Finished The True Gift by Patricia MacLachlan, a quiet, strange and charming book. It is set more contemporarily than her other works I have read (see Caleb's Story). I always enjoy her books and there are quite a few more that I need to put on my TBR list. This was one of my children's lit Christmas reads for this year. While there is no shortage of holiday themed picture books out there, children's holiday novels are harder to come by. I'll have to dig around and find one more for this year.
Monday, December 17, 2012
Finished The Darling Buds of May by H. E. Bates. It's the first book in his Larkin Chronicles. Straight-laced, timid, underfed Mr. Charlton comes to talk to Pop Larkin about income taxes owed. He never gets much of a chance. Pop, Ma, Mariette and the assorted other Larkins hijack him with the happy-go-lucky lifestyle. They convince him to take sick leave from his dull desk job to join them in hearty meals, working in the strawberry fields, plenty of cocktails and more fun than he's ever known possible.
This book is hilarious. It's like a combination of You Can't Take It With You and Cold Comfort Farm. Highly recommended.
Friday, December 14, 2012
Finished A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg. Oswald T. Campbell is a 52 year old man with advanced emphysema. His doctor tells him has about a year to live and that he should spend it some place warm. He hands him a yellowed and water stained brochure for a health resort in Lost River, Alabama. Trying to get in touch with the resort, Oswald calls around and makes contact with a citizen of the area who is setting up a potluck at the community hall. She informs him that the resort closed long ago, but he could come down anyway, she will find him a room he can rent. Oswald leaves his cold, dull, gray life in Chicago behind and heads south.
The tiny community of Lost River is filled with interesting characters. One of the most interesting is Jack, a cardinal, that injured as a hatchling, was raised by Roy who runs the general store. Jack lives at the store, greeting and teasing customers, running on his wheel and ringing his little bird bells. When a six year old orphan named Patsy becomes enamored of the bird, the whole town gets involved with making a happier life for Patsy, an effort which in turn changes many other lives for the better.
The book reminded me of The Song of the Cardinal, for obvious reasons. Oswald T. Campbell reminded me of Father Tim in the Mitford books, when he was still a lonely bachelor. A charming and at times hilarious holiday read.
Finished Christmas After All, from the Dear America series. Written by Kathryn Lasky, it's the diary of Minnie Swift, an eleven year old girl living in Indianapolis during The Great Depression. Minnie's family has been economizing, shutting off parts of the house so as not to heat them and serving mingy fare, disgusting aspics and something Minnie has nicknamed "Rumor of Pork."
Minnie's family has an unexpected addition, when Willie Faye, an orphaned distant cousin, arrives from Texas to live with them. Willie Faye is very small for her age (clearly undernourished). Little clouds of dust escape from her clothes and shoes as she walks. She has come from The Dustbowl. She has never seen a ceramic bathtub and has no idea what an adjective is, but she can tell wonderful stories of her life in Texas.
One evening after seeing a film at the cinema, Minnie and company return to the house to find that their father has left. The truth that his company has shut down comes out and what was promising to be a lean Christmas now looks like something far more bleak. Everyone worries except Willie Faye. She thinks that Mr. Swift has a plan and indeed he does.
This was a charming book with excellent period details. I especially enjoyed the diary format and look forward to reading more of the Dear America series.
Thursday, December 6, 2012
Finished My Lucky Life in and Out of Show Business: A Memoir by Dick Van Dyke. There has always been something so familiar about Dick Van Dyke to me. I grew up watching reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show and films like Mary Poppins and Chitty-Chitty, Bang-Bang were often televised around the holidays. When I saw that this memoir had been published I was immediately drawn to it. The cover photo is fabulous. This tall, funny man who pretends klutziness, but who has an easy grace is so appealing to me. He seems like such a nice guy on TV, and the book supports my concept of this. It's a comfortable read with a good bit of humor. His personal standards and his politics made it even more enjoyable. Something that stood out to me was how his wife Margie would come to the set and watch him be Rob Petrie, and tell people he was the same person at home. This really comes through in the book. I have an old friend who has always reminded me of Van Dyke. We've been close for 35 years and he is a huge fan of classic television shows. Somehow the two are inextricably linked in my mind. This past summer I spent a rare afternoon in the garden of my favorite library, chatting with this very friend. Then, this fall, every time I sat down to read the book with my breakfast, the image of the garden was always hovering nearby.
Monday, November 26, 2012
Finished The Mystery at Lilac Inn, the fourth original Nancy Drew Mystery, published in 1931 and reissued by Applewood Books. Once again, Mildred Wirt Benson wrote the book, under the pseudonym of Caroline Keene. Nancy goes to work to find her friend Emily's stolen inheritance of $40,000 worth of family jewels. While spying on the suspected thieves, she is captured, bound and gagged and left to die on a sinking yacht. While this part of the book is exciting, if a bit shocking, the rest was kind of ho-hum. Not nearly as gripping as The Bungalow Mystery. I do love the cover art for all of these though.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Finished Treasure Island by Robert Lewis Stevenson. In this coming-of-age classic, Jim Hawkins finds himself running up against pirates all over the place. The novel's greatest villain (yes there are many), Long John Silver, morphs quite a bit throughout the story. At the beginning he is an affable, peg-legged, benevolent sea cook and a model crew member of the Hispanola. This is of course his disguise. Later Jim overhears his treacherous plans and witnesses the mutiny of the crew. At this point Silver is their ruthless leader. Later in the story when the mutineers turn against him, he switches back to the right side of the law, joining Jim, Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney is rescuing the treasure and returning to England. This was a fun adventure read.
I wonder how many people read Treasure Island these days. How many people who eat fast food at Long John Silver's know where the name originated from?
Finished Louisa and the Crystal Gazer: A Louisa May Alcott Mystery by Ann Maclean. Knowing my love of anything Alcott, my daughter picked this book up at our local mystery book shop, Aunt Agatha's. It's actually the second book in the series. Louisa is in Boston, staying with a family friend and working hard as a seamstress in order to earn money for family Christmas presents. Although Louisa thinks it's all bosh, her friend Sylvia talks her into attending a seance with her at the home of famous Boston medium, Mrs. Percy. Among the colorful cast of seance attendees is Mr. P. T. Barnum, who Louisa takes an immediate liking to. When the group is invited for a second sitting, they arrive only to find Mrs. that Percy has been locked into her own preparation room, and is dead. Various suspects become obvious to Louisa as she works to resolve the case.
This book was an enjoyable read with the Alcott aspects well researched. The take away moment, for me, was minor and yet mind-blowing. Louisa takes her sister Lizzie for a music lesson at the home of a world renowned Italian musician, Signor Massimo. Upon entering his house she detects an unfamiliar aroma and says to Lizzie, "What is that smell, do you think? Garlic? How wonderful! I would love to taste some." In 1855 most Americans had never tasted garlic, something we now encounter on a daily basis. Think of that.
Saturday, November 3, 2012
Finished The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. Published in 1938, today it appears on lists of the best 100 books of modern fiction from Time Magazine and The Modern Library. I chose to listen to an audiobook recording of the novel and I'm glad I did. Some years ago I read Bowen's The House in Paris and found it heavy going. Now I know why. Bowen writes with the kind of attention to miniscule detail that Robert Post's Child would call Laurencian. Knowing my own impatience, I decided it would be wiser to listen to someone else plod through the pages. For much of the novel I wondered just why it appeared on these revered lists. It was not until the last third of the book that this became apparent.
Portia is an awkward 16 year old who having recently lost her mother is now an orphan. She goes to live with her half brother Thomas and his wife Anna in London. Portia and Thomas have the same father. Up until this time, Portia and a her mother had lived a nomadic life, moving from one cut rate European hotel to another. She had no real home and no lasting relationships. She is innocent of the dangers of having faith in other people.
All the adults in the novel seems to lack the capacity for outward emotion. Thomas is vaguely aware of Portia's presence in the house. Anna is plainly put out by it. Portia is not so innocent that she does not perceive this. She records her observations of life in the house in her diary. Anna finds the diary and of course reads it. She then discusses it with her friend St. Quentin. Anna doesn't seem to have any female friends. Her other friend, Eddie, who has been openly flirting with Anna for years, seems to take notice of Portia for the first time when she hands him his hat in the hallway one day. Charmed by her gesture and sensing an easier quarry, he writes Portia a note thanking her for her thoughtfulness and calling her a darling. This of course sets Portia on the road to unhappy romance with Eddie, and Eddie being the despicable cad that he is, let's it happen for the sake of amusement.
The crisis of the novel comes when Portia learns that Anna has read her diary. She goes to Eddie for solace, but he pushes her away, now afraid of her ernest affection for him. He implies that Anna is his lover and that he and she discuss Portia often. This mammoth betrayal is too much for Portia. She then runs away to Major Brutt, a sad, dull, penurious hanger-on of Anna's, who himself lives in cut rate hotels. He has been kind to Portia and sent her puzzles to do. She confides in Major Brutt that they two are the same, unwanted and laughed at by Anna. She begs him to marry her. She is sadly trying to recreate the secure existence she had with her mother, but with a father figure instead.
Major Brutt refuses. He insists on calling Thomas and Anna to let them know where Portia is. Portia agrees to this, but says she will base her decision on whether or not to return to Thomas and Anna's house on how the two respond to the situation.
Meanwhile Thomas and Anna are vaguely aware that Portia has not turned up for tea. Thomas finally has some brotherly concern for her which Anna dismisses. Thomas, Anna and St. Quentin sit down to dinner without her and Thomas questions Anna whether anything in particular has happened between her and Portia. The truth comes out that Anna has read Portia's diary and that St. Quentin has told Portia. Thomas is disturbed by all this and questions further. Anna complains that Portia was writing about them, but the truth is that what Anna read in the diary reminded her far too much of her own awkward girlhood. It is the cause of Anna's contempt for Portia. When the phone rings, the three supposed adults all hesitate and look at each other, unsure of who should answer it. Finally Anna takes the call from Major Brutt. She returns and explains the situation and the three analyze what's to be done.
In the end they decide to send the housekeeper, Matchett, as an envoy to fetch Portia from Major Brutt's hotel. Matchett was Thomas' mother's housekeeper. He inherited her along with his mother's furniture which Matchett polishes within an inch of it's life. She is Portia's only link to the past. She has told Portia stories about her father in the days when he was still married to Thomas' mother. Matchett seems the obvious olive branch to extend, but sending her is another example of them shirking their responsibility towards Portia and their fear of getting emotionally involved. Portia is all emotion, especially at this point in the novel. She is too righteous for them to face.
Bowen ends the novel with Matchett looking through the beveled glass door of the hotel, waiting for someone to open it. We are left to fathom the outcome of Portia's death of the heart on our own.
Thursday, November 1, 2012
Finished Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maude Montgomery. It is the seventh book in her Anne of Green Gables series. Anne with an e is now in her 40s. She and Gilbert have been married for 15 years. Their six children spend all their free time in Rainbow Valley, adjacent to their house, Ingleside. They fish in the stream and cook their catch on an open fire. They have names for every tree and landmark, just as Anne had back in Avonlea. One day the scent of roasting fish draws a new group of children into the valley. They are the children of the new minister, John Meredith. The Meredith children are hungry for more than food. They crave companionship and fun.
Mr. Meredith is kindly man, and a good minister, but as a father he is very distracted. As a widower, he has only his own elderly, stingy, almost blind Aunt Martha to run his busy household, The Manse. He is so grief stricken over the loss of his wife a few years earlier, that he does not notice the terrible food that is put before him and his family, the state of his children's shabby clothes or the fact that the child who is a guest in his household is a runaway orphan.
The one thing that engages John Meredith, beyond his calling, is Rosemary West. Rosemary lives with her older sister Ellen in their mother's house on the edge of town. While she teaches piano to the area children, she and her sister keep mostly to themselves. Both disappointed in love when they were younger, they have pledged to stay with each other always. John Meredith falls in love with Rosemary, but is unaware of her pledge to Ellen. When he asks her to marry him she tells him she needs time to think it over. Ellen is severe with her, reminding her of the duty of her promise. Brokenheartedly, Rosemary writes John a note of refusal. After this he is even more disconnected from the world around him.
It was nice to have a romance in the story again. Montgomery is very good at portraying children and the wounds that they experience at the hands and words of others. The Meredith children are badly in need of a kindred spirit. Luckily they find one in the end.
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Finished Dragon's Teeth by Upton Sinclair. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1942. It's the third novel in Sinclair's Lanny Budd Series. Lanny is a Franco-American playboy whose family owns and manufactures Budd firearms. Lanny is married to Irma, an heiress with far more money than he has. They live a glamorous life on the French Riviera. In some ways they remind me of characters in a Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, Americans who appear at fashionable European watering holes, with no aim in life but to be comfortable. This is not however true of Lanny Budd.
In the early 1930s, when much of the world is dabbling in Communism, Lanny is a Pink, a socialist. He's not adverse to adventure, so when his long-time friend Johannes, a Jewish banker living in Germany, is arrested by the Nazis, Lanny and Irma travel to Germany, posing as Nazi sympathizers, and bargain for Johannes' release. During this time Lanny befriends several Nazi officers of various ranks. He also meets Hitler, Geobbels and Goring, all who are impressed with Lanny and with his wife's millions.
After quite a lot of schmoozing, Lanny and Irma successfully escort Johannes, his wife, daughter-in-law, and grandchild across the border and out of harm's way. But Freddi, Johannes' son, has gone missing. Lanny spends a year trying to locate and rescue Freddi, a gentle musician who Lanny mentored on the path to Socialist beliefs and activities. Lanny's efforts land him in a Nazi jail where he witnesses firsthand the treatment of political prisoners.
Sinclair's characterizations of the high ranking Nazis is multifaceted. While their monstrosity is obvious in the plot of the novel, he paints Hitler as a soft spoken (when he's not raving) vegetarian who loves to play with children, and Goring as a medieval English lord, who hunts and feasts and keeps a lion cub in his office for company. Don't get me wrong. I don't think Sinclair is trying to humanize these characters. I think he is showing us the very fine line between humans and murderous lunatics.
The book is filled with other interesting charaters. Lanny's boyhood friends Rick (an Englishman who flew with the RAF in WWI, now bent on exposing the growing Nazi threat to the world) and Kurt (a German composer, who sadly has drunk the Fuhrer's Koolaid). All three were friends before the war came between them. There is Lanny's mother, Beauty, who had Kurt as her lover for eight years. She is now married to a spiritual philosopher and keeps a Polish medium around for contacting the other side.
I enjoyed this book far more than I expected to. There are ten in the series. I am sorry that I did not read the first two before this one. All of the books were bestsellers in their time. They are virtually unknown today. I've just requested the first in the series, World's End, from the University library. It is in deep storage. I may have to wait a while before it is available.
Monday, October 29, 2012
Finished The Best of Everything by Ronna Jaffe. Originally published in 1958, it's the story of a group of women working at a New York publishing firm. This book has been on my TBR list for a while. I was prompted to move it up after reading a piece in The New York Times about a new stage production based on the novel.The story of these women is compelling because of the changes taking place in society and the microcosm of the Manhattan workplace. Each character starts out in the typing pool. Several obtain their MRS degrees along the way and are able to leave their typewriters behind to become wives and mothers. While some have aspired to this all along, a few see their career as their ultimate fulfillment. I found myself thinking of Peggy Olson from Mad Men throughout the book. In fact, it's clear that Mad Men is informed by Jaffe's novel.
Friday, September 28, 2012
Finished The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, published in 1894. This is Doyle's second collection of Holmes stories and was intended to be his last. The last story in the book, The Final Problem, implies that Holmes and his arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty, both fall to their deaths over the edge of the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Conan Doyle wanted to concentrate on more serious writing projects, but public demand finally convinced him to bring his character back about a decade later. As always, I enjoyed these stories and look forward to Holmes' reappearance when I read The Return of Sherlock Holmes the next year.
Finished On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Several friends have tried to read it in the last few years and disdained it as worthless and self indulgent. I was afraid I would have the same reaction, so I chose to listen to an audiobook recording. The book is read by Will Patton whose voice and style of reading is so exuberant, so over the top, that it made me absolutely adore this book. This was not at all the reaction I expected to have.
The book, written in stream of consciousness, outlines the travels of Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and his madman friend Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), back and forth across North America. Sal's narration is at times frank, at others utterly poetic. The two are searching for life, it's true experience, and its meaning. Yes, there's plenty of bumming, drinking, stealing, sex, and drug usage, but today, these things are far less shocking than they were when the book was first published in 1957. As major figures in the Beat Generation the two reject convention and materialism, only working when they run out of money to travel and eat. Dean is perhaps the most compulsive character I have ever encountered in literature. He is unable to resist taking that which he wants, whether it is an experience, a woman, a car or a direction to travel in. Sal follows Dean's lead throughout most of the book, traveling back and forth from New York to Denver, California and even Mexico. Wikipedia indicates "The name Moriarty is an Anglicized version of the Irish name Ó Muircheartaigh which originated in County Kerry in Ireland. Ó Muircheartaigh can be translated to mean navigator or sea worthy, as the Irish word muir means sea and cheart means correct." Dean is most certainly the navigator of their travels, even when Sal is not traveling with Dean, he is traveling toward him or anticipating his arrival for their next adventure.
Dean seems mad in his speech, his obsessions, his cravings and ravings. With a name like Moriarty I can't help but think of Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty, who was the intellectual match of Sherlock Holmes, but, like Dean was also a madman. Sal and Dean are intellectually matched, but Sal is the one who grounds himself in the end, while Dean topples over the falls.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
Finished The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds. It won the Newbery Medal in 1942. Set in Guilderland, New York in 1756, during the French and Indian War, it's the story of Edward Van Alstyne, a ten year old boy who defends his family's home with an ancient matchlock gun. The gun was brought to America from Holland by Edward's great-grandfather.
Before leaving with the militia to stop the French from advancing towards their settlement, Edward's father, Teunis, shows his son how the gun works. Once he is gone, Edward's mother, Gertrude, keeps Edward and his little sister Trudy close to the house. When bringing the family's two cows in for the evening, Gertrude notices a large plume of smoke in the distance. She realizes that nearby settlements are being burned by Indians.
She takes the children inside, bars the doors and shutters, then takes down the cumbersome matchlock gun. She loads the gun with lots of extra powder, the two bullets left in the mold, and an assortment of hard and sharp objects such as nails and buttons. Outside she chops a hole in the front wooden window shutter. Back inside she and Edward drag the dining table up to the window and prop the gun so that the muzzle is lined up with the hole. She gives Edward very explicit instructions on how to light the gun with a candle before firing. She drills him in the procedure until there is no doubt that he understands. She tells him to fire it only when she yells the signal "Ateoord!" which is Edward's name in Dutch.
Gertrude then goes outside into the dusk with her basket and pretends to be gathering beans. Her plan is to trick the lurking Indians into chasing her, thus leading them into the path of the gun's ammunition. This seems so desperately brave to me. Her plan works to a point. She is careful to run just fast enough to keep a few lengths ahead of them. When she reaches the door of the house she yells the signal. The Indians throw two tomahawks at her. One lands in the door next to her face, the other in her left shoulder.
Meanwhile, Edward follows her instructions exactly. The enormous gun fires. The force of the blast knocks Edward backward and out for a moment. He awakes to a great light and realizes that the front stoop is on fire. He rushes out to find Trudy trying in vain to pull the tomahawk from their mother's shoulder. Gertrude is unconscious. Edwards sees that he has killed three of the Indians. The others have fled. He and Trudy drag their mother away from the the fire into the yard, and with effort, Edward is able to dislodge the tomahawk. He uses his sister's shirt to stop up the wound. With what little strength he has left, Edward runs inside and drags out the antique gun. He and Trudy sit in the dark watching their house burn to the ground. Soon after, Teunis returns with the militia.
This book was based on a true story. Colonial history is full of such stories, many of which did not end so well. I admit I was a bit shocked by Gertrude's injury. The book's illustrations, by Paul Lantz are at times soft and charming, at others lurid and harsh. While the story was exciting, it wasn't one of my favorites.
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Finished Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. It won the Newbery Honor Medal in 1948. Set on Chincoteague Island off the coast of Virginia, it is the story Paul and Maureen Beebe, brother and sister who work hard to earn enough money to buy a wild pony named The Phantom at that year's Pony Penning Day.
Many, many years before, a Spanish ship carrying ponies to South America sank off the coast. The ponies who survived swam to shore on neighboring Assateague Island. Over the years they bred and multiplied. In order to keep the population under control the locals round the ponies up once a year, sort them, and take some to auction, hence Pony Penning Day.
Paul participates in the roundup with the adult men. The Phantom has a reputation for being elusive, but Paul finds her hiding among some bushes. With her she has her new foal, who Paul names Misty. Misty is too young to be separated from her mother, so Paul and Maureen get both ponies for the price of one. While The Phantom is shy, and slow to trust humans, Misty is curious and has no fear. She gets into mischief all the time. Her antics charm her new family. In the meantime, the children train The Phantom to run in the race that will take place at next year's Pony Penning.
This is a book full of excitement and anticipation. The children set themselves the difficult tasks of earning $100 for their purchase and then training a wild pony. They engage in a lot of hard work and dedication.
The illustrations for the book were created by Wesley Dennis, who made a career of drawing horses. Aside from illustrating 15 books for Marguerite Henry, be also created artwork for Black Beauty, John Steinbeck's The Red Pony and King of the Wind, which wone the Newbery Medal in 1949. He wrote and illustrated his own books about horses as well, including Flip, published in 1941.
Monday, September 24, 2012
Finished An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor. So much of this book reminded me of James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small series. Just as James Herriot, veterinarian, travels to Darrowby to apprentice with the eccentric and often maddening Siegfried Farnon, Barry, just out of medical school, travels to Ballybucklebo in rural Northern Ireland, to apprentice with Dr. Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly. Barry encounters local characters and learns to follow Fingal's lead in handling them, as James did with Siegfried in the Yorkshire Dales. Both writers were practitioners in real life and thus drew on personal experience for their novels. My favorite character in Taylor's book is Arthur Guiness, Fingal's black lab who has a drinking habit and is greatly enamored of Barry's trouser legs. This was a charming book and a very quick read. I look forward to reading the next book in the series, probably next year.
Friday, September 14, 2012
Finished Deep Down True by Juliette Fay. This was another book purchased during the last days of Border's. It's the story of a women who finds herself divorced after fifteen years of marriage, having to step up and stand up for herself. Dana Stellgarten has always been too nice. She finds a part-time job, begins to date and takes in her goth teenage niece who is going through a rough time. She watches her daughter navigate the dicey politics of middle school girls and then finds herself doing the same with her own friends. Both of her children are deeply effected by the divorce. Her son grapples with his insecurities and her daughter hides an eating disorder. These are the everyday problems of real people. In some ways it seems like Dana was living in a box during her marriage and it takes the upheaval of divorce to bring her back out into the world. There were moments where I felt like this book was just too chick-lit for me, but I found myself thinking about the characters all the time. I especially liked Dana's dentist, then boss, Dr. Sakimoto. I enjoyed this book.
Thursday, September 13, 2012
Finished Staggerford by Jon Hassler. Published in 1977, this was his first novel, set in small town Minnesota. It spans a week of events in the town of Staggerford. The protagonist, a high school English teacher, does his best to meet his daily obligations to his classes and colleagues. He also does his best to help a student in crisis.
Hassler's characters are finely drawn. I settled into reading this book comfortably. Way too comfortably, because the chain of events towards the end of the novel shocked the hell out of me. That's all I'll say about that. I loved this book and was deeply affected by it. Anyone who does not understand the Chicago teacher's strike should spend a weekend with this book.
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Finished All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor. Originally published in 1951, it is the story of a Jewish family, five sisters and their parents, who live in a New York tenement in the early 1900s. The chapters highlight family life, traditional holiday celebrations, the girls' friendship with "The Library Lady," a trip to Coney Island, and the birth, at home, of the newest child, a baby brother.
Taylor was prompted to write the book, drawing heavily on her own childhood, when her daughter asked her why there were no children's books about Jewish children. This was a quick and comfortable read.
Friday, August 31, 2012
Finished The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson. What a cover! Yes, I often judge a book by it's cover and this one grabbed me. Reading that the inspiration for the novel was Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca clinched it. Set in Provence, it consists of two storylines. One, in the present, is the story of young woman and her boyfriend who purchases a rundown farmhouse. The other, set in the past, is the story of the family who owned the farm for generations beforehand, including Marthe Lincel, who went blind as a young girl, but later became famous for her Provence inspired perfumes.
Like DuMaurier's heroine, the current day heroine of the novel does not have her name mentioned. And like the second Mrs. DeWinter she slowly begins to suspect that her significant other is not what he seems. There are ghosts and ghostly forces in the past and the present, even the ghosts of smells. This book was riveting.
Finished Watership Down by Richard Adams. I listened to an audiobook recording of the novel, read by Ralph Cosham. Cosham's voice and the voices he uses for the various characters is so engaging. It really added to my enjoyment of the book. Many people read this book in high school. It makes perfect sense as a book to read for logic class. The problem solving that the rabbits accomplish as they attempt to establish a new warren is an excellent example of how to think out-of-the-box.
The rabbits' adventure is epic. Hazel, the protagonist, is an admirable sympathetic hero. Bigwig, although initially a bully, grows in many ways and acts with extreme valor. Fiver, the rabbit who has premonitions, is a wonderfully mystical character. My favorite character is Kehaar, the seagull. His phraseology is hilarious. The story is laced with rabbit folklore, reminiscent of Kipling's Just So Stories and The Jungle Book. I adored this book.
Finished The Family Man by Elinor Lipman. A co-worker passed this book on to me after she read it. It's charming and funny. Set in New York City, it's the story of Henry Archer, a lonely, retired. openly gay lawyer who reunites with the stepdaughter he lost in divorce 25 years earlier. A wonderful book about the evolving concept of the modern family.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Finished The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. The novel tells the story of Hadley Richardson and her marriage to Ernest Hemingway as his first wife. Hemingway was twenty-two when they married. Hadley was eight years his senior. The two met in Chicago and moved to Paris soon after they married.
McLain's prose is achingly true. I found myself so engrossed in Hadley and Hemingway's characters that I actually dreamed that I was Hadley. More than once.
Reading this book brought me back to my own writing and to my former appreciation of Hemingway's work, which I've now begun to re-read in the order in which it appears in the novel.
Monday, August 13, 2012
Thursday, August 9, 2012
Thursday, August 2, 2012
Finished Maisie Dobbs, the first book in Jacqueline Winspear's series of nine mysteries. It's 1929 and Maisie's mentor, Maurice Blanche, has retired. Maisie sets up shop as a "Psychologist and Investigator" in London. Her first case appears to be one of simple infidelity, but Maisie knows better. She is drawn into investigating "The Retreat," a farm where disfigured veterans of WWI live away from the gaze of the rest of the world. Her investigation drums up memories of her time as a nurse at a casualty clearing station in France, memories she has avoided these past ten years.
I enjoyed this book. It's set in a period that has always fascinated me. While the characters and circumstances of the novel are unconventional, everything melds together nicely, with the satisfaction of having the final, quiet mystery of Maisie's own past revealed in the last pages of the novel.
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Finished The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. This is Niffenegger's first novel, published in 2003. Regardless of the title, I felt that this book was equally about Clare, the wife of the time traveler, and Henry, the time traveler himself. The narrative perspective jumps back and forth between them both and backwards and forwards in time.
While the book was intense at times (THE most horrific car accident description ever), one must be an intense reader when imbibing this book. That's not to say that you can't pick it up and put it down easily, because the perspective changes often, so that's easy to do. You just have to have your thinking cap on while reading each journal-like entry. I found it interesting that Henry time travels when he is most stressed. I've been feeling pretty stressed myself lately, and am thankful that this is not the result, but it emphasizes Niffenegger's concept of time travel as an ailment, rather than a perk. Sometimes it's a gift, sometimes it's a nightmare.
This is another novel set in Chicago that I was able to follow, street by street. I like that. I enjoyed this book and read it pretty quickly. It was emotionally clever and engaging, not a favorite perhaps, but a good contemporary read.
Friday, July 13, 2012
Finished Gatsby's Girl by Caroline Preston. This novel imagines the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his first love Ginerva King when he was a sophomore at Princeton and she was 16. Ginerva and Scott correspond at length after their first meeting. Their romance lasts about eight months and then fizzles out awkwardly during Scott's visit to Ginerva and her family in Lake Forest, IL. The novel then follows Ginerva through her adult years when she becomes aware of Fitzgerald's use of her as a character in various novels and short stories. Set mostly in Chicago, we see Ginerva's engagement taking place in the dining room of The Palmer House. We see her escort Scott's ailing wife Zelda around the 1933 World's Fair, and finally her lunch meeting with Scottie, Scott and Zelda's daughter, in The Walnut Room at Marshall Fields. While their relationship was brief it had a lasting influence on both parties, reinforcing the idea that our earliest romances are with us always.
I enjoyed this book enormously. It reminded me of Edna Ferber's Dawn O'Hara and of my early obsession with Fitzgerald's work. Background for the novel indicates that Ginerva was the model for Isabelle Borgé in This Side of Paradise, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Josephine Perry in The Basil and Josephine Stories, which I have just started rereading. I've read Gatsby so many times, but in anticipation of the Baz Luhrmann film, set to be released Christmas 2012, I plan to listen to an audiobook recording, just for old time's sake.
I was about half way through Gatsby's Girl before I realized that I had recently read Preston's newest book, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, which I cannot recommend highly enough.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Finished The Bad Beginning, the first book in Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, and for me, it was a bad beginning. I just didn't like this book. Yes the characters are cleverly drawn and I can see why the series was popular, with the Baudelaire children being in constant peril, but for me it was just too mean. The idea of reading twelve more books from the series leaves me cold. No, shivering. No, shuddering.
Finished Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man by Fannie Flagg. This is Flagg's first novel, published in 1983. Recently I'd been thinking of how I read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistelstop Cafe so long ago and of how much I enjoyed the book. It's one of the few contemporary novels that has a permanent spot in my bookshelves. If I liked the book so much why hadn't I read any of Flagg's other novels? I had to get this one via interlibrary loan.
Eleven year old Daisy Fay is an only child whose father is constantly dreaming up get rich quick schemes and whose mother is growing more and more jaded by her unhappy marriage to Daisy's alcoholic father. This book made me howl with laughter. It's written as a series of entries in Daisy's diary beginning in 1952 and ending in 1959. Much like other books I've read recently (see Think of England and Five Quarters of the Orange), Daisy feels responsible for a fatal event that she has misunderstood. Filled with charm, wit and misadventure, this book is a must read for anyone who craves a good laugh.
Friday, June 29, 2012
Finished Think of England by Alice Elliott Dark. For years I saw this book on the staff recommendations shelf at the Border's flagship store in downtown Ann Arbor. I was drawn to the cover as well as the title. It's been on my TBR list for about five years and I have finally gotten around to reading it.
Like Atonement and The Five Quarters of the Orange, this novel is the story of a woman who has spent her whole life blaming herself for something terrible that happened during her childhood, and how she finally is able to come to terms with it.
Finished Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, the second book in his Chronicles of Barsetshire series. I was assigned this book in a Victorian lit class when I was taking courses at Harvard in the summer of 1984. I remember the professor telling us that the book was very humorous. I wish he had emphasized this more. We were assigned a book a week and I was a slow reader. Other books included Middlemarch and Little Dorrit, some of my now favorites. I was a slow reader in those days, and spending three hours a day on the T to get to and from Harvard Square. I couldn't read on the train, it made me sick. So, I admit it. I bought the Cliff Notes. The fact is, this book is hilarious. Like the first book in the series, The Warden, there is the never ending fuss of high church politics. Underneath however, is a love story that mirrors A Midsummer Night's Dream in it's absurdity and confusion.
I also found myself thinking of Father Tim Kavanaugh, a longtime favorite character of mine, from Jan Karon's The Mitford Years series. In Barchester Towers, Mr. Arabin is the bachelor Vicar of St. Ewold. He is in his forties, and like Father Tim in the first Mitford book, At Home in Mitford, he has managed life fairly well as a man on his own. But then, just as Father Tim meets his new neighbor Cynthia, a divorcee, Mr. Arabin meets Eleanor Bold, a widow who makes him realize that life with a helpmate would be so much better. In both stories the would be lovers misunderstand each other and almost part, but of course neither Trollope nor Karon would ever allow that to happen.
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Finished The BFG by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake. BFG stands for Big Friendly Giant. While the BFG is big, he is considered a runt by the other giants who live in his land. None of them are friendly. They are horrible, odious, odorous fiends who snatch humans from their beds and eat them. The BFG, on the other hand, is a collector of dreams. He captures and jars them like fireflies and then releases good dreams into the rooms of sleeping children. He does this in great secrecy, in the dead of night. One night he is observed by a small girl named Sophie. When he realizes that he has been seen he picks Sophie up and takes her back to the land of giants. There he explains himself and alerts her to the danger of the other horrible giants. Sophie is appalled by his account of these giants and says that something must be done to stop them. Together, she and the BFG devise a plan to alert the Queen of England to the danger and enlist her help.
The BFG is benevolent. He is also the king of malapropisms. This book made me laugh until I cried. Blake's drawings of Queen Elizabeth II charmingly capture her facial expressions. This book is a new favorite and highly recommended.
Finished Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris. The story jumps back and forth between World War II and the present. Like Harris' Chocolat and Blackberry Wine, the book is interlaced with food descriptions and recipes that entrance the reader.
Biose has returned to her family farm in France forty years after she, her siblings and mother were driven away by the locals who blamed them for the massacre in the village. Biose returns under an assumed name and opens a creperie, making the recipes her mother transcribed amid emotional code in a journal during the war. While Biose fears discovery by the locals, it's actually family members who threaten her exposure. Meanwhile we learn the story of her childhood friendship with Tomas, a German soldier who gives her and her siblings chocolate and comic books obtained through the black market.
The book reminded me a bit of Atonement, in that both novels feature a young girl who witnesses adult situations that she does not understand. This character then becomes embroiled in a situation that leads to a tragedy which she will forever feel guilt over.
This book was intriguing. I read it quickly and also followed it's recipe for Creme de Frambiose. It has to sit in the basement for 18 months. We'll see how it comes out at Christmas 2013.
Friday, June 15, 2012
Finished Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary by Ruby Ferguson. Originally published in 1937, it is purported to be the Late Queen Mum's favorite novel. It is also another Persephone treasure. In her preface, Candida McWilliam says, "For this is really a fairy tale with all the savagery they invariably bear. No fairy tale is thornless; that is the point." So true.
The book begins in the present with three tourists stopping to see "KEEPSFIELD: Magnificent Residence TO BE LET Furnished with Rough Shooting and Grazing Parkland." Keepsfield is in Scotland and the tourists ask at the gate if they may see the house. The gatekeeper sends them up to speak with Mrs. Memmary, the caretaker. As Mrs. Memmary walks them over the house and grounds they learn of Lady Rose, the little girl who grew up to be the present Countess Lochlule, now an old woman. Her story begins in 1861 on her sixth birthday when she meets Mr. Charles Kingsley, author of the children's classic The Water Babies. The book bounces back and fourth between the narrative of the present and Rose's story. We see Rose through finishing school, presentation at Queen Victoria's court, debutant balls, marriage, motherhood and beyond. I won't say anymore about the story, because I do not want to give anything away. This book is like a cube of sugar with a candied violet pasted on top, so dainty and fine, and so easily and quickly dissolved. I adored it.
Finished Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling. I had read the first Harry Potter book to my daughter years ago, when it first came out. We tried reading the second one, but I was so bored with it I put it aside. I don't know what it is about certain types of fantasy books, but I simply cannot suspend my disbelief enough to get into the book. Well, this time I listened to it as an audiobook, read by Jim Dale. His reading was delightful. He had specific voices for all the characters and his flair for the comedic is excellent.
So this is Harry's second year at Hogwarts. There is a new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher, wizarding celebrity Gildiroy Lockhart, and what an ass he is too. He's the biggest poser and Ron is on to him from the start.
Someone has opened the Chamber of Secrets and unleashed something dreadful that has been attacking students with muggle blood in them. Harry, Ron, and Hermione are hard at work trying to figure out who. Much of the school suspects that Harry himself has done this terrible thing. All the more reason for he and his friends to hurry to solve the mystery.
The fact that the dangerous creature in this book is a giant basilisk was a bit much for me. After having just read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi in the The Jungle Book, with all it's evil cobras, I felt as if I'd reached my quota of snakes for the year, but no..... While the book is very funny at times, it's also really disgusting in parts as well. Something kids seem to enjoy these days.
That being said, I honestly enjoyed listening to this book. Since Dale recorded all the books in the series, I look forward to listening to them all, over time. Maybe one a year? We'll see.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Finished Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons, author of the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm. Referred to as a fairytale, it’s much more than that. We see so many characters stuck in their various social ruts, but some of them break out of these with delightful consequences.
Recently widowed, former shopgirl Viola goes to live with her inlaws at The Eagles, a tomb of a house in Essex, where nothing ever happens. At the closest house, Grassmere, cocktail and boating parties are often taking place. The music from these drifts across the wood that separates the two establishments. Viola is enticed by the music and daydreams of someday being invited to one of the parties. Meanwhile, her two spinster sisters-in-law, Madge and Tina are busy trying to break the constraints of their father’s dull domain. Madge is a sportswoman who longs for a dog of her own to chum around with. Quiet, artistic Tina has a crush on the new chauffeur and longs to have him teach her to drive. All of these wishes are granted with surprising results, and the reader is reminded once again, that servants are the greatest snobs of all.
I had several laugh-out-loud moments, when people peered around corners at me to see what was so funny. This would be an excellent summer hammock read. Take it with you on vacation and enjoy!
Friday, June 8, 2012
Finished The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Although Kipling spent much of his childhood and early adult years in India, these stories were actually written when he lived in Vermont of all places.
I was familiar with the stories of the man-cub Mowgli and the mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi from animated adaptations I saw as a child. The other stories were all new to me. I especially liked “The White Seal” and “Her Majesty’s Servants.” I think quite a lot of children’s literature anthropomorphizes animal characters. Reading this type of story feels comfortable and comforting to me somehow. Perhaps this is why books like The Wind in the Willows and Charlotte’s Web are among my favorites.
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Finished Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. It won the Newbery Honor Medal in 1998. This is a clever and frustrating retelling of Cinderella’s story. Ella is very smart and confident. So why would she hang around and let her step-mother and step-sisters boss her around? Because she has been enchanted. When she was born the fairy Lucinda bestowed the gift of obedience upon her, so when told to stop crying, she did. But this gift quickly became a curse. If someone told her to stand on her head she would have to do it.
Ella is befriended by Prince Char. The two eventually fall in love, but Ella knows that if the prince’s enemies learn of her obedient state, it would endanger Char’s life and kingdom. Ella begins a quest to find Lucinda and ask her to remove the curse, but Lucinda has renounced large magic and cannot revoke her gift. Ella must break the curse all on her own. There is a lot of meanness and thoughtlessness in this book. It is necessary to the story, but it still pissed me off. An excellent girl-power book.
Finished The Lean: A Revolutionary (and Simple!) 30-Day Plan for Healthy, Lasting Weight Loss by Kathy Freston. It encourages readers to slowly lean towards better health with daily diet and wellness changes. Each chapter covers a different suggestion, adding one each day until you have a list of 30 changes that you apply daily. Many of these are easy to implement (drink water, eat an apple, take your vitamins, eat a superfood). Others are more challenging and frankly, not my cup of tea. While I have cut back on my daily dairy intake, I cannot give up cheese. And while eating vegetarian for lunch is no big deal to me, becoming a vegetarian, let alone a vegan, is out of the question. That does not mean that omnivores cannot garner good suggestions and additional knowledge from this book, they can. I did. I found the tone of the book a bit facile, but I think it’s geared at the wellness skeptic, the person who thinks they can never change their ways and thus their lives, rather than me, who is constantly dipping in and out of books like this, looking for new tricks. It’s worth a gander.
Thursday, May 31, 2012
Finished The Song of the Cardinal by Gene Stratton Porter, originally published in 1903. Porter puts her love and knowledge of wildlife to good work here in portraying the life of a male cardinal, his birth, youth, migration, mating and parenting. The cardinal migrates to the Limberlost Swamp in Indiana, where he befriends an old farmer and his wife. The farmer is so taken with the cardinal that he posts “No Hunting” signs all over his property, to protect the bird and his family. When he catches a young man taking a shot at his beloved cardinal he delivers the longest, strongest and most heartfelt telling off of anyone I have ever encountered. This is such a charming book. I recommend it to anyone who loves birds as well as an old fashioned read. Porter’s book A Girl of the Limberlost is among my favorite reads of all time.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Finished Clair de Lune by Jetta Carleton. It’s the story of Allen Liles, a young woman who takes a job as instructor at a junior college in Missouri, just before the U.S. enters World War II. Allen is the youngest member of the faculty, a lighthearted woman with dreams of being a writer in New York. Life in the small Missouri town is dull until she is befriended by two young men from her English literature seminar. The three a become chums and engage in many harmless larks, but one night, in a dense fog, her relationship with one of the young men changes. Nothing goes unnoticed in a small town. Allen, as a faculty member, soon finds her teaching position in jeopardy.
This was a lovely and funny book of lost innocence on the eve of an even greater loss. Carleton’s book The Moonflower Vine was a bestseller in 1963, and until now her only published novel. The manuscript for Clair de Lune was thought to have been blown away during a tornado, but instead it was safe in the hands of a good friend. I look forward to reading her other book with great anticipation.
Finished Call It Courage written and illustrated by Armstrong Sperry. It won the Newbery Medal in 1941. Set in the Pacific Islands, it is the story of Mafatu, a boy who saw his mother die during a hurricane and who now has a great fear of the sea. Mafatu’s father is the chief of their tribe. He is ashamed to have a son who is a coward. One day Mafatu sets out in a canoe with his dog Uri to try to prove that he is not afraid, but he is lost in a storm and washed up on an unknown island. Here he employs all the skills of his people to build himself shelter, find food, create weapons and tools, and build a canoe to travel back home some day. He encounters many fierce creatures, a shark who tries to eat Uri, an octopus that tries to kill him when he is retrieving his knife from the water, and a wild boar. He conquers and kills all these dangerous foes, but his most dangerous foe is still the sea.
This was a very serious and at times frightening book. Mafatu’s struggle to stay alive and return to his own island is a compelling tale of bravery. Sperry’s book All Set Sail won a Newbery Honor Medal in 1936.
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Finished In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow. It won the Pulitzer in 1941. This family saga, set in Virginia at the end of the Depression, deals with various boundaries of acceptance. Stanley and Roy are sisters. Although Stanley is about to be married, she runs off with Roy’s husband Peter, creating scandal, havoc and bitterness. Stanley is a reckless person who never considers the consequences of her actions. Roy considers everything carefully, thoughtfully and emotionally. Their sensitive father, Asa, does his best for his family. His father before him owned the local tobacco plant where Asa now works in the stemming room. Asa's father lost the business and committed suicide when his son was a teenager. Asa is a patient man who has witnessed and endured a good deal of grief. His wife, Lavina, is a long-time invalid, who worries, fusses and fidgets over herself and Stanley, her favorite. Lavina’s Uncle William is a bombastic business man that helps keep the family afloat financially, and spoils Stanley in the process.
While most chapters deal with the ongoing turmoil of Asa’s family, some chapters are devoted only to the family of Parry, a young African American man who is studying hard in order to attend law school. He is encouraged by Asa who sees his promise and longs to help him achieve his dream. Parry’s mother had once been nursemaid to Stanley and Roy, as her mother had been to Asa. Now she takes in washing. Her husband is a mail carrier, who spends his free time tending his own lovely garden. Their life moves in a quiet, predictable routine until Stanley selfishly allows Parry to be accused of a crime she herself committed.
I enjoyed this book, although the daily emotional grind of the characters sometimes brought me down. It was made into a film in 1942 starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland as the two sisters. I’m sure you can guess who was cast as who.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Finished Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I read the final, 1892 edition, known as "the deathbed edition." Whitman was considered insane and obscene when he published the first edition of this book. Today he is considered our greatest American poet. I never studied Whitman in any literature classes. I was surprised by the many references to this book that appear in popular culture. I was unaware of them until I read the poems. I took my time, reading only about five pages a day. It was a long haul, but stepping back, now that I have finished, I can appreciate the work as a whole and its influence on the Beat Poets, Ginsberg in particular,
"I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the
meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price
bananas? Are you my Angel?"
- from "A Supermarket in California" by Allen Ginsberg
Monday, May 21, 2012
Finished Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. Although it was published in 1975, I missed this book growing up, which is too bad. I was in 5th grade that year, the perfect time to read it. Winnie Foster lives in a very strict household. One day she strays beyond the fence of her yard and explores the adjacent woods. She observes a young man drinking from a bubbling spring. Soon she meets him and his family, the Tucks. Jesse Tuck was drinking from a fountain of youth. He and his family drank from it 80 years before and have not aged a day since. Rather than being a blessing of eternal youth, their's is a curse. They work hard to make sure that no one knows their secret. When Winnie finds it out they take her away with them, not to kidnap her, but to take the time to impress the importance of their secret upon her. She learns it only too well.
This is an interesting, quiet, and with the exception of one event, a gentle book. Although I was unaware of the book when it was published, it is considered a classic today. Highly recommended.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Finished The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. I have read this book many, many times. This time I listened to an audiobook version, read by Michael York. York's reading was spirited and fun. I didn't even realize he was the reader until I was a few chapters in and suddenly recognized his voice.
What a deep affection and respect I have for Aslan. Is that silly? I don't care. His tremendous strength and goodness pull me toward him. He is a metaphor for Christ and I am an atheist.