Wednesday, December 31, 2008

TBR Challenge 2009

I've been pondering whether or not I want to tackle challenges, not wanting to lose spontaneity in my reading choices, but also liking the idea of deadlines and accountability which might help me to read more. So I'll start out with some small and reasonable challenges and see how it goes.

The TBR (To Be Read) Challenge seems the best place to start, since I'd certainly like to read 12 books from my growing list and the list of Captive Thoughts Book Club.

  1. Girl Meets God by Lauren F. Winner - read in June, reviewed here.
  2. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer - read in May, reviewed here.
  3. In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden - read in April, reviewed here
  4. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
  5. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray - read in April/May, reviewed here
  6. Lilith by George MacDonald - read in January, reviewed here
  7. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
  8. Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy - read in October, reviewed here
  9. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  10. The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer - read in November, reviewed here
  11. The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
  12. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

A few alternates:

  1. The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier
  2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  3. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
  4. The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
  5. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  6. The Once and Future King by T.H. White - read in June/July, reviewed here.
  7. Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-li Jiang - read in March, reviewed here.
  8. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  9. A Passion for Books : A Book Lover's Treasury of Stories, Essays, Humor, Love and Lists on Collecting, Reading, Borrowing, Lending, Caring for, and Appreciating Books by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan
  10. The Song of Roland translated by Dorothy Sayers
  11. Gunnar's Daughter by Sigrid Undset
  12. For the Love of God: A Daily Companion for Discovering the Riches of God's Word, Volume 1 by D. A. Carson (this one is only on the alternate list because I don't have a good history with daily devotionals, but I'd really like to stick with this one this year).

Books Read in 2008

Here's the list of books I've read in 2008, to the best of my memory. Favorites are marked with **.

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, my review here.

Angela's Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt. September book club selection, summary here.

The Birth House by Ami McKay. An interesting story of a young midwife in Nova Scotia in the early 20th century. The history seemed to be well researched, but some elements were a little too modern and politically correct, in my opinion.

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas, my review here.

**The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak. One of my favorite books read this year - review here.

A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle. This is the first in "The Crosswicks Journal" series of four books. It's truly a beautiful book. I'll post my favorite quotes soon.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. January book club selection, summary here.

**A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland Indiana by Haven Kimmel. I loved this memoir. It's laugh-out-loud funny and packed with great stories about family, small town life, and childhood. Here is my review of both Zippy and the second installment, She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana.

A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis. March book club selection, along with Two-Part Invention, summary here.

**Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. November book club selection - book club summary here and my review here.

**How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill - both scholarly and very readable, even entertaining at times. I read this before I started Lines from the Page, but posted my favorite quotes here.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson - this one just didn't have the charm of Gilead, in my opinion. In fact I found it more than a little odd and pointless.

A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L'Engle. I read this in sixth grade, and I was apparently clueless to many of the nuances in this coming-of-age novel. That's a good thing. I'm not sure I'd want my daughter reading this when she's twelve. The story is well-written, but it deals with some pretty mature themes.

Impossible by Nancy Werlin, my review here.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I didn't like this novel nearly so well as A Thousand Splendid Suns. The protagonist was a rich, spoiled brat, and though he did develop some character by the end of the novel, I wasn't impressed.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. February book club selection, summary here.

**Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally.

**Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Wife by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally.

**Kristin Lavransdatter III: The Cross by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally.

La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas. October book club selection - book club summary here and my review here.

**Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier - January '09 book club selection, but I finished it early, my review here.

Revolution In World Missions by K. P. Yohannan. My review here.

**She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel. A sequal to A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland Indiana, both of which I reviewed here.

**The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L'Engle. Book 2 in "The Crosswicks Journal" series. This is a beautiful story about life, death, growing old, and family legacies. Favorite quotes coming soon.

The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel by Diane Setterfield. April book club selection, summary here. Some of our book club members found parts of this book a little shocking, but I liked it for the mystery and suspense, as well as the literary bent to the story.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. This is a captivating and tragic story of two women in Afganistan. Highly recommended.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson. May book club selection. Although the writing style was a bit cumbersome, Greg Mortenson's story is both amazing and inspiring.

**Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L'Engle. Book 4 in "The Crosswicks Journal" series. March book club selection. Another beautiful book by L'Engle that chronicles her 40 year marriage and the final months of dealing with her husband's cancer. Summary and favorite quotes here.

**The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. A great resource for home schooling or enrichment in classical education. We're still in the preschool years, but I know I'll turn to this book again and again. I might even have to buy the revised, 10th anniversary edition, The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, which will be released next year, since I'm sure there will be updated curriculum and resource recommendations.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. I thought this historical novel about the plague in 17th century England would be interesting, but it seemed to have a modern interpretation. Personally, I like historical novels to be history, not just a shallow modern story of desire in a historical garb. I know the plague caused some to throw morality to the wind, but this novel didn't even give it that much rationale.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Maybe it stems from all those Nancy Drew mysteries I read in elementary school. . . I still can't put down a suspenseful story, and the dark shadows of this 20th century gothic novel were no exception. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier delivers superb characters, haunting mysteries, and mounting tension to the last page.

I found it interesting that the protagonist remains nameless - the only hint we are given is that she has "a very lovely and unusual name" (24). This is undoubtedly a literary device used deliberately to magnify the presence of the deceased Rebecca, but how I wish I knew the name of the 2nd Mrs. de Winter! As the first-person narrator, her inner thoughts are revealed in the minutest detail, and I found it easy to identify with her fears, joys, triumphs, and disappointments.

Not only are the psychological ramblings expertly crafted, but the writing style is captivating and beautiful, as well. The first sentence of each of the beginning chapters works just perfectly to set the tone and plot. . .

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (1) This famous first line is full of portent in and of itself, but after one has completed the novel, it is full of poignant, unforgettable meaning as well.

We can never go back again, that much is certain. (5) Already, I was hooked. What could have happened that made it impossible for them to return to Manderley?

I wonder what my life would be to-day, if Mrs. Van Hopper had not been a snob. (12) Couldn't we all ask a similar 'what if' question about our own lives?
The descriptions of Manderley, the English estate of Maxim de Winter, are so picturesque that one could imagine walking through the Happy Valley or the pristine freshness of Manderley in the Spring:

The daffodils were in bloom, stirring in the evening breeze, golden heads cupped upon lean stalks, and however many you might pick there would be no thinning of the ranks, they were massed like an army, shoulder to shoulder. On a bank below the lawns, crocuses were planted, golden, pink, and mauve, but by this time they would be past their best, dropping and fading, like the pallid snowdrops. The primrose was more vulgar, a homely pleasant creature who appeared in every cranny like a weed. Too early yet for blue bells, their heads were still hidden beneath last year's leaves, but when they came, dwarfing the more humble violet, they choked the very bradken in the woods, and with their colour made a challenge to the sky. (30)

Such beauty makes the skeletons in the closets of this old house stand out in even sharper relief, and we fully sympathize with the young Mrs. de Winter when she realizes that

She was in the house still as Mrs. Danvers had said, she was in that room in the west wing, she was in the library, in the morning-room, in the gallery above the hall. Even in the little flower-room, where her mackintosh still hung. And in the garden and in the woods, and down in the stone cottage on the beach. Her footsteps sounded in the corridors, her scent lingered on the stairs. The servants obeyed her orders still, the food we ate was the food she liked. Her favourite flowers filled the rooms. Her clothes were in the wardrobes in her room, her brushes were on the table, her shoes beneath the chair, her nightdress on her bed. Rebecca was still mistress of Manderley. Rebecca was still Mrs. de Winter. I had no business here at all. (233)
But this is no ghost story. The mystery of Rebecca's lingering presence is more psychological than actual, but there are some actual facts that bring their own joys and sorrows to Mr. and Mrs. de Winter. I simply had to keep reading, even in small snatches (which is generally not my preferred style), to find out what the next turn of events would entail.

Daphne du Maurier is a masterful writer and story-teller. Next time I need a suspenseful diversion or a touch of gothic mystery, I think I might try My Cousin Rachel or The Scapegoat, both also by du Maurier.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Big Children's Book Give-a-way

I just came across this book give-a-way at A Patchwork of Books, and it's a really great set of books! We have M Is For Mitten: A Michigan Alphabet and it's a beautiful book with lots of information and nice illustrations. I can only assume that these seven books would be just as educational and fun:

S is for Shamrock: An Ireland Alphabet
D is for Dancing Dragon: A Chinese Alphabet
B is for Big Ben: A London Alphabet
P is for Pinata: A Mexican Alphabet
A is for America: An American Alphabet
A is for Abraham: A Jewish Family Alphabet
A is For Amazing Moments: A Sports Alphabet.

Check out the link for a chance to win them for your home, library, or children in your life.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Impossible by Nancy Werlin

It would seem I'm on something of a young adult novel kick lately, but it's really just a combination of having the time and finding a couple of books available at the library that have been on my mental to-be-read list for a while.

When I read Becky's review of Impossible a few months ago, I knew it was something I'd like to read. I've always loved the haunting melody of "Scarborough Fair," especially as sung by Haley Westenra on Celtic Treasure and Celtic Woman - A New Journey. Over the past year or so, it had slowly dawned on me that the song contains a puzzle of sorts, since the requests to prove your true love are at least irrational if not impossible. Nancy Werlin explains in the "Author's Note" that she came to that same realization, which gave her the premise for this contemporary teen fantasy novel.

At the outset, I was a little worried that it would merely be a chronicle of teen angst and petty worries between seventeen-year-old Lucy Scarborough and her friends and family, but the plot quickly grew interesting with the introduction of Lucy's insane mother, childhood friend Zach, the mysterious and handsome Padraig Seeley, and a number of catastrophes on Lucy's prom night. Although the ending is fairly predictable (and I wouldn't want it any other way), there are several unexpected turns in the story that give it both suspense and depth, making it more than just another teen pregnancy story.

I was impressed with how the option of abortion was presented several times, but Lucy still deliberately chose to keep her baby in spite of the impossible challenges of the ballad that had to be met before her daughter's birth. While that decision could be construed as part of the mystical power of the curse or simply fate, it was, nevertheless, a choice for life. Most of the quotations I have recorded relate to this theme.

"If her friend...were pregnant and came to Lucy for advice, Lucy would certainly think of abortion. Perhaps she'd even urge it. Miranda [Lucy's biological mother] had spurned the thought - possibly out of craziness. But how could Lucy be anything but glad? She was here, and alive, because of it. It was a strange moment. Thank you, she thought. Thank you, Miranda. Thank you, Mother." (104-105)

"'No, Mom. We can't just "deal" with this. I can't have an abortion. Miranda didn't abort me, did she? I have to have the baby. I just - I can't explain it; it's just how I feel. I have to go ahead.'" (130)

"'There's one more thing,' said Soledad [Lucy's foster mother]. 'And it has to be said.' She drew a deep breath. 'You're only at fourteen weeks, Lucy. It's actually not too late to get an abortion.'" Inside her, Lucy's mind - body - soul - screamed. My daughter...It had nothing to do with the rational. It did have something to do with the letter from Miranda she'd just read. I like you already, Miranda had written... 'No,' she said. She was prepared for a battle, but it didn't happen." (189)

"Recently, Lucy had begun talking to the baby in her mind. She felt aware of her as a distinct presence. For example, right now, she felt as if the baby was awake, alert, and interested...We'll fight together, you and me, how about that? Lucy thought to the baby." (215)

"But just now, he'd gotten on his knees and proposed marriage, like in a television commercial for a diamond ring. Except of course they had the roll of duct tape instead, which, when you came to think about it, was a far more practical item." (225) So true!

Lucy's friend Sarah turns out to be wise beyond her years: "''re having trouble being the one who takes, instead of the one who gives...But, Lucy, you have to learn to accept. And you have to learn to accept with - well, with grace, just the same way that you give. You've given plenty to me, in the past, whenever I needed you...So now, you get to receive. From everybody in your life. It's all right. It's more than all right.'" (258)

I don't know that I'll necessarily read more of Werlin's books, simply because I have many more other titles to occupy me than young adult novels, but Impossible was a nice diversion, a quick read, and a fascinating story.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak

In the past few weeks I mentioned to a few people that I was reading a book that was narrated by Death. That got a few odd looks, so I'd quickly try to explain that it wasn't as morbid as it sounded; it was really quite good, in fact. Maybe I convinced some of them...

At any rate, The Book Thief is a wonderful novel. Death turns out to be a thoroughly competent narrator, almost, but not quite, omniscient, self-effacing in such a way that I empathized with his "life" as well as the characters. I even forgot at times that Death was narrating until he made some aside comment that brought back the reality of his existence. The story is crafted amazingly well, with profound beauty in spite of the progression toward what seems inevitable. It traces a few years in the life of Leisel Meminger, from the time she arrives in Molching, Germany as a nine-year-old foster child in 1939 to the bombing of her street in 1943. The characters are believable - it's a different time and culture, but they could be your neighbors, your friends, your family - with enough flaws to be real and enough heart to make you love them.

I'm sure I can't add much to what has already been said about The Book Thief. I did find it interesting that it was originally published as an adult novel in Australia (see editorial reviews on Amazon), instead of the young adult market to which it was targeted in the U.S. Adults should certainly not be put off by the fact that it's in the young adult section of the library or book store. The themes it deals with are universal - value of humanity, friendship, love, respect, suffering, fear - but the setting of Nazi Germany and the foreshadowing of devastation brings out the significance of these ideas in a truly unique way. I appreciated the fact that it was written from the perspective of common people, trying to survive and live as best they could in the midst of war and evil politics. The writing is clear and particularly descriptive, and Death's perception of color makes some scenes even more poignant or startling, such as this:
When I recollect her, I see a long list of colors, but its the three in which I saw her in the flesh that resonate the most. Sometimes I manage to float far above those three moments. I hang suspended until a septic truth bleeds toward clarity.

That's when I see them formulate.

* * * THE COLORS * * *
RED [rectangle] WHITE [circle] BLACK [swastika]

They fall on top of each other. The scribbled signature black, onto the blinding global white, onto the thick soupy red. (14)
Doesn't that just take your breath away when you realize the imagery?

Here are a few more of my favorite passages:

"In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer - proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water." (164)

"If only she could be so oblivious again, to feel such love without knowing it, mistaking it for laughter and bread with only the scent of jam spread on top of it." (358)

On the first bomb threat in Molching: "I only know that all of those people would have sensed me that night, excluding the youngest of the children. I was the suggestion. I was the advice, my imagined feet walking into the kitchen and down the corridor." (376)

What Max, the hiding Jew, did during the first siren raid: "'I couldn't help it,' he said...'I could see outside. I watched, only for a few seconds.' He had not seen the outside world for twenty-two months...It was Papa who spoke. 'How did it look.' Max lifted his head, with great sorrow and great astonishment. 'There were stars,' he said. 'They burned my eyes.'" (377-378)

"They watched the Jews come down the road like a catalog of colors. That wasn't how the book thief described them, but I can tell you that that's exactly what they were, for many of them would die...The suffering faces of depleted man and women reached across to them, pleading not so much for help - they were beyond that - but for an explanation. Just something to subdue this confusion." (391-392)

"Had he not lost his cigarettes to Hans Hubermann, he wouldn't have despised him. If he hadn't despised him, he might not have taken his place a few weeks later on a fairly innocuous road. One seat, two men, a short argument, and me. It kills me sometimes, how people die." (464)

"It was with great sadness that she realized that her brother would be six forever, but when she held that thought, she also made an effort to smile...She smiled and smiled, and when it all came out, she walked home and her brother never climbed into her sleep again." (473)

"Papa - the accordionist - and Himmel Street. One could not exist without the other, because for Liesel, both were home. Yes, that's what Hans Hubermann was for Liesel Meminger." (538)

"I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right." (528)

Friday, December 12, 2008

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

I read a review of The 19th Wife somewhere (a link from Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books a while back), and it looked interesting. I thought it might be a unique title to add to our book club's theme of women this year, since polygamy is a very unusual experience of a few women. While I found this book intriguing enough that I had to keep reading, it was disturbing enough that at times I wished I hadn't. In my opinion, it has both strengths and a weaknesses which may incline the reader to either love it or tire of it, as I did by about 3/4 of the way through.

The author expertly blends various levels of the storyline, weaving historical accounts in several voices with a contemporary who-done-it and "research" papers that bring the past more to light in the present. All these diverse elements work very well to paint a picture of the effects of polygamy on the lives of men, women, children, and communities, both past and present.

I found a copy of Wife no.19, the memoir of Ann Eliza Young upon which the author drew the framework for the historical aspects of the novel, at a local university's library. I look forward to at least skimming parts of it to see how the stories compare. At times it was easy to forget that The 19th Wife is fiction - the historical accounts seem accurate and believable, and though the modern parts are incredible (in the sense that you can't, or don't want to believe things like this happen), they are at least plausible. The author has provided a very helpful explanation of his methods of fictionalizing the historical documents, as well as a decent bibliography, which is unusual for a novel.

I could have done without the modern protagonist's gay orientation. It seemed that element was added for the sake of political correctness rather than adding any depth or character development to the story. In all fairness, I suppose such a choice could be explained as a reaction to the polygamy Jordan observed and rejection he suffered at the hands of extremist Mormons, but still, it wasn't necessary. Readers who might be offended at face-value references to homosexuality might want to pass on this novel. There is also some language and content in the modern storyline that some might find offensive.

Like my friend commented on our book club's blog, there are no "crises of character that led to profound character development." In fact, all the major characters end up in about the same place they started; the modern characters don't have any inclination to change, and while there is more introspection and self-evaluation in the historical narrative, most of the individuals show a declining character rather than developing one. Aside from the fact that the murder mystery is solved, the lack of character development left me unsatisfied at the close of this novel.

I didn't find many quotable quotes, but here are a few (all refer to this fictionalized account, not historical documents):

"Having made it as far as Pittsburgh by the grace of a family traveling west, Elizabeth resorted to the sole possession of a young woman with an empty purse." (44) - from the story of Elizabeth Churchill, Ann Eliza Young's mother. This allusion fits with some discussion Captive Thoughts Book Club had about La Reine Margot.

"Sometimes when you're driving down a back road in Utah, you think if there is a God, then he probably had something to do with all this. It's just that...beautiful." (231) - Jordan Scott

"I trust you have seen the ocean...If I could count the hours I have spent staring out at it! And yet those hours never feel lost. I cannot imagine how else I could refill them were I given a second chance." (359) - in letter from Lorenzo Dee, son of Ann Eliza Young.

"My mother, we both know, wrote a truth in The 19th Wife - a truth that corresponded to her memory and desires. It is not the truth, certainly not. But a truth, yes." (363) - in a letter from Lorenzo Dee, son of Ann Eliza Young. Perhaps this declaration of postmodernism defines the book more than the author knew, and it might be why I found it lacking.

"Wife is an inadequate term...For lack of a more precise term, we label them all wives, but they are not all wives. Indeed some are my mates and mothers of my children. Yet others are more like affectionate aunts. Others are intellectual friends, with whom I can debate and discuss all matters. Others still are, indeed, the keepers of the house, the kitchen, the children. Others remind me, in their distance, or neighbors to whom one might wave across a wall. Others still are very old and retired in their rocking chairs...Only a few are like a wife in the common sense..." (444) - from Brigham Young's prison diary.

Sometime I might see if this young adult novel, Sister Wife, has more engaging characters on the subject of polygamy, but it's not at the top of my to-be-read list.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Books I'd Like to Read...Someday

I'm sure this list will get long and unwieldy, but I have to keep track of these interesting titles somewhere...

The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-six by Jonathan Keats, based on this review.

The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt, based on this review.

Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris, based on this review.

Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly, based on this review.

Girl Meets God by Lauren F. Winner - good review here.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer - many reviews like this one.

The Heretic's Daughter: A Novel by Kathleen Kent.

The House at Riverton, based on this review.

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden - I've had this on my mental to-be-read list for quite some time, and this review (although not recent) makes me want to read it even more.

An Irish Country Doctor and An Irish Country Village by Patrick Taylor - based on this review.

Katherine Parr by Brandon G Withrow

King's Fool: A Notorious King, His Six Wives, and the One Man Who Knew Their Secrets by Margaret Campbell Barnes - based on this review.

The King's Last Song by Geoff Ryman, based on this review.

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean, based on this review.

My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar, based on this review.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, since this quiz said it's me.

The Novice's Tale by Margaret Frazer, based on this review.

Permberley Shades: Pride and Prejudice Continues by D. A. Bonavia-Hunt, based on this review. (And I must re-read Pride and Prejudice before this one, too.)

The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer, based on this review.

Sarah's Key by Titiana de Rosnay, based on this review.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, based on this review.

The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner, based on this review.

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett, based on this preview.

The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan, a biographical novel of the Bronte family.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenege, based on this review.

A True and Faithful Narrative I'm pretty picky about young adult novels, but this one looks worth it for its literary and historical interest. I can't help but love stories about bookseller's daughters (like The Thirteenth Tale), and this review makes it hard to resist. I suppose since it's a sequel, I should read At the Sign of the Star first.

Twilight of Avalon by Anna Elliott, based on this review.

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman - looks like good historical fiction based on this review.

CLASSICS - I intend to read more classics. A college professor told me that since there's no possibility of reading all the books in the world, we really ought to read the great books first. Good advice, and I'm going to try to follow it more deliberately.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. My experiences with Dickens are much like those expressed in this review, but it gives me hope that I might enjoy this one.

Lilith by George MacDonald (one of my all-time favorite authors).

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. I got 3/4 of the way through this a few years ago, and I really need to re-read/finish it.

Middlemarch by George Eliot.

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.

Paradise Lost by John Milton.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope, based on this review.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.

The University of Cambridge ASNC (Anglo-Saxon, Norse, & Celtic) Introductory Reading Lists

LISTS FROM OTHER BLOGGERS (when I don't have time to add all the individual titles above):
Magistramater's Brobdingnagian Book List - I love the English/Scottish categories here - a gold mine of good reading ideas.
Magistramater's quotes of 2008

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

I actually finished Hannah Coulter 2 weeks ago, but I marked so many passages with my porcupine method that I haven't taken the time to sort through them and type them out. Needless to say, this book is memorable - beautiful and poignant, idealistic, and at the same time realistic, reflective and timeless.

Parts of it could have been written by my grandmother, who was raised in rural Kentucky until she moved to Ohio where she and my grandfather, whom I never knew, bought a farm and paid it off in just a few years, just like Nathan and Hannah Coulter did (119). My mom grew up on that farm, and I was raised there too, though it wasn't a working farm by that time. I understand the idea of place that figures so prominently in Hannah Coulter's mind. I miss the place that that Ohio farm was in my childhood. I know I'll never live there again, but it will always be a place of peace for me, a memory of quietness and openness that I hope to find somewhere again. Somehow looking into neighbors' backyards in our subdivision just isn't the same as looking out over a ten acre field of corn or soybeans, or watching deer traverse the one acre garden that comprised the backyard, or driving down the long lane to see my tree-y tree (a perfectly formed maple) emerge around the bend.

But this book not only evoked memories of my family's homestead, it was a challenge as well - a challenge to find that place of peace (like Madeleine L'Engle's A Circle of Quiet) even in the subdivision (see quote from p. 83 below), to create a life of purpose for my family, to help my children learn to value what is really important and at the same time give them the freedom to find their own place. These were some of the ideas that we talked about when Captive Thoughts Book Club discussed Hannah Coulter in November.

I think the only part I didn't particularly enjoy about this book were Hannah's chronicling how her children had all left their place. Like I said above, I think that children need to have the freedom to find their own place, and a meaningful place does not necessarily need to be in the country or the family farm.

But without further ado, the memorable quotations (all from Berry, Wendell. Hannah Coulter. (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker Hoard, 2004.)~

"It is our story, for I lived it with him. It is the story of our place in our time..." (5)

Describing her father: "He was a humorous, good-natured man, maybe because he hoped for little and expected less and took his satisfactions where he found them." (8)

"Grandmam was the authority and head worker...She was always busy. She never backed off from anything because it was hard." (10)

"She wore dresses. Being a widow, she wore them black. Being a woman of her time, she wore them long. The girls of her day, I think, must have been like well-wrapped gifts, to be opened by their husbands on their wedding night, a complete surprise. 'Well! What's this?'" (10)

"Grandmam, as I have seen in looking back, was the decider of my fate. She shaped my life, without of course knowing what my life would be. She taught me many things that I was going to need to know, without either of us knowing I would need to know them. She made the connections that made my life..." (11)

"'All women is brothers,' Burley Coulter used to usual, he was telling the truth. Or part of it." (22)

"They were men with long memories who loved farming and whose lives had been given to ideals: good land, good grass, good animals, good crops, good work." (23)

"Virgil spoke of that as something old in the world that caused an ancient happiness in him. He was trying to show me the shape of his life, and what might become the shape of it...We were coming together into the presence of something good that was possible in this world. I have to see it now as a sad hope, because we were able to use up so little of it, but it was no less a beautiful one." (28) What a beautiful way to describe marriage - "something good that was possible."

"The river ran below us, its double row of shore trees swinging in against the hill on our side, leaving a wide bottomland on the other. It needed a long look because you had to think of how old it was, and of how many voices had spoken and hushed again beside it." (34)

"Someday there will be a new heaven and a new earth and a new Port William coming down from heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband, and whoever has known her before will know her then." (43)

On Sundays during the war: "And we would hear also a sermon in which poor Brother Preston would struggle again with his terrible duty and need to bring comfort to the comfortless, to say something in public that could answer the private fear and grief that were all around him, and he would mostly fail. We would shake his hand at the door as we went out, trying, I suppose, to console him for his wish to help what only could be endured." (46)

"To be in love with Virgil was to be there, in love, with his parents, his family, his place, his baby. When he became lost to our living love in this world, by knowing what it meant to me I couldn't help knowing what it meant to the others." (50) This view of marriage as an extended community is all but lost today.

"I began to know my story then. Like everybody else's, it was going to be the story of the living in the absence of the dead...Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery...And so I have to say that another of the golden threads is gratitude." (51-52)

"To know that I was known by a new living being, who had not existed until she was made in my body by my desire and brought forth into the world by my pain and strength - that changed me....I would feel milk and love flowing from me to her as once it had flowed to me. It emptied me. As the baby fed, I seemed slowly to grow empty of myself, as if in the presence of that long flow of love even grief could not stand." (54-55)

"My life with Virgil was a romance, because it never had a chance to become anything else...My life with Nathan turned out to be a long life, an actual marriage, with trouble in it...Troubles came, as they were bound to do, as the promise we made had warned us that they would. I can remember the troubles and speak of them, but not to complain. I am beginning again to speak of my gratitude." (62)

"I was aware of that look a long time before I was ready to look back. I knew that when I did I would be a goner. We both would be." (65)

"Your first love for somebody can last, and this one did, but it changes too after promises have been made and time has passed and knowledge has come." (66)

"Now I know what we were trying to stand for, and what I believe we did stand for: the possibility that among the world's wars and sufferings two people could love each other for a very long time, until death and beyond, and could make a place for each other that would be a part of their love, as their love for each other would be a way of loving their place. This love would be one of the acts of the greater love that holds and cherishes all the world." (67-68)

"I began the wish, that stayed with me for the rest of his [her father-in-law, Jarrat Coulter's] life, to hug him for the sweetness I had learned was in him. I never did, for fear of embarrassing him. Now that I am old, I know I could have done it, it would have been all right, and I'm sorry I didn't." (79)

"And so I had put myself in Nathan's hands, mindful also that he had put himself in mine. We were each other's welcomer and each other's guest. And so we had come to our place." (81)

"A lifetime's knowledge shimmers on the face of the land in the mind of a person who knows. The history of a place is the mind of an old man or an old woman who knows it, walking over it, and it is never fully handed on to anybody else, but has been mostly lost, generation after generation..." (82)

"Most people now are looking for 'a better place,' which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one...There is no 'better place' than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we've got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven." (83)

"Nathan's rules from the start were never to plow too much in any year, never to grow more grain than we needed to feed our own livestock, and never to have too much livestock." (84) No temptation to "bigger barns" here.

"The stream and the woods don't care if you love them. The place doesn't care if you love it. But for your own sake you had better love it. For the sake of all else you love, you had better love it." (85)

"I have to quiet myself before I can hear the quiet of the place...But I listen and wait, and at last it comes. It is an old quiet, only deepened by the sound of the creek, a bird singing, or a barking squirrel." (87)

"And I remember especially how much we belonged together then, how complete we seemed with our fire and our meal, what a unit we were, and the pleasure of it." (90)

"The work was freely given in exchange for work freely given. There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing. Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were needed we would go, and when we had need the others, or enough of them, would come." (94)

"The making of the place was the thing that ruled over everything else, for we were living from the place...You can see that it is hard to mark the difference between our life and our place, our place and ourselves." (106)

"We had differences...There were the differences of nature and character that were sometimes happy and sometimes not. Some of the things that most endeared Nathan to me - his quietness, his love of his work, his determination - were the things that could sometimes make me maddest at him." (107)

"But now, looking back, it is hard to say why we fell out, or what we fell out about, or why whatever we fell out about ever mattered. Even then it was sometimes hard to say." (108)

"You have had this life and no other. You have had this life with this man and no other. What would it have been to have had a different life with a different man? You will never know. That makes the world forever a mystery, and you will just have to be content for it to be that way." (109)

"The room of love is another world...It is the world without end, so small that two people can hold it in their arms, and yet it is bigger than worlds on worlds, for it contains the longing of all things to be together, and to be at rest together...You take it all into your arms, it goes away, and there you are where giving and taking are the same, and you life a little while entirely in a gift." (110)

"The way of education leads away from home. That is what we learned from our children's education." (112) As a lover of education, I must protest that it is not necessarily a bad thing that education leads one from one place to another. Good places can be found in many ways.

"The chance you had is the life you've got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people's lives...but you mustn't wish for another life. You mustn't want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: 'Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.' I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions." (113)

"We had a debt on the farm, of course, for what seemed to us a lot of money in those days, but we went straight to work to make it worth more than Nathan had paid for it. We paid off that debt in nine years, and from then on, as Nathan liked to say, we never owed a nickel to anybody." (119)

On the relationship between her son Mattie and husband Nathan: "They weren't always at odds, but when they were the space between them was occupied by, of course, me. And of course they complained to me about each other. And of course, loving them both, I tried to defend them to each other. The good part was that I could defend them to each other." (122)

"I have this love for Mattie. It was formed in me as he himself was formed. It has his shape, you might say. He fits it. He fits into it as he fits into his clothes. He will always fit into it. When he gets out of the car and I meet him and hug him, there he is, him himself, something of my own forever, and my love for him goes all around him just as it did when he was a baby and a little boy and a young man grown. He fits my love, but he no longer fits the place or our life or the knowledge of anything here." (123-124)

"His children...when they are here they don't know where they are. And maybe it is not possible for them to find out. They don't want to know...they don't know enough to like it." (124-125)

"I don't think there is an argument for being a farmer. There are only two reasons to farm: because you have to, and because you love to. The ones who choose to farm choose for love. Necessity ends the argument, and so does love." (129)

"But there is some pleasure in expectations too, and I should not be regretful about ours. After your expectations have gone their way and your future is getting along the best it can as an honest blank, you shape your life according to what it is." (131)

"Caleb is incomplete...He is always trying to make up the difference between the life he has and the life he imagines he might have had." (131)

"One of the attractions of moving away into the life of employment, I think, is being disconnected and free, unbothered by membership. It is a life of beginnings without memories, but it is a life too that ends without being remembered. The life of membership with all its cumbers is traded away for the life of employment that makes itself free by forgetting you clean as a whistle when you are not of any more use." (133)

"...yet for a while there I would think that this, this right now, was all the world that I held in my arms. It was like falling in love, only more than that; we knew too much by then for it to be only that. It was knowing that love was what it was, and life would not complete it and death would not stop it. While we held each other and our old desire came upon us, eternity flew into time like a lighting dove." (134)

"He said, 'Margaret, my good Margaret, we're going to live right on.' I heard him say that only three of four times in all his life. He said it only when he knew that living right on was going to be hard." (141)

"So how come he ended up leaving his wife and boy, talking about 'fulfillment' and his 'need to be free'? 'It's the time,' I thought. 'The time wants men to be as silly in character as they are by nature.'" (142)

"...he would have his hair in some odd arrangement or color and a ring in his ear and a stud in his nose - I guess to show his father he didn't give a damn, which of course he did or he wouldn't have been trying so hard to act like he didn't." (145)

"Living without expectations is hard but, when you can do it, good. Living without hope is harder, and that is bad. You have got to have hope, and you mustn't shirk it. Love, after all, 'hopeth all things.' But maybe you must learn, and it is hard learning, not to hope out loud, especially for other people. You must not let your hope turn into expectation." (146)

"The world is so full and abundant it is like a pregnant woman carrying a child in one arm and leading another by the hand. Every puddle in the lane is ringed with sipping butterflied that fly up in flutter when you walk past in the late morning on your way to get the mail." (147-148)

"You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can't remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can return only by surprise." (148)

"Compared to nearly everybody else, the Branches have led a sort of futureless life. They have planned and provided as much as they needed to, but they take little thought for the morrow. They aren't going any place, they aren't getting ready to become anything but what they are, and so their lives are not fretful and hankering." (152)

"Sometimes...I wander about in this house that Nathan and I renewed, that is now aged and worn by our life in it. How many steps, wearing the thresholds? I look at it all again. Sometimes it fills to the brim with sorrow, which signifies the joy that has been here, and the love. It is entirely a gift." (158)

"My steadfast comfort for fifty years and more had been to know that I was on his mind. Whatever was happening between us, I knew I was on his mind, and that was where I wanted to be." (160)

"His life was being driven by a kind of flywheel. [Mattie] had submitted to it and accepted it. It was turning fast. To slow it down or stop it and come to a place that was moving with the motion only of time and loss and slow grief was more, that day, than he could imagine." (164)

"I had to think of all it had cost, of all the engines that had run, just to give one man a few minutes of ordinary grief at his dad's funeral, but I was completely glad to see was as it should have been." (165)

"After she left, the house slowly filled up with silence. Nathan's absence came into it and filled it. I suffered my hard joy, I gave my thanks, I cried my cry. And then I turned again to that other world I had taught myself to know, the world that is neither past nor to come, the present world where we are alive together and love keeps us." (166)

"I began this practice of sitting sometimes long hours into the night, telling over this story, this life, that even when it was only mine was wholly Nathan's and mine because for the term of this world we were wholly each other's. We were each other's chance to live in the room of love where we could be known well enough to be spared. We were each other's gift." (168)

About WWII: "It was a world where no place was safe, where you or your friends could be killed in any place at any minute." (169)

"You can't give yourself over to love for somebody without giving yourself over to suffering. You can't give yourself to love for a soldier without giving yourself to his suffering in war. It is tis body of our suffering that Christ was born into, to suffer it Himself and to fill it with light, so that beyond the sufferig we can imagine Easter morning and the peace of God on little earthly homelands such as Port William and the farming villages of Okinawa." (171)

"And so I came to know, as I had not known before, what this place of ours had meant to him [Nathan]. I knew, as I had not known before, what I had meant to him. Our life in our place had been a benediction to him, but he had seen it always within a circle of fire that might have closed upon it." (173)

"[This homeland] was as familiar as my old headscarf and coatand shoes, as my body. I have lived from it all these years. When I am buried in it at last my flesh will be the same as it, and hardly a difference made. But I have seen it change. It has changed, it is changing, and it is threatened." (179)

"I want to leave here openhanded, with only the ancient blessing, 'Good-bye. My love to you all.'" (185)