Four very different books

             The Story - published by Zondervan, forward by Max Lucado and Randy Frazee 

The Story is a re-telling of the Bible story in chronological order. There are 31 chapters, with sections added here and there summarizing parts not covered in detail. Our church took a year (Sept-May) to study it, one chapter each week, breaking only in December for Advent/Christmas services. It's highly readable and has thoughtful questions for each chapter to help you consider more deeply what you’ve just read. I enjoyed the experience of looking at the whole story of God's interaction with man in one relatively brief account. It is a clear picture of His love for us - a love that is never diminished by our arrogance and rebellion - and His unending patience as He gave men one opportunity after the other to turn their hearts to Him. I may never have heard of The Story if my church hadn't decided to read it together. I'm glad we did; it was time well spent. 

                                    Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

A beautiful story about one summer (1961) in the life of Frank, a 13 year old boy living with his family in Minnesota. His father is a pastor, his mother a singer and choir director, his sister a musical prodigy headed for Julliard, and his little brother a deep thinking 10 year old afflicted with a stutter. The tone of this book reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird, and Pastor Nathan, of Atticus Finch. They are both strong, gentle men who face tragedy and personal loss with quiet acceptance and a resolve to not let anger and grief leave them bitter. 

Some dark subjects are dealt with here including suicide, abuse, racism, and murder; yet the reader is never led into despair, but instead is left feeling hopeful. And it's not hope in words only, but a felt hope, hard won through real pain. Not all the questions get answered, but the characters are able to find the beauty in what remains of their lives, and so are able to go on. Some have placed this novel in the mystery genre, but it is also a story of faith, not preachy, simply the story of a boy and his family facing the worst of times and finding a way through. I loved it.

  The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Divided into 3 sections - Present, Past, and Present again - it begins with 11 year old Henrietta spending the day in Paris with Miss Fisher while she waits for the train that will take her south to visit her grandmother. At Miss Fisher's house she finds 9 year old Leopold, also there for the day, waiting to meet his biological mother, whom he has never known. Upstairs is Mme. Fisher, bedridden, and described as “corrosive”. Leopold and Henrietta cautiously begin to get to know each other, their words and actions revealing the competitiveness, lack of trust, and even unkindness that often arise when children first meet. I love that the author doesn’t hide that truth with clich├ęs of childhood innocence. There's a frankness in Ms Bowen's books that I find refreshing. 

The middle section goes back 10 years to when Leopold's birth mother, Karen had an affair with Miss Fisher's fiance, Max. Once that story is told, it returns to the present where Max shows up at the door. Leopold learns his mother isn't coming, and his reaction is heartbreaking. Psychology, rather than plot, is at the heart of this novel. It's about desire and regret and motive. It’s the kind of book you think about long after you've finished, and want to read again soon to pick up on the bits you know you must have missed. This is the second of Bowen's books I've read (To The North was the first) and I've loved both. Thankfully, there are many more.
          Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
I didn't enjoy this one, but there were some aspects of it that I did appreciate. I loved his writing style, and he's funny, really funny. The last chapter, about having a stranger in his house in the middle of the night and seeing everything through the stranger's eyes, was hilarious. But, there was a situation in chapter 4 that I found more than a little disturbing. I won't go into it here, you can read it for yourself and see what you think. For me, that chapter left such a bad taste in my mouth that it tainted the rest of the book.  

Brief Thoughts on Four Books

 Facing the Light by Adele Geras
A family is gathering at their large country house to celebrate the 75th birthday of their mother, Leonora. Also at the house is a crew doing interviews for a film about Leonora's father, a famous - now deceased - painter. This sets the stage for all kinds of drama, but add to that the relationship conflicts that arise in any family being honest about it, and you've got a story that keeps you turning the pages. A pretty good read.   

Say Goodnight, Gracie!  by Cheryl Blythe and Susan Sackett 
Reading this brought back some great memories. George Burns, Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, and others - these are names I heard a lot growing up. I remember their tv shows in the late 50s and 60s, and Burns appeared in movies and on tv over the next 3 decades. Before they took their show to television, it was popular on radio, and before that, as early as the 20s, they were vaudeville stars. This book covers the years of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show on tv from 1952-1958. Full of great stories from their work and personal lives it's a lot of fun to read, an interesting look at the production of a show in television's early days, and a most agreeable walk down memory lane.

Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy
Marilla has always been one of my favourite characters in the Anne of Green Gables series, so while I was skeptical about any author other than L.M.M. telling a Green Gables story, I did look forward to knowing Marilla better. Her story is fairly well told, not as subtley as I would have liked but it fills in some gaps. I still think of it as one possible back story for Marilla; I'm not yet convinced it's the definitive one. I did enjoy stepping back into that world, experiencing the familiar places and hearing the familiar names, but there was more drama than I thought necessary toward the end. Even though some of it was a stretch, I'm glad I read it; it was a pleasant return to a place I love. 

The Rain Watcher by Tatiana DeRosnay
Another story about a family gathering to celebrate a birthday, this time it's in Paris and it's the father's 70th. The son and daughter are not close to their parents but they all love each other, from a distance. I didn't find the characters very relateable or even likable. Truth is, I bought this book because I loved the cover, and I love Paris, and I love rain.  I didn't think I could go too far wrong with Tatiana DeRosnay - I've read Sarah's Key and it's stayed with me for years - but this was frustrating. We get too much of the story from their thoughts and not enough from dialogue. The ending was confusing. I agree with another blogger who said the real characters in this novel are Paris and the storm. Those characters saved a not-so-great book for me.

A Farewell to Arms, The Hours, and Matilda

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Spoiler ahead, so if you don't want to know, read the book first. In this one a young American, Henry, is serving in the Italian Army during WWI. He meets Catherine, who is grieving the death of her husband (I think I've got that right, it's been a while since I read it.). Henry and Catherine see a lot of each other while Henry is recovering from surgery and they flirt, pretending to be lovers. Soon it develops into something real and after some hair-raising combat situations, they escape to Switzerland. A few months later Catherine goes into labour, delivering a stillborn child, and then dying herself from complications. At the end Henry is walking home from the hospital, alone in the rain. Because it's Hemingway. 

I didn't love the story or the characters. Henry seemed distant or disconnected somehow, and Catherine was a bit much, but when I read Hemingway none of that matters. It's not about the plot or the characters for me, it's just about the writing. I love spending time inside his words, where the clarity, the purity of the writing, is heady as mountain air. I've never found another author who makes me feel like I can breathe deeply inside his books. There is no clutter of words, no sucking swamp of adjectives and adverbs to wade through. It's fresh and uncontaminated, and a joy to read.     

The Hours by Michael Cunningham 
Looking at Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway from three different perspectives, this book made me realize I hadn't read the original with nearly enough depth. I found this unique treatment of it thoughtful and smart. The first part of the book is a day in Woolf's life as she writes Mrs. Dalloway, visits with her sister, and talks to her husband over dinner. The second part is a day in the life of a Mrs. Brown who is currently reading Mrs. Dalloway. The third is a modern-day Clarissa living out Mrs. Dalloway's day, planning a party for a friend who is being honored with a poetry prize, going out to buy flowers and making observations about people and life. 
I thoroughly enjoyed this.  

Matilda by Roald Dahl
My first experience with Roald Dahl has not been a good one. It seems to me an odd book for children, with its violence and bad behaviour on the part of both children and adults. Do you really want your children learning to call someone else a "piece of filth" or an "idiot"? Do you want them learning to take revenge on people who are mean to them and expecting to be successfull at it with no consequences for their own bad behaviour? 

As I was reading I became more and more uncomfortable with it. I didn't like it and I wouldn't give it to a child. I was thinking about it last night and feeling like I must have missed something, some aspect to the story that would have had me enjoying it more. Today, as I read other people's thoughts on the book, I realized that I had missed the aspect of absurdity. The characters are absurd, the things they do are absurd, and the results of their actions are all equally absurd, right through to the absurd ending. Had I approached the book expecting absurdity, I might have liked it better. I didn't know what to expect and so took it too seriously, I think. 

Having said that I still wouldn't give it to a young child - maybe a 12 year old if I could find one still interested at that age, and we'd definitely have to talk about it later.  I am somewhat curious about Dahl's adult stories and may try to find one of those. 

Two Solitudes/ Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance/ Memoirs of a Geisha

Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan
If this book had been required reading in high school it might have given my generation a bit of insight into the tension between French and English in our home province, New Brunswick. It wasn't on my radar at all till one of our book club members selected it. I might have missed it entirely.

It follows two families: a French family, the Tallards, and an English family, the Methuens. Living in two different worlds beginning to mesh into one nation, the families fight to preserve their own way of life. It covers two generations of family members fighting, loving, hating, betraying, and grieving. The characters themselves didn't appeal to me that much but the history of the conflict between the two cultures was fascinating for me. If I wasn't Canadian, it probably wouldn't have made such an impression on me, but as a Canadian, I couldn't get enough. It opened my eyes to things I hadn't seen before. 

I'd like to say I'm glad all that conflict is over, but I can't. My province is the only officially bilingual province in the country and a lot gets said publicly about how we all get along, but beneath that cooperative veneer there are strong emotions on both sides of the language divide. After a century and a half of confederation we still haven't figured out how to get students to high school graduation fluent in both English and French or how to make the job market fair for everyone. We all want compromise as long as it's the other guy doing the compromising. I don't know if we'll ever be truly united. I've lived 68 years and at this point I see the gap widening instead of closing, and not just in N.B. but across Canada. I could break into a rant here about the decline of western civilization as we know it....but no. 

The book was good. You should read it. 

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
This is Pirsig's journal of a motorcycle trip he and his son, Chris, took across several states. Part of it deals with their relationship (not an easy one) and part with the countryside they're travelling through, but the larger part of the book is philosophy. He thinks (and writes) deeply about what is good, what is quality, and how to live a quality life. He mentions Plato and Socrates, but he mostly talks about a guy called Phaedrus, whose philosophy of life he is studying, or maybe a better word is analyzing. Somewhere in the middle of the book you begin to realize who Phaedrus is and how he is significant, unexpectedly significant, to the story and that moment changes everything for the reader. The reviews all called it inspirational, and it is, but that word alone is too light, too small for this profoundly moving story.   
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
As a 9 year old girl, Chiyo is sold into slavery by her destitute father. She is taken from her small village to a city famous for its geisha, and is placed in a training house to be taught the arts of dance, music and conversation, while also being a maid to famous geisha, Hatsumomo. Mother, the woman who runs the house, is horrible to her, but it's Hatsumomo who wins the prize for mean girl. She's jealous and bitter and takes it all out on this little girl who is more beautiful than she is. I almost quit the book in this section, but then things turned around for Chiyo when another geisha, a kinder one, adopts her as "little sister" and becomes responsible for her training. At a certain age she is given her geisha name, Sayuri, and she enters the world of silk kimonos, intricate hair arrangements and the entertaining of wealthy men. WWII interrupts her career briefly, like a character playing a bit part; it's dismissed so quickly it's almost like it never happened. She goes back to her geisha life until finally moving to the US where she builds a similar if somewhat more independent life.  

Did I like it? Well, it was intriguing and I learned some things about Japan and the geisha life. I think. It's fiction so how much is made up I don't know. I get the feeling I'm supposed to feel nostalgic for this world that is passing away, but that's hard to do when a child is sold like so much meat, her virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder, and everyone is free to slap her around and exercise unlimited power over her. Sure, when she gets older she gets invited to beautiful estates and socializes with the rich and famous, but even then she has no power, no independence. So while I did find it interesting I was also uncomfortable reading it and can't say I truly enjoyed it. Also one plot line is a too-predictable love story that I wasn't buying; I know the world wants a love story in every book, but this was just a cliche, and didn't add much. In the end, Sayuri got her man and was happy, even though that man had a wife and children and all Sayuri got was his spare time. It reads as though it's a victory, a happy ending. I'm not buying that either.  

Inside the O'Briens/The Closer I Get/Their Eyes Were Watching God/The Count of Monte Cristo/My Cousin Rachael

Inside The O'Briens by Lisa Genova

Lisa Genova's books give the reader an up close and personal look a number of debilitating diseases: Alzheimers in Still Alice, Autism in Love Anthony, a syndrome called Left Neglect in Left Neglected, and ALS in Every Note Played. This one shows us what it's like to live with Huntington's Disease. 

Officer Joe O'Brien is a soft-hearted cop with a gruff exterior. He has a good marriage and a loving family; life is pretty good. Then the diagnosis comes and he has no idea how to process it or plan for the terrible changes it will bring. Even worse, he has to tell his kids there's a fifty percent chance they would have inherited it from him.

Genova has said that she writes these stories to raise awareness of the diseases and raise money for the cause. That's where these books really shine. In this one, and all of them, we walk through the various stages of the disease with the patient. We see the frustrations, the anger, the confusion and the pain as Joe loses the ability to do his job and look after himself. Seeing his humiliation as he becomes totally dependent on others helps us to understand the devastation this disease brings to people's lives. 

My favourites are Still Alice and Left Neglected, but I've learned a lot even from the books I didn't enjoy as much. And that's why I'll keep reading them.  

The Closer I Get by Paul Burston
This is a disturbing, but gripping story about an author trying to finish his novel while being stalked by an online fan. Evie is obsessed with Tom, but she's not the only one with psychological problems. He gets a restraining order against her but finds he can't let it go at that. He has to find out what she's up to, so he follows her activity online and is drawn into a downward spiral of suspicion and paranoia. The chapters alternate between his narrative and hers, and as the tension builds you begin to question who the real criminal is. It's a relevant story in this day of online relationships, and all the creepier for that. A real page-turner.   

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston  
Excellent. Well written, fascinating characters and lots to ponder. Most of it is written in the dialect of the deep south and I found that slow going in the beginning, but got better at it as I went along. 

Janie, the main character,  is strong and intelligent, and longs to be independent; a goal not easily achieved by a black woman in the 1930's deep south. We follow her through three turbulent marriages and the very different lifestyles they offer her, until she finally finds peace. She has depth and a poetic way of expressing herself that  I found beautiful, and yet she's also down to earth and practical. A memorable character and a very good story. 

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Fourteen hundred and fifty-four pages was a bit daunting but I muddled through. It's the unhappy tale of a man wrongly imprisoned who escapes to seek revenge on those responsible for his misery. It's creative and well thought out, a puzzle  that all fits together surprisingly well in the end. But the end is a long time coming. There are many characters and each one's story is told and told  and told... I don't mean to say I didn't enjoy it, because I did, but there did seem to be more of it than necessary. I watched a movie adaptation made a few years ago that I thought was excellent, so was surprised when I didn't particularly like the Count in the book. He was brilliant, and good to those who were good to him, but passionate about avenging himself and destroying the lives of the people who had wronged him. The time, money, and energy he spent on that goal consumed him. It became his whole life. I'll have to watch the movie again to see why the Count was more likable in that...maybe because the role was played by Jim Caviezel and, as I see it, he can do no wrong. 

My Cousin Rachael by Daphne DuMaurier 

Phillip Ashley is orphaned at a young age and raised by his cousin Ambrose, a man he loves and admires deeply. They are both happily settled  in their all-male household until Ambrose goes to Europe on vacation and subsequently writes home to tell Phillip he has married a woman called Rachael. Soon Ambrose becomes ill and writes Phillip that he suspects Rachael of having a hand in his illness and fears she will eventually kill him. After Ambrose dies, Phillip meets Rachael, and drawn in by her beauty and charm, falls hard. It's a love story and a mystery, a change from the usual in that the woman has all the power in this one. In the end you will have to decide for yourself if Rachael is guilty or innocent. A good gothic mystery.

Listen to the Child, Spin, Galore, Little Lord Fauntleroy

Listen to the Child by Elizabeth Howard
Good reviews convinced me to read this, but I'm afraid I didn't find it well written at all. The characters were one dimensional, it seemed bitterly biased against Christians, and the ending came so suddenly I was sure it was a mistake; it wasn't. It left many of the story lines unfinished, and included at least one that seemed to have no purpose other than to add to the overall sadness and misery. The one thing nobody in this book ever did is "Listen to the Child". It's based on an actual situation, in which desperately poor children were taken from the London slums, usually with the parents permission but not always, and shipped off to Canada where life was supposed to be glorious for all. Most of the kids were put in homes where they were nothing more than unpaid servants to mean, abusive people. They were starved, beaten, and left out in the cold to sleep. Promises to check up on them were not kept. 

It could have been a good "historical fiction" book. The basic plot is there, but the writing just wasn't up to it.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
It's been a long time since I read a science fiction novel, mostly because those I had read left me quite disappointed. I want a good story, believable characters, decent writing, and some interesting science in my science fiction. Something in the write-ups I read made me think I might find at least some of that in Spin, so I gave sci-fi another chance.

And it was amazing, so good I couldn't stop reading because every page left me needing to know what would happen on the next one. I forgot to do laundry and meals were late. I devoured this book. The story gripped me immediately, the characters were believable and well fleshed out, the writing was excellent, and the science, oh the science. It was exciting and terrifying and beautiful. It stretched the imagination but was not so out there as to make you shake your head and dismiss it as too far-fetched. It was just fetched far enough. A scientist might disagree, but I'm a reader, not a scientist, and I was mesmerized. 

It begins with 3 childhood friends who sneak outside after dark just in time to see the stars disappear. They were there, then they weren't, like someone just turned them off.  Thus begins the tale of how these three grow up in a changed and now dangerous world. There's some terra-forming of another planet, a human being who is not from earth, and government secrets galore - no shortage of interesting plot lines.

This was so good I think I'll try another sci-fi. Any recommendations? 

Galore by Michael Crummey
Vivid, gritty, and well written; all the things I love about Michael Crummey's novels. There's a feeling of honesty about them, sometimes painfully so, but that's what pulls me in and holds me there. I loved Sweetland, found River Thieves more brutal than I could handle, and would place Galore somewhere in between.

This story covers several generations of two families in a small area of Newfoundland beginning in the late 18th century and on into the early 20th. All the harsh realities of life on the rock and the ups and downs of a fishing village dependent on nature are described for you here. Described doesn't even say it really. It's more like he breathes it out and you breathe it in. You live there while you're reading the book and it takes a bit of re-acclimatizing when you've finished.

The characters are intensely human, quirky, unpretentious, some downright weird, usually one or two with eerie overtones. There's always something about their stories to give you pause, and maybe make you think about things you had not before considered. There's not much cheer in these books, but I'm fine with that, having been a Thomas Hardy fan for too many years to need happy endings anymore.

Crummey's books are total immersion experiences, which can leave you holding your breath at times and will profoundly engage all your senses as you are absorbed into a time and place not your own. 

Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Written for children, this is the sweet story of Cedric, a little boy who lives in happy, if straitened, circumstances with his gentle, adoring mother in America, until it is discovered that he is the sole surviving heir of his cantankerous old grandfather in England. He is to be a Lord and inherit a grand estate, which his grandfather is not happy about but it's the law so he has no choice. He expects to find Cedric dull witted and uncouth, but is in for a surprise and even his hard heart will not be able to resist Cedric's kindness, sincerity, and beauty. He begins to love his grandson, and that brings about a softening of his own heart, to the great relief of all who know him.

It's a lovely story for children, if a bit hard to swallow for older readers. Nobody on earth is as perfect a specimen of humanity as Cedric. He always feels, says and does the right thing. He loves everybody and everybody loves him in return. His mother, too, is without flaw; graceful, beautiful, kind, gentle, etc. In another novel this wouldn't work at all, but this is for children and it sets a good example. And besides, the ending is very satisfying and makes you glad you read it. I think I liked this better than The Secret Garden, though I don't expect that to be a popular opinion.