Trying to catch up...

 After two challenging years I find myself suddenly able to get back to doing regular things, so I'm re-starting abandoned projects, organizing neglected shelves, closets, and file cabinets, and finally making an attempt to catch up on my blog. 

These are books I read in 2019 and 2020 that didn't get posted due to lack of time and/or energy. Of course the problem with trying to do it now is that I don't remember a great deal about some of them. It helps if I can find a book summary online, but even then it may only remind me if I liked it or didn't and I'm not at all sure I can depend on that either. I've sometimes remembered not liking a book only to see on Goodreads where I've given it four stars. Given all that, here's what I think I remember about these books...

This Time Together by Carol Burnett
Because I grew up in the 1960s, Carol Burnett's tv show was woven into the fabric of my life. She was everywhere, and her voice was unforgettable. I didn't fully appreciate her till I was older and looking back, but this book reminded me how amazing she was and how much fun she was to watch. Some of the stories she tells here happened before my time, but they involved lots of other names I knew well so it was all entertaining to me. It brought back a lot of good memories.

The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne's words are a joy to read, but I find his stories something less. In this one the narrator joins a commune of people who believe that, with like-minded others, they can create a better life than what society to this point has offered them. He has high romantic ideals but little practical understanding of the work involved in living off the land, so it doesn't work well for him. Although the story had potential, it didn't seem to go anywhere. I love his descriptions and all his beautiful words, but I can't say I liked the book as a whole.

Finding Gobi by Dion Leonard 
A story about a little dog who one day decided to join a marathoner on his run across the Gobi Desert in China. At first the runner, Dion, was annoyed, but he got used to the little trooper who wouldn't leave him no matter how difficult things got. The first part of the book covers the race and some of the author's life story, and the rest is about the problems - and there were many - that Dion faced trying to get the dog back home to Scotland. 

If the book was fiction I'd say it's a bit far-fetched, but since it actually happened it's hard to make that argument. Still, it felt slightly unrealistic to me. It wasn't bad. 

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
All I remember is four siblings squabbling over an inheritance, each believing, for (mostly) good reasons, that they need it more than the others. It sticks in my mind as one I liked but didn't love, and when I checked my Goodreads rating I saw I gave it only 3 stars, so I think I'm remembering right. And let this be a lesson to me to make notes as soon as I finish a book, not a year later.  

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
A short book, covering just three hours of a young couple's wedding night, this one is painful to read. Love is not the problem, sex is. They are both virgins, nervous about their first night together and carrying a lot of baggage they've never talked about. It's the silence that kills you as you read this. They come so close to making it work, but every opportunity to be honest with each other is lost because they cannot find the courage to speak about something so intimate. At one point I put the book down and howled JUST SAY IT OUT LOUD FOR PETE'S SAKE! But, no, they could not. 

Ian McEwan is a genius at getting into his characters' heads and showing the reader what he finds there (or puts there, I should say). This book is further proof of his skill as a writer, but oh, it is frustrating and sad.   

Star Over Bethlehem by Agatha Christie Mallowan
Quite a departure from the mysteries we all know and love, this is a collection of short stories and poems with a religious bent. From what I've read, the author had a deep faith, which is reflected to a degree in her mysteries, but here it's front and center. I enjoyed the stories, and was especially pleased to find among them The Water Bus, one of my favourite short stories from any author. The poems weren't quite as appealing to me. I do love poetry, but couldn't find anything here that caught my attention.  

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
I remember expecting a holiday themed book, a lighthearted look at Dickens, at old English Christmases and the inspirations that led to A Christmas Carol. It did give me some of that, but it's more of a short biography, with lots of particulars about his home life growing up, his own family life, and the waning career that had him struggling financially. It was his urgent need to pay the bills that led to the hasty writing of this now-beloved Christmas story, so be forewarned that if you read it, any romantic notions you were harbouring may be shot down. I enjoyed the book, and the movie, too, which was Chistmassy-er. I know, it's not a word. I don't care. 

And Then There Were None, Shakespeare and Me, The Ten Thousand Doors of January

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie 

An odd assortment of eight people receive invitations to attend a dinner on a small island. None of the guests know the host personally, but all are persuaded to accept because of some vague connection or other mentioned in the invitation. When they arrive they are greeted by a cook and a butler, bringing their number to ten, with no host in sight. Framed on a wall is an old poem about ten little soldiers and how, one at a time, they meet their deaths. On the table are ten small figurines. 

Before long they hear the disembodied voice of their host greeting them, and to their horror he reveals each one's deepest secrets and then accuses every one them of murder. Denied the option of leaving when the boat that brought them to the island does not return, they spend the weekend trying to understand why this is happening and doing what they can to protect themselves. But one after the other they die, in a manner eerily predicted by the poem, and with each death another figurine disappears from the table.  

It's got everything you'd want in a mystery novel: secrets, tension, murder, as well as clues to help you figure everything out, but you probably won't. Published in 1939, it's written with a little more elegance and a little less flash than more contemporary offerings in the genre, but it's every bit as much fun. It occurs to me that a book about 10 murders should probably not be considered fun, but it's Agatha Christie She's fun.      

Shakespeare and Me, edited by Susannah Carson

This is a wonderful collection of essays by actors, directors and producers writing about their own love for, and participation in, William Shakespeare's plays. Each one is different and each one helped me see things in the plots and/or characters that I hadn't before. It was fascinating to look at the plays through their eyes and consider things from so many different creative perspectives. The writing is excellent, and the writers generous in sharing their experiences with, and their philosophies about, the characters, plots, settings and dialogue in the plays. There are thirty-eight essays in all, written by such illustrious persons as Sir Ben Kingsley, James Earl Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Joyce Carol Oates, and other legends of stage and screen. This book is an education, and so much fun. I came away determined to watch the plays I've never seen and to revisit some of my favourites. I loved everything about Shakespeare and Me.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

January is a young girl living with a guardian while her father, in the guardian's employ, seeks out treasures all around the worlds, lots of worlds. These worlds are accessed through doors, doors that are not visible unless you're really looking, doors that are missed by most people. There is a nefarious organization trying to permanently shut the doors in order to keep our world from changing in ways that, in their thinking, are undesirable. But January has a gift, an ability to create, open, and close doors with written words. And so she resists them, putting her life at risk and creating all manner of upheaval, searching worlds for the father her guardian has told her is dead. 

I listened to the audio book, something I'm not used to, and I just couldn't get into it at first. But as I got used to being read to - a vastly different experience than reading yourself - I found myself more interested, eventually feeling an eagerness to get back to it to see what was happening. That's when I began to really enjoy it. 

I found the last part of it a little repetitive - they find her, she gets away, they find her, she gets away, etc..., but still, it was entertaining, the kind of  story that makes a good distraction from pandemics and such. I haven't read anything in the Fantasy genre for a long time, but this has opened that particular door for me, and I think I'll be going through more often.   

An Academic Question, The Busman's Honeymoon, Alone Time, & Mr. Ives' Christmas


An Academic Question by Barbara Pym

From a slow beginning, An Academic Question gradually develops into a story with potential, but sadly fizzles out at the end. Set in a university town and told from the perspective of one professor's wife, the central academic question is: just how far would you go to get tenure? Our professor does something unethical, but just as I was getting interested in seeing what the backlash would be, it ends. There's a solution of sorts, but it's disappointing and left me wishing this book had a few more chapters and a little more oomph. 

The Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers

This was my first Dorothy Sayers, but it won't be my last. Her writing is an absolute pleasure to read. The story, about a just-married couple who find a dead body in the basement of their new country house on their wedding night, is interesting and the characters are well drawn. But, if you need your mysteries to be page-turners this is probably not the one for you. I for one thoroughly enjoy these quiet British mysteries, actually quiet British stories of any genre, are wonderfully appealing to me. Is it the language, or the quaint settings and quirky characters, or maybe all the tangled rules of manners and comportment? Yes, I love all of that. Very enjoyable reading!

Alone Time by Stephanie Rosenbloom

In this travel story Ms. Rosenbloom encourages us to experience the pleasures of touring alone. She recounts her journey of doing just that in four different cities, in four different seasons: spring in Paris, summer in Istanbul, autumn in Florence, and winter in New York. With 84 pages about Paris, 48 about Istanbul, 46 about Florence, and 34 about New York, it's the Paris section that has stayed with me, though all were fun to read.

She writes about the advantages of visiting museums on your own, about wandering through cities and stopping when and where you like without having to consider what someone else might want to do, and about eating alone in restaurants and how it allows you to savour your food without having to make conversation. When I read that back it sounds almost selfish, but she does make a lot of good points. She includes a chapter at the end called Tips and Tools for Going It Alone with some helpful advice for anyone thinking of taking a solo vacation. 

I enjoyed the book, though I'd like to have read more about her experiences in Istanbul and Florence. 

Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Spoiler alert: In order to tell you about this book, I find it necessary to refer to the ending. I don't think it will make any difference because it's a natural conclusion, not anything dramatic at all. But still, if you'd rather not know, please don't read on. 

When I was reading this I found it terribly sad, but now that I've had a few weeks to process it, I think it's quite beautiful. It begins with a tragedy. Mr. Ives loses his 17 year old son at Christmastime in a senseless shooting, a shock that rocks his faith and takes most of his life to come to terms with. He and his wife carry on living their lives, but his sadness wears them both down over the years. Slowly, he begins to understand how his pain has changed him and affected everyone else in his life, and that brings us full circle to another, more peaceful Christmastime. 

It turned out to be a much more profound reading experience than I had expected, certainly not one of those light-hearted Christmas fictions where there's a perfect ending for everyone. It hasn't much to do with Christmas at all, other than as a starting and stopping point, so if a light Christmas read is what you're looking for, I wouldn't recommend it.  Otherwise I do very much recommend it. It is a melancholy story, but gently, beautifully written and satisfying to read.