"The Rosie Project"

The Rosie Project  by Graeme Simsion

Don Tillman is one of the more memorable characters I've come across in a while. A genetics professor, he is logical, highly organized, awkward and utterly sincere. He'll frustrate you but you'll fall in love with him anyway. All Don wants is to find a mate, a partner for life, but he hasn't got the first idea how to go about it. His few attempts at dating have been disasters so he figures he's not suitable as a husband or father and it's best if he just settles for living alone. 

Then he hits upon the idea of creating a questionnaire for prospective mates. It turns out to be a 16 page, double sided test on everything from likes and dislikes to education, eating habits and how they feel about punctuality. He leaves nothing to chance and sends it out to hundreds of candidates found on internet match-making sites. 

Then out of the blue Rosie walks into his life, looking for help finding the identity of her biological father. No girl could be farther from his ideal, and yet there's something about her. The one thing they have in common is that they are both a bit peculiar. Watching them try to cope with their various quirks is funny and sad, and it makes for an entertaining story. It's original, well written and well paced, and hard to put down once you begin. Don Tillman will make you crazy but you'll also find yourself rooting for him because he's such a good guy. He's innocent and lovable, a bit like Sheldon Cooper, only he isn't the self-absorbed jerk that Sheldon can be.   

Smart and funny, sweet and serious, this is a genuinely engaging story that I'm sure you will enjoy. 

"Dorothea's War"

Dorothea's War by Dorothea Crewdson

Dorothea was brought up in England where she trained to be a nurse with the Red Cross. In 1915, at the age of 28, she and her best friend, Christie, were posted to a military hospital in France and Dorothea began keeping these diaries of her experience there.

Between 1915 and 1918 she was stationed at three different hospitals where she did everything from changing dressings to waiting on tables. Living conditions were poor, mostly huts and tents that were too hot in summer and too cold in winter. There were times when there was no water or electricity in the hospital wards and times when sleep was interrupted by German bombers, when they huddled in underground bunkers waiting nervously to see how the night would end . She nursed patients suffering from diseases like influenza, dysentery and diphtheria; and those who were brutally wounded on the battlefield.

Dorothea was a sensible woman, capable, responsible and hard working, but fun-loving, with a good sense of humor. I think her resilience, more than anything, impressed me. She tended to look at the positive side of any situation, finding things to like and admire even in people who were difficult to live and work with. She was friendly with patients, soldiers and nurses alike and was well-liked in return. In her off hours she walked miles, exploring the villages and coastline and enjoying all the charm of the French countryside. She took part in whatever activities were available to her, joining choirs, a book club and helping put on shows to entertain the patients.

It was refreshing to read a first hand account like this that included all the ordinary, daily things that had to be managed under the most difficult conditions. Movies often make things so dramatic that reality is missed, but here we get to see how an ordinary woman did ordinary things in the most extra-ordinary situation. It was inspiring, and well written besides. The author has a good vocabulary and descriptive skills, providing lots of detail without rambling. And her own sketches are scattered throughout the journal entries, allowing even more of a first hand look at her life.

Journals and memoirs that transport us to a different time or culture are the best way to experience a life that is not available to us. Dorothea's War will do that for you and I think the experience will stay with you a long time.

"Left Neglected"

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

Having loved Still Alice and disliked Love Anthony I put off reading this one because I didn't want to be disappointed. However, Left Neglected is excellent, a powerful drama dealing with all the big life questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is really important?, as well as all the nitty-gritty details of daily life with a debilitating illness. A beautiful story, well told and with just enough comic relief to keep it from being overwhelmingly tragic.

Sarah Nickerson is a wife, mother and corporate executive who goes at full speed all the time. Her husband is just as busy with his company, but they have a solid marriage, a healthy family, and they are happy with their lives. Then on her way to work one day Sarah is involved in a serious car accident. She awakens in the hospital, soon realizing that something is horribly wrong. Her brain is suffering from a condition called "left neglect", a state in which it does not recognize the left side of anything. If someone is standing on the left side of the room, she will not see them until they move into her field of vision. It's not that she has a vision problem - here eyes are fine. Her brain just doesn't tell her about the left sides of things. She knows she has a left arm and a left leg, but she doesn't know how to use them because she doesn't know where they are. She eats what's on the right side of her plate but she leaves what's on the left side because she doesn't know it's there. She reads the right side of pages but the text makes no sense without the words to the left.

Her recovery is slow and difficult, the process turning their fast-paced, high-end lifestyle upside down. Can they survive the changes? At what cost to their family? You'll want to read the book to find out. And to learn more about this fascinating condition that I'd never even heard of until I picked up this book. Seriously, this is very, very good book. You won't forget it any more than you could forget Still Alice. And once you do pick it up, you're going to find it very hard to put down.

Three Quick Reviews

Upstairs at the White House - My Life with the First Ladies 
by J.B.West with Mary Lynn Kotz

J.B. West was Assistant to the Chief Usher, then Chief Usher himself of the White House through the Presidencies of Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. His responsibilities included the daily operation and maintenance of the White House, coordinating activities with the President's family and guests, planning parties, weddings, state occasions and any other social event that came up, as well as supervising all the White House staff. With every new President came a  new way of doing things, new decorating tastes, new routines, preferences and quirks. The author took all the changes in stride and adjusted to each situation as it came. His memoir is an intriguing and amusing look into the family lives of the American Presidents. I particularly appreciated his respectful care of their reputations. There is no salacious gossip here, just a terrifically interesting account of how families adjusted to their new always-on-display lives and how the First Ladies worked to protect their husbands and children during these sometimes glamorous, often harrowing, years of their lives.  

The Book Shop by Penelope Fitzgerald

With this book I'm still trying to figure out what the fuss was all about. It's short, 123 pages in my copy, and more about style than plot. Usually that appeals to me, but not this time. The story is set in 1959 in a small town in England where Florence Green, middle-aged and widowed, is opening a bookshop. Hers will be the only bookshop in town so she feels it's a safe investment, but she doesn't win the town's approval. Things don't go particularly well and I won't say anymore in case you haven't read it. Oh, one more thing, the shop is haunted. Now that I think of it, the ghost may be the thing that kept me from enjoying it. I just don't like ghost stories, even if they are in the perfect setting of a quaint bookshop in a windswept seaside town.  

The End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson

Ambrose Zephyr is a 50 year old advertising executive in London and his wife, Zappora, or Zipper, is editor of a fashion magazine. They have a strong marriage and a happy life until Ambrose is diagnosed with an incurable disease that will quickly - within a month - take his life. His wife is grief-stricken and angry but Ambrose, always fascinated with the alphabet, convinces her to go with him on a flying trip to his favorite places and those he has always wanted to visit, in order from A to Z. The result is a touching, sometimes comical, story of the last month of Ambrose's life and the fading days of Zipper's happy marriage. This little book can probably be read in one sitting, a couple of hours as I recall. I read it right after a bigger, more epic story and I think I missed a lot of the subtle goodness in it with my head still roaring from the previous adventure. It deserves more attention so it's going back on my fall reading list and I expect I'll get more from it than I did the first time.  

"The Photograph"

The Photograph by Penelope Lively

This is quite an original story idea and for that reason I enjoyed it. The plot revolves around Kath, who is already deceased when the story opens. Her husband, Glyn, has more or less adjusted to life without her when he comes across a photograph he has never seen before. In it, Kath is holding hands with another man, her sister's husband, Nick. Glyn is stunned by what he sees in the picture and sets out on a quest to uncover the truth: did his wife have a lover? The quest really just consists of talking to the people who were closest to Kath and asking the right questions to get at the truth.

Everybody seems to have loved Kath, mostly because she was beautiful. I don't feel I got to know enough about her other than that she was beautiful. They talk a lot about her being beautiful. It was a bit frustrating that her character wasn't delved into more deeply, but then again maybe she was meant to be just a pretty face without many other redeeming qualities. The fact that she had an affair, and the fact that she chose a silly, shallow man with whom to have it may be all we need to know.

I liked the book while I was reading it, but at the end I had that "so what?" feeling. Never a good way to end a book. I think the problem for me was that I didn't get invested in any of the characters. They were interesting enough but none of them stirred any emotion or made me root for them. It was a quick read, interesting enough for summer reading. I liked it but I didn't love it.

"The Company of the Committed"

The Company of the Committed by Elton Trueblood

I wanted to get back to some spiritual reading this year so I grabbed this off my shelf and started reading a couple of pages every morning. It's older - published in 1961 - but most of it is completely relevant for today or any other time in history. There are a few dated references but they don't interfere with the message of the book at all and the book still feels current.

What he's saying through this book is that every Christian is a minister, that we can't just hire someone to do the job so we can go home and comfortably forget about it.  We are all part of a task force left here to spread Christ's influence. The message is not new of course, but the way he says it doesn't let the reader shrug it off. He forces you to look at yourself and ask what you are doing with your time. He doesn't do it with guilt, he just, in his unassuming way, gets you to open your eyes and face your own personal reality.

I found it honest and straightforward, yet gentle at the same time. The writing is absolutely beautiful. And there was so much good material in it that I read it through twice and have by now underlined about half of the book. These are some of the most helpful passages to me:

"They are looking for a bold fellowship, and what they find is a complacent society concerned to an absurd degree with its own internal politics or so unimaginative as to suggest that the world can be saved by three hymns and a sermon or Mass."

"A Christian is a person who confesses that, amidst the manifold and confusing voices heard in the world, there is one Voice which supremely wins his full assent, uniting all his powers, intellectual and emotional, into a single pattern of self-giving. That Voice is Jesus Christ. A Christian not only believes that He was; he believes in Him with all his heart and strength and mind. Christ appears to the Christian as the one stable point or fulcrum in all the relativities of history."

"Our commitment is outside the spirit of Christ if it involves an effort to ride over other men, to use them for our cause, or to see anything else as more important than the individual welfare of individual persons."

"Somewhere in the world there should be a society consciously and deliberately devoted to the task of seeing how love can be made real and demonstrating love in practice. Unfortunately, there is really only one candidate for this task. If God, as we believe, is truly revealed in the life of Christ, the most important thing to Him is the creation of centers of loving fellowship, which in turn infect the world. Whether the world can be redeemed in this way we do not know, but it is at least clear that there is no other way."

I wish I could memorize this entire book. I need Trueblood's wisdom to stay in my head until it becomes second nature and I'm actually living it. It is so very easy to be distracted by less important things. 

If you're looking for a book to encourage you in your spiritual life I hope you will check this one out. It is truly a breath of fresh air.