"The Memory Book"

The Memory Book by Penelope Stokes

This is the second book I've read from Penelope Stokes, the first being The Blue Bottle Club which I quite enjoyed. I found The Memory Book a little less interesting but still, it was a nice, easy read.

The main character is a young woman called Phoebe who returns to her grandmother's house, where she grew up, when her grandmother becomes ill. Her mother was murdered when Phoebe was 5 years old, but Phoebe has only a shadowy memory of seeing her mother laying on the floor surrounded by blood and a large male form standing over her.

She carries a lot of emotional baggage into all her relationships as an adult, including her engagement to the man she loves. As the story unfolds she finds a book with old family photos and mementos and eventually she also finds the journal of her grandfather's sister, also called Phoebe. She gains insight into her family history and is able to resolve the issues that kept her from fully entering into close relationships.

The part of the story that most held my attention is the section in which Phoebe has an accident and lies unconscious in bed for several days. She has a dream in which she has awakened in 1927 as the other Phoebe at 18 years old, looking after her 6 year old brother, Lewis(her grandfather), and living with their abusive father. The story gets a little far-fetched at that point with Phoebe making conscious decisions and being aware of herself as having gone back in time. Her "beau" from that era has the same initials as her current fiance, and she has two close female friends, also the same as she has in the present. After she wakes up as herself again, she uses lessons she has learned from her experiences in the past to help change her life in the here and now. She keeps talking about it as being more than a dream, but I don't quite see what we are meant to think happened to her.

I found it overwritten and a little melodramatic in spots. We are told several times early in the book about how Phoebe feels, but for me there are too many words used to make the point. I would rather an author let me figure it out for myself through the characters words and actions. Otherwise I am always aware that I am reading lines someone has written and never get to the point where I can fall into the story and forget it is a book. I really think this one would have benefited from more editing.

I found the characters stereotypical and not terribly interesting, and the ending predictable. There are a couple of surprises toward the end of the book that add interest, but all in all it lacks complexity. A subplot or two would have made a huge difference.

I know this genre is very popular and I am probably expecting too much of it. In fact there are times when it's exactly what I'm looking for, especially if I've been reading a lot of serious stuff that I need a break from. That last sentence sounds terrible but I'm too tired to rearrange the words. I'd give this book a 6 out of 10 and recommend it for anyone who likes light Christian fiction.

Friday Blog Hop

It's Friday again and that means I'm hopping. I have found so many great blogs and wonderful books this way. I'm reading books I would never have come across otherwise. The list of blogs can be found at http://www.crazy-for-books.com. Have a look, you'll be glad you did!

"The Stranger"

The Stranger by Albert Camus

Do you ever feel guilty about the books you haven't read? You know those titles you see on "Must Read" and "Are You Well Read" lists that you swear you're going to get to some day and then ten years later you're still saying "some day"? For about 25 years I've been saying that about "The Stranger". Then a couple of weeks ago I just happened to see it on the library shelf and made myself bring it home.

Even before I read it I wondered what I could possibly write about it that hasn't already been said. There have been a thousand times more words written about this book than were actually written in the book. I just wanted to get it out of the way so I could stop feeling guilty about not reading it.

The book is written in 2 parts. The first part (I'm not going to worry about spoilers with this one because I'm sure everybody in the world but me knew how it ended anyway) tells the story of Meursault, a man in France living out his mundane life. The second part is the story of his trial after he kills a man.

I hated the first part. I thought the main character, who has been analyzed to death by much better qualified persons than I, was unwell in his mind or to be less subtle, nuts. He didn't seem to have any emotions, any compassion for others, any sense of purpose or any remorse for his crime. He let life happen to him and didn't realize or care that it was so. He killed a man for no good reason and it didn't matter. His story portrays life as meaningless, people as meaningless, social customs as...you guessed it...meaningless. I can agree with tiny little bits of that theory but on the whole it stands in direct opposition to what I believe, that there is meaning and purpose in everything. So, you can see the problem. I felt the book was as pointless as Meursault's life was made out to be. What possible good could it do anyone? I decided to read the second part only so I could cross it off my list.

But then things changed. I liked the second part. I read the ludicrous arguments of the lawyers and Meursault's reasonless thoughts on what could happen and still felt myself pulled more and more into the story. Maybe it's because the trial part of the book showed some of the characters feeling something; they spoke with some intensity even if they didn't make any sense. It had more life than the first part of the book.

I can't say I ever came to like Meursault. Talk about "emotionally unavailable"; he had to have been the model for that phrase. This is a man who didn't care about anything. He said he would marry his girlfriend Marie if she wanted him to but he didn't really care if he got married or he didn't. He said he supposed he must have loved his mother but that didn't matter either. Nothing mattered. I can't recall one instance in the book of him actually thinking about someone else's needs. Other people's feelings never entered into his thinking. Lack of emotion to that extent has to be more than just a personality trait, it's an illness.

It's difficult to say anything about the writing itself because I read the English translation, so I have no idea what the original French was like. I liked the writing very much but whether credit goes to the author or the translator I can't tell.

So I've read the book and crossed it off my must read list, though it didn't shorten that list any because when I took "The Stranger" off I added "The Plague". I want to read at least one more of his books to see if that whole "life is meaningless" thing was merely Meursault's outlook or if it is the author's philosophy and will carry through to his other books.

All in all an odd little book (117 pages in my copy) that still leaves me wondering what the point was. I saw it at Chapters the other day under a different title "The Outsider", but I don't know why it was changed. If you've read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

"The Story of Edgar Sawtelle"

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

If someone asked me what this book was about, my first instinct would be to say it's about dogs. In reality it's about Edgar Sawtelle, a mute boy who grows up on his father's farm where they raise and train the dogs that are known and respected as "Sawtelle Dogs", but the dogs are as important to the story as any of the human characters are. There are a lot of them that you get to know by name, and frankly sometimes I liked them a lot better than some of the humans. They are more reasonable and infinitely more loyal and dependable. Maybe we should let the dogs have the planet and get rid of the people. But, I digress....

First of all, I didn't understand the intent of the prologue. It did set a sinister tone and it introduced a poison substance that shows up later in the story, and maybe that's all it was intended to do, it just seemed a bit pointless to me.

The story is written in a level tone, without drama. Although dramatic situations arise, it is told without intensity or emotion, with a sort of resignation that though there is joy in life, nothing ever ends well and we simply fumble through till it's over. Things begin to go downhill from the beginning of the story and never turn around. If you need a happy ending, this one's not for you.

The characters are well developed and memorable. There were only a couple I really liked, other than the dogs. I liked a lot of them. There are three chapters written from the viewpoint of the dogs, a definite first for me but it works and it gives the dogs validity as characters.

The story takes us from before Edgar's birth to about 14 years of age. His life is simple and sweet, busy with training the dogs, until his uncle arrives on the scene and his father dies inexplicably. He has a good relationship with his mother but it becomes strained when she and the uncle get together. Resentment and anger escalate until Edgar is forced to leave home and hide in the forest. Several of the dogs run away with him and I found their time of wandering through the forest, trying to find enough water and food to stay alive and continuing with the dog's daily training, to be my favorite section of the book.

They leave the woods when one of the dogs is injured. They find a man, Henry, who helps the dog and offers Edgar a place to stay without too many questions asked. Henry is my favorite character. He is natural, generous, a bit jaded with wry humor. I'd like to read a book with Henry as the main character.

There are a couple of situations in the story that are, let's say, less than natural. Two different deceased persons appear and speak to Edgar. If you are easily spooked, you might not like that aspect of the book. I have yet to decide if we are meant to believe those appearances actually happened or if we are meant to doubt Edgar's mental stability. Either way, I didn't find it frightening, though I am not a fan of the paranormal in books.

After staying with Henry for a time, Edgar decides to go back the way he came and return home, hoping to find answers about his father's death. I won't say anymore about the story beyond that. You'll have to read it to learn the ending.

My favorite line in the entire book takes place when Edgar has to go to school and wait through the long hours till he can go home again and see if his dog has delivered her puppies. "Edgar boarded the school bus in despair. Ten thousand hours later, it ground to a halt in front of their driveway." I wish the author had made use of that sense of humour to lighten up other parts of the story just a little.

Edgar's last name was Sawtelle, a bit too much of a coincidence for me. Does it mean anything? Edgar couldn't speak, but he could hear and he could sign. Were his powers of observation heightened because of his inability? Is that how he came to know the truth of his father's death and would he not have figured it out otherwise? Am I reading too much into it?

I do recommend this book. It's well written, has great characters, good dialogue and an imaginative plot. It's a very good read, just don't expect everybody to live happily ever after.

Friday Blog Hop

Doing the Friday Blog Hop, but I've tried and tried to grab the logo and post it here and it isn't working. I did it a couple of weeks ago but nothing I do seems to work right now.

You can see the list at http://www.crazy-for-books.com. There are some great blogs on the list so you're sure to find something you like. In the meantime I'll keep trying.


Swan by Frances Mayes

I love everything I have read from Frances Mayes: "Bella Tuscany", "Under the Tuscan Sun", "A Year In The World". I didn't know she had written fiction so I was excited to find this book but, and I hate to say this, I was a little disappointed.

The story line and the characters were good, but the first few chapters felt like running in water. I couldn't get going. Several times I thought about quitting and moving on to something else, but I felt an obligation to this author who had given me so much enjoyment with her other books so I stuck it out to the end. She's a good writer, a very good writer; I just wish she had slashed about 15-20 pages (of what I thought was unnecessary information) and given us a meatier version. For me there were a few too many side stories and details that didn't matter and only served to slow it down.

I liked the characters but found them a little distant and hard to connect with. I don't know if that's because Mayes' writing style is somewhat formal, or if the characters got lost in all the other information. Attention doesn't stay on any one character very long, at least not long enough to feel much real sympathy for them. It's frustrating because it has the makings of a great story and yet never quite gets there.

I heard a quote somewhere about what you bring to a book having a huge effect on what you get out of it, and I'm wondering if I just didn't have the right stuff to bring to it. I read it during a week in which I was miserable with the flu and then got some unpleasant news from the Doctor so I wasn't in a great place emotionally. Maybe I wouldn't have loved any book I read. But it is also true that I have found in all of Mayes' books a hesitation to make herself very vulnerable and that certainly appeared to carry over to the characters in Swan. I would love to hear from someone else who has read it to see if our thoughts are at all alike. Is there something missing in this book or was it just a bad week for me to read it?

I just realized I haven't told you anything about the story and anyone who hasn't read it will have no idea what I'm talking about. Not sure where my mind is this week. The story is about a sister and brother living on opposite sides of the world, who reunite in their hometown when their mother's grave is tampered with. Their past is revealed bit by bit through the memories of townspeople, old documents and the conversations they have together. The story is well told and full of potential, the plot interesting, the dialogue good. It has all the elements; it just never drew me in.

I recommend it anyway. Frances Mayes writing is too good to ignore. I do hope if you read it you'll come back and tell me what you think.

Next: "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" by David Wroblewski

"My Antonia"

My Antonia by Willa Cather

"No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as "My Antonia".....H.L.Mencken

I haven't read anywhere near all the romantic novels ever written in America, but I can see what led Mencken to make such a bold statement. This is a beautifully written novel, romantic in all senses of the word. It's one of those books whose characters stay with you for so long that you wonder if you're remembering someone you read about or someone you actually knew, and whose setting you are quietly pulled into as soon as you begin to read.

I wasn't familiar with Cather's books, though I recognized her name from a gazillion "must read" lists. I couldn't believe how good it was and I'm still wondering why I didn't run across her books during my school years. Being Canadian we studied a lot of English literature, but I remember doing some American novelists, just never this one. Anyway now I feel like I've discovered treasure I didn't know existed and I love it when that happens! I'll be looking for her other novels at the local libraries, but come to think of it, I might have another one on my tbr shelf. Hmmm...I hope so.

The story is narrated by Jim, a young boy who moves to Nebraska to live with his grandparents after the death of his parents. Antonia is the daughter of immigrants who move into the same area. She and Jim quickly become good friends with the story following them into adulthood. There are lots of interesting secondary characters, some you'll hate and some you'll love, but for me the land itself, the wide open fields of Nebraska, became one of the main characters. You share with the book's characters the childhood freedom of roaming those endless fields. I love it when an author can make me feel such a connection to a place that I actually miss it when the story is finished.

The novel is put together a little different than others. It begins with an introduction in which the grown up Jim meets an old friend (unidentified) from his childhood. They talk about Antonia and decide to write her story, though it's left up to the reader to figure out why they thought her story was more important than those of other girls he grew up with. The first sections of the book tell of her growing up years, but once she becomes an adult most of what we learn about her is from what other people tell Jim. At first I thought it odd that the reader never really gets to know Antonia, but then I realized the title is not 'Antonia' but 'My Antonia'. It isn't really about her; it's about Jim's experience of her.

At times I wanted Jim and Antonia to get together romantically, at other times I thought they weren't really suited to each other. He always stood in awe of her, a position more suited to a "loving from afar" kind of relationship anyway.

Cather's epigraph is a quote from Virgil:"Optima dies...prima fugit", loosely translated as "the best days are the first to pass". That seems to be the over-riding philosophy of the story. There is a constant wistfulness for times past, in the first part of the book for the old countries and lifestyles given up for new opportunities in Nebraska, and in the last part of the book for the freedoms and innocence of lost youth. It gives the entire story a melancholy feeling that becomes more nostalgic than sad; in the end you feel things have turned out the way they were meant to.

I highly recommend My Antonia, a gentle, beautifully written book with depths to explore far beyond the simple story of friends.

"The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time"

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time by Mark Haddon

How do writers get inside other people's heads? How did Mark Haddon turn his own mind off and start thinking like an autistic boy? I asked a similar question after reading Don Hannah's 'Ragged Islands'. He wrote as an elderly woman looking  back over her life; how was he able to get into a woman's thinking like that? I'm in awe of whatever ability that is whether it's well-honed observation skills, mind reading or some other super power.

Haddon has written a fascinating story from inside the head of Christopher, an autistic 15 year old boy. His beautifully detailed writing makes it possible for the reader to follow Christopher's reasoning step by step, which in turn makes his responses to various people and situations seem perfectly logical. It all becomes so clear. You feel his fear, you feel your mind interpreting things through his need for order and logic, and though you understand the frustration people have trying to work with him, you also feel Christopher's blank response to their frustrations. 

The opening sentence "It was seven minutes after midnight." grabs your attention immediately, but if that doesn't do it for you, seeing the first chapter numbered "2" will. This is Christopher's story and he likes prime numbers, so that's what he used to number the chapters. The eccentricity of that is one of the things that made this story endearing to me.

The writing is clear, honest and oh, so logical - I love it. Sometimes Haddon uses graphics to illustrate how Christopher pictures things in his own mind and I think it works very well. He clarifies the boy's way of looking at things to the point where it seems he's the normal one and all the other characters aren't thinking right.

Overall the story is sad because this boy is so often misunderstood and the other characters' lives get so messed up trying to cope with him. I've read some reviews that said it was funny, but I don't think I'd call it that. Some of Christopher's reactions to other people, some of what he says, made me smile but in a poignant way rather than comical. He is so bright and yet that's not what the world sees in him. I so appreciate an author who can turn my head around and show me life from an angle I haven't bent myself into before.

All of the characters are believable; you can't help sympathizing with them. They make mistakes and bad decisions, but they do the best they can in their circumstances. Like all of us they act out of their own hurts and needs and this rounds out the story, making it true to life. Through the whole book though, it was Christopher I wanted to step into the pages and help. I wanted to be there beside him and explain him to his disheartened caregivers. There was one teacher who seemed to know how to help him and how to calm him when he got upset, and I wondered why the skills she had weren't taught to the parents. On the other hand, that's probably naive. It would have been far more difficult for them than for her because they were with him all the time. For them it wasn't a job, it was their lives.     

The insight you get into the autistic mind is wonderful. Haddon has worked with autistic children so he knows what he's talking about. Autism seen from the outside looks crazy and uncontrollable, but from the inside it makes perfect sense. I can't explain it, but there was a kind of relief that somehow came with learning how an autistic person processes what he sees and hears. I don't know anyone personally who is autistic, so I'm not sure why this should be but I'm grateful to the author for showing me these things. 

If I had to find fault with anything in this book, it's what Christopher has been taught about God. He uses what he believes to be logic to prove the non-existence of God, a thing absolutely unprovable. It has to be a statement of the author's belief because nowhere in the book does the boy have this discussion with anyone, yet he has a fully constructed pat answer to the question. I would have found it more realistic if he questioned the existence of God, but that might not be realistic at all for a person with autism. Perhaps everything really is black and white for them. There is some profanity as well, but it was used in situations of high stress as it might be in real life and wasn't just thrown in for shock value.

I found myself unable to put the book down; I finished it in two sittings. It's a great story, told with innovation and originality. I highly recommend it.

"The Quiet Little Woman"

The Quiet Little Woman by Louisa May Alcott

How can you go wrong with the gentle writing of Louisa May Alcott?

You can't, and as I anticipated, this little book was a joy to read. It contains three touching stories about young girls at Christmastime: The Quiet Little Woman, Tilley's Christmas and Rosa's Tale. The writing is bright and wholesome, like a breath of fresh air that makes you wish it wouldn't end just yet. I'd love to read this book aloud to a child.

The stories are sweet, typical Alcott. The first is about a girl in an orphanage who longs for a family of her own, the second about a girl in a poor family who make the best of what they have for Christmas, and the third is a story based on the legend of the talking animals on Christmas Eve.

The copy I have (borrowed from the library) has a red hard cover with a pretty jacket framed in gold. There are beautiful illustrations in red ink on the title pages of each story, every chapter begins with a red letter and the page numbers, located mid-way down the outside edge of each page, are trimmed in red. It's both beautiful to look at and to read, and would make a great gift for any reader, child or adult.

"A Year By The Sea"

A Year By The Sea - Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman by Joan Anderson

Odd? Confusing? Exhausting? These words all describe my encounter with this book. I don't recall ever having quite the same experience with any book before. It still amazes me, and I hope it always will, that words printed on paper can do this to a person. And as Martha would say "It's a good thing!".

I'll begin at the beginning. My initial attraction to this book was the title. For a long time now I've been dreaming of time away and alone, and since I'm not really content unless I can see a body of water nearby, A Year By The Sea sounded like a title for my dream come true. The cover of this book had me hooked before I even knew what the story was about. I am such a pushover for a great cover and title.

The story is a recounting of Joan Anderson's year long separation from her husband. Her children were grown and married and her own marriage had grown stale, so when her husband announced that he was taking a new job in a new city, she surprised them both with her decision to not go with him, moving instead to their sea-side cottage for some time alone. They sold the house and went their separate ways, not knowing what it meant for their future, or if they would have a future together at all.

At the cottage, she settles in and adjusts to living alone. She walks, writes, takes a job at a local fish market, and meets an older woman, also named Joan, who becomes a sort of mentor to her. Her husband comes to spend an awkward Christmas with her, and in the spring they and their two sons and daughters-in-law gather at the cottage for a week-end together.

As I was reading I began to feel an overwhelming envy of her freedom to live alone by the sea for a year. I have no doubt there are thousands of women all over the world who would give away their book collections (wait..........yes, we would) to have that. I'm not making light of her suffering in any way, I'm just saying it would be amazing to have a place like that to go to when you needed it. A place to just be. I could almost smell the salt air and feel the breeze on my face. My envy became so strong I was aching to go and be alone by the water. Maybe not for a year, but at least for a couple of weeks. I can't come up with the words to express the intensity of the longing this book stirred up in me.

Back to the story. She writes of her experiences in a realistic tone, not overly optimistic but not cynical either. She's talks freely about her own shortcomings as well as those of her husband and how they've both contributed to the indifference that has moved into their marriage.

I couldn't decide if I liked her husband or not. He seemed a little tightly wound, and sometimes sarcastic or even mean with his words, though that probably isn't a fair assessment because there's not a great deal about him in the book. In any event, I found myself rooting for the marriage as I read.

When I finished the book and began to write this post it dawned on me that I didn't know her husband's name. I flipped through the book a couple of times but couldn't find it; she refers to him only as "my husband" or "he".

Then I got angry. How could you write a book about your life and marriage and never mention your spouse's name? Did she see him only as a possession of hers and not a person in his own right? Was she that self-centered? Is that why the marriage came unglued? My sympathies did a somersault and I began to like him more and her less.

I also felt like I was missing parts of the story. She talks about becoming friends with an older woman and shares her experiences of living on her own for the first time, but toward the end of the book she mentions socializing with several people from her job at the market, a woman photographer, two couples she's gotten to know and some neighbors, none of whom are ever introduced to the reader. That was a bit jolting because she does such a good job of drawing you into her life and feeling as though you are on this journey with her, then you realize a big part of her story is closed to you. And when she makes the decision whether or not to reconcile with her husband, it isn't really clear how she came to that conclusion. I closed the book angry and frustrated, feeling like I couldn't connect all the dots.

So I did something I've only ever done once before. I turned from the last page back to the first page and started again. I read the entire book through the second time looking for I don't even know what. Maybe more time by the sea. Maybe some mention of her husband's name. Maybe more connection between the dots. I don't know, but this book had gotten under my skin and I needed something more.

When I got to the end the second time, I did find those dots a little easier to connect. I still don't know the husband's name and I cannot fathom why that should be so, but I'm not angry with either of them anymore. I like them both, flaws and all. And I was happy living vicariously by the sea through her story. I am going to move on the my next book, because I have a Book Club meeting in a few days and I'll be leading the discussion so I need to be prepared. I want to read this one again though. I want to live in it, a response even stronger than what I had to the Peter Mayle "Provence" books to which I became a bit addicted for a while.

So. In my journey through these pages I found myself envious, confused and angry. But I also felt affection, strong dislike, a kind of freedom, and great delight. Wow. I'd say that must be one good book. I recommend it (the book, not the emotional roller coaster) to women, especially women of "a certain age"; I suspect we can all find ourselves somewhere in these pages. I don't know if her story would resonate so much with younger women and probably not at all with men, but still, it's a very, very good read and I think she's a wonderful writer.

Reading, Reading, Reading

First, I want to thank Missy of missysbooknook.blogspot.com for the Prolific Blogger Award. It was a nice surprise. The idea is for me to pass it on so I'm awarding it to "I Prefer Reading" at preferreading.blogspot.com. Be sure to check out these two blogs and read some of their reviews.

I'm so glad I discovered and took part in Friday's 'Blog Hop'. I found a ton of great book blogs with hundreds of book reviews. My to-be-read list is growing by leaps and bounds. The great thing about there being so many of these blogs is that no matter what genres you like, there is someone out there who shares your taste in books and who can give you dozens of recommendations.

I always thought I was an avid reader, and a fast reader. Boy did I get a shock when I saw how many books other people go through. On one site the blogger listed over 300 books she read last year. Many will read several books a week, and one said she'd had a busy weekend but did manage to get a few books read! I feel like an amateur. I do well to read one or two a week. I guess my affection for thick books and long sagas is part of what limits me, but I'm not convinced I'd want to read any faster than I do. I guess it depends on the book. Some can be devoured quickly, but others need to be savored, enjoying and re-reading the passages that are particularly beautiful.

So I guess I'll keep doing what I'm doing. I'll try to get through books quickly enough to post regularly and keep the blog interesting, and I'll try to alternate quick reads and short books with more ponderous or lengthy works. And, sometimes, I'll probably just read whatever I feel like reading.

My problem now is to limit the amount of time I spend reading other blogs because it can seriously cut into my real reading time. Reading? Or Reading? What a lovely dilemma.