"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.     

What I'm Reading This Summer

Todays topic from The Broke and the Bookish is:

Top Ten Books At The Top Of Your Summer TBR List

The first three on my list are ones I’ll be reading with my book club and the rest are a few that I’m hoping will be nice light summer reading. I probably won't get away anywhere but I am going to give myself a reading vacation and put off the more serious stuff till fall. 

I'm looking forward to these: 

1. While The World Watched by Carolyn Maul - our July book club selection
2. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery - our August book club selection and one of my all time favourite books
3. Love Anthony by Lisa Genova - our September book club selection
4. Ireland by Frank Delaney - I’ve been waiting for the perfect time to dive into this big book
5. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachael Joyce - the reviews sound interesting, waiting for it to arrive
6. The Right Attitude To Rain by Alexander McCall Smith - #3 in the Isabelle Dalhousie series, waiting for this one also
7. Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery - hoping it will be as good as Hedgehog
8. The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster -  the review said “bookish” - Sold!
9. The Whole Fromage by Kathe Lison - a tour of the fromageries of France - the first book I've ever pre-ordered, waiting for it to arrive
10. The Uncommon Reader  by Alan Bennet - just for fun!

Check out The Broke and The Bookish to see what others are reading this summer. What are you looking forward to reading?

"The Nonesuch"

The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

I don't think I'll ever be a great fan of this author. I can't say I dislike her books, only that after reading two of them I didn't find much to make me want more. The things I don't like about them outweigh the those I do.

This one is a romance, which I'm guessing all her books are. If I'm wrong about that let me know. The Nonesuch is Sir Waldo Hawkridge, a wealthy, handsome, all around stand up guy. This is a man with no faults, that same guy who's been showing up in countless other romances since romance was invented. Every other man in the book has shortcomings, but not our hero - he is perfect! He falls in love, of course, with the one woman who is level-headed, patient, kind, noble, wise and elegant. She is surrounded by girls who are spoiled air-heads, but she - like our hero - is faultless. 

By the opening pages of the second chapter the direction of the story and the ending can be easily predicted. There is never any question how it will turn out so it was hard to stay interested. I kept going because I wanted to write about it and it wouldn't be fair to write about a book I hadn't finished.

I was disappointed with the way the author worked out certain situations toward the end. Instead of  moving the story forward with interaction between characters, she gives them a page to think and take giant leaps to conclusions, then ta-da!, suddenly they understand all and know just what to do. I guess she got tired of writing. I felt cheated.

Another irritating thing was the excess use of Regency-era slang. Using it with restraint can create authenticity but she's trying too hard in passages like these, and the book was full of them:

"Stop trying to make a pigeon of me! You'll only be gapped, you know! What's the matter? Are you in the suds?"

"She wouldn't have raised such a breeze if I'd had the sense to have taken off my bars. The thing was she'd put me in such a tweak by that time that I was hanged if I'd cry craven! Told her that if she tried to shab off I'd squeak beef..."

Stereotypical characters, weak writing and a predictable ending add up to just another formula romance. I liked the setting of 1800's England because I like the manor houses, vicarages, horses, carriages and such, and I liked it for what it didn't have - violence, steamy bedroom scenes, vampires  - but that wasn't enough to overcome the book's flaws. I don't think I'll read any more of them, but then you never know. Sometimes I want something light and easy to read and if there's nothing else at hand one of these might do.   

"The Bridge of San Luis Rey"

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

"On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below."

That's the opening line of this 1928 Pulitzer Prize winner, which tackles no less a subject than the meaning of human existence. Wilder said he wanted the book to ask: "Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual's own will?" The way he asks it, and seeks the answer, makes this one of the better, and most interesting, books I've come across in a while.

 The breaking of the bridge was witnessed by one Brother Juniper, a Franciscan from Italy who was coincidentally (?)  in Lima at the time converting the natives. Brother Juniper was convinced that if he examined the lives of the victims closely enough, he could show why the tragedy happened to those particular five people, why it was they who happened to be walking over the bridge at the exact moment it failed after holding strong for over a hundred years. Was is simply accident, or was there intention in it, a will greater than human?

These are the five victims:

 - The Marquesa de Montemayer, a wealthy, elderly woman whose eccentric behavior has incurred the ridicule of the townspeople and left her to live a lonely existence among the servants in her big, beautiful house. 

- Pepita, an orphan girl sent to be a companion to the Marquesa and considered by the Sister who runs the orphanage to be a child of unusual potential.

- Esteban, a serious young man who grew up in the same orphanage as Pepita with his twin brother, Manuel.

- Uncle Pio, a con man known around the world, who has been paid by theaters to applaud performances and by governments to incite riots. He has seen and done it all but is now reduced to managing the career of an actress with whom he is hopelessly besotted and whom he cannot leave.

- Jaime, the young son of Pio's beloved actress, but not his son.

Wilder brings these five characters to life, and a few others whose stories overlap and impact them, within a mere 90 pages. It's impressive how vividly the characters are drawn and how much understanding of them the reader gets in so short a story. It left me feeling I'd read a much bigger book.

He tells each character's story then pulls them all together toward that fatal, seemingly inevitable, moment when they stand together on the doomed bridge. The climax of the story told in the opening line is not something I've seen before, but it works in this novel. What happens after that to Brother Juniper and his research is another whole story though it is told in summary fashion and not with the same detail as the others. 

The author's ability to develop rich characters and his keen understanding of human nature and the complexities of human life will have me tracking down the rest of his books. He has a lot to say and I want to hear it, or maybe it's more that he has a lot of questions and I want to see where he goes with them. At any rate, he writes a darn good story and I want more.

The surprising thing about this book's age is that it makes no difference at all. It could have been written yesterday. The questions raised, and the observations made, are every bit as relevant today as they were eighty-five years ago, and they always will be. This is a truly timeless book. I thought it was amazing.  

The Greens of Summer

The sun is finally shining after more cold rainy days here in New Brunswick and oh my goodness how we all need it.  The upside of all this rain, however, is that everything is lush and green. You don’t have to go very far to see how spectacularly green the lawns, shrubs and trees are; even the view of neighboring yards from my front window is gorgeous. Farther out, the countryside is breathtaking. 

 It has occurred to me how easy the colour green is on the eyes and on the nerves, how it calms and soothes. It has also occurred to me (and I've been told it's a little weird thinking this way) how awful it would be if all that green was not green but another colour. What if this lush growth was orange, or fuschia?  How nerve jangling would that be? Brown or gray - how boring? I often think the same way in winter; I am thankful that snow is white. It couldn’t be more perfect, but it certainly could be more ugly. What if there were piles and piles of ugly dark purple snow instead of lovely pristine white? But back to summer….every time I look or go outside this time of year I offer up a quick word of thanks for the beautiful greens of nature. This photo of a friend's back yard shows just how beautiful it can be. I'm grateful for green!   

Top Ten Beach Reads

Today's topic from The Broke and the Bookish is favourite beach reads. Hmmm. I’m not a beach-goer, but to me a good vacation read is one that doesn’t ask very much of me; it entertains me but doesn't insist that I learn anything or ponder life issues too deeply.  On the other hand I don’t like fluff, so I have to find something in between. The only thing I really need is a story that can hold my attention and writing that doesn’t bore me. I think these would be perfect:

1.  A Room With A View by E.M. Forster - great story, great writing

2.  A Trip To The Beach by Miranda and Robert Blanchard - a wonderful story about moving to Anguilla and opening a restaurant

3.  And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer - a nicely written saga spanning decades in the lives of two women and their social club

4. Corked by Kathryn Borel - a memoir of Borel’s tour of the vineyards of France with her father

5. Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker - the surprising, neatly-told tale of an imaginary woman who becomes real

6. The Postmistress by Sarah Blake - interesting characters and a good, solid story

7. The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher - Oh for a whole summer of reading Pilcher’s delicious stories…

8. Night of Rain and Stars by Maeve Binchey - a story set in romantic Greece by one of the truly great story tellers

9. A Year In Provence by Peter Mayle -  a satisfying memoir of the people, wine and other charms of Provence

10. The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith  - the first in a series about Isabel Dalhousie, an Edinburgh editor with a penchant for getting involved in other people’s problems

"A Fine Balance"

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

This novel, set in 1970's India, is about four strangers whose paths cross and bring them to a place where they become important parts of each others lives. There is Maneck, a college student figuring out what he wants to do with his life; Ishvar and his nephew, Om, two tailors trying to make a living that will keep them off the streets; and Dina, a strong-willed widow, desperate to make a life for herself out from under the thumb of her domineering brother.

I found it a struggle to get through this book. It wasn't the writing, the plot or the characters, but the hopelessness that got to me. The horror was endless. Any time things appeared to be improving for any of the characters, another shockingly awful thing would happen and hope would be lost again. The title "A Fine Balance" comes from a line in the book: "You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair." All I saw was despair, and though I hoped right up to the last page that there would be some kind of satisfaction for at least one character, it was not to be.

I'm not saying it's not worth reading. The writing is straightforward, uncluttered and easy to read. The characters are well constructed and completely credible. The way Mistry brings India to life is nothing short of staggering; you can smell it, hear it, see it, feel it. Those are all good things. It's the rest of it that was too much for me. The cruelty, the torture, the rape, the disgusting attitudes toward and treatment of women, the killing, and the lying, cheating police, landlords, politicians, businessmen, spiritual leaders and even train conductors were an overload of evil that defeated me. Corruption is a way of life on every page and it's brutal. I was furious at the injustice all the way through the book, which is not a bad thing, but there was no relief. A line from the book summed it up for me: "Life seemed so hopeless, with nothing but misery for everyone...". It was agonizing reading what these people went through.

I feel guilty about my response to it because I believe we need books that reveal the world's uncomfortable truths, and I make myself read a certain amount of them. Unfortunately I didn't find the balance in "A Fine Balance". I've never been so drained at the end of a book, but it affected me deeply and I would never recommend you not read it. If I had read it at a different time in my life would I have reacted differently? Maybe, probably, but I'll never know.

All of this brings up questions for me: As readers, what is our responsibility? Do we owe it to the author to finish the book? As citizens of the world, do we owe it to people living in these horrible conditions to keep reading, because if they have to live like that surely we can force ourselves to at least read their stories? Or is it simply a matter of not reading what you aren't enjoying and moving on to something else? I want to hear what you think.

Lovely Lilacs

Today I'm grateful for the new lilac bushes in our front yard. I grew up around lilacs and took them for granted but now they are one of my favourite signs of summer's approach; I love the gorgeous blossoms and that incredible smell. A pitcher of lilacs on the kitchen table makes me very happy. Up until a few years ago I was able to scrounge a bouquet here and there from friends, but right now I don't know anyone who still has them.

I've been longing to have some in my own yard but that just didn't happen till last year when we found some sturdy looking small bushes and put them on our front lawn. I worried about them over the winter, but they came through and look strong and healthy. They are about a foot taller than they were last summer and this year there are a number of blossoms on each one. I couldn't have my bouquet for the kitchen because it would have taken every last blossom from the bushes, but I can wait a couple more years for that.

Lilacs. One of my favourite things about spring. Do you love them too?

"The End of Your Life Book Club"

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

When the author's mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007 he began taking her to her chemo treatments so that she wouldn't have to face them alone and so he could spend as much time with her as possible in whatever time was left. They were both avid readers and naturally fell into sharing and discussing the books they were reading. This book is Schwalbe's tribute to his mother (Mary Anne) and to the books that helped them through the two difficult last years of his mother's life.

When I was thinking about how to describe this book, the word that kept coming to mind was "admirable". It's easy for an author to take a story of tragedy and emphasize the negatives to wring out all the emotion possible - we've all read books like that - and I was impressed with Schwalbe's restraint. His love for his mother and his loyalty to her are beautiful. He writes honestly about her struggles as her condition deteriorates, but he does it tastefully, honouring her by allowing her to maintain her dignity in the telling of the story. He had great respect for her, and even for the faith that helped shaped many of her opinions but that he didn't share. It's an emotional story, deeply personal, but he never let it become morbid and never wallowed in emotion. I found that refreshing and, well...noble.

I also liked his style of writing. It's intelligent but easy to read and every page was interesting. He doesn't go deeply into their book discussions, but he does share enough to let us see what direction their conversations took and some of what they were learning on their individual journeys. At the back he lists every author and title mentioned in the book and there's a wide variety - from Alices's Adventures In Wonderland and The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Seventy Verses on Emptiness. It's a great list - fun to look through for me because I recognized about half of the authors and/or titles whereas most book lists leave me wondering why I don't recognize any of the titles at all and feeling rather out of touch (and, you know...stupid).

This is a well told, moving story, but in some way's it isn't the average person's cancer story, if there is such a thing. The family is quite well-to-do and had access to the very best care available, something a lot of this book's readers would not have. That isn't in any way a criticism of the book or the author - it's just a reality. It's a simple fact of life that having enough money makes things easier. At no point in the book is any of it taken for granted; several times Mary Anne acknowledges and expresses gratitude for the advantages she has. She spent years herself working with various charities and helping the disadvantaged around the world, and toward the end of the book she encourages people to get involved and support health care reform in America so that no American has to go without the care they need.

Some of my favourite passages:

1. This is a great opening line: "We were nuts about the mocha in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan-Kettering's outpatient care center."

2. "I often forget that other people's stories aren't simply introductions to my more engaging, more dramatic, more relevant and better told tales, but rather are ends in themselves, tales I can learn from or repeat or dissect or savor."

3. "...as the clock ticked, I resented other people for interrupting the limited number of conversations we had left."

4. "'Everyone doesn't have to do everything,' she told me. 'People forget you can also express yourself by what you choose to admire and support.'"

I liked this book very much and recommend it highly.