These Is My Words (Nancy Turner)

In a word: Endearing

The exact copy of the book I read has gotten lost, and I can’t even find a pic of it online. So you’ll have to take my word for it that it was UG-LY. When this book was placed into my hands, I did judge that book by its cover, and it did not bode well:

  1. Grammar  in the title: bad
  2. Cover: homely
  3. Author: unknown
  4. Setting: Arizona
  5. Format: Diary

Due to all of the above, I would never have picked up this book except that the person who gave me the book was my mother. She recommended it, and what’s more, she expected me to read it.  I am a dutiful daughter, so I took the plunge, imagining that I’d take one for the team and then return to all of the more interesting titles on my TBR list.

(My mom has great taste in books, so I don’t know why I was so reluctant to trust her.)

(This is a much more attractive copy of the book than the one I read.)

That unpromising cover does give you a true preview in some ways: this is the diary of a young pioneer girl as she moves with her family into the truly wild west of Arizona territory. The unpolished grammar and spelling does take some getting used to, but it improves as the narrator matures. But despite this, and all of my other misgivings, it didn’t take me long to warm up to the characters and the story–I was curious, then invested, then totally engrossed. I finished the book within 24 hours, and I remorselessly neglected my home and family responsibilities until I got to the end.

A plot summary doesn’t do justice to the charm of this book. If you know anything about pioneer life, or if you ever played Oregon Trail, you can make pretty good guesses: snake bites, Indian raids, cattle thieves, natural disasters, etc.– all exciting, but par for the course.

What makes this book exceptional is the scrappy, determined narrator and her leading man, who might have just nudged his way into my Top Ten Literary Crushes list. Oh, Captain Jack: pass me the smelling salts! (No spoilers here, but his line “Mustache!” might be my favorite part in the whole book.)

This is one of those rare, sweet books that you can gobble down in a day but that will stick in your mind for much, much longer.

***

Here are some favorite quotes from the book, thanks to Leslie, who had the good sense to read this with a pencil in her hand:

“Childbirth is not an enemy you can fight or conquer or outrun, it takes you and tears you apart from the inside out and you have to just submit to it. I never understood why a girl would choose to be an old maid, but now I do.”

“Any other man ever comes around me better be carrying a pistol with one more bullet than I’ve got or I’ll have the last word.”

“A friendly silence can speak between two who will walk together a long way.”

“I know all these people are so busy because they love each other and me. We are a noisy crowd of love.”

“Mostly I just raise my children and cook and clean, flirt with Jack and enjoy his company, and read aloud the books he give me for silly holidays he makes up. Like, Oh, here’s a gift for The Third Tuesday in October, didn’t you know that’s a holiday?Well I bought you a book. He is amazing.”

“Well I hope I’m not that cantankerous. No. There’s a difference between strong coffee and bitter medicine.”

Sarah is strong coffee indeed! Her inspiring, endearing tale might be just what you need to wake up your reading life this holiday season.

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Snapshot: my reading life today


Just finished: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. This one took me a little while to get into, but I ended up enjoying it very much! The plot sounds like a thriller: Deep in South America, an opera performance in the Vice President’s house becomes a hostage situation when terrorists swarm in through the air ducts during the encore. But despite this alarming premise, this is actually a slow-moving, character-driven kind of novel. I don’t mean any of those things in a negative way; the characters are interesting and endearing, and the interactions between the hostages (most of whom do not speak a common language) and between the terrorists and the hostages are surprising, touching, and sometimes funny. After the leisurely pace of most of the book, I thought the ending was startlingly abrupt, but it was satisfying nonetheless.

Currently reading: I literally just finished Bel Canto last night, so I haven’t picked up another title yet. I’m torn on what direction to go next- I need some motivation around my house, so I’m thinking about rereading The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. But I also have a pretty large stack of fiction waiting for me by my favorite chair (see photo above), ranging from a Maisie Dobbs mystery to the more serious The Kitchen House to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (I feel super ambivalent about reading this at all- haven’t made up my mind yet.).  So, we’ll see. I’ll have this question settled by later in the day, though!

On the Kindle: I’m totally out of the habit of reading digital books, which is partly great because I’m on a crusade to be on my phone less. But it’s also frustrating, because I keep buying ebooks on sale that I really do want to read! So I have kind of a large queue building up. I recently started The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language, and it IS interesting and accessible. But it’s not the kind of story that keeps pulling me back like a magnet, so it’s slow going.

On Audio: I’m listening to Sense and Sensibility, and, ya’ll: Marianne is about to kill this one for me. She drives me CRAZY, and Willoughby isn’t even on the scene yet.

Recent and Notable: Earlier this fall I read The End of the Affair. I started it on Audible because Colin Firth was the narrator. But I couldn’t follow the plot (my problem, not Colin’s), so I switched to a hard copy that I’d picked up for pennies at a used book sale. This book was interesting, but not at all what I thought I was getting into! Yes, it’s about an affair between a man (the narrator) and a woman (his married neighbor). But it’s just as much about the friendship that develops between the narrator and the the woman’s husband years after the affair concludes. And even more than either of those, it’s kind of a heavy Catholic-conversion story (I didn’t see that coming). So, as a whole, this was interesting, but not very emotionally engaging or satisfying for me.

Quotable: 

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” -Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

Any recommendations about what I should bump to the top of my reading list? What are YOU reading right now?

 

A Jane Austen Roundup

I just completed a tour de Jane Austen today; here are some short thoughts about her stories and characters, followed by my ranking of favorites:

(Note: This post originally ran on my other blog five years ago after I read the full Jane Austen canon for the first time. I’ve updated it to reflect my thoughts in light of a few recent re-reads.)

1.  There is a reason why Pride and Prejudice is the best-known and best-loved of Austen’s novels.  It’s Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.  Oh, wait, that’s not where I was going with that.  P&P is actually far and away the best of the six novels, mostly because Elizabeth Bennet is the spunkiest, most likable heroine of all.  She has a sense of humor, she knows and speaks her mind, and she grows as a character between the beginning and end of the novel.  What a concept!

2.  Speaking of speaking one’s mind: I’ll be the first to agree that totally unfiltered twenty-first century Americans could learn from the tact and decorum of the many genteel characters to grace Austen’s pages.  But if some of these heroines would occasionally express their mental turmoil in actual, audible words to the pertinent party, these novels would be a lot shorter. (I AM LOOKING AT YOU, ANNE ELLIOT, AND YOU TOO, CAPTAIN WENTWORTH even though you are not a heroine.)

3.  Some friends and I recently completed a rousing discussion of the “Which Jane Austen character are you?” question and the group decided that my Austen double was Mrs. Weston from Emma.  But of course I’d much rather be a heroine than a supporting character, so I am revising my match to be Elinor from Sense and Sensibility.  She’s quiet, passive to a fault, dutiful, emotionally reserved, and family-centered.  Plus, she gets to marry Edward Ferrars, who was chosen as Stephen’s match, so how perfect is that?

Lastly, my preferences, in order:

1.  Pride and Prejudice.  The central characters in this book are more complex and dynamic than any other leading couples.  The supporting characters (Mr. Bennet and Mr. Collins in particular) are funny and quirky without making me CRAZY.

2.  Emma.  It’s possible that my judgment is impaired by the fact that I cannot even deal with Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley, but I truly did enjoy this book on its own merit.  Emma is a very silly heroine, but I love her anyway; and her ability to receive correction and admit her faults is admirable. I listened to an audio version of this one not too long ago, and I was delighted to discover character details and subtle foreshadowing that I had missed in my first reading. (This is the mark of a classic, you’ll remember: when a book becomes more amazing, not less, the more times you read it!)

3.  Northanger Abbey.  Surprise!  This was one I had never read before.  The characters are not very interesting or well-developed, but I loved the tongue-in-cheek narrator and the fact that this novel doesn’t take itself too seriously.

4.  Sense and Sensibility.  Despite my self-identification with Elinor, the story moves a little slow.  Plus, Marianne is super annoying and Willoughby just WON’T GO AWAY.

5.  Persuasion. This is my most recent read, and I may be posting some longer thoughts and quotes as a separate review. But here is the short version: this book was better than I remembered, and I very much enjoyed reading it. But I do still stand by the complaints I raised here, and since I have NOT recently read Northanger Abbey or Sense & Sensibility, I can’t say if I would rank these titles differently. I’ll have to read them again soon and get back to you!

6.  Mansfield Park.
My first time through, choices 5 and 6 were in competition for last place; both Fanny Price and Anne Elliot have the spunk and zest of warm milk.  The only way I can comprehend that men fall in love with them is that they are surrounded by other characters that are completely uninteresting, unlikeable, and/or already married (not that that stopped Mr. Crawford from running off with Mrs. Rushworth!  What a scandal!).

All in all, any time with Jane Austen is time  well spent.  I’d love to hear about YOUR favorite Janes!

Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie)

In a word: Surprising

After I finished  Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star, I decided that I needed to read a classic for a little mental palate cleanse. I settled on Peter Pan, which I had picked up for a steal at the same book sale as Darcy. My kids have been ob-sessed with the Disney cartoon of Peter Pan, so I had been planning to preview the original J.M. Barrie novel as a possible family read-aloud for this year.

I’d never read it before; the Peter Pan story never really captured my imagination because I was always that kid who couldn’t wait to grow up. (It wasn’t until I was an adult that the idea of childhood appealed to me!)

Barrie’s Peter Pan did not rock my world, but I was entertained by it, and I definitely enjoyed the way it kept catching me off guard. The narrator is cheeky and wry, and is as entertaining as any of the actual characters. The book is definitely funnier than I expected. At the same time, it’s darker than I would have guessed; Neverland is a creepy place full of real villains and danger.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

One day when [Wendy] was two years old…Mrs. Darling put her hand over her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this forever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning.

‘No, no,’ Mr. Darling always said, ‘I am responsible for it all. I, George Darling, did it. Mea culpa, mea culpa.’ He had had a classical education.

Every boy had adventures to tell; but perhaps the biggest adventure of all was that they were several hours late for bed. This so inflated them that they did various dodgy things to get staying up still longer, such as demanding bandages, but Wendy…cried ‘To bed, to bed,’ in a voice that had to be obeyed.

The difference between [Peter] and the other boys at such a time was that they knew it was make-believe, while to him make-believe and true were exactly the same thing. This sometimes troubled them, as when they had to make believe that they had had their dinners.

So, yes, all very charming, wouldn’t you agree? But then there are little passages   like this…

The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out; but at this time there were six of them.

[The eyes of Jas. Hook] were of the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly….

Undoubtedly the grimmest part of him was his iron claw. Let us now kill a pirate, to show Hook’s method. Skylights will do. As they pass, Skylights lurches clumsily against him, ruffling his lace collar; the hook shoots forth, there is a tearing sound and one screech, then the body is kicked aside, and the pirates pass on. He has not even taken the cigars from his mouth.

After a time [Peter] fell asleep, and some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy. Any of the other boys obstructing the fairy path at night they would have mischiefed, but they just tweaked Peter’s nose and passed on.

So at the end of the day, this was a worthwhile read, although it’s not one I’ll revisit again. I do think that I’ll hold off on reading it to my kids; I have a child with a vivid imagination who would surely never drift off to her own Neverland if I filled her mind with Pan right before bedtime!

Stories I Only Tell My Friends (Rob Lowe)

In a word: Compelling

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I listened to this in August, after school started. Can I still call that summer reading? If yes, this might be my surprise favorite read of the summer. I bought it on an impulse when I was trying to use up some Audible credits after hearing Gretchen Rubin give the book a passing positive mention on her podcast. This is my favorite kind of favorite book: one that I acquire almost by accident, and begin with zero expectation.

I confess that I began this book knowing Rob Lowe only for his role as Chris Traeger in Parks and Recreation. Chris is LITERALLY my favorite character on Parks, so that is not a bad association at all, but it turns out that a few seasons on a quirky sitcom is just the tiny tip of the iceberg when it comes to Lowe’s acting career. I think my total ignorance of Lowe’s pre-Parks life is part of what contributed to my enjoyment of the book: I had no idea where the story was going!

Here is what I learned: Lowe’s life story (at least, according to this book) can be roughly divided into three parts: 1) his life prior to his big break into Hollywood, including some really sad but interesting stories about growing up in Malibu in the 1970’s; 2) his early career, beginning at age 17, a dangerous mix of youth, fame, money, and a total lack of adult influence; and 3) his post-rehab life in which he grows up, stays sober, gets married, and pursues a “normal” life as his Hollywood/TV career continues.

Along the way, with a humble, conversational style, Lowe recounts stories of life among the rich, famous and powerful, including (but not limited to!) hanging out with Martin, Charlie, and Emilio at the Sheen’s house, watching his TV debut while sitting on Cary Grant’s bed with Grant and his daughter, sketching on a paper tablecloth with Andy Warhol, hanging out with Pavarotti and Sting at Sting’s country estate, chatting up Lucille Ball in a green room, dating Princess Stephanie of Monaco, sleeping on a fold-out couch with a teenage Tom Cruise in an apartment in Oklahoma, getting photobombed by Bill Clinton in the White House, riding on an airplane with the 9-11 terrorists.

This is a celebrity memoir that reads like an autobiography more than a collection of famous thoughts on various topics. And what a story Lowe tells! He describes his years of wild living with a tone that, while not exactly repentant, is never salacious. He goes from one star-studded episode to the next without ever sounding like he’s name-dropping. From the very beginning, you can hear the voice of the end product: a man who has found ultimate satisfaction in his roles as husband and father, a normal guy with a lot of extraordinary stories to tell.

I listened to the audio version of this book (highly recommended!), which is why  I only managed to note one great quote as I read (it’s the first one). But I snagged a few more from Goodreads to illustrate Lowe’s effective style:

“This insane logic holds right up until I catch a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror. Then, very slowly, I turn and face myself full on. I am so hammered that I can barely stand. The girl I love has just left me because I can’t keep my word and I have no integrity. My grandfather is dying. My mother is in crisis, desperate for help and comfort, and I have cowered and hid in shameful avoidance. I have arrived at the bottom.”

“Nothing in life is unfair. It’s just life. To the extent that I had any inner turmoil, I had only myself to blame. I also thought of my two boys and what kind of example I hoped to be. I would always want them to take charge of their own futures and not be paralyzed by the comfort and certainty of the status quo or be cowed by the judgment of those on the outside looking in.”

“[Kids] don’t really listen to speeches or talks. They absorb incrementally, through hours and hours of observation. The sad truth about divorce is that it’s hard to teach your kids about life unless you are living life with them: eating together, doing homework, watching Little League, driving them around endlessly, being bored with nothing to do, letting them listen while you do business, while you negotiate love and the frustrations and complications and rewards of living day in and out with your wife. Through this, they see how adults handle responsibility, honesty, commitment, jealousy, anger, professional pressures, and social interactions. Kids learn from whoever is around them the most.”

“You can’t build a life on a backstage pass or free swag at Sundance.”

Amazon blurbed this book “A wryly funny and surprisingly moving account of an extraordinary life lived almost entirely in the public eye.” For these qualities and many more, I was so disappointed to get to the end of this book!

Fitzwilliam Darcy: Rock Star (Heather Lynn Rigaud)

When I picked this up from the sale rack at Hastings, I knew it would either be brilliant or terrible. But at 40% off, I was willing to take a chance. I can’t quite tell you why this book ended up in my basket after I panned at least a thousand other Austen tribute novels, other than the hope that this one promised not to take itself too seriously. Either that, or the idea of Darcy in leather pants was just too intriguing to pass up.


Back story: I have hated every other book I’ve read that attempts to play off of Jane’s classic stories, characters, or themes. (Correction: Katherine Reay’s novels are an exception; see our reviews for Lizzy & Jane and Dear Mr. Knightley.) But overall, Austen-inspired novels  seem to exhibit one or more of the following problematic elements:

a) terribly written stories and characters whose only hope of success is by association with Jane the Great
b) blatantly derivative plots disguised as “sequels” or “spinoffs”
c) pretentious authors actually trying to write in Austen style

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star suffered from none of the above. In many ways, it was actually a successful adaptation of my beloved characters and story: original and clever in its modern setting, yet true to the essence of the characters and to the major plot points of Pride and Prejudice.

Fitzwilliam “Will” Darcy is the mysterious front man of rocker group Slurry, a trio comprised of Darcy, his cousin Richard Fitzwilliam, and his college friend Charles Bingley. Desperate for an opening act as they begin their fourth national tour, they book up-and-coming girl band Long Bourne Suffering, made up of the beautiful Bennet sisters and their pal Charlotte Lucas. The relationship between the three single rock stars and the three sexy single ladies is strictly business…until it’s not (which takes about three hot seconds). As the plot progresses, readers encounter lots of familiar characters: the girls’ sleazy agent Bill Collins, the overbearing label owner Catherine DeBourgh, the too-good-to-be-true music video director (and former Slurry member) George Wickham, Darcy’s sweet and sensible little sister Georgie. It all works surprisingly well.

But despite this promising beginning, I do NOT recommend this book.

I wasn’t naive enough to expect that the essential virtue of Jane and Elizabeth (and Charlotte…and Bingley…and DARCY, for that matter) would survive this modernization. Darcy is a rock-and-roll icon, after all, so I wouldn’t have expected him to smolder for four hundred pages before he dared to risk the intimacy of addressing Elizabeth by her first name.

BUT. The sex scenes in this book are so over-the-top and frequent that I had a major crisis of conscience about even finishing the book.  Instead of having the characters articulate their thoughts and resolve emotional conflict through self-reflection and conversation, they immediately fall into bed (or whatever surface might be even closer). At one point, Darcy even admits, “We communicate better through our music…or non-verbally.” News flash, Mr. Rock-and-Roll Star: relationships don’t work that way. And neither do plots; long pornographic scenes are just not a substitute for character development and dialogue.

A serious literary analysis could find plenty of other things to pick apart concerning the plot and characters, but this novel is unapologetically fan fiction, not literature. Some serious editing could have made this story a novel riff on a classic favorite, but as it is, the indulgent sexual scenes weigh down the effect. Sexy-Darcy fans who want to keep their consciences intact will just have to content themselves with watching Colin Firth dive into the lake at Pemberley…again.

 

A Mini Review & Book Pairing: The Kitchen Counter Cooking School

Leslie has already named this book her “Life-Changingest Book of 2016.” And…it’s hard to top that recommendation. But now that I’ve finished it (and made a loaf of bread, to boot!), I thought I’d add my thoughts.

The Kitchen Counter Cooking SchoolIn case you missed Leslie’s review, here’s the short recap: a professionally trained chef gives basic cooking lessons to a group of unconfident home cooks. And almost without exception, the lessons are life-changing for these women– they go from Hamburger-Helper-Level cooking to baking artisan bread, chopping aromatics in seconds, and butterflying whole chickens. It IS inspiring, and I find myself thinking back to parts of the book often as I work in my own kitchen.

Although reading this book was a really helpful start, I’ve found myself wishing that Kathleen Flinn would actually come to my house and invite me to her cooking school. I’ve struggled with my own mediocrity in the kitchen, and I feel like just a few helpful lessons would catapult me into new realms of ability– to learn, once and for all, the proper way to hold a knife, dice an onion, cook fish, and make a sauce, just to name a few things.

It got me thinking about all of the other ways that I’m finding my own way as a parent and homemaker. What about a “Kitchen Counter Cooking School” but for basic household budgeting? For cleaning and maintaining a home and belongings? For how to do laundry the right way, for goodness’ sake?

It occurred to me that the kind of class that would have imparted information like this to eager young women was Home Ec. But by the time I was taking classes in high school, home ec was out of vogue, and girls like me were encouraged to more practical electives such as typing and a “business” class where I learned how to make spreadsheets and play Tetris. What a tragedy!

If a personal tutoring opportunity were to come up in any of these subjects, I’d totally take it. But meanwhile, I’m reminded that I do have resources ALREADY ON MY BOOKSHELF that can give me some of the knowledge that I crave.

Introducing……..book pairings for the ultimate text-based homemaking education:

The Nesting Place by Myquillyn Smith: refreshingly unfussy and accessible advice on making a house Your Home. Her style doesn’t have to be yours; her practical tips and can-do attitude is easy to transfer to whatever look brings you joy and peace.

Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson (yes, THAT Cheryl Mendelson): At almost 9oo pages, this is a pretty exhaustive manual on everything that happens within your four walls. Chapter titles illustrate how Mendelson’s approach to home keeping is both practical (“The Chemistry of Household Cleaning,” “Common Laundry Mishaps and Problems,” “Cleaning Man-made Solid Surfaces and Other Plastics,”) and poetic (“The Air in Your Castle,” Th Cave of Nakedness,” “Kindly Light”).

Caves of Nakedness aside, you might think this sounds like the most boring tome ever to prop a door open, but somehow Mendelson speaks on every topic with a pleasant, efficient manner, much like Mary Poppins come to help you clean up the nursery once and for all.

The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. This book is as polarizing to the world of clutter-management as the election of 2016 has turned out to be to the general population. But I’ll cast a vote for the KonMari method any day– it’s simple and effective, and if you can get past all the woo-woo stuff about thanking your shoes for their service, your reward will be a more peaceful, manageable home environment.

(Of course, a zillion-point-five blogs and websites exist to teach on all of these topics as well, and some of them do so quite effectively. But there’s nothing like having a nice reference book to hold in your hand, don’t you think?)

What practical guides have been helpful to you?