Monday, March 19, 2018

Starting over

You know all those books about people who throw up their lives and go off for a year in Provence, Denmark, or around the globe to eat, pray, love and embrace hygge, that sort of thing. Actually, I don't, because I've never had the slightest interest in reading about it. But here we are, committed to selling almost everything we own, and, in mid life, moving our family (the two children who still live with us) thousands of miles away to new jobs in a country where we barely speak any of the language.

"Slovenia," we tell people, adding, if we're reasonably sure the person isn't allergic to the mention of the "T" word, "It's where Melania Trump is from."

We didn't wake up one day, like Mole, to say "bother spring cleaning" and set off into the world. It crept up on us over a decade. In 2008 we spent about half the year in Koper, my husband on a Fulbright scholarship, me homeschooling and enjoying the time off "work", all of us travelling just about every week. I remember announcing that Slovenia was a country I could live in, unlike the US, where I was sinking, year after year, into a deeper melancholy. Kind and generous as Mississippians are, I just never became American. (Yes, I know it's ironic that I'm going to Europe where, as an Englishwoman, I'm about not to be officially European.)

With the late birth of a third child, we were starting over and needed a new direction. Positions in the UK were not forthcoming; the University of Primorska, on the other hand, was ready and willing to welcome us both. I stopped half asking, half praying, "How can we get to the UK?" and instead asked, "What is the next, best, move?" And one day, it dawned on me that the answer was there: Slovenia.

It's been the secret that consumed us for months - furtive planning, vague answers to the innocent question of what we were up to nowadays. We couldn't let the news get to my husband's department until he had his work permit in hand. And all those months of inner, secret reflection somehow made my fingers freeze every time I sat down at the keyboard. I wanted to write, but what? Tell about the past 5 months in retrospect? Make it funny, cultural, informative, the online draft of a memoir?

Finally, I told myself: just write. Something short. Break the deadlock. So here it is. And there we're going.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Quick Lit March 2018

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for reviews of the past month's reading.

Virginia Woolf - A Room of One's Own
Sometimes you can't remember whether or not you've read a book - that was the case with this one, and it was nagging at me. I knew the famous parts for sure - about needing a room of one's own to write fiction, and the fable of Shakespeare's sister - but had I read the whole thing or only extracts? So when it was a 99 cent Kindle deal, I had to buy it. It was interesting to read Woolf's call for upcoming female researchers to uncover the hidden fiction of women ninety years ago - when I have the fruits of those labours sitting on my shelf. Her ideas on fiction and predictions of the outcome when "womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation" offered lots of reflection and internal dialogue.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath - Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work
OK, so maybe it wasn't a great idea to pick up this book after we decided to sell almost everything we own and relocate to Europe - but (phew) it clarified a lot of the decision-making process we'd gone through. This is written in a very clear and engaging manner, with a huge range of examples that cover both personal and professional decisions, a handy pneumonic, short summaries of each chapter, and further resources on the website. I found myself beginning to apply the ideas straight away.
It influenced my toddler too. "Where's your green book?" he asked after I swapped it for the drab back and brown To The Lighthouse.

Virginia Woolf - To the Lighthouse
Reading A Room of One's Own inspired me to re-read this one, which I prefer to Mrs Dalloway (though Orlando is my favourite). It was an old paperback I used in college about 30 years ago, and has tiny notes written in pencil between the lines. I can't read a word of them now. I'm sure it's because the pencil must have faded. Ahem. I'd forgotten how beautiful it was, or maybe I didn't appreciate it when I was barely an adult. Now, like Mrs Ramsey, I'm nearing 50 with a small child, married to a professor who deals in abstracts (though mine studies pure maths, not philosophy), and am prone to reflect on life. In a skillfully interwoven stream of consciousness style, the novel covers two days - before and after the First World War - where the lighthouse symbolizes the metaphorical light that shines on the inner lives of the Ramseys and those the enigmatic Mrs Ramsey draws into their sphere.

Herman Melville - Moby Dick narrated by Frank Muller
I'm glad I listened to Moby Dick, and I'm glad I listened to Moby Dick. Another one that's been on my TBR list for decades. I knew I ought to read it, but I'm also an anti-whaling vegetarian. I once bought a cheap paperback copy that struck guilt in me for years until I gave it away. For a while, I even comforted myself that I got the gist of it by reading my son's Cozy Classics version: Moby Dick in twelve words and felt puppet pictures. What finally tipped the balance was my elder daughter telling me how she sat next to someone on a plane who was going to a Moby Dick readathon. It was a double aha moment - why not try out my library's digital audio service and slay this literary leviathan at the same time? No, this isn't a review - but you know what Moby Dick is about and whether you have a white-whale-sized bout of guilt over not having yet read it. I definitely recommend trying the audiobook route.

Oops, spoiler

Jenny Colgan - The Little Beach Street Bakery
I needed to cleanse my reading palette after all those masterpieces, so I broke my usual mould and tried something in a contemporary setting. If cosy chick lit is a genre, this is it. Flora Mackenzie is a paralegal in London, far from the remote Scottish island home she left in disgrace. But when a billionaire client needs an islander to go back and make his case against a wind farm, Flora can't refuse the boss with whom she's secretly in love. I loved the aspects of island life and baking, but I can't say I felt invested in the love life of a twenty-something. Despite that, Colgan's plot twists made it a real page turner (or is that screen swiper nowadays?).

Robert McClosky - Blueberries for Sal
A classic, and maybe one that isn't for children with separation anxiety, but my little guy liked it. For those who haven't read it, Little Sal and her mother go berry picking on one side of Blueberry hill. Meanwhile, Little Bear and his mother are working their way up the other side. Sal and Little Bear stop to rest, and when they get up to join their mothers, they just follow the nearest one they see... I guess you could read it as a sweet story of how motherhood transcends all barriers or a horrid tale of separation and neglectful parents. But we thought it was fun. A plus is the blue and white illustrations throughout.

I guess animals and islands were my theme for the month. Hope the lion of early March is giving you plenty of excuses to curl up with a pile of books.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Quick Lit February 2018

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for short reviews of the past month's reading.

I'm a looong way from bookstagram, but I'm trying!

Laura Vanderkam - 168 Hours: You have more time than you think
I didn't pick this book up for the obvious reasons - overhauling my life - but because we're moving and I can't fathom how we'll have enough hours in the day to get and keep the house ready for selling. The book is well-written, and once you fight down the temptation to keep arguing back about why this wouldn't work for you (Vanderkam's life is scarily focused), there's a lot of useful ideas. I don't know if it will help me stage the house, but it's given me inspiration for balancing my new job and family life when we make the move.

James Boswell - The Life of Samuel Johnson
Trying to convey everything I feel about this book in a few lines is impossible (so I wrote a full review too). It's a giant of eighteenth century biography - about an man who is a giant in his own right. Boswell, Johnson's close friend, follows his mentor's advice to tell all: the serious, the trivial, the flattering, the negative, the beneficent, the petty. I can only sum up with a quote from the end of the book: "The character of Samuel Johnson has, I trust, been so developed in the course of this work, that they who have honoured it with a perusal may be considered as well acquainted with him." Tears in my eyes, I had to say, "yes".

Elaine N. Aron - The Highly Sensitive Person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you
I felt a strange disconnect while reading this book: according to all the quizzes and criteria, I'm way over the threshold for an HSP, but I don't feel that way any more. I think that now, in mid-life, I've learned to live in a way that harmonizes with my personality. I also have to confess that the author's style did not appeal to me, but I kept reading, as I also have children with HSP traits and I didn't want to miss any insights. I'm certain this book will be incredibly useful for HSPs and those who know them, but unfortunately it didn't click with me.

Maggi Andersen - Hostage to Love
My online critique group are graciously letting me hang around virtually while I'm 'on leave' from writing fiction, so I'm trying to repay them by keeping up with their new publications. I'm not a romance reader in general, but Maggi's stories are always a treat, and definitely worth more than the Kindle price: heroines you immediately like, strong and feminine, and plots that are usually enlivened with a mystery or suspense element. This takes place in London and France during the French revolution. Actress Verity Garnier is sent to England to seduce widowed Viscount Anthony Beaumont and entice him to France and the clutches of the revolution in return for the safety of her imprisoned father. But Verity falls in love with Anthony, and when he unexpectedly leaves for France of his own accord, to rescue his brother-in-law, Verity and his daughter Henrietta follow in a bid to save him. Put your feet up and indulge yourself - and if you want a quick(ish) romance binge I recommend her novella collection, The Baxendale Sisters Series. See her website for details.

A Tale of Two Bibles
I believe that well-rounded people in the West should know the basic religious and mythological stories of our culture regardless of their beliefs/non-beliefs, and to that end, child-oriented Bible story books (and Greek mythology books) are a staple of our household. I needed a new toddler Bible and did a little research. The Paraclete Bible for Toddlers (Paraclete Press) was recommended on several sites, including Catholic ones, so I thought I was safe to order it, but I (actually, every family member who read to my toddler) were disappointed. The illustrations are cute and colourful, but the text is full of death and judgement. This may be my wishy-washy ingrained Anglicanism, but I think children should start off with the fun stories and the idea that God is love.

I tucked it in a cupboard to sell in the move, and went shopping in person to my local bookstore, which I should have done in the first place. The bookseller recommended The Beginner's Bible from Zondervan. The illustrations and text are aimed at a wider age-range (toddlers and young children), and the view point is what I expect from a children's Bible. We're happily reading this one instead.

I hope you are still cosying up with some good books, and wish a holy Lent to those of you who observe the season.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book Review: The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell

This is a standard book for those of us with English literature degrees, so I can't believe - or even remember - why I avoided it for so long. Maybe it began as a slight aversion to the eighteenth century, which was never my favourite period of history or English literature. That's certainly changed over the years as I've come to have a deeper appreciation of how innovative - and modern-sounding - many of the prose writers are.

One maxim Dr. Johnson pronounced concerning the writing of lives was to tell all, and his devoted younger friend, James Boswell, (almost) dutifully complies in this monumental biography: the serious, the trivial, the flattering, the negative, the beneficent, the petty - all is here in a just-about-chronological miscellany of history, exposition, letters, quotations, and analysis that reads like a Who's Who of eighteenth Century England.

It's tempting to call Boswell the first fan boy, but his love and admiration for Johnson, though blinkered, isn't entirely blind. Johnson protests continually against seeing men as cardboard cutouts of saints or sinners, and the man that bursts from these pages is fully three-dimensional. We see the Johnson who rails against granting any sort of liberties for American colonists but who (to Boswell's rare disapprobation) supports the complete abolition of slavery; the Johnson who will capriciously argue with his literary club on whichever side he thinks will be most contentious, but who gives an honest answer to a little girl who dares to ask about his famous tics; the Johnson who will insult the rich and famous merely to be witty but who buys his own cat food lest his servant feel demeaned by the task.

Dr. Johnson and Hodge, "A very fine cat indeed."

The edition I got from my local library - the 1946 "Collector's Library" edition from Doubleday - turned out to be abridged. At 631 pages! I felt a little like I was cheating, but I have to say that the professed reason for the abridgment, to include numerous pen and ink sketches and portraits by Gordon Ross, made the read more pleasurable. I'd consider the Life accessible to any serious reader. The shortish chapters, divided by chunks of letters and exposition, make the biography easy to digest in smaller portions. I started slowly, but I was engrossed by the end, and had tears in my eyes at Johnson's death. (The only other biographer who has managed to do that to me was Peter Ackroyd in his life of Sir Thomas More.)

And the little pleasures and surprises were innumerable. I smiled almost every time I read of Johnson repairing to his friends' country villa in Streatham (anyone who knows the modern town will understand). And, though I'd get skinned if I gave exact details, I have to confess I was blown away with just how much a physical and mental colossus of the eighteenth century could resemble - and offer insights on - a twenty-first century teenage girl. I'd finish by saying don't wait thirty years to read it, like I did, but I've a feeling that three decades more of experiencing life's vicissitudes enhanced the pleasure. So, read it now, but be sure to read it again later in life. I intend to.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Quick Lit January 2018

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for quick reviews of current reading.

I finished up my first year of reading intentionally since giving up my job teaching literature (which consumed most of my reading time), and also the first year of logging the books I read (I can't believe I've never tried this before). Since you asked, I read 27 books, 14 of which were non-fiction. This surprised me, because I would have said I was a fiction reader. However, I noticed that I began mostly with non-fiction, and got heavily into fiction in the second half of the year. My self analysis is that I had to get my toe back into the water, and it's easier to guess which non fiction will appeal than to risk time on a novel that might disappoint.

So, a pat on the back to myself, and launching into this past month...

George Saunders - Lincoln in the Bardo
Many years back, I began a tradition of giving my children a gift on Epiphany to mark the last day of Christmas, and it soon morphed into a book-giving occasion. I bought this for my elder daughter, but read it before handing it on. The story takes place during one night, in a graveyard peopled by ghosts who for one reason or another cannot pass to the next life. Enter the ghost of Willie Lincoln, the young son of President Abraham Lincoln, who is held back by his distraught father's inability to accept his death. In a chorus of voices that reminded me of a Greek play, Abraham Lincoln's night of personal and political crisis, and the battle for Willie's soul, is woven into the story of Americans across time, class and race. If you like an experimental read now and again (or more often), you might well enjoy it. I confess to being surprised that it was so spiritual and uplifting, because somehow I expected nihilism or solipsism from a prize-winning novel (it got the Man Booker this year).

Rod Dreher - How Dante Can Save Your Life
American Conservative editor Dreher tells the story of how his failed return home led into a spiral of depression and debilitating auto-immune disease - and how The Divine Comedy became one of the counsellors who helped him back on the path to health and sanity. I started off feeling that this was a light read (despite the subject matter), but by the end I found myself quite uncomfortable as I applied Dante's vision to my own life (even though I had read the Comedy before). Inconsequentially, this was the first ebook I read on my new, larger phone, which I chose with reading in mind - and it was a much better experience.

Courtney Carver - Soulful Simplicity: How living with less can lead to so much more
I don't often buy a first book by an author - I'm pretty cautious in my reading choices (see above!) - but I've been reading Courtney's blog, Be More With Less, for some time now. This is much more than the how-to book I expected, though she does offer many practical suggestions for simplifying your life. Instead, she mainly tells her story from her heart and encourages you to use her story as a guide to examine your own life. A gentler take on minimalism.

Since January Quick Lit covers most of Advent and Christmas for us, my little guy and I have been soaking up a book that's been on our shelf for years: Jan Brett's Christmas Treasury. This contains seven of her best winter/ Christmas stories. It includes traditional tales such as The Night before Christmas and The Twelve Day of Christmas, retellings of folk tales such as The Mitten (get ready to make a big bear sneeze) and original stories with a folk feel, such as The Trouble with Trolls. The stories are intended for children a little older than my toddler, but most were accessible to him this year. It's a huge book to hold on your lap, but the Scandinavian-inspired illustrations are gorgeous, and most stories have a sub plot going on in the marginal illustrations. It's a perfect Christmas coffee table book, too.

Julia Donaldson - Room on the Broom
This was my two-year old's Epiphany book. I snatched up this board book version at a second hand book store while in Texas for Thanksgiving. Another winner from the creator of the Gruffalo. A witch flies through a gathering storm, losing her belongings left and right. She has room on the broom for every creature who comes to her aid, and friendship pays off when a hungry dragon flies onto the scene...
Pet peeve time: the original UK version has been changed in places. It always annoys me that publishers think that children can't cope with a word or two from another English-speaking country. Most would just think something like, "'Plait' is another word for 'braid'. Okay. Next page." Stop dumbing down toddler literature, I say!

The bravest literary thing I did this month was to choose an Epiphany book for my teenager without consulting her - she's going through a phase where apparently my taste is nothing but bad. I bought the new John Green YA novel, Turtles All the Way Down, because I know she's read more than one of his books and I thought she'd identity with one of the main characters. I spotted evidence that she started reading it, but I'm afraid to ask her opinion yet.

Hope the new year is going well for all. I'm going to try the Modern Mrs Darcy 2018 Reading Challenge to keep me reading during what is going to be a full year (we're moving - maybe more on that in the blog another time). Stay cosy and enjoy reading!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Quick Lit December 2017

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for short reviews of our current reading.

It must be the stress of Thanksgiving and Christmas creeping up on me (and other little things, like mice falling from my ceiling) that drove me to comfort reading this month.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
I dip in and out of this book frequently. Those who describe Kondo as some sort of decluttering nazi probably haven't read her book. Yes, I like it for the reassuring message that I can get my life into some sort of order, but I'm also enthralled by the peek into Japanese culture, and by the memoir of an introvert woven into its pages, lit by little sparks of understated humour. I would have re-read her other book, Spark Joy, but, after searching for a while, I remembered I'd let my husband send it off to Decluttr [sic] in a tidying fit. Queue irony.

Miss Marple: The Complete  Short Stories by Agatha Christie
Christie is in the limelight again, with a lavish remake of the Murder on the Orient Express moviewhich reminded me that I've only read one Christie novel in my life, and it was so long ago, I can't even remember what it was. A short story collection worked well for Thanksgiving travels. These are mostly literal armchair mysteries, where guests share crime stories that are solved by - well, you know who.

Mr Rochester by Sarah Shoemaker
After the emotional trauma of reading The Buried Giant, I needed a story with a guaranteed happy ending, and the ebook price overcame my resolve to avoid buying new books. Modelled on the structure of Charlotte Bronte's novel, this tells the life story of Edward Fairfax Rochester. And yes, you get that famous four-word sentence at the end! I've had a literary crush on Mr. Rochester since I was fourteen, and this novel did not disappoint.

Mr. Putter and Tabby Pour the Tea by Cynthia Rylant
Even my toddler got the comfort treatment this month. The Mr. Putter books, if you don't already know, are sweet stories about an old man and his pet cat. They are intended as beginning chapter books, but the simple sentences and repetition make them lovely read-alouds for toddlers as well.

And since we're part way through Advent:

Advent and Christmas Wisdom from G.K. Chesterton
I've used this book for many years and am still not tired of it. Ligouri Press publishes several books in this series, for both Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter. Each focuses on a well-known Christian writer, and the daily readings consist of a quote, related Scripture, prayer and suggested action. Everything you need for observance and reflection on the season(s) in one little book. I'm on board with the call to canonize Chesterton - Battersea needs its own saint.

We Were There by Eve Bunting
It's the eve of the Nativity, and nature's unloved creatures - the scorpion, toad, spider, cockroach, snake and rat, obey the pull to traverse the desert to that stable. Brings a lump to my throat almost every time.

Merry Christmas, Yule, Saturnalia, Hanukkah, or whatever you celebrate this time of year, and may 2018 be full of good books.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Quick Lit November 2017

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for quick reviews of books we've read over the past month.

Untangled by Lisa Damour
You know an author is on your side when she jokes about your teenage daughter straining her eye-rolling muscles. Untangled is a mix of psychotherapy, scientific findings and practical advice to help you help your daughter negotiate the often choppy, sometimes stormy, seas of the teen years. I appreciated that the gist of the book was that yes, your daughter is being normal when she acts like a little witch, but yes, she still needs you to insist on models of decent behaviour. A recommendation from Modern Mrs Darcy.

Everything that Remains by Joshua Fields Milburn, with interruptions by Ryan Nicodemus
I was out of luck trying to get this via interlibrary loan (or I was away for the summer when it came in), so when I saw that The Minimalists were offering this and one of their other books as a free PDF download via Gumroad, I took the chance. If prose can be purple and spare at the same time, this book is it. The writing is a little offbeat (after all, they did co-found Asymmetrical Press), but if you are already familiar with The Minimalists, you might enjoy this more in-depth memoir, or narrative non-fiction as Josh calls it. For a how-to on minimalism, try the other free download, Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life.

The Buried Giant by Kazuro Ishiguro
My first spontaneous reading choice in a looong time! The first two books on my list were missing from the library shelves, so I thought, OK, I need to finally tackle The Remains of the Day - but Ishiguro has just won the Nobel prize for literature, so all his books were on display and that was gone. With a toddler rapidly losing patience, I grabbed this. The story is set in post-Arthurian Britain, where people seem to have lost the capacity to hang onto memories. An old couple, Axl and Beatrice, feel the pull to leave their settlement in search of the son they can't fully remember and haven't seen for years for reasons they can't recall - and whose whereabouts they are not certain of. Along the way, they gather unlikely companions and a wider quest emerges, with themes of memory, justice and mercy. I haven't read Ishiguro before, so I wasn't ready for the slap in the face that is characteristic of his work. I found the novel intellectually satisfying but morally unsettling.

Frog went A-Courtin', retold by John Langstaff
This is the Caldecott Medal version of the ancient folk song, where the author weaves together various versions of the song to form a story with a happy ending. My toddler's summary of the story of Frog's courtship of Miss Mouse? "The frog had a sword and horse and went to fight." Ahem...

Happy Thanksgiving to those stateside. Hope you get some time to escape the crowds and read!