Four very different books

             The Story - published by Zondervan, forward by Max Lucado and Randy Frazee 

The Story is a re-telling of the Bible story in chronological order. There are 31 chapters, with sections added here and there summarizing parts not covered in detail. Our church took a year (Sept-May) to study it, one chapter each week, breaking only in December for Advent/Christmas services. It's highly readable and has thoughtful questions for each chapter to help you consider more deeply what you’ve just read. I enjoyed the experience of looking at the whole story of God's interaction with man in one relatively brief account. It is a clear picture of His love for us - a love that is never diminished by our arrogance and rebellion - and His unending patience as He gave men one opportunity after the other to turn their hearts to Him. I may never have heard of The Story if my church hadn't decided to read it together. I'm glad we did; it was time well spent. 

                                    Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

A beautiful story about one summer (1961) in the life of Frank, a 13 year old boy living with his family in Minnesota. His father is a pastor, his mother a singer and choir director, his sister a musical prodigy headed for Julliard, and his little brother a deep thinking 10 year old afflicted with a stutter. The tone of this book reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird, and Pastor Nathan, of Atticus Finch. They are both strong, gentle men who face tragedy and personal loss with quiet acceptance and a resolve to not let anger and grief leave them bitter. 

Some dark subjects are dealt with here including suicide, abuse, racism, and murder; yet the reader is never led into despair, but instead is left feeling hopeful. And it's not hope in words only, but a felt hope, hard won through real pain. Not all the questions get answered, but the characters are able to find the beauty in what remains of their lives, and so are able to go on. Some have placed this novel in the mystery genre, but it is also a story of faith, not preachy, simply the story of a boy and his family facing the worst of times and finding a way through. I loved it.

  The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Divided into 3 sections - Present, Past, and Present again - it begins with 11 year old Henrietta spending the day in Paris with Miss Fisher while she waits for the train that will take her south to visit her grandmother. At Miss Fisher's house she finds 9 year old Leopold, also there for the day, waiting to meet his biological mother, whom he has never known. Upstairs is Mme. Fisher, bedridden, and described as “corrosive”. Leopold and Henrietta cautiously begin to get to know each other, their words and actions revealing the competitiveness, lack of trust, and even unkindness that often arise when children first meet. I love that the author doesn’t hide that truth with clich├ęs of childhood innocence. There's a frankness in Ms Bowen's books that I find refreshing. 

The middle section goes back 10 years to when Leopold's birth mother, Karen had an affair with Miss Fisher's fiance, Max. Once that story is told, it returns to the present where Max shows up at the door. Leopold learns his mother isn't coming, and his reaction is heartbreaking. Psychology, rather than plot, is at the heart of this novel. It's about desire and regret and motive. It’s the kind of book you think about long after you've finished, and want to read again soon to pick up on the bits you know you must have missed. This is the second of Bowen's books I've read (To The North was the first) and I've loved both. Thankfully, there are many more.
          Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
I didn't enjoy this one, but there were some aspects of it that I did appreciate. I loved his writing style, and he's funny, really funny. The last chapter, about having a stranger in his house in the middle of the night and seeing everything through the stranger's eyes, was hilarious. But, there was a situation in chapter 4 that I found more than a little disturbing. I won't go into it here, you can read it for yourself and see what you think. For me, that chapter left such a bad taste in my mouth that it tainted the rest of the book.  

Brief Thoughts on Four Books

 Facing the Light by Adele Geras
A family is gathering at their large country house to celebrate the 75th birthday of their mother, Leonora. Also at the house is a crew doing interviews for a film about Leonora's father, a famous - now deceased - painter. This sets the stage for all kinds of drama, but add to that the relationship conflicts that arise in any family being honest about it, and you've got a story that keeps you turning the pages. A pretty good read.   

Say Goodnight, Gracie!  by Cheryl Blythe and Susan Sackett 
Reading this brought back some great memories. George Burns, Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, and others - these are names I heard a lot growing up. I remember their tv shows in the late 50s and 60s, and Burns appeared in movies and on tv over the next 3 decades. Before they took their show to television, it was popular on radio, and before that, as early as the 20s, they were vaudeville stars. This book covers the years of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show on tv from 1952-1958. Full of great stories from their work and personal lives it's a lot of fun to read, an interesting look at the production of a show in television's early days, and a most agreeable walk down memory lane.

Marilla of Green Gables by Sarah McCoy
Marilla has always been one of my favourite characters in the Anne of Green Gables series, so while I was skeptical about any author other than L.M.M. telling a Green Gables story, I did look forward to knowing Marilla better. Her story is fairly well told, not as subtley as I would have liked but it fills in some gaps. I still think of it as one possible back story for Marilla; I'm not yet convinced it's the definitive one. I did enjoy stepping back into that world, experiencing the familiar places and hearing the familiar names, but there was more drama than I thought necessary toward the end. Even though some of it was a stretch, I'm glad I read it; it was a pleasant return to a place I love. 

The Rain Watcher by Tatiana DeRosnay
Another story about a family gathering to celebrate a birthday, this time it's in Paris and it's the father's 70th. The son and daughter are not close to their parents but they all love each other, from a distance. I didn't find the characters very relateable or even likable. Truth is, I bought this book because I loved the cover, and I love Paris, and I love rain.  I didn't think I could go too far wrong with Tatiana DeRosnay - I've read Sarah's Key and it's stayed with me for years - but this was frustrating. We get too much of the story from their thoughts and not enough from dialogue. The ending was confusing. I agree with another blogger who said the real characters in this novel are Paris and the storm. Those characters saved a not-so-great book for me.

A Farewell to Arms, The Hours, and Matilda

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Spoiler ahead, so if you don't want to know, read the book first. In this one a young American, Henry, is serving in the Italian Army during WWI. He meets Catherine, who is grieving the death of her husband (I think I've got that right, it's been a while since I read it.). Henry and Catherine see a lot of each other while Henry is recovering from surgery and they flirt, pretending to be lovers. Soon it develops into something real and after some hair-raising combat situations, they escape to Switzerland. A few months later Catherine goes into labour, delivering a stillborn child, and then dying herself from complications. It ends with Henry walking home from the hospital. Alone in the rain. Because it's Hemingway. 

I didn't love the story or the characters. Henry seemed distant or disconnected somehow, and Catherine was a bit much, but when I read Hemingway none of that matters. It's not about the plot or the characters for me, it's just about the writing. I love spending time inside his words, where the clarity, the purity of the writing, is heady as sea air. I've never found another author who makes me feel like I can breathe deeply inside his books. There is no clutter of words, no swamp of adjectives and adverbs to wade through. It's fresh and uncontaminated, and a joy to read.     

The Hours by Michael Cunningham 
Looking at Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway from three different perspectives, this book made me realize I hadn't read the original with nearly enough depth. I found this unique treatment of it thoughtful and smart. The first part of the book is a day in Woolf's life as she writes Mrs. Dalloway, visits with her sister, and talks to her husband over dinner. The second part is a day in the life of a Mrs. Brown who is currently reading Mrs. Dalloway. The third is a modern-day Clarissa living out Mrs. Dalloway's day, planning a party for a friend who is being honored with a poetry prize, going out to buy flowers and making observations about people and life. 
I thoroughly enjoyed this.  

Matilda by Roald Dahl
My first experience with Roald Dahl has not been a good one. It seems to me an odd book for children, with its violence and bad behaviour on the part of both children and adults. Do you really want your children learning to call someone else a "piece of filth" or an "idiot"? Do you want them learning to take revenge on people who are mean to them and expecting to be successfull at it with no consequences for their own bad behaviour? 

As I was reading I became more and more uncomfortable with it. I didn't like it and I wouldn't give it to a child. I was thinking about it last night and feeling like I must have missed something, some aspect to the story that would have had me enjoying it more. Today, as I read other people's thoughts on the book, I realized that I had missed the aspect of absurdity. The characters are absurd, the things they do are absurd, and the results of their actions are all equally absurd, right through to the absurd ending. Had I approached the book expecting absurdity, I might have liked it better. I didn't know what to expect and so took it too seriously, I think. 

Having said that I still wouldn't give it to a young child - maybe a 12 year old if I could find one still interested at that age, and we'd definitely have to talk about it later.  I am somewhat curious about Dahl's adult stories and may try to find one of those.