Reader, Come Home; Bartleby the Scrivener; Grandma Says

Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf

Are social media and the internet affecting our ability to read well? If so, what will be the long term affects on individuals and on society as a whole? These are the questions Maryanne Wolf attempts to answer in this well written and researched book. It gets quite technical in the early chapters where she examines how different sections of the brain work and what they need to function well, but it all comes together later and is helpful in understanding the conclusions she draws. She takes a fair and balanced approach throughout, seeing both the benefits and the drawbacks of technology in our daily lives. I think this is an important book for our times, one that raises immediate concerns it might prove tragic to ignore.   

Bartleby the Scrivener

A short novel about a Wall St. office worker who at first seems to be a hard worker but soon begins to reply to every request with "I'd prefer not to." As frustration mounts amongst his fellow workers, his boss begins to pay closer attention and sets out to learn more about his troublesome employee's life. It's a unique and interesting story, and well written, but I hoped some reason for his odd behavior would be revealed before the end. That didn't happen and I was left wondering what the point was.   

Grandma Says by Cindy Day

The author grew up on a farm in Quebec with a Grandmother who predicted the weather based on years of careful observation of nature. Cindy Day went on to become a Meteorologist, and in this book has brought together many of her Grandmother's weather sayings to look at the science behind them. There are some we've all heard, like counting the seconds to see how far away the thunderstorm is and snow being the poor man's fertilizer, and many that were new to me: Flies bite before it rains; Rain before seven, fine by eleven; When ladybugs swarm, expect a day that's warm; Mackerel sky, mackerel sky, never long wet, never long dry; and many more. She explains the history behind them and looks at the science to see how valid they are. It turns out the older generations were pretty good forecasters long before they could turn on a tv to watch a weather report. 

It's well written and entertaining. The cover might lead you to think it's a children's book, but it's for anybody with an interest in weather lore. Fun, informative, and hard covered, it would be a nice book to give as a gift.   

Moby Dick

 Moby Dick by Herman Melville

I had no idea when I started this what I was in for, except that it was long, and for that reason alone I chose an audio version. I hadn't read reviews because I'd always seen it listed as an adventure story for boys and thought I knew what to expect, but those versions must have been abridged because there is simply no way the unabridged version would hold the attention of most boys. If it was only the story of Ahab and the whale, sure, but there is more, much more. 

After a few chapters of story, he turns off down detailed rabbit trails - they are essays really - on subjects like: breeds of whales and their migration patterns and feeding habits; the anatomy of whales with details of their respiratory systems, brains, bone structure, vision, and skin; whaling laws in different countries; types of boats; even varieties of rope and coiling methods for various purposes. It's a lot. 

The narration on this one is wonderful. William Hootkins makes every character unique, so you easily recognize each one as they speak, and he is so expressive you come away with the feeling you've watched a play. The characters are believable and the plot - as far as the whaling story goes - is exciting. Even the essays are interesting in their way, if only there weren't so darn many of them. 

The thing that kept me going, and what, to me, makes this book great, is the writing. His use of the English language, his similes and metaphors, his sentences - all are absolutely beautiful. He's wordy, yes, philosophizing about the life lessons found in every aspect of boating and whaling he discusses, but he's lyrical too, as in this passage:

"...we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam the seas before the continents broke water, he once swam over the sight of the Tuilelrie ,and Windsor Castle, and The Kremlin. In Noah's flood he despised Noah's ark and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, shout his frothed defiance to the skies."

And it isn't just the odd paragraph that reads so beautifully, it's every page in every chapter. There were times I wanted to applaud, his wording was so stellar. And that's what kept me going through the more boring (only to me?) parts. I am glad I pushed through and finished it, but I doubt I'll ever do it again.     

The Giver

 The Giver by Lois Lowry

Jonas, 11, lives in a community where all decisions are made by a council of elders. He has two parents who were chosen for him the year he was born to a "birth-mother", a woman whose assignment it is to bear three children then spend her life in menial labour. His parents were chosen to become a family unit, then were assigned one boy and one girl to raise. Their days are prescribed for them in the rule books of the community: at breakfast the "family unit" talks about the dreams they had the night before, then go off to school or their assigned work, come home, and after dinner discuss the feelings they've each had during the day.

Everything is designed for the peace and orderly functioning of the community. Members experience no pressure, no stress, no poverty, no need unprovided. Of course this safe existence costs them something: they make no choice for themselves, they've lost the ability to feel deep emotion, and they live in a bland world without colour, though I'm not sure how they managed that one. They have no books in their "dwelling units" because books might threaten the peace of the community. Meals are delivered and leftovers taken away again, eliminating the need for menu planning, shopping and preparation. When Jonas has a dream about a girl, experiencing for the first time what the community calls "the stirrings", he is given a pill and assured that all the adults in the community take them. No need to be disturbed by anything as outmoded as human nature, no pesky decisions to make. Life is serene. 

Until, one day, something unusual happens to Jonas. As he is tossing an apple up and down in his hand, it "changes". It no longer looks like all the other dull, colourless things around him. Jonas doesn't know it yet, but what he's seen is a brief flash of colour, the beginning of his awakening to reality.
At the age of twelve, community members receive their life assignments. Jonas will get his at an upcoming ceremony just as his parents did before him, his mother to work in the Justice Dept. and his father to be a Nurturer of infants. At the ceremony, however, Jonas is not given an assignment. Instead he is chosen for a rare honour: he will become the Receiver, the one person in his community to be trained by the current Receiver (now the Giver) to carry the memories of the past; memories of pain, love, war, happiness, depression, all the highs and lows of human life the Elders believe too dangerous for the community to experience. But when Jonas begins his training, he learns that all is not as it seems; something darker is going on behind the manufactured serenity. 

I was hooked on the first page and truly found it hard to put down. It made me think of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Never Let Me Go, and The Matrix, but not too much. It is a unique story. It's well written, the characters are believable, and the plot well paced. Suspense builds until you're breathless with anticipation, then just as you get to where you'll find out what don't.
The ending is vague, creating more questions than answers. I do understand that this is the first of a "quartet" of books, but I've also heard the second doesn't continue this storyline. I loved the reading of this, but I wanted another few pages, not necessarily to explain what happened at the end - I'm fine with ambiguous endings - but to explain how any of this story happened at all. I'd really like some back-story, something to ground it, some perspective. Maybe that comes in the later books, which I guess I should read to be fair to the author. I wasn't going to, but I may have just convinced myself it's necessary.     

The Rest of December's Reading

The Christmas Doll by Elvira Woodruff

A Dickensian tale of two little sisters who run away from an orphanage, only to find themselves hungry and homeless at Christmas time. A boy familiar with life on the streets helps them survive until better things come along. Full of good feeling, with the requisite Christmas story happy ending, it will make a nice addition to anyone's Christmas reading. This one, too, is available to listen or download at

One More For Christmas by Sarah Morgan
I did a lot of light reading in December, with this one being my least favourite. Not that it was awful or anything, I just felt like I'd met with this storyline before, maybe a few times. It's about 2 sisters and their estranged mother who end up spending Christmas together at an estate in the Scottish Highlands. Of course there's a handsome stranger running the estate, so you can see where this is going already. It might be predictable, but it's charming in its own way. Festive, and with happy endings for all, it would work as a Hallmark Christmas movie. 

Christmas at Lock Keepers Cottage by Lucy Coleman

A young woman who was raised by her grandfather in an English seaside village helps out at the marina where Christmas cruises are offered at the holiday season. This book has romance, intrigue, humour, and enough charm to satisfy anyone looking for a light, but not too fluffy, Christmas read. Quite enjoyable.  

The Christmas Wishing Tree by Emily March

Jenna and her son, Riley, harassed by a stalker, set out on the road to live a nomadic lifestyle in an old RV, hoping to rid themselves of their pursuer for good. They spend a few days in a small town and through a series of events become involved in the lives of the people there. As in most contemporary Christmas novels, the romance is the main story line, but there is more going on here to make this book interesting. I listened to the audio version and again was surprised at what a difference the narrator makes in how I process the story. I didn't enjoy this narrator, even thinking I might not finish it at one point, but the characters became important enough to me that I wanted to see how they would fare and that kept me going. All in all, I liked it. 

A Few Christmas Stories

 Christmas on the Island by Jenny Colgan

This one didn't appeal to me. It had all the ingredients for a good Christmas story but didn't manage to add up to one. I couldn't get interested in the characters at all, and found the inclusion of a very detailed sexual encounter a bit odd. It felt out of place in this book, as out of place as it would be in the middle of, say, an Agatha Christie novel. But, this author, and this book, are very popular so there are lots of positive reviews out there you should check out.  

Beasley's Christmas Party by Booth Tarkington

An unusual little story about a man who appears to his neighbours to be weird, if not flat out crazy, but in the end turns out to be the best, and the sanest, of them all. A Christmas tale about how things are not always what they seem. It's worth reading and is available free at Project Gutenburg.   

The Burglar and the Blizzard: A Christmas Story by Alice Duer Millar

Pleasant reading for the holidays, if not terribly realistic. I guess a lot of holiday stories aren't meant to be realistic and that is exactly why we read them. A break from reality is good now and then.

In this story an upper-class gentleman, Geoffrey, returns to his closed-up home only to find it being burglarized. The arrogant burglar tells him he has a sister waiting for him in a cabin in the woods who may not survive the blizzard if left there much longer, and therefore Geoffrey must let him go, or go himself, to bring her to the house. Geoffrey reluctantly locks the crook in a closet and sets out in the storm to find her, not knowing if he'll actually find a girl or if he's walking into a den of thieves waiting to attack him. Arriving at the cabin he is surprised to find a beautiful girl huddled under a pile of coats, alive, but not very happy about having to wait all night. 

From there you can probably anticipate how the story unfolds, but if not it's available to read or download free at Project Gutenberg.  

I'm quite excited about finding this author. She wrote a number of novels in the first half of the twentieth century that were made into movies, the last being released in 1952. She also wrote poetry, publishing two verse-novels, one of which is said to have had "some influence on political thought at the time of America's entrance into WWII". In the late 1800s she studied mathematics and astronomy at Barnard and was influential in the suffragette movement. I'd like to see if some of her other work might have a little more heft than this one.

Christmas Every Day by Beth Moran

In spite of some overblown dialogue, I enjoyed the story, the characters, and the community they inhabit. The book is peopled with wonderfully human, flawed individuals. I liked their basic goodness and they way they cared for each other even when they got on each other's nerves. This is a nice, cozy-but-not-terribly-Christmassy story, perfect for light holiday reading.