Showing posts with label Favorite Authors. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Favorite Authors. Show all posts

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Place Called Hope

I really enjoyed this book.  A Place Called Hope by Philip Gulley is not the first thing that I've ever read by Gulley.  Philip Gulley is a Quaker minister and a writer of both fiction and nonfictional thoughts, mostly on Christianity and church life.  His portrayal of and insight into church life, both fictional and nonfictional is so very accurate and wise and funny that I can't help but love everything he has written.   And, of course, there is also the added benefit of the books being very, very well written.

The Harmony series is about a fictional series (although I think there's a lot of truth and almost-true events in the books) about a Quaker preacher and his wife and two sons who move home to Harmony where Sam, the main character, grew up.  There, Sam takes over preaching the small, fundamentalist, Quaker church where he spent his childhood.  Throughout the series, we are introduced to a number of characters in this small town-from the sensible church ladies on the Chicken and Noodles Committee to the raving conservative, Dale Hinshaw who manages to alienate almost everybody.   I'm sensing another post about this series coming on...

Anyway, this series is a spin-off of that series.  In this series, Sam and Barbara (his wife) are about to experience a change.  They have to leave their town of Harmony and Sam's pastoring position after an uproar occurs.  The Unitarian pastor in Harmony asks Sam to conduct a blessing at the end of a wedding.  To Sam's utter shock, the couple is gay.  And to add to the problem the local newspaper reporter is there.  When this news gets out, the church creates a complete uproar, fires Sam, and hires a fly-by-night pastor.

With no job and two sons just sent off to college, Sam and Barbara get ready to leave for new in Hope, Indiana, respectively, at a congregation of 12 people, and the school library.  They are happy there at this new church, with kind people and, of course, the few malcontents that accompany any church.  And this is the start of a new series.

I knew that I was going to like this book.  Philip Gulley is a very funny writer with a sense of the charming foibles and quirks that accompany church life.  It also makes me laugh at how universal some parts of church life are.  For instance, take this quote from the chapter in which Sam is being interviewed by the Search committee:

"'Now I'm clerk of the Limb Committee,' Hank said.  'Limb Committee?  What's a limb committee?' Sam asked.  'Just like it sounds.  I'm in charge of making sure th tree limbs get picked up.  Got a lot of trees here.  If we didn't have a limb committee, the yard would be a mess.'  'What other committees are there?' Sam asked.  'Well, let's see, we have the limb committee, the pie committee, the roof committee, the snow committee, the lawn-mowing committee, the kitchen committee, a funeral committee, a parsonage committee, and the pastoral search committee,' Hank Withers said.  'Don't forget the peace committee,' Norma Withers added.  'And technically, we have an elders' committee, but it doesn't meet regularly.'"

This sounds ridiculous to the average ear, but this passage so funnily captures that church-wide phenomenon of, "Have something to do?  I know!  We'll start a committee and stick a couple of people on it."

This is the brilliance of Gulley's writing- capturing the mundanities of church life and showing the true hilarity of some of the situations.

This book has also been rather controversial (at least, GoodReads seems to think so), because, by the end of the book, it's pretty obvious that Gulley is in favor of the church becoming more tolerant of homosexuality, something that, at least in the US, the majority of people are not.  I appreciated how he dealt with the topic with grace, humor, and kindness to both sides of the argument, something that is not often done.

This books is obviously a niche-novel.  It's written for a certain set of the population and the majority of the jokes are good-church-people jokes.   That said, if you've ever spent any time in a church setting (and, really, it can be pretty much any church), then I would definitely recommend this book.  It's a funny, kind, gentle book and a very fast read.  I enjoyed picking it up and reading about half of it over a lunch break and then the other half that evening.  I highly recommend it.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

This book was fantastic.  It's written by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who wrote fiction back in the 1920s.  She was quite controversial and, apparently, shocked quite a few people with her educational/political/philosophical beliefs.  This book, The Homemaker, amazed me at its surprising currentness.
I love this cover, by the way.  Isn't it cozy?

The Homemaker is about a husband and wife who both despise their roles.  Evangeline Knapp tries to be the perfect housewife-scrubbing everything in sight every minute, creating perfect meals, hating it all and, subsequently, being terribly mean to her 3 kids.  Lester Knapp works at a store in a job that he hates.  He has no freedom and what he really wants to do is read poetry and hang out with his children.   The children all have various health problems and are nervous wrecks.  After Lester is fired from his job, he falls off of the roof, breaking his back and forcing his wife to go out and get a job at the very store that fired him.  Evangeline finds out how much she loves working in the clothing department, advising people and organizing everything, and becomes generally a kinder and happier person.  After his back begins to heal, Lester realizes how much he loves being home and taking care of his family.

But once Lester recovers, the Knapps realize how much they love their new way of life.  They all have an unspoken dread of returning to the way things used to be, but they know that if Lester does not return to a new job and Evangeline does not come home, society will completely disapprove.

I'm not going to tell you the ending, but I promise that it's good.  This book amazed me with its modernness.  We have to remember that in 1924 this would have been a message that would have left most people reeling.  I can only imagine the shock that this book must have caused.  It's obvious that Fisher was well ahead of her time.

I loved this book for the cozy domestic details, the fabulous story line (Fisher is a fantastic writer), and the way that the characters were presented.  Fisher is very, very good at writing sympathetic characters that you instantly begin to identify with.  I grew to love these characters and genuinely hope that they would find a way to be happy.

I really recommend this book to anybody and, really, this book could still produce a thought-provoking discussion today about men's and women's roles and how they do and do not work.  The book is a very fast read (I read it in a day).  It's a perfect book to curl up by the fire with.  I highly recommend it.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sarah's Story-First in Quantocks Quartet

I just finished up a lovely, lovely book.  It's called Sarah's Story by Ruth Elwin Harris.  It's set before and throughout WWI in a small English village and it's been called "the Little Women of our times."  While I wouldn't go that far (nobody can rival L.M. Alcott's perfect book), this was a fantastic book.

This series is very interesting because it records four sisters' tellings of the same story.  It's a brilliant way of writing and, as far as I know, it's the first time that this has ever been done in the world of fiction writing.  There are four Purcell sisters: Sarah, Gwen, Julia, and Frances. 

The story starts with Sarah-the youngest-nicknamed "Mouse".  She is the always-forgotten little sister.  The story begins just after the death of the Purcell sisters' mother.  A famous painter, as soon as her husband died, she lost the will to live.  The Purcells are taken under the wing of the kindly vicar, Mr. Mckenzie, and his domineering wife.  The Mckenzies have 3 sons, who feature heavily in this book. 

The three eldest of the sisters are all serious artists, but Sarah appears to have no talent, until she realizes how much she loves to write.  It is this love of writing that drives her to many new experiences.

The book was heartbreakingly sad at places-something that I don't tend to like-but for some reason I wasn't fazed in the least.  This book captured me and I fell in love at once. 

The sisters are wildly different.  Frances is tempestuous and the most brilliant painter of them all.  She fights constantly with her sisters, Mrs. Mckenzie, and her love interest, Gabriel Mckenzie.  We don't hear much from Gwen and Julia.  In fact, I'm looking forward to hearing more about them in future novels.  Sarah is, of course, the main character, so we hear quite a lot from her.

From her failed attempt at a boarding school to her adoration-from-afar of Gabriel Mckenzie, to her friendship with the family maid, Sarah is a lively, 3-dimensional character.  I think that Harris's gift may lie in writing truly brilliant characters.  Sarah and Frances, in particular, felt so alive to me as I read this story.

Harris's other gift is seamlessly incorporating fiction into history.  A main focus of the book is WWI.  The Mckenzie boys go off to the war and there is frequent mention of world events going on in the context of their little village.  There is a breathtakingly sad part where one of the Mckenzie boys tells Sarah about the horrible flashbacks he gets and the noises he hears- PTSD, although they didn't know about that at the time.  

This book did have a lot of elements that were similar to Little Women, but I wouldn't call it "the new Little Women".  For instance, the book is quite a bit darker than Little Women.  Although both were set during war times, the war was much more in the background in Little Women.  Also, this book had a more adult tone than Little Women, even though it was about girls.  The problems and events were adult-scale and even Sarah, who is 11 at the start of the book, is seen through grown up eyes.  But I still loved the book for itself.

I would recommend this book to anybody who likes a gently gripping life saga.  This story was pure enjoyment to read and I can't wait to get my hands on the second in the series.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Miss Read

I have been knocked out by the most awful head cold.  I'm left with watery eyes, a dripping nose, a sore throat, and a dull headache.  Gah.  And it add insult to injury, today was Music Sunday at church.  Every 5th Sunday, we have a gorgeous, completely music-centric church-service and today's was particularly gorgeous.  And, people, I couldn't sing.  I was disgusted.  I came home and brewed myself a cup of tea and pulled out a Miss Read novel while the rain gently drizzled down.  It was lovely to curl up with a gently gossipy novel and forget about my streaming head cold for a few hours.
Miss Read, otherwise known as Dora Saint.

Miss Read wrote these two cozy, gentle series about two English villages.  The stories are just daily life accounts, rather like having a long gossip session with a good friend.  The two series (Thrush Green and Fairacre) are both about small country villages full of eccentric characters who, in spite of their quirks and foibles, are lovable people.

The stories are told by Miss Read herself as though she is just filling you in on the town news.  Here's the excerpt from the back of the book, as the book itself isn't really summarizable (no, that's not a word, but I'm sick and my brain isn't functioning, so I'm allowed to make up words):

"This sleepy, pristine setting conceals a flurry of activity among the villagers.  Rumor has it that Mr. Venables is considering retirement just as the village's teacher is about to make an important decision. Molly Curdle prepares for a new baby.  The kindly vicar, Charles Henstock, works on his sermon-quite unaware of the disaster that will overtake him.  However, there is never any doubt that all will end well in this very English village."

There is nothing thought-provoking or challenging about these books.  They are simply stories about everyday people living everyday lives.  The goings-on are mild and rather uninteresting, if one is used to thrilling, action-packed, drama-filled novels, but that's really the charm of these books.  Their gentleness is what is so drawing about them.  

I think the last time I read one of these books was when I was sick.  These books are akin to a cup of hot tea or a very thick wool blanket (you know, the kind that is so heavy you can barely move your shoulders).  If you are suffering from any sort of ailment, pull yourself off of your sickbed and stagger to the library and pull one of the shelf.  If you aren't suffering from any ailment, just keep these books in the back of your mind for next time your nose runs.  They make being sick positively enjoyable.  

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Tales, Speeches, Essays, and Sketches by Mark Twain

My latest read was Tales, Speeches, Essays, and Sketches by Mark Twain.  Of course, I laughed my head off because it's dear Mark Twain.  I do love Mark Twain's writing style.  I'm in a bit of a dry spot, reading-wise and I've been aimlessly wandering around both my personal library and the public library feeling sorry for my book-less self.  Mark Twain stepped in and is helping me through this little bump and, oh, am I grateful to him.

This book is just a compilation of shorter writings that Twain wrote over the years.  In it is Letter from Carson City, A Dog's Tale, Story of the Bad Little Boy, and more.  The writings are contemplative, sarcastic, witty, biting...pretty much any descriptor that you could use for a book you could mention here.  And that's why his writing is so brilliant.  The skill of being able to effortlessly change tones and settings is something that few authors have mastered.

I have been reading Mark Twain since a little girl, but I never read this book.  Actually I was unfamiliar with a great number of the writings within this.  A lot of these writings are more obscure things that are not handed out to the average reader very frequently.  I felt like I got to know Twain in a new way as I read through this book.  My favorite was An Encounter with an Interviewer.  Twain managed to portray himself and the young interviewer in a sarcastic, hilariously funny light.  I have never read a piece of writing quite like this.  In this story, Twain is interview by a, "nervous, dapper,'peart' young man" who proceeds to assist him in holding a completely botched up interview.  I laughed and laughed and laughed.  Take this excerpt:

"Q. How old are you?
A. Nineteen, in June
Q. Indeed!  I would have taken you to be thirty-five or six.  Where were you born?
A. In Missouri.
Q. When did you begin to write?
A. In 1836.
Q. Why, how could that be, if you are only nineteen now?
A. I don't know.  It does seem curious somehow.
Q. It does, indeed.  Who do you consider the most remarkable man you ever met?
A. Aaron Burr.
Q. But you never could have met Aaron Burr, if you are only nineteen years-
A. Now, if you know more about me than I do, what do you ask me for?"

When you're done reading that (and have spent a good 5 minutes laughing), flip back a few pages and turn to The Story of a Bad Little Boy That Bore a Charmed Life.  And you will have had your amusement for the day.  I guarantee it.

Go read this book, dear readers.  You will quite enjoy it and you will be left feeling refreshed and ready to conquer any book.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Great Divorce

My latest read has been The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.  I grew up with C.S. Lewis (particularly the Chronicles of Narnia, but other things as well, such as Screwtape Letters), so his writing is not new to me, but for some reason I had skipped this book.

The Great Divorce refers to a book called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  C.S. Lewis is replying to the assertion that parts of Heaven and Hell should be combined to make earth and instead calls for "a great divorce between heaven and hell," a return to an either/or stance rather than a both/and stance.  The story is an allegory, a sort of reflection on the nature of heaven and hell and how people participate in both realms on earth.  The story starts when the narrator boards a bus in a strange land where it is always grey and drizzly.  He goes on an incredible journey through heaven and hell with his complaining, griping, unsatisfied fellow travelers.  Lewis sums up the moral of the story in the introduction, "If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven; if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell."

It is no secret that Lewis is a highly revered writer and thinker, but this was especially impressed upon me in this book.  The way that important truths are presented in an unassuming, yet poignant way is impressive.  And it isn't every writer that can write a pressing allegory without it become a diatribe or a long-winded sermon.  I was encourage in my own faith by this book, but I was also challenged and convicted by it.  I think it's a good idea to read a book that makes one ever so slightly uncomfortable (in a good, spurring-on kind of way, of course) every once in a while.

I'm going to include a quote from the introduction of the book (which really was a sort of interpretation for the whole allegory).

"You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys; on one journey even your right hand and your right eye may be among the things you have to leave behind."

I really enjoyed this book.  As you long-time readers know, I read a lot of lighter-end fiction and so it was quite refreshing to get out of a bit of a reading grove.  This book also has the advantage of not being a tome-like book.  It's something that can be read over a quiet weekend and the reader will be left with a refreshed, thoughtful feeling.  Of course, this is a Christianity-geared book, however, if you are a thinker and enjoy contemplating, I would highly recommend this book.  I really liked it.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen

This is a book that I have owned for years.  The title pretty much sums up what the book is about- letters that Jane Austen wrote throughout the years, most of them to her beloved sister, Cassandra.  Penelope Hughes-Hallett did a beautiful job of compiling these letters and introducing them.  Her voice comes through gently, without taking away anything from the beauty of Austen's writing.  So here, quickly, are some of my observations about this book:

  • I met Jane Austen in a new way while reading this book.  So often, we only read about Austen through somebody else's eyes.  Here, we can see Jane Austen herself, without any other author's interpretations or editing.  It's so refreshing!
  • The illustrations!  They are truly one of the highlights of the book.  I found that I am still a sucker for pretty pictures in books.  The illustrations are varied, from portraits that Cassandra, a budding artist drew, to little humorous sketches published in newspapers at the time to beautiful watercolor sketches done by famous people.  
  • The social rules fascinate me.  What accomplishments were expected of ladies, the proper way to accept a dance...the rules go on and on.  It's interesting, because Jane Austen, of course, accepts the rules as just the way things are.  So the reader picks up those social rules along the way through reading Austen's writing.
  • I am glad I don't have to wear regency dress.  I look at those pictures and hear Jane mention certain things about their clothes and I breathe a sigh of relief.  I am a dress-uppy kind of girl, but those teeny-tiny little plunging bodices and skirts that appear to be constantly sticking to ones legs does not sound pleasant.
  • For the first time, I got a very clear picture of the Austen family as a whole.  I have read biographies about Austen before, but this one is so interesting because it is Jane, herself, talking about her family and all of the little quirks that make up everybody.
  • Jane Austen was an observer, rather like me.  She writes to Cassandra all of her observations about people and the funny, strange, and interesting things that they do.  I think it's part of what makes her such a brilliant writer...that ability to observe something interesting, stow it away for future use, and then pull it out again and incorporate it into a novel.
This book was so wonderful, readers.  I think it was my favorite of my Austen in August reads.  I highly recommend it to any Austenites.  

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mary Stewart Series: The Gabriel Hounds

On our very last vacation trip of the summer, I read only one book.  Now, to be fair, it was a loud, busy family visit that didn't allow for lots of time spent in thinking and reading.  But I'm a reader and a book blogger, so of course I couldn't go without at least one book.  I picked a Mary Stewart novel, naturally.  And that's the great thing about Mary Stewart.  She can be read on the road and in a loud, chaotic house and still be comprehended and enjoyed.  I read most of it on the way out, a bit one evening, and then the rest on the way home (when I wasn't napping).
Now I want a raspberry coat with a purple flower at my throat.

The Gabriel Hounds is, in my opinion, one of Mary Stewart's creepiest novels.  It's not like her magic-ey books, that are slightly reminiscent of her Merlin writing, full of spells and mild magic and other worldly experiences.  It's also not that wild-chase thriller theme that runs through so many of Stewart's books.

The Gabriel Hounds is the story of Christy Mansel, a young aristocrat who is traveling abroad in the Middle East.  While there, she runs into her handsome, impetuous, equally wealthy cousin who is also traveling.  They agree to go look up their eccentric Great-Aunt Harriet living in a palace called the Dar Ibrahim, a women well-known in Lebanon (or The Lebanon, as Mary Stewart archaicly calls it).  But they find that there are strange things afoot at the Dar Ibrahim, where sinister Arab servants (*cringe*...I know...) and a mysterious doctor minister to the demanding old lady.  Christy and her cousin (who is also the love-interest...surprise!) find that as difficult as it is to get into the old castle, it may be even more difficult to get out.

Throughout this book run sinister threads of drug overuse (particularly hashish) and cultural problems with the Middle East.  The natives in the book are treated with an extremely racist suspicion that feels kind of weird to read.  However, Mary Stewart's writing surpasses some of the awkward racist descriptions.

This was not my favorite Mary Stewart (Nine Coaches Waiting will always hold that special position in my heart), but it was definitely good.  The story was well crafted and I sat at the edge of my seat in the car, the seatbelt digging into my neck, skipping bathroom stops so I could find out what happened.  There was even one panicked moment where I realized I couldn't find my book and that it was stuck in the back of the trunk.  But I finally retrieved it and kept reading.  This was a great book!  If you are fond of Mary Stewart, this is a must-read.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

An Old-Fashioned Girl

I have always loved Louisa May Alcott's writing.  Like so many little girls, I was introduced to Little Women by my mother early on.  We read the book together and laughed over the adventures and felt sorry for Laurie and wept over Beth.  After that introduction, I adored everything by Alcott.  I went on to read Little Men and Jo's Boys and all of the lesser-known books, like Under the Lilac Bush and Hospital Sketches.  However, my favorite is An Old-Fashioned Girl.

An Old Fashioned Girl is the story of Polly, a shy, smart, highly spirited girl.  She goes to visit a friend, Fanny, who lives a cosseted life with her wild brother Tom, her whiny, spoiled little sister Maud, her distracted businessman father, her self-absorbed, hypochondriacal mother and her lonely grandmother who disapproves of the whole family.  Into this scene full of ennui and dissipation comes a breath of fresh air in the form of young Polly.  She, a country girl from a countercultural family that reminds me of the Marches,  is shocked by the city life so full of problems and trouble in spite of the wealth.  She is introduced to Polly's shallow friends and she begins to work change in the family and she begins to see the real sides of her hosts.

The book is spread over a time period of about 10 years.  By the end, there is a charming suitor, Mr. Sidney, and Polly has grown in wisdom and maturity and has become an even more well-rounded character.  Polly is living in a little apartment and keeping house for herself and giving music lessons to support her brother in college.  Then the unthinkable happens-Polly and her family lose all of their money in some banking crises.  And…well, you'll have to read this wonderful book to find out what happens!

The domestic descriptions are unbelievable cozy, particularly when Polly moves into her own house.  It's one of the lovely bonuses of this book.  I couldn't find the particular description that I love, so you'll just have to read the book and find it for yourself.
I sat down with a delicious slice of peach upside down cake made with roasted cornmeal,
hot peppermint tea, and An Old Fashioned Girl (rereading for the millionth time).
It was so pretty, I decided to take a picture-yes, I've become one of those bloggers who takes
pictures of her food.

Even though Polly is a Victorianly good character, there is nothing saccharine or fake about her goodness.  She has her struggles, very much like the March sisters of Little Women.  She has troubles and setbacks just like all of us, but she has a loving family base that is helping her along as she sees new, tempting, strange things.  The old-fashioned in the title is from when Fanny and her friends refer to Polly as "old-fashioned" and "little-girl-ish" because she doesn't behave the way Fanny and her friends do.

Polly's family is not portrayed as a demon-family, but simply one that has become distracted by worldly things and in the process has forgotten the family.  Polly is simply there to remind them of the importance of each other.  The books is not explicitly Christian, but there is that undertone, much like the undertone in Little Women.  I think that also has a lot to do with the way that Polly and her family behave.
Finished!  (Does anybody else prop their books against
their tea pot?  It makes the perfect hands-free reading!

Polly reminds me of Meg March is so many ways.  If L.M. Alcott were to write a story just about Meg on her own in a strange city, you would get this book.  I've always identified with Meg in Little Women.  I do not have that willful, passionate Jo March streak, goodness knows I'm not like saintly Beth and I hope to goodness I'm not like the spoiled, vain Amy.   Meg's calm, practical nature, in spite on her own personal temptations resonated with me, which is part of the reason I identified with Polly.  

The ultimate message of this story and the whole story in general are really timeless.  There is nothing archaic or old-fashioned about the writing or the story.  Louisa May Alcott did it again-she wrote another wonderful book about lovable characters that you are sure to remember for years after you read this book.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Miss Manners

(Well, I came back for a blog post!  I missed sitting down and writing out my thoughts so much!)

I can't believe I've never mentioned these books.  I would probably name Miss Manners as one of the top 10 most influential writers in my life.  Her no-nonsense, bitingly witty, perfectly correct writing is brilliant.  I was first introduced to Miss Manners through my mother, who has all of her books and would sit, reading them and laughing uproariously.  Some time in early high school, I picked up one and fell in love.

Miss Manners has written a manners advice column in newspapers for years, starting, I think, some time in the 80s.  People write in with some manners question or problem and then she addresses it, usually with a few biting remarks.  However, I was introduced to her through the books, not the newspaper column.  Miss Manners, or Judith Martin, has written many compilations of various categories of questions and her responses to them as well as essays that she has written.  The topics of the books are wide-ranging from childrearing to manners in a digital age (written in the 90s, but still surprisingly applicable to us today...although maybe not the part about answering pagers).

Miss Manners advocates bringing Victorian manners back into the 21st century.  Things like carrying a nice hanky with you when you go out and the proper way to introduce elders to one's contemporaries are carefully covered.   However, Miss Manners is also quick to point out the errors of societal mistakes made in earlier generations.  I appreciate this willingness to bring back some earlier customs and manners, but not to be too hasty to bring everything back.

I often read Miss Manners when I'm between books.  They're the kind of thing that you can pick up, read 10 pages of, and then drop, at least theoretically.  What actually happens is that you tell yourself that you're only going to read 5 pages and then get on your work and 2 hours later, you've read half of the book and you're completely worn out from laughing out loud.

The books are also useful.  When I have completely forgotten the correct format for writing a really nice sympathy note or I have clean forgotten that rule about wearing white shoes (it's Memorial Day to Labor Day, readers), I know that I can turn to Miss Manners and she will give me the answer along with a pithy remark that makes me laugh.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday- Top Ten Characters I Would Want With Me On a Desert Island

(Top Ten Tuesday is a Weekly Meme hosted by The Broke and Bookish)

The category for this Tuesday's Top Ten Tuesday is the ten characters I would want with me on a desert island.  Whew!  I made a list and then crossed out people and then added more and crossed out some more.  I at first went with just people I like, but then decided on being more practical and choosing people who would actually be helpful, since I like the majority of the characters I read about. I finally have my list here:

1.  Robinson Crusoe, because, duh, he already survived an island.

2.  One of the sisters from The Poisonwood Bible.  They survived incredible difficulties in Africa, along with all kinds of other things.  Besides, I want to ask them questions.

3. Either Harry or Hermione from The Harry Potter Series.  Magic would be so very useful on this island.

4.  Eliza Birdwell from A Friendly Persuasion, for her no-nonsense, get-the-job-done attitude.

5.  Pi Patel from The Life of Pi-Another extremely useful person.

6.  Laura Ingalls Wilder-A strong, pioneering woman.  Not fictional, but still...

7.  Jeeves, from Jeeves and Wooster- I would put him in charge of the domestic side of things.

8. Janice Holt Giles, in her memoir, 40 Acres and No Mule-Another resourceful, pioneering sort.  (I know, this is kind of cheating)

9. Somebody from The Swiss Family Robinson-Again, for the obvious reasons.

10.  Elnora Comstock, from A Girl of the Limberlost-The girl lived in a swamp, so I'll leave any stray alligators to her.

And that's my list!  I had a surprising amount of fun writing this.  I must say, I'm quite grateful that I don't have to round up all these people in real life.

Friday, July 18, 2014

She Got Up Off the Couch

I loved this book just as much as I did the first.  You know those books that you try to savor by reading each and every word, gently caressing each page as you turn it and seeing how long you can possibly read it?  This was one of those rare gems.

This memoir by Haven Kimmel is told with particular attention to Zippy's mother, a formerly deeply depressed woman who spent her life on the couch with pork rinds and science fiction.  Her mother, Delonda, finally gets off the couch and gets a degree in English, before becoming an English professor herself.  There are still the occasional mentions of Zippy's father, who was a star character in the first book, but Zippy's mother is the main focus of the book.

She Got Up Off the Couch is written with the same child's voice that Kimmel used in the first book.  I think that brilliant style of writing is even more apparent as you can hear Zippy's voice change as she grows up.  The tone is still that unmistakable child interpreting events voice, but the tone is different from the first books.  There is a new awareness.  Kimmel mentions realizing that, oh yeah, she only ever got a bath when she was at her friends' houses and the dawning realization that not everybody lives in a tenement house and has a gambling father.

The book's tone has a slightly more serious, growing-up tone to it, but it is still laugh-out-loud funny in many parts.  The same uproarious games with friends, colorful characters in the small town, and strange-but-true events are present here that were in the first one.

When you pick up a sequel to an adored book, there's always this fear that the second one won't quite match up to the first, that nothing can even try to compete.  But Haven Kimmel has created a second book as memorable as her first.  Please, please, please go and buy this book and read it and then come back and tell me I was right.

(I'm adding the amazon associates link this week because this is a book that I really, really think everybody should read this.)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A Girl Named Zippy

I devoured this book, I tell you.  Devoured it.  I read and read and howled with laughter and read some more.  It was one of those books that refuses to let you go about your normal business.  I found myself wishing that it was Sunday so I could cheerfully forget about any work and read instead.  I cannot impress it hard enough upon all of you how much I loved A Girl Named Zippy.

Zippy is the memoir of a girl growing up in Mooreland, Indiana in the 60s.  That might sound pretty straightforward, but Haven Kimmel, the author, has a brilliant way of writing in her childhood voice.  I've heard it said that children make excellent reporters, but terrible interpreters.  This is exactly what is happening in this story.  Kimmel writes down all of her childhood memories with no adult interjection.  The little-girl voice she produces is amazing.

Kimmel's family was anything but functioning.  Her father was a drunk who never held down a job and gambled away everything from her pet pony to her mother's wedding rings.  Her mother, mired down in depression, spent Kimmel's early years on the couch.  However, the book is by no means a sob story.  It is witty and poignant and fun to read.  In spite of all the challenges that I am sure faced her, Kimmel writes about them as a child would-simply stating, Yes my mother lived on the couch for 7 years, what's funny about that?  Then there are wonderful stories about growing up in a colorful community, from the funny Quaker church where she grew up to the best friend who had all her teeth knocked out.

You know how after you read a really, really well-written book you feel kind of spoiled and like no mediocre writing will suit?  That's how I feel right now.  Luckily, Haven Kimmel has written a sequel and you can be sure that I will be reading it very soon.
The second book

It's after reading a book like this that I feel like I praise books too indiscriminately.  I almost never review a book and give it a really nit-picky review, but now I'm thinking that, perhaps, it would be better to do that.  Think what a big impression it would make, then, if I reviewed this book and gave it a whole-hearted praise without any reservations.  My new goal is to write reviews that delve deeper into my likes and dislikes about books, that critique the writing at a deeper level.  So here's to writing nit-picking reviews in the future!

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish

I'm reading a delightfully academic book about the history of dressing well in America.  Its title is the title of this post (no, I'm not going to write out that whole, long title again).  It's written by Linda Przybyszewski, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of several other history books.  In this book, she takes a new subject upon herself: what women wore in the past, the women who inspired and taught them, and what we have to learn from them.  Przybyszewski fondly refers to these teachers of good fashion as "the dress doctors".  Their leader was Mary Brooks Picken, who inspired many women to use home-sewing to their advantage to create beautiful, thrifty wardrobes.

The dress doctors were home-ec teachers, writers, designers, and many more things.  Przybyszewski argues that they have really important advice for us today.  It's not a secret that many American women have lost all interest in dressing for occasion and this author is passionate about bringing practical beauty through clothes back into our daily lives.  The dress doctors taught that beauty was achieved through several simple rules of dress.  The rules for dress, summarized, are:
1. Sensibility- A wardrobe that serves you, rather than you serving your wardrobe.  This means a relatively inexpensive wardrobe as a whole made up of several good-quality expensive pieces that can be used in a variety of settings.
2. Good Design Principles and Overall Beauty- Clothing that has harmony, proportion, balance, and rhythm.  The clothing should be pleasing to the eye, but needs to answer first and foremost to the sensibility rule.  Sure, a mink coat is gorgeous, but how often are you going to wear it?  That said, sensibility isn't everything and if something is strictly sensible without any beauty, there's no joy in wearing it.
3.  Appropriate Setting- The dress doctors (and the author) firmly believed (believe) that there is a time and place for everything.  Out in public, you shouldn't be wearing your plunging necklines.  That should be reserved for your family and closest friends.

I agree with these rules pretty much.  There is a rather ridiculous emphasis on colors "going" together, which I find unnecessary.  Instead of this rule, I would say, "Colors that I, personally, find pleasing to the eye."  I find the rules about, "Well, I can't wear this color because I'm too light and never wear pink and read together!" to be tiresome and not something that needs to be dredged up from the past.  But aside from that, I really wish that there were some strict dress doctors walking up and down our streets today.

The book was really well written.  It was academic, while managing to be amusing and inspiring.  The perfect kind of book.  Przybyszewski tells of how clothing has evolved from the dress doctors of the 1900s to today and its ups and downs along the way (boy, is she scathing of 70s fashion) in a truly amusing way.  Honestly, I really can't do this book justice in a measly blog post.  However, I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Mary Stewart Series: Nine Coaches Waiting

Nine Coaches Waiting is probably Mary Stewart's most well-known (and well-loved) book.  And I can see why.  This was the second time I've read this book and it was just as enjoyable as the first time I read it.

In this book, young Linda Martin goes to Chateau Valmy in the French Alps as a governess.  There is a sad past involving brutal orphanages that is mentioned briefly, but other than that, we know absolutely nothing about her.  When Linda arrives at the chateau, she is struck by its beauty and grace and is determined to do well.  But after several days, she begins to realize that the chateau is full of dark secrets.  There is the pale, shy little boy named Philipe and host of characters that surround him: the creepy, yet brilliant uncle and the aunt who is nervous and takes pills, the friendly American who is working as a forester, and the wild young cousin who comes for visits.  After one harrowing night where Philipe narrowly misses being shot in the woods, Linda begins to suspect the uncle and his son.

This book is quite gripping.  In some of Mary Stewart's books, she overdoes the atmospheric suspense a bit, but in this book, that hefty does of suspense works wonders.  As Linda and Philipe creep through the foggy forest and hide in a little wooden cabin to escape the evil uncle (whoops, spoiler...but you knew that was coming), you can just feel the tension build.  The characters who were evil were just evil enough to be convincing and the good characters were nice, but not nicity-nice.

The one thing that mildly annoyed me was the French.  The French characters would speak English to Linda and then just say one or two random words in French.  As Linda is speaking only English (even though she knows French quite fluently-it's her one power over her employers, they don't know she can tell what they're saying), I have no idea why they're assuming that she just knows the occasional French word.  But that's such a nit-picky thing and it wasn't a huge part of the plot, so I really shouldn't complain.  At least it wasn't as bad as the 50s movies where all of the characters speak English throughout the whole movie with a stilted, awkward French accent.  Gah.

Of course, I read this book in the new edition I got with the pretty vintage illustrated cover.  I am having so much fun reading these books all over again in a nice edition.  This book is a must-read.  If you never read another Mary Stewart book again, this is the one to read.  But I say that with every Mary Stewart book I review, so just read any of the Mary Stewarts and you'll be glad you did.

I can't do the Amazon link for these Mary Stewart books because they're only sold through Amazon UK.  So for my American readers, if you want to get this specific edition, google Amazon UK and then type in any of the Mary Stewart titles and you'll find them.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Tasha Tudor

Just this week, I check an old favorite out of the library.  It was one of the beautiful books that are about Tasha Tudor.  For those of you who don't know, Tasha Tudor was an eccentric old New Englander who wrote and illustrated beautiful children's books.  She was sort of the American Beatrix Potter.  But books were just the tip of her skills.  She was known for her gorgeous gardens, delicious food, old-fashioned dress, and generally picturesque lifestyle.  She lived all alone in a farmhouse with her many animals (she was best known for her collection of corgis).

Throughout the years, people came to interview her and photograph her life.  This book, The Private World of Tasha Tudor, is organized by season.  There are gorgeous pictures of Tudor's fascinating life and the words in the book are her own.  The author took multiple recordings of her talking about things in her life and then he organized them into this book.

The pictures are really the main point.  Sure, having Tudor's charming voice on paper is nice, but the beautiful pictures are what I love so much about the Tasha Tudor books.  The sweeping dresses in Civil War prints, the bank of lilies, the charmingly clutter-y kitchen are captured so beautifully.

This book is wonderful and not just in a coffee-table book way.  I find Tasha Tudor's books to be kind of like looking at Pinterest-interesting and inspiring for me.  There are quite a few books about Tudor from a garden book to crafting book.  But I think that The Private World is probably the best of them because it's written in Tudor's own words and the photography is by far the best.   I really enjoyed this book.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Henry Reed

I'm back again today with yet another wonderful children's book, this time for slightly older readers.  This book is in my personal library and the other day I just randomly picked it up and started reading it.  The book is called Henry Reed's Babysitting Service.  Henry Reed is the son of an ambassador who travels all over the world.  Every summer, he comes to his aunt and uncle's cozy little 1950s New Jersey neighborhood.  There are several books, but my favorite is definitely Henry Reed's Babysitting.  After the previous summer which is covered in the first book, Henry returns to Grover's Corner and proceeds to plan another moneymaking scheme with his friend Midge.

After conducting lengthy surveys of all the neighbors, they see that there is a real need for babysitting.  And there starts the fun.  There is the busy housewife for whom they cook hamburgers, little knowing that the "hamburger meat" is really ground horse meat for the poodle; and there's the extremely naughty little girl who is surprisingly good at hiding from her caretakers.  But no matter what Henry and Midge do, they always have surprising adventures.  And of course, as in all good 50s children's books, adults are blissfully absent, meaning that the children can have uproarious times without any supervision whatsoever.
Henry and Midge

The book is written in a diary form (something I don't normally enjoy reading), but the stories are so funny and interesting that it works quite well.  I think that the diary form actually works very well for the reader because Henry's voice comes through so clearly without interruptions from the author.

I first heard of these books in middle school, when my dad read one of them aloud.  I remember loving them at once, so it was fun to read through this book again. This story is really great for any age.  Along with Henry's very funny voice are the great illustrations.  All 5 of the Henry Reed books were illustrated by the famous Robert McCloskey (who illustrated and wrote Blueberries for Sal).  Anybody as young as 6 would get the humor and the adventures and there is something timeless about the stories, even with the 50s American references.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Alfie and Annie Rose

This darling little book is in a genre that I don't normally read, but it's such a sweet book that it really deserves it's own review.  The Alfie and Annie Rose books are stories about two little 80s/90s British children and their happy lives.   The stories are told mainly from Alfie's perspective, but Annie Rose definitely plays a big role in the stories.  Alfie is a 4 or 5 year old and Annie Rose is a toddler, so she's probably anywhere from 1-3.  I just read recently that Alfie would be 30 now if he were a real person.  That surprised me so much because Alfie lives in my mind as a 5 year old.  He has all kinds of adventures from going to a birthday party where his friend gets very wild and naughty to befriending the "big boy" (a first grader) at school.  Alfie and Annie Rose live charming, normal lives and I remember how much I identified with them.

Just recently, my mom got one of the Alfie and Annie Rose books just for fun.  It was fun to flip through those pages again and remember so many of those stories.  I grew up reading these stories and I was amazed how much I remembered about the books.  I think that these books are so enjoyable in large part because Shirley Hughes (the author) clearly knows children so well.  She understands just how excited and out of control children get at a 5 year old birthday party and she knows about naming inanimate objects funny names (I had a pumpkin named Perenkin when I was about Alfie's age).  In addition to all these wonderful qualities, the illustrations are gorgeous.  The family's cluttery, cozy little London flat is so much fun to see.
An illustration from one of the books.

I really do recommend these books for anybody.  If you have some contact with any children (or if you don't), I think these books are a must-read.  When there are so many unlikeable characters in children's books and sub-par stories, these books are very refreshing.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

My Latest Reading Project

I have a new reading project.   I sat down with some lovely sharp pencils and notepaper and made lists. I love making lists and planning, so this was a lot of fun.  For the next several months every evening, I'm going to be reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and Voices of a People's History of the United States (written along with Anthony Arnove).  So far, I've read the first chapter in both books.  Each chapter in each book corresponds.  The Voices book is several writings from several viewpoints in different points in American history in each chapter.  The People's History is Zinn's take on the time period with plenty of primary sources cited.  For instance, the first chapter of the Voices book has an excerpt from Columbus's diary, an excerpt from the diary of a man who was on the ship with Columbus and came to realize the evils of what they were doing, and an essay written by a Native American man in the 1980s re-imagining Columbus's arrival.  Then, Zinn offers his thoughts about the arrival of Columbus, all written in a captivating and lyrical prose.

I think this is an important book for everybody to read.  American history (particularly school textbook history) has become badly distorted in a variety of ways.   Firstly, for many years, the viewpoint of the white, European-origin male has reigned supreme and the school system seems to not have quite gotten the message yet that this is only relevant to one segment of the population.  Second, the wars, exchanges of money, and foreign policies have been the "important" parts of history for a long time.  What counts is not what the Virginia slave women were making for their meals, but what law Jefferson was passing.  Howard Zinn has set out to completely change the way we view history and I think he's done a wonderful job of it.

One thing I am enjoying about this book is the calm recognition that, yes, this history that Zinn is writing is biased.  So often, history is presented as pure gospel, like the Pythagorean Theorem, that can never be wrong.  Even though the facts themselves may be true, every historian picks and chooses when writing something and it's refreshing to have that acknowledged.  The other thing I love about this book is how truly interesting it is.  That history is boring is something that many 5th graders repeat.  And really, if you're talking about textbooks, they're right.  This book succeeds in sounding serious and intelligent, while still being fascinating.

I thought I would give you two quotes that I especially love from Zinn's books.  The first one is from A People's History, the second is from Voices.

"My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia.  It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality.  But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all)-that is still with us.  One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a max of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth.  We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks.  This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences.  It is therefore more deadly."

"To omit or minimize [the] voices of resistance is to create the idea that power only rests with those who have the guns, who possess the wealth, who own the newspapers and the television stations.  I want to point out that people who seem to have no power, whether working people, people of color, or women- once they organize and protest and create movements- have a voice no government can suppress."

I strongly recommend that you read these books.  They are actually surprisingly cheap for how big they are and they are books that are worth buying and adding to your home library.  However, they are at my public library, so you could definitely check them out of the library first, read a bit, and then decide what you think.


Monday, May 19, 2014


Quick!  Quick!  The Midnight Garden, a blog that focuses mostly on young adult and middle grade fiction, is hosting a giveaway of L.M. Montgomery books published by Sourcebooks Fire.  As many of you know, I adore L.M. Montgomery, so you'd better bet that I went over there are entered at once.  If any of you are interested, head on over there.

Here's the link.  Enjoy!

There are two sets of books being given away: a set of the six Anne books and a set of six non-Anne books.  The books in the non-Anne set are Jane of Lantern Hill, A Tangled Web, The Blue Castle, Pat of Silver Bush, Mistress Pat, and Magic for Marigold.  Of these, I have only read The Blue Castle, so I'm pretty excited about this.

I'm blogging about this at the last moment, so you only have 15 more hours to enter this giveaway.  Good luck!