. She admits to doubts we all have and hide, but in her admission there is tact and grace. There is no wallowing. There must have been some of that in her actual experience but she's a good enough author to leave it out of her book. Her writing is intelligent, honest and clear in a way that has you nodding your head and recognizing yes, you've been there, or maybe are there now.

Her graceful candor is a breath of fresh air to one who has read too many I-have-all-the-answers books. She works her way through this "mid-faith crisis" by putting one foot in front of the other. She keeps breathing, working, living, though much of it seems pointless at times. In her own words "...I continue to live in the world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wonder. And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze."

"Still" was not written as a how-to manual for getting through your own periods of doubt, but it is a light for the darkness. Hope is necessary for survival and it is strengthened when we hear of someone else going through a crisis similar to ours and surviving with faith intact. You will find no pat answers here; what you will find is encouragement to carry on, and that is far more valuable.


"Quite a Curiosity"

Quite a Curiosity - The Sea Letters of Grace. F. Ladd ed.by Louise Nichols

Grace Forrest was born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia in 1864. At the age of twenty-one she married Fred Ladd, captain of a sailing vessel, and traveled with him around the world for most of his sailing career. They raised their young children onboard until they were old enough to be at school full time.

This book is a collection of letters that she wrote to her father from various places around the world. Included are a few that he wrote back and some of her daughter Kathryn's memories. By the time Katheryn was born, steam ships were handling most of the trans-atlantic crossings so her memories are mostly of sailing up and down the Atlantic coast of North and Sound America, making her own experience different from that of her brother, Forrest, who saw the world in his early years.

I can barely imagine what it's like to raise a toddler on a ship but the Ladds seemed to have have no problem with it. They took care of medical emergencies, weathered storms at sea and celebrated Christmas with gifts and festive meals. The pictures of their living quarters are impressive so I know they had some creature comforts, but still, it would take a strong woman to live that life and feel comfortable raising her children on the sea. I have nothing but admiration for this woman.

Grace collected "curiosities" from the places she visited, hence the title. She and her husband made friends of other sailing couples they would meet in various ports and even visit between ships when they were at sea. In port she did the tourist things, shopping and seeing how the natives lived, then writing of her father to tell what they had seen and done.

I was born and raised on the east coast of Canada and lived here all my life but had never heard Grace Ladd's story, so I was thrilled to come across this book. It's a fascinating look at sailing life in what is called "The Golden Age of Sail" and at the personal details of domestic life and child-rearing at sea. A great read, indeed.      

"The Perks of Being a Wallflower"

The Perks of Being A Wallflower

I’m not sure there are any - perks that is - but it was a good book nevertheless. I didn’t really begin to get into it till about a third of the way through, but the main character, Charlie, intrigued me so I kept going. Really it was a fight to even begin it. It’s a YA novel, a coming-of-age thing so there’s a lot of angst and high school stuff and sexual awakening. The truth is I find that all a bit tedious now - there’s just so much of it in books, on tv and in movies - and I would never have chosen this book for myself, but a couple of friends at book club put it in my hands and said I should read it. I trust them, so I did.

I liked it. I still didn’t enjoy all of that stuff - I think my own high school experience was more than enough for me - but Charlie is a fascinating character. He has no idea what’s wrong with him, but he knows there’s something. He doesn’t react to things the way other people do. He feels things differently. He is detached and sometimes feels that he isn’t there at all. He’s highly intelligent, well mannered and lovable in a quirky, Sheldon Cooper kind of way, but there’s something wrong somewhere. Life doesn’t feel good to him. He’s different in a way he doesn’t understand.

The book is written in letters, all to “Dear Friend” and signed “Love always, Charlie”. He writes letters because he believes them to be more real than a journal. He does share the very personal changes in his life, but the book is written with restraint and is never salacious, in my opinion. Your opinion may differ.

The “Dear Friend” he writes to is someone he chose because another friend (we don’t know who, other than it’s a girl) said he listened and was trustworthy, but he makes it clear that names and details are changed to maintain his anonymity. He doesn’t want the recipient to ever know who was writing to him. We never learn the identity of the “dear friend” but that doesn’t matter because it feels like Charlie is talking to you, the reader, the entire time.  He gets to you, this boy who quietly carries more pain than any child should have to.

It was interesting to learn that the author, Stephen Chbosky, wrote the screenplay for the movie “Rent” and was executive producer of the tv show, Jericho. He obviously knows how to tell a story. This is his first novel.   

"Suite Francaise" and "The Long Way Home"

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

Irene Nemirovsky was a successful writer in France when WWII started. She was also Jewish, and was arrested and taken to Auschwicz where she died. The manuscript for this novel went undiscovered until decades later when it was found and published in France in 2004. This translation to English was published in 2007 and it has now been translated and published in countries around the world.

The story of the German invasion of France is told from the points of view of seven different people/families. Corbin is a banker in Paris and his mistress, Arlette, is a dancer. Mr. and Mrs. Michaud work for Corbin and have a son, Jean Marie, who is serving as a soldier in France. Gabriel Corte is a renowned author who is used to having things his way. Charlie Langelet lives in luxury and "loved nothing in this world but his porcelain collection.". Madeline and Cecile Sabarie live in the countryside on a farm where they nurse the Michaud's son back to health after he is injured. The Angellier family live near the Sabarie's farm, in a small town overrun by people fleeing Paris after the invasion.

Each story vividly describes what it was like to be in those particular circumstances when the panic of invasion set in. The detail given to each situation makes the stories come alive so that you come close to understanding some of what they must have been feeling. There are so many little things, daily habits and activities that were turned upside down by the German takeover, things we who have never experienced war have never had to think about. It's a vibrant novel, full of real life and real tragedy, but it never becomes weepy or too sentimental. It's the kind of book you don't want to describe as entertaining because of the subject, but it is a well written, highly readable novel that will disturb your comfort a bit and will hold your attention from start to finish.


The Long Way Home by Robin Pilcher

This book was slightly disappointing. I love Rosamunde Pilcher's novels, but didn't find this one, written by her son, lived up to it's hype.

It is said to be written "in the tradition of his mother" but something is missing. It has all the Britishness that I find so appealing, the house in Scotland, the manners and mannerisms, and the language, but it fell flat. There was no edge, no sparkle, no special something to make it memorable.

It's not that I didn't like it at all, in fact I might read another of his novels sometime when I'm looking for something light and easy to read. It just doesn't have the substance that I like to find in novels and that I usually did find in Rosamunde's.  

"Heaven, Your Real Home"

Heaven, Your Real Home by Joni Eareckson Tada

One of my goals this year is to do more spiritual reading but I didn't want to give up other books to do it, so in January I began reading a bit each morning from one of the books on my "spiritual" shelf. I won't get through these books quickly, but then I don't really want to. I want to absorb what they say and put to use in my life the things I'm learning.

I think I chose this one to start with because I have days when I really don't want to be here anymore and I thought a book about Heaven might give me something to look forward to, Carrying an image of Heaven in my head makes it easier to push my body through one more day of pain and frustration on earth. Not that every day is frustrating. I do have pain every day, but some days I feel better than others and can do a few things without paying too dearly for it. Other days, as anyone with chronic illness will tell you, it's just pushing and pushing some more to get through the day.

This book did help get my mind off the troubles of earthly life and get me thinking more about Heaven. I'm a picky reader and didn't find it terribly well written, but the content did made a difference some days. The author has learned to live with quadriplegia while maintaining a healthy outlook and still contributing to society. She has purpose and hope, though there are times when she'd like to get this life finished and move on to the next. She has bad moments in a positive life. I was getting to where I had good moments in a negative life, and I needed to read this book at this time to get me looking up a bit more.  
 

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