"Life After Life"

Life After Life by Jill McCorkle

What an interesting novel. So interesting that when I came to the end I felt there were things I had missed, and I read it again from the beginning. These aren't just characters, they are people, people with real stories. But let me back up a bit.

It begins with Joanna, a young woman who sits with dying patients and does what she can to ease the transition for the patient and their family members. Sometimes this takes place in the patient's home, but mostly it's in the retirement/nursing home that is the main setting for this book.

The residents in the retirement section are all able to look after themselves fairly well, and when they can no longer do that they move into the nursing section. The stories of residents and workers, and one little neighbourhood girl, and how they came to be there wind together with more and more connections revealing themselves as you go. Past and present are equally relevant to the narrative, which is far more intense than you expect for a book in this setting. And I was right, I had missed some things that I didn't see until the second reading.

I'll warn you that there's a lot of less-than-polite language. The f-word is prevalent, and one of the chapters is quite raunchy. Sometimes I can't get past all that, but in this book it didn't seem to be used for shock value or as a mask for an inadequate vocabulary. The words are used in intense situations of anger or hopelessness and the raunchy bits are a cynical young woman remembering a past she's ashamed of. Parts of it are bleak, but there is also grace and goodness and beauty. 

The characters are vibrantly real, all completely unique and as complicated as living through decades of  joy and tragedy can make them. I think they are people you might like to meet.

"Sixpence House"

Sixpence House by Paul Collins

Paul Collins followed his dream and moved his family to the village of Hay-on-Wye in Wales. Hay-on-Wye is known as the “town of books” because it is a tiny village of less than 2000 people with more than 40 book shops. 

I was interested to learn that most of the shops deal with antiquarian books, which is also the author’s area of expertise. Most of the books he talks about and quotes from were unknown to me, but that didn’t lessen the enjoyment of reading his story. 

He has a quirky sense of humor, dry and sharp, that brings the characters in this unique place to life. He makes delightful new friends, he talks about old books like they are old friends, and treats all with respect and affection (well...almost all).    

When I finished it, I felt as if I’d spent a week in an old shop myself, walking the dusty aisles of aged book-friends, breathing in the musty scent and soaking up all the wisdom they have to offer. 

What a fine thing it would be to actually be there, but if you can’t, this might just be the next best thing.

'Slipping Into Paradise"

Slipping Into Paradise by Jeffery Moussaieff Masson

I knew very little about New Zealand before this book, and having read it I don’t feel like I want or need to learn anymore. Masson has me convinced it really is paradise. The author is so in love with the place that as a reader, I couldn’t help falling too. Not that he tells us only the good stuff; he’s honest about the social and other problems, but the good seems to far outweigh the bad. 

The book starts with a map - always a great first impression for me - and there’s an interesting chapter on flora and fauna, both native and those introduced later. Another intriguing chapter is about the native Maori people, how they live now and all that they lost when New Zealand was colonized by people who thought they had the right to move in and take over.

The last chapter is Masson’s personal itinerary of a road trip around both the North and South Islands showing us all the country has to offer and taking us to a few special places off the beaten track. 

All in all a good book, and if travel is in your future, I don’t see how you could read this and not want to go. It truly does sound like Paradise.  

"Tolstoy and the Purple Chair'

Tolstoy and the Purple chair by Nina Sankovitch

Three years after Nina Sankovitch's sister died, she decided to spend a year reading one book every day. It would be her priority, her work, for a full year and she would be looking for answers about why she deserved to live when her sister was dead, and how to go on living now without her. Her husband and four sons agreed to give her the time and space she needed to read and to write a review on her blog of every book she read.

As others have said, I was surprised that a woman would ask so much of her family, and that they would agree to it. I, too, was put off by her expecting her husband to be so understanding of her needs, but when his sister died shortly after the author's sister, she couldn't make herself go to the funeral with him. I admit I don't know all the details of their lives, but from what she has told us, it just seems a bit odd. 

I enjoyed reading this, but in the end I found it to be over-heavy with profound metaphors. I was hoping for more about the books, but I don’t feel like she was so much sharing books with me as she was hitting me over the head with the lessons she learned. It’s in her delivery, not in what she’s saying. The things she learned were good, but it felt like too much of a stretch trying to relate everything she read to her own situation. 

I did enjoy hearing about all the books, and I’m impressed that anyone could read a whole book every day. The background she gave us on her father’s life was for me the most interesting part, and I hope someday she’ll write a book telling us more about him. 

The list of 365 books read at the end was nice.  

"Relative Happiness" and "The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper"

Relative Happiness by Lesley Crewe

There's almost nothing I can say about this book that is positive, so I won't say much at all. The story stretched credibility too far and the writing was disappointing. In my opinion it needed a lot more editing; I don't understand how it got published as it is. It is a first novel, and maybe her subsequent novels are better, but nothing in this one made me want to try them. Wish I had better things to say, but I did not enjoy it.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

This one is about a man who loses his wife, then finds among her things a charm bracelet he'd never seen before. He undertakes various adventures to find the story behind each charm, and in the process discovers his wife had a life before they met that he knew nothing about. It's a sweet story, if a bit far-fetched - or maybe a lot far-fetched. Arthur is a lovable character though, and it was a nice light read before tackling The Brothers Karamazov.

"The Reef"

The Reef by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton, who was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (for The Age of Innocence) is one of my favourite writers. I've read several of her novels - Summer, Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and now The Reef, and have never been disappointed. I always feel particularly partial to the one I'm reading at the present moment, but I think over all my favourite is still Ethan Frome.

In this one George D. is going to France to propose to his lady love, Anna L., a widow with a young daughter. Anna and George had a romance years ago before she was married and he has carried the torch all these years. Anna has shown a reserve in their meetings that has George worried, and when at the last minute he receives a telegram telling him not to come now, with no explanation other than an "unexpected obstacle", he begins to think she is not committed to their relationship, and he is hurt and angry. Enter damsel in distress, Sophy V. He offers assistance and is charmed by her quirkiness and her straightforward manner. One thing leads to another, they spend a few days together, then they eventually go their own ways, back to their own lives.

George and Anna resolve their difficulties and he visits her at the family's chateau, Givré, in France, where he is to meet Anna's little girl so they can spend some time getting to know each other. When the girl and her governess enter the room, George finds to his horror that the governess is none other than his lady in distress, Sophy V.  But this is only the first complication. Anna has a brother who is in love with Sophy, and he has no idea that she has a history with George. Let the lying begin.

On the surface it's a quick, enjoyable read, but there are deeper things to consider as we watch the relationships unravel and each character decide what they can, and can't, live with, and why. There are questions that need answers, questions about male and female roles, about social expectations, sexuality, truth, and the nature of love. Wharton doesn't provide them all, and the ones she does provide are not always comfortable. It is a romance, but it is surely not a fairy tale. These are flawed people whose ideals and desires clash, pushing and pulling them in every direction.

What truly fascinated me was the way the author used facial expression, tone of voice, and every nuance of body language to tell the story of what was really taking place around all the reserved verbal communicating. She has such skill at observing, and conveying to the reader, what makes the characters tick, and such insight into the endless human struggle with right and wrong, that it's mesmerizing. Sometimes I got tired of Anna's indecision, but these are not characters that let you walk away from them. You have to - and you want to - stick with them to the end, and even then, they may refuse to leave you.

Great writing, good story, and lots to ponder in this one. Highly recommended.