Monday, August 31, 2015

We Are Not Ourselves - Matthew Thomas

One of my reading groups chose to read this book for our monthly meeting.  It's the story of a family, Eileen, an Irish first generation American, her husband Ed, a science teacher and professor, and their son, Connell, growing up and living in America from the 1940's through to today.  Eileen aspires to have a better life than her parents; her husband resists her dreams and dotes on their only son.

As a young girl, her father takes her to see how the better half lives, beginning her desire for a better life:
"There were places, she saw now, that contained more happiness than ordinary places did.  Unless you knew that such places existed, you might be content to stay where you were."
Reading of Eileen's ambitions for her husband reminded me of the classic movie where an ambitious wife pushes her country doctor husband to perform an operation on a boy to advance their standing in the community (I can't remember the name of it).  I felt a dread building as she pushed and pushed and he resisted.  It felt like a crisis was imminent.  She believes he's having a mid-life crisis when he spends hours listening to old records.
"It was the kind of thing she imagined people did when they came to a point where the roads to the past and the future were equally muddy - retreat to the high ground of a major project."
When the real problem is revealed she wonders why it's happening.
"It hadn't happened for a reason, but they would find something to glean from it anyway.  There didn't have to be a divine plan for there to be meaning in life."
The mother/son relationship is rocky, with Eileen pushing him always to do better.  Connell is a teenager and then college student as their tragedy unfolds and finds it hard to reach out to his mother and realizes:
" was easier with girlfriends.  He threw all his affection at them and hoped that some of it would stick, maybe even come back to him, though if it didn't he gave it anyway, he gave it more, even, because everyone had something that needed to come out."
I enjoyed the author's descriptions of every day things, he painted pictures of their lives with small authentic details:
"She had never had a cigarette.  Aside from the pure brain-dead imbecility of subjecting yourself willingly to an avoidable carcinogen, she had always found them vile, noxious, smelly things -- except for a brief period in high school when she loved a boy who smoked and she was intoxicated by the aroma..."
At one point, Eileen goes through Ed's wallet and the author lists all the credit cards, membership cards, bits of paper and pictures that tells us so much about the man and our modern way of life.

This is a touching, tough and loving story of family and striving for a better life while living with the one we have.

Highly recommended.

Published: 2014  Read: August 2015  Genre: Fiction

ISBN: 9 781476 756660

A Grief Observed - C. S. Lewis

This memoir of an experience of grief has been on my TBR list for a long time.  I think I'd postponed looking for it because I thought it would be long and heavy reading.  To my surprise, its less than 100 pages.  It 's essentially Lewis' journals written after the death of his wife of less than 5 years from cancer.  They had married when he was well into his forties,  She was divorced, with two boys.  She brought them to England to be near Lewis who she had corresponded with from America and become a close friend and admirer.

C.S. Lewis was a well-known Christian apologetic, someone who defends Christian beliefs with reason and logic.

My edition had an introduction by Madeleine L'Engle, author of "A Wrinkle in Time" and "Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage", and a fellow Christian writer of Lewis's. She was critical of the book which put me off initially - if you read it, skip her introduction until after.

The book is a journey through grief and loss and coming to terms with a crisis of faith.  His "observations" are universal.
"This is important.  One never meets just Cancer, or War, or Unhappiness (or Happiness).  One only meets each hour or moment that comes."
A good part of the book is about him questioning his faith in God and questioning his own doubt.
"Sooner or later I must face the question in plain language.  What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, 'good'?
"From a rational point of view what new factor has H.'s [his wife's] death introduced into the problem of the universe?  What grounds has it given me for doubting all that I believe?  ...If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards.  The faith which 'took these things into acocunt' was not faith but imagination".
In the end, he recognizes he has been on a journey and his faith has been with him all along.
"My jottings show something of the process[toward getting through grief] but not so much as I 'd hoped. the warming of a room or the coming of daylight...when you first notice them they have already been going on for some time."
One quirky note, one of his friends actually gave him a copy of the book to read (it had been published under a pseudonym).

Published: 1961  Read: August 2015  Genre: Memoir

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald

This is the best book I have read in a long, long time.  It's a memoir of an English woman studying at Cambridge.  Her father dies suddenly and to deal with her grief, she decides to train a goshawk, a large predatory bird.  She was fascinated with birds from an early age and had become a falconer and trained other hunting birds in the past.  The goshawk is considered difficult to train and she wanted a challenge.  She interweaves the writings on the subject of training a goshawk by the author of The Once and Future King, T. H. White with her journey through her grief accompanied by the goshawk.  
Her book is part memoir, part natural history lesson, part biography.  It sounds strange and odd and even unappealing.  Yet the way she describes the world after losing her father, her relationship with the goshawk, who she names "Mabel", and her analysis of T.H.White's book, The Goshawk, are remarkably rich fascinating and moving.

Some quotes I marked that illustrate her power of description.

"I thought about the book [The Goshawk] cautiously, ran my feelings over it the way you feel for a hurting tooth with your tongue."

"The hawk is on my fist.  Thirty ounces of death in a feathered jacket..."

[On her child-age reaction to reading a critical review of The Goshawk and T.H.White by the falconers' community]
"I was on the right side, was allowed to dislike this grown-up [the author] and consider him a fool.  It's painful to recall my relief on reading this [the review], founded as it was on a desperate misunderstanding about the size of the world.  I took comfort in the blithe superiority that is the refuge of the small."
"Now that Dad was gone I was starting to see how mortality was bound up in things like that cold, arc-lit sky.  How the world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might see them.  Once, twice.  Perhaps never again."
She isolates herself from other people and submerges in the hawk's world.  She is suffering and wants to be more hawk-like:  aloof, unmovable, independent.
" 'We are outsiders now, Mabel,' I say, and the thought is not unpleasant.  But I feel ashamed of my nation's reticence.  Its desire to keep walking, to move on, not to comment, not to interrogate, not to take any interest in something peculiar, unusual, in anything that isn't entirely normal."
She begins to realize she is slipping, depressed, unable to shake her sadness.
"We carry the lives we've imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost."
As she gets help and begins to see a way forward she reflects:
"There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things.  And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all.  You see that life will become a thing made of holes.  Absences.  Losses.  Things that were there and are no longer.  And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are."
The hawk has taught her things:
"Of all the lessons I've learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there - rock and trees and ...all the things that  They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own view of the world.  In my time with Mabel I've learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not."
A wonderfully written, different and daring book.

Published: 2014  Read August 2015  Genre: Memoir

ISBN: 9 780802 12341

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Traditional Food From Wales - Bobby Freeman

I've been researching my Welsh heritage of late, joining the local Arizona Welsh Society and ordered this cookbook recommended in a Wales facebook page.  It's more than a cookbook.  It's a history of Welsh cooking with a good dose of history and lore.  I enjoyed reading the recipes and the stories.

I wish I could sit down with my two great-grandmothers (Kathleen Jones Chapin and Harriett Davis Bossert) and discuss Wales, the Welsh people and cooking.

Some quotes I noted:

"...the traditional dishes were passed orally from mother to daughter, and since the Welsh have good memories for the spoken word, it would be seldom necessary to write the recipes and methods down."

Matti Thomas published a collection of very old Welsh recipes, 1928

"Although people everywhere in early times relied upon herbal medicine, in Wales there was a special reliance based on the herbal learning of  the Meeedgon Myddfai  - the Physicians of Myddfai, virtually unknown outside Wales but greatly respected within the Principality.  Myddfai is a small villae near Llangadog in Dyfed. The physicians wrote the Red Book of Myddfai."

[Welsh style] " ..tea will always be served in pretty, flowered china cups with gold about their rims; and with the tea will come...freshly-baked cake and scones with home-made rhubarb or gooseberry jam.  ...the Sunday rice pudding is still a feature."

Sounds yummy right?  I'm going to try out the recipe for the pudding.

Published:  1997   Read: August 2015  Genre: Cookbook

ISBN 0 7818 0527 9

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Euphoria - Lily King

Last fall I attended the Southern Festival of the Book in Nashville TN with my friend.  I thoroughly enjoyed listening to authors explain how they go about writing a book, editing it and getting it published.  I particularly was impressed with Lily King.  She makes extensive preparation when writing, drawing maps, chronologies, family trees and other diagrams of her story.  I put her story based on the life of Margaret Mead and her two husbands on my TBR list.

Margaret Mead was married to one man when she went into the jungle to do anthropological research and met the man that would become her second husband.  With that kernel of truth, King creates a fictional imagination of their relationship and a different ending.

The book teaches a lot about anthropology in the early 20th century.  Each of the main characters has a different gift that makes them suited for anthropology.  One of the men is gifted in learning new languages and the woman in connecting with the natives they are studying.  I liked this quote about communicating without knowing the language:

Quote: "You don't realize how language actually interferes with communication until you don't have it, how it gets in the way like an over dominant sense.  You have to pay much more attention to everything else when you can't understand the words.  Once comprehension comes, so much else falls away.  You then rely on their words, and words aren't always the most reliable thing."

 I liked the realistic portrayal of the challenges of doing research and the emerging science of anthropology.  The relationship between the Margaret Mead character and her future second husband slowly unfolded and the strain of her first marriage was convincingly told.  But overall I was disappointed.  It was not a story of the real Margaret Mead and her men.  It was a story of a similar situation with different personalities and outcomes.  I don't know what was fact or fiction.  I think the book jacket and promotion was misleading.  I might try another of the author's books.

Published:  2014  Read: August 2015  Genre: Fiction

Miracle at Augusta - James Patterson & Peter de Jonge

I picked this slim novel up at the library on the new releases shelf.  I got it because it was about golf at the Masters Course in August, Georgia and my DH is an avid golfer who always watches the tourney.  It wasn't until I started reading it that I noticed the author was the prolific JP, who has been writing books with the help of other authors, who trade off of his popularity. It was a fun read and gave me a little bit of understanding of golf terms and strategies.  I even got DH to read it, though he thought it was a little, "touchy, feeley".  It's the story of a young teen who is being picked on in high school.  The harassing is observed by a golfer who is on the decline and has made some poor choices and consequently is suspended for a time from playing professionally.  The golfer takes the teen under his wing and they sneak onto the Augusta course to play a round of golf.

It was fun to read and I might try some other "golf" stories.

Published: 2015  Read: August 2015  Genre: Fiction

ISBN: 9 780316 410977

Saturday, August 8, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

This bestseller was chosen for the September pick in one of my book clubs.  It's the story of two young people - a blind girl from Paris, Marie-Laure, who is detained in Saint-Malo, Brittany, France near the end of WWII and Werner, a mechanically gifted German boy swept up in the war.

The introduction advises that the walled city of Saint-Malo was bombed almost to oblivion after the Normandy invasion to root out the last of the German army.  Right away, I'm dreading an entire story that's going to end in a city, and presumably it occupants, being destroyed,  But then, we're taken on a hop scotch of time between the two characters building to...the inevitable meeting and tragedy.

I thoroughly dislike the writing style that goes back and forth each chapter between two stories. It's contrived to keep you reading to get to whichever story you prefer.  The author skips around in time too, making us keep track of multiple vignettes that eventually begin to come together the last 50 or so pages.  It's like reading a mystery or a thriller.

The prose *is* lyrical ...but there's an adverb for every verb and an adjective for every noun,  My greatest complaint is that by writing beautifully the author minimizes the horror of the war. It's as if he paints a wash over the reality and defaults to stereotypes of the besieged French and the cruel Germans so he can write a pretty story.  It's just too touching to have a blind girl lose all she loves and too predictable to have a German boy become a mindless solider that does one heroic gesture.

The book jacket has praise from fellow authors, not critics, a warning in my experience.  Too say the least, I didn't like this one.

To complicate things further, there's a sub-plot of a cursed jewel that Marie-Laure's father is given and a German officer is determined to find.  The officer is a caricature of every Nazi soldier.  That's the problem with all the characters, they are too simple, too flat, too predictable.

If you want to read something about living in Europe during a German occupation and the soldier's on both sides, I'd recommend The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society.

Published:  2014  Read: August 2015  Genre: fiction

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Mrs Grant and Madame Jule - Jennifer Chiaverini

I picked this up in the libarary as a new read without renewal, which I thought would mean a good book that many want to borrow.  Not the case in my opinion.  It's impossible to tell fact from fiction since the author gives little explanation of the research she did for the book. Grant is lauded as a great and good man and he and Julia having a wonderful love story.  The slave girl's story appears to be entirely fiction, based only on the fact that Mrs Grant did have a slave maid throughout the Civil War.

It was easy to read and did provide some facts on the battles of the Civil War and their chronology.  But it appears the author read a few stories and embarked on the book she wanted to write with little concern over distinguishing facts from fiction.  Not recommended.

Published: 2015  Read: July 2015  Genre: Historical Fiction

ISBN: 0525954295