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. 

Trying to catch up...

 After two challenging years I find myself suddenly able to get back to doing regular things, so I'm re-starting abandoned projects, organizing neglected shelves, closets, and file cabinets, and finally making an attempt to catch up on my blog. 

These are books I read in 2019 and 2020 that didn't get posted due to lack of time and/or energy. Of course the problem with trying to do it now is that I don't remember a great deal about some of them. It helps if I can find a book summary online, but even then it may only remind me if I liked it or didn't and I'm not at all sure I can depend on that either. I've sometimes remembered not liking a book only to see on Goodreads where I've given it four stars. Given all that, here's what I think I remember about these books...


This Time Together by Carol Burnett
Because I grew up in the 1960s, Carol Burnett's tv show was woven into the fabric of my life. She was everywhere, and her voice was unforgettable. I didn't fully appreciate her till I was older and looking back, but this book reminded me how amazing she was and how much fun she was to watch. Some of the stories she tells here happened before my time, but they involved lots of other names I knew well so it was all entertaining to me. It brought back a lot of good memories.


The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne's words are a joy to read, but I find his stories something less. In this one the narrator joins a commune of people who believe that, with like-minded others, they can create a better life than what society to this point has offered them. He has high romantic ideals but little practical understanding of the work involved in living off the land, so it doesn't work well for him. Although the story had potential, it didn't seem to go anywhere. I love his descriptions and all his beautiful words, but I can't say I liked the book as a whole.


Finding Gobi by Dion Leonard 
A story about a little dog who one day decided to join a marathoner on his run across the Gobi Desert in China. At first the runner, Dion, was annoyed, but he got used to the little trooper who wouldn't leave him no matter how difficult things got. The first part of the book covers the race and some of the author's life story, and the rest is about the problems - and there were many - that Dion faced trying to get the dog back home to Scotland. 

If the book was fiction I'd say it's a bit far-fetched, but since it actually happened it's hard to make that argument. Still, it felt slightly unrealistic to me. It wasn't bad. 


The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
All I remember is four siblings squabbling over an inheritance, each believing, for (mostly) good reasons, that they need it more than the others. It sticks in my mind as one I liked but didn't love, and when I checked my Goodreads rating I saw I gave it only 3 stars, so I think I'm remembering right. And let this be a lesson to me to make notes as soon as I finish a book, not a year later.  


On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
A short book, covering just three hours of a young couple's wedding night, this one is painful to read. Love is not the problem, sex is. They are both virgins, nervous about their first night together and carrying a lot of baggage they've never talked about. It's the silence that kills you as you read this. They come so close to making it work, but every opportunity to be honest with each other is lost because they cannot find the courage to speak about something so intimate. At one point I put the book down and howled JUST SAY IT OUT LOUD FOR PETE'S SAKE! But, no, they could not. 

Ian McEwan is a genius at getting into his characters' heads and showing the reader what he finds there (or puts there, I should say). This book is further proof of his skill as a writer, but oh, it is frustrating and sad.   

      
Star Over Bethlehem by Agatha Christie Mallowan
Quite a departure from the mysteries we all know and love, this is a collection of short stories and poems with a religious bent. From what I've read, the author had a deep faith, which is reflected to a degree in her mysteries, but here it's front and center. I enjoyed the stories, and was especially pleased to find among them The Water Bus, one of my favourite short stories from any author. The poems weren't quite as appealing to me. I do love poetry, but couldn't find anything here that caught my attention.  


The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
I remember expecting a holiday themed book, a lighthearted look at Dickens, at old English Christmases and the inspirations that led to A Christmas Carol. It did give me some of that, but it's more of a short biography, with lots of particulars about his home life growing up, his own family life, and the waning career that had him struggling financially. It was his urgent need to pay the bills that led to the hasty writing of this now-beloved Christmas story, so be forewarned that if you read it, any romantic notions you were harbouring may be shot down. I enjoyed the book, and the movie, too, which was Chistmassy-er. I know, it's not a word. I don't care. 



And Then There Were None, Shakespeare and Me, The Ten Thousand Doors of January


And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie 

An odd assortment of eight people receive invitations to attend a dinner on a small island. None of the guests know the host personally, but all are persuaded to accept because of some vague connection or other mentioned in the invitation. When they arrive they are greeted by a cook and a butler, bringing their number to ten, with no host in sight. Framed on a wall is an old poem about ten little soldiers and how, one at a time, they meet their deaths. On the table are ten small figurines. 

Before long they hear the disembodied voice of their host greeting them, and to their horror he reveals each one's deepest secrets and then accuses every one them of murder. Denied the option of leaving when the boat that brought them to the island does not return, they spend the weekend trying to understand why this is happening and doing what they can to protect themselves. But one after the other they die, in a manner eerily predicted by the poem, and with each death another figurine disappears from the table.  

It's got everything you'd want in a mystery novel: secrets, tension, murder, as well as clues to help you figure everything out, but you probably won't. Published in 1939, it's written with a little more elegance and a little less flash than more contemporary offerings in the genre, but it's every bit as much fun. It occurs to me that a book about 10 murders should probably not be considered fun, but it's Agatha Christie She's fun.      

Shakespeare and Me, edited by Susannah Carson

This is a wonderful collection of essays by actors, directors and producers writing about their own love for, and participation in, William Shakespeare's plays. Each one is different and each one helped me see things in the plots and/or characters that I hadn't before. It was fascinating to look at the plays through their eyes and consider things from so many different creative perspectives. The writing is excellent, and the writers generous in sharing their experiences with, and their philosophies about, the characters, plots, settings and dialogue in the plays. There are thirty-eight essays in all, written by such illustrious persons as Sir Ben Kingsley, James Earl Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Joyce Carol Oates, and other legends of stage and screen. This book is an education, and so much fun. I came away determined to watch the plays I've never seen and to revisit some of my favourites. I loved everything about Shakespeare and Me.


The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

January is a young girl living with a guardian while her father, in the guardian's employ, seeks out treasures all around the worlds, lots of worlds. These worlds are accessed through doors, doors that are not visible unless you're really looking, doors that are missed by most people. There is a nefarious organization trying to permanently shut the doors in order to keep our world from changing in ways that, in their thinking, are undesirable. But January has a gift, an ability to create, open, and close doors with written words. And so she resists them, putting her life at risk and creating all manner of upheaval, searching worlds for the father her guardian has told her is dead. 

I listened to the audio book, something I'm not used to, and I just couldn't get into it at first. But as I got used to being read to - a vastly different experience than reading yourself - I found myself more interested, eventually feeling an eagerness to get back to it to see what was happening. That's when I began to really enjoy it. 

I found the last part of it a little repetitive - they find her, she gets away, they find her, she gets away, etc..., but still, it was entertaining, the kind of  story that makes a good distraction from pandemics and such. I haven't read anything in the Fantasy genre for a long time, but this has opened that particular door for me, and I think I'll be going through more often.   

An Academic Question, The Busman's Honeymoon, Alone Time, & Mr. Ives' Christmas

 

An Academic Question by Barbara Pym

From a slow beginning, An Academic Question gradually develops into a story with potential, but sadly fizzles out at the end. Set in a university town and told from the perspective of one professor's wife, the central academic question is: just how far would you go to get tenure? Our professor does something unethical, but just as I was getting interested in seeing what the backlash would be, it ends. There's a solution of sorts, but it's disappointing and left me wishing this book had a few more chapters and a little more oomph. 


The Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers

This was my first Dorothy Sayers, but it won't be my last. Her writing is an absolute pleasure to read. The story, about a just-married couple who find a dead body in the basement of their new country house on their wedding night, is interesting and the characters are well drawn. But, if you need your mysteries to be page-turners this is probably not the one for you. I for one thoroughly enjoy these quiet British mysteries, actually quiet British stories of any genre, are wonderfully appealing to me. Is it the language, or the quaint settings and quirky characters, or maybe all the tangled rules of manners and comportment? Yes, I love all of that. Very enjoyable reading!



Alone Time by Stephanie Rosenbloom

In this travel story Ms. Rosenbloom encourages us to experience the pleasures of touring alone. She recounts her journey of doing just that in four different cities, in four different seasons: spring in Paris, summer in Istanbul, autumn in Florence, and winter in New York. With 84 pages about Paris, 48 about Istanbul, 46 about Florence, and 34 about New York, it's the Paris section that has stayed with me, though all were fun to read.

She writes about the advantages of visiting museums on your own, about wandering through cities and stopping when and where you like without having to consider what someone else might want to do, and about eating alone in restaurants and how it allows you to savour your food without having to make conversation. When I read that back it sounds almost selfish, but she does make a lot of good points. She includes a chapter at the end called Tips and Tools for Going It Alone with some helpful advice for anyone thinking of taking a solo vacation. 

I enjoyed the book, though I'd like to have read more about her experiences in Istanbul and Florence. 


Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Spoiler alert: In order to tell you about this book, I find it necessary to refer to the ending. I don't think it will make any difference because it's a natural conclusion, not anything dramatic at all. But still, if you'd rather not know, please don't read on. 

When I was reading this I found it terribly sad, but now that I've had a few weeks to process it, I think it's quite beautiful. It begins with a tragedy. Mr. Ives loses his 17 year old son at Christmastime in a senseless shooting, a shock that rocks his faith and takes most of his life to come to terms with. He and his wife carry on living their lives, but his sadness wears them both down over the years. Slowly, he begins to understand how his pain has changed him and affected everyone else in his life, and that brings us full circle to another, more peaceful Christmastime. 

It turned out to be a much more profound reading experience than I had expected, certainly not one of those light-hearted Christmas fictions where there's a perfect ending for everyone. It hasn't much to do with Christmas at all, other than as a starting and stopping point, so if a light Christmas read is what you're looking for, I wouldn't recommend it.  Otherwise I do very much recommend it. It is a melancholy story, but gently, beautifully written and satisfying to read. 
 

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