"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 my admittedly uninformed opinion on what is and what is not deserving of a Pulitzer Prize means much, but I like to voice it anyway. All this to say 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.

Six more...


 I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb

The story opens with Thomas Birdsey, a paranoid schizophrenic, sitting in a library cutting off his own arm. Then for nine hundred and some pages the story of his relationship with his twin brother, Dominick, and their desperately messed up family unfolds. There's misery upon misery and yet it manages to lead to a satisfying conclusion. The story was good, I only wish it had been told in a hundred (or two) fewer pages.  


Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson

The dowdy Miss Pettigrew's life as a governess has not prepared her for what's about to happen next. When the employment agency sends her to the wrong address for a job interview, she meets a glamorous young woman who will introduce her to a lifestyle she has only ever seen in the movies. In a twenty-four hour period she will be dazzled by glittering surroundings and fascinating people, and shocked at their disregard for generally accepted manners and morals. 

It was light-hearted and fun to read, but sadly a couple of racist remarks in what was otherwise entertaining dialogue took the shine off it. I understand such remarks would have been accepted in 1938 when the book was written, and we can't change the past, but there's no getting around the fact that they are racist and reflect attitudes that were as wrong then as they are now.  


The One-In-A-Million Boy by Monica Wood
A thoughtful and well-written story about a now deceased 11 year old, referred to only as "the boy", and Ona, a 104 year old woman with a crusty shell. The two became friends when he started doing Saturday yard work for her to earn a boy scout badge, and then recording her answers when he interviewed her for a school project. When he couldn't complete his work commitment, his father took over and through conversation with the woman came to know and understand his son as he never had in life. The boy was sweet, quirky, often misunderstood and sometimes bullied; the father regretful that he'd been mostly absent from his son's life; and Ona grumpy but determined to fulfill her dream of making it into the Guinness Book of World Records. At 104, time was running out. Their stories are beautifully revealed in alternating chapters that are both sad and funny, and ultimitely hopeful. A great read.


Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther
This is an easy read perfect for your escapism needs. Structured as a series of vignettes from the Minivers' family life, it is beautifully written with keen perception and quotes you'll want to take with you. You may have seen the movie that portrayed it as a war story, but the book is set in the time just before WWII, which lends a different kind of poignancy to the story. Mrs. Miniver gives us a housewife's view of life, not a typical housewife given that she is blessed with a cook, a maid, and a nurse to help with the children, but a housewife nonetheless, and one who has some good observations to share. Her appreciation for life's little things is profound and contagious, giving some depth to a comfort read that would be worth your time anyway simply for it's wonderful writing. 

Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell
I was a bit disappointed as I was wanting a book of Christmas stories and was led by the title to believe that's what this was. Alas, there was only one, though the rest of the stories were entertaining enough. Apparently many of the characters are taken from Ms. Thirkell's series of books set in the fictional English village of High Rising, but as I hadn't read any of those I didn't have the fun of finding already beloved characters in new settings. There is one essay about dinner parties in Shakespeare that's entertaining, but not enough to make me keep the book. It's going in the donation pile.


Rogue Wave by Boyd Morrison
I listened to the audio version so I can't technically call it a page-turner, but if I'd read a hard copy that's exactly what I'd say. A tsunami scientist desperately tries to warn the people of Hawaii that a massive wave is approaching their shores, and it's a disaster story so everything that could go wrong does, with tension building as the time notation at each chapter heading ticks down toward impact. It's suspenseful and a little bit cheesy, and in many ways similar to all the other disaster stories out there, but I've always loved a good (fictional) disaster and this is a big one. Definitely worth reading if you share my slightly grim tastes.

I think I've seen every disaster movie ever made, but I've never read a book of that genre. I'm still not sure I would want to, but I did like the audio version. Before Rogue Wave I had only listened to books of a more quiet, thoughtful nature and I found they didn't hold my attention, which was disappointing as those books are always my preferred choice for reading. But it taught me that I can enjoy audio books if there's action and suspense involved, and since I wasn't reading that genre at all I now have a gazillion more options for my already out-of-control tbr list. So, thanks Rogue Wave, I think. 

More Catching Up...

Unsheltered

Disappointing. Parallel stories, set in the same house 150 years apart, illustrate (read: sermonize) that the things we depend upon as being givens in this life are not reliable at all. In both eras the house is falling apart, the character's careers and personal lives are teetering on their foundations, and the world is undergoing seismic shifts in thinking. It is when your basic beliefs about life are shaken, when you realize that hard work doesn't always lead to success, people don't always fulfill their potential, and you can't count on fairness or even reason to prevail, that you begin to understand a hard reality: the universe does not have your back. You are not special, but like everyone else are unsheltered, unprotected, against the vagaries of life. Kingsolver always tells a good, insightful story, but it would have been more palatable had it been more subtle. I felt preached to, and I get more than enough of that already in newspapers, movies, and on tv news? shows when they report a story while telling me what to think about it. This book takes a stab at just about every political issue out there: the economy, health care, climate change, student loans, capitalism, even Trump's presidency, though his name is never used. It could have been an interesting story; it felt more like a lecture.

The Murder at the Vicarage
I loved it. I'm hooked on Miss Marple after only one book. I avoided Agatha Christie till I was...let's say, well along in years...because for some inexplicable reason I had written her books off as silly. The only excuse I can possibly offer for such arrogance is seeing a Hercule Poirot movie decades ago in which he came off as a slightly preposterous bore. It didn't occur to me that the movie maker might be at fault and not the author. Last year I watched The Orient Express, and fell in love with the savvy, charming Poirot. Now Miss Marple has caught my attention and she's given me a whole new series of comfort reads to look forward to. Murder at the Vicarage was a very good start. 


Does The Noise in My Head Bother You? by Stephen Tyler
It's as outrageous and open and direct as he is. More open and direct than you want at times, but it's Stephen Tyler...it's expected. The later chapters got a little too raunchy for me so I quit, but I liked what I did read. He's such an interesting person, and likable; I'm sure I would like him if we ever met. I, on the other hand, would bore his socks off, but he seems like a guy who might find something to talk about even with we who are dull by comparison. He comes across as authentic, not something you find often in biographies of the rich and famous. His willingness to talk about both his strengths and his flaws impressed me. His stint as a judge on American Idol made me a fan, but my sister had been an admirer for a long time. I gave her the book for Christmas a few years ago and inherited it back when she passed away recently, so I decided to read it in her honour. If you're a fan, you'll want to read this.   

Who are you Calvin Bledsoe? by Brock Clarke
I can only remember that Calvin Bledsoe sold pellet stoves for a living, and that he met his aunt, without any prior knowledge of her existence, at his mother's funeral. And that he's middle-aged. They go traveling together and he gets into weird situations. The fact that I remember nothing about those situations tells me the book had little impact on me. If I like a book, it usually stays with me.

 
Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist
Zoe and Martin (one widowed, one divorced, and both in their fifties) meet in France just before they set out, separately, to walk the Camino Santiago. It's the story of their developing relationship, the people they meet, the physical challenges of walking the Camino, and the personal growth each experiences along the way. The authors based the novel on their own pilgrimages and so were able to keep the experience realistic. What I didn't find very realistic were the main characters. Zoe was supposedly grieving the very recent loss of her husband, but I couldn't see it in her words or actions. Martin was distant and stayed that way. At the end of the book they still felt stiff and unrelatable, not characters you get attached to. I've read reviews that complained about the Camino getting too much attention and the characters not enough, but I feel just the opposite. It probably depends on what you bring to and want from the book, I wanted the journey, but what I got was a love story set against the backdrop of the trail, and the love story wasn't believable. 

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
This one wasn't on my radar at all as I'd seen the movie and thought it was ok, but nothing special. I didn't know there was a book till I ran into it on several 'must read' and even 'greatest of' lists, which made me think there had to be more to it than what the movie showed. So I bit the bullet.....and was blown away. The way the author uses the timeline to reveal the story is nothing short of genius. Just keeping track of the characters ages, and matching them to dates and events was more than I could get my head around. Every time I stopped to figure it out, I got stuck, and finally decided to forget the how of it all and just enjoy the story. And I did. Enjoy - no, love - the story. It's funny, sad, profound, exasperating, beautiful, and full of life. It's also sexually explicit and has some colourful language, but I didn't find that off-putting in this novel. The sex is mostly an expression of deep love between husband and wife, though there were a couple of scenes that left me scratching my head and asking ...um...why? I listened to the audio version, which probably made the raw elements seem a little more blatant, but I recommend it anyway. It was flat out amazing.  
 
Outline by Rachael Cusk
I know it didn't appeal to me, but I don't remember why.

How Blue Was My Valley by Jean Gill
A story about relocating from Wales to France, buying a house and trying to fit in with the locals. I love the genre but this was not one of my favourites.

To Leave A Memory by Pat Dunlap Evans
I'm drawing a complete blank on this one.

Another View by Rosamunde Pilcher
One of her lesser novels. It doesn't measure up to Winter Solstice, September, or the Shell Seekers.

The Gardener of Baghdad by Ahmed Ardalan
It had potential, but the characters felt flat and I lost interest in the story. 

 

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