Three Christmas Stories

Christmas at Harrington's by Melody Carlson
A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg
Remembering Christmas by Dan Walsh

These are the three new (to me) Christmas books that I found time to read this year. There's never enough time to read in December, still every year I make a list of titles and look forward to some lovely, relaxing time with my books. Then every year I'm disappointed when time runs out. You'd think I'd learn, but hope springs eternal. I did re-read a couple of books: An Island Christmas Reader by David Weale and Old Christmas by Washington Irving. For me both are as much a part of Christmas as the turkey and the tree.

I'll warn you that there are spoilers in the following paragraphs, but, really, they're all holiday stories, so there could only be one ending, right?

Christmas at Harrington's was ok.  I've mentioned before that I'm not a fan of Melody Carlson's writing, but I wanted something light and seasonal and that's what I got. I didn't find the characters very convincing, but the story line wasn't too bad. It's about a middle-aged woman getting out of prison for a crime she didn't commit and looking to start a new life in a new town where nobody knows her. Harrington's is the retail store where she goes to work and of course she gets to know the owner's family (and their sick little girl) and things turn out well in the end and it's all very sentimental and Christmassy. If the story doesn't do it for you, the pretty cover might put you in a festive mood.

A Redbird Christmas was a little better, with more convincing characters and more depth. While I can't say I loved it, I did enjoy reading it and was able to feel some connection with the characters. This one is about a man who has just been given a terminal diagnosis and he travels to a small southern town to rest and think. The town is filled with friendly, generous people who take him into their community and their lives. A little girl, with a Tiny Tim-like physical disability, enters the story and captures our hero's heart. It's sentimental, with a predictable ending that's a bit over the top, but the writing wasn't too bad.  

  Remembering Christmas was somewhere between the other two on a "how-good-was-it" scale. It, too, is sentimental and predictable, but that's what I expected when I bought it. In this one the main character is a man returning to his home town to help with the book store his mother (with whom he has a strained relationship) and step-father run. The step-father, of whom he has never been a fan, is in critical condition with an aneurism. A pretty young girl, with the requisite child, works at the bookstore - so you can see where that's headed. All relationships are good by the end of the story.

 So that's the wrap up on my Christmas reading. I think next year I may just re-read some of my favourites. Dickens' A Christmas Carol is always good and I have a couple of Christmas readers that I didn't get time to read through this year. I'll try to be disciplined enough to not buy any new ones this year, but "Christmas" in the title gets me every time. My inexplicable optimism that there are still great Christmas stories being written is costing me way too much in shelf space.

Hope you had time to indulge in some lovely holiday reading this year. Happy New Year one and all!

My Christmas...

...attending The Nutcracker at the Capitol Theater with my eldest grand-daughter, taking the younger one to see The Hobbit, re-reading "An Island Christmas Reader" and "Old Christmas", making sugarplums for the first time, our book club Christmas evening, listening to Handel's Messiah, the whitest of white Christmases, tires spinning, people pushing cars everywhere, every branch and twig encased in ice, a winter wonderland, six inches of slush in parking lots, soft snowfall on Christmas Eve, waiting for family to arrive safely on slippery highways, a spectacularly beautiful Christmas day, diamonds in the snow, hot chocolate, candles, our first artificial tree and not hating it, old ornaments poignant with memories, the moving poetry of old Christmas carols, reading The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve, reading from Luke chapter 2 on Christmas morning, sleepy teenagers, a new book, chicken bones, enough chocolate to sink a ship, easy laughter, a few tears, cosy blankets in front of the tv fireplace, the smell of turkey roasting for 6 hours, cranberries, the glorious mess in the living room, friends dropping in, the best caramel corn ever, the warm glow of Christmas lights,
towers of dirty dishes, settling back in the recliner with feet up, shortbread cookies, ice on the river, a red fox brilliant against the white snow in the back yard, taking Christmas treats to the neighbours, our big new tv, mocha cakes made by my husband, the shining star on top of the tree, my friend Ellen's fruit cake, corny Christmas movies, missing the days when my children were young, dropping an old and cherished ornament and hearing it break on the floor, the friendliness of people in the grocery store, pretty holiday napkins, After Eights, those lonely moments Christmas inexplicably brings, two snowstorms and an ice storm and a dying snow blower all in one week, a dvd of old Andy Williams Christmas shows, Christmas dinner with my mother who - frail and elderly - had a good day, remembering past Christmases, glittering Christmas cards, glasses of eggnog, exhaustion, winter boots and wet feet, power outages messing up the computer, a warm house, friends, family and gratitude for everything I've been blessed with.

So tell me about your Christmas...

What's On Your Christmas Reading List?

Now that the shopping and wrapping and cooking are done, it's time to haul out the Christmas books. I have at least two new ones to read and I have a few old favourites that I try to read every December because it just doesn't feel like Christmas without them.

I've just started Christmas at Harrington's by Melody Carlson. I'm not really a Carlson fan but thought I'd give it a chance. Our book club read Christmas on Mill Street by Joseph Walker this month, a book I love and highly recommend. It reminds me a little of "A Christmas Story", set in the same time period about a boy who wants just one special thing for Christmas. It's a short book, but funny and poignant, not too sappy, and worth reading.

I'll be posting some of my favourite holiday reads here as I get to them.

How about you? Are you trying new books this Christmas or do you like to re-read seasonal favourites? Do you find time to read at Christmas at all? If you come across any good ones please share the titles as I'm always looking for a good Christmas story. What's on your Christmas reading list?

"Literary Lapses"

Literary Lapses by Stephen Leacock

I find Leacock very entertaining usually but I couldn't seem to get into these stories right now, so I'm going to set it aside and read it again later. I guess I have to be in the right head place to fully appreciate the irony - and he is a master of irony. 

Some of the stories/essays in this collection:
 -  Boarding House Geometry
 - How to Make a Million Dollars
 - Men Who Have Shaved My Head
 - Hoodoo McFiggan's Christmas
 - On Collecting Things
 - An Experiment with Policeman Hogan
 - Winter Pastimes 

If you've never read Leacock you are missing out on some serious entertainment. His writing is smart, imaginative, funny, and altogether quite enjoyable, so in spite of the fact that I was too distracted to appreciate this book right now, I do recommend it.

"A Week In Winter"

A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

I finally had to read this book. I've been hoarding it, knowing there are no more coming, but it was our November book club selection so I couldn't hoard it any longer.

As with all of Maeve Binchy's books, I loved it. She has a way of making me positively long for the place she's writing about - like it's home and I haven't been there for a long time. She creates characters that feel like family or maybe friends I just haven't met yet. I love the language, the local colour and the stories. Oh, the stories.

Maeve Binchy was a genius storyteller. In this book she tells the stories of 10 different major characters and a few minor ones to boot. The amazing thing to me is how she could write about each person for only a few pages and yet leave you feeling you've known the person your whole life. I don't know what her secret was, but I'm going to miss it a lot.

The setting for "A Week in Winter" is an old house on the coast of Ireland that is being remodeled into a guest house by a young woman who has been away for a few years but has now come home to stay. The characters we meet all end up at "Stone House" together as guests the week it opens. The gathering doesn't come until toward the end of the book and is more the culmination of the story than anything. The real stories are those told in the time leading up to that point about  how their lives intertwine bringing them all to the  the same place at the same time.

 I can't say it enough: I loved it. I love this author and will miss all the books that might have been. I'll console myself with re-reads and I'm grateful to have them, but still so sad that Maeve Binchy is no longer with us. She gave the world not just good stories and warm characters, but such comfort, and hope in every book she wrote.

Here's to Maeve Binchy - may she rest in peace.

"The Professor"

The Professor by Charlotte Bronte

 As I read through this book I was constantly reminded of Villette, another of Charlotte Bronte's less popular novels. Villette is the story of a single woman who finds employment at a girl's school in France; this one is about a single man who gets a job teaching at schools in Belgium. The schools, characters and stories are similar enough to make of these two books a good set of bookends, and leave the reader wondering why the author would choose to write two stories so alike.

I didn't enjoy this one as much as Villette because I didn't like the main character, the professor. Like the professor in Villette, he seems remote, stuffy and rather full of himself, while the female lead is all submission, humility and duty. The fact that she, Frances, consistently calls the professor "Master" doesn't help. The female lead in Villette, Lucy Snow, had more of a background story and was far more interesting.

When I read Villette I was surprised at the tendency to judge character by appearance, and again, I was surprised to find it in this book. Describing one student, the professor says: "Suspicion, sullen ill-temper were on her forehead, vicious propensities in her eye, envy and panther-like deceit about her mouth." About another student: "I wonder that any one, looking at the girl's head and countenance, would have received her under their roof." Later he admits that though the woman he loves is not beautiful and his first and chief attraction to her was her intellect, he could not have loved her without the "clearness of her brown eyes, the fairness of her fine skin, the purity of her well-set teeth, the proportion of her delicate form".

In spite of the things I didn't like, I found some good thoughts in the text. Here are a couple of my favourites:

"...he was too gentlemanlike to intrude topics I did not invite, and as he was really intelligent and really fond of intellectual subjects of discourse, he and I always found enough to talk about, without seeking themes in the mire."

"I have taken notice, monsieur, that people who are only in each other's company for amusement, never really like each other so well, or esteem each other so highly, as those who work together, and perhaps suffer together."

As with all the Bronte books, I loved the language. Unfortunately my dislike of the professor, and the impression I got that I was meant to admire him for his lack of graciousness, ruined it for me and I was quite happy to get to the end of it.

"The Geography of Bliss"

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Wiener

This is more than your average travel book. It's an exhilarating romp through the cultures of 10 countries fused with a philosophical study of what makes the people of those cultures happy or unhappy. The combination makes for highly entertaining reading.

The authour writes with wit and intelligence, but is also down to earth - and just a heads up, sometimes the language gets earthy too, though never excessively so.

He begins his research in The Netherlands, where the "World Database of Happiness" - and there really is such a thing - is located on a college campus, then he travels to Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, India and the U.S. He looks at how our happiness level is affected by money, climate, relationships, attitude and government. He asks people in every country where they would place themselves on a happiness scale of 1 to 10 and why. The answers he gets make for fascinating reading. He admits it's only the tip of the iceberg, that he visits only small areas of each country and talks to only a very small number of people relatively speaking, but still, it's an intensely interesting look at how people live around the world and how happy they are with their lives.

The travel aspect of the book is equally as interesting. The author is a long time journalist so he meets and talks to people easily. He's able to put people at ease and that gives him access to places and events that are culturally significant. His experiences in the bars and cafes of each visited country are hilarious, and eye-opening.

As a travel book alone the pace is somewhat frantic, but as a travel/philosophy book, I think it's terrific. I definitely recommend this one.  


Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This is a quiet, thoughtful book about an elderly man keeping a journal for his young son. Rev. John Ames knows his time is limited. His heart is failing, but he doesn't feel ready to leave his young family. There is so much he wants to tell his son, who he knows will remember him only as an old man who died when he was very young.

Rev. Ames writes to his son about his own father and grandfather, telling their stories as well as his own. He talks about life in their hometown of Gilead when he was a younger man, about his good friend, Boughton and Boughton's family, and about his own first family - a wife and child who died young and left him living in solitude for many years.

As John gradually discloses his story, the reader can't help but grow fond of him. He's as honest about his failings as his successes; he's humble, wise and as human as you and I. While I was reading I forgot it was a novel. It's written with breaks but no chapters, as a personal journal would be, and that's exactly what it was like to read.

It's a wonderful story, one I can't quite imagine anyone not liking - it's that good. It's gently written, the kind of writing I can read over and over, but I'll leave you with this sample so you can see for yourself:

"...I've developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course, that some very tedious gentlemen have written books."

"Prisoner of Tehran"

Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat

Marina Nemat was a teenager at the time of the Islamic revolution in her homeland of Iran. Until that time she had enjoyed the freedoms of most girls her age: school, friends, pretty clothes, parties, boyfriends, etc. Then things began to change. Freedoms were lost, especially for women. 

Marina began to resist the restrictions put on her and she spoke out. At the age of 16 she was arrested, interrogated and tortured. Standing before the firing squad, her guard intervened and made her an offer: he would save her life if she would marry him and convert from Christianity to Islam.

In this memoir of her time in Evin prison, she tells the powerful  story of her own experience and those of the other women she met and befriended there. It's a story of pain, grief, courage and hope that changed her and her family forever.

It's not an easy book to read, but it's worth the effort. Learning what life is like for women living under sharia law may be shocking but I'd rather be shocked than uninformed. And in the end, it's about forgiving and moving on to live the best life you can.

"A House In Sicily"

A House In Sicily by Daphne Phelps

It's been a while since I read an I-left-it-all-and-moved-to-Italy book. This one proved to be quite different in that the author had no intention of staying - she was there only to settle her uncle's estate and sell his house. But the house, the country and the people all grew on her, and when she found a way to make it work financially, she decided to stay.

The house, Casa Cuseni, is the main character in this story. The cast of characters is large, with changing staff, guests (paying and otherwise), neighbours, friends and family all contributing to Casa Cuseni's story. There are a few pictures in the center of the book, but I wish there was more description of the house. I know it was beautiful, but I want to know how it was beautiful.

If you're a fan of this genre I think you'll find this one interesting. The author took up residence just after world war two, when times were hard, and money and supplies scarce, so it's quite different than the usual story of well-to-do people simply choosing a more exotic place to live. She had no money of her own, which meant a lot of compromising and making-do, an aspect of the story that was particularly refreshing to me.

Daphne got involved in the lives of the locals around her and had many visitors coming and going, some as paying guests to help with the expenses of the property. She's an interesting character herself so her stories are fun to read. As travel books go, this is one of the better ones. Hope you enjoy it too!


Anyone else having problems with Blogger?

Is anyone else having problems with their blog site? I can't add any more titles to my "2013" list. I've been trying for days and I can make the changes but it won't post them. I thought it might be just that particular list so I added another list and called it "Also read in 2013" but again, it saves and it shows up in "layout" but not on my blog page. Blogger Help is no help at all. I dread the thought of moving my blog somewhere else -  three years of posts and comments and lists and links seems more than a little overwhelming.

If anyone out there can shed any light on my problem, I'd be very grateful.


"The Painted Veil"

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

Walter and Kitty Fane are posted in Hong Kong, he a bacteriologist, she a socialite who married him because it was time to marry somebody and no one else was showing any interest. She quickly becomes bored and has an affair with the utterly charming, utterly shallow, utterly married, Charles Townsend. When Walter, who truly loves her, finds out about it, he offers her a choice: he will divorce her if Charles will marry her, or she can forget Charles and go with her husband to his new posting in a remote village overrun with cholera.

Kitty goes to Charles, expecting him to assure her of his undying love, and is horrified to find that he wants her to go with Walter. He has no intention of leaving his wife and children for Kitty, so to him, this looks like the perfect solution. Defeated, Kitty goes.

In the village, Kitty gets involved with the nuns who nurse the sick and provide a home for orphaned children. This is a setting in which she is forced to look outside of herself and she begins to grow up a little, then she meets up with Charles again.

Kitty will leave you shaking your head. She reminds me of Scarlet O'Hara with her drama and inability to make a wise decision, but she does learn and grow over time, finally becoming someone you can hope is going on to live a better life.

 I enjoy Maugham's writing. I loved it in "Of Human Bondage", though the main character in that nearly drove me crazy with shooting himself in the foot over and over again - and I loved it in this book. His dialogue is natural and flows well, and he builds characters with both strengths and weaknesses, portraying human frailty particularly well.

The Painted Veil is worth reading, and it's a small book so it won't require much of a time investment if you decide to give it a try.

"Love Anthony"

Love Anthony by Lisa Genova

Olivia is grieving the death of her autistic 10 year old, Anthony.  Her marriage has crumbled under the strain and she has come to Nantucket Island to live alone in the cottage she acquired in the divorce settlement. Beth, mother of three girls and a permanent resident of the Island, has just learned that her husband has been unfaithful. These two women are about to become involved in each other’s lives in a way that even they find hard to believe.  

The author takes us inside the mind of Anthony, an autistic boy, at least as much as anyone can do that. It’s impossible to know exactly how anyone else thinks, but with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, Lisa Genova probably has a better chance than most of us at guessing. She’s draws a fascinating picture of a boy who wants to communicate but can’t, giving the reader access to the thoughts his mother could only imagine. You can’t help but love him and ache for the pain of his parents.

I thoroughly enjoyed half of this book and not so much the other half. I found Olivia’s story well written and as a character Olivia herself was very relatable. When I was reading her sections I got completely involved and didn't notice time passing. When I read Beth’s chapters I wondered if they were even written by the same person. I found them boring, and the character herself not believable, but had to read through Beth's parts to get back to Olivia’s story. It was a curious reading experience. 

The story gets a bit strange in the latter half. There’s a lot of talk about Beth “channeling” the dead boy and receiving messages from him for his mother, and the author mixes that in with Olivia’s turning back to God and the Catholic church. I don't know a lot about the Catholic church, but I don't think communing with the dead is their thing; correct me if I'm wrong. It was a confusing mix of spiritual philosophies that for me cheapened and ruined what could have been a beautiful story.  

I was disappointed, but maybe it's just me. I’d like to hear what you thought of it.

"A Prayer For Owen Meany"

A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving

This is a story of friendship, faith, doubt, the sad state of American society, and a whole lot of strange circumstances that (almost) all get neatly explained at the end. I haven't decided yet if it's a little too neat.

John Wheelwright (the narrator) was just a young boy when his best friend, Owen Meany, swung his bat and hit the baseball that struck and killed John's mother. Neither ever played baseball again, but they remained best friends until the end of Owen's life.

Owen is unusual, freakishly small with a high pitched voice. He is very bright and has a prophetic gift that reveals to him the exact date on which he is going to die. Owen has a strong belief in God. As a child he was told by his parents that his was a virgin birth and the author draws several other comparisons to Christ later in the novel. He sees more than ordinary people and seems to understand all; the phrase "instrument of God" is used several times. Every word Owen speaks is written in capital letters, weighting them with importance much like the words of Jesus in a red letter Bible. To me it felt like he was yelling all the time.  

There is a lot going on here. It's a complicated story, full of mysteries, miracles and a few mother issues. As the boys reach adulthood, the Vietnam war begins and Owen enlists because he believes that is where he has to die. Wanting to keep John out of the war, he does a gruesome amputation of John's index finger so he won't pass the medical. I'm not sure what purpose this scene had because he could have gone to Canada with other draft resistors if he didn't want to fight. In the end he rejected the American way of life and moved to Canada anyway so that bit of drama seems, no pun intended, pointless.

I found some of it to be a bit over the top. For instance, Owen keeps the late Mrs. Wheelwright's dressmaker dummy beside his bed - right beside, where he can touch it - all his life, even as an adult. In reality we would think someone who did that crazy, not special. In another instance, when they are still boys in Sunday School the kids like to lift the diminutive Owen and stick him in high places. He doesn't like it and insists they take him down but when the teacher comes in she blames Owen. Every time. There are other things but I don't want to be too picky.

Both Johns, the narrator and the author, seem spellbound by Owen. His friend believes in him, believes there is something special, even other-worldly, about him. When his mother is killed by Owen's unlucky hit, John doesn't experience any anger or hard feelings toward him at all. When the novel ends, he is still asking God to send Owen back. Is his love for Owen more than friendship? Maybe. Read it and tell me what you think.  

I found John's smug tone toward anyone who thinks differently than he does monotonous.  As a student he feels superior to the teachers; as a teacher he feels superior to the students. When Owen dies (not a spoiler - it's obvious from the beginning that he dies) he strongly objects to Owen's parents being at their son's funeral. This young man, who has never raised a child, somehow feels his own grief is more valid than theirs and that he has a right to be there and they don't. Compassion and understanding for Owen are urged throughout the story, but there isn't much of it shown for others.

I get the feeling John is trying to teach us something that he thinks we should already know but he doubts we are capable of learning. There's a condescending tone that wears thin by the end, but it is a fascinating story with interesting characters, and it's a pretty good social commentary on the times. It has an overall melancholy feel, with some comic relief, though for me the funny parts were some of the saddest. This book left me conflicted. I disliked some aspects of it, but still have to say I liked it, maybe even loved it. What I like best is that it does what few books do anymore, it surprises. It is well worth reading. 

"That Old Cape Magic"

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

I've had three Richard Russo novels on my shelf waiting to be read for a couple of years now. It's not bad enough that I buy books based on covers and titles, now I'm buying them if I like the author's name. This one had a great cover, good title, and the author's name is catchy so I had to get it. Fortunately for me it turned out to be a good story as well.

It's about Jack and Joy Griffin, whose marriage of thirty years is beginning to unravel. That sounds a bit ordinary and stale as a subject, but Russo makes the characters so real, so human, that the story feels fresh and new. He writes with a compassion for them that makes you, the reader, genuinely care and root for them. In spite of their weaknesses and flaws we like them, maybe because in truth, they are a lot like us.

The story is set in Cape Cod - perfect reading for summer - but the subject is the very complicated one of family: mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, and how all of those relationships affect all the others. I don't think there's a family dynamic he hasn't touched on. The story, like real family life, is funny sometimes and then heartbreaking too. Families are the ones we love most, but they are also the ones who can drive us to the brink.

I liked this one and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good story. I hope the other two of his novels I have waiting will be as good. 

"The Whole Fromage"

The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison

Imagine taking a trip around France to discover where true artisanal cheeses are still being made. Imagine seeing how they’re made and learning their histories and then being able to taste the cheeses you’ve discovered. Sounds like a dream doesn’t it? Well, this book is the dream come true, maybe not for you or me, but we are lucky enough to get to read about it.

The book is more about cheese than about France, so if you’re expecting a travel memoir you’ll be disappointed. What it is, is a serious look at French cheese and its history. Living on the other side of the world, a lot of these cheeses were unfamiliar to me and many of them are unavailable here. Still it was interesting to read how they came to exist, and how they were made then and are made today. The author makes it's an interesting journey with personal anecdotes and stories about the cheese-makers she visits.

This book reawakened my interest in local cheeses from my own area, so I’ve been searching online and have managed to find a few local cheese-makers that I'm excited to try. This summer I spent a week in Prince Edward Island where a wonderful Gouda is produced by The Gouda Cheese Lady in North Winsloe. If you ever find yourself there, it’s worth stopping in; it's the best gouda I’ve ever tasted. Be sure to try the onion and red pepper, the smoked gouda and the fenugeek. They are all great, but don't bypass the regular Gouda either; it is so good it's almost a shame to add anything to it.

If you like cheese, you will love this book!   

"The Right Attitude To Rain"

The Right Attitude To Rain by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the third installment in the Isabel Dalhousie series about a lady philosopher in her early forties living and working in Edinburgh. In this one Isabel becomes romantically involved with.......I can't tell you. You'll have to read it.

There is, as always, another story going on. This time her cousin, Mimi, and Mimi's husband, Joe, come to visit from Dallas. They all get invited for a weekend at a country house rented by wealthy friends of the cousin. The wealthy friends are engaged but Isabel suspects that all is not well between them and soon discovers the truth, in a surprisingly awkward way.

Isabel's niece, Cat, who runs the local deli, is not happy about her aunt's relationship and they spend much of this book not talking, resulting in Cat's not playing as big a part as usual in the story.

The biggest difference in this one is that most of Isabel's philosophizing is about her own life and romantic situation. Some of her attention is given to her cousin and friends, and some to Cat, but for most of the book she's agonizing over the appropriateness of the affair she's having and what it means for her own life and her lover's. I found that a bit tedious and Isabel can be somewhat smug at times, but I'll go back to this series again because the combination of philosophy and Scotland is irresistible.

My favourite lines:

"That was the problem with morality: it required a consistency and even-handedness that most of us simply did not possess. Or some schools of morality required that; and the more she thought about it, the more Isabel came to believe that such requirements were simply inhuman. That was not the way we worked as human beings. We were weak, inconsistent beings and we needed to be judged as such."

A bit of suspense: expect a big surprise ending. Big. 

"Living Oprah"

Living Oprah by Robyn Okrant

I never would have thought I’d be found reading a book with Oprah’s name in the title. I tend to avoid even the Oprah book club selections, not because I have anything personally against her, but because it doesn't seem right that anyone should have as much influence over people’s lives as she has now. I don’t think we should give that much control to anybody so I’ve shied away from getting too involved. Also, like a lot of other people, book hype pushes me away from a book rather than toward it and let’s face it, any book with her name in the title is going to get hype. However, I have a friend whose reading tastes are very similar to mine and she thought I’d enjoy it as a light read, so I agreed to try it.

The author decided that for a period of one year, Jan 1-Dec 31, she would watch the Oprah show daily and follow every suggestion Oprah gave. It was a sort of sociological experiment to see why people are so devoted to the megastar/media mogul. She bought the clothes Oprah said everyone “must” have, used her decorating ideas, exercised and ate as Oprah said she should (signing a contract along with millions of other followers to be her “best self”) and conducted relationships with her friends and her husband according to Oprah’s suggestions. She tried the recipes and products the show promoted and followed her ideas for keeping a clean house (aware of the irony that Oprah probably hasn’t done her own housework in a long time). I was exhausted at the end of her year and I just read about it; I can only imagine how she felt.

I was afraid when I began the book that it would be a gushing testimonial to how amazing and wonderful Oprah is, but it wasn’t that at all. The author was honest about what worked and what didn’t.  Some of her experiments changed her life for the good, others not so much. At times the project put a strain on her marriage and on their finances but on the whole her husband supported her. What I found interesting was that when the year was over and Jan 1 rolled around again, she had difficulty stopping. She had let Oprah do so much of her thinking for her and make so many of her decisions that it was hard to cut the cord and be her own person again. That, to me, was rather alarming and just increased my uneasiness about the whole Oprah-mania thing.   

All in all it was an interesting experiment to read about. The author writes well and is able to keep the reader interested from start to finish. Any frustration I felt was more with Oprah than with the author’s experience. It surprises me that Oprah, who I believe is a very intelligent woman, still considers herself a credible source of wisdom and advice for the ordinary American woman who struggles to make ends meet while holding down a job, raising kids, keeping a marriage healthy and a house clean and organized. Maybe she did begin to see the growing gulf that separated her from other women and maybe that’s partly why she stopped doing the show, who knows?

I want to be clear that though I'm not an Oprah fan, I'm also not an Oprah-basher. She built a fabulous life and career for herself from very humble beginnings and I admire that. Also her philanthropy is well known and commendable; there's no question she has done a lot of good. Whether you’re a fan or not, this book makes for interesting reading so I do recommend it.

"Love and Summer"

Love and Summer by William Trevor

At first I thought the title was weak, even silly, but having read the book I see now how perfect it is. It is a story about summer and love, though not of the romance genre that is currently so popular. This story has depth and the characters are realistically flawed. The tone of the book reminded me of Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome" and Richard Blackmore's "Lorna Doone", unsentimental love stories that don't pretend lovers all live happily ever after.

Ellie Dillahan is married to a farmer who lost his first wife and child in a farm accident. She had been hired as housekeeper after their deaths, then one day the farmer said they might as well marry, and so they did. One summer day a stranger shows up in town taking pictures of people at a funeral Ellie is attending. They meet and a relationship develops. For one of them it's love, for the other it's a pleasant summer pastime. The histories of both will influence how their relationship moves forward.

This is my second William Trevor book and I think my favourite thing about his writing is how well he captures on paper the lilt in the Irish way of speaking. Putting the subject and verb at the end of a sentence rather than the beginning gives it a musical feel that keeps me re-reading certain lines just for the rhythm. I would love to go to Ireland one day and immerse myself in it.

I recommend this book to any reader who likes realism in relationships stories or anyone who is charmed by Ireland and her people. I can't go so far as to agree with some of the blurbs on the back cover that call it "heart-stopping" and "as close to perfection as may be possible", but it is a good story and very well written.

"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry"

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Harold and Maureen Fry are a couple we recognize immediately. They are neighbours from down the street or maybe an aunt and uncle in our own family. They are settled, unremarkable people, as most of us are when looked at from a distance, but up close the picture looks different. The passive facade thinly covers years of living with unspeakable pain.

When Harold receives word that an old friend is dying, he writes back with all the usual expressions of concern and sets out on the short walk to the mailbox. Something in him is unsatisfied with the inadequacy of his note, so he walks past the first mailbox thinking he'll drop it in the next one. He passes that one too, and after several more, decides he will walk the length of England and deliver the note by hand.

Maureen at first doesn't know why he hasn't come home, and after he calls, doesn't understand. Angry, afraid and humiliated, she tells their curious neighbour that Harold is in bed with a twisted ankle. As the days pass, the truth comes out, becomes public, and Harold's pilgrimage stirs the imagination of the nation. As always, what the press portrays is nothing at all like what is really going on in the lives of Harold and Maureen.

I was drawn to this book by the word "Pilgrimage" in the title - I love a tale about somebody walking somewhere - but came to love it for it's insight into human frailty and our capacity to carry on in the most difficult circumstances. Many times while I was reading I would come across a well-worded thought and think "Yes! That's exactly the way it is." I think most people will find something of themselves - their own fears, disappointments, hopes - in this couple.

I enjoyed the writing. The dialogue is good and the sentences uncluttered. It has that compact, British wording I like so much. British authors seem able to say things in fewer words than the rest of us, and to state them simply without wringing all possible emotion out of them. Look at these lines where Harold turns down the offer of a cold beer: "Alcohol has brought unhappiness in the past, he said, both to himself and those close to him. For many years he had chosen to avoid it." I can't help but think that any author other than British would have taken advantage of the opportunity and used far more dramatic language than "has brought unhappiness in the past". I like that there was no emotionally manipulative side story to wade through. Another aspect of the writing I liked was the author's vivid, but never wordy, descriptions, like this one: "The moon shone high, and cast a trembling copy of itself over the deep water." 

 I enjoyed reading this one and highly recommend it.

"While The World Watched"

While The World Watched by Carolyn Maull McKinstry

Carolyn Maull was 14 years old when a bomb exploded in a washroom of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama, where she and her family were attending Sunday morning service. She had just spoken with four of her girlfriends in that washroom before heading upstairs. Her four friends were killed in the blast.

It's always good to hear the personal stories of people who lived through events that we know mainly as history. I was 11 years old in September, 1963, when this act of racial terrorism took place and I had only a slight idea what racial prejudice looked like. A few years earlier, in first grade, there had been one little black girl in my school and she was my friend. I hated the way some of the children taunted and frightened her, chasing her home after school in tears. I had no idea at the time why they were doing it. I went home with her after school one day and I've always remembered the look on her parents' faces. They looked tired, defeated. And scared. I remember wondering why they were so sad. I didn't realize then that people must be treating them as badly, and probably far worse, than my little friend was being treated. Of course this was just a tiny glimpse of what was happening on a much larger scale in the southern U.S., and when the Birmingham bombing happened, it wasn't even on my 11 year old radar.  

Learning the personal stories of people who lived through it is important; we can get the facts from history books, but to gain an understanding of what really happened and how it affected people's lives we have to hear if from them. McKinstry's story of growing up in Alabama in the 1960's is eye-opening and heart- wrenching. It's sickening what people were made to suffer simply because of the colour of their skin. It's also sickening to realize these horrors were committed not hundreds of years ago, but in our own recent past. Some of the "Jim Crow" laws are listed in the book and if you are not already familiar with them you will be shocked and disgusted.

Though I'm very glad I read this story, I didn't enjoy the writing. It was repetitive and didn't flow well. There were touches of melodrama that seemed superfluous. In this story there is more actual drama than anyone would ever want in a lifetime, so adding it as a literary technique seems like too much. I think the book would have benefited from more editing.

In spite of the weaknesses in the writing, I do recommend the book because it provides an up-close and personal look at a part of human history we must never forget. And it serves as a reminder that though some battles have been won, the fight for equality continues for many negro people, for native North Americans, for women, for the lower castes in India, and for countless others all over the world. The fight is far from over. 


Taking a break....

Photo courtesy of Can Stock Photo

After trying, and failing, to make some progress on my summer reading list, I think it's time for a blog break. I'll be back in a couple of weeks. Enjoy the summer sunshine!

Grateful for the mess...

My house is a disaster inside and out. Outside there is old siding, new siding, insulation and countless pieces of stuff unidentifiable to me but I'm sure somebody knows what it is. There's a really ugly dump truck in the driveway collecting all the stuff being thrown away and our two tall cedars by the front door have been cut down and are laying on the front lawn in a heap. Inside it's dust you can write in, tools, nails, screws, and a whole lot more of those unidentifiable bits in every room. Pictures and other things hung on outside walls are now piled on tables and chairs because once the hammering started nothing was safe.  

And for all this chaos I am grateful. Our house has been needing new siding and doors for longer than I can remember. I'm not exaggerating when I say the siding was falling off in chunks, and in the winter you can stand in the living room and feel the cold wind blowing in around the door. I can hardly wait to see it looking nice, neat and clean. It will be white with new black shutters and a bold colour on the front door. I think I want a deep plum, but a bright teal would really pop and look great too.

It will take a while yet to get it finished and all the little things done - outdoor lights, door handles and locks, mailbox, new shrubs, shutters - but I can live with the mess as long as I know there's a payoff at the end. I am so excited to finally be getting this done that I can't help but be very, very thankful.

What are you thankful for today? 

"The Silver Star"

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

Bean, 12, and Liz, 15, are the daughters of Charlotte Holladay, an emotionally unstable  single mother trying to carve out a career in the music industry. Charlotte habitually goes away for days at a time leaving the girls to fend for themselves, but this time it's different - she's been gone long enough for the neighbours to get concerned and contact the police. The girls decide their best option is to travel across the country to the only family they know about, an uncle still living in their mother's childhood home.

They leave a note for Charlotte, buy bus tickets, and head east from California. In Virginia they meet their Uncle Tinsley, who is not happy to see them but eventually lets them stay. Liz and Bean look for odd jobs to help earn their keep and begin working for Jerry Maddox, a man who turns out to be the town bully. Their misplaced trust in him lands them in court, in a situation from which it appears there can be no escape.

The life the two girls live with their mother is reminiscent of the author's own life as she tells it in her autobiography The Glass Castle. Charlotte's neglect as a mother might seem far-fetched if you haven't read about Jeannette Walls's own childhood and the overwhelming neglect she and her siblings suffered at the hands of her parents. The nearly adult self-sufficiency shown by Liz and Bean might seem unrealistic too, except that the author's own life proves that it's possible to grow up while you're still a child.

Because The Glass Castle was so good, I find myself measuring her other books against it and unfortunately they come out lacking. I love the clarity and the pragmatic tone of her writing, but to me both The Silver Star and her previous book, Half Broke Horses, fail to meet the standard of the first one. Her own personal story is so complex, so fascinating, so stunning, that I can't imagine any fiction coming close.

I did like the The Silver Star's story as far as it went, but I thought it felt unfinished. There is so much more I want to know, questions I want answered. The end of the book seemed more like a middle to me. The plot line that did get resolved, I found unbelievable. It was a complicated situation, fixed too conveniently and in a manner that logically should have had legal repercussions, and yet did not. An explanation was given but it was weak and the story lost credibility.

The title refers to a medal Bean's father received while in the armed forces. It's mentioned only a couple of times, making it an odd choice for the title, but maybe it had more significance in the author's thinking than in what came across on the pages. In her defense, it was a medal given for courage and courage is a major theme in the book.

The storyline, the personal experience the author brings to it, and her terrific not-quite-spare writing style should have added up to a great read. I'm disappointed it fell short of that. 

I received this book from Simon and Schuster as a winner of a First Reads giveaway on Goodreads.

"The Uncommon Reader"

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennet

Not quite the lighthearted caper I expected, this novelette is fun with serious moments. The premise is certainly unusual: late in life the Queen discovers the pleasure of reading books and loses interest in some of her more mundane duties when they interfere with her new hobby. This soon becomes a matter of concern to palace officials, the Prime Minister and the Queen's family, but, she is the Queen and one does not tell the Queen to put the book down. 

As an unrepentant anglophile I reveled in the sheer Britishness of it - the formality, the palace, the teas, the constant attention to propriety, the wry tone - I loved it all. I got a bit testy when I thought Her Majesty's character was being negatively misrepresented but I reminded myself that it is, after all, fiction. Still - do not mess with my Queen.

The book does take a serious turn now and then. One passage begins with the Queen saying: "One has given one's white-gloved hand to hands that were steeped in blood and conversed politely with men who have personally slaughtered children", going on to say that she has sometimes felt shame rather than pride as Queen of the Commonwealth. I appreciated this reflective aspect of the novel for the bit of depth it provided, which saved it from being inane.

There was a single very rude phrase used in dialogue that was unnecessary and out of place. I tend to agree with whoever it was that said "Vulgarity is a poor substitute for wit." Wit would have been a better choice.

The thing I liked best about An Uncommon Reader was the ending, which was completely unexpected. As I got down to the last page or so I tried to imagine how the author would resolve the problem in the few lines he had left, but I did not see this coming at all. It was beautifully subtle and perfectly arranged. What a nice change it was to read something unpredictable.

I think any fan of British culture and especially the Royal family will enjoy this quirky little book.

Best Books I've Read This Year (so far!)

For today's top ten topic, The Broke and The Bookish are asking us to choose our favourite ten books from those we've read so far in 2013. I didn't realize what a good reading year it has been until I started making the list.

Here are my top ten, in no particular order:

The Bridge of San Louis Rey (Thornton Wilder) - Unusual story, wonderful writing. Won the Pulitzer Prize 1929.  If you haven't read it, do!

The End of Your Life Book Club (Will Schwalbe) - a beautiful account of the books he and his mother shared in the last months of her life. Warm, insightful and very well told.

I Capture The Castle (Dodie Smith) - I absolutely loved this story of a girl and her somewhat odd family living in a run down castle in rural England. So glad I found it.

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) - I never get tired of this book

The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini) - great writing, amazing story

The Return of the Prodigal Son (Henry Nouwen) - beautiful, eye-opening, profound

Elizabeth The Queen  (Sally Bedell Smith) - reading this was a highlight of my year!

You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know (Heather Sellers) - true story of living with face blindness. Fascinating.

Middlemarch (George Eliot) - I had been warned I'd be bored but that didn't happen. I loved it!

Sophie’s World (Jostein Gaarder) - an incredible novel that includes within the story a history of philosophy. This one went on my list of "Best Books I've Ever Read".

How about you? What are your favourites from the first half of 2013?

Chronicles of Fairacre

Village School, Village Diary and Storm In The Village by Miss Read

These are the first three books in the Fairacre series by Miss Read, pen name for English novelist and school teacher Dora Jessie (Shafe) Saint, 1913 – 2012. They were published in 1955, 1957 and 1958 as individual novels, then later together in one volume.

Village School is narrated by Miss Read, school mistress of a two-room school in the small English village of Fairacre. The book is separated into sections, one for each school term, and introduces us to the village and it's inhabitants with a focus on school activities throughout the course of one school year. The villagers are a lively and opinionated bunch. There is the the grumpy school cleaning lady, the wise school caretaker, the kindly Vicar, the blacksmith, the town drunk, and of course the children of the school. There is no real plot but rather the day to day happenings of ordinary people told with wit and insight. It could have been corny but thankfully it was not. It was gentle and fun and made me glad there was a whole series of books to follow it. 

Village Diary is Miss Read's month by month journal of village life through the changing seasons for one year. I enjoyed it even more than the first one. Miss Read was more fleshed out as a character and the focus changed from the school to the village. The village people - that just sounds weird - are wonderful characters, with all the faults and flaws common to all of us, but full of heart. And funny. When the Vicar asks Miss Read if she has met the new bachelor in the neighborhood, with whom the entire village has been obviously scheming to set her up...: "An almost irresistible urge to push the dear vicar headlong over the low school wall, against which he was leaning, was controlled with difficulty, and I was surprised to hear myself replying politely that I had not had that pleasure yet. Truly, civilization is a wonderful thing."  

Storm In The Village finds all the villagers upset over the threat of a new housing development that could potentially change the landscape, close the school and ruin the way of life that has been theirs for as long as they can remember. At the same time Miss Read must deal with an assistant teacher whose behaviour has the gossip's tongues wagging, the failing health of one of her dearest friends and a runaway little boy.

I am very grateful to have found these books, which are everything I look for in a light, easy read. I like the writing, the characters, the setting and the humour - there's nothing I don't like. I'd love to chain-read them but I should to try to space them out and make them last longer. If you like quiet stories about country life you really must check these out.   

The Blessing of Grandchildren

I had no problem finding something to be thankful for today: my 11 year old granddaughter is coming to visit for the weekend. She's a great kid - kind, smart, funny, and a book lover! On Friday we'll be spending some time at Chapters. I can't justify buying myself any more books after my recent rather wild online spree at Amazon, Book Depository and Awesome Books but I can justify buying any number of books for her. After all, I'm contributing to her education and personal growth and you can't put a price limit on that. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

Grandchildren are one of lifes greatest blessings. Someone has said that grandchildren are your reward for not killing your own kids when you wanted to, and there's some truth to that. In many ways it's getting a second chance. At a time in your life when you can look back and see the mistakes you made with your own children, along come the grandchildren and you get the chance to do some of those things differently. It's easier because you don't have them every minute of every day so you have the time and energy to think about the way you're handling things and how you want to influence them. You love them every bit as much as you did their parents, but there's less pressure and a lot more time to just enjoy them. Today, I am very thankful for my two beautiful granddaughters.

"Hedda Gabler"

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen

I'm not usually a reader of plays but I've been hearing about this one forever so, with no opportunity to see it performed, I thought the book would be the best way to find out what it was all about. It's very short, four acts in seventy-two pages, but I wouldn't have wanted it to be any longer. Maybe I'm not artsy enough or something but I didn't find anything very exciting or meaningful in the story.

The entire play takes place in the drawing room of George and Hedda (Gabler) Tesman, who have just returned from a long honeymoon. Hedda comes from a wealthier lifestyle than George can provide and she is bored with him, the house and her new life. An old school friend, Mrs. Elvsted comes to talk to her about another mutual friend, Eilert Lovborg (the author is Norwegian if you're wondering about the names) who may be reverting to his previous self-destructive ways. Hedda and Eilert have history. There are three more characters, Judge Brack an old friend of the Tesman's, George's aunt Julia (who raised him) and Berta, the Tesman's servant.

Lovborg has been successful as an author and, with Mrs. Elvsted's assistance, has completed the manuscript for his next book. Tesman and Lovberg, old friends, are competing for a position at the university. Judge Brack would like a more - ahem - intimate relationship with Hedda. Hedda doesn't like anybody, manipulates everyone to her own ends, and more than anything wants her old life back, which is why the title uses her maiden name; in her heart of hearts she will always be Hedda Gabler. Aunt Julia tries to make friends with Hedda but Hedda isn't interested. Berta is the beloved family servant that George grew up with but Hedda isn't impressed with her either. The manuscript ends up destroyed and two of the characters end up shot, but I'll let you discover the details for yourself. Or you can just look it up at Spark's Notes online and skip the book.   

If I ever have the chance I'd like to see this play performed; I think I'd get a lot more out of it than from the book. I can imagine it well acted, with subtlety, or at least as much subtlety as you can have in a live production, but I can also imagine it tediously melodramatic. There are as many ways to interpret it as there are actors and directors. As a book, it was just ok for me.