The Reader on the 6.27, The Man Who Was Thursday, The Red Coat, and The Gown

 The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

A book about books, or maybe more about words, and the impact they have on people's lives. Guylain lives alone, has few friends, and every morning takes the same train to a menial job that he hates. He operates a huge machine, which he thinks of as "The Thing", that turns millions of unwanted books into a grey pulp “expelled in the form of great steaming turds” that is in turn used to create more books. He defies the machine by rescuing a few pages every day and reading them aloud on the train. People pay attention and before long two passengers ask him to come and read at their senior's home. He does, leading to experiences that are poignant and funny and wonderful to read. Another story line tells of a friend, the former operator of The Thing, who lost both legs while trying to dislodge stuck material that had brought the machine to a halt. That part is a bit grizzly. Then there's Julie, who loses a memory stick containing her diary on the train, which Guylain reads, prints out and begins to use for his daily readings on the way to work. He finds in her writing, for the first time in his life, someone who is like him, who understands loneliness, and he begins to fall in love. With the little identifying information he gets from her journal, knowing only that she is a washroom attendant (providing plenty of opportunity for more bowel talk) somewhere in a mall, he sets out to find her. 

I wasn't sure about this one in the beginning. Reviewers called it touching and beautiful but I couldn't find that in the first few chapters, which only described Guylain's rather grim existence and his hatred for "The Thing". But it soon became something deeper, something that is touching and beautiful, something that says there is colour to be found in even the most grey existence. It truly is a wonderful story, with just a few too many human waste references for my liking.

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton

This is a detective story...and/or a mystery...a fantasy...a weird and wonderful tale of intrigue and secret identities...I'm really not sure what to call it. It begins with two in-disguise men going to a secret meeting of anarchists, where one of them is chosen to be a leader of the group whose leaders are all named for days of the week. Thus he becomes The Man who was Thursday. 

In my book club some of the books included "A Nightmare" in the title and some did not, making it a very strange story for a few of our readers. As the story unfolds more false identities are discovered and hidden purposes uncovered. There comes a point at which it moves out of the realm of weird into the absolutely impossible, and those who hadn't known it was a nightmare from the beginning figured it out then. 

I highly recommend you look for reviews online to get a more coherent explanation. I can only say I thought it well written, weird, and I liked it. And that it needs studying. The surface level reading I gave it hardly does it justice.

The Red Coat by Dolley Carlson

The Red Coat, A Novel of Boston follows two families, one wealthy, one working class, in south Boston. The wealthy lady gives a red coat belonging to, but seldom worn by, her daughter, to her cleaning lady, who passes it on to one of her own daughters. There's not a great deal of plot, more a record of the lives of these two families. The red coat is the connecting factor but it never really lives up to the importance the title gives it. Yes it gets worn and passed on, but I didn't find it all that significant to the story. The city of Boston is almost a character in itself, so anyone from there will probably find it quite interesting. I enjoyed the book well enough, though I found the plot and characters a bit flat. The one character I liked died halfway through, and after that I was just reading to see how it ended. But I didn't give it up, so that says something.  

The Gown by Jennifer Robson

Two timelines, but well woven together and quite easy to follow. In one a young woman's grandmother dies, leaving her a box of fabric flowers exquisitely embroidered and trimmed with pearls. Never having known her to sew, her granddaughter sets out to discover where they came from and why they were important to her. The other timeline has the grandmother as a young girl working for a design firm in London after the war. She and a friend are assigned to the team who will create the wedding gown for the upcoming nuptials of the young Princess Elizabeth, 

The title says it's a "novel of the royal wedding" but that's a little misleading. The story focuses on the lives of the two young women in the past and the present- day girl who is gradually uncovering her Grandmother's history. The wedding does come into it briefly but it's not a story about that specifically. It is definitely about the gown: how it came together from start to finish and the enormous amount of talent, effort, and time that went into it. I loved getting a look at the process from early concept to final completion of such an iconic gown. 

It's well written with believable characters and a good story. There was one plot twist that felt out of place, not the event itself, more the way it was presented. It seemed to come out of nowhere so suddenly that I almost heard that screeching record stop they use in movies. 

Overall, though, I liked this one. 

One Interesting, One Great, One Fun, and One Disappointing

 Interesting: An Astronaut's Guide to Life On Earth by Chris Hadfield

This was a book club selection, otherwise I don't think I would have picked it up. Though I find outer space and our attempts to go there fascinating, I am always a bit skeptical about authors writing guides to life. He has learned many things that he can use in his own life, but his experiences are far from typical and what has been successful in his own life would not work for all.

The first part of the book is a little dry, with a lot of lengthy job titles and training information. Some of it was interesting, but the really good stuff comes in the second half of the book when he's actually going to space and spending time on the International Space Station. That was nothing short of amazing to read. He includes many funny stories, but the one that stuck with me was his discovery that when you shake hands in space, where there is no gravity, your whole body will move up and down with your arm. That struck me as so funny when I first read it and now I keep picturing it and still laugh. Small things...

 It's easy to get caught up in the excitement because the author's own excitement fills every page. When he's talking about space he's an enthusiastic writer with the enviable ability to make you feel like you're there floating above the earth with him. Though I found the first part slow, the second part more than made up for it. 

Great: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

What can I say? It's Dickens. I love his writing and I love the language of the period. 
His vivid story-telling puts you right there, in his time and place. He has a finely tuned sense of humor, opinions he is not shy about sharing, and a delightfully cheeky turn of phrase, as in the following:

"The Constables...were about the house for a week or two, and did pretty much what I have heard and read of like authorities doing in other such cases. They took up several obviously wrong people and they ran their heads very hard against wrong ideas, and persisted in trying to fit the circumstances to the ideas instead of trying to extract ideas from the circumstances." and "Mrs. Pocket was at home, and was in a little difficulty, on account of the baby's having been accommodated with a needle-case to keep him quiet...and more needles were missing than it could be regarded as quite wholesome for a patient of such tender years either to apply externally or to take as a tonic." 

This rags-to-riches-to-almost rags story has something in it to appeal to every reader: romance, suspense, crime, and hard won observations about friendship, family and what's really important. It's worth reading and reading again. And again.    

Fun: The Odyssey by Homer

I tried once before to get through this but lost interest somewhere in the middle. This time I listened to the audio book and it made all the difference. Maybe it was hearing the intensity in the reader's voice, I don't know, but it was fun, a word I never thought I'd use in conjunction with this book. I found it much easier to follow and to get involved in the story, a lot like listening to those old radio plays a few decades ago. The reader is an actor who makes the experience of listening an almost interactive experience, with your thoughts and emotions so affected by his that you understand him, you feel the confusion or anger or dismay he's putting into his performance.
 Like a Vulcan mind meld.....never mind. 

I could get addicted to audio books I think, though I have given up on a few when I found the reader more irritating than entertaining. This one was wonderfully narrated by Gordon Griffin who has over 800 others to his credit I was glad to find out. I think I'd listen to just about any story if he were the one to tell it. 

Disappointing: A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay

Set in Paris, it begins with Antoine Rey taking his sister Melanie for a surprise birthday trip back to their childhood vacation spot. On the way home Melanie tells Antoine she has remembered something about the night, many years ago, when their mother died. A moment later they are involved in an accident that lands her in the hospital and him sitting at her bedside hoping she'll survive. When she wakes up she can't remember her "secret" so Antoine sets out to uncover the truth, and tries to make sense of his own life in the process. A divorced father of three, he is still in love with his ex-wife and struggling to maintain relationships with his daughter and two sons. And he has only distant connections with his own father and family. 

I enjoy De Rosnay's writing but these characters did not appeal to me. It's hard to like a book when you don't like the people who inhabit the story, especially the main character. Again, it was an audio book, so I can't be sure if it was the narrator and the way he portrayed Antoine or if it was Antoine himself, but I found him dislikable, and a sort of sleazy, from the beginning. An even bigger disappointment was the "secret" itself. There was quite a build up to it but it turned out to be not much of anything. It seemed hardly worth all the effort put in to discovering it, and therefore hardly worth the effort of reading. After "Sarah's Key" and "The House I Loved", I expected more.  

"The Road", "Books for Living", "Silent Night"

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

A book so well written I feel privileged to have read it. Powerful, and devastating, and beautiful. The dialogue is spare, yet achingly full of meaning and emotion. The writing is superb, the characters immediately relatable, and the pacing perfect. I was constantly torn between needing to know what was on the next page and fearing to turn that page in case something awful happened to them. 

The main character, referred to only as the man, and his young son, referred to only as the boy, are walking through the burned out, ash covered remains of America several years after a catastrophic nuclear war. Cities are flattened and empty, charred cars and bones litter the highways, and any houses or buildings left standing have been stripped of anything useful long ago. The two are heading south because it might be easier to survive in a warm climate. They forage for food and claim the odd blanket or piece of clothing found along the way for warmth, but their main concern is to avoid people. There are other survivors, and they are as desperate as the man and the boy and will kill, or worse, to take what little they have. Now the man is sick and knows his time is limited. He worries what will happen to the boy. 

I hesitated to read the book because the movie was so moving that I wasn't sure I could, or even wanted to, handle it. I decided to read just a couple of pages at a time, but once I began I found it hard to make myself stop. Sometimes the books I read from the Pulitzer Prize list make me wonder what they were thinking, but this one is completely deserving. Not that I know what makes a book worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, but I expect excellence is part of it and The Road is that and then some. So don't settle for the movie; read the book! 

Books for Living, a Reader's Guide to Life by Will Schwalbe

In a previous book, "The End of Your Life Book Club", the author wrote about the books he and his mother read and talked about while she was being treated for, and dying from, cancer. His honesty and insight impressed me, so when I heard about this new book, I was hoping for more of the same, and of course a few more titles to add to my tbr list. He came through on both fronts. Each chapter deals with a different book, explaining when and why he read it and what his life circumstances were at that time, then sharing what he took from it that helped him in his own life. His stories are real and personal, and I always find his writing comforting somehow. It's an unusually satisfying read.  

Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub

When WWI began, it was generally believed it would all be over by Christmas. Finding themselves still in the bloody trenches on opposing sides of no man's land Christmas Eve, some soldiers called an unofficial truce and joined their enemies to celebrate. It usually began with the Germans singing carols and setting up small, lit-up Christmas trees where the British could see them. A few brave souls would climb out of the trenches and take tentative steps toward the other side in hopes the British would respond in kind and not shoot them where they stood. Throughout the night they buried their dead - the bodies that had been unreachable during the fighting - shared food packages from home, drank together, exchanged small gifts, and even played soccer. Their activities were unsanctioned but most of the officers looked the other way, until day dawned again and they all went back to killing each other. Nothing like it had ever been known to happen before and there are those who saw it as a miracle of sorts, a light in a dark time, evidence that the human spirit will always arise victorious. Others saw it as a breach of discipline and a threat to the fighting spirit the soldiers needed to survive. Either way, it is a fascinating episode in history brought to light in this well researched and thought-provoking account.   

Five Recent Reads

The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson

A nice surprise. "Bookshop" titles are popular right now and I'm as vulnerable to their appeal as anyone else, even knowing they often don't live up to their promise. This one happily did, with enough depth to make it interesting and a mystery to keep you turning the pages. 

Miranda's uncle Billy was fun and always surprising her. He designed intricate scavenger hunts for her as a child, but when she turned twelve he dropped out of her life. She heard nothing about him until she received the news years later that he had died and left her his bookshop in California, Prospero Books. He also left her one last scavenger hunt, with a book and a cryptic letter as a starting point. The hunt will reveal the answers to her questions about her beloved uncle, and will lead her to reconsider her own life. Should she go back to her boyfriend and job in Pennsylvania, or should she stay and run the bookshop? Ok, so the ending's a little bit predictable, but the journey to get there makes up for that. 

Summer Hours at the Robber's Library by Sue Halpern

It took me a while to get into this but once I did I enjoyed it. It's about a small town librarian recovering from a bad marriage, a young girl doing community service for stealing a dictionary, the young girl's secretive, hippie parents, and a down on his luck ex-Wall St. broker trying to cash in on an old account his mother once kept at the local bank. Also important to the story are a group of retirees fondly referred to as "The Four" who meet regularly at the library, and a few peripheral characters. It's a good-hearted story with enough of an edge to keep it from being too sweet. My only complaint is that the ending is hurried, something I've found in too many contemporary novels lately. All the loose ends get tied up, but in a matter-of-fact, have-to-get-this-finished sort of way. In spite of that, it's a pretty good read.   

Dashbury Park by Susan Tweedsmuir

Well, it didn't quite live up to it's hype, but it wasn't bad. Reviewers gushed and compared it to Jane Austen but it lacks her brilliance: her wit, her insight into human nature, and that edge, that bite that makes her books such fun to read. In this story, Lucy, whose vicar father has passed away, has been given a home with her Tayton relatives at their large country estate. The family are distant but not mean - mostly - and Lucy does find a friend in Jane, the family matriarch, who is there to recover from an illness. But then Ludovic, the heir to the Tayton family fortune, arrives from Italy to stir things up. Other visitors come and go: Violet, the family flirt before whom all men swoon, especially Ludovic; Katherine, the neighbour's daughter, who befriends Lucy and is attracted to Ludovic; and George Maxell, Ludovic's Oxford professor friend, who is smitten, in his quiet, bookish way, with Lucy. As these and other entanglements come to light, drama ensues but it all works out in the end with various weddings and happiness all around. So, a little like Jane Austen. Only it's all wrapped up too quickly. So many things fall easily and conveniently into place leaving the conclusion feeling anti-climatic. Another chapter or two might have provided a more satisfying ending.

Midwinter Murder by Agatha Christie

This is a collection of short stories, some of which take place during the Christmas season. They are not holiday stories as such, just short mysteries with a holiday reference or two that could have been set any time of year without it affecting the plots. I was slightly disappointed by that, but I find Agatha Christie's writing an absolute delight to read anytime so I did enjoy it. She has a light touch, even with murder and mayhem at hand, that I find irresistible. I'm not a short story fan, but I'd read more of hers.    

The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom 

In an ancient time, Dor becomes fascinated with the passage of time and sets out to find a way to measure it. He invents the first clock, for which he is banished to a cave where he must listen through long ages to the complaints of humanity as they plead for more time or less depending on their circumstances. Once his exile is completed, he is sent to help a terminally-ill man and a despairing young girl come to terms with time issues, and in the process he learns some truths about himself. I'm on the fence about this one. The time aspect was what drew me to it and that was fun to read, and I did get caught up in the young girl's story, but the author was trying way too hard to be profound on every page. Sure there's some wisdom in his words, but it stopped being inspiring and became simply tedious.

Three Good Reads and One Other

1969 - The Year Everything Changed by Rob Kirkpatrick
This title interested me because it was the year of my high school graduation and for me it was indeed the year many things changed. Besides that, it was the last year of the sixties and by anyone's reckoning it had been one wild ride of a decade. I lived in a small city in the Canadian maritime provinces, but even here the cold war, the civil rights protests, the Viet Nam war, the proliferation of recreational drugs, the sexual revolution, and what was then called Women's Lib all had an impact on our lives. The Year Everything Changed brings together the major developments of the sixties and explores the consequences of that decade's cultural shifts. More than just a review of events, it explores the thinking and attitudes that shaped that turbulent time. It was fascinating. 

Brain Wave by Poul Anderson
This is an older (1959) science fiction novel that examines what might happen if the world was suddenly smarter. What if the earth had for centuries been moving within some kind of cosmic field affecting our physiology in such a way that natural intelligence was suppressed, but then it moved out of that field allowing the intelligence of all sentient creatures to dramatically increase? How would that effect society, governments, economies? What happens when no one wants to do the menial jobs anymore? Or when farm animals are no longer content to be led to slaughter? It's a big, fascinating idea, well and sometimes beautifully written, and a solidly entertaining read. 

The Auerback Will by Stephen Birmingham
Reviewers of this three-generation family saga called it "delicious, juicy" "compelling" and "unforgettable". It wasn't my idea of delicious nor did I find it all that compelling. Still I did finish it so I'll give them that. As far as being unforgettable, a month after I read it I'd forgotten 95% of it, and my memory is usually not that bad. Even after reading a couple of online summaries, I can't recall much of the story, just a detail or two about family members. It simply didn't, as Shania Twain so eloquently sang it, "impress me much." 

The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks
Newt Winger, a 12 year old boy growing up in 1920's Kansas, is blessed with strong, loving parents to teach him right from wrong. But to thrive in a world of racial inequality, injustice, and often violent hatred he will have to make his own choices about what kind of man he wants to become. 

Vivid and uncompromising in showing us the harsh realities of Newt's life, this book at times is not easy to read, but there is much in it that is beautiful alongside it's grittier aspects. His mother, Sarah, speaks some of the most wonderful lines in the book, wisdom so simple and profound I wrote it down to keep. If you're considering this for your child, know that there is lots of rough language and a sex scene that may not be salacious but will require explaining. Then again, the whole idea of one race being treated as inferior to another is going to need a lot more explaining. Apparently it's been part of grade 5 school curriculums in the past, but I couldn't recommend it for a child that young. 

It has its flaws. There are a couple of  scenes that don't seem to have any real purpose, and one or two loose ends are left dangling, but it's the story and its message that are important in this one and they aren't diminished by weak spots in the writing. I think it's an important book, all the more impactful because much of it comes from the author's own life experiences. It's not one I'll soon forget. 

Four more...

Educated by Tara Westover
This is Tara Westover's jaw-dropping memoir about growing up in a Mormon fundamentalist family in Idaho. Born to survivalist parents who believed all governments were hostile and intent on stealing their freedoms, Tara and her siblings were kept "safe" by keeping them out of school and away from hospitals. Education at home was hit and miss, sometimes ignored altogether, and injuries and illness were treated at home using only Mrs. Westover's herbal remedies. The Westover's parenting was haphazard at best, neglectful and abusive at it's worst. The awe-inspiring thing about this story is how Tara survived all that and managed to do enough on her own to get accepted to a college and eventually earn a PhD. There were times when I was so upset with her parents that I couldn't keep reading, when I had to put the book down to take a breath, but then I'd have to keep going because the story is so incredible. This one is a must read. 

Note: I've just learned that Tara's mother has written a book in response to this one called Educating, where she tells the story from her point of view. I probably won't read it; I have no sympathy for her or her husband after reading Tara's.   

Defending Jacob by William Landay
The story of a family whose lives take a sudden, terrifying turn for the worse when their teenaged son is accused of murder. Jacob's father, Andy, is a prosecuting lawyer who switches sides to lead his son's defense. I'm not a crime novel reader usually, but I thought I should try one on audio to see if I might like it that way, and it wasn't bad. It's a character driven story, as much about the effect of Jacob's trial on his family as about the trial itself, but still suspense builds and keeps you needing to know what happens next. With a surprising twist late in the book, and an ambiguous ending, it's everything regular crime/thriller readers could want. I thought it was a fairly good story; I just don't think it's my genre.

Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English by Natasha Solomons
I was drawn to this one by the blurbs on the cover; "utterly charming", "pretty much flawless", "perfectly pitched" and "a fairy tale set in idyllic English countryside". It was a charming fairly tale set in Dorset, and I enjoyed it, but apparently less than those readers did. Jack and Sadie Rosenblum are immigrants who left Germany just before the second world war when things began looking grim for Jewish people. Jack's dream was to become the consummate Englishman, and he had a list of items to accomplish toward that end. One such item was membership in a golf club which he sadly came to realize would never happen simply because he was Jewish. Racism was alive and well in England as well as Germany, though it had a more polite face among the English. Undaunted, Jack decided he must build his own golf course, and have it ready in time for a tournament to celebrate the young Queen Elizabeth's approaching coronation. 

Then come the many mishaps and catastrophes that threaten to derail his dream. It is a fairy tale in many ways: every disaster is righted by some new slightly-less-than-realistic event, there are mystical elements to the story, and there are happy endings for all the good people and fitting ones for the bad.

I can see why other people loved it, but for me it just didn't come together. Too many times the protagonist was faced with an unsolvable problem, only to then easily solve it and move on to the next. And I got bored in the sections that focused on building the course. Maybe if I was a golf fan... 

It wasn't what I was hoping for, but I'm not sorry I read it. Jack and Sadie are interesting and in some ways even endearing, but it was a bit over the top for me.   

The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck
A small town in an unnamed country is invaded by an unnamed (but clearly recognizable) enemy, with the conquering party expecting submission and co-operation from the conquered. Boy will they will be disappointed. 
Written as propaganda in the early years of WWII, this short novel (a 2-3 hour read) explores how war affects both occupier and occupied, soldier and civilian. There were moments when I felt sympathy for both sides, but they were brief; subjugation destroys fellow-feeling quickly. Ultimately the book is a call to stand up and fight, doing whatever it takes to push through to the inevitable triumph of democracy. When the mayor is asked to tell his people not to fight, he answers "The people don't like to be conquered, sir, and so they will not be. Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars. You will find that it is so, sir."

The title, a quote from one of Shakespeare's plays, speaks to Steinbeck's belief that like the moon, freedom may be down, overcome, for a time, but it will always rise again. It can never be permanently defeated. 

I've learned since reading the book that Steinbeck intended it to be performed on stage, which would account for the characters feeling a bit flat and the dialogue a little over dramatic. But it makes a fine story and it's easy to overlook those things when you find great lines like these: "Dr. Winter was a man so simple that only a profound man would know him as profound." and "Joseph was elderly and lean and serious, and his life was so complicated that only a profound man would know him to be simple"

Propaganda it may be, but good propaganda, and a couple of hours rooting for freedom can only be time well spent.