Friday, November 2, 2018

Five Star Reads for 2018

Most of my reviews on Goodreads are four stars. If I don't like I book, I tend to put it aside. But five stars books have to do more than satisfy. My inner book critic argues that it's one thing to give out four stars willy nilly, but five stars should mean something. Reflecting on the books I read this year, I was curious to see if there were any with five stars.

Turns out that there have been just two: a non-fiction tome detailing the battle in Congress over slavery, and a short and perfect gem ostensibly about an older couple but somehow about much more.

Arguing about Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States CongressArguing about Slavery: The Great Battle in the United States Congress by William Lee Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Early in the narrative, the author made this point: "It is a revealing curiosity of American popular attitudes that a people so practical, so optimistic, so energetic, so direct, so quick to say that anything can be done by an effort of will--the impossible takes a little longer--on other topics, have regularly and abruptly turned to the opposite extreme on issues of slavery and race: nothing can be done. Leave it alone. Don't meddle. It cannot be fixed." p. 15

He emphasized that when we encounter something equally heinous and unjust in our current lives, we should take heart. Things can change. A much needed reminder in 2018.

On the lighter side, I learned the origins of a "Yankee nutmeg". The wrath that the South hurled at the North prior to physical hostilities breaking out in 1861 was impressive. Where'd they learn to insult people like that? A Yankee nutmeg was a nutmeg made out of wood that Yankee peddlers developed a reputation for selling: fake nutmegs made of carved wood. p. 294

This article at Mental Floss details the early American obsession with wooden nutmegs, if you'd like to learn more. I agree with the Northerner who reputedly said, "I would rather come from that part of the country where the people make wooden nutmegs than to come from that part of the country where the people are fools enough to buy them." I guess the North had a few verbal defenses of their own.

Our Souls at NightOur Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"She had arranged the funeral and told the minister about Ruth. He hadn't known her at all. She had stopped going to any church because of her feeling about orthodoxy and the childish ways in which churches talked and thought about God."


My mom recommended this author to me. She does not suggest duds. Ever.

"I do love this physical world. I love this physical life with you. And the air and the country. The backyard, the gravel in the back alley. The grass. The cool nights. Lying in bed talking with you in the dark."

"Who does ever get what they want? It doesn’t seem to happen to many of us if any at all. It’s always two people bumping against each other blindly, acting out old ideas and dreams and mistaken understandings."

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Miss Buncle: Comfort Read Ahead!

Miss Buncle's Book (Miss Buncle, #1)Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. Stevenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Miss Buncle MarriedMiss Buncle Married by D.E. Stevenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not since my mom recommended the Miss Read series almost twenty years ago have I found an author that fits the bill so well when I'm in need of a gentle and humorous look at life. Author D.E. Stevenson was unknown to me until I picked up Miss Buncle's Book at the library, solely because I liked the cover art. How could I resist a stylish flapper with a book tucked under her arm? And while it turns out that Barbara Buncle may never have looked as svelte and stylish the the woman on the cover, her transformation from a small-town dowd to a smartly-dressed and commercially-successful author, makes for a charming tale of a shy woman finding her voice and her place in the world.

When people in the Barbara's village start acting just like their fictitious counterparts in her book, trouble ensues and the residents of Silverstream undertake to unmask the mysterious author, "John Smith," who has created an uproar in their quiet English hamlet.

One of the few people not disturbed by Miss Buncle's book is her publisher, Mr. Abbott.

"Miss Buncle's book intrigued Mr. Abbott, and Miss Buncle herself intrigued him. She was such a queer mixture of simplicity and subtlety (at least he thought she was). She spoke bad grammar and wrote good English. She was meticulously truthful in all she said (it was almost as if she were on oath to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth all day long and every day of the week). She lived her solitary life among all those people, with her tremendous secret locked up in her breast; going about among them looking as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, but taking careful note of all they said and did, and then going quietly home and writing it all down. They were after her now like a pack of hounds, but they didn't know that the fox was in the very midst of them, under their very noses, disguised as one of themselves—it was a piquant situation and Mr. Abbott fully appreciated it." (67)

Mr. Abbott moves from intrigue to romantic interest, and the rest you will have to read for yourself. I'm also getting a copy of this book for my mom, to return the favor of her recommending the Miss Read series.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill: A Brief Account of a Long LifeForty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill: A Brief Account of a Long Life by Gretchen Rubin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book several years ago, and its theme frequently comes to mind when someone is being "discussed" in the media.

Many scenes have come and gone unwritten, since it is today the 4th of Sept, a cold grey blowy day, made memorable by the sight of a kingfisher, and by my sense, waking early, of being again visited by "the spirit of delight." "rarely rarely comest thou, spirit of delight." That was I singing this time last year; and sang so poignantly that I have never forgotten it, or my vision of a fin rising on a wide blank sea. No biographer could possibly guess this important fact about my life in the late summer of 1926: yet biographers pretend they know people. —Virginia Woolf, Diaries, September 4, 1927

Churchill biographers—like all biographers—decide their stories and include facts to support them. Someone portraying Churchill as the savior of his country chooses certain facts; someone debunking the Churchill myth chooses others. In deciding what facts to relate—where each detail must stand in for hundreds of omitted details—biographers act like novelists, using theme, irony, motif, metonymy, description, symbolism, morals, and the like to shape a particular image of their subject.

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Sunday, April 1, 2018

I Capture the Castle

I Capture the CastleI Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At times this was a solid 5 stars, but then my attention would start to wander, so I'm giving it a final 4 stars. There are more memorable one-liners in this story than I can remember in any other coming-of-age novel I've read.

“Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.”

“I know all about the facts of life, and I don't think much of them.”

“Cruel blows of fate call for extreme kindness in the family circle.”

“Rose doesn’t like the flat country, but I always did—flat country seems to give the sky such a chance.”

I also relished the literary allusions like "“Ah, but you're the insidious type—Jane Eyre with of touch of Becky Sharp. A thoroughly dangerous girl.” You know the heroine is headed for trouble when her sister's fiance is the one who seems most in tune with her inner life and sensibilities.

Once I got used to the idea of being by myself for so long I positively liked it. I always enjoy the different feeling there is in a house when one is alone in it, and the thought of that feeling stretching ahead for two whole days somehow intensified it wonderfully. The castle seemed to be mine in a way it never had been before; the day seemed specially to belong to me; I even had a feeling that I owned myself more than I usually do. I became very conscious of all my movements—if I raised my arm I looked at it wonderingly, thinking, "That is mine!" And I took pleasure in moving, both in the physical effort and in the touch of the air—it was most queer how the air did seem to touch me, even when it was absolutely still. All day long I had a sense of great ease and spaciousness. And my happiness had a strange, remembered quality as though I had lived it before. Oh, how can I recapture it—that utterly right, homecoming sense of recognition? It seems to me now that the whole day was like an avenue leading to a home I had loved once but forgotten, the memory of which was coming back so dimly, so gradually, as I wandered along, that only when my home at last lay before me did I cry: "Now I know why I have been happy!"

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Friday, March 9, 2018

The Sword and the Circle

The Sword and the Circle: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round TableThe Sword and the Circle: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Rosemary Sutcliff

My son and I are reading this together. He usually reads on his own, but something about King Arthur and Lancelot and Guenever and all the jousting and questing seemed to befuddle his understanding, so I offered to read it aloud. There is a nostalgic pang here, as we used to read all our books together, but I'm also relieved that he can and does read on his own.

Regardless of whether he reads independently or we read together, we discuss the book. But when we read together, things are livelier and usually funnier. My soon-to-be-11-year-old is not greatly impressed with Arthur & Co. "Why do they always have to fall in love with married ladies? Aren't there any single ladies in Camelot?"

And then there is the wanton slaughter. "Questing" typically results in a pile of dead knights. In our most recent story of "Geraint and Enid" the hero slays first two challengers, then three, then four, and finally four score. Quite the body count! It's probably a good thing that chivalry is dead, because if not, we all would be.



Beaton, Kate. "The Black Prince." Hark, a Vagrant. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2018. http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=353

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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Cotillion

CotillionCotillion by Georgette Heyer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How had I read Georgette Heyer all these years and missed Cotillion? I was sure I'd read all the major books, but lo, here I finally meet Kitty and Jack and *Freddy* (best non-alpha hero I've seen in ages!). It's not a typical marriage of convenience scenario this time around. Not that I'd know a normative arranged marriage in the first place...

My favorite scenes are of Freddy taking Kitty, his country cousin and recent fiancee, to sightsee in London, all the while muttering under his breath about the outrageous prices museums charge to look at perfectly awful (and damaged) Greek statues. He'd rather go shopping, like a sensible Pink. With the wrap-up, marriages abound and the unexpected fourth nuptial is one of the best surprises of the story. Yes, four weddings! Hugh Grant would have made an excellent Freddy, back in the day.

“I daresay Freddy might not be a great hand at slaying dragons, but you may depend upon it none of those knight-errants would be able to rescue one from a social fix, and you must own, Meg, that one has not the smallest need of a man who can kill dragons!”

“No one could have called Mr. Standen quick-witted, but the possession of three sisters had considerably sharpened his instinct of self-preservation.”


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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Calico Captive

Calico CaptiveCalico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well-written historical fiction for young people. There aren't many stories set in colonial America during the Seven Years/French and Indian War. I loved this story when I was elementary-age. At that time, the early part of the story detailing Miriam's life with Native Americans was my favorite part of the book. (I blame my "Little House on the Prairie" fandom for that.) Decades later, it is Miriam's life in Montreal as a household servant and seamstress that captures my interest. (There's a handsome French fur trader in Montreal.)

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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

East of the Sun and West of the Moon

Kay Nielsen: East of the Sun and West of the MoonKay Nielsen: East of the Sun and West of the Moon by Noel Daniel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The illustrations by Kay Nielsen are glorious. This was my first foray into Norwegian folktales. The ones in this volume were collected in the 1800s by two Norwegian folklorists. Lots of princesses and knights and poor younger sons. Oh, and don't forget the trolls!

Several of the tales are very short. The final one was titled, "One's Own Children Are Always Prettiest," and was reminiscent of a tale by Aesop.

A sportsman went out once into a wood to shoot, and he met a Snipe.

"Dear friend," said the Snipe, "don't shoot my children!"

"How shall I know your children?" asked the Sportsman. "What are they like?"

"Oh!" said the Snipe. "Mine are the prettiest children in the wood."

"Very well," said the Sportsman. "I'll not shoot them; don't be afraid."

But for all that, when he came back, there he had a whole string of young snipes in his hand that he had shot.

"Oh, oh!" said the Snipe. "Why did you shoot my children after all?"

"What! These, your children?" said the Sportsman. "Why, I shot the ugliest I could find, that I did!"

"Woe is me!" said the Snipe. "Don't you know that each one thinks his own children the prettiest in the world?"