Posts tagged ‘Literary Classics’

Loss pulls us after it – “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson

11741“Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson, Published in 1980

This book is magic.  Not like the cheer you up and make you feel warm all over magic, but the most thoughtful, tragically, beautifully written magic.  The kind of writing magic that makes you stay up later than you should to just get through those next few pages.

Ruth and her little sister, Lucille, are dropped off by their mother on the porch to their grandmother’s house in the small mountain town of Fingerbone.  She hands them each graham crackers to keep them occupied until their grandmother returns. As they sit waiting, munching crackers, their mother gets into her car and drives off a cliff into the lake.  Ruth and Lucille’s grandmother cares for them in her house in the small mountain town of Fingerbone.   It is an orderly, simple life spinning  “off the tilting world like thread off a spindle, breakfast time, suppertime, lilac time, apple time.”   When their grandmother dies and after a short stint of their great Aunts living with them, Ruth and Lucille find themselves in the care of their Aunt Sylvie (their mother’s younger sister).

Aunt Sylvie has been riding the rails for years and doesn’t seem comfortable with being tied down though she agrees to stay in Fingerbone for the girls.  But their life in the house has a transient feel – Sylvie sleeps with her shoes on laying on top of blankets, they eat in the dark, newspapers and cans are stacked everywhere, and Sylvie wanders at all hours of the day and night.  The girls, at first, are just eager to please Sylvie but then Lucille begins to want a normal childhood with normal friends and meals with vegetables.  And so, like everyone Ruth has loved before, Lucille leaves and goes to live with another family. Left behind, Ruth is lost. She seems unable to truly engage with anyone – it is as though she is just waiting for something to happen.  And in truth, some awful things have happened to her so her passiveness becomes a form of avoidance. What happens to Ruth doesn’t really seem to matter to anyone and why should it be any different. She is abandoned and untethered.

“Then there is the matter of my mother’s abandonment of me. Again, this is the common experience. They walk ahead of us, and walk too fast, and forget us, they are so lost in thoughts of their own, and soon or late they disappear. The only mystery is that we expect it to be otherwise.”

The being left behind takes its toll on Ruth and she becomes a ghost,  there is nothing left to hold onto so why bother trying.  So she and Sylvie pick the inevitable path for their life together.

This book is haunting.  It has smells and sounds that are so real – salty, wet hair and cold, bare hands.  There are pools of water and crickets that grow quiet at the sound of footsteps. It has inanimate objects that are as important as the characters themselves.  The lake  is as still as glass but then floods everyone’s homes in case they have forgotten that it can cause damage. The lake is death but the characters keep returning to it, to watch the night roll in,  to sleep on its stones, to let its stillness embrace them.  The railway bridge is there to remind everyone that they can die or escape, it just depends on how they time it and how closely they watch.

But the book is also wise. It speaks of that desire our souls have to press on but how sometimes we just don’t have it in us. So we wait or we quit.  It is the story of how easy it is to get lost in whimsy and tumble into the darkness in ourselves.  It is about housekeeping, a life of order and connection –  the need of that connection to a place, or a person, or a time and how without that we truly are just adrift.  And it is about loss, the kind that leaves us waiting and wondering and eventually can drown us.

“Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it.”

 

Other reviews to check out: 

From Diamond Sharp

From Asylum 

From Jason F. Harper 

 

December 15, 2014 at 8:32 pm 10 comments

The Spring Book Rehash

DSC_8826-3207597020-OI have been a bit behind on reviews overall, so I thought I would catch up with a list of the books that I have been reading this Spring.

1. “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck:  This book is large but it is amazing.  It is Steinbeck’s retelling, in part, of the Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel story.  I really should add that saying just that oversimplifies it. The characters take the long road to learning that how we live vs. our nature is a matter of choice. And that accepting that there is choice is the only way to find yourself and a full life.  It is brilliant and a great read. In my humble opinion, it is Steinbeck at his best.

2. The S.J. Bolton love affair: Bolton’s first three suspense novels are just fun.  “Sacrifice,” “Awakening” and “Blood Harvest” are all completely different stories but each one has a strong heroine that ends up in disturbing circumstances just because of their profession.   They are great for fast reads – for full disclosure, I was reading part of “Blood Harvest” in the middle of the night and it truly scared me to death. Those Brits have some spooky stuff going on.

3. “The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatje:  This book was not at all what I expected. I did see the movie years ago and always meant to read the book.  I remember, though it has been awhile, the movie being more of a love story and while that is a part of it, the book is more about the changing of four lives during and after WWII.  The four lives become intertwined in a bombed out villa in Italy.   Ondaatje’s descriptions are beautiful.  I am not sure I completely understood the depth of the story – it is one I am still thinking about.

4.  “The Husband’s Secret” by Liane Moriarity: This book is the best kind of summer read.  Cecilia is a great mom, has a wonderful husband, and just seems to have a well-rounded, beautiful life.  While her husband is out of town, she accidentally comes across a letter hidden away.  It is to her from her husband in the event he dies.  Cecilia doesn’t read it but mentions it to her husband on the phone.  He begs her not to read it and rushes home to make sure the letter is destroyed.  Of course then she reads it, wouldn’t you?  I liked this book because the letter does not contain what you expect and it took some fun/interesting turns.  It would pair well with a nice patio chair and a glass of wine.

5. “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson: It is not surprising that this book won the Pulitzer.  I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I think I just needed to read it.  It follows the life of Pak Jun Do who begins his life in North Korea in an orphanage.  His life is surreal but unfortunately life in North Korea is surreal.  The story is sad and unbelievable and  based in part on Johnson’s investigation into North Korea.  While I was reading this novel, North Korea was cited by the UN for Human Rights violations and it began an investigation into these violations, making this novel all the more poignant.

6. “Morning Glory” by Sarah Joi: This book was terrible. I have come to know Joi as a fluff writer that I read when I need a pretty little love story.  So I do not expect Pulitzer writing but this book just got silly.  I will forgive Joi this one transgression and hope it was just a one off.  Skip it, find another light read for your Sunday morning coffee.

And that my fellow readers is my Spring Book rehash. I hope the rest of your Spring is filled with sunshine and a lot of wonderful books.

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* The first beautiful photo courtesy of In a Flash photography.

 

May 25, 2014 at 10:05 am 2 comments

The Saddest Story – “The Good Soldier” by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, Published in 1915

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There is something wonderfully unconventional about how Ford tells this story. The narrator,    Dowell, meanders through his life and what has occurred but in exactly the way we all tell stories. He gets sidetracked, he misses parts, he returns to missed explanations – it is back and forth, and bit by bit the pieces of the story fill in to create a whole view, though unreliable, of what has happened.  As Dowell writes he imagines that he is speaking to someone.

     So I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a     country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.

Dowell also states that the story he is about to tell is the saddest story he has ever heard. Though arguably it is about how his life has gone terribly wrong, so he is probably right – in our self-absorbed moments the saddest stories are often our own.

Dowell’s story is about he and his wife’s (Florence) nine year relationship with the elite Edward and Leonora Ashburnham.  What begins as a simple meeting while on a yearly holiday at a spa in Germany turns into a yearly event for the couples.  Through-out the nine years Dowell, the simple American, has nothing but the utmost respect for the Ashburnhams and their proper Britishness. However, after Florence’s seemingly sudden death, Dowell finds out that for nine years his wife was having an affair with Edward.  Dowell was the only one in the party of four that had remained blissfully unaware.  His revelation leads him to reexamine his relationship with Florence and the Ashburnhams.

I am not entirely sure what Ford wants the reader to take away from this story. This book is quite a harsh indictment of marriage, religion, and the ruinous effect that keeping up appearances can cause.  Edward was the proper soldier and Englishman but a sentimental fool who spent his married life in one romantic liaison after another.  Leonora is the dutiful Catholic wife who feels like she must stay with Edward and try to appear like the perfect wife. Dowell is a glorified nurse to Florence, who is faking a weak heart so she can have numerous affairs with everyone but her husband.  Dowell is blind to Florence’s cheating because he is so focused on trying to be what Florence wants.  So Leonora wants Edward, who is enamored with Florence, who is only wants to be a proper English (yet America) lady.  Dowell just wants simple love and devotion but even after Florence’s death he can’t find it. And so everyone is miserable.

Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing.

Perhaps most importantly for the period in which it was written, this novel addresses the empty and meaningless lifestyle of the upperclass.  The tragic need to appear proper and refined only ends in dishonesty and a lonely existence for Ford’s characters.  Of course, this lesson is ever relevant – the  killing of another soul and the breaking of another’s heart should  never be considered worth it when the end result is merely station and money.   Perhaps some of our politicians would benefit from spending some time with this book.

 

Other reviews to check out:

 

May 18, 2014 at 7:40 pm 1 comment

Cassoulet for the mind – “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” by Sebestian Faulks

GetImage“Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” by Sebestian Faulks, Published in 2013 

There are novels that are like comfort food for me.  I return to them because they make me feel at home, they remind me of something wonderful. They are my favorite reading discoveries because I finish these books and I just sigh happily, not unlike after eating dark chocolate or bingeing on mashed potatoes or finding an amazing cassoulet, my absolute favorite comfort food (as pretentious as it sounds, it is just simple happiness).  When I first found P.G. Wodehouse it was purely by chance.  My favorite bookstore, The Book Loft, has several shelves dedicated to Wodehouse and I kept walking by and thinking “hmmm, who is this guy?”  So I bought one. And this began my cassoulet-like relationship with Wodehouse.

His foppish characters are always the British upperclass. There are hilarious antics and ridiculous opinions and, well, high jinx, lots o’ high jinx.  There is commentary in his humor but Wodehouse is not sardonic and his tone is never bitter like his contemporary Evelyn Waugh (who is another comfort food writer for me).  He is truly just good fun.  His series about Bernie Wooster and his brilliantly exasperated butler, Jeeves, is notably Wodehouse’s most popular.

Sebestian Faulks has decided to carry the Wodehouse torch and write, in his best Wodehouse voice, a new Jeeves and Wooster book.  I was a little worried about this idea.  Wodehouse is, well, a rarity and should a modern writer try to touch his legacy? This type of attempt is often hideous – “Sanditon” is the best example (poor Jane Austen).  But I couldn’t help myself and asked my husband to buy it for me for Christmas.  I admit to cringing a bit as I asked.  My dramatic cringing and snobbery was apparently misplaced, because Mr. Faulks pulls this all off seamlessly.   I can’t imagine the painstaking work that went into assuming the voice and tone of Wodehouse but somehow Faulks manages it.  He states in the foreword that he hopes this book will bring Wodehouse to a new generation of readers, because he is just too brilliant to miss. I really do hope his plan works.   Cassoulet and dark chocolate and chicken and dumplings for everyone can’t be wrong.

February 3, 2014 at 11:41 am Leave a comment

The inevitable future – “Appointment in Samarra” by John O’Hara

Cover of "Appointment in Samarra: A Novel...

Cover of Appointment in Samarra: A Novel

“Appointment in Samarra” by John O’Hara, Published in 1934

I picked up this book merely because Will and his mother read it together in “The End of Your Life Book Club.”  It was my first book by O’Hara but I am now excited to read his other work.

Julian English is a part of the social elite in the small town of Gibbsville. He has everything. Julian runs a Cadillac dealership, has the perfect wife, has the connections (he can get bottles of champagne in the middle of Prohibition), and is a member of the town’s elite club.  One drunken night, Julian cannot take the boisterous stories of the town loud-mouth, Harry Reilly, anymore. So he throws a drink in his face.  He wakes up the next morning with the bitter realization of what happened the night before but he is unable to make amends with Harry.

This event leads to a down-spiral of drunken missteps for Julian.  His life becomes a cycle of a drunken evening of debauchery and violence followed by the morning of a terrible hang-over from both the alcohol and the effect of the previous night’s events. It is hard to watch as the reader but it is also that train wreck that you can’t turn away from and so you keep reading.  Julian’s ending is predictable but it is still tragically sad. So what begins as a success story ends as a story about how easily it can all go wrong.

O’Hara is the master of excess. In this way he can be compared to Fitzgerald. However, O’Hara’s writing is not lyrical or poetic.  He does not spend a lot of time painting a picture for the reader.  His writing is honest and straight-forward.  It is simple but it is good.  It is as though he is just telling you like it is and that is refreshing.

The character of Julian is great example that we are often the cause of our own disasters.  There are choices that we make that can cause a chain of events and where they lead is not always a good end.  And sometimes when we do everything to avoid what must be done the result is even worse.   But even more simply, sometimes what is going to happen will happen.

And of course this all leads to the title of the novel that is based on the telling of an old Arab tale by Maugham:

The speaker is Death

 There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.  She looked at me and made a threatening gesture,  now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate.  I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. 

The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. 

Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening  gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? 

That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise.  I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

July 17, 2013 at 9:44 pm Leave a comment

What happens on the patio – “The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat” and other assorted tales

I had last week off to stay home, play with my kids and read.  I spent most of my reading time outside on our patio.  I am asked a lot where I find the time to read.  I do work full-time and I have two small children so maybe it seems strange that I can read so much (and I promise I pay attention to my children, oh and my husband).  However there are three things I take with me everywhere in the house – a glass of water, my chapstick (yep, I am addicted) and whatever book I am reading.  So if my kids are playing, napping, self-entertained and don’t need me that is my filler, reading.  I also read every single night in bed before I go to sleep.  It is a stress-relieving technique I have been using for as long as I patiocan remember.  It truly helps quiet my easily anxiety-ridden mind. I also take a book with me almost everywhere – you never know when you are going to be stuck in a long line of bureaucratic ridiculousness or waiting for a friend or just need to relax for a minute.

So all of that said, last week I was able to fit in three books.  All three were good but my absolute favorite was the last read of my stay-cation.

1. “The Blue Castle” by L.M. Montgomery, Published in 1921: I had not heard of this book until recently.  It is one of Montgomery’s adult fiction books.  Her main character, Valancy, is a 29-year-old spinster who lives with her very stodgy mother and extended family.  She has spent her life being the uninteresting member of the family and has been expected to abide by a very long list of rules of propriety.   And Valancy does act accordingly, until she finds out that she has a fatal heart condition with only a year left to live.  So Valancy, realizing she has not been happy a day in her life, packs up and moves in to nurse her friend Cissy who is dying.  While caring for Cissy, Valancy falls in love with Barney Snaith who visits Cissy and her father frequently.  Once Cissy dies, Valancy proposes to Barney assuring him that he will only be stuck with her for a year because of her failing heart.  He agrees to the marriage and so Valancy’s life truly begins.

This book is cute. Valancy’s family is hilarious and really make this book enjoyable.  Montgomery has such a wonderful grasp on creating incorrigible characters and even her worst characters are somehow still endearing.    The character of Valancy pales in comparison to Montgomery’s brilliant creation – Anne of Green Gables- but she is still loveable in her own way.

2. “Blackberry Winter” by Sarah Jio, Published in 2012:  This is no “Violets of March” but overall this is again another Jio story that is well done and a fast read.  In May of 2010, Seattle is hit by a very rare late season snow storm.  In fact, this type of storm only happened one other time – back in 1933.  Claire is a reporter for the Seattle Herald and her editor assigns her the task of writing a piece on the storm of 2010 and the storm of 1933.  While researching the 1933 storm, Claire comes across the story of Vera Ray a single mother who had gone to work on the morning of the storm only to return home and find her three-year old son Daniel missing.  Claire is immediately fascinated by the story and begins trying to piece together what happened to Daniel.  Of course, all of this happens while Claire is also trying to heal from her own tragic loss.

Jio jumps the narration from the 1933 story of Vera Ray to the 2010 of Claire.  It is done seamlessly.  The story is predictable and there is a lot of happenstance but somehow this does not make it any less enjoyable.  And I admit to being a bit teary eyed at the end.  This is a really good summer read.

3. “The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat” by Edward Kelsey Moore, Published in 2013: I have absolutely no idea why there is not more chatter about this book.  It was such an amazing read. It was funny and sad and meaningful and crazy and on and on. Simply put this is the story of three friends, Clarice, Odette and Barbara Jean, who grew up together in the small town of Plainview, Indiana.   They come of age in the 50s and 60s when being an African-American woman meant your choices were limited so they have to, in a sense, make their own way.  In their youth they all hang-out at Earl’s Diner and this creates a life-long tradition of meeting there every Sunday after church- eventually with husbands and children in tow.  They raise their children together, have heartache together, struggle with illness (and hot flashes) together and know each other better than anyone.

The writer is a man but he writes his women characters with such accuracy and care – his writing talent is impressive.  What I absolutely loved was the fact that the three women were friends with deep ties to each other.  It reflected real relationships with the ups and downs but not any of the soap opera ridiculousness you often find in books about women and friendship.  Some of the ancillary characters are silly but they are still wonderful – particularly Big Earl’s second wife, Minnie, who runs a fortune-telling business at one of the tables in the diner complete with a turban and a bell.  I found Clarice’s niece’s wedding so wonderfully hilarious I could not stop laughing.  Moore also tackles some very tough issues of race and family but allows the humor to give even more depth to these hard topics, one of those it-is-so-awful-you-have-to-laugh moments. A book where I fall in love with the characters and can laugh out-loud is a rare find.  This is the book to take with you on vacation or to the pool or really anywhere. Please just read it. It is such a great book.

That’s my stay-cation. And so, I have returned to work *deep sigh* but will hopefully still be found in the evenings on the patio with a book…and maybe a child running through the sprinkler.

Other reviews to check out:

June 25, 2013 at 5:21 pm Leave a comment

In like a lion

Truly March was a tough month.  For my family there was bad health news, poor weather, and just terrible news all around.  Everything just seemed to fall apart.  Now April is here and the sun is shining so I can only hope that means that everything is on the mend.  I neglected my book reviews in March. So in one overview I am recapping what I read in March:

  1. Anne of Green Gables – Reading this book is so comforting.  It reminds me of being a kid, snuggled down in warm blankets, with my siblings fighting somewhere downstairs, the smell of my mom baking, and just escaping.  Anne is just as precocious and lovable as I remember and I still want to live on Prince Edward Island. It is nice to be reminded that in a lot of ways we are still our twelve-year-old selves.
  2. Blue Asylum by Kathy HepinstallIn the middle of the Civil War, Iris runs away from her cruel husband with some of his slaves.  When she is caught she is tried and convicted of madness.  She finds herself in a mental institute trying to prove to everyone and maybe even herself that she is sane but was living in a crazy world.  This book was pretty good.  But I feel like Hepinstall could have done more with the subject.
  3.  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – This is the Grim Reaper’s tale of a young German girl named Liesel, who is a book thief.  He comes in and out of her life during WWII, ultimately carrying her story with him.  I cannot express how profound this book was for me.  Zusak is able to use the Grim Reaper’s more objective view of humans, war and love to show fairly stark truths about our world:

“They’re strange, those wars.  Full of blood and violence-

but also full of stories that are equally difficult to fathom.”

4.   Belong to Me by Maria de los Santos – I don’t remember how I came to this book and honestly, I am not sure what I think of it.   It was a bit too “Desperate Housewives” for me but was a light, mindless read and the writing was pretty good.

For the Spring, I am looking forward to being outside with my husband and children, lots of sunshine and some great reading time outside.  No matter what else is going on in my life these are the things that make me truly happy.dsc_8791.jpg

April 8, 2013 at 9:25 am Leave a comment

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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