Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

Written by Wallace Steiner, this novel left me impatient and restless. I'm not entirely sure if that was the result of the fact I typically feel that way when reading something where one of the main characters doesn't grow and develop throughout the book or if I felt that way because of the same character's constantly striving to get something for nothing, always looking for a big score that requires nothing from him. Life doesn't work that way; it has no meaning that way.

Elsa has taken care of her family since her mother died; then she finds out her father is going to remarry. She's so horrified by his choice of wife that she runs away to take care of a bachelor uncle. Living there she meets a dreamer and schemer, whom she marries. Soon they have children. The schemer carries them along from pillar to post, never caring how the lifestyle is affecting his family. Elsa manages love and a home in spite of the challenges.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Taking Flight

An engaging novel by Adrian Magnuson. Jeremy is a 14 year old who lives in Seattle with his dad, a surgeon heading to Africa for charitable work. Jeremy is being sent to New York City to stay with his mom, who has bipolar disorder. He doesn't want to go. Harry Herndon is an older man in the thralls of Alzheimer's. He is running away from home. These two have a common interest in birdwatching. The novel follows their adventures as they join forces in taking flight and form an unlikely, yet unshakable bond.

The Quotidian Mysteries

Laundry, Liturgy, and "Women's Work". This little gem by Kathleen Norris is the publication of the 1998 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality given at Notre Dame. I reread this for my morning devotions and it struck me so that I read it again with a highlighter. Norris emphasizes how important daily work is and how we can make our daily work godly worship.

Too often I look at the endless daily chores of my household and just am paralyzed in defeat. They are overwhelming and... never done. Yet Norris points out this was God's plan. It is precisely in these mind - half - there projects that we meet our Lord as well as serve others as He wishes. I need to reset my thinking about these chores; perhaps then they will get done willingly rather than grudgingly if at all. Sloth is my chief enemy. According to St. Benedict, sloth is disobedience. Straight out. Pure and simple. Of course, all sin is disobedience to God. But having the one sin I struggle with (my "pet" sin?) characterized as such was eye-opening. Lent is coming!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The First Time She Drowned

This is the harrowing debut novel by Kerry Kletter. Cassie O'Malley has spent the last two years in a mental institution; dumped there by her mother. Now at the age of her majority, she signs herself out and enters college. Nothing in her tumultuous life prepared her for college life, though, and as she explores herself, her past, and her relationship with her mother she is challenged as never before.

This is billed as a young adult novel; but it is heartbreaking. If a youth were on the brink he/she could go either way while reading this book. Granted, there's hope, and a strong message of (finally) loving oneself... I won't be suggesting it to my young people, though. The book is full of suicide, abuse, mental illness, and jokes about these serious subjects. Mind your triggers. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

A delightful novel by Robin Sloan, this book combines many elements. It's a magical blend of cutting - edge technology and medieval mystery. Clay Jannon was a web designer until the recession swept his job away. He is now working the night shift as a clerk at a vertical bookstore with few paying customers. Instead, the patrons borrow obscure volumes from odd corners of the store. Odd, but not random. Clay enlists friends to help him solve the mystery of the bookstore and brings his analysis to Mr. Penumbra. That's when he finds the mystery encompasses much more than one curious bookstore; it is the very search for immortality.

"There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight." My favorite quote from the book. It is a highly enjoyable book about friendship and living a fulfilling life. Recommended.

Footnotes from the World's Greatest Bookstores

This is a compendium of blurbs about seventy-five of the world's most renowned bookstores by Bob Eckstein. Each report also contains a newsy little bit from that particular bookstore by someone in the know. And each entry has a magical illustration in color of the bookstore. There are two things I dislike about this: Eckstein has included bookstores that are now defunct, and the design of the book itself is unwieldy. The cover opens up, while the book itself opens in the usual manner. And to keep the cover from coming off completely, the reader must hold it up while trying to turn pages.  It is not a relaxing, read-in-bed book simply because of its design. Sad. It does have a foreword by Garrison Keillor going for it.... I checked this out of the New Book Room at the library; the back cover is already coming unglued because of the stress. Sad.

I've been reading everything I can get my hands on about books and bookstores because that's what my husband and I want to do; open our own used bookstore. We are already selling some online until we can afford a brick and mortar store. We hope the children will work with us. This is our dream.

Dark Matter

This is a novel by Blake Crouch, billed as un-put-down-able. Some people rave about this book. I am not one of those people. It is not because the physics and quantum mechanics are over my head; those are explained in an accessible, almost charming manner. I think I just couldn't suspend my disbelief enough to accept happenings toward the end of the book.

Jason Dessen is a physics professor, happily married with a teenage son. Then one night he is abducted, asked if he's happy with his life, and wakes on a gurney surrounded by people in hazmat suits. They show him true deference,  for in this world he is a scientific genius who has accomplished the impossible. Which world is real? And how can he get back to his family if that is the life he desires?  A science - fiction thriller that I thought was okay, but that many others like.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Love Letter

By Cathleen Schine, this novel is a delight to the senses! Helen MacFarquhar owns a little bookstore in a small seaside town with everything just as she likes it; she is a divorcee, mother to an eleven -year -old daughter away at camp, and very much in control of herself and her life. Then an anonymous love letter arrives in her mail, and becomes an obsession. Who is it for? Who is it from? When does passion become love? As she uncharacteristically begins an affair with one of her employees, she gets a chance to answer this last question. Shine's writing is rich and descriptive. The book perhaps depends a little too much on sex and "f*** you", but the writing is strong despite that.

It left me wondering what to do with the love letters my husband and I wrote to each other during our courtship. Some are chaste and sweet, some are graphic and yearning; but all are permanent. How embarrassed will be the people who find these letters when we are gone? Is that my business? Should the letters be kept for posterity, or should they be destroyed and remembered fondly? What if I lose my memory, or my husband? So much to consider.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Nightingale

This is a novel by Kristin Hannah. At times effervescent and at other times heartbreaking, it's another book to mind your triggers: it deals with WWII France and the Holocaust in a personal way. Vianne and Isabelle are sisters who resist German occupation of their Homeland (and their home) each in her own way. I couldn't put this book down...so well written with such great characters; I had to see what was going to happen next. Recommended.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Written by Karen Joy Fowler, this novel is not one of my favorites. Yet I had to read it in its entirety just to get the full story. It is informative, accomplished, and devastating. Rosemary Cooke is the narrator telling us of her family. Psychologist father, mother, brother Lowell, sister Fern. They live in a college town where her father conducts behavioral experiments with a steady stream of grad students. Then something awful happens and Rosemary's family is never the same. We enter the story in her college years as she looks back on the events that shattered their lives. Her father is now distant, her mother simply a shell of her former lively self, her brother wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And Fern? Rosemary hasn't seen her since she was five and she is horrified to learn her fate.

The book is good; the subject matter serious. A lot of discussion of animal testing; mind your triggers.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Sweetness of Forgetting

A novel by Kristen Harmel, this was an unexpectedly historically informative book and a run-of-the-mill romance at the same time. It has a Gallery Readers Group Guide: from the introduction;

"To say that Hope McKenna - Smith's life hasn't turned out quite the way she planned would be an understatement. At thirty-six, she's a law school dropout, a divorcee, the owner of a nearly - bankrupt bakery in a Cape Cod tourist town, and the caretaker of her beloved, Alzheimer's - stricken grandmother, Mamie. When Mamie suddenly presents Hope with a list of names and urges her to travel to Paris to find these mysterious strangers, Hope nearly dismisses the request as yet another one of her grandmother's delusions. But when she decides to take a chance on the unknown, Hope embarks on a trip of a lifetime; one that will take her both through Mamie's haunted past and through her own journey of self - discovery."

The book includes recipes. It also includes storylines referencing Alzheimer's disease and the Holocaust, so mind your triggers!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Spiritual Passages

The Psychology of Spiritual Development. By Benedict J. Groeschel, this is a fascinating, insightful work. The cover states it is "For Those Who Seek", and it is an excellent place to start that journey.

The first part of the book deals with the psychology of spirituality: the call of God and how Christian is one's spirituality? It then moves into understanding development: human, religious, and spiritual. Finally, there is a chapter on psychology and spirituality together.

Part two deals with a psychological understanding of the three ways of the spiritual life: purgation, illuminative, and unitive. Finally, there's a chapter on how to take the the next good step, no matter where you are in your spiritual life. An appendix is included about the history of the doctrine of the three ways.

I read this as part of my morning devotions: in chunks. I look forward to reading it again in regular flow with a highlighter in hand, and to look up some of the authors in Father Groeschel's extensive notes, especially on prayer. Illuminating work and hard work to get through. Not a light read. But if you want to understand yourself both psychologically and spiritually, this is the place to start.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

This delightful novel is written by Maria Semple. The format makes for easy reading; it is a jumble of emails and letters. Bernadette Fox was once a renowned architect, but disappeared with her husband to Seattle and hasn't created for twenty years. She is a curmudgeonly recluse, her husband is a workaholic for Microsoft, and their daughter Bee loves them both madly. Bee has made perfect grades at her school and for a prize she asks for a family trip to Antarctica. It's all downhill from there. Highly recommended for the importance of family and creativity in one's life.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The End of the Affair

A novel by Graham Greene, I have long wanted to read this. It did not disappoint. Maurice Bendrix is an author in war-torn England, conducting an adulterous love affair with Sarah Miles. After an especially close bomb blast that leaves Bendrix dead, Sarah makes a hasty vow to a God neither of them believe in.  Bendrix comes back to her and that is the end of the affair. He knows nothing of her vow; only that he loved and lost. He begins to hate her. Henry Miles, Sarah's husband, comes to him for advice one day. Sarah is acting strangely, could she be having an affair? (Henry is quite obtuse.) Bendrix's hate for both of them leads him to answer uncharitably. Henry has the name of a detective agency; he burns it, but later Bendrix follows up. God. He has lost Sarah to God. How do you compete with someone you don't believe in? But Sarah believes and that is enough. He begins to hate God.

Bendrix is the narrator and states near the beginning of the book, "So this is a record of hate far more than of love..." It is actually a record of struggle. Mankind's struggle against "the hound of Heaven". The only Lover who counts pursues us until, gasping, we stop running and realize He had only the best in mind for us after all. This is a record of hope. It is one of Greene's best.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Life After Life

Written by Kate Atkinson, I considered abandoning this novel several times before I finally struggled through it. It is not in my character to close a book mid-stream. This novel just didn't appeal to me, though it came recommended.

Ursula Todd is born on a snowy February night in 1910. She is born dead. Yet, she is born on that night crying loudly and long, soon the picture of health. And so it continues. Ursula meets her end in a variety of ways; returns to that snowy night of 1910, and begins again. She is troubled with a sense of deja vu; so much so that her parents take her to see a psychiatrist. She goes to extremes to preserve her life, though she doesn't know that is what she is doing. She only feels she must do something to decrease the intense dread and anxiety building up. However, each decision changes the malleable past and there's more to keep track of, to "plan" for in the next go-round.  It's not true reincarnation, and it's not true time travel; it's more like "Groundhog Day" on a grand scale. The book ends where it begins: February, 1910. We're not left with any hope that Ursula got off her cosmic merry-go-round. I generally despise books with no hope. The premise is interesting and Atkinson followed it well; perhaps converting Ursula to a religion would have stopped the eternal carousel and given us all some hope in closure.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

No Trace of Christmas?

Discovering Advent in the Old Testament. This is a slim but packed book written in German by Christoph Dohmen and translated into English by Linda M. Maloney. Much of the imagery and many of the Biblical texts we associate with Advent and Christmas can only be understood in their full depth in the light of their Old Testament roots. I read this book as Advent reading this year; it was so thought - provoking that I slowed down and stretched it through the Christmas season. It is less than a hundred pages, yet delves deeply into the Old Testament to find the basis of Advent. St. Jerome once said, "Not to know Scripture is not to know Christ." He was not speaking of the New Testament. This little book is a good place to begin at the beginning of the Liturgical year.