"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."