Middlemarch by George Eliot

Set in the fictional village of Middlemarch in 1830's England, this book has as many plots and characters as any real life village where dozens of stories are lived out simultaneously and where each person's choices affect the lives of many others. There is Dorothea, an idealist who marries an older intellectual with the hope of assisting him in his life's work and finds that life doesn't always deliver what it promises. Complicating her life is a man of questionable character who has become attracted to her and doesn't seem to know when to back off. Then there is the young doctor with fresh ideas about medicine who sets up practice in Middlemarch and meets with resistance from a community that is content with the way things have always been done and does not see any need to change. Another character is Fred Vincy, a young man who has yet to develop a work ethic or a sense of responsibility. He has put all his hopes in the mere possibility of an inheritance and his recklessness with money gets him into trouble with his own family and with that of the girl he hopes one day to marry. Throughout and around their stories are those of  family members, local clergy and politicians, and of course, the neighbours.

Though there are some lighter moments, the overall tone of the novel is resigned, almost melancholy. Eliot has a sober outlook on life, marriage and a woman's place in both.  She says of Dorothea: "It had been easier ever since to quell emotion than incur the consequences of venting it.", a truth for many but sad nevertheless. The lot of women in society is a major theme, with Eliot questioning the barriers and restraints placed on them through her female characters. Those who speak up and take some control in their relationships are the ones who end up happiest in the story.

The authour's views on marriage are more realistic than pessimistic. Whereas many romantic novels end with the marriage of the main characters and an assumed happily ever after, Eliot takes us beyond that into the daily reality of married life and doesn't allow us to deceive ourselves about the difficulties and disappointments. The marriages in the novel aren't perfect by any means, but it does say something that as the novel ends, all of the long married couples still have deep affection for one another.

I enjoyed Eliot's characters because they are flawed like us, and their lives, like ours, are a messy mix of happiness and misery. One writer summed it up this way: "Her ambition was to create a portrait of the complexity of ordinary human life, quiet tragedy, petty character failings, small triumphs and quiet moments of dignity." She wanted to give her readers a story that resembled real life rather than just another fairy tale.

There were times when I found the writing tedious, like in Chapter 45 where one sentence alone had more than 100 words, 8 commas and 2 semi-colons. But then she would say something like this: "...concealment had been the habit of his life, and the impulse to confession had no power against the dread of a deeper humiliation.", and I'd be captivated again by her ability to express such a large concept in so few words. I love the language; it's elegant and intelligent and sometimes deeply moving, like this beautifully crafted sentence: "this was the consciousness that Bulstrode was withering under while he made his preparations for departing from Middlemarch, and going to end his stricken life in that sad refuge, the indifference of new faces". And besides all that, I'd much rather be a person "whose better energies are liable to lapse down the wrong channel under the influence of transient solicitations" than just somebody who's easily led astray. I love Eliot's writing and find it pure joy to read.

Eliot expresses her views on society in the thoughts and dialogue of her characters, but there are times when she silences them completely and speaks directly to the reader as herself, and she doesn't pull any punches:
  • "As it is, the quickest of us walk about well padded with stupidity."
  • "Sane people did what their neighbors did so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them."
  • " ...the critical strictness of persons whose celestial intimacies seemed not to improve their domestic manners..."
After recounting in the story the many failings of Mrs. Cadwallader, she turns directly to the reader and says: "Let any lady who is inclined to be hard on Mrs. Cadwallader inquire into the comprehensiveness of her own beautiful views, and be quite sure that they afford accommodation for all the lives which have the honor to coexist with hers." Keeping in mind that it was she who painted the unkind picture of the woman in the first place, one wonders if she holds the reader to a higher standard than she does herself. Hmmm.

I was quite happy to find the "Finale" at the end. It would have been too disappointing to spend so much time with these characters, watching their stories unfold day by day, then simply turn away not knowing if any happiness was achieved in their lives. Eliot saves us from that by giving us a quick summary of where they go from here.

The final paragraph was a good summary of the whole point of the novel: nobody has a great life all the time, but the bit of good each one can do in the small space they occupy is worth something and does make a difference. And maybe Eliot is justifying her novel here. Maybe she's saying that the ordinary stories are worth telling, especially if they strengthen our inclination to do good in our own time and place. It was, I think, the perfect ending to a perfectly wonderful book.  

"Sophie's World"

Sophie's World, A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder

This book left ten thousand thoughts banging and clanging in my head. The characters are refusing to evaporate as is required of them after the last page is turned and they insist on trying to stay real. That is, if they ever were real. In this story inside of a story the line between what is real and what isn't gets blurry.

 I've never read anything quite like this. It's fiction, but as the subtitle says, it's also a history of philosophy. That may sound a bit daunting but really it isn't because it's so well done. Sophie, the main character, is almost 15 years old when she receives a letter asking "Who are you?". This is soon followed by others from a man who has taken it upon himself to be Sophie's philosophy teacher, beginning with the ancient thinkers and working through history right up to modern day. It was fascinating.

It's written clearly and in language the average reader can grasp so it never comes off sounding like a textbook. The instruction in philosophy is contained in dialogue that I did find a bit of a stretch sometimes. It seemed like some of Sophie's responses were a tad sophisticated for a 15 year old girl but maybe the Norwegian education system is better than ours. It has been over 20 years since this book came out so maybe things have gone downhill since then. Or maybe things just went a little off in translation.  Whatever; it really didn't matter. It's one of the most interesting things I've ever read.

I can't see how Gaarder held it all straight in his head; the guy must be a genius. I did find a tiny glitch in the story and was feeling rather proud of myself for noticing it, then it slowly dawned on me that there has to be a hundred glitches in a story with this much going on and I only managed to stumble onto one. Sigh.

As Sophie and her teacher progress through their lessons, strange things begin to happen. Other people's lives break through into theirs as if from some other dimension. Early in the book, before any of this happened, I wondered if it was going to get boring. Boy was I wrong. There was so much to think about. By the end it was like trying to play chess, yodel and juggle china at the same time. When I finished it last night, it was hours before I was able to fall asleep.

Don't let that stop you. It was a fun, exciting read, a little Alice In Wonderland crazy toward the end but overall an incredible work of fiction. Do not miss this one. 

"The Wind In The Willows"

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

This is another children's book I somehow missed as a child and am just getting around to reading now. It's also the first book I've ever read on an e-reader.

I enjoyed both the book and the e-reader. I found myself trying to turn the non-existent pages about a million times but I'm sure I'll get used to it. It's perfect in the middle of the night when I can't sleep, and the highlighting, bookmarking and searching abilities are great. In fact I was reading a "real" book yesterday and found myself wishing it had a search feature so I could find a line I'd forgotten to mark. I'm still a loyal book lover though and will always prefer the feel of a real book in my hand. Enough about the reader....back to the book.

The story of Mole, Water Rat, Badger, Toad and their lives on the river is endearing as well as entertaining. They are lovable  characters with good hearts and plenty of idiosyncrasies that land them in one predicament after another. Themes include loyalty to friends, honesty, the importance of a work ethic and accepting responsibility for your actions.

A few times one of the characters uses the word "ass" in reference to another character, as in: "Stop it, you silly ass!" and "Indeed, I have been a complete ass and I know it." It only happens 3 or 4 times but it might be something you want to be prepared for if you decide to read it to your children. I was surprised to see the word there at all, but maybe when the book was written in 1908 it wasn't considered a "bad" word. On the other hand I've also read that it never was meant for children anyway. Peter Hunt, Professor Emeritus in children's literature at Cardiff University, said in his introduction to one edition that it could be "the greatest case of mistaken identity in literature". As I was reading I did at times feel it might be more appealing to adults than children, but whoever it was intended for, I loved it.

The writing is beautiful. I love the way Grahame puts words together: "They recalled the languorous siesta of hot mid-day deep in green undergrowth, the sun striking through in tiny golden shafts and spots; the boating and bathing of the afternoon; the rambles along dusty lanes and through yellow cornfields; and the long cool evening at last, when so many threads were gathered up, so many friendships rounded, and so many adventures planned for the morrow." I'm hoping he has other books to discover. It's such a pleasure to read his writing.

This one gets a "thumbs up" from me. If you don't have kids to read it to, get it for yourself. I'm sure you'll enjoy it. 

"Crazy Love"

Crazy Love by Francis Chan

Francis Chan is a pastor in California, a founder of Eternity Bible College and a speaker to students around the Unites States. The information on the back cover says he is "committed to teaching directly from the Bible" and "his passion is to see the church display a much deeper love for Jesus".

I was struck by the first line of the Preface: "We all know something's wrong." When a friend gave me this book to read I figured it would be one more authour telling me to do more, give more, live better, be better. The market is flooded with those kinds of books from writers who mean well, are sincerely trying to help and have good things to say. But nothing changes. We try harder, keep it up for awhile then end up frustrated, still knowing that "something's wrong." There's more to life, but we don't know what.

In "Crazy Love" Francis Chan helps us see what the real problem is: we aren't in love with God. Of course there are many, many Christians all over the world who love God and serve Him faithfully out of that love, but I also think it's true that there are many, many more who are unsatisfied, unhappy and even bored with their Christian lives. The Bible calls us "lukewarm" and Chan shows us how to get out of that comfortable but unsatisfying spot and move into a more exciting life. He's honest and straightforward but kind, with the result that you feel encouraged rather than condemned.

I think this is an important book, not because what he has to say is new, but because it's true. And the truth really does set us free. He asks hard questions like "What are you doing right now that requires faith?" and "Are you ready and willing to make yourself nothing?". His goal is to help us see ourselves realistically so that we can face our dissatisfaction and do something about it. When we understand - really know - God's crazy, limitless love for us, we will respond by falling in love with Him, and only then will we be able to live the abundant life He died to give us.

Favourite Christmas Stories from Fireside Al by Alan Maitland

Alan Maitland was a Canadian radio broadcaster, starting as an announcer with CBC in 1947. He frequently read short stories on air and became known as "Fireside Al" for his winter readings and "Frontporch Al" for his summer readings. His reading of Frederick Forsyth's "The Shepherd" on the radio became a Christmas Eve tradition for many Canadians; he read it himself for over 15 years and though he's no longer with us, the recording of his voice reading the story is still greatly anticipated and enjoyed on Dec 24th. Some of the stories have been collected and published in several Christmas collections and I've just discovered there is also a CD of Maitland's Christmas readings that's going on my wishlist for next Christmas. Maitland passed away in 1999 leaving his voice and his stories as a legacy, a national treasure for Canadians.

There are thirty-five stories, poems and even a couple of recipes in this collection. There are selections from Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, W.O. Mitchell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dylan Thomas, Stephen Leacock, Robert Louis Stevenson, O. Henry and many others. Some of my favourites are here: A Child's Christmas In Wales, The Gift of the Magi, The True Meaning of Crumbfest, Christmas at Fezziwig's Warehouse, and Hardy's poem, The Oxen, but there's something for every taste. There is comedy from Thomas Hardy (a bit of a Christmas miracle in itself), stories and memories of Christmas long ago, and the hauntingly beautiful story from Frederick Forsythe, The Shepherd. 

This is one of my favourite Christmas books. I don't read it every year now because the list of "every December" books is getting too long but when I do, I love seeing it sitting on a side table knowing there's something lovely waiting for me next time I take a break. I think any reader will find something to love here and hopefully a new tale or two that will come as a nice surprise. If you haven't ever read The True Meaning of Crumbfest or The Shepherd, do yourself a kindness and get your hands on them before next Christmas. I'll bet you, like many others, find yourself drawn to them again and again as the holidays roll around.

2013....What shall I do with you?

I have no review to post because I'm reading "A Trip To The Beach" by Robert and Melinda Blanchard for book club and I posted on that almost a year ago. Then I'll be reading "Sophie's World" which is going to take a while. I will say that if you haven't read the Blanchard book, this is the perfect time for it to transport you from the frozen white world of January to warm sand, turquoise waters and palm trees. It's the cheapest vacation you'll ever take.

It seems a bit slack to let the new year pass without a post of some kind so I'll just ramble a bit. I saw Les Miserables yesterday and loved it...mostly. The story and music are wonderful of course and I thought Ann Hathaway and Hugh Jackson were very good. Hathaway's scene where she sings "I Dreamed A Dream" is Oscar worthy. I found Russel Crowe as Javert awkward at times. He's a good actor and a good singer but I'm not sure he can do them both at the same time. There were moments when he seemed to be concentrating so hard on singing "right" that Javert disappeared. I thought the choral music was spectacular and the closing scene absolutely epic. Can't wait to see it again.

I took my granddaughter to see The Hobbit just before Christmas and we both loved it. I didn't think it was quite as good as the first movie in The Lord Of The Rings series but I'm so hooked on those that nothing will ever compare. This was her first experience with hobbits, dwarves and elves and her reaction was exactly what I hoped it would be. She adored Bilbo. And Fili and Kili. We will both be waiting impatiently for the next installment which seems an eternity away at this point.

Well it's a new year and that means resolutions for a lot of people. I like to think of it more as a re-evaluating and setting new goals. Resolutions are easy to forget in a few weeks, and I say that from a lot of experience, whereas goals have steps and set points for evaluating how you're progressing. This seems to work better for me.

One of my goals for this year is to read more of what I want to read and not what I have to just because I committed to something, so I didn't sign up for the Canadian Book Challenge this year and I'm going to stop looking at others challenges that I've been thinking about.

I'm also going to get back to walking a few times a week as soon as I've recovered from Christmas and the pain level is back to workable again. That should be within another week or so hopefully.

Another thing I plan to do is reconnect with some people that I've lost touch with. Because I wasn't able to do a lot of socializing I gave up and didn't do any, but I know there's a happy medium in there somewhere. For now I'm going to put one visit per month in my schedule and see how that goes.

A big and rather reluctant goal I've set myself for this year is to decide if I can continue with photography. I sell a few photos on stock sites and it's something I love to do but it's getting harder and harder physically to get into the positions a good shot requires. I'm starting a course soon and by the time I'm done I think I should know if it's even reasonable to attempt it anymore. If it isn't, I'm going to have to concentrate more on finding a new way to create art.

And last, I've got to find an easier way to do Christmas. My memories of Christmas 2012 are going to be of exhaustion, frustration and pain. I have to look at each aspect - shopping, wrapping, decorating, baking, cards - and see how to do it smarter than I'm doing it now. There are simple changes I can make, like using gift bags instead of wrapping presents. Like baking in September and October and freezing it instead of rushing though it in the few weeks before Christmas. Like taking advantage of the times I am in the stores and making the choice to pick up at least one Christmas present while I'm there. All of this will require me being satisfied with less than perfection - that will be the biggest hurdle - but I think I may be ready. I already have my 2013 Christmas organizing plan set up and I've ordered my cards and have one stocking stuffer for next year, so I hope that I may really change things this year. I'll see how I'm doing with that by the end of January. I know none of us can see the future and we can't know what 2013 will bring, but as much as it is up to me, I want to do better.

Guess I'd better stop rambling and wish you all a healthy and contented 2013. A wise woman once told me that life is not filled with wonderful days or weeks, but wonderful moments. Let's not miss any of them this year, even the ones that come on bad days. Let's enjoy the wonderful moments, big and small, and tell each other about them in these blogs. God bless us every one!