Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (#AnneReadalong2017)

“We must keep a little laughter, girls,” said Mrs. Blythe. “A good laugh is as good as a prayer, sometimes – only sometimes,” she added under her breath.  She had found it very hard to laugh after the three weeks she had just lived through – she, Anne Blythe, to whom laughter had always come so easily and so freshly.  And what hurt most was that Rilla’s laughter had grown so rare – Rilla whom she used to think laughed over-much.  Was all the child’s girlhood to be so clouded?  Yet how strong and clever and womanly she was growing!  How patiently she knitted and sewed and manipulated those uncertain Junior Reds!  And how wonderful she was with Jims.

“She really could not do better for that child than if she had raised a baker’s dozen, Mrs. Dr. dear,” Susan had avowed solemnly.  “Little did I ever expect it of her on the day she landed here with that soup tureen.”

433533What a way to end the #AnneReadalong2017!  I didn’t know what to expect from Rilla of Ingleside after the previous two books in the series, which for me were a two-star and a three-star read, respectively.  This one was a gem, darker and emotionally richer  than any other entry in the series.  Anne’s youngest daughter, Rilla, changes from a dreamy, aimless, fun-loving girl to a resourceful, courageous, dependable young women under the shadow of the First World War and its hardships.  We see how the community of Glen St. Mary rises to the occasion, offering its sons and brothers to the cause with bravery and grace.

There are many things to love about Rilla, from the trademark Montgomery descriptions of  beautiful landscape to the beginning exploration of Rilla’s young love life.  And I can’t forget to mention precious Dog Monday, Jem’s loyal furry friend who waits for him at the train station for the duration of the lad’s time at war.  I got choked up a time or two thinking about him getting excited every time the train pulled in and young men came home.  And one of my favorite characters from books past is in fine form here:  the formidable Susan, who isn’t shy with her opinions at all.

“When I wake up in the night and cannot go to sleep again,” remarked Susan, who was knitting and reading at the same time, “I pass the moments by torturing the Kaiser to death.  Last night I fried him in boiling oil and a great comfort it was to me, remembering those Belgian babies.”

“We are told to love our enemies, Susan,” said the doctor solemnly.

“Yes, our enemies, but not King George’s enemies, doctor dear,” retorted Susan crushingly.  She was so well pleased with herself over this flattening out of the doctor completely that she even smiled as she polished her glasses. 

Rilla herself is a marvelous character, growing and changing from a frivolous, happy-go-lucky girl to a young woman of great character and heart.  I love how she decided to take care of the sickly, orphaned baby Jims, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father was at war.  She made no pretense of liking babies at first, and I admired her honesty, but she grew to love little Jims as if he were her own, and it was sweet to see the change.  (SPOILER AHEAD) I was sad that she had to give him back to his father but happy that they would be so close and she could still see him often.  I also appreciated her maturation as it applied to her “frenemy” Irene Howard.  (Oh, Irene was just evil!)

Irene was not, as Mrs. Elliot would say, of the race that knew Joseph. 

We get to see what it was like to send away beloved sons, brothers, and sweethearts across the sea to fight, to dread every time the phone rang or the news came in.  And Walter – oh, Walter!  I won’t spoil anything that happens with Rilla’s beloved older brother Walter, but his conflicted soul at the war’s outset was a deft portrayal of what many young men went through, probably.  His letter to Rilla broke my heart.

This book ended up on my year-end Best Of list because it captivated and moved me.  I feel like I’ve read quite a few books set during the Second World War but not as many featuring the First, so that was a welcome change.  It was especially poignant when characters near the end remarked on how humanity might change for the better and learn lessons from the horrors of this war – little did they know that just twenty years later they’d be facing similar heartache and loss.

I’m so glad I participated in the AnneReadalong2017, and I want to thank Jane from Greenish Bookshelf and Jackie from Death By Tsundoku for co-hosting this event!  I never would have made it all the way through the series on my own, without the framework of one book per month.  If I had quit, say, after book five, I would have missed this marvelous last book of the series.  For anyone who, like me, didn’t read this series in their childhood, I definitely recommend them – well, the first five books and the eighth book, anyway!  🙂  They are delightful, a real respite from the crassness and noise of our time as well as entertaining, humorous stories with characters to fall in love with.

 

BRL Best of 2017 and Year End Reflections

It’s that time again, friends, when we’re all taking stock of our reading and making plans for next year.  This has been a good reading year for me overall, although I didn’t fulfill many of the goals I set for myself at the year’s beginning.  I still read some enlightening and entertaining books, participated in the #AnneReadalong2017, the R.I.P. Challenge and Reading Ireland Month, and hit a new Goodreads Challenge goal!  So without further adieu, here is my Best of 2017 list (in no particular order.)

  1.  Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.  Moving and inventive, unlike anything else I’ve ever read.  Saunders is a master of the human heart and a risk-taker.  I will read anything he writes.
  2. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.  Searing, violent, suspenseful, and unforgettable.  Whitehead’s finest work to date.
  3. At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor.  A witty, melancholy novel WWII British marriage and motherhood with a feisty heroine.  I’m delighted to have finally discovered Taylor.
  4. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.  Some have loved this, some haven’t, but for me it was beautiful and devastating in the best sense.
  5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.  A young black heroine teens can relate to, a realistic and loving family, and a heartbreaking exploration of police brutality in a poor African American community.  I’m thrilled this has become a best seller and is being made into a movie.
  6. The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel.  My only nonfiction to have made the list.  I just adored this slim, page-turning book about a real-life hermit in Maine who survived the elements and eluded capture for decades.
  7. The Watsons Go To Birmingham 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis.  A gem, a book I recommend for everyone.  Warm, funny, and heartbreaking all at once.  A great way to introduce a very heavy topic (the Civil Rights Movement and the Birmingham church bombing) to younger readers.  I listened to the audiobook and it was terrific.
  8. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.  I was captivated by this slim novel that mixed fantasy, dystopian, and contemporary literary fiction elements to create a moving exploration of love and war in an unsettled age.
  9. Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery.  The third book in the series, this one focuses on Anne at college.  I loved reading about her being on her own and making friends, having fun before settling down into a more conventional role.
  10. Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery.  The last book in the series, I was take by surprise by how much I loved it.  Darker than the rest, I was enthralled and moved by how the women of the community rose up to meet the challenges of World War I and the emotional toil of sending beloved sons and brothers overseas.

As for the numbers, here are my final reading stats for 2017:

Total books read (as of 12/27/17:) 90

Fiction: 77

Nonfiction: 12

Poetry: 1

Mysteries/Thrillers: 13

Graphic Novels/Comics: 3

Audiobooks: 6

Authors of Color: 18

Middle Grade: 15

YA/Teen: 11

Rereads: 7

Goals I Completed:

Read 6 YA books.

Read 6 middle grade books.

Choose 6 “random” reads.  I was trying to inject more “whimsy” into my reading life.

Goals I Didn’t Complete:

Authors of Color at 35% or higher.  Nope.  I only read a measly 20%.

Authors in Translation.  Not a one.  UGH.

There were other goals I didn’t complete but those were the biggest ones and I won’t bore you with the others.  As I’ve mentioned before, I am a mood reader, I hate reading off of a list (even one I make myself!), and I just don’t do well with self-imposed goals.  (I’m definitely an Obliger, if you follow Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies personality framework.)  Which makes sense that I was able to complete my challenges and readalongs, because those all involved OUTER accountability.  Anyway, next year I am setting NO READING GOALS whatsoever.  I am just going to enjoy reading whatever I want, wherever my curiosity takes me.  I may participate in readalongs and challenges, I may not.

So, how about your own reading goals for 2017?  Any that you’re proud of reaching, or sorry that you didn’t reach?  Have you read any of my Top Ten?  What did you think? Talk to me in the comments below! 

 

 

At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

“Are you any happier here now, love?”  When she could not answer, he sighed.

“Oh, I am hopeless!” she said impulsively.  “I find it so difficult to be happy. I wish it were not so.  Are you happy?”

“Yes, on the whole, I am very happy.  I suppose this life suits me, interests me.”

“What would interest me, suit me, I don’t know.  I daresay I want life to always be pleasure – sitting in the sun, drinking.”

“Pleasure is not happiness.”

“No.”  But she still saw herself beneath a striped awning, at the edge of some pavement, a market square, and its cobble-stones full of shadows and high lights like a tubful of suds.  On the iron table was a glass still clouded with some frosted drink, there was the smell of sun-baked foreign newsprint; warmth, leisure, delight, relaxation, the frosted drink an illumination of contentment at the back of her head; across the table a shadow leaned forward and laid a hand over her hand on the iron table.

at-mrs-lippincotesElizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs. Lippincote’s is a treasure, a first novel (written in 1945) that sparkles with insight, wit, and a hint of melancholy.

Julia is married to Roddy, a lieutenant in the RAF who is stationed at a base somewhere in the south of England during WWII.  They have one son, Oliver, and they also live with Roddy’s cousin Eleanor, who is recovering from an alluded-to nervous breakdown. They’re renting a furnished home from Mrs. Lippincote, and Julia doesn’t hesitate to explore the drawers and cabinets, speculating about the photographs and mementos she finds.  Eleanor is somewhat in love with Roddy and silently resentful of Julia, whom she suspects is not the wife that she feels Roddy deserves.  Roddy is what you’d expect an RAF pilot from the 1940s to be – solid, conventional, kind of obtuse, and definitely not seeing Julia for who she really is or wants to be.

Julia and Oliver have an absolutely adorable relationship.  Oliver is quite precocious, a voracious reader with a tremendous imagination who for the first part of the book is ill and misses quite a bit of school. (The scene where he asks where babies come from is hilarious.)  Julia frets over Oliver as the mother of an only child would (I definitely identified with this!)

Lying back in her chair, she watched Oliver’s thin hands dealing out the cards with slow deliberation.  “Oh God, make him fat!” she prayed.  “Please God, if only you would, I’d believe in you.  For ever and ever, amen.”  As she picked up her bundle of cards, her mouth smiled, but her eyes flashed and swam with tears.

We follow Julia as she strikes up a friendship (mild flirtation?) with Roddy’s Wing Commander, an intellectual man who shares Julia’s interest in the Brontë sisters.  (He seems to observe Julia more shrewdly than her husband does.)  She also goes out occasionally for a walk and ends up chatting with a Mr. Taylor, an old acquaintance from their pre-war London days who is not physically or mentally well.  They have some interesting conversations but nothing untoward.  However, Roddy is hostile to him and doesn’t like Julia going out by herself at night.  He expects her to be more conventional and more attentive to his needs.

She exasperated him.  Society necessarily has a great many little rules, especially relating to the behaviour of women.  One accepted them and life ran smoothly and without embarrassment, or as far as that is possible where there are two sexes.  Without the little rules, everything became queer and unsafe.

Julia is a fascinating character – she is more direct and more moody than Roddy would like her to be and I love her for it.  She seemed authentic to me.  She adored her child but felt stifled in  her role as wife and mother.  She seemed to long for intelligent conversation and more freedom.  She sees Roddy much more clearly than he ever sees her, but she seems resigned to that role.  Perhaps she will lobby Roddy for more freedom, perhaps they will part… the ending is ambiguous, but I feel a strength coming from Julia for her future days.

This novel was a real treat to read.  This is an author that I suspect I am going to thoroughly enjoy getting to know.  She reminds me a bit of my beloved Barbara Pym, only more acerbic and a bit edgier.  I’m delighted to have finally discovered Elizabeth Taylor’s writing – and I’ve got THIRTEEN more of her novels to read!  Merry Christmas to me!

And Merry Christmas to all my blogger friends who celebrate, and if you have time off from work in the coming days, may your reading time be plentiful and satisfying!

These Books Need To Go: a Mini-Review Round-Up

Having (regrettably) set my Goodreads Challenge number higher than I ever had in the past, I felt the pressure to read faster.  I have indeed turned on the jets and finished quite a few books in the past six weeks.  But I haven’t been reviewing them at the same pace.  So I’ve got this stack of books staring me in the face and, honestly, getting on my nerves.  Plus, they just need to get back to the library (where I procured them all.)  Because I’m sick of looking at them, here are some super quick mini-reviews to clear the decks.

Now You See Me (Lacey Flint #1) by Sharon Bolton.  Fiction Fan turned me onto this author.  I really enjoyed this one.  It’s got a strong female detective constable (Lacey,) a Jack the Ripper copycat killer with a mysterious connection to Lacey, and a nice slow-burning sexual tension between her and DI Mark Joesbury.  Very suspenseful, and I really didn’t know how it was all going to work out until the end.  High quality writing as well.  Definitely will be reading more of this series and this author in 2018!  Four stars.

Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards (British Library Crime Classics.)  My pick for Christmas reading this year.  An uneven collection, but five of the Golden Age crime stories really stood out and made this a worthwhile pick.  Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock story, “The Blue Carbuncle” was entertaining as one might expect.  “Stuffing” by Edgar Wallace was short and sweet.  H.C. Bailey’s “The Unknown Murderer” featured an unlikely criminal and an unexpected twist.  “The Chinese Apple” by Joseph Shearing (a pen name of Marjorie Bowen) is a masterpiece of misdirection.  And my favorite, Ethel Lina White’s “Waxworks,” is a creepy delight.  A young female journalist investigates a hall of wax where two people have mysteriously died.  Determined to find out of the hall is indeed haunted, she sneaks in and gets herself locked in overnight on Christmas Eve.  Suspense builds as the night goes on and she finds herself imagining things – or could there be a murderer locked in with her?  I absolutely loved this one.  Overall, though, for the collection, Three stars.

White Rage: The Unspoke Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson.  This book grew out of an op-ed in the Washington Post in response to the 2014 Ferguson, MO riots after the killing of Michael Brown.  I could call this book Important Stuff We Should Have Studied in High School.  In a short but well-researched 164 pages (and 60 pages of end notes) Anderson lays out a map of white oppression tactics to every gain in status that African Americans have won since the end of the Civil War.  From the unjust laws of the former CSA states during Reconstruction to the assault on voting rights after the election of our first black president, Anderson makes a persuasive argument that every time African Americans win a victory, there is always a well-coordinated and legalistic backlash by a segment of white people in power.  The chapter on the aftermath of the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education was especially good.  An eye-opening, enraging, important book.  Four stars.

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons.  A debut novel about grief and identity.  Unusual structure – some photographs, some graphs, a few pages include only three or four sentences.  The main character is Thandi, born and raised in America to a mixed-race South African mother and a light-skinned Black American father.  Thandi’s mother has died of cancer (not a spoiler) and we get to see how the event shapes Thandi’s life as she tries to find her place in the world as an adult.  There were some beautifully written passages about grief, but it just didn’t come together for me as powerful, cohesive  narrative.  The most interesting sections of the book for me were explorations of contemporary motherhood and marriage.  Three stars.

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud.  I’ve loved Messud’s two previous novels, The Emperor’s Children and The Woman Upstairs.  This one wasn’t on par with those, unfortunately.  A portrait of two twelve-year old best friends on the cusp of big changes and growing apart.  It moved along quickly and I was engaged, but I couldn’t quite believe that the narrator was supposed to be a seventeen year-old looking back and not a middle-aged author.  The voice was felt too mature.  There are some intelligent observations about the physical freedoms that girls give up as they grow into women, and there are scenes as the girls explore an old abandoned asylum that are lovely and creepy.  Messud is a good writer, I just wanted more vitality from this book.  Three stars.

Hear me now – I’m setting my Goodreads Challenge number nice and low next year!  This (self-imposed) pressure is for the birds.  Three more books by the end of the year to meet my goal.  I can do it!  Hope you all are enjoying some good reading this weekend.  Will you meet your Goodreads Challenge goal?

Long Division by Kiese Laymon

51mAbD8758L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes I read something and when I’m finished I think, “I don’t know if I really got this.”  Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division is one of those books.  I know I would benefit from a reread, and from simply sitting with it longer than my appetite for reading allows.  Even after a book group meeting and discussion, I still don’t think I fully grasp this novel.  It’s a mind-bending book-within-a-book.  We go from 2013 to 1985 to 1964 and back again.  Characters show up and disappear, characters experience and witness violence, there is humor and sadness and time travel and I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to take from all of this except that I was invested and surprisingly moved in the end.

The book starts out in 2013 with our hero, Jackson, Mississippi high-schooler City (Citoyen) Coldson, getting ready to compete with a few classmates and others in the Can You Use That Word in a Sentence Contest, which was “started in 2006 after states in the Deep South, Midwest, and Southwest complained that the Scripps Spelling Bee was geographically biased.”  It’s nearly impossible to set up this novel, so here’s the Goodreads description:

 The book contains two interwoven stories. In the first, it’s 2013: after an on-stage meltdown during a nationally televised quiz contest, 14-year-old Citoyen “City” Coldson becomes an overnight YouTube celebrity. The next day, he’s sent to stay with his grandmother in the small coastal community of Melahatchie, where a young girl named Baize Shephard has recently disappeared.

Before leaving, City is given a strange book without an author called Long Division. He learns that one of the book’s main characters is also named City Coldson–but Long Division is set in 1985. This 1985 City, along with his friend and love-object, Shalaya Crump, discovers a way to travel into the future, and steals a laptop and cellphone from an orphaned teenage rapper called…Baize Shephard. They ultimately take these with them all the way back to 1964, to help another time-traveler they meet protect his family from the Klan.

City’s two stories ultimately converge in the mysterious work shed behind his grandmother’s, where he discovers the key to Baize’s disappearance.

It’s not a long book, despite all the plot elements. There’s different typeface for what’s happening in the present day and what’s happening in the book City’s reading, which helps a bit to keep everything straight.  It tackles serious subjects like race, class, and sexuality, with a sideways dark humor.  It felt alternately playful and serious.  Parts of it, especially at the beginning, reminded me of another book that made me feel dull-witted:  Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.  (Not as outrageous, though.)  I was not prepared for how absorbing this book is – it’s more like a speculative mystery than straight literary fiction. What happened to Baize?  What is City’s grandmother hiding in her shed?  Does everyone make it back to the present day?  I was also not prepared for how emotional I would get reading it.  I know.  I cried, how shocking!  😀 But for most of the book I was kept at a distance by the book-within-a-book format and the dizzying prose, and then – BAM!  The last 30 pages hit me hard.

Make no mistake, this book is using fantasy and humor and meta fiction to talk about race in the Deep South.  A white man in conflict with City’s grandmother says a mouth full with one sentence.

“Y’all mad at something more than me,” he said.  “I ain’t do it.”

There’s a powerful moment where City is in his grandmother’s church, and he’s wondering what the parishioners would think if they knew what his grandmother was doing.  He says,

If they ever found out, maybe two of them would talk smack about my grandma, but I figured that everyone in the church had been treated like a visitor on their own road, in their own town, in their own state, in their own country.  It wasn’t really complicated at all, but I’d never understood it until right then in that church.  When you and everyone like you and everyone who really likes you is treated like a pitiful nigger, or like a disposable nigger, or or like some terrorizing nigger, over and over again, in your own home, in your own state, in your own country, and the folks who treat you like a nigger are pretty much left alone, of course you start having fantasies about doing whatever you can – not just to get back at white folks, and not just to stop the pain, but to do something that I didn’t understand yet, something a million times worse than acting a fool in front of millions at a contest.

As I write this, I’ve decided that I must read this book again.  And I’ve got to slow down next time.

 

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

I have NO idea what made me pick up My Name is Lucy Barton.  I didn’t even have it on my “To-Read” shelf on Goodreads!  Or rather, I did have it on my To-Read shelf, but somewhere along the line I had taken it off in one of my periodic purges.  Perhaps I just wanted something short to read (it’s 191 pages in hardcover.)  Behind on my Goodreads Challenge, I probably wanted the feeling of accomplishment that finishing a book can bring.  Once I started reading this, I didn’t want to stop.  I just loved it.

25893709This is a small story, told in snippets, of Lucy’s time in the hospital battling a serious infection, and how her emotionally and physically distant mother came to stay with her there for a short time.  It’s breathtaking in its spareness, with small moments of heartbreaking beauty surfacing from Lucy’s memories of that time.  We also get glimpses of her horrible, impoverished Midwestern childhood – just enough to show us their tragedy but not enough for the reader to become overwhelmed.

There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking:  It was not that bad.  Perhaps it was not.  But there are times too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived.  This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. 

She escaped her upbringing because a teacher introduced her to reading, and she fell in love with books.  Also, she stayed as long as she could at school each day because it was warm, and her house had no heat.  She earned a full scholarship to a college in Chicago, and when she came home for Thanksgiving, she couldn’t fall asleep at night because she “was afraid I would wake and find myself once more in this house and I would be in this house forever, and it seemed unbearable to me.”  We get a glimpse of a horrific incident between her father and her brother when the brother was caught wearing his mother’s clothes, and we are told of times that Lucy was locked inside the family truck, before she was old enough for school, either as punishment or as a substitute for daycare.  Gilbert expertly portrays a young child’s terror at being left alone and thinking that no one is coming back to save her.

But this book sounds so bleak when I write of these things!  Where is the beauty, you ask?  What made you love this book, Laila?  Well, the beauty is in the small ways in which Lucy and her mother fumble and try to connect while she’s in the hospital, the gentleness of Lucy’s doctor, the way Lucy falls in love with New York City, in the way she writes of her first husband and their early days.  It’s in the way Lucy clawed her way out of a horrible life.  Strout is simply a master as gutting the reader with the simplest of images and the most precise sentences.

What else made this book resonate so strongly for me?  Well, maybe it was the feeling I got while reading it, one of intense longing for my childhood.  My childhood was pretty good overall, no traumas like the ones Lucy faced.  My parents and extended family always loved me, of that I never once doubted.  But my parents are divorced, and I admit that if they told me today that they would get back together I would be overjoyed.  I know that my relationship with my mother has never fully recovered.  This is a story of mothers and daughters, a very specific, troubled mother-daughter relationship, but a reader like me can feel echoes of my own past here.  I also felt the nostalgia for the places of my childhood, like my grandparents’ house, which is no longer in the family, as they have both passed away.  So much of my life was spent there in middle Tennessee, in summers and on holidays, and now it’s just gone.  We have no reason to travel there any more, and it breaks my heart.  Lucy’s past was awful, but there were moments when she seemed like a little girl rather than a grown woman with kids, and she just wanted the security and reassurance of her mother’s love, like any of us want that from time to time.  What was most heartbreaking was the sense that she was worth more than the tiny scraps her mother was able to give her.

This was a book that connected deeply with me, but I’ve read Goodreads reviews and blog reviews where this was not the case.  So I don’t know – maybe it will resonate with you or may not.  I love that it took me by surprise, and that I randomly picked it up after disregarding it for so long.  I devoured it in two days, and still I wanted more, but I also felt like I knew Lucy enough to see her as a fully formed character.  She was doing the best with what she’d been given – she had flaws, but she also has great strength.  (I haven’t even mentioned that she became a writer!  There’s this whole side story line with a New York City author who inspires Lucy, it’s beautifully rendered.)  I immediately checked out Strout’s follow-up that came out this year, Anything is Possible.  I’m trying to not get my hopes up too much, trying to let it have room to surprise me in a good way as well.  My Name is Lucy Barton is going on my upcoming year-end Best Of List.

Have you read this, or any other of Strout’s novels?  What was the last book that surprised you in a good way?

 

 

My Life With Bob by Pamela Paul

717w6Z79NILMy Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues is one of those books that is incredibly quotable.  I put little Post-it notes in the backs of my library books so that I always have paper on hand to make notations (in case my little notepad isn’t handy) and I filled four full Post-its – plus two pages in my notepad.  Pamela Paul is very opinionated, which I suppose makes for a good book about books.  Who’d want to read a book about books with a bunch of milquetoast opinions? Sometimes I really liked her, sometimes I found her insufferable (to be fair, mostly when she was younger.  And who isn’t insufferable when they’re young?)  But the entire time I was reading this, I found her interesting.

I think I expected more whimsy and less substance from this book, but I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of Paul’s tale.  A shy only sister in a large family of brothers, she wanted to impress the librarians of her childhood with her reading taste. (“I was certain I’d lose their respect entirely if they caught me when, following the gateway drug of Judy Blume, I progressed to Paula Danziger and Norma Klein explicit and positively dirty.”)  The reader follows Paul from adolescence and high school through college and world travels thereafter, then onto a first failed marriage and up to the present day, married with children (who are readers themselves.)  All along the way, Paul describes how the books she chose informed her thinking and her life and vice versa.  Her teenage obsession with the Andy Warhol-endorsed Slaves of New York, by Tama Janovitz, served as her “inchoate way of declaring to the rest of my high school classmates where I stood.”  On a summer abroad in France, disgusted by her previous self-indulgent and histrionic diaries, she began “Bob,” her book of books.  It would be a diary of the better part of herself, or the self she wanted to present to the world and become. Later, writing of her first marriage, she credits her intellectual and philosophical arguments with her then husband, also a voracious reader, with enhancing her ability to consider books on a deeper level.  (“I’d gone from escaping into books and searching for answers to locating a considered remove, respecting my perspective on the work, and trusting my own responses.  I hadn’t properly engaged with books before I’d met my husband; I’d never wrestled with a text.  Before we were married, I”d never written a book review; a few months after we split up, I wrote my first.”)

I dare anyone to read the chapter about her father (called “Bad News: Tearjerkers”) and not bawl.

Some favorite lines:

“This is every reader’s catch-22: the more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing.”

“It was as if our fundamental differences became manifest in how we read, slicing through the fog of infatuation.”

“Books gnaw at me from around the edges of my life, demanding more time and attention.  I am always left hungry.”

“The ability to choose one’s own books becomes slightly less satisfying when you realize your own children have that power, too, and they insist on reading about rainbow fairies or killer cats.”

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My second and current “Bob”

 

I eagerly anticipated reading this because I also keep a “Bob” of my own.  I’m on the second edition, actually, having filled up the first in 2015.  They are nondescript lined journals, and they don’t have names, but they’re dear to my heart as a record of who I was when I was reading things.  I’ve written little notes about who I started dating and when I broke up with them, when I began dating my now husband, when I had my son (precious little reading was done in the months thereafter!)  I like to take these “Bobs” out from time to time and reflect on all the things I’ve read, how my tastes have changed, favorite books I’ve read more than once and ones I still want to reread.  Paul sums up the appeal of a “Bob” nicely near the end of her memoir by saying,

I’d like to think others would get as much out of a Book of Books as I have gotten out of mine.  For each of us, the books we’ve chosen across a lifetime reveal not only our evolving interests and tastes, but also our momentary and insatiable desires, the questions we can’t stop asking, the failings we recognize in ourselves at the time, and the ones we can see clearly only years later.  We pass our lives according to our books – relishing and reacting against them, reliving their stories when we recall where we were when we read them and the reasons we did.  Most people, I’m convinced, are not just searching for cocktail-party fodder when they ask what someone else is reading.  They are trying to figure someone out, to get to the bottom of him.  They are looking for clues.

Thoughts on Rainbow Valley by L.M. Montgomery (#AnneReadalong2017)

Note: Jane at Greenish Bookshelf and Jackie at Death By Tsundoku are co-hosting an Anne of Green Gables series readalong for the remainder of the year.  Check out their blogs for more info on how to join the fun!

To sit in Rainbow Valley, steeped in a twilight half gold, half amethyst, rife with the odours of balsam-fir and woodsy growing things in their springtime prime, with the pale stars of wild strawberry blossoms all around you, and with the sough of the wind and tinkle of bells in the shaking treetops, and eat fried trout and dry bread, was something which the mighty of earth would have envied them.

77395Rainbow Valley is not about Anne Blythe; not even really about her kids.  It’s mostly about the new neighbor kids, the Merediths, who are running wild while their father, John Meredith, the new minister, walks around absentmindedly with his head full of theological and philosophical questions.  It’s got the trademark Montgomery musings on the beauty of the natural world, a dash of romance, and just enough of Anne and her family to keep me invested and turning the pages quickly.

After my disappointment with Anne of Ingleside, I was a bit nervous approaching this one.  But many  bloggers reassured me that #7 in the series was a winner – and they were right!  A short novel (my copy was 225 pages,) Rainbow Valley was a fast read for me – something that the previous novel was decidedly not.  The Meredith children – Jerry, Carl, Una, and Faith – are spirited and enterprising, conscious of their father’s parental shortcomings in the eyes of the town gossips.  They often tried to take matters in their own hands and not bother their father, who they clearly loved and who clearly loved them.  I didn’t find them as annoyingly naive as the Blythe children were depicted in Anne of Ingleside.  Mary Vance, an abused orphan girl who runs away and shows up in a neighbor’s barn, is a vexing character and does her best to upset the Meredith kids with her know-it-all ways.  But I couldn’t totally dislike her because Montgomery does show how horribly mistreated she was in her former situation.  I was glad that Miss Cornelia adopted her, even if her improvement in life led her to be even more insufferable.

My favorite aspect of Rainbow Valley was the emerging romance between Rev. Meredith and the spinster Rosemary West.  Rosemary and her sister Ellen lived together and Rosemary had promised her sister years before that she would never marry and leave her alone.  I was irritated initially by Ellen’s stubborn refusal to release Rosemary from her promise.  But then I considered Ellen’s plight and felt sympathy for her as a single woman in a time when single women had it pretty hard.

It is never quite safe to think we have done with life.  When we imagine we have finished our story fate has a trick of turning the page and showing us yet another chapter.  These two people each thought their hearts belonged irrevocably to the past; but they both thought their walk up that hill very pleasant. Rosemary thought the Glen minister was by no means as ashy and tongue-tied as he had been represented.  He seemed to find no difficulty in talking easily and freely.  Glen housewives would have been amazed had they heard him.  But then so many Glen housewives talked only gossip and the price of eggs, and John Meredith was not interested in either.  He talked to Rosemary of books and music and wide-world doings and something of his own history, and found that she could understand and respond.

 I  also loved that John and Ellen got along so well – she even thought at one point “what a great brother-in-law he’d make!  Oh well, Rosemary promised!”  I won’t spoil what happens in the end but, if you’ll note, I do categorize this under “Comfort Reads” so draw your own conclusions!  

So why did I rate this three stars and not more?  It’s pretty simple – not enough Anne!  My favorites of the series – the third, fourth, and fifth books – were Anne-heavy and she was a dynamic character.  Now that she’s middle-aged and a mother of six she has kind of faded into the background, unfortunately.  Overall Rainbow Valley was a comforting  story, with Montgomery’s almost cinematic descriptions of the natural landscape, charming children, and a sweet romance.  Perhaps I’m unfair to compare it to the others in the series (I dare say one could read this as a standalone and enjoy it) but I can’t help but find the lack of Anne a bit disappointing.  If I’d read this as a child I would probably have liked it more, since the Meredith kids are so spunky and appealing.

So, just one more book to go!  I’m excited that I’ve managed to stick with the Readalong! Have you read Rainbow Valley?  What did you think?

Mini Reviews: The Late Show by Michael Connelly and Revolutionary by Alex Myers

She believed her was her man, and there was nothing quite like that moment of knowing.  It was the Holy Grail of detective work.  It had nothing to do with evidence or legal procedure or probable cause.  It was just knowing it in your gut.  Nothing in her life beat it.  It had been a long time coming to her on the late show but now she felt it and she knew deep down it was the reason she would never quit, no matter where they put her or what they said about her.

TheLateShowUSAI had to turn in my copy of Michael Connelly’s The Late Show before I could begin this review because it had holds on it and was OVERDUE – yes, sometimes when you’re waiting on a book from the library it’s your friendly librarian who is stopping up the works!  (I only let it go a few days past due, in my defense.  🙂 )  Anyway, it was terrific, as most of Connelly’s books are.  There’s something about his books that just soothe my itch for crime thrillers, and every time he comes out with a new one I am SO THERE.

This one is the start of a new series, apparently, introducing a new detective, Renée Ballard.  She’s an LAPD detective on “the late show,” which is what they call the overnight shift, just there to take reports and interview witnesses. Because of that, she has to turn over investigations to the day shift, and never gets to follow a case through to completion.  It’s a demotion in her eyes – she was a regular day time detective before she brought allegations of sexual harassment against her supervisor.  (This part did feel a little under explained to me – it was a “he said/she said” case with no corroboration from anyone else, but I wondered why she wasn’t just moved to another division elsewhere.  But I digress.)  You can feel her frustration from the first scenes.  There are two cases that happen the same night that are unrelated but Renée can’t seem to let go of.  One involves a brutal, near-deadly beating of a transgendered prostitute names Ramona; the other, a shooting at a night-club that killed five people, two of whom seem to be innocent bystanders.  As Ballard gets deeper into her (mostly unsanctioned) investigations, she gets closer and closer to what she calls “Big Evil” in the first case, and indications in the second that seem to point to one of LAPD’s own as the murderer.

I liked Ballard a lot.  Her back story was interesting (Hawaiian heritage, absentee mother, father who died in a surfing accident while she watched helplessly.)  She has a dog named Lola which she rescued from a homeless person and who is fiercely protective of her.  She paddle boards when she needs to relax or think over the direction of her case, and she will camp out on the beach when she needs sleep.  One thing I kept pondering again and again was, “When does this woman sleep?”  Another was, “Does she have a house?”  It wasn’t until later in the book that we’re told that her permanent address with the Force is her grandmother’s house, but she only stays there every couple of weeks to do laundry, eat a home cooked meal, and visit.   So she’s a strong, independent character, but there are definitely cracks beneath the surface.  I’ll be interested to see how she develops in future installments!  4 stars.

 

Deborah wrapped herself in her blanket.  Her breeches had dried, and her waistcoat too.  Only her shirt and the binding beneath remained damp.  She lay down and closed her eyes, feeking the constriction around her chest like a snake coiled about her.  I am Robert Shurtliff, she told herself.  She wanted to measure up to these men, to find her place among them.  Lord God, she prayed silently.  Deliver me through this trial.  Grant me faith and strength.  

81yA-ssxkULRevolutionary was a book I probably wouldn’t have read on my own.  I like historical fiction when I read it but it’s not an automatic go-to genre for me. It was our book group pick last month, and I’m glad that it was chosen.  Based on Deborah Sampson, a real life woman who dressed as a man and fought in the Revolutionary War, it’s a moving and detailed work of historical fiction with a.

In the final years of the Revolutionary War, Samson (as Myers, a female-to-male transgendered author chooses to call her – turns out he is a distant relative of the real-life heroine) is an unmarried young woman who has fairly recently become free of her indentured servitude.  (Her family life was troubled and they couldn’t afford to take care of her, so she was given away to work as an indentured servant.)  Her community sees her single status as a threat; her only friend is a fellow servant named Jennie.  Having been once discovered trying to pass as a man when she went to go register to serve in the war, a violent attack by a local man has her fleeing the life that she knows in search of freedom and a new identity.  Jennie cuts her hair for her and steals some clothing from her master, and Deborah binds her breasts and leaves in the night, without a real plan but convinced that she’ll be put in jail for what she’s done to her attacker in retaliation.

What follows is an interesting, immersive account of regimental life as Deborah fits in with the rest of the young men (and by this point in the war, some of them are very young, which benefits the whisker-less Deborah.)  How she manages to keep her identity secret is interesting and occasionally requires a lucky break.  But she is stronger mentally and physically then she ever knew, and relishes her newfound freedom to move and live as she pleases even within the restrictions of military life.

I enjoyed this so much more than I anticipated, and was deeply moved by an unexpected turn of the plot 2/3 of the way through.  About 100 pages in Deborah begins to be called Robert in the narrative, the name she has adopted for her new life.  And then again towards the end, it shifts back to Deborah, but this feels entirely seamless and organic with the story.  She continues to correspond as Robert with Jennie back home, a nice narrative strategy.  The reader is made aware of how stifling and hopeless the conditions of an unmarried woman back in the late 18th century were, relegated to a life of drudgery, constantly open to innuendo and the possibility physical and sexual abuse.  I also learned a lot about the late stages of the war and daily life of a soldier.  I thought there were a few instances where the emotional impact of events wasn’t fully explored – for instance, the rape at the beginning didn’t seem to be fully dealt with and I wondered if there was another way Myers could have sent the story in motion.  But overall, this was a good read that explored gender identity in a time period in which people perhaps lacked the vocabulary to acknowledge such things.  4 stars.

Anne of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (#AnneReadalong2017)

Well, that was life.  Gladness and pain…hope and fear… and change.  Always change.  You could not help it.  You had the let the old go and take the new to your heart… learn to love it and the let it go in turn.  Spring, lovely as it was, must yield to summer and summer lose itself to autumn.  The birth… the bridal… the death.

There’s something about giving a two-star rating to an Anne of Green Gables book that just makes me feel bad, guilty, like a Grinch.  After all, Anne Blythe and her family are so earnest and well-meaning, and the above quotation has some undeniably Zen truth to it, but Anne of Ingleside (#6 in the series) is my least favorite so far.  This one was mostly about the kiddos.  They were cute, precocious, mostly well-behaved… but after a while I grew weary of their antics.  Here’s a sad dog story.  Here’s another sad dog story.  Here’s where one kid is terribly naive and gets tricked into doing something naughty by a devious schoolmate.  Here’s another kid being gullible and doing something naughty at the behest of a different devious schoolmate.  By the time I got to Rilla’s story I just didn’t care anymore and I skimmed to the next anecdote.

77391It starts off with Anne being very pregnant and soon the kids are being shipped off so she can give birth at home.  The kids have no clue what’s going on, and they think Mom’s gonna die.  The whole thing made me intensely grateful for birth control and hospitals, honestly.  Then the reader is made to suffer along with the Blythe family through the extended visit of the delightful Aunt Mary Maria.  Oh my God!  She was horrible.  I thought she would never leave.  It did make me laugh that Anne finally ran her off by trying to do something nice for her.  The only thing that brightened the entire section was Susan’s wanting to fling a full gravy boat at her head.  (I wish she had!)

It wasn’t all bad, though.  I very much related to Anne whenever she took a moment to think about how quickly her children were growing up.  As the mother of a six year-old I am keenly aware of how quickly time is passing and am determined to enjoy my boy being “little” as fully as I can before he becomes too big to be sweet and demonstrative with his affections.  Those sections really resonated with me.

I also enjoyed the very last bit about Anne feeling tossed aside and underappreciated by Gilbert.  Gilbert appears to have forgotten their anniversary, or so Anne thinks, and instead wants to go visit an old flame, the glamorous and childless Christine Stuart.  Anne tortures herself with anxiety and doubt (“But did anybody really like red hair?”) and decides that Gilbert has grown tired of her.  (“Men had always been like that… always would be.”)  Gilbert gives a kind of lame excuse that he’d been terribly worried about a patient.  And his anniversary gift had been late in coming (so he didn’t even tell his wife “Happy Anniversary, dear!  Your present is late, I’m sorry, but I still love you and think you’re beautiful!”)  Hmmmph.  He says something like “Oh, Anne, I didn’t think you were the type to need things like that said to you.”  Clearly Words of Affirmation is not Gilbert’s love language.  Well, Anne is happy with his explanations, at least, and all is well as we end our time in Ingleside.  Gilbert tells her they’re going to go on a second honeymoon to Europe.  Please tell me we get to read about this in one of the last two books in the series!  I’ll feel terribly cheated if we don’t get to hear about their travels.

Two more books to go in the series before the end of the year!  (Yes, I’m a bit late with this review – should have posted it in October.)  I’m still glad I’m reading these, as they are beloved by so many book bloggers and are such a classic reading experience for so many.  Participating in the Readalong has given me the structure I need to keep going till the end!  I would have thrown in the towel on my own, so I’m grateful to Jane and Jackie for continuing to spearhead the Readalong with such enthusiasm!

If you’ve read this one, what did you think of Gilbert’s anniversary snafu?  Did you find the antics of the children tiresome?  What were some of the bright spots for you?  Is #7 in the series better?  Let me know in the comments.