Afterward

 Afterward by Jennifer Mathieu

A poignant story of two families struggling through the first year after their kidnapped sons are found and returned home. Dylan, an 11 yr old with autism, was held for four days, but being largely non-verbal is unable to tell anyone what happened to him. The other victim is Ethan, taken when he was 11 and held for 4 years. He remembers a lot but his mind has blocked the hardest parts out.                                                                                              
The point of view alternates with chapters told by Ethan and Caroline, Dylan's older sister. They don't know each other, but one day Caroline's curiosity gets the better of her and she bikes over to Ethan's house, hoping he might be able to tell her something of what Dylan experienced those four days he was missing. They become unlikely friends who, through their shared interest in music, are able to help each other face the worst.

Ethan's family sends him to a therapist - my favourite character in this book - a compassionate, intelligent man who gently gives the boy a safe place to speak of unspeakable things. As Ethan is able to express the emotions and fears that paralyze him, he begins to remember agonizing details, bringing him to a difficult choice: tell Caroline what he knows about her brother's abduction and risk losing her friendship, or try to stay friends with a terrible secret hanging over them. 

As difficult as the subject matter is, this book is really about recovery and hope. As the heartbreaking truth comes to light and gets more disheartening to read, it's balanced by the healing that facing it brings. The overall tone of the book becomes one of encouragement rather than despair. The pacing is good, with revelations coming in small increments to keep the story moving and some tension building. The characters are well developed, the dialogue is good and it comes to a satisfying conclusion. I would like to have read more about Dylan and his progress though. His part of the story felt unfinished.

The Madwoman Upstairs

 The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell

Samantha Whipple is the last surviving descendant of the Bronte family. 
Her father, whose recent death is the topic of much rumor and speculation, was believed to have inherited a family fortune consisting of diaries, paintings, notebooks and first editions, a fortune believed to have been passed down to Samantha. She has never seen any of it, but her father's will is now in the hands of lawyers who have been trying unsuccessfully to get her to return their calls.

She enrolls at Oxford, where she is tutored by a handsome professor with whom she has a contentious relationship and for whom she has an unwanted attraction. Some of her father's books, Bronte novels full of his own notes, books that were supposed to have been lost in a fire, inexplicably begin showing up in random places around campus. Samantha must follow the clues to track down who is leaving them and why.   

What first drew me to this book was the literary mystery aspect; books about books are rarely not interesting to me. The best parts of this novel were the conversations between Samantha and her professor about the Bronte novels. I could have read a lot more of that. The mystery of the supposed fortune was also interesting, but the romance became in the end what the book was really about. I don't tend to read contemporary romances unless they are secondary storylines in more complicated plots, so I was sorry it took that direction. 

The ending I can only describe as underwhelming. The mystery of the appearing books was resolved in a way that meant little to the story, and the inheritance question just sort of fizzled out. After quite a promising start with a few nice twists, it came to an abrupt and unsatisfying end. There is an epilogue which basically says "and this happened" so we know the answer to at least one question, but others remain. I very much enjoyed the first three quarters of it but was disappointed with the finish.

The Manuscript

 The Manuscript by Nathan Hystad

Seattle detective, Jeremiah Trent, lives a solitary life until it's interrupted by an invitation from someone out of his past. Jay, now an incredibly successful author, asks Jeremiah and two other old friends to join him for a week at his mansion in Aspen, flights already booked and paid for. Jeremiah hesitates to reply because these four people have a long-held secret and getting together after all these years could bring a story best kept hidden to light again. 

They all decide to go, if only to see what it's all about, finding upon arrival that Jay has written a new novel he wants them to read and give feedback on. He allows them only one chapter at a time and while they read he sits in his locked office writing their reactions as things unfold. They soon realize that what they are reading is their own chilling story, just set in a different location and with the names changed. Each chapter makes them more uneasy and as the tension grows, questions and accusations arise. Then a buried body is discovered by local police and questions and accusations turn to fear. 

The first couple of pages reminded me of 1960's television detective-speak. Matter-of-fact, just-the-facts-Ma'am stuff. I could almost hear Jack Webb's expressionless voice reading the first line: "The dead eyes stared at me from across the room." I hoped the whole book wouldn't read like that, and thankfully it didn't; another few pages in and I was hooked. The tension builds as one surprising truth after another comes out, then suddenly it all hits the fan and you can't turn the pages fast enough. I had it figured out before the end but still there were surprises. The writing is average and the plot has a hole or two, but the suspense is definitely there and that makes it a pretty good read. 

Phantom of the Opera and The Henna Artist

 Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

I've never seen the stage musical but I watch the gorgeous movie musical starring Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler at least once a year. That feast for the eyes and ears being my only experience of the Phantom, I had high hopes for the book, but to be honest I wasn't as thrilled as I'd hoped to be. I feel guilty even saying that; one should love the classic novels, right?

I'm not sure why it didn't appeal to me. With much more story than the movie tells, a creepier tone and plenty of suspense, I should have loved it. And I might have if I'd read the book before seeing the movie, but as it was I just found it long and tedious at times. Maybe the glorious music and lush settings of the movie spoiled me for the book, I don't know, but I'm pretty sure the problem is with me and not the book.   

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

Lakshmi Shastri, 30, flees from an arranged marriage and abusive husband to the city of Jaipur, where with the help of an influential acquaintance, Samir Singh, she begins a thriving business as a henna artist and herbalist. Just as she reaches the height of her popularity with Jaipur's elite ladies and begins to enjoy the benefits of years of hard work, a young sister she didn't know existed enters her life, setting off a chain of events that could tear down everything Lakshmi has built. 

This first book in what will be a series was an interesting story with credible characters and realistic dialogue, yet I never came to care enough about the characters to want to read the next book. They didn't step off the page and come to life for me. I did get a lot out of the cultural experience, seeing life in India from a woman's point of view and learning a bit about henna painting and other aspects of Indian life, but even after reading the lengthy excerpt included from the next book I'm still not inclined to keep going.

One aspect of the book that got annoying was the frequent use of untranslated Indian terms. The author does include a glossary of terms at the back to help understand them, but with the e-book it's not easy to flip back and forth. Some of them I could get pop-up definitions for and others could be understood from context, but quite a few I ended up skipping over. There were a lot of them. Even with a print book I don't think I'd have wanted to be looking up words in the glossary every time I turned a page. A list of characters is also included but I'd recommend reading from a paper copy rather than audio or e-book to make better use of the lists.

The topic is interesting and the plot well paced, the writing flows well and it held my attention right through to the end. But I didn't find the characters relatable, or maybe approachable is a better word, and that made it less than great for me.

To The Lighthouse

 To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf


Told from the point of view of various character's thoughts, it covers two separate days, ten years apart, in the life of the Ramsay family. 

Mrs. Ramsay, her husband, and their eight children are staying at their somewhat rundown summer house on the Isle of Sky, along with several guests invited to join them for a few days. Mrs. Ramsay wants to take James, their youngest, to the lighthouse across the water the next day, but her husband insists that it will rain and they won't be able to go. To her thinking, he gets too much enjoyment out of repeating his prediction and seeing their disappointment. 

In the first section of the book, we are privy to Mrs. Ramsay's thoughts about her role as a woman, wife and mother; her conjectures about their guests; Mr. Ramsay's musings about his family and his own self-doubt; and the reflections of some of the visitors. 

To be honest, at this point I found myself getting bored, but then, suddenly, it took a new direction. After several deaths in the family, the Ramsays stop coming to the summer house for a period of ten years. An aging housekeeper is left to look after the place but it is too big a job for one person and things begin to run down. The description of the deterioration is so well done, so hauntingly beautiful that I found it the most interesting, and most moving, part of the book.

Ten years after the family's last visit, the housekeeper receives a letter telling her to get the house ready - no small job - for the family to return. This part is told through the housekeeper's thoughts about putting the house in order and her speculations about the family. Once they arrive, along with some of the same guests oddly enough, Mr. Ramsay and three of his children set out to finally make the trip to the lighthouse. 

I can't say I loved the story but I do admire the mind that conceived and wrote it. Revealing the character's attitudes and desires and the nature of their relationships through their thoughts rather than plot and dialogue gives the reader deeper insight into them than we would gain from only their actions and words, but it's a bold thing for an author to do. It was unusual, and refreshing in a way, to be taken into her character's minds and to hear the entire story from there. I've read only three other books written in the stream-of-consciousness style: Ulysses by James Joyce, which I gave up on half-way through and with which I was not nearly as impressed as the scholarly reviewers (who admittedly know far more than I) said I should be, and William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, both of which were absolutely mesmerizing. It's a style that's beginning to grow on me. 

I can see why this is a classic and still being studied after all this time. Like all good books it helps us to understand the human race, including ourselves, just a little bit better.  

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

 Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

I'm not an avid reader of mysteries but "Bookstore" in the title is hard to resist, so when Kobo offered it for 2.99, I was in. 

When Lydia, who works at the Bright Ideas bookstore, finds Joey, a young customer she was fond of, hanging from the rafters by his own hand, she is devastated. When she learns that he has inexplicably left everything in his apartment to her, she starts looking for answers. What was his life like? What led to his tragic end? And why her? 

In his apartment she finds a book with small rectangles cut out of the pages. The words themselves she can guess from context, but they make no sense when put together. When she realizes the sticker on the back of the book is actually for a different book, she locates that title and discovers that the holes in one book, held over a page in the other, reveal a message. And it isn't just that one book, she finds several more with further messages.

As she unravels the puzzle Joey created for her she is shocked to find a connection between Joey and a traumatic childhood incident in her own past. Her life will be changed forever by what comes to light. 

It's been a while since I've read anything I'd call a page-turner but this one had me hurrying through whatever I was doing so I could get back to the story. It was nice to feel that again. 

The writing is good, the dialogue realistic, the characters plausible and relatable, and there are enough reasonable twists to keep it interesting, even surprising. It's a solid, entertaining mystery and a good read.  

My Name is Asher Lev

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

I read this for the second time when it was chosen for our Book Club and and though I still can't say I liked it, I did get more out of it this time.

Asher Lev is a young Jewish boy with a passion for art. He is enormously talented, but his family and religious leaders consider his gift a hindrance to him both morally and spiritually. Growing up he's in constant conflict, trying to be true to his faith and to his art, causing considerable turmoil in his family. He is eventually introduced to a famous artist who will become his mentor and help him develop his skills, an arrangement to which Asher's father strongly objects. Over time the boy becomes successful, his paintings are shown in a distinguished gallery and subsequently purchased at high prices, but these same paintings cause much suffering in his personal life, damaging the relationships that are most important to him.

Though I didn't particularly enjoy the story I am glad I gave it a second shot. I was fascinated with Potok's writing and spent some time looking at how he kept the tone so consistently dark and ominous feeling. The words he chose, the short, abrupt sentences, and the state of tension he kept us in (always expecting some tragedy or another) created an unsettling mood from the beginning to what was for me, an unsatisfying ending. I understand there is a sequel now, so some questions might get answered there, but I don't know at this point if I want to read it.

In the second half of the book there's a lot of discussion about art and artists. There were so many names I didn't recognize that I decided a little art history education was called for, so I looked up over two dozen of them to have a look at their work. In the process I became a bit more familiar with various styles - is the correct term eras, schools, genres? - of art: Baroque, Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Impressionism and others. I still may not know a lot about art, but I'm more sure of what I like and what I don't like now and why, so I guess I'll be satisfied with that.

This is a book that seems to generate intense opinions for and against but I don't feel strongly about it either way. I'm iffy about the story but I did get a lot out of it the second time through. If you've read it I'd love to know your thoughts, pro or con, so please do post your comments.  

My Kitchen Year

 My Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl


I thoroughly enjoyed this, finding it much more interesting than her novel, Delicious!, that I read recently. This one is her own personal story about the year after Gourmet Magazine, of which she'd been editor for ten years, shut down, and how she coped with that abrupt loss in her life. The novel tells a similar story about a fictional character but I found the writing better in the telling of her real life experience and the story far more engaging. Each chapter shares a bit of her life that first year after losing her job - a year of finding solace in cooking - followed by a recipe or two, all appealing and lots of them useful even to a plain cook like me. I must have written down more than a dozen of them. I'm eager to try... Apricot Pie, Easy Bolognese for Pasta, Roasted Winter Strawberries with Ice Cream, Lemon Panna Cotta, Turkey Hash with Fried Egg, and especially Mrs. Lincoln's (Mrs. Abraham Lincoln!) Genuine Sponge Cake. The author's luscious descriptions of fruits, vegetables and other foods -  and it's not just how she sees them but how she feels about them that mesmerizes you - and the infectious joy she finds in preparing them, make this book an absolute delight. Excellent reading.

The Book of Lost and Found

 The Book of Lost and Found by Lucy Foley

It's been a while since I read this and I've forgotten a lot of the details, but I remember enough to know that it was a pretty good story and I liked it. 

Set in four locations - 1920's London, occupied Paris, gorgeous Corsica, and New York City - it moves back and forth between them and three different timelines without being too confusing. Ok I may have skipped back a couple of times to make sure of where and when I was, but overall it was well done.

June Darling, the main character, loses her mother - a world famous ballerina - and her grandmother, but finds a grandfather - a world famous artist - she didn't know existed. Researching her family history she uncovers a decades long, ill-fated love story that brings clarity to her past and ultimately sets her on a new path to the future.

The overall tone is mildly tragic with the two lovers never managing to get together (this is not a spoiler; it's clear from the beginning) and other missed opportunities for relationships, but it's not all sad. Some things are lost, but others are found. And with a ballerina, an artist, and June being a photographer, it opened up a world of art that was exciting to take in. The descriptions of Corsica are so lush and vivid,
you can feel the warmth and smell the flowers, and the villa June visits is the stuff of dreams. 

 The pace is a bit slow, but in this book I enjoyed that, and the ending is both satisfying and hopeful. I don't need happy endings but I'm glad this one led where it did. This was a good read. 

Messenger, by Lois Lowry (#3) and Son, by Lois Lowry (#4)

 Messenger by Lois Lowry - The Giver Quartet #3

Things begin to come together in this third book of the series as Kira, Mattie, and the blind man, all from Book Two, continue their stories. The setting is new and the timeline a few years after Book two closes.

Mattie and the blind man (Kira's father) have made a home together in Village, a place where everyone, damaged or whole, is accepted and valued. Here people have always lived in harmony and contentment, but Mattie is beginning to sense changes in attitudes. Selfishness is creeping in, and at the Trade Mart people are trading their better natures for material gain. Villagers, who were once outsiders themselves, begin to feel resentful of newcomers and want the borders closed, for the first time in Village's history shutting out people seeking help and a safe place to stay.

The Forest outside is deteriorating, too, and grows hostile to travelers just as Mattie sets out on a journey to bring Kira to her new home. It becomes clear that Forest does not want them to reach their goal.

At 142 pages this is the shortest of the four books but I think I liked this story best of the three. I'm looking forward to seeing how it all turns out in the last book, Son.

Son by Lois Lowry - The Giver Quartet #4 

This final installment in The Giver Quartet returns us to the shudder-inducing community of the first book and introduces us to Claire, a fourteen year old assigned to be a birthmother. Against all the rules, she spends time with the child she births and they form a bond. Through a series of circumstances Claire ends up on a boat in a storm, then washed up on the shore of a different village with no memory of any of it. When her memory returns she decides to leave the village to search for her son, and this is where it gets a bit bogged down. The description of her years of training to "climb out" of the village followed by the actual climbing out was very detailed and too long.

The Trader is back in this book, and we pick up the stories of Jonas and Kira again (characters from the earlier books) as Claire moves into their village and becomes part of their lives. And we catch up with Gabe, the baby Jonas escaped with (who is Claire's son) in Book 1. It sounds complicated but it does all become reasonably clear.

Although I found Claire's story interesting, and it was good to get answers to a lot of  questions left by the other books, I didn't enjoy this one as much as the others. Toward the end the characters begin to feel more like clich├ęs than real people, and the final resolution seems almost too easy after all the struggle to get there.

Overall I quite liked this series and recommend it to anyone who finds dystopian societies intriguing. 


Gathering Blue-The Giver Quartet#2

 Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

The second book in The Giver Quartet seems to have no connection to the first one. Both are set in dystopian futures, but in different villages with different characters and different cultures.                                                                                                         
In this one Kira, a young girl with a bad leg, attends a hearing to find out if she will be allowed to stay in the village or if she will be left in The Field to be "taken by beasts". People with disabilities are considered useless and Kira would have been sent to the field as baby - because in this village that is "the way" - but for her influential grandfather who made an exception for her. Now, with her grandfather and both parents gone, she is alone with no defender.  

But the elders have other plans for her. The fine needlework skills she learned from her mother lead them to choose her as the Robe -Threader of the future, the one responsible for repairing and completing the stitching on the magnificent robe worn by The Singer when he performs every year at The Gathering. 

Kira's new position provides her with a comfortable place to live, good food, and even a new friend. Thomas, chosen for his wood-working skill, will be responsible for the  carvings on the Singer's staff and is declared The Carver of the future.

Kira and Thomas soon begin to suspect that all is not as it seems in their new roles. Why is there a little girl crying in a room below them? Why has no one ever seen the beasts that are such a large part of village life and lore? And why did Kira's mentor, Annabelle, die so quickly after revealing what she knew about the beasts? Although some of these things become clear, much is left unexplained. 

I had more questions at the end of this one as I did with The Giver because it seemed to stop in the middle of the story. Let's hope it all comes together later on in the series.

Delicious!

 Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

After dropping out of college, Billie Breslin lands a job as Assistant to the Editor of Delicious! magazine, the top foodie publication in New York City. She settles in well, making friends and enjoying the work, until the magazine is suddenly shut down by its owners. Though everyone else is now out of work, Billie is asked to stay on for a time to fulfill a corporate legal obligation, taking calls from disgruntled customers who are unhappy with the way the magazine's "guaranteed" recipes turned out. 

Billie and Sammy, the magazine's travel writer who has just returned to find the office all but empty, conspire to enter the locked upstairs library that has always been firmly off limits to employees. Inside, hidden behind shelves, they find the door to a secret room. In this room are decades of letters from Delicious! readers, among them some from Lulu, a young girl who corresponded with chef James Beard throughout WWII. Fascinated by Lulu's story, Billie and Sammy set out to track her down and find out what happened to her when the letters stopped.

The plot had potential but it went in too many different directions and tried to make all of them equally fascinating. In the end it's hard to say which is the main storyline. 

Some of the situations seemed implausible, like Billie having a fear of cooking because of an unnamed (until much further along) trauma concerning her sister. Even when it becomes clear what happened, the fear of cooking/kitchens doesn't make sense. And then there's the very complicated system used for hiding the letters that seems unlikely and without any real purpose. Add to those a lady who keeps calling the office to complain about the recipes; she's entertaining until she does a startling about turn, behaving like a different person entirely.

Some of the characters felt like stereotypes: the tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside Deli owner who takes Billie under his wing, the irritating man she at first doesn't like then ends up falling for, and Billie herself, quirky, charming and adored by everyone she meets.

A few pages in I thought it might be a fun, light read, instead it felt contrived and over the top. Maybe there were too many characters and too many stories being told to do any of them real justice. 

On a more positive note, I'm reading Ruth Reichl's My Kitchen Year now and finding it well written and very entertaining. Her own story, about the year Gourmet Magazine shut down (she'd been the editor for 10 years), is much more satisfying reading than I found the novel to be.  

spill simmer falter wither

spill simmer falter wither by Sara Baume

Written in four sections, spill takes place in spring, simmer in summer, falter in fall, and wither in winter.
The title foreshadows the deterioration to come.

Ray, 57, lives alone in his father's house after his father's death, until he adopts a dog who is, like Ray, damaged and unwanted. The dog, who has only one eye after a violent run-in with another animal, becomes Ray's best, his only, friend, but when it attacks and harms another dog on the beach near the house, Ray packs up the car and they hit the road, running from any possible legal repercussions. Living out of the car for months to avoid being found by anyone looking, they survive on canned spaghetti and the occasional bottle of whiskey, Ray telling "One Eye" his life story as they drive by day and and sleep in the parked car at night. 

This is a book that doesn't use action to tell the story, but instead peels back the layers of a character to let the reader understand who he is and why he does what he does. The prose is absolutely beautiful, the tone pensive, and the ending sad but not unexpected. 

I love these lines: "Sometimes I see the sadness in you, the same sadness that's in me. It's in the way you sigh and stare and hang your head. It's in the way you never wholly let your guard down and take the world I've given you for granted. My sadness isn't a way I feel but a thing trapped inside the walls of my flesh, like a smog. It takes the sheen off everything. It rolls the world in soot. It saps the power from my limbs and presses my back into a stoop."

As I closed the book I thought I knew how I felt about it. I would have said I liked it, that it was ok. But the longer I think about it, the more I see how deeply it affected me, and I've gone from thinking it moderately good to loving it for its language and honesty, and now wanting to read it again. There's something in it, an authenticity in the tension it presents between the beauty and the ugliness of life, something so heartrendingly real that I want to experience it again. 

This one is special. It's not light reading by any means, but is full of meaning and pathos and insight into a life worthy of our time and consideration.    

A World Elsewhere

 A World Elsewhere by Wayne Johnston


Wayne Johnston said he was inspired to write this story after visiting the Biltmore estate in North Carolina. The Vanderbuilt family's names are here changed from George, Edith, and Cornelia, to Pagett, Gertrude and Godwin Vanderluyden, and their home to Vanderland. The story, and all the words and actions of the characters are fiction.

Landish Druken met Pagett Vanderluyden, called Van, as a student at Princeton. They became good friends but when they left university, after Van set Landish up and got him expelled, they went their separate ways. Van, who would inherit a fortune, went to North Carolina to build the house he claimed would be the most magnificent in the country. Landish, who rejected his own inheritance because of differences with his father, went back to Newfoundland to live in an attic room in poverty. 

Landish adopts a baby boy because he holds his own father responsible for the death of the child's father. Back in the attic room he tends the child, spending his days writing and each night burning what he wrote. When he becomes desperate to provide for the boy, he writes to Van asking for help. Eventually they join him in North Carolina at Vanderland, where Landish is to tutor Van's daughter. That sounds like a good opportunity, but both Van and Landish are deeply troubled characters and it turns out to be a precarious situation for everybody.    

At this point I found the story dragged a bit and I began to wonder what the point was, but his writing is so good I didn't think seriously about not finishing,  and in the end I was glad kept going.  

The characters in this book and others of Johnston's that I've read are unlike any I meet anywhere else, and yet they are always relatable on some level. They're just peculiar enough that you are compelled to try to understand them, even when you're furious with them. You want so much for them to succeed, to live better, to stop self-destructing. There are layers and layers to each of them, and to the plot - he really is a brilliant writer. I did like this one, but maybe not quite so much as the others. 

I got the opportunity to visit the Biltmore Estate a few years ago and it is nothing short of breathtaking. It's a working estate with a tourist village that's fun to explore, but the jewel of the estate is the house, as seen in this picture I took while there. Hard to believe it was home to a family of only three, but at least one of those floors was probably used to house the large staff required to keep it running.
 
                                   

We stayed at the nearby Biltmore Inn, also a beautiful place. This was our lovely room:



And here's the link to their website where you can take a virtual tour: 
https://www.biltmore.com/

How To Stop Time

 How To Stop Time by Matt Haig


Tom Hazard has a rare condition called anageria, causing him to age at an extremely slow rate. He looks 40 but has actually lived over 400 years, which may not be as great as it sounds. If he stays very long in one place people become suspicious and question why he's not aging, and that's usually followed by all sorts of rumors and wild accusations. As a boy, his mother is accused of witchcraft; as a young man, he is forced to leave his wife and daughter behind for their protection. It's a dangerous life.

In time he finds others like himself and is recruited to The Albatross Society, an organization formed for the protection of people like Tom. The man who runs it arranges for the members to be relocated every 8 years with complete new identities in exchange for which they do jobs for the Society. Tom accepts a mission that leads him to change his thinking about what life is for and how it should be lived. 

In his current situation as a teacher, he meets, and is attracted to, a woman who says she recognizes him from a very old painting. Tom knows the first rule of The Albatross Society is "don't get involved in relationships", but he's lonely and he likes her. Eventually he has to tell her the truth about his age...I'll let you imagine how that conversation goes.        

It's an interesting story - if a bit heavy on angst - that asks some serious questions. What is life for? Does it matter how you live? If you had unlimited time, what would you do differently? Is more time necessarily better?   

I liked this one, and these lines in particular:

"...the only reason such music exists is because it is a language that couldn't be communicated in any other way..."

"The main lesson of history is: humans don't learn from history."

"...you only need to switch on the news to see the dreadful repetitions, the terrible unlearned lessons, the twenty-first century slowly becoming a crude cover version of the twentieth."

" I understand that the way you stop time is by stopping being ruled by it. I am no longer drowning in my past, or fearful of my future."
   
"To teach feels like you are a guardian of time itself, protecting the future happiness of the world via the minds that are yet to shape it."

As I Lay Dying

 As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner


This is my second Faulkner, after reading The Sound and the Fury a few years ago. I greatly admire his writing, but yikes is he intense! I had to keep coming up for air, but it was worth it. His characters are mesmerizing, so real it's easy to forget you're reading fiction. And his stream-of-consciousness writing gets you so into their heads that it's calming in a way and disturbing in another. It's absolutely brilliant, but it is not light reading. 

The story is about a poor, rural family in Mississippi, the Bundrens. I want to say they're dysfunctional because they surely do have their peculiarities, I'm just not sure what "normal" means anymore and I'm not sure all families aren't dysfunctional in their own ways. 

The dying mother, Addie, lays in bed listening to the sound of hammering and sawing drift in through the window as her son, Cash, builds her coffin in the yard. This slightly unsettling picture sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

When Addie dies, her husband, Anse, sets out with their children, Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman to take Addie's body to her hometown of Jefferson, Mississippi where she has asked to be buried. They are beset with all kinds of problems on the journey, often brought on, or at least exacerbated by, their own actions or inactions. Sometimes I was deeply moved by these characters; other times I wanted to shake some sense into them. 

I found the story a little confusing in the beginning so I looked up a plot summary and made a character list to keep all the narrators - there are 15 of them - sorted out. That gave me a better idea of what was happening and a sense of where the story was going. Once I got situated, I could see how each character's personality was being revealed as the narration switched to one to the other. Faulkner's characterizations are utterly fascinating.

These are some of my favourite lines:

"I don't know if a little music ain't about the nicest thing a fellow can have."

"Cash is wet to the skin. Yet the motion of the saw has not faltered, as though it and the arm functioned in a tranquil conviction that rain was an illusion of the mind."

"I am the chosen of the Lord, for who He love, so doeth He chastiseth. But I be firm if He don't take some curious ways to show it, seems like."

To read As I Lay Dying, as with The Sound and The Fury, is to be pulled into a storm of feeling and turmoil that leaves you a little disoriented when it's over, but also leaves you astonished that the author could do all that with just words. Simply amazing.

Victory! and it only took 12 years...

Back in 2010 when I started this blog, I found a lot of "Must Read" and "100 Best Novels of All Time" and "Best (English) Novels of the 20th Century" lists. They introduced me to a lot of great authors and their books, but I needed to make a list of my own, one for all the books I felt I should have read at some point in my life but hadn't. These were books I'd heard a lot about over the years but had never gotten around to reading, and every time I read a reference to one of them somewhere I'd kick myself again for procrastinating. The result of all that angst was a "Guilt List" of 100 books I wanted to read enough of to at least find out what all the fuss was about. 

Well, it turns out that most of them were not difficult or dull or any of the other things that caused me to put them off, and I am pleased to say that after 12 years I have finally reached the end of my Guilt List. One hundred titles tackled, some more than once, and most finished. And what a sometimes fun, sometimes tedious, mostly interesting, gratifying experience it has been! 

I read authors I'm now embarrassed so say I had never read before: Atwood, Faulkner, L'Engle, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, DuMaurier, Maugham, Ishiguro, Ibsen, Woolf and more. I look back now and can't believe how much I'd been missing all those years. I've been catching up though, enjoying more and more of their not-on-my-list titles.  

One result of this experience has been to learn what kind of reader I am. The rich, beautiful writing I discovered in some of these books has made me less satisfied with those that are less well-written or edited. And I've learned that I read for many different reasons - escape, education, comfort, entertainment, and sometimes simply to challenge myself with something I know will be difficult. But I've found that in all of it, it's the writing that makes the difference. If I don't enjoy the way the author puts words together I won't like the book regardless of the story or the characters, but if the writing is beautiful I won't care so much if there is a hole in the plot or a flimsy character. My favourites are the ones I find myself putting down often to absorb a beautiful phrase or perfectly worded sentence. Those moments are what make reading magical for me.        

Some on my guilt books earned a place on "My Favourite Books" list: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Patton, The Bridge at San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, A Christmas Carol (seeing a dozen film adaptations isn't the same at all) by Charles Dickens, Silas Marner by George Eliot, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

And, of course, there were some I just flat out didn't like: 

 - Ulysses by James Joyce: I got half way through and quit, angry with Joyce and frustrated with myself for having read so much of it just to prove I could. But I tried Dubliners later and thought it was great.  

 - Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe: I abandoned this one about half way through, too, because I was not enjoying the experience. 

 - The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: I mean, everybody reads that and loves it, right? I tried - twice - and couldn't get interested, but it's so popular that maybe I'll attempt it again one day.

 - A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is another one I attempted twice, but I strongly disliked the characters and found it slightly ridiculous. 

 - Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust: Seven long volumes and I lost interest in the early part of Book 1.

 - 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - I tried, I really tried, but I just didn't get it. 

 Getting to the end of the list was both satisfying and quite a relief, but I no more than finished the last one when I found myself thinking about other books I "should" be reading. The temptation to make a new list was strong, but I talked myself down and I think I'm finally done reading "shoulds". I'm enjoying my new freedom so much I might remove a few books on my tbr shelf that I've been avoiding for years, though the thought of actually doing it is still slightly horrifying. I did once want to read them after all. 

For now, I'm going to celebrate this small victory in my life. Probably by buying more books.  

The Novel

 The Novel by James A. Michener


It's been years since I've picked up a James A. Michener novel. Back in the 70s and 80s, before online used bookstores were a thing, I'd buy the biggest, thickest novels I could find to get as much reading for my money as possible. Michener's books offered epic stories in which I could immerse myself for a few days and which were usually set in places, times, cultures, or industries about which I could learn something while I read. I picked up this copy just as I'd finished a couple of disappointing reads, knowing it had to be better and looking forward to learning a bit about the world of publishing. Granted this is a fictional world, but Michener was known for his in-depth research so I trust him to know what he's talking about. 

The book is divided into four sections: The Writer-Lucas Yoder (108 pgs), The Editor-Yvonne Marmelle (74 pgs), The Critic-Karl Streibert (158 pgs), and The Reader-Jane Garland (103 pgs). You can see the critic gets the most attention, and I confess there were moments when I grew weary of Mr. Streibert, still this was the section I found most interesting. Getting their four different points of view on what literature is and isn't; learning a little about the publishing and marketing processes; and seeing how writer, editor, critic, and reader depend on, and spar with, each other was enlightening. In addition to all that, it was a good story with well fleshed-out characters and decent writing. 

I'd like to have another one on my shelf, maybe The Source. I read it a long time ago and remember being quite impressed with it, though I remember little of it now. Michener wrote over 40 books, including his Pulitzer Prize winning, Tales of the South Pacific, so there's lots to choose from. The guy sure could tell a story.   

The Lost Apothecary

 The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

I thought the premise was interesting and could have made for a good story, but there were too many things that didn't add up.

The story follows an eighteenth century apothecary, Nella, who once ran a legitimate business but now dispenses poisons to women wanting to be rid of their troublesome men. Once betrayed by her own husband, her revenge is "helping" other women in similar circumstances. She feels no compunction about killing, having only one hard and fast rule: the poison is never to be used to harm another woman. It feels like we're meant to admire the women-supporting-women theme, but all the murdering makes that a hard sell.

Twelve year old Eliza comes to Nella's door one day shopping for poison as blithely as if she were buying bread. She explains that at the request of her Mistress she is going to poison her Master and hopefully kill him. Other than being ok with murdering her employer she seems like a reasonably normal child, not the deeply disturbed one she'd have to be to accept her assignment so nonchalantly. It all seems very unlikely. 

Caroline is the present day narrator, in England alone on a trip meant be an anniversary celebration until her husband admitted to cheating on her. After finding one of Nella's old vials in the river and doing 'research' that really only amounted to a few words in Google, she locates the apothecary's shop in a back alley of London, where it has gone unnoticed by every other person who passed it for two hundred and thirty years. Again, unlikely. 

There were other things that didn't make sense. In one scene where Nella and Eliza are frantic to get away before they are caught and as the reader you're urging them to hurry, the action stops as Nella takes time to think about all the circumstances that brought her to this moment and what it all means. The reader is left hanging until she returns to the present and the hurrying starts again. And her pursuers - did they just stop and wait? There's also a Cambridge University situation that seemed improbable. There's little to convince readers that Caroline could be among the small percentage of applicants who get accepted into that elite institution. 

I know this book has gotten a lot of positive reviews, but it didn't work for me - too many loopholes. Disappointing.    

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

 The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde


A wondrously wacky, bookish, sci-fi mystery that might strike you as odd at first, but if you can suspend your understanding of reality temporarily, it'll take you on quite a ride. Thursday Next (only the first of the curious character names) is a lady detective trying to identify the person causing havoc with some well-loved classic books.

In her world, it's possible to enter books - as in go through a portal and be in the time and place of the story - and that's exactly what Thursday must do to save Jane Eyre. Then the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit goes missing, from a location so secure that only a thief of very special talents could have taken it. The challenge is to retrieve it before the thief can enter the book and make some drastic change that will then affect every other copy in the world, effectively ruining the story.  

Other interesting tidbits...Thursday's aunt gets lost in a Wordsworth poem and can't get out, Thursday has a cloned pet dodo, and time travel is a thing.  

This is 374 pages of mind-boggling fun, but that's not enough so I've ordered the second and third books in the series. There are 8 in all but I have a feeling that won't seem like enough either!

Just Mercy

 Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

The story of  lawyer Bryan Stevenson's founding of the Equal Justice Initiative in the southern US, and of the wrongly convicted people for whom he fights. It's gut-wrenching, but it's an important book that needs to be read.                  

The main storyline concerns Walter McMillian, a black man accused of murdering a white woman and placed on death row before his trial. Let that sink in for a minute. Death row before the trial - apparently to see if fear might make him confess. When he did go to trial, the evidence proving he was nowhere near the crime scene, and therefore could not be guilty, was ignored by police, prosecutor, judge, and jury. He was found guilty and sentenced to be executed. It is sickening to think, to know, that this happened not that long ago in a country that prides itself on being the "land of the free and the home of the brave". 

Other stories tell of child convicts sent directly to adult prisons to be beaten and raped for years, and of people with mental and physical disabilities being horribly abused by the 'justice' system. It is infuriating to read about laws that were put in place to protect people being ignored or twisted by people in authority to further their own ends. 

Thankfully Stevenson also writes about his victories - achieving freedom for prisoners locked up for decades for crimes they didn't commit, and getting others moved off of death row and back among general prison populations. These positive notes breathe some hope into the horror, making it easier, but not easy, to keep reading.

A few lines that stood out to me:

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” 

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated.” 

“Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty and even feared is a burden borne by people of color…”  

“I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.” ...this from a lady who sits in the courtroom day after day simply to offer a comforting word or touch to anyone who might need it.

Just Mercy might keep you awake at night, but if it leaves you, all of us, wanting to do more, do something to help in our own corner of the world, then I say it is sleep well lost.   

The Custodian of Paradise

 The Custodian of Paradise by Wayne Johnston


This is the story of Sheila Fielding, who struggles with questions about who she is and where she fits but determinedly lives on her own terms without apology or excuse. She's beautiful, intelligent, and fierce, and often her own worst enemy. At 6 '4" with a crippled leg she is stared at and sometimes mocked for her physical appearance, but it's her emotional handicaps, created by a life starved of all affection, that keep her angry and unable to form relationships. Her sharp tongue and sometimes cruel wit keep everyone at a distance.

In many ways she's symbolic of Newfoundland itself. One reviewer described them both as "huge, beautiful, with an unknown heart and a drinking problem." Her independence and solitude are so like Newfoundland's that it's hard to separate one from the other, or determine which is the main character. Sheila, too, is stormy and full of contradictions, and utterly fascinating.  

My book club read this a while back and reactions to Sheila were varied and strong. Some disliked her, some felt pity for her, others didn't know what to make of her at all. Whatever opinion you form of her, Sheila Fielding will get into your head, under your skin and maybe even a little into your heart. 

I've struggled to find words for my thoughts about this book, probably because it didn't leave me thinking so much as feeling. It's an unlikely story, but reading it is an intense experience that leaves you unable to simply argue it away as improbable. Sheila's pain, her agonizing emptiness, hurts to read. It has haunted me. But as hard as it was to get through parts of it, I loved it in there between the covers of this book. When I read Wayne Johnston's books, or Michael Crummey's, I'm homesick for Newfoundland for weeks after - homesick for a place I've never lived. That's good writing. 

And Sheila Fielding - she's why it's important to read fiction.  

The Mill on the Floss

 The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

This is the story of a young girl whose family suffers a loss of fortune and status, and how that affects her relationships and options in life. 

The writing of course is wonderful; I haven't read anything of Eliot's that I haven't loved. For this one I had an audio version, and it was great, but hearing it does not compare to reading it. With experience I've learned that for me audio is a good option for some books but not for all. Great writing needs to be read slowly, savored to absorb every rich sentence, and given enough attention to recognize when I've come to a passage worthy of underlining so I can find it again later. For that I need a printed book.

These are a few of my favourite quotes from The Mill on the Floss:

Childhood has no forebodings; but then, it is soothed by no memories of outlived sorrow.”

“What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known and loved because it is known?” 

“No anguish I have had to bear on your account has been too heavy a price to pay for the new life into which I have entered in loving you.”

“There is something sustaining in the very agitation that accompanies the first shocks of trouble, just as an acute pain is often a stimulus, and produces an excitement which is transient strength. It is in the slow, changed life that follows--in the time when sorrow has become stale, and has no longer an emotive intensity that counteracts its pain--in the time when day follows day in dull unexpectant sameness, and trial is a dreary routine--it is then that despair threatens; it is then that the peremptory hunger of the soul is felt, and eye and ear are strained after some unlearned secret of our existence, which shall give to endurance the nature of satisfaction.” 

Wonderful, wonderful writing; her books are a gift to the world. I love Eliot, and I loved The Mill on the Floss.  
 

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