Saturday, July 16, 2016

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace was a good story from the Prologue to the Epilogue. The first sentence of the Prologue is, "All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses, killed on the railroad tracks outside New Bremen, Minnesota, sliced into pieces by a thousand tons of steel speeding across the prairie toward South Dakota."

The second paragraph of the Prologue begins, "It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder. You might think I remember that seems tragic and I do but not completely so."

So the book is the story of that summer. The narrator is Frank, the son of a Methodist preacher in the small town of New Bremen. He has a younger brother Jake and an older sister Ariel. It's set in the year 1961. The way the story is told, or maybe the way it felt as I read it, reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird and also A Prayer for Owen Meany. And Gilead. A small town, several decades ago, and a family going through a seemingly ordinary time, but full of significance.

I loved the turns of phrases in conversations. In an early conversation between Frank and Jake, Jake wants to go along with Frank and Frank says, "Like hell." Jake: "You said hell." So simple, but I can just hear them saying it. And I felt like I was right there, in New Bremen. I could see the roads, the houses, the paths by the river, the woods, the trestle bridge, the river.

This was one of the most skillful uses of foreshadowing I've seen. Sometimes foreshadowing bugs me. It almost seems like a spoiler. Or I'm frustrated and think, "Stop hinting around and get to the story already." But that didn't happen in this book. Those 2 first sentences I quoted above had foreshadowing, right out of the gate. In this case, those hints made me want to keep reading.

At the beginning of this blog entry I thought about writing that the book is compelling, but I didn't want to make it sound like some kind of suspenseful mystery or something. Yet it is compelling. It was a good story, and I wanted to see what would happen. It was one of those books where I stayed up much of one night just to keep reading.

I think the foreshadowing was effective because I was more than content to stay in the story where I was. I didn't want to rush to find out what would happen next because I was happy right where I was, in whatever part of the story I read one of those hints about what was to come.

Frank is a kid who wants to be good but who also is filled with curiosity and eager to know everything there is to know. When his father gets called to situations, Frank always wants to go along. His brother Jake wants to go with Frank anywhere he goes. Sometimes -- often -- Frank's curiosity and wanting to know everything doesn't make him happier. But it definitely makes the story better.

Jake has a stutter. Kids make fun of him for it, and even though Frank sticks up for Jake over and over, Frank, when he wants to rile up Jake, sometimes mocks his stuttering. Because of his stuttering, Jake doesn't speak much, but he sees and understands much, often surprising Frank with insights Frank himself never would have noticed.

You get to know everyone in the family and they all have interesting personalities. Probably one reason the book reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird is because the father, Nathan Drum, like Atticus, is a respected, honest, wise man of few words. The characters in the book love him, and you know he loves them.

Ariel, Frank's older sister, is in high school and looking ahead to going to Julliard to develop her musical talent. She plays piano and sings, and has inherited that talent from her mother, Ruth. Beyond the family, there are several other important characters you get to know and love.

I highly recommend this book. Good story, great characters, gives you food for thought, too. Kirkus review said, "A novel that transforms narrator and reader alike," and I would agree.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig

Last Bus to Wisdom was a fun book to read. In a previous post I mentioned reading another book by Ivan Doig, The Bartender's Tale, and that one was fun, too. I plan to read more by Doig.

In this book, the hero of the story is Donal ("Donny") Cameron, 11 years old. His parents have died and Donny lives in Montana with his Grandma. She has to have surgery so Donny is sent to her sister Kate in Wisconsin. Donny travels there in a Greyhound bus (they call it "the dog bus").

He does not like staying with Kate. She is a crabby, selfish, rather mean lady. Donny does like her partner "Herman the German." After a few adventures and mishaps, Kate sends Donal back to his grandma, back on the dog bus. It turns out Herman joins him, leaving Kate. Donal and Herman go on a great journey with lots of adventure and wonderful characters they meet while traveling.

They end up with a group of hoboes near a town named Wisdom on a ranch owned by a rodeo broncing buck rider named "Rags." There's a satisfying happy ending. I highly recommend this book and any by Ivan Doig.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I enjoyed Outlander. I didn't really know much about it when I started so I was not at all sure what I was getting into. I had heard of the TV show based on the series of books, but I knew nothing of what the story was or anything.

This first book of the series starts with a nurse who has returned from World War II, Claire, and is on a vacation with her husband. She goes to a kind of mini-Stonehenge and suddenly falls through the rock somehow and ends up in Scotland in the 18th century. She ends up with a Scottish man named James.

I enjoyed the book. It's a good, gripping story, and you really get the feeling you're in another world. It was more of a "bodice ripper" than I had expected. Nothing vulgar or even "hot and heavy" or at all embarrassing, but a bit more detailed about Claire and James' love life that I expected.

As everyone probably knows, this is the first of a series of books and it is a series on TV as well. I will try to see at least some episodes of the show. I haven't decided yet if I'll read more of the series. Right now my to-be-read pile is very high, so I'll wait at least a while.

The Eliot Family Trilogy - The Bird in the Tree, Pilgrim’s Inn, and The Heart of the Family - by Elizabeth Goudge

I loved all 3 of these books. If you like British literature or are an Anglophile like me, you'll love these, too, and I'm sure anything by Goudge. They are all about the Eliot family, starting with the matriarch, Lucilla. As I'm thinking about these books, I just realized they remind me of the movie "Enchanted April."

Place plays a big role in these books -- two country houses where the family lives. You grow to love those places in the same way you love the characters. 

Here, in my sister's blog, she talks a little bit about Elizabeth Goudge.

Besides the homes, Goudge writes a lot about the woods nearby. I usually find it hard to read every word of descriptions of landscapes. I often skim them. But in these books, kind of like the homes, the woods become important, too, and I had no problem at all reading every word and picturing those woods.

I don't want to call it "supernatural," but there's a little bit of sixth sense, or maybe spirituality, or a kind of magic, maybe a sense of God's presence, in the books. There's a place in the woods where it is hinted that the children seem to meet a long-ago inhabitant who helped to heal the animals. There's some kind of spirit to the houses, perhaps also from a long ago inhabitant of the homes. There are times where the characters seem let to actions or places by a force beyond them.

This force, or whatever you may want to call it, felt good to me. I was glad to read about it and feel it. That's not always true for me. Sometimes that kind of thing causes fear or a spooky feeling, which happened in the one book by Isabel Allende that I read. I might call it a little Narnian but I wouldn't want you to think the books are fantasy or science fiction. Not at all.

The stories are excellent. Here is a good review, where the writer summarizes what they are about. I highly recommend these books. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Kent Haruf is one my favorite writers. His books are such good stories. The first book of his I read was Plainsong and then its sequel Eventide. I still think those are the best of the lot. I believe I've read all his novels, and I hope he'll write more so I can keep reading them all.

Our Souls at Night is, like all his novels, set in the small town of Holt, Colorado. In this story, a 70-year-old woman, a widow, Addie Moore, asks her neighbor, a widower, Louis Waters, to sleep with her. Sex is not necessary; it's a matter of relieving the loneliness, and nights are the worst.

Both Addie and Louis (persuaded by Addie) decide they don't need to care what people think anymore. Louis openly walks over the Addie's house in the evenings. They enjoy the companionship of sleeping in the same bed and their lives become more engaging by getting to know each other's life stories. Both the characters are people I enjoyed getting to know.

Haruf does not tie everything up in happy endings. I wouldn't call his endings sad or at all depressing, but they feel real. In this book, too, the good thing that Addie and Kent have going is messed up by Addie's grown son. At the same time, the interaction between her son's son and both Addie and Louis is a highlight of the book. So there's good and bad that happens as a result of the connection between Addie and her son.

I highly, highly recommend Our Souls at Night and all of Haruf's novels.

After You by Jojo Moyes

I heard that the sequel to Me Before You was even better than the first. I did enjoy it just as much.

The book picks up when Louisa is working as a waitress again, after her travels that began at the end of the other book. She enjoys waitressing -- which is hard for me to imagine since I am, I believe, pretty much the worst waitress in the world. I'm too forgetful.

It continues with Louisa trying to figure out what to do next in her life. She liked traveling but after a while decided she had had enough of that. She starts going to a grief therapy group and those people become her friends. Also through one of them she meets a new man who becomes an important part of her life. Her parents go through a crisis but they also grow close to her again through a close call that Louisa goes through. And Louisa meets a daughter of her previous love who neither he nor anyone else knew about it. This leads to more connections with his family.

So, as you can tell, it's an eventful book. It kept me turning the pages. I was interested in what Louisa would do and her thought process for making decisions about what direction to go. Besides being event-filled, Moyers writes with some humor as well. I definitely recommend both these books.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Felicity by Mary Oliver

I have just started reading this book of poetry by Mary Oliver. It's wonderful. Here's one for you to enjoy, and I have a few questions, too, you can weigh in on.
by Mary Oliver

Everyone now and again wonders about
those questions that have no ready
answers: first cause, God's existence,
what happens when the curtain goes
down and nothing stops it, not kissing,
not going to the mall, not the Super

 "Wild roses," I said to them one morning.
"Do you have the answers? And if you do,
would you tell me?"

The roses laughed softly. "Forgive us,"
they said. "But as you can see, we are
just now entirely busy being roses."

I love the image of the wild roses, of them laughing and talking. Their answer is so good - "entirely busy being roses."

There's one part that I don't understand. Where it says "what happens when the curtain goes / down and nothing stops it, not kissing, / not going to the mall, not the Super / Bowl." I think that the part about the curtain going down is one in the list of "questions that have no ready answer," like "first cause" and "God's existence." Then it seems like the phrases about not kissing and the mall and Super Bowl would be things that don't stop the curtain from going down.

But that's what I don't get. What do those actions (kissing, going to the mall and the Super Bowl) have to do with stopping the curtain going down, with stopping one of the hard questions to answer?

Maybe she's saying actions of that kind don't stop life from continuing on to death (death being the curtain going down)? Not understanding doesn't take away how much I like this poem, but it does make me curious.

Any thoughts?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

I'm not exactly sure why I liked this book so much, but I did. I read it almost in one setting. You could call it predictable; The end was not a surprise by any means. And maybe you could even call it a little schmaltzy, since it's a love story that makes you cry.

Somehow, though, I did like it a lot. It's the story of a young woman in Great Britain who loses her job, then is hired as a caretaker/companion for a rich young man, Will, who is a paraplegic.

The main character is the young woman, Louisa. It is written in first person, from her point of view. But there are a few parts where the first person is one of the other characters.

One reason I liked the book is I liked Louisa. I liked listening to her narration. She has a good sense of humor and she feels like a person who I would like to know. 

A big part of the book is that Will wants to die. I hesitate to even write that because it makes the book sound maudlin. It did make me cry, but it didn't feel like a tear-jerker to me. I felt like I learned more about what it feels like to be a paraplegic like Will. Of course there's no way to really understand, but there were definitely insights I had never thought of.

I liked all the characters in the book. I see there is a sequel and others who have read it say they liked the sequel, too, some even better than the first. I plan to read it, too.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Arsonist by Sue Miller

The Arsonist was recommended to me by "the librarian", my friend at Sinaloa Cafe where we go for Mexican dinner nearly every Friday. Way back years ago when I met her it was because she was reading a book while we were waiting for a table. I asked her what she was reading, and that started a friendship that includes exchanging book recommendations nearly every time we see each other.

Aileen was a librarian at a school when I met her. She and her husband are retired now. We don't see them every Friday, but they are regulars at Sinaloa, just as we are.

This Friday Aileen recommended The Arsonist and You Before Me. I ordered both of them and started with The Arsonist, which I finished yesterday.

When I read the summary on the back of the book, I thought it would be a mystery. That's why I chose to read it first, because I enjoy mysteries. I would not call it a mystery, though. There definitely is a mystery involved -- who is the arsonist -- but even though the fact that there are fires set by an arsonist as a central part of the book, the story is not about figuring out who is setting the fires.

The story is set in "a New Hampshire village" (says the synopsis on the back of the book), Winslow. The main character is Frankie Rowley, whose family has a summer home there, and where now her parents are living year round. Frankie is in her forties, single, and has a career as an aid worker in Africa. When she goes back to Winslow at the beginning of the book, she is not sure whether she'll go back to Africa or not, nor is she sure of what she will do at all.

I hesitated to write "the main character" because two other characters are featured prominently and the author reveals their thoughts and feelings, in the same way she does Frankie's. One of these is Frankie's mother, Sylvia, and the other is her romantic interest in the story, the town's newspaper editor, Bud. Frankie is the main character, but I feel like Bud is a close second, and Sylvia is in third place.

I like the writing, and I thought the story was compelling -- I wanted to keep turning the pages and find out what was going to happen. It's set in nearly present time, but not quite. There are no cell phones, but there are pagers. Some of the sources of uncertainty, making you want to keep reading, are the growth of Bud and Frankie's relationship, her growing awareness of her father's dwindling mental capacities, her mother's feelings toward her husband (Frankie's father), the differences of the town "year-rounders" vs. the summer people, and, of course, the mystery of the fires.

All in all, I recommend the book as a good read. I wouldn't consider it a contender to be a favorite, but I enjoyed it and I could even see myself re-reading it at some point in the future.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Delicious Sentences

I have a friend who posted this on Facebook:
"She enjoyed registering her fellow citizens' neuroses, intimacies, and habits, plotting them on a scale of decency, and knowledgeably passing on her opinions to others. She was generous in that regard." Nina George, The Little Paris Bookshop.
What delicious sentences.
I thought about what my friend had written as I was re-reading Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym. It is full of delicious sentences. Some examples below:
"But I've never thought of myself as caring for canons," said Jane rather wildly.
"What are we having for supper?" asked her husband.
"Flora is in the kitchen unpacking some of the china. We could open a tin," added Jane, as if this were a most unusual procedure, which it most certainly was not.
"I suppose old atheists seem less wicked and dangerous than young ones," said Jane. "One feels that there is something of the ancient Greece in them."
Father Lomax, who evidently thought no such thing, let the subject drop.
Jane often thinks or says things "wildly." Little comments like "as if this were a most unusual procedure, which it most certainly was not" and "who evidently thought no such thing." Delicious.