A Few Seasonal Re-reads

There are many novels, novellas and poems I'd love to read every Christmas if only there was time. I usually pick up a couple of new Christmas stories through the year and try to squeeze them in as well, but I'm going to try to make myself not do that this year. I think I want more time for re-reading the treasures I enjoy so much.I did manage to get in three of my favourites this year:
Old Christmas by Washington Irving, A Child's Christmas In Wales by Dylan Thomas and A Cup of Christmas Tea by Tom Hegg.

Old Christmas is just beautiful, full of wisdom and history and wonderfully usable quotes. My review from a previous reading is here

A Child's Christmas in Wales is the reminiscing of a man about his boyhood Christmases. It's thoroughly enjoyable to read from beginning to end as he recalls what Christmas was like from the viewpoint of a young boy. He talks about family gatherings, his neighbours, the gifts, the food, and the weather with both humour and a touch of nostalgia. I'm sure most of you have read this at one point or another but for the few who may not have, you are missing out on a delightful reading experience. I've seen it online so you don't even have to buy it, although there's nothing quite like holding it in your hands, while you sit by the Christmas tree sipping a cup of eggnog. Treat yourself to this very special piece of literature next year.

A Cup of Christmas Tea  is a sentimental poem available in a lovely hard cover book that I set out as part of my Christmas decorating. It's that pretty. The poem is about a man who doesn't want to visit his aging aunt before Christmas. He's busy and she's been ill and he doesn't want to see her as she is now. He'd rather remember her as she was when he was a child and she a younger, vibrant woman. His conscience gets the best of him and the rest of the poem describes the visit. I first read this years ago and with aging relatives of my own, found it quite moving. Now that I'm the aging, infirm aunt, I love it even more and it makes me tear up every time. Whatever your age, I think this is going to get to you. I hope it does, because there are a lot of us aging, infirm aunts out here
and we would love a visit. 

I wish you contentment in the coming year. 
God bless you and yours. 

"Christmas at Thompson Hall" and "The Christmas List"

Christmas at Thompson Hall & Other Christmas Stories by Anthony Trollope

This little book contains five of Anthony Trollope's Christmas stories. I enjoyed the lack of sugary sweetness usually found in Christmas stories and I find Trollope's Victorian language lovely.

The first is Christmas at Thompson Hall, a story about a husband and wife trying (well she's trying, he's fighting it) to get from France to England to join their family for Christmas.

The second is Christmas Day at Kirkby Cottage, about a young couple who are meant to be together but have trouble communicating their feelings for each other.

The third story is The Mistletoe Bough, about a young man and woman who meet again two years after her father told the young man she was too young to be thinking about marriage.

The fourth is The Two Generals in which brothers fight on opposite sides in the American Civil War. It was refreshing to read a Christmas story not focused on  a romantic relationship.

The final story is Not If I Know It, about brothers-in-law whose relationship is threatened by a few hastily spoken words.

I recommend this book to anyone looking for something seasonal and easy to read in the busy month of December. It would also make a very nice Christmas gift for your favourite reader, even if your favourite reader is you!

The Christmas List by Richard Paul Evans

This was not what I expected at all. When you talk about a "list" this time of year it usually means a list of things someone wants for Christmas but here it's a list of people the main character, James, has hurt in his work as a land development tycoon and now wants to help. This change of outlook comes after he reads his own obituary and the comments attached to it. Another man with the same name had died and somehow the reporters got the two men mixed up and reported the demise of the wrong James Kier. The eye-opening part was the glee with which people read of his death and rejoiced that the world was better off without him.

This all leads him to ask his secretary to list the people who have suffered the most from his heartless business practices and he begins his quest to make things right. Of course most of those people don't want anything to do with him so it's not as easy as he hoped it would be. He may have had an Ebenezer Scrooge-type change of heart, but some of the damage he's done in both his business and his private life cannot be undone. It is a Christmas story though so in the end things turn out as well as they can, all things considered, and some of those "things" are pretty serious.

I found the story refreshing because it was different and it wasn't a sappy perfect ending. It's written in short chapters making it easy to read in five minute segments, which is sometimes all you get this time of year. I did have a couple of free hours one evening and was able to finish it quickly. All in all it was a nice read, positive and inspiring, perfect for light, but not fluffy, holiday reading.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Photographs

These are just a few pics from this years decorating...


"The Empty House" and "In Time for Christmas"

The Empty House by Rosamunde Pilcher 

A couple of chapters into this one it began to dawn on me that I'd read it before, probably four or five years ago. I couldn't remember the ending and it's short so I read it through again. It's about a young mother who is trying to adjust to life with her two children after the accidental death of her husband. She rents a run-down cottage by the sea near an old family friend in Scotland. Also nearby is a farm run by a man she once came close to having a romance with. What happens from there is fairly predictable but the writing that unfolds the story is so enjoyable I didn't really care. It's comforting writing. Pilcher makes you feel like she's writing about your home, your people. She writes characters that stir your interest and sympathy and describes places that call you to them. Every time I finish one of her books I want to get on the first plane to England or Scotland or wherever the story was set. My favourite of her books is "September", and "The Shell Seekers" is also very good. This one wasn't as good, but still a nice diversion for a couple of days.

In Time for Christmas by Katie Flynn

I might as well just say it: I didn't like this book at all. I found the writing awful and the story no better. The story line had potential but fell flat at every turn. The characters weren't interesting, the dialogue wasn't natural and I have no idea why I kept reading. I finished all 455 pages even though I could have chosen to put it down at any time and start one of the 71 books I have waiting to be read. I think I was hoping it would turn into a Christmas story but the title was a little misleading.  A few Christmases take place in the course of the story but so do a few springs and summers. Usually I spend December reading a new Christmas story or two and then re-reading some of  my old favourites. I should have gone straight to the favourites. It has a pretty cover though.

Another Catch-Up Post

The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter

The Inklings were a "circle of friends who gathered about C.S. Lewis and met in his rooms at Magdalen". This interesting biography tries to tell the stories of several of them at once and it does a pretty good job. I was mostly interested  in Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, but enjoyed reading about Charles Williams and the others as well. It does focus more heavily on Lewis and that's fine with me. I tend to romanticize Lewis's life because being a professor at Oxford and meeting regularly with other literary notables sounds like the perfect life to me. Can you imagine living at Oxford? Sigh. Of course the reality was different than my romantic fantacizing and the nitty gritty everyday of their lives wasn't perfect by any means. Still, I loved being immersed in that atmosphere for the time it took to read the book. This is a biography worth reading if you're a fan of these authors.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

I must be one of the last people to read this book. It's been reviewed on hundreds of blogs, the movie has been made and watched by millions and the copyright page says the book is, incredibly, almost ten years old. Every reader and movie-watcher I've heard from has loved it. Some have told me this was one of those rare circumstances when they found the movie as good as, or even better than, the book. I haven't seen the movie, but having read the book I'm very curious to see how they pulled it off and will make a point of watching it soon. Maybe it's on Netflix.

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

A gothic mystery set on bleak and barren Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, England, this book has just the right amount of creepiness. Mary Yellan loses her mother and goes to live with her aunt and uncle, innkeepers in Cornwall. On the journey there she hears whispers of strange goings on at the inn, and the carriage driver hurries away as soon as he drops her at the door. He's told her that travelers don't stop there anymore, that it has a bad reputation.

As Mary tries to settle in and make a life in her new home, she realizes that her aunt lives in fear for a reason. Her uncle is coarse, given to anger and drinking binges and is unpredictable, with friends coming and going inexplicably in the middle of the night. Strange things are afoot. Then comes a night when he tells Mary she must stay in her room with the door locked and the covers over her head until daybreak. Cue the spooky music. Not ghost-spooky, though. The living characters are creepy enough to make it interesting.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

I picked this up at a craft fair that had a used book table. I intended to buy no books and went home with five.

The Hotel du Lac is a small hotel on Lake Geneva where novelist, Edith Hope, has gone to pull herself together after ditching her fiance at the alter. Her horrified friends, who think she doesn't know how lucky she was to find such a catch, insisted that she needed time away to come to her senses. She's pretty sure they're expecting her to go home properly subdued and apologetic for upsetting everyone with her foolishness. She arrives at the hotel  at the end of the season so there are only a few other guests in residence. She becomes acquainted with their stories one by one, including that of Mr. Neville, who just might be the path to a new and easier life for her. In learning their stories, she also learns some things about herself that help her decide what she wants and doesn't want for her future. The focus is on the characters, who they are and how they relate to one another. There are little dramas but it's not a plot driven story. I love books that are all about the characters. I'd never heard this title before but it is apparently a Booker Prize winner. And, really, with quirky characters gathered at a quaint hotel in Europe at summers end, how could you go wrong?

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Tooly Zylberberg (Why, oh, why do authors give characters names that can be pronounced a dozen different ways? I drive myself crazy trying to decide which one to use each time I come across it.) runs a bookshop in a remote area of Wales. She keeps to herself because people are always interested in each other's histories and she doesn't know how to explain hers. When she was a little girl she was taken from her home to grow with an odd group of characters. There was Humphrey, a grumpy older man with a Russian accent who read books obsessively; Venn, the apparent leader who showed up and disappeared again without explanation; and Sarah who was flashy and flighty and completely undependable. Tooly didn't know why she'd been taken to live with them or even who they really were. Years later, when she hears through an old friend that Humphrey is in desperate straights, she feels compelled to set out on a complicated journey to find the answers to her questions.  

I am sorry to say I didn't like this novel very much. It's gotten wonderful reviews from people who know a lot more about literature than I do, but as much as I try to talk myself into liking it, I didn't really. I need to love the characters or the setting or something in a book and there simply wasn't much here that spoke to me. I didn't even find the plot all that interesting. Tooly spends all her time trying to discover her past, but there seems to be little going on in the present. I guess I can't expect to like every book I pick up, But, darn it, why not?

"A Tolkien Miscellany"

A Tolkien Miscellany by J.R.R. Tolkien

Is there anything more enjoyable than reading Tolkien and wandering around Middle Earth for a while? If there is I haven't found it. The Lord of the Rings books, and then The Hobbit, are some of the best reading experiences I've ever had. I didn't know what to expect with "A Tolkien Miscellany" and I can't say I loved it all, but overall it was pretty good.

Included in this book are: "Smith of Wootton Major", "Farmer Giles of Ham", "Tree and Leaf", "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil" and Tolkien's translations of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", "Pearl" and "Sir Orfeo". The first three are stories, but the chapters of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil are written in rhyming verse.

My favourite of the rhymes is "The Last Ship" which is about the last Elven ship leaving the Grey Havens of Middle Earth for Elvenhome. The ship has room for one more and Firiel, an earth-maiden, is invited to join them and must decide whether to go or to stay where she was born.

I found "The Pearl" more difficult to read than the rest of it. I kept tripping over the order of the words. It begins:

"Pearl of delight that a prince doth please
To grace in gold enclosed so clear,
I vow that from over orient seas
Never proved I any in price her peer." 

Then there's:

"Courtesy, I said, I do believe
And charity great dwells you among,
But may my words no wise you grieve."

A bit like talking to Yoda, isn't it? It's not bad for a page or two but this was 101 twelve-line verses. It took some patience. Yoda aside, I'm glad I found this collection. There's some wonderful reading in it for Tolkien fans and I am definitely one of those.  

"Barchester Towers"

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

This is my first Trollope novel and I'm hooked. I loved pretty much everything about it: the writing, the time period, the characters, and the way Trollope turns away from the story every now and then to talk to the reader. As a technique, that can be distracting, and I've read authors who have tediously used it as an opportunity to preach to the reader, but with Trollope it's different. It adds interest and makes the reading that much more enjoyable. I love the language of this book so much he could probably write about tax law and I'd still be happy with it.

The story is set in the village of Barchester and follows the goings-on of the local people. It's character, not plot, driven so anyone looking for a lot of action will be disappointed. The plot involves things like who gets local government and church appointments and who gets romantic with who. Think Jane Austen, not Dan Brown.

I loved the naming of the characters. The haughty lady who thought she was above everyone else was called Mrs. Proudie. The clergyman who couldn't be trusted was Mr. Slope, and Mr. Vellum Deeds was an attorney. Then there was Mrs. Lookaloft, Mrs. Clantantram and Farmer Greenacre. Oh, and Mr. & Mrs. Quiverful, who, of course, had a lot of children. I've found this common with Victorian writers and not at all unique to Trollope but I always find it entertaining.  

What is most appealing to me about this book is Trollope's wit. It's brilliant. He makes the sharpest observations about his characters and their lives without descending into sarcasm or unkindness. Everything he says has an edge, but not an unpleasant one. If you aren't familiar with Trollope's work here's a sample:

"Wise people, when they are in the wrong, always put themselves right by finding fault with the people against whom they have sinned. Lady De Courcy was a wise woman; and therefore, having treated Miss Thorne very badly by staying away till three o'clock, she assumed the offensive and attacked Mr. Thorne's roads. Her daughter, not less wise, attacked Miss Thorne's early hours. The art of doing this is among the most precious of those usually cultivated by persons who know how to live. Who can go systematically to work, and having done battle with the primary accusation and settled that, then bring forward a counter-charge and support that also? Life is not long enough for such labours. A man in the right relies easily on his rectitude, and therefore goes about unarmed. His very strength is his weakness. A man in the wrong knows that he must look to his weapons; his very weakness is his strength. The one is never prepared for combat, the other is always ready. Therefore it is that in this world the man that is in the wrong almost invariably conquers the man that is in the right, and invariably despises him.  .....Poor Miss Thorne was altogether overcome. She knew very well that she had been ill treated, and yet she found herself making apologies to Lady De Courcy. To do her ladyship justice, she received them very graciously..."

I'm glad I discovered Trollope and his books and will look forward to reading more.

Top Ten Tuesday

This week's topic for Top Ten Tuesday is "Top Ten Characters You Wish Would Get Their Own Book". Here's the list of ten characters - some fictional and some real - whose points of view I'd like to read:

1. Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

2. Aunt Ada Doom in Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

3. Lila Ames in Gildead by Marilynne Robinson

4. Mme de Bonneuil in Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

5. James Mortmain in I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

6. Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

7. Miss Hargreaves in Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker

8. Antonia Shimerda in My Antonia by Willa Cather

9. Will Schwalbe’s father in The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

10. Deborah Lacks in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish every Tuesday. Each week they post a new Top Ten list that they hope many other bloggers will join. They request that you link back to their blog on your own Top Tuesday post and add your name to the Linky list so everyone can see your list and they can see yours. I don't take part every week, but when I get a chance and there's a topic that interests me it's fun. Sometimes I find out things about myself that I'm not even aware of until I begin to work on the list.

What would be on your top ten list this week?

"The Seven Last Years"

The Seven Last Years by Carol Balizet

This was my book club selection for October, otherwise I probably wouldn't have read it. There were a lot of "end times" novels in the 70s and 80s and I overdosed on them so I wasn't much looking forward to this one.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing because I find a lot of  "Christian" novels poorly written and predictable. I know I won't win any popularity contests saying that but as a Christian it bothers me that we settle for mediocrity in our novels. There's no reason why we shouldn't have the same high standards as everyone else for our literature, music, movies and art. Anyway, in most of this book I thought the writing was good. It held my attention and at times got quite exciting. The problem was, it didn't stay that way. Just when I'd be really getting into it, I'd come across a passage that fell flat. The dialogue would become dull, the characters would behave in a way that was either a cliche or just nonsensical, and it would seem like I was reading "just another end times novel."

It was odd how the book went from good to poor to very good to boring to exciting to disappointing. I wondered if two different people were writing, the author seemed to have such ups and downs in creative energy, or imagination, or something. I can't the explain the inconsistency, but it's there and it was annoying.

I found the characters similar, too similar, to those in other novels of this type that I've read. Of course, the general story-line was also similar because it's based on the book of Revelation, but there's all kinds of room to expand on it and still stay within the Biblical parameters. Some of what the author chose to do with the plot was interesting but there were a couple of places where I think she went off track and got things absolutely wrong. There was a scene where a man knew he was going to die within minutes and it was implied that it was too late for him now, too late to believe in God, too late to repent and confess. I think Scripture says just the opposite: while there is life, there is hope. If you use your last breath to turn to God, He will hear you and receive you.

I did some research on the author and found her to be quite a controversial character. A strong advocate of home birthing, she recommended no professional medical interference at all, regardless of the circumstances. She also took a strong stand against public education and banking. Her philosophies caused her quite a number of problems, but I won't get into that here. There's lots of information about her on the internet if you want to know more.    

Overall it was an easy read and it was at times fairly interesting. Eventually there will be a last seven years and who knows, they could possibly be a little like the events recounted here, but the bottom line is that I just didn't enjoy it that much.

Top Ten Books I Want To Reread

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is Top Ten Books I Want To Reread, and though it's a couple of days late, here's my list:

1. The Lord of the Rings trilogy - J.R.R. Tolkein
2. A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
3. Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
5. The Anne of Green Gables series - L.M. Montgomery
6. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
7. The Singer Trilogy by Calvin Miller
8. The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkein
9. The Space Trilogy - C.S. Lewis
10. Old Christmas - Washington Irving

Now that I see the list I realize why I've been putting off rereading. A number of them are series and as much as I want to read them again, I don't want to take the time from new reads. A good problem to have I guess. 

Which ten books would you most like to reread?

Check out The Broke and The Bookish to see which books other people are listing. Anyone is welcome to take part in the meme. All they ask is that you link back to The Broke and the Bookish on your own Top Ten Tuesday post AND add your name to the Linky widget. 

A Difficult Time

Ten days ago my mother passed away, on her ninetieth birthday. She'd had health problems for many years but always overcame them. We called her Iron Woman because it seemed nothing could take her down. Over the past twenty years there were a lot of hospital stays with congestive heart failure, pneumonia, and various surgeries. A few years ago she suffered a massive heart attack after knee surgery. Her blood pressure hit rock bottom, causing the doctor to call the family in, but, amazing everyone of us, she came back. She stayed in the hospital for 3 months, then went home and picked up her life again.

This past winter she had several mini-strokes, her heart further deteriorated, her kidneys began to fail and she was diagnosed with the beginnings of dementia. She was in the hospital for 6 long months this time, with not one of the medical staff believing she would ever go home again. Surprise! She did go home and spent 7 more weeks surrounded by her own things and visited by family members before having the stroke that finally ended her life. The truth is we had all gotten used to the idea that she could survive any crisis, so we were stunned when this time, her body failed her.

It really doesn't matter what age a person is or how sick they are, you are just never ready to lose them. I'm feeling the awful truth of these words from Gustave Flaubert: "There is always after the death of anyone a kind of stupefaction; so difficult is it to grasp the advent of nothingness and to resign ourselves to believe in it.It's the nothingness in her place that is so hard to comprehend. Will I ever get used to it? I miss calling her. I miss her voice. I miss her face.

After the graveside service I came home to a package sitting on my back steps; the post office had delivered the Christmas gift I'd ordered for her. I had taken an old photograph of the five of us kids sitting on the front steps of my grandmother's house back in the 1950's and had it woven into a throw. She was always cold and I thought she'd enjoy having this reminder of her - and our - younger days on her lap on chilly winter evenings. It turned out better than I'd ever dreamed it would and I want so much to show it to her. I want to see the look of surprise and hear her exclaim how much she loves it. I want what I'm never going to have again in this life.  

We had her for ninety years, making us much more fortunate than some who lose their mothers earlier. I know that, and I'm grateful, but it doesn't really help. It doesn't change the incomprehensible fact that she was here and now she's not. That she'll never be here again. Never. There are consolations, of course. I know she's in Heaven and that I'll see her again, and when I do it will be without all the little personality differences and idiosyncrasies that caused us to get on each other nerves at times. Our love for each other will be perfected, a day I look forward to a great deal. But that's not now.

For now, we'll try to get used to this. We'll try to adjust. We'll cry and we'll remember and we'll tell stories and cry some more. We'll check in on each other to see how everyone is doing, particularly my sister, who was my mother's caregiver and closest friend for many years. We'd had a small family party planned for the day she passed away; not many make it to ninety years old and she was proud of the accomplishment. We did each get to say Happy Birthday to her, not really knowing if she heard or understood. I think she knows and is glad that we were all there; I believe it's what she would have chosen for her final day.

I'm glad you're in perfect health again, Mum. I'm glad you've been re-united with your parents, brothers, and sisters. I'm glad you're experiencing that greatest of joys: seeing Jesus face to face, and I wouldn't wish you back here to suffer for one more minute. You entered Heaven on your birthday, a wonderful day for you but a hard one for us. We miss you.

P.S.  We ate your cake.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My goodness, what an great story. A fascinating combination of science and personal interest. Far better, and quite a bit different, than what I was expecting. And now I really must get back to writing in complete sentences.

Henrietta Lacks died at the age of 31, just a few months after being diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer. A wife, and mother of 5 children, one just a few months old, her family didn't find out until 20 years later that her cells were being used for research at laboratories all over the world. Those cells, labeled HeLa from the first two letters of her first and last names, had been reproduced millions of times and were responsible for some of the most important medical developments of the century.

Rebecca Skloot spent ten years doing thousands of hours of research and interviews with Henrietta's family and doctors in an attempt to make her story public. She manages to explain the science in a way that is fairly easy for a non-scientist to understand and still tell the deeply personal story of Henrietta's family. Most of her family contact was with Henrietta's daughter Deborah, who put her off for a long time because she and her brothers felt they couldn't trust anybody to tell them the truth.

This book raises a lot of ethical questions about the use of human cells without the patient's permission. Who owns those cells - the patient, the family, the researchers who use them to advance medical science, or the corporations who multiply them millions of times over for sale at a profit? It also takes a realistic look at the suffocating effects of poverty and the lingering consequences of slavery and discrimination for black families even now. It's not always an easy story to read, but it is worth it.

I had read a few unflattering reviews that suggested the story was being told for the sole purpose of making the family some money, but I can't see how that is accurate at all. The family doesn't seem to have received anything, a situation I still have reservations about. So much benefit has come from Henrietta's cells, yet her family couldn't afford medical insurance to pay for needed procedures. Is that right? I don't know, but I'm glad I read the story. I met some great characters who have given me a lot to think about.  


Atonement by Ian McEwan

"No one now writing fiction in the English language surpasses Ian McEwan."  - The Washington Post Book World

"McEwan could be the most psychologically astute writer working today..." - Esquire

With accolades like this, one might wonder why I waited so long to read McEwen. I've had the book for years but I don't remember what made me buy it in the first place. Some review on some blog struck a chord I guess. Now that I've read it I'm still ambivalent and I feel almost apologetic about not loving it.

Many of the glowing descriptions I've read are, I think, accurate. It is lush, detailed, intense, gripping and beautiful, all words used by qualified reviewers. I just didn't find it consistently wonderful from beginning to end. There were times when it didn't hold my interest and I found myself reading and re-reading the same passage to try to get myself back into the story.

It is a good story. Thirteen year old Briony is an imaginative child who misunderstands what's happening when she sees her older sister Cecilia in an intimate embrace with a man. What she thinks she saw leads her to an action, a crime, that will change the lives of her entire family, and the damage will be irreversible. The time span of the story is 1935 to 1997, which takes Briony from age 13 through her 75th birthday. I finally began to like her when she turned 75.

I'm just realizing as I'm writing this that I never came to care for any of the characters and that would explain why I didn't love the book. I do think McEwan is an excellent writer, and he is definitely "psychologically astute" to the point of brilliance, but I can't get seriously involved in a novel unless the characters mean something to me, and these ones never got to that place. Who knows why? Sometimes things click and sometimes they don't. This time, for me, it didn't. 


"Quiet" by Susan Cain

I've read this book twice and I'm still not sure how I feel about it. The second reading was because our book club chose it for our September selection; I don't think I'd have chosen to re-read it on my own.

I found it to be a very well researched book, so well in fact that if you don't enjoy studies and statistics and such you may find it a bit tedious. I enjoyed that part of it, and I thought it both easy to read and interesting.

Most of my book club members call themselves introverts but there are at least two who would say they are extroverts. In an interesting twist it was one of the extroverts who was scheduled to lead the discussion for this book. It couldn't have been easy but she did a good job, and though this book tends to put everybody a little on the defensive, we all ended the evening friends. I actually enjoyed the discussion more than the book because I find it fascinating to hear other people's reactions to it. So much is learned about each other in the conversation.

Most of the introverts felt the book was supportive and that it encouraged them to value the qualities that are sometimes considered flaws by a basically extroverted society: need for solitude, time to think, an affinity for facts and numbers and a preference for solo work over teamwork. The extroverts felt the book was somewhat biased against them and I agree there were times when they were all lumped together as being loud, pushy and arrogant. We wondered if the author was writing from some negative experience she'd had because she did seem to stereotype extroverts more than necessary. As one of our members pointed out we all use stereotypes everyday, but there is a limit. No person is completely predictable and people shouldn't be filed into labeled slots.

It turns out that I am one of the most introverted of the introverts in our group and yet I didn't seem to completely fit the profile in the book. We are supposed to be indecisive, but I don't have a problem making decisions when they need to be made. I like to consider all the options and hear everyone's input first, but when a decision needs to be made, I make it. This just serves to reinforce our conclusion that we are all far too complex to be boxed in by one descriptive word. Generalizations may be useful at times, but every person is unique and it's a mistake, sometimes a dangerous one, to make too many assumptions.

I'm glad I read the book, but I do have one hesitation about recommending it. I've read it twice and both times ended with the feeling that I should try a little harder to be an extrovert. It did encourage introverts to make the most of their strengths but I still felt that the goal was always to be just a little more extroverted. Yes, we all need to stretch ourselves, but I question why there are so many books, classes, and seminars pushing us to be more extroverted but so few pushing extroverts to be more introverted. The idea that introverts are just somehow "wrong" is wearing a little thin for me.  I've tried over the years to become what our extroverted society wants everybody to be, but I'm not going to make it. I can fake it if I have to, for a short time, but I've come to the realization that I actually like being an introvert. I think I'll spend my remaining years just enjoying it.

"Silas Marner"

Silas Marner by George Eliot

George Eliot has been a revelation to me. I had spent years avoiding her, mostly because I'd been warned that "Middlemarch" was a long, tedious book that would test my patience. Then I bit the bullet, read it and loved it. I didn't find it tedious, my patience didn't suffer at all, and I was happy to have a new (to me) author whose backlist I could add to my tbr.

Silas Marner is the story of a man who left his hometown when he was accused and found guilty of a theft he didn't commit. With his faith in God and man destroyed, he moved to a new place to practice his trade as a weaver of cloth. There he kept to himself, saving every coin he earned until he had hoarded two bags full, making them the center and purpose of his life. But one day the unthinkable happened and his money was stolen. In his despair he became even more isolated and withdrawn, until one night a golden-haired child, drawn by the light of his fire, wandered into his cottage.

When the child's mother was found dead in the snow, Silas decided to raise the child himself.  She restored his humanity and brought him into relationship with his neighbours. She lived a contented life with him until she was about seventeen years of age, never hearing from the man who was her biological father. Then, one day, the mystery of what happened to Silas's money was solved, Eppie's real father stepped forward to claim her as his daughter and....the rest of the story awaits you in this wonderful book. 

I read somewhere a review of Silas Marner in which the writer referred to it as a fable, a good description I think. Fables offer up lessons, of which there are several here. It teaches the folly of putting all our hope in gold, the withering of the soul when we separate ourselves from human contact, and the hope and joy a child brings into our lives. The epigraph is from a Wordsworth poem:

"A child, more than all other gifts 
That earth can offer to declining man, 
Brings hope with it, forward-looking thoughts." 

This was a beautiful story, one that deepened the appreciation I found for Eliot after reading Middlemarch. I wish I hadn't avoided her for so long, but because I did all her books are still waiting to be read and that, as Martha would say, is a good thing.

Top Ten Books I Really Want To Read But Don't Own Yet

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by Broke and Bookish. It's fun trying to come up with the various lists of ten that they ask for, though I only seem to get around to doing it once in a while. You know how it is - life keeps happening and getting in the way. But, I'm doing it this week, so here's my list of  10 books I want to read but don't yet own:

1. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro - I saw and loved the movie before I knew it was based on a book. I hear great things about his writing and I've been wanting to read it for ages.

2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens - I'm working my way through Dickens.

3. Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World by Lisa Bloom - because as I age, I notice people starting to speak to me as if the words old and stupid are synonymous and it's making me crazy!

4. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - I cannot believe I haven't read this yet.

5. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin - I've read such great reviews, and it's about a bookshop owner.

6. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winnifred Watson - it's been recommended on a lot of blogs, and I love the title.

7. Pictures At An Exhibition by Camilla MacPherson - someone told me that it reminded them of "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" and I loved every page of that book.

8. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams - because it's been on every list of "must read" books that I've seen and I feel guilty about not reading it. I want to get it done.

9. Diligent River Daughter by Bruce Graham - this is the sequel to one of my favourite novels "Ivor Johnson's Neighbours".

10. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington - it's a Pulitzer winner, it was written in 1919 and the word 'saga' is used in every review. It sounds just about perfect.

If you want to take part in Top Ten Tuesday, get on over to Broke and Bookish and sign up. Have a good week!

"That Summer in Paris"

That Summer in Paris by Morley Callaghan

In 1929 Morley Callaghan and his wife Loretto lived for a few months in Paris, a city to which many of the world's young literary notables were drawn for both the lifestyle and the daily opportunity of bumping into other writers with whom to hold long wine-fueled conversations. Also there at that time were Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Ezra Pound.

Callaghan had met Hemingway when they both worked for the Toronto Star and Hemingway had encouraged him in his writing. After reading one of his stories Hemingway said to him, "You're a real writer. You write big-time stuff. All you have to do is keep on writing." Callaghan became good friends with both Hemingway and Fitzgerald while he was staying in Paris. He boxed with Hemingway and they all did a lot of drinking together, but there was always a tension between Hemingway and Fitzgerald that eventually affected his relationships with them as well.

There is a humility in the telling of this story that I found very appealing. Let's face it, it would be easy to do some name-dropping and bragging about who he had met and what nice things they might have said about his work but Callaghan doesn't fall into that trap.  He writes a rather straightforward memoir revealing them all, including himself, to be ordinary people with idiosyncrasies, weaknesses and flaws like the rest of us. Ordinary - except that they were also brilliant writers.

I've never read Morley Callaghan before, something that, as a Canadian, I hate to admit. I can't say I thought the writing to be anything memorable but it was a memoir and I expect it will be different with his novels, which I am going to find and read eventually. To me the fascinating thing about this book is the look it gives you into the writing life, the personal lives of some well known writers, and life in Paris in 1929.  It's a rich experience, full of life, living and writing, and as you are a person who reads book blogs, I suspect you might like it too.

Catching Up

I just looked at my list of books read this year and realized how many there are for which I haven't written posts. It isn't that I didn't like them enough to write about them, in fact I usually have a lot more to say about books I didn't like than those I did. It's just been a busy year. My mother's health and hospitalizations were the focus of my time and energy earlier in the year, then my son got married this summer and you mothers know what "wedding year" is like. My own health has limited what I can do and how much energy I have to do it, leaving me at times without two words to put together.

I was going to leave the books listed without posts, but some of the them were so good I want to say something about them so others can discover them too. Others aren't really worth mentioning so I'll just say I didn't like them.

Papua, New Guinea/Melody Carlson
I'm not a fan of this author. I've tried but
find her books trite and shallow. I didn't
like this one any more than the others,
and after reading it have decided not
to bother with any more.

Gilead/Marilynne Robinson 
This was a re-read for book 
club that I wrote about here.  
It's a Pulitzer Prize winner
and a wonderful book.

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar
Suzanne Joinson
This was one step above the Carlson
book, but that's all. I didn't like it.

Einstein - His Life and Universe/Walter Isaacson 
I enjoyed this one. Einstein was an interesting man. I didn't know anything about his personal or professional lives so it was an eye-opener for me. I am fascinated by science, but this is complicated stuff and I had to read and re-read a number of pages to follow the theories the author was explaining. He was able to make Einstein's work come alive for me though; it was just my poor brain that had some trouble keeping up.

Bellman and Black/Diane Setterfield
Disappointing. I loved "The Thirteenth Tale"
but for me this one fell flat. It was a bit on
the weird side, which can go either way for
me. Sometimes weird is "oh, this is really
interesting..." but this one was "oh,
this is not interesting at all...".

Gifts from Eykis
Dr. Wayne Dyer 
I didn't finish it. 
Boring. Silly, even.

The Pearl/John Steinbeck
There are so many great classics that I have never read and really don't know why. This is another one that I loved when I finally got around to reading it. Loved the characters, the story, the moral and the writing. It's a little book and won't take much of your time, so if you haven't read it you really should give it a try. 

People of theBook/GeraldineBrooks
A re-read that I first read several years ago. I remember loving it the first time, maybe a little less this time. It's the story of a Hebrew manuscript called the "Sarajevo Haggadah" and how it survived through five centuries of wars, book burnings and various other destructive forces. A modern day rare-book expert is given the task of analyzing and conserving the book and in doing that discovers it's history. I loved the historical aspects of it and the fact that it's a book about a book.

How To Read Novels Like A Professor/Thomas C. Foster Brilliant. This book was so much fun to read. If the title sounds dry to you, don't pay any attention to it; Foster is easy to read, funny and fascinating. If you love novels, but like me have had no literary education, this is the book you want to read. It's loaded with helpful information that will show you how to get more out of the novels you're reading. It's one I'll read again and again.

Elizabeth, the Queen
 Sally Bedell Smith 
This was a re-read
for book club.
I wrote about it here.
Loved it.

Eight Cousins/Louisa May Alcott - When I get tired of news about wars and crime and people doing horrible things to other people, I read Louisa May Alcott. This book, like all of her books, is about good people in a gentle time doing ordinary things. They may not be very much like real life, but that's exactly what makes them so appealing. Like balm on a wound. 

That's it. Hopefully I'll get posts done on the rest of the books I read this year.

"My Best Stories"

My Best Stories by Alice Munro

When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, my book club, realizing most of us had never read any of her books, decided, in a fit of Canadian guilt, to put her on our 2014 reading list. Frankly I dreaded reading it as my previous forays into the world of Canadian short stories had been unsatisfactory. Disturbing, even.

I didn't like the first one. It told the story of a young girl whose father believed physical beatings were an acceptable method of discipline. Strike one. The second story didn't appeal to me much either but I did begin to enjoy the writing itself. Had I been reading it strictly for myself I might have stopped there but I have this thing about finishing book club books. I don't feel I have much right to comment, and obviously nothing really to say, when I don't finish the book. So I pushed myself to keep reading, and around the sixth or seventh story I realized I was beginning to enjoy myself.

Then I arrived at Meneseteung, story number eight. It was written in sections, each begun with a verse of poetry written by the small town poetess who is the story's main character. I can't explain what happened while I was reading it but in this one story I went from someone who was reading a book because I had to, to someone who couldn't get enough. I was living and breathing inside the story along with the character and loved the experience. I read the rest of the book in much the same state; the end of each story left me wishing I didn't have to leave it.   

After finishing the book I can say I am now an Alice Munro fan. Her stories are more than reading material; they are experiences that she pulls you into, where you live another person's life for a time. They paint bright, detailed pictures in your mind. They let you feel things you may never have felt before and they bring back feelings you may have forgotten you ever had. They are glimpses into real lives where nothing is perfect and no one has all the answers. They are easy to read and yet they challenge you to read them on a deeper level. They are clean, clear and pitch perfect. They are works of art. 

I'm not happy with the way I read them, one right after the other. I found myself mixing up which characters were in which story and once or twice I forgot the entire plot of a story once I had read a few more. There was too much input in too short a time. I prefer to read one or two in between other books, savouring them and processing them at the slower pace my aging brain requires. But however you read them, do read them. They are worth every minute you will spend on them. I had no idea what I was missing.

"Summer At Tiffany"

Summer At Tiffany by Marjorie Hart

I thought this was fiction when I downloaded it onto my Kobo, but it turns out it's the true story of the author's summer working at Tiffany in New York City. It was fun as fiction, but much better as a memoir. Knowing that the stories she tells actually happened make them funnier, more poignant and altogether more interesting.

In the summer of 1945 the author and her friend, Marty, took the train to Manhattan to find summer jobs, hoping it would be as easy as other friends had told them it was to get hired at the very best shops. They found a small apartment and hit the pavement, but days went by with no success until, just about out of options, Marty said they may as well try Tiffany. They hadn't even considered it because they knew it was out of their league, but with nothing left to lose, why not?

To their surprise and delight, they were hired to be the first female pages in Tiffany's history. Wearing provided designer dresses for uniforms, the girls ferried outrageously expensive jewellery - gold, diamonds, pearls, etc. - in special leather bags from the sales floor to the repair department and back again. Some of the tricky situations they found themselves in had me holding my breath, others were just hilarious. It was fascinating to get an inside look at the running of this iconic store that most of us common people will never have the opportunity to enter.

One of the perks of working at Tiffany was watching the famous people who came into the store. Marjorie and Marty were young girls and being that close to the rich, the royal and the glamorous people who frequent a store like Tiffany was a thrill. They loved the fashion, the clubs and restaurants, the men in uniform, and the constant excitement of life in the big city. They were lucky enough to be in Times Square when the announcement came that the war was over. An amazing and unforgettable day. I enjoyed reading about their experiences almost as much as they enjoyed having them.

It's delightful reading, light, fun and perfect for summer!


"Madame Bovary"

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary is the second wife of a country doctor, a man she believes will give her the life of romantic bliss that is the stuff of her daydreams, formed from novels, art and music rather than from any observation of real life. Her story is a tragedy, as it must be. Daydreams are perfection, and none of us get that.

Emma finds her husband dull and their life monotonous. She isn't living the romantic fantasy she wants, so she looks around for something more interesting. She believes she could be happy if only she loved someone passionately, if she was admired and danced attendance upon and showered with  gifts, if she was entertained and given new and exciting experiences on a regular basis. She is delusional enough to think such a life is actually an option.

She has two affairs, managing to hide both from her husband, who for some reason adores her. She financially ruins him and neglects their daughter, leaving her to be raised by a servant.

Emma's biggest problem is Emma. It must have been the condition of her times that made her feel happiness should be handed to her. She had no concept of it being something you build from the materials you have available. She was doomed from the beginning, and in the end she had to face reality. "She now knew the smallness of the passions that art exaggerated." She commits suicide, and even that turns out to be a disappointment. It's supposed to be a dramatically romantic end to the life of a young beautiful woman; instead, it takes a long time to die, and it is painful and ugly. Not the impression she wanted to leave at all.

If I was supposed to feel sympathy for Emma, I'm afraid I failed. I felt for her husband and child, both of whom loved her to the end no matter how she treated them. Life with them may have been dull, but she did choose it. She never outgrew her childish need for immediate gratification and her selfishness ruined all their lives. It's a tragedy, not just for Emma, but for the entire Bovary family.

In spite of my dislike for Emma, I did enjoy the reading - most of the time. There were a few passages that ran on but on the whole it was good. It was meant to be a statement about the reality of boredom and monotony in the average marriage and the average life, and Flaubert succeeded at that. I found this quote particularly poignant: "Besides, nothing was worth the trouble of seeking it; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure satiety, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight." Still, I didn't at any point feel any connection with Emma. She was intolerably shallow; I lost patience with her early on and never got it back.

One of my pet peeves with nineteenth century novels is the exaggerated drama and there was plenty of it here. At one point Emma is sitting near a window in her home when she sees a carriage go by. In it is the man with whom she has just broken off an affair. Now, it's natural that seeing him would have some effect on her emotions, but Emma's reaction...? "Emma uttered a cry and fell back rigid to the ground." Then, "brain-fever set in". She was bed-ridden for weeks, weak, unable to eat and almost dying. Either this is ridiculously over dramatic, or women of that time were so frail that it's a wonder they ever survived serious stress....like say, childbirth. 

I am glad I read it. For one thing I found a quote that puts into words a thought I've tried in vain to express since my father died 15 years ago: "There is always after the death of anyone a kind of stupefaction; so difficult is it to grasp this advent of nothingness and to resign ourselves to believe in it." For another, I'll understand references to it in other writings, and best of all, it's one more title I can cross off my Guilt List! Yay!