The Provincial Lady in Wartime

 The Provincial Lady in Wartime by E.M. Delafield

I can't imagine why I waited so long to finish this quartet of fictional journals after finding the first three so delightful. My very thick paperback containing all four, The Diary of a Provincial Lady, The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America, and this one somehow got shoved onto one of my "unread" shelves and ignored for six years. 

I was only a page in when I was reminded that for sheer entertainment, these books are hard to beat. Ms. Delafield is smart, funny, and has just enough bite in her attitude to make her relatable. Her lifestyle is light-years from mine in that she lives in a huge house, has staff to cook and clean for her family, and is a successful author; but when she tells us about her flaws and fumbles you realize she's no different than the rest of us. And the way she tells those stories is brilliant. Situations that might leave you and I shaking our heads, grumbling and complaining, are for her the makings of lively anecdotes, even when nothing much is happening. They are all just "Standing By", waiting for the fighting to begin in earnest, but she sprinkles her wit and candor over the daily grind and creates magic. Oh, how I wish I could see life the way she does. 

According to online info these are fictional journals based partly on her own life. Whatever else they may be, they are excellent, excellent reading. 

Cover Her Face

Cover Her Face by P.D. James

In this mystery novel, Mrs. Maxie, the matriarch of Martingale, hires a young single mother to help care for her invalid husband. Sally manages to alienate everyone in the household, so when she is found strangled in her bed there is plenty of reason to suspect all of them. Chief Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh arrives on the scene to investigate and the interrogations reveal secrets, putting further strain on already rocky relationships.  

The novel is structured in a way similar to Agatha Christie's in that it builds up to a final scene where, after the detective has figured everything out - but hasn't yet revealed to the reader what he knows - he calls everyone together and tells them exactly what happened. He explains the course of events leading up to the murder and then declares one them them guilty. I'm not a great fan of that style but I don't think it's enough to keep me from reading more of them. 

It's a good story, with flaws. For a mystery there isn't much intrigue, so it's not what you'd call a page-turner. And there were so many characters introduced right off the bat that I had to use a list to keep up - a whole raft of them and none at all likeable. I might have liked Dalgliesh if I'd learned anything about him but he's almost a minor character in this one. Granted this in only the first in a series of fourteen based on the detective and his cases but it would have been nice to get to know him a little better. 

On the other hand, the good writing made the flaws seem less important. Her phrasing, command of the language, and the slight edge to some of the dialogue all made for good reading. I admire the way she can, in half a dozen words, clearly make a point that I'd still be fumbling to explain after thirty. And I love the Britishness of it all, enough to try at least the next couple of books in the series.   

Gutenberg's Apprentice

 Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie

All I knew about Gutenberg before reading this was that he built the first printing press and then printed the first mechanically produced Bible. I don't recall ever stopping to consider what went into the constructing of the press or the page by page creation of the book, and now I can't understand why I wasn't more curious. It was a massive undertaking with unimaginable (in this day and age) difficulties, delays, and opposition. A fascinating story. 

Also woefully ignorant of life and culture in the 1400s, I was naively shocked at the level of corruption in the Church, the ruling power at the time. The power hungry leeches making and changing laws to achieve their own ends, the over-taxing of the poor while the rich lived in luxury at their expense, the lying and stealing done in God's name - these were both enlightening and heart-wrenching to read. 

The years of labor that went into the building of the press was another surprise to me. When you consider there had never been a metal letter that could be inked and stamped, that no one knew such a thing was possible, you begin to understand what a radical idea it was. Letters had to be hard carved - the whole alphabet many, many times over, and in different fonts. Metals in various combinations were tested until a strength was finally achieved that would survive being pounded onto paper without breaking or smearing the ink, and without tearing the paper or wearing out too soon. 

Different inks, made from expensive and often hard to find plants and alcohols, were experimented with. They needed it to be thick enough to stay on the metal form and transfer clearly to the paper, thin enough to not be sticky or gum up the press, and dark enough to stand out against the white of the page and not fade once printed.

All of this took years to accomplish, with much scheming to beg, borrow and steal supplies, not to mention the satisfying of the petty demands of governing powers who all wanted a piece of the action. Then there was what amounted to the paying of "protection" to local guilds and artisans who promised to keep the secret of the new invention, but only for a price.   

Once the press was built there were still problems. More money had to be raised, and huge supplies of paper, all handmade and expensive, had to be sourced out and shipped. Security became a constant concern because If the church found out what they were doing, they would simply sweep in and claim the press for their own. 

There was surprising (to me) opposition among the people, who upon seeing the first printed material could not understand how such uniform lettering was possible. All they had ever seen was the hand lettering of scribes, who they believed were gifted by God to write out His words and will for the people. It was not possible for human beings to write letters so perfectly aligned and identical, therefore there must be some evil power at work. People of faith were terrified and wanted nothing to do with it. 

I was intrigued by the political, religious, and cultural conditions of the time, and all that went into the process of printing. The characters were interesting, if not relatable. Guttenberg in this story was not someone to admire, and though his apprentice, the main character, was more likable, he, too, became tiring after a while. I did appreciate that his personal story of family and a love interest allowed calmer passages to alternate with the very intense, often frantic, story of the press.  

This book was total immersion in a time, a place, and a culture. That made it a good read for me. And it was overall a good story, I just think it could have been told as well in fewer pages and with less detailed description. 

Bottom line though, fellow readers: it is very much worth reading.           

Talk Radio

Talk Radio by Ham Martin

In a small town in Maine, Vivien Kindler applies for and gets a job hosting a radio talk show, a position left vacant when the former host, Fred Boyland, suffered a debilitating stroke. After Vivian and her husband moved to this new town for his job, he walked out on her, leaving her alone in a place where she knew no one, but as people call in she begins to connect and learn about the town and its residents. There are regular callers - Brownie, the poet; JJ's Mom (JJ is a dog); George, the Welder; Paul, the piano tuner; a local teacher; and random callers who choose not to leave their names. The poet calls to share his latest efforts, another reads his original short stories, some comment on local happenings or express their opinions on whatever topic Vivien has introduced for the day, and some call simply to have someone to talk to.  

Fred Boyland becomes an unwelcome caller, criticizing the different direction Vivien is taking the show and stirring up his supporters by telling them she stole his job. Harrassing calls increase and then she learns that Fred is organizing a protest to be held outside the radio station, just below her window where she will see and hear it all. Rattled by some of the more aggressive calls, she grows nervous as the day of the protest approaches.   

The story is told largely through the dialogue of the calls, with a few short chapters adding a little about what's going on outside of the studio. That makes it fairly quick to read, but still a story with impact. There was a moment in the middle of it where I hoped something would happen soon, and then it did so that was only a momentary lull. 

The dialogue is good, witty, with different styles for different characters that remained consistent. The characters are endearing - you even feel sorry for Fred by the end - and the overall tone encouraging. I wish there was a sequel; I'd like to read more about these folks and their town. 

An appealing story told in a different way; a nice read.

The Grumbler's Guide to Giving Thanks

The Grumbler's Guide to Giving Thanks by Dustin Crowe

This book changed my perspective. a change I needed more than a little. It's about being grateful - and expressing that gratitude - for the things we've been given. But more than that, it's about taking the time to consider what the gift says about the Giver, and how that can give us a clearer understanding of who God is and how He feels about us.   

"What does the nature of this gift tell me about the giver? What does it tell me about what they want for me or how they're seeking my good? How does what someone did for me provide insight into their heart, character, intentions, and attributes?"

"As we take this step into thanksgiving, it builds our trust in God. Here our fears, anxiety, and worries get smaller as our view of God gets bigger. This doesn't happen because problems go away but because we've encounterd a God who is in all circumstances still good, in control, at work. providing for us, and acting on our behalf."

Some of it was repetitive, but maybe it needed to be to drill the message into my thick head. I appreciated the practical suggestions at the end of each chapter that help you actually do something instead of just nodding agreement and putting it back on the shelf. This one offers something real that you can do now to improve your outlook and the way you feel about life. And really, who doesn't need that?

It's a fairly quick read but it's changed the way I look at giving thanks, and for that, this grumbler is indeed grateful.  

Girl in Hyacinth Blue

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

Oh my, I nearly forgot about this one. I noticed the title on the list of books I'd read lately but couldn't remember one thing about it till I found an online summary to jog my memory. And it's only been two weeks! But don't let give you pause; it is worth reading for a lot of reasons. It's full of good history, culture and story. I've got to start writing about books immediately after reading them so my aging brain doesn't lose details or, as in this case, the whole freaking plot. 

The Vermeer painting, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, is fictional, invented for this story, and the book is a series of short stories that trace the ownership of the painting backwards through generations until it at last reaches it's point of origin. Each one is a snapshot of someone's life in a particular time and place, some of which paint a more vibrant picture than others. The one I liked best was about a family in the 1700s trying to save their farm after a massive flood. Two days after the disaster, in a small boat tied to the house, they find a baby, the painting, and a note saying "Sell the painting. Feed the child." With these particularly vivid characters I felt more of an emotional connection than with some others.

In a later story we meet Vermeer himself and learn something about his painting style and artistic vision. The painting is fictional, yes, but the author does give us some idea of how he thought and what he tried to capture in his work.  

This is my third of Vreeland's novels and they've all been well-written historical novels with interesting and unique plots. Her keen eye for detail, sensitivity, and insight bring her novels to life in a way that plunks you down in the middle of them in a satisfying way. She's written one about the designer of the Tiffany lamps that sounds good, so that will be my next of hers. I'd like to read it soon, but it will be added to a long list of books all of which that I want to read soon. So many books...

Still Life With Bread Crumbs

Still Life With Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen

One of the benefits of getting older is that you can re-read your books and they seem new. I did remember bits of this one but could never have strung the bits together to make a story. I also remember thinking it was ok, but nothing special. Happily, I liked it better this time, probably because it's about an aging woman struggling to adjust to her changing circumstances. Not that she's as aged as I am, but I could certainly relate. 

Her name is Rebecca Winter and she's a famous photographer or more accurately, she was a famous photographer. She isn't working much now - the jobs just aren't coming in - and she's feeling the pinch. Her income has shrunk but her expenses have not: rent and upkeep for her New York apartment, her mother's nursing home expenses, helping her father with his rent and her son with whatever he needs at the time, and all the other ongoing expenses of day-to-day life.

She decides to sublet her apartment, which in N.Y. will bring in a very good price, and look for someplace smaller and less expensive for herself. Finding an ad for a cottage in the country, she takes it based only on a couple of internet pictures - not a good idea. It's cold, barely furnished, and has a raccoon in the attic, though ultimately the raccoon is a good thing because it leads her to Jim Bates. He will get rid of it for her, fix her roof so it can't get back in, and become a friend. She finds two more friends in Sarah, who runs the local coffee shop, and Tad, self-employed as a clown for children's parties. 

Hiking every day to keep busy, she comes across a series of white crosses in the woods near her cottage, each one with some personal item nearby, and begins to photograph them, though she has no idea what they mean or who put them there. These photos will be the beginning of her come back as a photographer, and the start of a new life with a new love.  

The characters were likeable, the plot (mostly) believable, and the writing quite enjoyable. It was worth reading again, and this time I have no hesitation recommending it.  

Paris to the Moon

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik

I should have loved this. How could I not love a well-written book about moving to Paris for five years? For a time I was obsessed with moving-to-a-foreign-country stories, and those about France are, for me, the cream of that crop.  

So, where did this one let me down? Well for one thing, in spots it felt more like a class lecture than a travel journal. There was a detailed chapter about a soccer tournament and another about the trial of a war criminal, both of which might be interesting as stand alone essays but not so much in a story about life in Paris.    

For another, the number of French words he used without telling us their meaning became annoying. Yes, you can look them up, but there's a lot of them and looking them up got old fast. 

There are positives as well. He writes with wit and candor about his family's daily life, the frustrations of French bureacracy, the pleasures of French food, and the ups and downs of raising a young child. I'd be reading along with great enthusiasm but then find myself bogged down again in a few pages that didn't seem to fit. It was a very uneven reading experience.

He's certainly a good writer - articulate and knowledgable - it just got to be a bit much at times. Some reviewers raved about it, others tore it to shreds. I'm somewhere in the middle I think - not sorry I read it, but can't say it's a 'must read'. 

How I Became a Famous Novelist

 How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

Pete Tarslaw wants to be rich but he won't get that way at his current job working for EssayAides, writing application essays for people trying to get into college and grad school. They send him their sad attempts and he polishes them till they are the impressive, if not so truthful, applications the institutions are looking for.    

He decides novel writing is the best way to get the things he wants, which include a beautiful home, "new avenues of sexual opportunity", and not having to work for the rest of his life. But what he wants most is to be a best selling author in time for his ex-girlfriend's wedding, where he hopes to walk in and take all the attention from her, ruining her day and getting revenge for her leaving him. 

Pete's belief is that anyone can write a novel, so with just a few ground rules (abandon truth, write a popular book and don't waste energy making it a good book, etc.) he writes an outline, fills it in enough to make a manuscript, and finds a publisher. 

The income is considerably less than he expected but it does sell moderately well for a time. After he publicly criticizes a more popular author for doing exactly what he himself has done, i.e. written a bad book for quick money, his own book sales start to pick up. Unfortunately his remarks land him in a face-to-face public confrontation with the offended author that does not end well for Pete. 

Meanwhile, having accepted a less-than-ethical job (not that anything he's done has been ethical to this point) writing letters for a shady investment company, he finds himself in hot water for bilking seniors out of their hard-earned money. This, too, does not end well for Pete. 

The book is funny, but not as funny as advertised. Pete is a jerk who wants something for nothing and makes a mess of everything, especially his ex-girlfriend's wedding where he wreaks unbelievable havoc. I tried but couldn't work up much sympathy for him.

The skewering of the publishing industry was enteraining - authors, editors, publishers, reviewers - no one escaped his ripping off of masks and tearing down of pretenses. It was amusing, and refreshing, to hear him say out loud things the rest of us think but won't say.  

I liked the concept, just not the main character. I suppose that shouldn't make a difference, but evidently I am not evolved enough to get past it.  2.5/5


Taste by Stanley Tucci

If you aren't hungry when you begin this you surely will be when you're done. The recipes! And most of them simple enough to create in our own kitchens. I can vouch for the fact that the eggs poached in tomatoes are easy to make and absolutely delicious.

This is not a cookbook as such. It's Mr. Tucci's life story puctuated by mouth-watering descriptions of meals he's had along the way, meals his mother made for him, those he's experienced in restaurants around the world, and the ones he now makes for his own family. 

He's an interesting writer, telling his stories with humour and humility, and letting us share the happy and the less-than-happy events that have made him who he is today. Just a heads up for those of you who like to be forewarned, there is some language. Toward the middle a few pages are laden with it but it does ease up again after that. 

They say you should never meet your heros - Mr. Tucci has long been a favourite actor of mine - but having met him in this book and gotten to know him a little, I can say he's remains up there in my estimation. He seems like a genuinely likeable guy. This was a good read.