Monday, December 15, 2014

Wonder by R J Palacio

Wonder by R J Palacio has a lot to recommend it and it is easy to love. The story is about a boy, August, who has been homeschooled because he was born with a physical condition that has distorted his facial features.  So for August, this is going to be a very challenging year.  The novel is told through various first-person voices, beginning with August’s own.   Unsurprisingly, the other children are not quite sure of what to make of this new student and August has to learn how to navigate the complicated politics of being in a school for the first time.

The characters are all interesting and, give or take, well-rounded.  The narrative arch is good, with highs and lows, and the shift in narrative voices allows for the novel to take on more layers than it could, otherwise, if it were focused on August’s story alone.  Also, Palacio doesn’t isolate her characters from the adults in their lives so parents and teachers play pivotal roles in what happens to the younger characters.

My only reservation regarding this book, and why I probably won’t be giving it to Bibi when she’s old enough to read it, is that there are references to heaven and a belief in god.  Given that none of the characters actively practice a religion, the conversations about heaven and god seem sort of dumped in, as if the author was more comfortable with a cliché conversation rather than the integrity of the characters.  This may not be a flaw to others but I found it off-putting.

 That said, I would still give this book to my niece, who is being raised Catholic.  I found myself thinking about the characters after I had finished reading.  And if I found the climax a bit contrived almost bordering on deus ex machina, I nonetheless enjoyed this book and am eager to read 365 Days of Wonder.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Tower by Nigel Jones

Tower:  An Epic History of the Tower of London by Nigel Jones is a sweeping history of the iconic British landmark.  As you probably already know, my husband and I recently went to London and one of our favorite days was the one where we spent the morning at the Tower of London.  We took hundreds of photos that day and I even took a photo of the memorial near where one of his ancestors was beheaded. 

Jones does a good job of covering the history of the Tower, including its various purposes. First built shortly after William the Conqueror gained tenuous control of his new empire, the White Tower was designed by a Bishop, Gundulf.  (I found myself wondering if the similarity between his name and Gandalf’s is merely a coincidence.  Possibly but, given Tolkien’s own love of history and language, would it surprise anyone if there were an intentional connection?)  At first, the Tower was used for more than a prison.  Part palace, part menagerie, many famous and infamous people found themselves within the Tower’s walls.

The book is mostly well organized although I found it a bit confusing.  The second chapter focuses on the menagerie and mint, both of which found a home within and near the Tower.  Because of the focus on these roles, the chapter spans a lot of time, with overlaps of information.  The condensed history is more fully explored in the later chapters, more than three of which focus on the Tudor period.  Then the final part returns to focusing thematically on the history, first focusing on the men who successfully escaped or failed in their attempts to regain freedom.  The book then concludes with the civil wars in England (ironically, not very different from the political climate of England’s beginnings) and the final executions that occurred in the Tower during the World Wars.

I’m not sure that the book could have been organized differently, frankly.  It’s hard to imagine how a strictly chronological exploration of the Tower’s history would have allowed for the detailed look at things like the menagerie.  It’s hard to read about the animals, how they were mistreated either due to ignorance (the animal keepers believed that ostriches could ingest iron and fed them iron nails) or outright brutality (James I was especially vicious when it came to using and abusing the animals).  But reading about them in one chapter is inevitably more distressing than the occasional mention a more chronological organization would have created.  Focusing on certain parts of the Towers history by theme works, even if it is a bit confusing.  Still, I found the second part, the one that takes up the bulk of the book, was easier to follow.

The entire book is fascinating and a great way to get an overview of England’s history.  And, let’s face it, trying squeeze over 1000 years of very complicated politics, relationships, and more intrigue than can be imagined into under 500 words is bound to be hard to organize.  Jones does a remarkable job and provides the reader with a thorough list of recommended reading in case a certain era, person, or event sparks particular interest.  I’m glad I waited to read this book until after the trip but now I want to go back and revisit the Tower to see what more I can notice now that I have so much more historical context for things.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Afternoon Tea Book by Michael Smith

The Afternoon Tea Book by Michael Smith is out of print and I honestly don’t know why.  I borrowed this book from the library when we returned from London and this book fulfilled all of my expectations. Upon our return from London, I borrowed several books about tea and afternoon tea in particular and only two of the several stood out to me.  This was the first one.  It is simple with illustrations that look like they come from another era. 
The author begins with a brief history of how tea became so influential in British culture, its gradual preeminence over coffee, and the development of the ritual known as afternoon tea.  The next chapters go into details about how tea is grown, graded, best served, etc.  This all sounds potentially dull but Smith’s ability to infuse his text with personal stories and amusing anecdotes make the first part of the book easy and fun to read.  It is the authorial voice that makes this book a delight to read and utterly fascinating.  He is a food historian and has worked as a consultant on television shows so he knows not only food but the history behind it.  Better still, he knows how to make it all interesting without being too stuck in the past. 

The second part is overflowing with recipes.  I won’t even pretend that I tried them all.  The recipes are a blend of the traditional with the contemporary and the author takes the time to explain to the reader the history behind some of the recipes.  Knowing where a recipe got its name or how it gained popularity gives even a simple bun or tart significance. I did make the basic scone recipe.  It was very easy to pull it together.  We had them with butter and marmalade.  They were good enough that I want to try some of the other recipes.  (Rob and I agreed they would have been better if our shortening hadn't turned and I hadn't been forced to make a necessary compromise in the ingredients.) 

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to indulge in the best that afternoon tea has to offer, from Battenberg Cake to how to best brew different types of tea.  And while you're enjoying your tea, you can read more about all the curious history that made this singular drink so significant in British culture. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Collected Stories by Willa Cather

Collected Stories by Willa Cather is perhaps the best collection of short stories I’ve read in a long time.  The choices made by the publisher are brilliant, inviting the reader to see a progression in the author’s writing style, themes, and more. I’ve had this book since at least 1999 and I’m only sorry I didn’t read it sooner. 

The first few stories from The Troll Garden are good but not remarkable.  They are nice but not as powerful as her later works. The collection concludes with an essay that puts these early stories in a literary context, that Cather’s writing was influenced by Henry James and Edith Wharton.  The stories, as a result, are good but they are not necessarily new or interesting.

The next set of stories are culled from Youth and the Bright Medusa and here is where Cather begins to truly find her voice and the themes that she would return to again and again, exploring them from different angles, developing ideas in new ways, even revisiting some of her characters.  There is still something both Jamesian and Whartonian about these stories but it is clear that she is beginning to pull away from the influence of other writers.

The rest of the collection comes from her later writings and here is where the stories truly begin to fly.  While the earlier stories take place in “high society,” often in the city rather than the pioneering west for which the author is best known.  Her novels My Ántonia and O Pioneers are possibly her most famous and some of the themes explored in these novels manifest in these short stories.  But there is another theme that begins emerging, one that informed her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop.  In her maturity, death and regret become more evident throughout the stories.

There is something wonderful about seeing a writer’s personal journey emerging in her stories and Cather reveals so much through the disparate characters that move through the pages of her stories.  I am, for lack of a better phrase, blown away.  As I said, I wish I had read this book sooner.  It’s powerful and some of the stories, like “Scandal,” “Old Mrs. Harris,” “The Old Beauty,” and “The Best Years.”  These resonated with me most deeply.  I’m eager to pass this book on to my daughter, who is the impetus for my reading his collection.  I’ve no doubt she’ll find stories that resonate with her as well and I expect she’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Bloomsbury Recalled by Quentin Bell

Bloomsbury Recalled by Quentin Bell is both a memoir and a collection of essays on some of the remarkable people who were a part of his life.  For those who do not know, the author’s mother is Vanessa Bell, sister of Victoria Woolf.  The two women were the core of the Bloomsbury Group, a gathering of artists and writers who discussed philosophy, politics, and more. 

Bell does a lovely job of conveying the humanity of such icons as E. M. Forster, Roger Fry, Leonard Woolf, and the others who came in and out of his life.  He does not shy away from the more scandalous realities of this remarkable community of peers.  The incest that was hidden is mentioned and not dismissed nor excused.  The homosexuality between men and women, the affairs and open relationships are all mentioned but not in a way that makes them seem remarkable or even unnatural.  Rather, he shares these many details with an accepting candor. 

This makes sense because this is the world into which he was born and raised, one where his mother’s lover lived in his home and his father raised the lover’s daughter as his own.  All of it is told with an easy objectivity even as he shares his own subjective experience.  Blatantly missing is a chapter on Virginia Woolf which makes sense because Bell had already published a biography about his famous aunt.  After reading this book, I very much want to read his biography about Woolf. 

Anyone familiar with the Bloomsbury Group and/or any of its members will be fascinated with reading this book.  Meeting these amazing larger-than-life people through Bell’s evocative memories is a remarkable opportunity to vicariously experience what life was like, for better or worse, within this group of people. An absolute must read for anyone who wants to know more about the group or any of its members. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond is a charming children’s book I remember reading when I was quite young.  Rob remembered reading when he was a little boy which is why he insisted on buying our niece and granddaughter a stuffed Paddington the Bear from Hamley’s, London’s landmark toy store.  We also gave them each a copy of the book.

Under the circumstances, I indulged in rereading the novel myself and I’m surprised by how much I remember.  When Mr and Mrs Brown go to Paddington Station to pick up their daughter Judy, home from school, they see a small bear and take him home with them.  Paddington is mostly serious but he keeps getting into trouble.  He is well-meaning so his destruction is never malicious and children are naturally going to delight in the chaos that he incidentally causes. 

The illustrations by Peggy Fortnum are still delightful, reminiscent of Winnie-the-Pooh and E H Shepard’s. It is inevitable that there will be comparisons.  Both novels are written by British men, have a talking bear as the primary character.  However, Paddington holds his own.  The older Pooh is clearly rooted in the imagination of a child, using his nursery toys as inspiration for animal adventures. Paddington, however, is an anthropomorphic bear from Darkest Peru, who lives in a real human world.  He talks, wears clothes, even carries a suitcase.  I won’t deny that I far prefer Milne’s bear but I can see why I was enchanted by Bond’s and have no doubt that Isabelle and Bibi will fall in love.  At least I hope so, anyway.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Plan B by Anne Lamott

Plan B:  Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott is another collection of personal essays that take place in the early days of George W Bush’s presidency, shortly after 9/11 and before America once again went to war.  Reading Lamott’s books out of order can be a bit disorienting.  In this book, I’m reading about a single mother raising a teenaged son but in a previous book I was reading about Sam making the author a grandmother.  However, because so many of the people in Lamott’s life remain on the page, reading her essays is like coming home to family.

I suppose I especially feel this way because the author’s humor is so much like my mother’s (and my own, needless to say).  I’ve said this in other reviews I’ve written about Lamott’s nonfiction and I’ve also mentioned that her strong Christian faith, which informs so much of her life, never sounds forced or makes the reader feel judged.  She is, if nothing else, humble, her humor self-deprecating, and her candor never discomforting. 

If Lamott is perhaps more neurotic than I consider myself, I do recognize myself in her shifting self-acceptance.  With age come body changes and it’s fun to read how a trip to the beach means taking “the aunties” out in the sun, comparing herself with other people who have aged with more or less grace.  I can’t imagine many aging with more humor, regardless.  But it isn’t all about the lightness of living.  There are times when Lamott shares stories of sadness, confesses her struggles with acceptance, expresses anger and even outrage at what is happening in the world. 

Yes, reading Lamott feels like visiting a good friend or even family, getting to know them, and yourself, all over again.  Lamott will always be someone I want to return to over and over again.
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