Category Archives: Fiction

Hamnet

 

If I had to write a one-word review of Maggie O’Farrell’s book, Hamnet, I would simply say “Wow.”  I would write more if I could stop crying, but I was powerfully moved by this story, and it’s going to stay with me for a long time. And it’s okay to cry.

It is a story about grief…so beautifully described, so honestly told. It is the story of William Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, and his death at age 11. It was a devastating death for his family, as such a loss would be for any family, and the author includes you as one who feels the loss intensely.

How were they to know that Hamnet was the pin holding them together? That without him they would all fragment and fall apart, like a cup shattered on the floor?

Read it. The writing is mesmerizing, beautiful, gripping, profound. But be prepared to cry, because you become totally immersed in the emotional honesty of this world created by Maggie O’Farrell. And then read Shakespeare’s Hamlet again, from a new vantage point, which is what I am going to do now.

“Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. ”

My husband’s copy of Hamlet…with post-it notes

 

The Midnight Library

“Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

I just finished listening to this audiobook. Loved it!

Most Secret

I am such a Nevil Shute fan! He was a wonderful storyteller/writer, and his books always completely immerse me in another life and time. Most Secret is the 17th book I’ve read by him. I’m slowing working my way through all his works, and it’s a fun project. And since today is his birthday, I celebrate him by sharing this review with you.  But to start, I’ve copied this short biography for you from the Powell’s Books website:

NEVIL SHUTE NORWAY was born on January 17, 1899 in Ealing, London. After attending the Dragon School and Shrewsbury School, he studied Engineering Science at Balliol College, Oxford. He worked as an aeronautical engineer and published his first novel, Marazan, in 1926. In 1931 he married Frances Mary Heaton and they went on to have two daughters. During the Second World War he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve where he worked on developing secret weapons. After the war he continued to write and settled in Australia where he lived until his death on January 12, 1960. His most celebrated novels include Pied Piper (1942), No Highway (1948), A Town Like Alice (1950) and On the Beach (1957).

Most Secret, from the publisher:

In their trusty fishing boat, Genevieve, armed with only a flame thrower and limited ammunition, a small group of officers and men take a stand against the might of the German army after the fall of France in World War II.

What armament would you propose to give her for the job?” He said: “A flame-thrower—one of the big ones. A flame-thrower and a few Tommy-guns.”

…I paused before replying, wondering how to put it when I saw him. I had to tell my admiral that the Army had proposed a naval expedition, to be commanded by a pseudo-Army officer of curious past history, sailing in a fishing-boat manned principally by foreigners, armed with an unconventional and utterly disgusting weapon, with the object of stiffening morale over on the other side. It was certainly an unusual proposal.

The Germans had used flame throwers during the war, but the British had never used them. The men of this ragtag crew, each with his own backstory which led him to this historic mission, all had reasons to embrace this unusual idea of a young man who desperately wanted to make a difference in the war effort. As usual, Nevil Shute took his time telling this story, carefully building the backgrounds of each character so that we would understand them well at that significant moment in history. It’s a story that shows what a difference one person, or each person, can make in any given circumstance, especially during war. I found it fascinating!

A Week in Winter

A Week in Winter, by Maeve Binchy, was a reread for me. I don’t know what happened the first time I started reading it, but I just didn’t connect. This time, however, it was enjoyable listen for me during the holiday week. The pace was slow and relaxing, the characters fun to get to know. I guess that timing of when we choose to read a book is everything.

The story as described by the publisher:

Stoneybridge is a small town on the west coast of Ireland where all the families know one another. When Chicky Starr decides to take an old, decaying mansion set high on the cliffs overlooking the windswept Atlantic Ocean and turn it into a restful place for a holiday by the sea, everyone thinks she is crazy. Helped by Rigger (a bad boy turned good who is handy around the house) and Orla, her niece (a whiz at business), Chicky is finally ready to welcome the first guests to Stone House’s big warm kitchen, log fires, and understated elegant bedrooms. John, the American movie star, thinks he has arrived incognito; Winnie and Lillian are forced into taking a holiday together; Nicola and Henry, husband and wife, have been shaken by seeing too much death practicing medicine; Anders hates his father’s business, but has a real talent for music; Miss Nell Howe, a retired schoolteacher, criticizes everything and leaves a day early, much to everyone’s relief; the Walls are disappointed to have won this second-prize holiday in a contest where first prize was Paris; and Freda, the librarian, is afraid of her own psychic visions.

“Stoneybridge” is a place I’d love to visit! It certainly was enjoyable to visit it this week via Maeve Binchy’s wonderful imagination and storytelling. The lives of so many different people converged for that week in winter, and I loved getting to know the backstory of each person and how they ended up coming to Stoneybridge.

A terrific holiday read!

I chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “Wanderlust,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each country of the world. This book was set in Ireland.

Classics Club Spin #23: Excellent Women

I read Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym, many years ago. It was the first book I read by her and I remember liking it very much. Since then, I have read many of her other books, but it had been so long since I read this one that I decided to include it on my list of 50 books to read in 5 years for The Classics Club. Last month, it came up as my “Classics Club Spin” book for May. I’m glad I reread it, and I’m happy to spend time reading anything written by Barbara Pym.

Excellent Women” is a term referring to unmarried women who are considered spinsters. In this story, which takes place in the 1950s, the main character, Mildred Lathbury, is just over 30, and well established in the community as a spinster. As the daughter of a clergyman, she devotes much of her time to helping at her church, and just helping people in general. She is capable and independent, and quite satisfied with her life as a single person. But new neighbors, a married couple, complicate her predictable daily existence, and she gets drawn in to the drama of their lives. She is good friends with the pastor of her church and his sister, (who has always taken good care of him), but when he gets engaged to the widow of another clergyman, that further complicates Mildred’s ordered life.

Throughout this story, I felt that Mildred was the only “adult in the room.” Everyone else was needy in one way or another, or selfish and unable to really care about others. I felt sorry for Mildred because of the demands placed on her, and when others took advantage of her I wanted her to stand up to them and just say “No.”  It took her quite awhile to be able to do that, but she weathers all the demands and drama, and in the end appreciates her single life, her solitude, and her independence even more than before.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her.

There is always a lot of subtle humor in Barbara Pym’s novels, which is very entertaining. I liked the main character, Mildred Lathbury, more and more as the book progressed and appreciated her intelligence and her insightfulness into the humans around her. This was a novel well worth re-reading.

 

Excellent Women was one of my choices for my 50-books-in-5-years for The Classics Club.

Reflections: June 2019

My June reading was a total pleasure! I didn’t read as many books as I have in each of the last few months, but I enjoyed every minute of the books I did read. It was the beginning of my summer reading, and the weather was nice enough to allow me to sit in my favorite reading spot on the porch for much of the time. July will get too hot for afternoon reading out there, but for now it’s just perfect.

It’s hard to choose my favorite of the month because I read some terrific books! I absolutely loved The Ravenmaster, by Christopher Skaife, a book recommended to me by my bird-loving daughter. The audiobook is the way to enjoy this book because Christopher Skaife narrates it himself which adds tremendous fun to the experience. His stories of the ravens that live at the Tower of London are both fun and fascinating. I learned so much about ravens from him!

I just loved Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee, which I also listened to on audiobook and which was also narrated by the author. Mr. Lee’s voice was full of nostalgia and emotion, and I felt as if he was sitting right next to me sharing his memories with just me. I was reminded of my grandfather, and my father, both great storytellers.

A different type of memoir stole my heart next — Susan Hill’s The Magic Apple Tree is one of the loveliest books I’ve read in a long time. I was so captured by her beautiful writing and her remembrances of her life in the English countryside! Even before I finished the book, I started searching for two others that she wrote in a similar vein. They were hard to find, but I ordered them from Abe Books and was delighted when they arrived. More summer reading!

Some time spent reading The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy, and then re-watching the movie with my husband was fun. A light mystery, a classic science fiction novel, and a return to my childhood with a re-reading of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse rounded out the month.

I hope you are enjoying your summer reading as much as I am enjoying mine!

The Rainbow and the Rose

As many of you know from my past blog posts, I love the stories of Nevil Shute. He describes things beautifully and doesn’t hurry through the telling. He takes care to build very human characters in interesting and believable situations that reveal their best qualities. His male characters are decent, kind and hardworking. His female characters are intelligent and hardworking, as well. I enjoyed reading The Rainbow and the Rose for exactly those reasons.

Nevil Shute was an aeronautical engineer, and his passion for planes and flying is in many of his books, including The Rainbow and the Rose. This story is about a pilot and a younger man he taught to fly some 30 years earlier…

That year we had a terrible July. I was sitting there one evening half asleep, listening to the radio and the wind outside and the rain beating on the window. The seven o’clock news was just coming on, and I stayed to listen to that before going in to tea. I sat dozing through all the stuff about Egypt and the Middle East, and all the stuff about the floods along the Murray. Then there came a bit that jerked me suddenly awake. The announcer said something like this:

‘It is reported from Tasmania that a pilot flying a small aeroplane upon an errand of mercy crashed this afternoon on a small airstrip on the west coast. The pilot, Captain John Pascoe, was attempting to land to bring a child into hospital, Betty Hoskins, aged seven, who is suffering from appendicitis. There is no practicable land route to the Lewis River and all communications normally take place by sea, but no vessel has been able to enter the river for the last ten days owing to the continuing westerly gales. Captain Pascoe is reported to have sustained a fractured skull.’

I was a bit upset when I heard this news. We all knew Johnnie Pascoe because for a time Sydney had been one of his terminals and he still passed through now and then. The world of aviation is a small one in Australia. But I knew him better than anyone, of course, because I had known him off and on for thirty years, ever since he taught me to fly in England at the Leacaster Flying Club.

That begins an intriguing story of how the main character attempts to rescue both the sick little girl and his seriously wounded pilot friend/mentor. This is an unusual story because the main character identifies so closely with his friend, and under the stress of repeated rescue attempts,  the two characters merge. It’s really quite intriguing how NS wrote this story. I liked it very much.

I chose to read this book as one of my 50-books-in-5-years for The Classics Club.

Furry Friends

Jessie_Willcox_Smith

We have allergies and asthma in my family, so unfortunately we’ve never been able to have a cat for a pet. I do love reading stories about cats, though, and have read a number of very sweet books with cats as the main character. There are many cat books to enjoy, and I’ve delighted in each one I’ve read so far…

The Abandoned, by Paul Gallico, is a book written out of love for his own cats. It’s quite a story! A little boy, neglected by his busy parents, runs into the street to rescue a cat that is in the way of a truck speeding down the road. The little boy is hit by the truck instead, and he survives but immediately enters the cat world, as a cat! I know that sounds weird, but the magic works and the little boy has to learn how to BE a cat because he is still very much a little boy. A kind cat, Jennie, befriends him and teaches him everything he needs to know to survive as a cat. It’s quite fascinating to read, and a poignant little story, beautifully written. I love the writings of Paul Gallico, so this was a special treat to read.

Tiggy, by Miss Read (who wrote the Fairacre and Thrush Green series), is another fun story. Tiggy is the true story of a stray cat that came to visit, bringing her kittens with her. How to tame the stray Mama, and then domesticate her kittens enough to find homes for each one, is a story full of heart and humor.

 

Nellie

I found Nellie, A Cat on her Own, by Natalie Babbitt, at the library. It was a story of a wooden marionette cat who loved to dance and who longed to roam freely even though she was happy living with the little old lady who made her. The story is sweet and magical, but more complex than you realize. It has to do with happiness, independence, growth and change, and friendship. A very interesting story!

The old woman had made Nellie from wood and yarn and broom straws, and every afternoon would take her down from her peg, wind up the music box, and pull her strings to make her leap and dip and spin, just like a dancer on stage.

Belong to yourself, then, like me,” said Big Tom. “That way, when changes come, you’ll always be ready to hold your tail high and move along.

Some other special cat books include The Catwings series, by Ursula le Guin, which was a favorite of my second graders for many years in a row!  I read The Fur Person, by May Sarton, many years ago but still enjoy giving that small volume to cat-loving friends for Christmas. And sitting on my nightstand is another little cat book that I intend to read soon:  The Guest Cat, by Takashi Hiraide.

And just to reassure you that I do have real live cat friends, despite our allergies… two neighborhood cats have made our garden and porch their own special places.

 

The Spectator Bird

The Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner, was published in 1976, and received the National Book Award for Fiction in 1977.

From the publisher…

Joe Allston is a cantankerous, retired literary agent who is, in his own words, “just killing time until time gets around to killing me.” His parents and his only son are long dead, leaving him with neither ancestors nor descendants, tradition nor ties. His job, trafficking the talent of others, has not been his choice. He has passed through life as a spectator, before retreating to the woods of California in the 1970s with only his wife, Ruth, by his side. When an unexpected postcard from a long-lost friend arrives, Allston returns to the journals of a trip he has taken years before, a journey to his mother’s birth­place where he once sought a link with his past. Uncovering this history floods Allston with memories, both grotesque and poignant, and finally vindicates him of his past and lays bare that Joe Allston has never been quite spectator enough.

Throughout much of this story, Joe is a grumpy old man. At seventy, he has many physical aches and pains but he carries some heavy emotional aches and pains as well. Pain of any kind can certainly make a person grumpy and color one’s outlook on life. Dealing with the changes retirement brings is also quite challenging, and in Joe’s case presents itself in depression. Retirement puts one at a distance which is both welcome and a big challenge. I remember hearing my father say about retirement, “It’s amazing how quickly you are forgotten in the workplace.” Joe seems to be sitting on the sidelines, even more a spectator than earlier in his life, not sure of what he wants to do with his life at this point.

“Maybe because the bush tits are doing what I thought we would be doing out here, just messing around, paying no attention to time or duty, kicking up leaves and playing hide and seek up and down the oak trunks and generally enjoying themselves.

Joe also continues to grieve for the loss of his son and only child, Curt, who died in a surfing accident (Joe thinks it was possibly a suicide). He has not been able to let go of the guilt he feels about this troubled relationship with his son, and he questions himself every day.

“Do I hate the thought of Curt’s death more because he never fulfilled himself, or because he never fulfilled me?

Joe struggles with the aging process and grieves for the losses and irrevocable changes time brings, and he is also struggling to redefine meaning and purpose at this later stage of  life.  As he and Ruth share an old journal from a trip to Denmark they took many years earlier, they rediscover some important and defining moments in their marriage. It becomes clear that the most important thing is his relationship with Ruth, and that their marriage, with the easy (and difficult)  companionship of so many years, with what Virginia Woolf calls the “daily-ness” of their relationship, is the strength that guides him through each day and through the rest of his life. His realization of that is a tender and romantic notion, a notion that is also true in my own life experience. Wallace Stegner describes it beautifully.

“The truest vision of life I know is that bird in the Venerable Bede that flutters from the dark into a lighted hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark. But Ruth is right. It is something — it can be everything — to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle.”

I read this book for The Classics Club. It is the first book I have read by Wallace Stegner, but will not be my last. I admit I’ve been a little intimidated to read him before now. I have some personal connections to him, and he has always loomed as a larger-than-life figure to me, so I think I was simply afraid to try him out. This book started out slowly for me, and I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but his “big ideas” really touched my heart, his literary references amazed me, and his beautiful “way with words” have all made me a real fan.

In the Wet

This week I finished reading In the Wet, by Nevil Shute. I love reading anything written by him, and I did enjoy this one although I found it to be quite quirky. True to all of Shute’s books, it’s quite a story. This one has a rather complicated plot — it was published in 1953 but the story takes place in 1983 — so it’s a tale of the future. There is also a time warp aspect to the story, which was very interesting. I think Shute was experimenting with different ways of telling a story, and although it was not a perfect book, it was certainly an interesting one. It’s not my favorite of his books, but as always, I find something that really strikes home with me. This time it was the ending paragraph…

“All that this strange experience has taught me has gone to confirm what I think I already knew, secretly perhaps, and deep down in my heart. If what I think I have been told is true, then it means that we make our own heaven and hell in our own daily lives and the Kingdom of Heaven is here within us for those who have gone before.”