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?

 

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!

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris (Jenny Colgan)

In a word: Darling

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I read The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris on vacation a few weeks ago, and it was really cute. Jenny Colgan has written a lot of food themed novels, and what’s not to love about that? This one tells the story of Anna Trent, an English girl who worked in a giant chocolate factory. After a bizarre accident, she finds herself in the hospital recovering in the bed next to her kind, but very sick, high school French teacher. The two become close during their lonely days at the hospital, and after Anna’s recovery time is over, Mrs. Shawcourt connects Anna to an old friend of hers: Thierry Girard, a famous chocolatier in Paris.

Anna’s Paris adventure is rocky at first: she struggles with the language, her coworkers don’t like her, her apartment is tiny, her roommate is erratic; but as she gets into her element, she discovers the delights of the city. There are some great characters throughout the novel-Thierry, the passionate, boistrous chocolatier; his uptight, British wife; the quirky, loyal shop assistants; Thierry’s handsome, estranged son; Anna’s flamboyant roommate; and Anna, the self-conscious protagonist, trying to find her way in the world.

This book is a cute novel that will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside and also craving fancy chocolate. Definitely a fun summer (or weekend!) read!

The Girl You Left Behind (JoJoMoyes)

In a word: Feel-good

The Girl You Left Behind

If you follow us on Instagram you may remember that I almost didn’t even finish this one. But I am so glad I did!

The first quarter of the book set up the back story in this enjoyable past/present mystery. The story of two sisters holding down the home front in German-occupied France felt SO reminiscent of The Nightingale that I thought it might be better to try it again later. But as I kept reading, I found myself caught up in the other half of the narrative: the modern-day story of sweet and sad Liv, stumbling into a new love four years after the tragic death of her husband.

There’s a lot to like about this book. Moyes is a good storyteller, and her writing is clear and uncomplicated. For bluffer history nerds like myself, the historical setting was interesting. And while I am in the minority, at least according to Goodreads and Amazon reviews, I also enjoyed the modern-day story, which revolves around the mystery of a painting: a portrait by a lesser-known Impressionist, once hung in a French hotel, taken to France after the war, now in the possession of a British architect who bought it on a sidewalk in Spain.

Now, I said that this book will appeal to history bluffs, not serious scholars, and I kind of think the same is true of semi-literary readers as well. The plot and characters would not hold up under intense scrutiny, and I suspect the historical details would not fare much better. So if you have high standards in either of these areas, you may pooh-pooh this selection. But if you’re able to enjoy a story without asking too many questions, this may be right up your alley.

Many of the issues in the story are serious– World War I in the past and a tragic widow in the present, not to mention morally complex themes like wartime infidelity and post-war reparations. Nevertheless, I’m categorizing this as a beach read– somehow it just doesn’t feel that heavy when it’s all said and done, thanks in part to a very satisfying ending. (A bit too neat? Perhaps. But like I said before, don’t ask too many questions.)

Pilgrim’s Inn (Elizabeth Goudge)

In a word: Refreshing

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I didn’t love everything about this book. I’ll start with that, because I want your last thoughts of this book to be the good ones.

  1. Character-driven. This is not, in itself, a bad thing. But it does mean that no matter how much I enjoy a book while I’m reading it, I have to make myself keep picking it up to read all the way to the end–especially if I’m reading a more fast-paced book at the same time.
  2. Mystical qualities of settings and symbols. Again, this is not always a deal-breaker, but in this case it did not enhance the story for me.
  3. Precocious child characters. I’m realizing this is a pretty constant literary pet peeve of mine. And the little five year old girl, Josephine, was nicknamed Jose´, which I just couldn’t get over.

Despite these three tiny complaints (and all matters of preference, not legitimate criticism), I am glad that I read this book, and I’ll probably read the other two in the series. First of all, the writing was delightful, as you already know from the commonplace post. I actually kept a stack of sticky notes in the front cover of the book because I ended up wanting to mark a passage almost every time I picked up the book (and it was a borrowed copy, so I couldn’t make pencil marks or fold down corners!).

Other than the aforementioned precocious twins, the characters were likable and often surprisingly complex. My favorite character was Nadine, because her theme was one that is crucial in real life but that basically never shows up in books or movies: It is possible to talk back to your feelings, do the right thing even if you don’t want to, and still find happily ever after.

It seems like a truth universally acknowledged by every storyteller that once you fall in love with someone (this can happen in mere seconds), then that person has a claim to your heart that can never be revoked or overruled. It doesn’t matter if twenty years go by, if one or both of you marry other people, if you discover that the other person is actually an ogre, or if you have otherwise incompatible values and lifestyles.

It’s very important to my personal happiness that this “truth” is not actually true, and so I found Nadine’s story particularly inspiring. She was in love with someone who was not her husband. In any other story, this would have meant the end of her marriage. But, no! Nadine discovered that feelings can be reasoned with, and she turns her back on the affair, releases her lover to find happiness elsewhere, and ultimately, she finds contentment and peace in duty and faithfulness. Similarly, she thinks of herself as ill-suited to motherhood. And, yes, she does hire some good help. But she also learns to embrace her family and her home, and to find joy in living the life that she has been given.

You are not a slave to your feelings.
You are not limited by your natural temperament and weaknesses.
People can change and grow.
Joy and fulfillment can be found on the other side of duty and commitment.

These are themes worth celebrating!