How It All Began by Penelope Lively

Thus has reading wound in with living, each a compliment to the other. Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks.  She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.

Penelope Lively’s How It All Began was just lovely.  That’s absolutely the word for it:  lovely.  It came along when I was craving something relatively straightforward and contemporary, something with human relationships at its center.  I fell into its pages and finished it in two days.  I also fell in love with some of the characters along the way.  It examines the role of a chance encounter in one’s life and how it can have a domino effect outward, changing the lives of relatives and acquaintances in unimaginable ways.61fyG1hzI2L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_

Charlotte has been mugged, and as a result has broken a hip.  Retired and independent, she now has to temporarily live with her adult daughter, Rose, and Rose’s husband, Gerry.  (Rose describes Gerry like this: “Gerry is fine.  Who’d want a husband who would run you ragged?”)  Because she has to get her mother settled into her home, Rose misses work for a few days.  She’s the assistant to an elderly historian who is forever writing his memoirs; he enlists his niece, interior designer Marion, to help him out temporarily. Marion isn’t able to meet her lover, the already married Jeremy, because she’s helping her uncle.  She leaves him a text, which his wife accidentally discovers.  Meanwhile, during her recovery, Charlotte tutors an Eastern European immigrant named Anton in reading English, and he and Rose strike up a beautiful friendship.  Everyone in the book (a large cast of characters) ends up feeling the ripple effect of the mugging, with chance encounters and disruptions leading to new relationships and opportunities.

This reminded me a bit of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series, without the somewhat overbearing narrator.  Charlotte is really the center of the book, and she’s a wonderful character.  She’s a voracious lifelong reader, and her musings on the reading life felt authentic.  She also ponders the indignities of aging and being dependent on others, and reflects on her very happy marriage to Rose’s late father, Tom.  She can’t help but compare her marriage to what she observes of Rose’s union with Gerry.

Here are two people who live equably together, and maybe that us as much as anyone can ask.  Charlotte is embarrassed to be a witness to this, to be thinking about it.  She has never actually lived with Rose and Gerry before, close as she has been to them.  And she is aware that these thoughts are prompted because she knows that this marriage is not like her own; it is colorless, by comparison, it lacks the zest, the give and take, the hours of discussion and debate, the hand on the knee, the arm round the shoulder, the silent codes of amusement and of horror.  The laughter.

11797374I’ve read three books previously by the prolific Penelope Lively – Moon Tiger and Passing On, both years ago, and more recently, The Road to Lichfield (you can read my review here.)  She’s an underappreciated author, I think, at least here in the United States.  With the last book of hers I read, and with this one, I came away thinking, “Why don’t I read her more often?”  She’s a refreshingly intelligent, observant writer, portraying ordinary people with great skill and compassion.  She is less somber than Anita Brookner and less consciously witty than Barbara Pym, but I think if you like either of those authors you would like Lively.  I classified this as “Comfort Reading” on my Goodreads shelves, but I’m not altogether sure it’s the right term, now that I think about it.  Charlotte’s nuggets of truth about the human condition and the poignancy of a romance (I won’t spoil the plot further) make it feel too real to be totally comforting.  Perhaps it would be better placed on my “Life Affirming” shelf – so much of what we experience is due to random chance, but the relationships we hold dear are what carry us above life’s slings and arrows. Lively’s book is a warm and generous reminder of this.

 

 

Mini Reviews: Ruth Rendell, Lauren Graham, Marlon James

416MKFJY97L._SX292_BO1,204,203,200_Kissing The Gunner’s Daughter (Inspector Wexford #15) by Ruth Rendell:  Ah, there’s nothing like visiting an old friend, and after having read 14 previous Wexford mysteries, I consider the erudite Reg Wexford an old friend indeed.  It’s odd to say that murder mysteries are my comfort reading, but it’s true all the same.  This one starts out with a grisly (for Rendell) crime scene: three murder victims, including famed author Davina Flory, shot in the middle of dinner, with her teenage granddaughter, Daisy, the only survivor. Robbery gone wrong, or something more sinister? Meanwhile, Wexford’s favorite daughter, Sheila, is seriously dating a self-important ass, and Wexford is trying navigate this tricky terrain, desperate to hold onto his good relationship with her while wanting her not to settle.  I liked this mystery, but at 378 pages it felt a bit too long for me.  And for the first time I started to figure out who was behind the murders before the Inspector did.  I could have used more Mike Burden, Wexford’s no-nonsense sidekick, but all in all this was an entertaining mystery.  I’ve got nine more of these books, according to Goodreads.  I don’t read series in quick succession like some people do, so I imagine that it will take me 2 or 3 more years to complete the series.

Talking As Fast As I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls And Everything In Between by Lauren Graham:  I listened to the audio book version, read by Lauren Graham herself, and it was delightful.  (It was also my first downloadable audio book checkout from my library system’s Overdrive catalog – go me!  Embracing “new” technology!)  If you’re not a fan of “Gilmore Girls,” you can skip this one.  But if you are, you MUST read or listen to it.  Ms. Graham writes about her unconventional childhood, her days in acting school programs, auditioning and trying to make it, and most pleasingly to this fan, goes into great detail about both of her times playing Lorelai Gilmore. Just a charming, self-deprecating woman letting us fans in on what it was like to be a part of such a magical show.  I especially liked her smartly done skewering of ridiculous Hollywood body standards for actresses.  Ms. Graham seems genuine and humble, and this was a fun, breezy, entertaining celebrity memoir.

512--x+XDfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James: So, how much do we owe our favorite authors?  If you’ve followed me for a while you know that I ADORED both of Marlon James’s other novels, A Brief History of Seven Killings and The Book of Night Women.  Hopes for this one, his debut novel, were high, I admit.  At just over 200 pages, it was a total slog for me, I’m sorry to say.  It’s a story about two warring priests in 1950’s Jamaica, wrestling for control of the souls in a small village called Gibbeah.  Filled with biblical imagery and passages, it is also one of the most brutal, relentlessly violent books I’ve ever read.  However, there were some beautifully written passages, hinting at the mastery of his later works.

People had a way of carrying afflictions like possessions, thinking suffering was the evidence of life.

She hated him.  Her spirit rose and fell with his and she hated him.  Because of Bligh, the Widow’s heart was undoing her.  They had struck a deal, heart and mind, and now heart was cheating out.  It had begun by tricking her into doing things like adding more sugar to the limeade and looking at old dresses in red, yellow, blue.  She wished she could punch a hole in her chest and yank the frigging thing out.  The Widow has grown accustomed to death; the mossy, mothy grayness of it.  God had taken away every man who had unfroze her heart.

I made myself finish this because I loved James’s other novels so much.  If it hadn’t been him, or if this had been the first novel of his I’d read, it would probably have been a DNF. It was leaden, joyless, and his characterization was lacking.  I still don’t know what the point of the damn thing is, quite frankly.  Still, I gave it three stars on Goodreads, because I just can’t give him less.  So I’m wondering, do we treat lesser books by our favorite authors differently?  Do we grade them on a curve?  Or am I just a big softie?

How about you?  Do you tend to devour series quickly, or do you parse them out sparingly?  What’s the last good audio book you listened to?  Have you ever made yourself finish a book out of loyalty to the author’s previous work? I’d love to read your thoughts.

BRL Quarterly Report #7

Hi guys!  Now that it’s nearly mid-April, it’s time to do my first Quarterly Report of 2017!    Big Reading Life Quarterly Report (1)

Here’s the breakdown of my reading in the first quarter of the year:

Books Read: 23

Fiction: 18

Nonfiction: 5

Audio: 0

Juvenile/Middle Grade: 328250841

YA/Teen: 1

Graphic Novels: 1

Authors of Color: 6

Published in 2017: 2

Favorites This Quarter:  The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (my review here,) Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (my review here,) and Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera (my review here.)

So how am I doing on my 2017 Reading Goals?  I’ve read NO authors in translation, NO books about body positivity/acceptance, only one work so far by a LGBTQ author, only one YA title (Lumberjanes Vol. 2, which is my only graphic novel or comic thus far,) and only one work with a spirituality focus. My reading has been all over the place, heavily on the fiction side.  So I’m not making a lot of progress so far on my goals, but that’s okay! On the plus side, I’ve only had one 2-star read (Peter Swanson’s Her Every Fear,) with everything else a 3 or better.  I participated for the second time in Reading Ireland Month, which is always a fulfilling reading experience.  I read my first Miss Marple mystery and my second ever romance novel!  I’m happy with my reading pace – for the first time ever I’m seriously considering trying to reach for 100 books in a year! I’ve still got plenty of time to make a serious dent in my reading goals.  And even if I don’t, I know my reading will take me to so many entertaining, satisfying, enlightening places!

How are you doing with your own reading goals?  Are you surprised at what you’ve read or not read so far in 2017?

PS… Shameless plug!  I have the honor this week of being Cathy’s featured blogger on her terrific feature The Books That Built The Blogger!  Check out my post here, and please DO follow her fab blog, 746 Books!

 

It’s Monday (and April!) What Are You Reading?

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is a weekly bookish meme hosted by The Book Date.

Hi friends!  Another week, another month!  It’s April already?!?

My book group met at my house yesterday.  We discussed Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.  Celeste_Ng_-_Everything_I_Never_Told_YouI haven’t reviewed this book here, but I did like it.  Like it, not love.  It moved me a great deal.  I mean, I was utterly sobbing during the last third of the book. But during the first two-thirds, I felt at a distance from the characters, like their emotions and actions weren’t ringing true for me.  It certainly provided a LOT to discuss.  We talked about gender roles and expectations in the 1970’s (the time period for the book;) how hard parenting is; how hard honestly relating to any loved one is; how parents and children communicate differently now vs. the 1970’s; how we felt sorry for and loved the character of Hannah.  It makes a very good book group book.  In a rarity for us, all of us who came (six ladies) read it!  Usually there’s one member who doesn’t.  Anyway, we enjoyed lots of good food and conversation!

Recently Finished:

Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter (Inspector Wexford #15) by Ruth Rendell.  (library hardback) A satisfying British mystery from one of my favorite series.

Currently Reading:

51JqQOlLTjL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Talking As Fast As I Can:  From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls And Everything in Between by Lauren Graham.  (downloadable audiobook)  I had to put listening to Sense and Sensibility on pause because my hold on this book finally became available.  I am LOVING THIS.  She is so down to earth and sensible for a famous person. And funny, as you might expect.

John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James.  (owned paperback)  40 pages in and DAMN this thing is intense.  Which I probably should have expected as the first novel of the author of The Book of Night Women and A Brief History of Seven Killings.  512--x+XDfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Currently Pondering:

This article from Book Riot.  The author whittled down her TBR by reading two books before she let herself buy another one.  I like this method.  My problem is my ratio of library books to ones I own.  I will let those library holds keep coming through and push out books that have been on my bookshelf for ages.  So I’m contemplating trying an experiment by reading two books I own for every library book I read.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this and keep managing my holds well, but I think I’m going to try it!  Anyone else intrigued by this system?

Tell me, what are you reading this week?

 

 

 

Reading Ireland Month: All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

I engineered these passions, these trials, to convince myself I was living a life.  Even misery was better than boredom.  

When we meet Melody Shee she is in her thirties, living in Limerick, Ireland, and twelve weeks pregnant.  The father is not her husband but the seventeen year-old Traveller boy whom she tutors in reading.  Her husband has left her, and she’s contemplating suicide.  We learn that she carries the blame for a childhood friend’s death inside her, and has for years.  We learn that she and her husband have suffered through two miscarriages, and he decided to get a vasectomy to spare them both any more pain.  We learn that her father and her mother didn’t really have a happy marriage, but that her father is the one person who loves and supports her perfectly.  He’s the one person whom she doesn’t want to disappoint, but she can’t quite ever feel worthy of his love.29752909

True confession time:  I almost abandoned All We Shall Know somewhere between pages 50 and 77.  Frankly, three things kept me going.  1.  It was a gift from a blogger friend, 2. it was short (186 pages,) and 3. I realized that, while it began bleakly, it was most certainly NOT dull.

I have the marvelous blogger Fiction Fan to thank for helping me to realize the last bit, in a comment exchange on my previous post.  She said she doesn’t really abandon books for being too sad, but rather for being dull.  It made me reconsider All We Shall Know in a totally knew light.  I realized that while I was saddened by the events in the novel, I was also invested.  I wanted to know what was going to happen to Melody Shee and her baby.  I alternately sympathized with and cringed at Melody’s passions and anger, but I couldn’t stop reading about her.

This is a lyrical, beautifully written book, full of sadness, full of intense emotions, and full of life.  There is a compelling, propulsive quality to the writing, and Ryan is masterful at making the reader care about a heroine that is troubled, to say the least.  Some may find her unlikable. I did myself at times.  But she is a fully realized character, someone who has suffered, made profound mistakes, and carries their weight with her always.  I also marveled at Ryan’s skill in depicting pregnancy.  It made me recall my own experience, the bodily sensations that change and surprise, and even made me have a dream about being pregnant.  The chapters begin at Week Twelve and end at Week Forty, so as the novel progresses the impending birth comes closer and closer.

Melody’s life takes a turn after meeting another Traveller, a young woman named Mary Crothery, a distant relative of the baby’s father.  She also turns to Melody for help learning how to read, and they strike up an unusual and fascinating friendship.  I found that her introduction into the narrative was a real turning point for me in that her character lightened the story up considerably, and softened Melody’s abrasiveness.  Her story line is fraught with peril as well, as she’s left her husband from another Traveler clan, and his family doesn’t like it one bit.  Yet even Melody’s sweet father is enchanted by her.

And the sky and the earth and the cut grass and the chirruping of birds and the low drone of insects and the slant light across my father’s happy face and the gleam of wonder in Mary Crothery’s eyes and the smell of the morning air and the weight of life inside me all seemed even, and easy, and messless, and perfect, and right, and every deficit seemed closed in that moment.

I have a Goodreads shelf labelled “Sad But Worth It” and this resides firmly on that shelf.  It’s a beautiful, raw book about impossible messy relationships and the hope for redemption.  I know I won’t soon forget fierce, flawed Melody, and I will definitely read Ryan again.

Have you ever had this kind of reading experience before, when a book you almost abandoned turned around for you?  Do you have a recommendation for an Irish writer or novel you love? Let me know in the comments.

reading-ireland-month_2017Cathy at 746 Books once again hosts Reading Ireland Month, a month dedicated to exploring all that’s good in Irish books and culture.  Check out all the fun here.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is a weekly bookish meme hosted by The Book Date.

Hi guys!  Things have been quiet around here lately, but I have a good excuse – I went on a trip with my family (hubby’s parents and brother included) last week.  I read only about 30 pages in total last week, and am just now getting back into the swing of reading.  I’m waaaaaayyyyy behind on reading blogs, so I hope to catch up a bit over the next few days!

IMG_1220We went to Folly Beach, SC, which is pretty much my happy place.  It’s about 15 minutes from downtown Charleston, and it’s just the most laid-back little beach town.  My husband and I just like to be on the beach, play with our son, dig holes in the sand, walk around, look for shells.  We don’t need to be doing stuff all the time.  I mean, I like to see things, but mainly I just want to be by the ocean and feel the sunshine on my skin and hear the waves crashing against the shore, you know?  Oh, and we also like to EAT.  So that’s pretty much what we did.  There are some really delicious little restaurants on Folly, so you don’t have to venture far.  It was a little cooler than we’d like, with highs in the 60’s, but we had plenty of sunshine!  It was a great trip.

IMG_1267So now it’s Monday, I’m back to work, and my son is back to school, and we’re all back to reality.  Which isn’t so bad!  I’m still listening to Sense and Sensibility now that I’m driving to work again and have wrestled control of my car stereo back from my son, who apparently can ONLY listen to the Hamilton Soundtrack these days.  (I love the Hamilton Soundtrack, but I have listened to “My Shot” about 18,000 times!)  I’m just to the point in the book where Marianne is heartbroken and Colonel Brandon has come to tell Elinor about the horrible things that Willoughby has done to his young ward.  It’s making me want to watch the stellar film adaptation with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and the wonderful Alan Rickman again.  Sigh.

I’m also halfway through All We Shall Know by the Irish writer Donal Ryan.  I don’t quite know what to say about this novel.  It’s really… depressing.  Bleak. The writing is beautiful, truly, but…  I can’t say that I’m enjoying it.  I was planning to read it and review it for Reading Ireland Month but March ends Friday, so I *hope* to have it done by then.  Mixed feelings for sure on this one.IMG_1268

Here’s a question for you:  What’s the last depressing book you abandoned, or finished?

What are YOU reading this Monday? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

Reading Ireland Month: The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

The Visitor, a novella, was written sometime in the 1940’s but just published in 2000, after being discovered in papers acquired by Notre Dame University. I learned about Maeve Brennan only last year, from a review of The Rose Garden on Cathy’s blog 746 Books.   Brennan was the daughter of an Easter Rising rebellion leader, and moved as a teen with her family to the U.S. in 1934, when her father was appointed as Ireland’s first ambassador to the United States.  Apparently she became part of the New York City literati and was rumored to be inspiration for Truman Capote’s character Holly Golightly. She worked for The New Yorker, writing pieces for “The Talk of the Town” and her own short stories. After a brief marriage to the editor of the magazine, St. Clare McKelway, she drifted into mental problems and homelessness, dying in obscurity in 1993.

41oRlBr3jeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Visitor is a dark, atmospheric volume about a supremely dysfunctional family. Anastasia, a twenty-two year-old young woman, is coming to stay with her grandmother, Mrs. King, after being away for six years.  We learn that she was in Paris with her mother, a woman with whom her grandmother did not get along, and that her mother has recently died.  Her father, who stayed in Dublin, has recently passed away as well.  Anastasia is adrift, returning to her childhood home, even though it becomes clear that it was not a place of happiness for her or her family.

She kissed her grandmother hastily, avoiding her eyes.  The grandmother did not move from the door of the sitting room.  She stood in the doorway, having just got up from the fireside and her reading, and contemplated Anastasia and Anastasia’s luggage crowding the hall.  She was still the same, with her delicate and ruminative and ladylike face, and her hands clasped formally in front of her.  Anastasia thought, She is waiting for me to make some mistake.

Anastasia’s parents marriage was not a happy one.  A large age difference and a difference in temperament, possibly mental problems, are alluded to in flashbacks.  Her grandmother blames Anastasia for her father’s death, or at the very least harbors resentment towards her for following her mother to Paris and not coming back to Ireland. When Anastasia  expresses a desire to remain with her grandmother, she shuts her down resolutely, coldly.

“I’m afraid that you’ve been counting too much on me.  You mustn’t do that.  I have no home to offer you.  This is a changed house here now.  I see no one whatsoever.”

She smiled with anger.

“I stopped seeing them after she ran off, when I found them asking questions of Katherine in the hall outside.  I go out to mass, that’s all.  When I got your telegram, I hadn’t the heart to stop you.  You need a change.  It’s natural that you should want to pay a visit here.  But more than that, no.  It might have been different, maybe, if you’d been with me when he died.   But you weren’t here.”

This is pretty much what Anastasia confronts as soon as she arrives to the house.  She drifts aimlessly through her days, taking walks, shopping for Christmas gifts, and visiting an elderly friend of her grandmother’s, Miss Kilbride, the only person her Mrs. King has over to tea.  Miss Kilbride tells her some of her own secrets, and makes an unusual request of Anastasia in the event of her passing on.  Will Anastasia honor Miss Kilbride’s request?  Will she somehow persuade her grandmother to let her stay, or will she return to Paris?  Is Anastasia even a trustworthy narrator?

reading-ireland-month_2017I was very much impressed by this little gem, I have to say.  Not a word is wasted.  The writing is assured, elegant, evocative.  I was left with questions, but was mesmerized by the steady hand with which Brennan portrayed what was left of this supremely dysfunctional family.  I felt sorry for everyone in it, from Katherine, the determinedly kind housekeeper, to the thwarted Miss Kilbride, who had disappointments of her own she never recovered from.  I even felt sympathy for Mrs. King, who lived a sad and circumscribed life.  It seems such a shame to live a life with so little room for joy, and so little capacity for forgiveness.  I somehow hope that Anastasia is able to break the cycle of sadness that her family has bequeathed to her, but we are not privy to that outcome, if it is to pass.

I’m so glad to have learned of Maeve Brennan, and intend to read everything of hers  and about her that I can find.  What a fascinating life!  What a powerful writer!  This was a terrific choice for Reading Ireland Month.  To read more blog posts about Irish novels, films, and culture, click here.