HAPPY APRIL! May any April Fool's jokes played on you be kind but funny ones. I usually don't do April Fool's jokes, because the only kinds I like are so lame that everyone already knows them. I'm not a fan of mean ones, and actually get annoyed when people do them, and in my opinion lose the spirit of the day.
But anyway, it's April 1st, and I just realized that I have not done a book report since the beginning of the year - WHAT!??
So here you go. I've read a nice variety of things so far this year, and though I've taken longer with some than I would have wished, I've decided that it's not a contest - I'm doing this because I love to read. Why do we think we need to "accomplish" things all of the time? (Rhetorical question, by the way.)
, by Hannah Kent. I don't remember where/how I heard of this book, but I was intrigued by the description. It takes place between 1828 and 1830 in Iceland, and is the fictionalized account of the last person executed for murder in Iceland. Agnes, who along with two others, has been found guilty of killing her master, is sent to live with a family while the plans for her execution are finalized. Apparently this was not uncommon, since at the time there were no jails in Iceland, and so often prisoners were sent to live out their sentence with families, rather than being sent to Denmark.
Needless to say, the family involved is not pleased about the arrangements. The mother is not pleased to have a murderer living with them, and fears for her two daughters. The other servants want nothing to do with Agnes either. The only person who really ever talks to her is a local reverend, who she has specifically requested visit her while she is waiting for her death.
Agnes' story unfolds slowly, and she carries out her duties at the farm with diligence. At first, she is somewhat standoffish, but eventually as she becomes used to where she is and those around her, she opens up more to the reverend and to the mother in the family, and we learn the details not just of what happened the night her master was killed, but of her life up to this point.
I really found this book interesting. I know so little about Iceland in general, and virtually nothing about it during this time period. The laws and customs were very cut and dried, and everyone had their place in society. I was particularly intrigued by the living conditions, where the family and the servants all slept in the same room, right next to each other. I would think this would make it hard to maintain the hierarchical structure of master/mistress and servant, but I am probably interjecting a 21st-century thought process into the whole idea.
Agnes and her story fascinated me, as did the setting and the other characters in the book. I really hated when I would have to put the book down and stop reading!
Bird by Bird : Some Instructions on Writing and Life
, by Anne Lamott. I will admit that I am a big fan of Anne Lamott to start with. I had the opportunity to hear her speak in person at the Free Library of Philadelphia in November 2014, and it was pretty amazing. One of the things that appeals to me about her is that she is spiritual but funny, and does not hold back on opinions.
In this book, she talks about writing - writing for its own sake, writing for publication, and about life and its lessons. The chapters are presented with titles you might come across in a syllabus for a writing class. She is honest about the process of writing, the writing life, and the way that observing the world around you can enhance your writing as well as your life.
There were times when I actually laughed out loud reading this book. Often I felt like I was hanging out with her, and she was telling me these things over a cup of tea. The book is very conversational, and very accessible.
I can imagine reading this book, or at least parts of it, over and over.
Nora Webster : A Novel
, by Colm Toibin. Nora Webster is forty years old, with four children, living in a small town near Wexford, Ireland. Her husband Maurice, the love of her life, has just died when the book begins, and she is somewhat at a loss as to what to do, how to act, how to feel.
The book covers a three-year period. It proceeds in a quiet, somewhat leisurely pace, with day-by-day glimpses of Nora's everyday life and thoughts. She is a self-contained person, and her sons Donal and Conor who are still living at home, seem to be as well. Her older daughters, Aine and Fiona, are at school, and more involved in the outside world, and Nora feels they are a bit of a mystery.
I really liked this book. In a lot of ways, nothing "happens," but I think it is a very good depiction of grief and loss. From Nora's wish at the beginning of the book that people would just stop dropping by to express their sympathy, to her desire to move forward slowly, knowing that some may criticize her, the book depicts the life of loss very well. Nora is not particularly amazing, or funny, or any of the other things that one might expect in a heroine, but she is probably one of the most regular characters I've ever experienced. She lives her life the best she knows how, at a time when her world has shifted in a major way.
As the book continues, Nora and her family experience new things and all of them change. At one point towards the end of the book, when the family is altogether and enjoying each other's company, Nora wonders if this is what might have made Maurice sad - knowing that they were having fun without him. That is something very real, at least to me.
I had an Advanced Reader's Copy of this book, but didn't get to it until now. And I know it has gotten good reviews since coming out in October 2014, but I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to them, since I wanted to make my own decision about the book. I'm very glad that I read this book.
, by Lisa Genova. I decided to read this book, either before or instead of, seeing the movie. I'm glad I read it, because I'm guessing there are quite a few things that the movie is not able to convey, but make the story even more effective.
Alice Howland is a professor of cognitive psychology at Harvard, more or less at the peak of her career. Just turned fifty, she is in excellent physical shape, and is the wife of another Harvard type, and the mother of three children. One day during her daily run, she becomes completely disoriented and can't remember where she lives or how to get there. After a few more incidents, she goes to see her doctor, who thinks she is stressed and/or depressed. But a visit to the neurologist shows she has early-onset Alzheimers Disease.
The most interesting thing about this book for me was that it is told from Alice's standpoint, rather than those of her caretakers. Her continuing decline and the realization of what is happening to her makes the book both riveting and heartbreaking. Everything she knew about herself, her family and her life starts to disappear, and she is trying everything to keep it at bay. But as is the case with the disease, it just continues to move along.
Another interesting aspect of the story are her family relationships, and everyone's relationship with each other. It made me think how each person experiences things and develops an outlook all on their own. She goes from a strained relationship with her youngest daughter to being more friendly, even though she doesn't remember it's her daughter.
I have always thought that Alzheimers must be horrible, but I always wondered how aware those suffering are of what is changing and what functionality she is losing. Alice Howland is painfully aware of what is happening to her on some level for most of the book. She experiences the frustration of no longer being able to do the things that made her who she is, or even just simple things that everyone takes for granted.
Sad but interesting. Since you only get Alice's viewpoint, it's hard to really know how the others are dealing with it, other than what she observes. That makes it feel slightly incomplete, but also makes it seem that much more real.
, by Lisa Scottoline. This book was a quick read, and a real page-turner. It poses the question of what you would do/how you would act if your child made a huge mistake, and you were responsible.
Jake Buckman and his son Ryan are on their way home one night in their car. Against his better judgement, but wanting to be his son's friend, Jake lets Ryan drive, and the unthinkable happens. The rest of the book is the story of how Jake, his wife Pam, and Ryan deal with the tragedy, and what they go through before things are resolved. I don't want to say much more, since I think the book is worth reading.
The thing about this book is that, even when you thought the characters were wrong, or stupid, or completely misguided, there was a small part of you that could understand them. It really did make you uncomfortable in a lot of ways, and is definitely thought-provoking.
The Signature of All Things
, by Elizabeth Gilbert. This is one of those sweeping saga books - which I generally like, since they are nice long books. This one is no different. The story spans the late 18th to the 19th centuries, and introduces us to the Whittaker family. Henry Whittaker is a boy born to a poor family, but his father is one of the most respected arborists at the Kew Gardens in England. When Henry is old enough to work there under his father's tutelage, he begins the journey that will make his name and his fortune. After a series of adventures under the direction of Sir Joseph Banks, he strikes out on his own, and moves from England to Philadelphia, where he makes a name and a fortune for himself and his family, as an expert botanist and importer/exporter of plants.
Henry's daughter Alma is raised in a world of science and ideas, and from a young age is included in things as if she were an adult. She becomes a well-known botanist in her own right. But Alma's story - which is most of the book - is also the story of a woman who is brilliant and driven, but who also feels the emotions and desires of all young women, well, all human beings. Plain and large of frame, she is not viewed romantically by those she admires and wishes she could make a life with. She does end up marrying Ambrose Pike, a sort of spritual, angelic man who studies and draws orchids. When he wants a marriage of ideas and ideals, and she realizes that he is not interested in any physical relationship, they part, and he is sent to Tahiti, allegedly to look after her father's interests there.
Ambrose dies, and Henry Whittaker dies, and Alma's life then takes a drastic turn. She leaves Philadelphia for Tahiti, to see if she can find someone that was clearly important to Ambrose. Her years in Tahiti are vastly different than her life leading up to being there. She moves on to Amsterdam, where her mother's family lives and has always run the botanical garden. She ends up spending the rest of her life there, among family, and with a position as Curator of Mosses. She has devised a theory while in Tahiti that she shows to her uncle, who encourages her to publish it, but she is hesitant to do so. Basically, it is a version of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, but Alma has one human element that she feels she can't solve, so she does not want to publish it.
Of course, this is barely the surface of the story, and the book. But it's an interesting work of fiction with enough historical information, time, place, and persons to be extremely readable. Alma is an interesting person, if not necessarily likable - I didn't necessarily dislike her, she was just not a character that you warm up to like a good friend, in my opinion. But she and her story, the time periods when it is all happening, and the questions raised make this book a fascinating read.
For anyone who likes historical fiction, and/or stories of women who are out of place in their time, I think Elizabeth Gilbert has written a book that is not just enjoyable, but that makes you think in ways you may not have considered thinking before.
A Catered Valentine's Day
, by Isis Crawford. A fun Valentine's Day read, with a story that was interesting enough to make me want to finish the book. Bernie and Libby Simmons, owners of their late mother's bakery, A Little Taste of Heaven, are busy enough preparing for an upcoming Valentine's Day event, when Libby's boyfriend's father, an undertaker, asks for their help figuring out how the wrong body ended up in someone else's grave.
Things move along pretty quickly, and there are few amusing twists along the way.
Quartet in Autumn, by Barbara Pym. Oh how I love Barbara Pym! I wish her books were easier to find, and/or that they would be republished. In the meantime, I am always happy when I come across one, and this was a discovery at the public library.
Marcia, Letty, Edwin, and Norman are four office workers who have worked together for years in the same office. We are not given much of an idea what exactly it is that they do, but that is part of the story and how Pym presents them to the outside world. They are ready to retire, making them more or less invisible to society at large. The story takes place in the seventies, and things are changing faster than any of them would really prefer.
When both Marcia and Letty retire, the group dynamic is lost for the most part. Having only had in common where they worked, they were not particularly close with one another, and each character has their own set of weird quirks, which is one of Barbara Pym's specialties.
It really can't be explained in a summary like this, how enjoyable the story is. Pym is a perfect observer of people and the world around them, and you find yourself feeling that you know the characters, because everyone knows someone like them. And her observations of society and modes of interaction are not just spot-on, but amusing. I wish she was still around, as I'm sure she would have some excellent examples of people and their technology obsessions in her stories.
If you have never read any of her books, I would suggest finding one to try. This one, which deals more with characters at the end of their working lives and as elderly members of society, is a little bit more poignant, but no less readable and perfect.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte. This is the first book of Anne Bronte's that I have read. I've had it on my bookshelves for a while, and finally got around to reading it. Having most recently read modern things, I forgot the commitment that is required for classic literature - the language so different, and so dense that you need to reorder your brain.
This is the story of a woman who marries the wrong man, and then does her best to escape him with their son and make a life for herself. It is a reminder of the extremely limited scope of women's lives in the nineteenth century, particularly married women,and how scandalous it was for a woman to even consider leaving her husband.
The novel is supposed to be an epistolary novel, which I don't think works out very well. The beginning works, as it is a gentleman writing to his friend, talking about a woman and her son who have moved nearby, and how he eventually becomes enamored of her. But then she gives him her diary so he will better understand her situation and behavior, and we are supposed to believe that he provides the entire thing to his friend. That, as well as the very long and unnecessarily tedious (in my opinion), drawn-out ending, were the failings of this work. I liked it overall, but it would have been better with the last 40-50 pages cut out.
The Unknown Bridesmaid, by Margaret Forster. This is one of the oddest books I have ever read. Very readable, and engrossing, even though I didn't really like the main character. But I could not put the book down until I found out what happened to her.
Told in changes between now and then, the story begins when Julia (as a young girl) is asked to be a bridesmaid when her cousin Iris gets married. At the time, Julia and her mother do not live in the same town, so they have to travel for this event, which is just one of many things that Julia's mother does not appreciate. That is the "then" part. In the "now" part, Julia has become a child psychologist who works primarily with troubled children.
Julia has an experience as a child that haunts her for her entire life. From barely knowing her cousin, aunt, and uncle, to eventually living with her cousin and the cousin's family after her mother dies when Julia is fifteen, the "then" part of the story seems headed for serious trouble.
But Julia as an adult is truly committed to helping the children who come to her, and she has a unique understanding of their feelings, behavior, and reasons for being how they are.
Julia is one of the strangest characters I've ever come across. Clearly she is "too smart for her own good" as a child. Clearly she is a strong person. Though she is not really likable, I didn't necessarily hate her either. She never does or thinks what you expect, and even at the end, is still kind of a puzzle.
But she does make for an interesting character in a book!
I know that I have promised in the past to make some of my books available for giveaways, and then didn't follow up. But with April comes Spring Cleaning Time, so I may actually have a list before too long.
In the meantime, I hope April treats you well, and all of your reading is enjoyable!