Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Quiet Little Woman: A Christmas Story

Finished The Quiet Little Woman: A Christmas Story by Louisa May Alcott. It's actually a book of three stories, The Quiet Little Woman, Tilly's Christmas, and Rosa's Tale.

In The Quiet Little Woman, Patty is an orphan who is taken in by a family who, while not outwardly cruel to her, take her on as a servant girl and don't see her a a person, a young girl with no one to love her, until a kindly aunt points out Patty's plight.

Tilly's Christmas, is about a poor girl who believes that if the nearby rich gentleman knew that she and her mother had not enough food to eat, or wood to keep them warm he would come to their aid.

Finally in Rosa's Tale, a young woman ventures out to the stable to see to her neighbor's horse. It is Christmas Eve and nearly midnight, the time when the animals are said to be able to speak. The horse tells her it's life story after which the girl vows to keep the horse safe and at it's ease in it's old age.

This was a charming book and very good bedtime reading. It seems there is always more Alcott to be read.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Book Thief

Finished The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. This is by far the best book I have experienced this year. I listened to an audiobook version, read by Allan Corduner, whose performance is outstanding.

Set in Nazi Germany, it is the story of Liesel Meminger, a nine year old girl who is sent to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubberman, who she quickly learns to call Mama and Papa. Papa is a house painter. He is a patient and kindly man who teaches Liesel to read. Rosa is impatient and kindly, and the queen of colorful language. Once Liesel learns to read she does whatever she can to get her hands on a new book, even stealing one off a pile that has been torched by the Nazis. The story follows this family (and the Jew they are hiding in their basement), their friends, neighbors, and enemies during the years of World War II.

What makes this book so fascinating and original is that it is narrated by Death. As a firsthand observer during these dark years, Death has a lot to report and has some interesting opinions on what he sees. This book was gripping as well as hilarious. I cannot recommend it enough.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

One Day

Finished One Day by David Nicholls. Emily and Dexter, two very different young people, meet on the last night of university in Edinburgh. They have a somewhat amorous encounter and decide to just be friends. This happens on July 15th, St Swithin's day, 1988. The book then visits with them together and separately on the same day for the next twenty years, examining the very different paths their lives take.

Shy, awkward, bookish Emily works in a demoralizing job in a Mexican restaurant, then trains as teacher. Eventually she leaves teaching to start writing and pens a wildly successful series for tweens.

Handsome, rakish, irresponsible Dexter travels, teaches English abroad, then returns to England and becomes a TV personality, introducing vacuous late night pop shows. As his mother begins losing her battle with Cancer, Dexter sinks deeper in to a seedy and soused existence. His television assignments get worse and worse until he is the man viewers love to hate.

I won't say any more about the plot so as not to spoil it. I will say that this is in many ways a literary documentary. It's deeply felt and follows very much the same timeline as my own young adult life. Hence it really spoke to me. This is an excellent book.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Secret at Shadow Ranch

Finished The Secret at Shadow Ranch by Carolyn Keene. It is the fifth book in the series. I read the 1931 reissued edition by Applewood Books. Carolyn Keene was the pseudonym of Mildred Wirt Benson who had written all the previous books in the series. Nancy and her friends Bess, George and Alice travel to Arizona with George's aunt to visit a ranch owned by the aunt. They spend much of the summer there riding, picnicking, having adventures and sleuthing. Nancy solves two different mysteries during the course of the book. One thing that stood out to me was that when the girls went off on their own in the country around the ranch, George's aunt insisted that Nancy take a pistol with her. At one point she uses it to shoot a lynx just as it is about to attack the group girls. The Nancy Drew of my childhood (1960s revisions) never carried or fired a gun. Not that I recall anyway. The idea that a teenage girl would know how to use a gun seems surprising to me, but Nancy is always full of surprises.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Remarkable Creatures

Finished Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. This is historical fiction set in the early 1800s in Lyme, England. It focuses on two women, Mary Anning, a poor girl with an eye for spotting fossils, and Elizabeth Philbot, an educated spinster who collects fossils. Over time the two fall in and out of friendship and make some startling discoveries. Neither is taken seriously because they are women, until Mary discovers the fossilized remains of a new species of prehistoric life. Mary and Elizabeth's work goes not only against convention, but against religion as well. This was an interesting, if at times dry read.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne

Finished The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne by Catherine Reef. This book is geared toward tween and young adult readers. I was especially attracted by the cover which lead me to expect more information on the childhoods of the Brontes. But perhaps there is not very much recorded of that time. It's a very accessible biography for those who are interested in the lives of these women as they emerged as writers in a world dominated by men.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Across the Years

Finished Across the Years by Eleanor Porter. Porter's Pollyanna books are well known, but her others live in obscurity these days. This is a collection of short stories. The characters are elderly, or unappreciated, or lonely. When those around them open their eyes and realize their neglect events take a turn for the better. Many of the stories focus on what good intentioned family members think aging parents need vs. what aging parents truly want. A good study for anyone planning for their parents' golden years. This is a very gentle and old fashioned book. I enjoyed it very much and look forward to reading all that Porter wrote.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Summer of the Gypsy Moths

Finished Summer of the Gypsy Moths by Sara Pennypacker. Stella's mother is flaky and unreliable, and currently traveling around the country trying to find herself. Stella is sent to live with her Great Aunt Louise on Cape Cod. Louise, worrying that Stella will be lonely, takes in a foster child, Angel, the same age as Stella. Louise runs a small cottage colony during the summer and she plans to have both girls help her with the weekly preparation of the cottages for each new group of visitors. What she doesn't plan is to die, suddenly, in her recliner.

Stella is a practical, hopeful girl who had to be the grown up when she lived with her mother. She cooked, cleaned and paid the bills. She is used to being resourceful. Angel is an orphan waiting for her Aunt to have a job and a place to live in order to go and live with her. Angel is angry and resentful person who is ready to run off at the slightest sign of trouble. Both girls fear that they will be tossed back into the foster care program if anyone finds out that Louise has died. So beings a challenging charade of keeping up appearances and surviving.

I felt a little uncomfortable with some of the things that happened in this book. It's not that they were bad. I just felt unsettled thinking about eleven year-olds having to grapple with the problems that Stella and Angel try to face on their own. However, the two of them grown a lot individually and the resolution of the story is positive.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The House on Oyster Creek

Finished The House on Oyster Creek by Heidi Jon Schmidt. This was one of my last buys from Borders before they closed forever. I don't know what took me so long to pick it up. It's a good, deep read with complex, original characters who really stick with you. It's also set on Cape Cod. An added bonus.

Charlotte is married to Henry, a much older, intellectual recluse, habitually holed up in their NYC apartment. He's grumpy, easily irritated, and so intensely immersed in his work that much of the stream of daily life passes by unnoticed by him. They have a four year old daughter who both confounds and charms Henry. Charlotte has grown used to their unconventional, lonely life together. When Henry's father dies and leaves him his house in Wellfleet, MA, Charlotte decides they should occupy the house and a new life, hopefully giving their daughter Fiona a more balanced childhood. In order to afford this new seaside existence they sell a portion of the land that comes with the house, unknowingly placing the local oystermen's livelihood in jeopardy. Most of the locals snub and ignore Charlotte as a transplant, a "washashore." Except for Daryl, an oysterman and builder who is trying to reconstruct his own life. Enter friendship, suspicion, sexual tension and a satisfyingly original plot. This was an excellent read.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Dry Grass of August

Finished The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew. Jubie is thirteen years old in the summer of 1954. Her mother drives her, her three siblings, and their black maid Mary, from North Carolina to Florida for a family vacation. Jubie's mother takes them to visit her brother, Uncle Taylor. Uncle Taylor is warm, kind and caring. His home becomes a refuge for Jubie's mom, suffering from the heartbreak of her failed marriage, and for Jubie, suffering the literal scars from the latest beating she received from her father. Jubie's mother is distracted, distant and unsympathetic. It is Mary, their maid, who Jubie and her younger siblings turn to for comfort and reassurance.

As they travel through Georgia, Jubie immediately notices differences in the deep south, and not just in the landscape. The loud and blatant signs of segregation startle her. The tragic and violent events that take place when they are traveling only serve to reinforce her idea that adults are out of control and not to be trusted. Jubie takes matters into her own hands to do what she thinks is right. She is brave and valiant. Another pretty raw coming-of-age story. I couldn't put it down.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Helen Keller in Love

Finished Helen Keller in Love by Rosie Sultan. It's 1916 and Helen is in her mid-thirties, touring the Midwest with Annie Sullivan, her teacher and companion, speaking out against the possibility of the U.S. entering The Great War. Helen receives letters from mothers, wives and sisters of German soldiers blinded in the war, begging her for her help. Helen and Annie are always giving away their meager income to those in need, often leaving themselves destitute. The traveling has taken a toll on Annie, who is now ill with what is feared to be TB. Annie cables her estranged journalist husband asking him to send someone to them to act as secretary to Helen while Annie rests. He sends Peter Fagan. Peter knows how to finger spell and begins working for Helen immediately. The two become fast friends and eventually lovers. Annie and Helen's family see Peter as an opportunist, out to ride on the tails of Helen's fame, but Helen ignores their suspiscions. This is a sensitively imagined, unrecorded chapter in Keller's story. It reminded me a bit of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, filling in a personal gap in a much admired woman's life.

Monday, August 26, 2013

45 Pounds (more or less)

Finished 45 Pounds (more or less) by K. A. Barson. Ann is 16 years old and a size 17. Shopping with her skinny, fitness obsessed mother is a nightmare. She is honored her Aunt Jackie has asked her to be her bridesmaid, but she dreads having to find a dress. To remedy this, Ann decides to try to lose 45 pounds before the wedding. She starts with a gimicky, infomercial weightloss program, but soon learns to design her own plan for long term health. In the process she learns how family stress caused her to gain weight and how her and her mother's fixations on weight are negatively influencing her very young sister. This is a realistic portrayal of a young person's struggle with body image and self loathing. It is thoughtful and sensitive. I recommend it in general, but also for anyone who has ever wrestled with these issues themselves. An excellent book.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

Finished The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani. After an undisclosed family tragedy, 15 year old Thea is sent away from her rural home in Florida, away from her twin brother Sam and her beloved pony Sasi, to The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls in North Carolina. It's the early 1930s and the Great Depression is evident even among the rich and privileged girls who attend the camp. More of a finishing school for equestrian minded girls, the camp is a year round operation. The girls live in cabins, use communal showers and eat together in a large dining hall. Math and science are conspicuously absent from the curriculum.

Thea's arrival at the camp is a bit of a shock to her system. She and her family have lived in their secluded Florida home her whole life. She's never had a friend, other than her cousin Georgie, and never a girl friend. She is used to having the run of their ranch riding, playing, spending most of the day out of doors. She and her brother Sam were schooled at home by their father. She's never been to a school at all before. The sudden change in landscape, climate and girl filled atmosphere takes a bit of getting used to. Thea believes she has been sent here as a punishment for the bad thing she did. Much of the book is told in flashback, leading up to this bad thing. Thea learns to love her life at Yonahlossee and makes her first true friend. She learns to live a life away from her home, her parents and especially her twin, Sam, who she has been so close to up until this time.

This is the most raw coming-of-age book I have read. There were moments when it reminded me of An American Tragedy, not so much in plot, but in the inevitability of youthful mistakes. It was an engrossing read.

Monday, August 19, 2013

VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health . . . for Good

Finished VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health . . . for Good by Mark Bittman. Bittman has been talking about the vegan before 6:00 pm lifestyle for several years now. He lives it himself, even though he is so intrenched in the food and restaurant world. Mid-life health issues such as extra weight, high cholesterol, knee problems, sleep apnea and pre-diabetes, that his doctor diagnosed him with in the past have resolved themselves. This is not a diet, but a lifestyle change and it's not that difficult. Simply eat plant based foods until 6:00 pm, then enjoy meat and cheese, etc., at dinnertime. Dinner is not an invitation to overindulge. The book still has you planning your evening meals with plant foods as the stars and meat in a smaller supporting roll. I have been living VB6 for two weeks now and feel good. I feel lighter (I have banned the scale for the next month) and have more energy. I even went for a little run yesterday.

The text of the book is very accessible, friendly, even humorous at times, like Bittman seems himself. He does not burden you with too much science and there is no counting of points or calories. He explains the benefits of the VB6 lifestyle for you as an individual and for the environment as a whole. There are recipes for vegan breakfast, lunch and snack items and then dinner recipes that feature meat, but on the lighter side. For me, imagining vegan meals was a challenge at first, but once I started thinking in terms of items (eat a banana, half an avocado with salt and pepper, a tomato sliced with dijon mustard) it became incredible simple. The book is filled with real food suggestions, which is what I expected from Bittman. I tried to read Skinny Bitch a few years ago and found it not only caustic, but revolting. They had you using all sorts of processed vegan meat substitute items. It was disgusting for me. This book is so much more healthy and sensible. Thank you Mark.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Rabbit HIll

Finished Rabbit Hill written and illustrated by Robert Lawson. It won the Newbery Medal in 1945. All the animals living adjacent to an empty house are anticipating the arrival of new owners. Will they revive the large vegetable gardens? Will they share their bounty with their animal neighbors? Or will they set traps and put out poison instead? This micro-society has the usual types of characters, the leader, the daredevil, the naysayer. The "New Folks" turn out to be wonderfully benevolent. It almost seems as if they plant their vegetables specifically for the animals to consume. The story is a bit facile, but the illustrations are richly drawn. I couldn't help think of Richard Adams' masterpiece Watership Down which I so enjoyed just a year ago.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Before Ever After

Finished Before Ever After by Samantha Sotto. This book is intricate, exciting and hard to explain without giving away too much. It involves travel, romance, and rich story telling from ancient Europe. There were moments when it reminded me of The Time Traveler's Wife, although this is not a time travel novel. It's smart and funny and difficult to put down. That's all I'm going to tell you. Go read it for yourself.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Rilla of Ingleside

Finished Rilla of Ingleside, the eighth book in L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series, published in 1921. Rilla is Anne and Gilbert's youngest child. She is 15 when the book begins on the ever of World War I and 19 at the end of the book. Rilla grows tremendously during this time in terms of maturity and personal strength. Loss and longing become mainstays in her young life, but she is buoyed by taking on the responsibility of a newborn infant whose mother has died in childbirth and whose father is at the front. In many ways Rilla misses out on what would have been the happiest and most exciting years of her girlhood, but she would not have ripened into the woman she ultimately becomes if not for the war.

As always there is a wealth of quirky and humorous characters and happenings in the book, but they are of course shadowed by sadness and loss. I don't want to mention any spoilers. This is by far the most compelling book in the series. I couldn't put it down.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Hound of the Baskervilles

Finished The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This is the fifth book in his Sherlock Holmes series. While I've seen many dramatizations of this novel (some of the truly dreadful), I did not know the true ending. The line between legend and reality was often blurred, making the story very suspenseful. Some of the plot was easy to guess at, but the secret that made the hound look so demonic was a big surprise to me. This was a fun and exciting read.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Healing from Trauma: A Survivor's Guide to Understanding Your Symptoms and Reclaiming Your Life

Finished Healing from Trauma: A Survivor's Guide to Understanding Your Symptoms and Reclaiming Your Life by Jasmin Lee Cori. I found this book very helpful. Last year I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD as a result of years of dealing with an alcoholic spouse/ex. His disease had a tremendous effect on the health of my daughter as well. She also has PTSD. I will admit that it took me a long time to finish this book, but that was my own avoidance of the whole topic. There were days when I just didn't want to get into it, so I didn't read. The book is written by a therapist who is herself a trauma survivor, which gives both the clinical and the personal perspective on things. The book is very accessible and I saw a lot of my issues right there on the page, along with sound suggestions for coping with them. I think people tend to associate PTSD with combat fatigue. There are all sorts of combat in this life. This book acknowledges this. Someday I hope to stop fighting my war.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Slim for Life: My Insider Secrets to Simple, Fast, and Lasting Weight Loss

Finished Slim for Life: My Insider Secrets to Simple, Fast, and Lasting Weight Loss by Jillian Michaels. I chose to listen to an audiobook version read by Michaels. I listened to it while working out on the treadmill or eliptical, which seemed appropriate. I like Michaels. She has a kick ass can-do attitude and a good sense of humor. The book involves a point system for the tips she suggests. Because of this, I would recommend acquiring a hard copy of the book so that you can circle tips, make notes, add up your score easily, and return to the text as a reference. This is a bit tricky with an audiobook. She gives lots of good suggestions and she is realistic about what the average person can accomplish.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy

Finished Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, another great book by Gary D. Schmidt. It won the Newbery Honor Medal in 2005. Set in 1912, it's the story of Turner Buckminster, the son of Phippsburgh, Maine's new minister, Reverend Buckminster. Turner's father is stiff and strict. He home schools his son, teaching him Latin and the classics. As the new minister he is eager to please the deacons and other important citizens and often comes across as cold and distant.

Turner's life in the new town is anything but easy. As a minister's son he is held to a much higher standard than the other boys his age. These other boys plague and tease him to no end. He is lonely and friendless until the day he meets a girl named Lizzie Bright Griffin, digging clams along the shore. Lizzie is the first black person Turner has ever known. She is outspoken and determined and filled with fun. She takes Turner in her boat over to Malaga Island to meet her grandfather, also a minister. He meets Lizzie's neighbors and their children and has a marvelous time playing with them and emulating the gulls.

Malaga Island has been home to a black community ever since the end of The Civil War. The local big cheese, Mr. Stonecrop, wants to drive all the blacks off of Malaga Island and develop it into a tourist destination. The families on the island live in cobbled together structures. They keep to themselves and have their own church, school and cemetery. While not grand, their community has deep roots here.

So begins a battle between Stonecrop and his investors and Turner over the rights of the residents of Malaga Island to stay in the place they have always known as home. Some truly shocking things happen, which I will not give away. Schmidt sticks with a harsh reality when all along I expected a miracle. The events concerning Malaga Island are based in fact. Schmidt's novel is engaging, profound and deeply felt. I highly recommend it. He also won the Newbery Honor Medal in 2008 for The Wednesday Wars.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Silas Marner

Finished Silas Marner by George Eliot. Silas is a weaver. As a young man he is accused of stealing money from the church after being set up by his supposed best friend. When he is found guilty, his fiancee leaves him for this best friend and Silas leaves the community in search of a new life. He settles in a kindly rural village and lives a sad and reclusive life, weaving linen and hoarding the gold coins he earns at it. He becomes obsessed with the coins, taking them out each night to count them and make little piles of them. When his coins are stolen from his house he is devastated. Soon after a small child comes into his life. She is charming and trusting and has beautiful hair of gold. When her mother is found dead in a snowbank and the identity of her father is unknown, Silas adopts her and raises her as his own, seeing her as the replacement for his missing gold. He names her Hephziba, after the little sister he lost, calling her Eppie for short. Years later, when Eppie is eighteen the truth about the missing gold and Eppie's parentage comes to light and threatens to break apart Silas and Eppie's happy, humble home. This was an easy, comfortable read.

Next summer it's back to Hardy and Jude the Obscure.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Soldier's Wife

Finished The Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy. Set during the German Occupation of Guernsey, it's the story of Vivianne, a woman trying to maintain a reasonable life for her four and fourteen year old daughters, and her increasingly senile mother-in-law. Leroy's descriptions of the Guernsey landscape are luscious. This is continually thrown into contrast with the brutality and ugliness of the war.

A group of four German officers moves into the empty house next door and Vivianne learns more than she expected about boundaries and the nuances of war than she ever imagined she would. This is an exciting and compelling novel. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Miss Fuller

Finished Miss Fuller by April Bernard. The novel imagines the last days of Margaret Fuller's life through a long journalistic letter written to Nathaniel Hawthorne's wife Sophie. When Fuller's friends learn that she, her young son, and Italian husband have perished in a shipwreck off the coast of Fire Island, they send Henry David Thoreau to the site of the wreck in search of Fuller's long awaited manuscript about the Italian revolution. Thoreau learns that a wooden lap desk has been scavenged from the wreck. Hoping the manuscript is inside he purchases the desk and returns to Concord. Inside he finds Fuller's letter to Sophie. He is troubled by the very existence of the letter and refuses to read it. He alerts Hawthorne to the fact of the letter, but he tells Thoreau to destroy it, that he and Sophie want nothing to do with it

Although they see her as strong, forceful, intelligent and determined, Fuller's friends among the Transcendentalists feel awkward about her death. Some were not that fond of her in life. While they admired her genius, they turned prudish and puritanical when they heard of her baby and Italian marriage. In doubting Fuller's goodness and virtue they are hypocrites. Emerson and others refused her monetary assistance, thus she and her small family had to return from Italy as the only passengers on a merchant ship. Had her friends sent her the aid she requested they would probably not have lost her.

Fuller's letter is rich, honest and true. She explains her choices to Sophie, already suspecting that her friends disapprove of the path she has chosen. When the letter is finally read, it is by Thoreau's younger sister Anne, nearly forty years later. This book examines the awkwardness and frailties of human relations. How fear, jealousy, rumor, gossip and sheer misunderstanding can undermine even the most altruistic of societies.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Johnny Tremain

Finished Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. It won the Newbery Medal in 1944. Set in Boston on the brink of the American Revolution, the book is about Johnny, an orphan who is a gifted apprentice to a silversmith. When Johnny's hand is badly burned and scarred after a prank gone wrong, played on him by one of his fellow apprentices, Johnny must give up his his work as silversmith. He becomes bitter and disillusioned until he meets Rab, a boy just a bit older than him who sets type at The Boston Observer, a newspaper run by the rebels. Rab takes an interest in Johnny, helps him get work and shares his accommodations with him. Johnny soon becomes embroiled in the Patriots' plans to defy King George. This leads to The Boston Tea Party and the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Figures such as Sam Adams, John Hancock and Paul Revere are among those that Johnny rubs elbows with and even works with in the quest for America's freedom from England. I found this book of particular interest because Johnny makes acquaintance with, and even sympathizes with, several British soldiers who he does not see as enemies. So in some ways, both sides of the story are told to an extent.

Buttered Side Down

Finished Buttered Side Down by Edna Ferber. This is her first collection of short stories, published in 1912. As with Dawn O'Hara, Ferber's voice is glib. The stories focus on characters living in Chicago who have left small town homes and feel at odds with city life. The mood varies from humorous to tragic. I was reminded just a bit of Katherine Mansfield's stories of single girls working in shops, living lonely lives in small rooms, but Ferber's stories have a distinctly American feel. I'm starting to enjoy short stories again. For a long time I did not because I preferred the long, narrative thread of a novel. But the tasty morsels of these stories are pretty satisfying.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Finished Shirley by Charlotte Bronte. I'm a dope. I put off reading this book for YEARS because it looked and sounded boring. It was wonderful. Once again I was pleasantly surprised by Bronte's sense of humor. The story was suspenseful as well. It takes a local look at the Luddite movement and some early feminism.

The title character, Shirley, does not appear until the novel is well on it's way. She is rich, beautiful, intelligent, lively, arch, bossy, generous, mischievous and delightful, but I didn't consider her the heroine. Caroline Helstone, introduced early on, was the heroine to me. Caroline is gentle, mild, loving, compassionate, eager for knowledge and quite beautiful in her own right. The two young women become the best of friends and it appears that they are both in love with the same man.

The story featured a lovely tie-in with Bronte's sister Anne's novel Agnes Grey, but what that is you'll have to find out for yourself.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold

Finished The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold by Francesca Lia Block. Although set in edgy, contemporary Los Angeles, these stories lose nothing of the mystery or magic of the original texts. They scintillate with tension. They are jewel encrusted re-visions. Stories include retellings of Snow White, Thumbelina, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Rose Red, Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, and The Snow Queen. I loved this book.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Horse and His Boy

Finished The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis. It was the fifth book published in the series, but the third one when reading in chronological order. I listened to an audiobook recording read by Alex Jennings. He has a wonderful voice and really brought out all the humor in the novel. This book takes place entirely beyond the back of the wardrobe. New characters include Shasta, a slave boy running away with a talking Narnian horse and Aravis, a girl running away from an nasty arranged marriage. As always, adventure, excitement, battles and Aslan all play a large part in the fun of the book. Have I mentioned how much I love Aslan? I simply adore him.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Lavender and Old Lace

Finished Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed. Published in 1902, it is part romance, part mystery. The book is quaint, humorous, lush, and edgy, all at the same time. The prose reminded me very much of the later books in Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series: small town, modern young people befriending old fashioned spinsters, lots of flowers, with the scent of the blooms floating through the pages. A charming read.

Reed published seventeen novels and a number of cookbooks between 1899 and 1911 when she died of an overdose of sleeping draft. As an insomniac, she must have been writing all night long. What a shame we lost her so soon.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Finished Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Published in 1980, it won the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel. This book is very cerebral. The narrator Ruth describes her surroundings and her thoughts and reactions to them with sparkling prose. Ruth and her younger sister Lucille live with their grandmother after their mother commits suicide. After their grandmother dies two spinster great aunts arrive to fuss and worry over them and themselves. They are woefully unfit for the task of raising children and enlist the help of their niece Sylvie, aunt to the two girls. Sylvie is a most unconventional aunt. She is a transient who rides the rails, from town to town, job to job, free from ties and restrictions. As soon as Sylvie arrives from Montana, the two great aunts decamp, leaving her in charge of housekeeping.

Sylvie does her best to look after Ruth and Lucille and the house that they live in, but it's just not what she's used to. Their schedule becomes quirky and their lives offbeat. As Lucille begins to mature she rejects Sylvie's eccentricities and leaves to go live with the Home Economics teacher from school, whose home in undoubtedly the exact opposite of Sylvie's household. Ruth loves Sylvie and sees a lot of her mother in her. The more time she spends with Sylvie the more like her she becomes. The various ladies of the the town begin to take notice of all this and voice their concern. They bring casseroles and the sheriff. When it becomes clear that Sylvie will lose guardianship of Ruth the two take desperate measures.

Oh how I love a good coming of age novel. Why is that I wonder? This one was excellent.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Yellow House

Finished The Yellow House by Patricia Falvey. Set in the early 20th century in Northern Ireland, it's the story of a young girl, Eileen O'Neill, who grows to warrior womanhood amidst local politics and family tragedy. The book begins with her father coming home from the marketplace with tubs of yellow paint, to paint their ancestral family home, once lost and hard won, a warm yellow so that it may be seen from the top of Slieve Gullion, their nearby mountain. Eileen's brother and baby sister join in the painting of the house. This is perhaps the happiest moment in the book, for things soon go very wrong for all involved. There were times when I thought "how much more can Eileen take?", but from a holistic view, there was no tragedy that did not further the story or the development of the characters. This was a raw and exciting novel. I've developed the habit of using the word "feck" from it. Highly recommended for those who enjoy Irish literature. I look forward to reading Falvey's next novel The Linen Queen.

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple, Mayflower, 1620

Finished A Journey to the New World: The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple, Mayflower, 1620 by Kathryn Lasky. It's the first book in the "Dear America" series. Each book in the series is set during a poignant time in American history. The narrator is a young girl who records her observations of life during this time in her diary. Remember (Mem) Patience Whipple journeys from Holland to American on the Mayflower to start a new life with her family and a number of other Saints and non-Saints. Their intention is to land off the coast of Virginia. Instead they land on Cape Cod at Plymouth.

Mem records the rough seas, boredom and illness on ship, and her longing to disembark once they land. Once the plantation is built she and her family have their own house. The community meets two English speaking Native Americans who introduce them to the local native community and various forms of medicine and food. Mem records the first Thanksgiving feast, but also the loss of her mother and many others to illness. It's a frank account and I actually learned some things I didn't know (or didn't remember) about the time. I hope to read all the books in the series over time.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Great Gatsby

Finished The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald for perhaps the 20th time. I had to revisit it just once more before seeing Baz Luhrmann's film adaptation. Every time I absorb Fitzgerald's prose I remember that he was my favorite author when I was in my 20s and a writer myself. This passage where Nick Caraway is describing Daisy is a perfect example why:

"For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened – then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk."

I think perhaps it is the best book ever written.

The Things We Cherished

Finished The Things We Cherished by Pam Jenoff. It's set in 2009, and the early 1900s through the first few years of World War II. The contemporary characters are trying to prove the innocence of their client who has been accused of Nazi war crimes. The flashback portions of the novel involve various people and a handmade, glass domed anniversary clock. The novel is a bit of a mystery. The key to the client's innocence is hidden in this clock. We see the clock travel from the hands of the clockmaker to various owners over time. It reminded me a lot of the 1942 film Tales of Manhattan, where the audience follows the fate of a tail coat, and it's various owners, throughout the story. It was an interesting read.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Adam of the Road

Finished Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray. It won the Newbery Meal in 1943. Set in thirteenth century England it is the story of Adam, whose minstrel father and dog Nick disappear during their travels together. Adam walks from town to town around London in search of these two who he loves best. He has many adventures and in the end is successful in finding them both. While this time period is not my favorite, Gray does a nice job of describing life during medieval England for her readers.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Up From the Blue

Finished Up from the Blue by Susan Henderson. This is the story of Tillie Harris, newly returned to the D.C. area, married, very pregnant and on her own while her husband is away on business. She knows no one and has not unpacked her phone. When what she thinks are labor pains begin six weeks early she knocks on her neighbor's door in a panic, asking to use the phone. With the receiver in her hand she freezes. Who can she call? She calls the one person nearby who she knows. Someone she has not spoken to in years. Her father.

Flashback sixteen years to 1975, the year Tillie turned eight. The year that her family moved from the military base in New Mexico to a posh neighborhood in D.C. The year her mother disappeared. Tillie's father is a rigid, organized man who designs missiles for the military. Tillie's mother is quite the opposite. She is a waifish, will-'o-the wisp of a person with long red hair and a wonderful sense of fun and creativity. Tillie and her mother are like two little girls together, playing much of the day and hiding from the neighbors when they ring the doorbell. Since Tillie does not have any friends, her relationship with her mother is that much more important to her. Her mother has a difficult time keeping up with day-to-day tasks around the house. Soon she begins a decline that has her not leaving her bed for days. Between the move from New Mexico to D.C. she disappears all together. Tillie is stunned and bereft and begins to suspect her father of wrongdoing.

I love stories told from a child's point of view. They highlight the mistakes made by adults so acutely. Parents who keep their children in the dark about major family changes or events, thinking to protect them, do these children a great disservice. Left to rationalize the unexplained they fill the gaps with every frightening or negative scenario their parents hoped to spare them, whether they actually happened or not. This book is a surreal mystery with a poignant backdrop of 70s race relations and school busing issues. It grabbed my attention and held it. I read it quickly and felt deeply for Tillie and her fractured childhood. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Journey in the Dark

Finished Journey in the Dark by Martin Flavin. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943. Set in and around the Chicago area from the turn of the 20th century until midway through World War II, this is a marvelous coming-of-age/family saga novel.

Sam Braden does not know that his family is poor until he doesn't receive a hoped for new sled for Christmas one year. His older sister impatiently scolds his disappointment. From that moment on he works hard to change his own as well as his family's circumstances.

There were parts of this novel that reminded me a lot of the film Citizen Kane. Sam Braden and Charles Foster Kane have sentimental recollections of their boyhood sleds. Both men become influential in their time and build estates with luxurious appointments. Both find that these material possessions hold little to no value in the end. Sam is a better man than Charles. He is never so great that he does not see the plight of those with less than him. He is kindly, generous and ultimately forgiving of people who have wronged him throughout his life. I really enjoyed this book and am adding it to my list of favorite Pulitzer winners. This book also won the Harper Prize in 1943. Other previous Pulitzer winners which also won the Harper Prize are The Able McLaughlins and Honey in the Horn.

Out of Africa

Finished Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, aka Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke. It's a memoir of her life in Africa on her coffee plantation. She is a marvelous storyteller, capturing the characters of those around her with warmth and richness. The prose is at times gorgeous and at others gruesome. I listened to an audiobook recording of the work, read by Julie Christie. Christie's voice was perfect for this piece. Listening on my iPod, I often found myself smiling at the juxtaposition of listening to Dinesen's descriptions of the African landscape while I was standing at the bus stop, in the early morning dark, with ice crystals pelting me in the face.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Anna Karenina

Finished Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Finally. I began reading the novel last July in anticipation of the film's release in November. I had originally planned, for no no good reason, to read it when I turn 50, but the planned film released trumped that idea by two years. Since I only read a chapter or two a day here and there it ended up taking me ten months. This does not reflect on the quality of the novel, only on my lack of focus. In many ways it reads lake any other Victorian novel. It's clear to see that Russian society at the time was obsessed with all things French and some things British.

The large cast of characters includes everyone from the Fool (Oblonsky) to the Angel (Kitty). Anna herself seems a bit angelic at first, acting as mediator between her philandering brother Oblonsky and his wife Dolly, who is the epitome of motherhood. However, once Anna meets Count Vronsky her character and fate are changed forever.

Anna's infidelity and downward spiral reminded me a bit of Irene Forsyte's path in The Forsyte Saga, another sweeping epic with as many characters as a Russian novel. However, Irene proved a much stronger character than Anna, and luckily had more sympathy from others. Anna herself becomes such an unsympathetic character that I grew weary of her. I found Konstantin Levin far more interesting, three dimensional and cerebrally encouraging. Towards the end of the novel he questions his very existence and considers ending it all, but then has an epiphany, and while disappointed at first that the world does not now glow with meaning and goodness, he has the courage to go on and appreciate all it has to offer.

The 2012 film version of the novel was very cleverly staged within a theater, calling to mind the lines from As You Like It, "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances." So true with this novel. However, while reading the book over all those months it was Vivian Leigh's face and voice, from the scintillating 1948 Alexander Korda production of the film, that I pictured and heard in my head.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Woman in Black

Finished The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, originally published in 1983. I had some time to kill last Saturday, so I was browsing the fiction shelves at the public library, looking for something intriguing and slender to read. I happened upon the binding of this book and recognized the author's name. I pulled the book down and found an upholstered chair to sit in. It wasn't until I glanced at the cover as I opened the book that I realized that it was a movie tie-in edition for the film version starring Daniel Radcliffe, which came out last year. Oh well, I'd read it anyway.

The book was good, the murky, marshy, quicksandy godforsaken end-of-the-earth setting reminded me of The Moonstone by Wilke Collins. The first person traveling narrative reminded me of the voice of Doctor Watson narrating the various adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The woman in black, seen in the distance reminded me of the ghost of the governess in James' The Turn of the Screw. I make these comparisons as compliments. They made the book feel like an old friend. I read it in a few days while I was at home with another bout of shingles. Perhaps not as terrifying as the jacket implies, but a good gothic read nonetheless.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of My Father, Cary Grant

Finished Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of My Father, Cary Grant by Jennifer Grant. Cary Grant was sixty-two when Jennifer was born to him and his then wife Diane Cannon. He had retired from film making and applied himself to parenthood with great thought and tenderness. Jennifer's book is peppered with photos and notes typed by her father, things he wanted her to know or remember. Also included are little transcripts from his recordings of his interactions with Jennifer as a small child.

Jennifer's meandering stream of consciousness suits the story she has to tell. It's genuine and human, just like her father. This is a very personal tribute that no biographer could possibly pull off. But Jennifer has. Bravo.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Betsy and the Great World

Finished Betsy and the Great World, the ninth book of Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy-Tacy series. It's 1914 and Betsy is now 22. She went to the U for a few years, but left and she and Joe have had some sort of falling out. She is at loose ends. Her father suggests a trip to Europe. She is to have a professor and his spinster sister as her chaperones. Just before sailing out of Boston harbor, Betsy catches a glimpse of Joe, now a journalist in Boston, interviewing a famous writer who is on board. She tries to catch his eye, but doesn't succeed. At the beginning of her trip she is lonely and seasick, but once the sea cooperates she is able to get up and explore the ship. She makes many friends and enjoys the people watching.

Once oversees she visits various places such as Munich, Venice, Paris and London, staying in each for quite a long while. Much of the time she is barely chaperoned at all and she has tremendous fun going and seeing and doing everything she has always dreamed of doing in Europe. She also has several close calls in the love department. Towards the end of her trip, while she is in London, England declares war on German. In the midst of this she and Joe make up their differences via letter/newspaper advertisement and she then sets sail for home.

I really enjoyed this book. I think it was Betsy's coming of age. Taking her out of Deep Valley and The Crowd gave her a chance to grow up a bit, open herself up to new ideas and unfamiliar cultures. The gap between senior year at Deep Valley High and this trip was a bit baffling, but there was a four year gap in between the writing of this and the previous book. All the other books had been written one a year. This is a must read for Betsy-Tacy fans.

The Postmistress

Finished The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. Set just before America enters World War II, it is the story of three women, a newlywed who has finally found a home after losing her parents as a small child, a reporter based in London during the worst of The Blitz, and a single, orderly postmistress on Cape Cod. Their stories intertwine in surprising ways. This book is both compelling and deeply upsetting. Blake's descriptions of The Blitz are shockingly real. Her characters are so genuinely human, especially Frankie Bard, radio reporter working with Edward R. Murrow in London. She's brassy and game for anything in terms of a real assignment. When she gets it in the form of recording the stories of Jewish refugees traversing Europe trying to find a way out, she spends several weeks riding in trains with them, recording their voices and is left to guess at their fates.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Battle of Life: A Love Story

Finished The Battle of Life: A Love Story, my 2012 Dickens read. Published in 1846, it's one of Dickens' Christmas Books. Like Alcott's Moods which I just finished, The Battle of Life features a threesome of young people in love, Alfred, and sisters Grace and Marion. Rather than marry the wrong person, Marion who is promised to Albert, stages an elopement with another man in order to set the scene for Albert and Grace to fall in love. Marion is then lost to her family for six years. She is thought to be the wife of Michael Warden, a questionable young man who has left England. In reality she has been living, unmarried, with her Aunt Martha until the lives of Albert and Grace are fully and happily entwined. She then returns to her family to reveal her selfless plan. While she loved Alfred dearly, she knew that Grace was the right wife for him, not herself.

I began reading this novella back in December, but put it down in the business of things. Having now finished it I can say it was a pleasant read with lovely illustrations by a variety of artists. The plot of misunderstandings had a decidedly Shakespearean lilt to it.

Monday, March 18, 2013


Finished Moods by Louisa May Alcott. This was Alcott's first published novel. It originally appeared in 1864, but was later heavily revised by the author and the updated version appeared in 1882. Like Whitman's Leaves of Grass I chose to read the final revision.

Moods is a coming of age novel about Sylvia Yule, a non-conventional seventeen year old who is more tomboy than young woman. She is friends with all animals and lives a bit wildly, much to the chagrin of her older, spinster sister Prue. Prue tries time and again to tame her, but to little avail. In her best tomboy spirit Sylvia accompanies her older brother Max and his friends Adam (ehem), and Geoffrey on a sailing/camping expedition. Of course both of the friends fall in love with Sylvia. Adam, who is also unconventional, shares Sylvia's tendency towards moodiness. In the novel it is almost considered a dangerous flaw. He is a wanderer, unable to settle down physically or intellectually. Geoffrey, however, is kind, gentle and generous and lives nearby in The Manse.

Sylvia falls for Adam, attracted by his sense of adventure and lack of societal ties. But Adam goes off on one of his adventures, leaving Sylvia and Geoffrey behind. During the year he is gone Geoffrey, unaware of Sylvia and Adam's feelings for each other, tries his best to win Sylvia's heart. She resists at first, but when she begins to feel that Adam will never return, that he has forgotten her, she agrees to marry Geoffrey, thus choosing the conventional path with her family's seal of approval. All seems well at first with husband and very young wife playing house together until one day Adam returns to claim Sylvia. It is then she realizes that she has made a terrible mistake.

This novel had a heavy dose of melodrama, especially toward the end, but I still found it enjoyable. I kept wishing for modern pharmaceuticals to help all these people out.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Home: A Memoir of My Early Years

Finished Home: A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie Andrews. Even though I have piles of biographies of my own to read, when my friend Tom handed this book to me to take on vacation last fall I couldn't refuse. I didn't start reading it until Christmastime, just a few pages every morning, so it took me a while to finish, but that was me. While Julie's recollections of her childhood are often upsetting, due to the adults in her life then, the book overall is a delight. I was especially interested by her recollections of being a child during World War II. Julie went from being an awkward girl given singing lessons by her stepfather, to the major financial supporter of her family in just a few short years.

Throughout the book Julie's voice rings true. I heard it in my head as I read. We learn about her days in vaudeville and radio, her time in the Broadway and London productions of My Fair Lady, the landmark television production of Roger's and Hammerstein's Cinderella, and the Broadway production of Camelot. As the book ends Julie, her husband Tony, and their infant daughter Emma are on their way to Disney Studios to begin work on the film Mary Poppins. So much happens in such a short time and this is just a small fragment of Julie's life and career. I found this book charming and dear, and I recommend it highly.

World's End

Finished World's End, Upton Sinclair's first book in his Lanny Budd series. Last year I read the third book, Dragon's Teeth, as part of my chronological Pulitzer project and loved it. When I finished I was eager to know more about Lanny and how he came to be the man he is in book three.

This first book tells how the three boyhood friends, Lanny (American), Kurt (German), and Rick (British) meet and struggle to maintain their friendship in face of war and shifting loyalties. Lanny's story begins when he is thirteen in 1913 and continues through World War I and into the League of Nations negotiations, in which Lanny plays a minor role. Throughout we meet famous figures like George Bernard Shaw, Isadora Duncan, Woodrow Wilson, George Clemenceau, and Lloyd George. Lanny finds himself pulled into behind the scenes intrigues with Bolsheviks and spies, some closer to home than he expects.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Language of Flowers

Finished The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I enjoyed this book, although it was a bit of an emotional roller coaster for me.

I remember a whole wall of this book displayed on the first floor of the Barnes & Noble on Madison Avenue in New York City, in the fall of 2012. It had been a while since Borders' Ann Arbor headquarters had closed. I felt the need to be in a big, beautiful bookstore and waited outside for 20 minutes until it opened on Saturday morning. I thought about buying the book then, but already had so many others with me for the trip that I declined.

As an orphan, Victoria Jones has been shunted around from foster home to group home most of her life. Her case worker warns her when she is ten, that going to live with Elizabeth at the vineyard is her last chance. The situation turns out much better than Victoria expected. She learns to trust Elizabeth and learns all about the Victorian practice of sending messages via flowers. Each flower has a meaning, some of them not very favorable. Just when Victoria thinks she has found her place in the world things go terribly wrong and she finds herself once more a victim of a less than perfect social services system.

Emancipated at eighteen, Victoria focuses her whole life on flowers. She starts her own garden in a public park where she sleeps, spends hours studying texts on the Victorian language of flowers at the public library, and lands a job with a local florist whose customers realize that this strange young girl is preparing more than just bouquets for them. When Victoria meets a man who "speaks her language," the encounter sets in motion an unexpected future and reconciliation of the past

When I was growing up I was fascinated with my mother's edition of The Language of Flowers and have my own copy now. It sits on the table in my upstairs reading nook.

Too bad all these varieties are not still available for the conveying of secret messages.