"Choosing To See"

Choosing To See by Mary Beth Chapman (with Ellen Vaughn)

Mary Beth Chapman is the wife of gospel music artist Steven Curtis Chapman, a well-known singer/songwriter whose career has spanned two decades and is still going strong. Mary Beth is also mother of six and a public speaker at Christian women's groups. 

On May 28, 2008 the Chapman family suffered a horrible tragedy when their little girl, Maria, was hit by a car in their own driveway. The driver of the car was their son, Will. I remember when this story hit the news; the unthinkable circumstances left parents around the world wondering how it is even possible to survive so much pain. This book is Mary Beth's story, from childhood to present day. It includes much more than the accident, but that event has been the defining moment of her life that has coloured every other moment since.

At the time of their daughter's death the Chapman's were in the midst of planning the wedding of their eldest daughter, Emily, and the high school graduation of their eldest son who was the one behind the wheel when the car struck and killed his little sister. The impact on the whole family was overwhelming. Will fought hard with guilt and  Mary Beth and Steven struggled with God over why it happened and especially why it had to happen the way it did. The other children were devastated by the loss of their sister.

Their struggle to keep on putting one foot in front of the other, to carry on with wedding and graduation plans, to go back to living a life that would never be normal again is a testament to their faith in God. They chose daily to trust that he would carry them all through this, help them endure the pain and bring something good out of all the bad.

It's a remarkable story of hanging on through a kind of heartache most of us can only imagine. The authour is very honest about their pain and anger as they agonized over the fact that God could have stopped this from happening but didn't. It wasn't and still isn't easy for them, but God has held them together and they continue to believe in His goodness and His love for them.

This tragic story is not an easy one to read but it's not only about suffering. Hope is the thread that runs through every chapter and encourages us all to face the painful realities of our lives with faith, knowing that someone bigger than we are is in control. This is a story worth reading.

"Poems of the Past and Present"

Poems of the Past and Present by Thomas Hardy

I've enjoyed reading Hardy's novels since I was first introduced to them in high-school, but this is my first look at his poetry. I confess I have no idea how to review a book of poetry so I guess I'll just write what I was thinking as I read.

The overall mood of the book is sad disillusionment, the same feeling that comes through his novels, only more focused because in poetry so much is said in so few words. I expected his poems to be melancholy but this is more than that I think. This is despair, and it never ends. It seeps into every verse, every line. In "I Said To Love" he says:

"We now know more of thee than then;
 We were but weak in judgement when,
 With hearts abrim,
 We clamored thee that thou woulds't please
 Inflict on us thine agonies."

It's clear that he has been hurt. You can't read his novels without seeing how disillusioned he is about love but this verse sounds almost bitter. When I was younger I used to think that life must have treated him very harshly, but now I don't expect his life was harder than other people's, I just think that as a poet he is more free, and better able, to express his emotions.

There's a poem in this collection called "A Commonplace Day" that I like a lot. He writes about the day passing without having accomplished anything, an experience common to us all but most of us could never put it into words with so much feeling. I find myself drawn into his disappointment when he says:

                     "Nothing of tiniest worth, Have I wrought, pondered , planned".

In another poem titled simply "To Life" Hardy sounds so tired of the suffering and darkness of life that he asks why life can't, just for one day, pretend that it's good and happy. Where most of us might sigh with a moment's passing regret, he picks up a pen and turns his regret into art

                                                 "But cans't thou not array
                                                  Thyself in rare disguise,
                                                  And feign like truth, for one mad day
                                                  That Earth is paradise?

Some (most) of these poems are heart-wrenching to read, full of pain, but honest, his heart laid open for all the world to see. There's one called "God Forgotten" and another "The Bedridden Peasant to An Unknowing God" in which he questions if God ever hears him or if He's forgotten about Thomas Hardy, and, indeed, the whole human race. He believes in God's existence and that He is good, but he feels abandoned. Who can't relate to that from time to time?

There is also, though, a certain amount of cautious hope in what he writes. In "To An Unknown Pauper Child" he advises the baby to stop breathing and not be born into such a mournful life, but at the end he faces the fact that neither he nor the child can do anything to change what will be and he says;

                                                   "I can hope 
                                                    Health, love, friends, scope 
                                                    In full for thee; dream thou'll find 
                                                    Joys seldom yet attained by humankind.".

The last one I'll mention is called "The Superseded". I love this one because it touches a sore spot in all of us. He writes about how people drop into the background of life as they age, making room for younger, fresher lives in the forefront. We all understand this process is a normal, healthy part of aging and we have no trouble accepting it for others, but each one of us is a little hurt and surprised when it actually happens to "me".

                                                    "Tis not that we have unforetold 
                                                     The drop behind;
                                                     We feel the new must 
                                                     Oust the old
                                                     In every kind;

                                                     But yet we think
                                                     Must we, must we
                                                     Too drop behind?"
I think these poems might be a bit too melancholy for some, but I enjoyed most of them. I don't mind their sadness because they speak of real life, and real life is sad. I love the simplicity, the honesty, the beauty of his words and after my first attempt at reading his poetry I remain a staunch Hardy fan.

"The Piano Man's Daughter"

The Piano Man's Daughter by Timothy Findley

This novel was a little slow starting but once it got going it was fascinating. I found it a bit muddled at first, what with the switching back and forth from one time period to another and from one character's life to another. Written with a detachment that it took awhile to get used to, it was a strong story once I got adapted to the style and got everybody sorted out. Somewhere in Section Two, I was hooked.

I must confess that I have started making lists of characters as I read so that I won't forget who they are and how they are related to the story. This can be looked at in two ways: 1. I'm getting old and forgetful and am more easily confused. 2. I've become more organized and efficient and am taking my reading more seriously.  I choose the second theory. If you think the first is more accurate, please leave me to my delusions; they are all I have left. But I digress...

The "Daughter" referred to in the title is Lily, daughter of Tom, who is the "Piano Man". Lily suffers with mental illness, a condition that has plagued her since childhood and that never lets her live a normal life with her son Charlie. Raised by her mother, Edith, who tried to give her daughter as normal a life as possible, she lived in a world that was detached from the reality around her much of the time. In her world the rules were different, and that of course created problems for her family and friends, who could not understand the seizures she sometimes experienced or her unsettling obsession with fire.

The narrator is Lily's grown son, Charlie, who as a child tried to care for his mother during her bad spells, but who eventually went to live with his aunt and uncle when his mother's condition deteriorated to the point where she had to be institutionalized for the first time. When Lily's condition improved enough to be released she would find a place for her and Charlie to live and they would be a family again until her condition worsened and she had to be re-admitted.

The story of Edith, Lily and Charlie is a close-up look at how mental illness can affect a family and even tear it apart when the stress of holding things together becomes overwhelming. It's a tragic illness that can strip the sufferer's life of everything meaningful and destroy relationships that can't bear the weight of it's confines and complexity. And yet, life goes on. As in real life, the characters in this book put one foot in front of the other and keep going because, what else is there to do? This is a well told, consuming story that may not let you put the book down when you want to. It's hard to resist.

This is an amazing story, and I'm hoping to find more like it in Timothy Findley's other novels which include: Headhunter, Famous Last Words, Not Wanted on the Voyage, and The Wars. He has also written two collections of short stories and at least one play. "The Piano Man's Daughter" is well worth the read and I highly recommend it.

"The Stone Diaries"

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

I know this won't win me any friends among Canadian readers, but I don't like Carol Shields writing. Granted I've only read this one through to the end. A few years ago I started another one and didn't like it either so I quit about a quarter of the way in. I suspected at the time I was not a "good" reader and that her books were over my head.  I've gained some "reader confidence" since then and learned that it's ok to not like certain styles of writing just on the basis of personal taste. Hence the freedom I feel to hate Ulysses by James Joyce without guilt, but that's a whole other story.

This novel follows the life of Daisy Goodwill from her birth in her mother's kitchen in 1905 to her death in the 1990s. It wasn't an ordinary life, if there even is such a thing. She never knew the mother who died bringing her into the world. She was raised by a neighbour until circumstances changed, requiring Daisy to go home and live with her father. At that point she is eleven years old and she and her father are complete strangers to one another. Each chapter is titled for a specific stage of her life: Birth, Childhood, Marriage, Love, Motherhood, Work, Sorrow, Ease, Illness and Decline, and Death.

I found the gaps too long between some of the chapters. For example, the "Childhood" chapter ends in 1916, just as she reconnects with her father, then that chapter comes to an end and the next one "Marriage" begins with her as a bride-to-be at 22 years of age. I think gaps like that are what prevented me from arriving at a place where I would care about the characters and how things would turn out for them. The story itself is good and the writing as well, I just couldn't get invested in any of the people in the story.

I found some rather odd figures of speech in this book. They're in the right places and at the right times; my problem is that I just don't understand them. There must have been fifty times throughout the book that I came to a metaphor and stopped, wondering what the heck did that mean. I love creativity, but I think this authour and I are on different wave lengths. I'll give you a few examples:

1. In talking about a professor she said "He rides straight up the walls of his sentences."
2. "For Abram Skutari......religion is an open window as well as the curtain with which he darkens the window"
3. "...the word 'woe' made them fall over laughing, such a blind little bug of a word"
4. "...if she says 'So you two gals are out on the town, huh?' then aunt Daisy will say, shaping her mouth into soft ovals of confederacy...." 
5. "Vanity refuses to die, pushing the blandness of everyday life into little pleats, pockets, knobs of electric candy."

I could think through some of these and figure out what she might have meant, (the word "woe" is bug-like though I don't know how it's blind, and maybe I have some idea what "a soft oval of confederacy" looks like) but I can't come up with any connection between "the blandness of every day life" and "electric candy"  (electric candy?).  As something that should paint a clearer picture for the reader or help us understand a situation more easily, these metaphors and others in this book didn't work for me.

I don't know if I'll read anymore of Carol Shields' books or not. I think I'd like to try one more, but it's way down on my priority list now. I know that a lot of people love her writing so definitely give it a try. I didn't "get" her at all, but you might not have that problem. Would love to hear what you think.

"Agnes Grey"

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

 I didn’t like this book, and it’s by a Bronte so I hate to say that. It’s certainly no Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. I didn’t hate it; I just found it tedious.

Agnes is a young woman who decides she will work as a governess so that her family won’t have to support her any longer. She’s a basically good character; she has all the right qualities for a young woman of her era: modesty, loyalty, diligence, etc. and I think the authour wants us to see her as a heroine. Unfortunately the writing doesn’t let us do that. Too many paragraphs are used to tell us how difficult things are for her and instead of stirring up sympathy for her, it made me wish she would stop whining and get on with it.

The two families who hire her on as governess are stereotypically rich, indulgent parents with spoiled children. The children are different ages but really the second family is pretty much a copy of the first one. It all seemed designed to impress upon the reader how terribly hard Agnes’s life is. After awhile I got tired of feeling sorry for her.

When she met the Curate at her village church and began to fall for him I thought maybe she would mature as a character, but I waited in vain. In fact, the Curate, who also is given sterling qualities so that we’ll see him as a good match for Agnes, turns out to be as self-focused (dare I say conceited?) as she was. I’m pretty sure Bronte intended the reader to call the conclusion of this book a happy ending, but I just thought “What a jerk this guy is!” and was glad I didn’t have to read more about him.

I found this book disappointing, so I can’t recommend it. That’s really all I can say about it.   

"No.1 Ladies Detective Agency"

No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

I think I have stumbled onto a treasure trove with this book. It was sheer pleasure reading it and I have since discovered it is just the first book in a series and that the authour has also published at least two other series that sound every bit as appealing. I love it when that happens.

Precious Ramotswe is the main character in this series. A not young, "well-rounded" woman living in Botswana, she sets up her detective agency when her father dies and leaves her with some money to give her a start in life.. She has no training or experience but she does have confidence that she can do this. She finds an office, hires someone to answer the phone and starts being a detective.

Her cases include ordinary people with ordinary problems and some not so ordinary people with not so ordinary problems. Every one of them she tackles with the same common sense, no-nonsense approach that makes her so very....well, interesting. She's unlike any character I've met in other books. She's a breath of fresh air.

And yet, this is not exactly like all the other "cozy mysteries" out there. Some of her clients are dealing with realistic circumstances that are tragic and for which there will be no happy ending. What I love about this book is that there is no melodrama; the serious cases and the minor cases all receive the same treatment, the same commitment to solving, the same honest care.  

I have never been a fan of mysteries but I plan on reading this entire series, not so much for the stories as for the writing and the characters. These books will fit into my "comfort reads" category, the kind of book that's perfect to pick up when my reading has been too heavy for too long. If you haven't read this yet, and I suspect I may be the only one who hadn't, I highly recommend you give this series a try. It really is a treat. 

"Cry, The Beloved Country"

Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Here's another title from my "Guilt List" that turned out to be a wonderful surprise. It's absolutely beautiful. Beautiful writing, beautiful characters, beautiful story.

Set in Africa, it is the story of a church minister who receives word that his younger sister is sick and needs help. She had gone to Johannesburg to look for her missing husband and has not been heard from in a long time. The minister's son then went to look for his aunt and he also has not been heard from in many months. Reluctantly taking the very small savings he and his wife have scraped together for other things, the minister, Stephen, travels to the city.

The story of how he finds his sister and his son, what condition he finds them in and how their lives all unfold from that point is heartbreaking and inspiring and so authentic that I have a hard time remembering it's fiction and not someone's true story.

The thing that had the greatest impact on me, and that I don't think I will ever forget, is the nobility of some of the characters, the greatness of their souls. The simple, honest choosing of right over wrong, the humble considering of others first even in the worst of circumstances is heartening. Even knowing the story is a work of fiction, I found my hope for, and faith in, humanity being bolstered, and my own desire to be a better person strengthened. Don't take that to mean this book is in any way sentimental or predictable. As a parent, it was one of the most painful stories I've ever read. But it made me feel hopeful too. Hopeful that no matter what may happen to us, we can choose to do the right thing and to be honorable even when no one is watching.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. I think the world would have to be a better place if every person read it. There's a phrase in the second paragraph of the fourth chapter that went straight to my heart and I think it sums up my feelings about this book: it was "lovely beyond any singing of it." Beautiful.

"The Flying Troutmans"

The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

Interesting. I think that's the word I'd use to describe this book. I didn't love it, but the story is quite original and there's a lot to be said for that. The characters are fresh and funky and vulnerable and they left me curious to take a look at her other novels.

It is about a woman, Hattie, who comes home from Paris after her boyfriend dumps her. She has come to take care of her sister, niece and nephew when the sister, Min, is hospitalized for the depression that has plagued her throughout her life. Hattie doesn't really know what she's doing but Logan, 15, seldom says anything and Thebes, 11, talks nonstop and Hattie needs help. She decides they should all take a road trip to find the father they haven't seen in years. She has no clear plan, just a desperation to find someone who can take responsibility for the kids.

Logan drinks, smokes pot and drives without a license; he writes poetry about death and is withdrawn and anti-social. Thebes talks constantly and like a 60 yr old. She doesn't like to wash. Hattie smokes pot with Logan and doesn't argue when he carves a picture of a bashed up head into the leather dash of the car with a knife. Issues all around. It's a very...troubled...family dynamic.

Their drive across country, with the odd assortment of people they meet and the even odder situations they find themselves in makes up the bulk of the story. As a mother I was horrified at some of the things she had the kids doing or allowed them to do, but I could also relate to the tired, sad state that finds it easier to say "sure, why not" than to argue and lose. It got a little far-fetched  but never boring. 

As with many of the books I've read lately there was more bad language than I really needed, but I found the writing good - very easy to read - and the story moved along quickly. I just realized as I've been writing that this book is very sad. It was touted as "hilarious and heartbreaking" but I didn't find the hilarity. The characters make the best of a bad situation and there are a few ironic moments but I can't recommend it as a funny book. I do recommend it though if you're ready to read something a bit raw and gritty. It will pull you in and maybe, like me, it will get you interested enough to check out some more of Toews work. I like her writing and her thinking.

I, for one, am ready for a lighter read. The steady literary diet of tragedy, illness, perversion and cynicism I've been on is taking it's toll. Fortunately, abebooks.com, has just offered a list of "feel good" reads that I think I'm ready to sink my teeth into. I just have to finish posting on the books I've already read and then I'm going to move on to something light and maybe even fun.

"The Stone Angel"

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

This is my first Margaret Laurence book, a bit of an awkward confession for someone who likes to push Canadian authours on fellow readers. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. This is a great story, painful and beautiful and real. I think I have sometimes lumped all Canadian authours into a group called “Too Intellectual for Me” and as a result I have missed out on some great writing that I am only now beginning to enjoy.

Hagar Shipley is the main character, an elderly widow living with her son and his wife. Things have come to the point where she needs more care than her Daughter-in-law, Doris, can provide. Hagar is suspicious that they want to put her in a “home” and she is adamant she won’t go. She won’t discuss it with them and becomes defensive and hostile when they try to talk to her.

So she hatches a plan. She takes her uncashed old age security cheque, hides it in her purse and when Doris goes out to run errands, Hagar makes her escape. She manages to get the cheque cashed and buy some crackers, cheese and a bus ticket and is on her way to some vague beach destination she recalls from her past, though she sometimes forgets on the way where she is and what she is doing there.

She finds a run-down abandoned house where she can hide out – it even has a musty old bed – and she sleeps. When she awakes cold and damp, aching and hungry, she gets angry at Doris for letting her room get so cold and with her son, Marvin, for not paying enough attention to his mother's comfort. Then she remembers where she is and how she came to be there. Soon, she is surprised to find she is not alone in her shelter.

 While she is taking this one last fling at independence her mind travels back to her days as a young wife and mother and the story of her life, not a happy one, is revealed. And now I’ve said enough; to know the rest of the story, you’ll have to read the book.  

Margaret Laurence is a good story teller. She had me feeling sorry for Hagar, who was piteous in her fear and weakness, and exasperating in her rudeness and short temper, all at the same time. Hagar is a very human woman, one in whom I think most of us would find something of ourselves, though we may not like to admit it. I look forward to reading more of Laurence’s stories and hope to find their characters just as real and interesting as this one.