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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A Kate Morton Roundup

I discovered Kate Morton a year and a half ago. I just finished all five of her novels, and each one has been a compelling read.

Kate Morton Roundup

Here’s what you always get with Kate Morton: A mystery or secret from the past. A split narrative– a person in the present seeks to discover the secret by reading old documents, interviewing people in nursing homes, and searching through old attics and trunks. Meanwhile, the original story unfolds from the perspective of one or more of the involved persons, often set against the backdrop of World War I or II. And–my favorite part– a twist at the end, which has been known to make me talk out loud to my book when I stumble upon it. (Usually, I say “WHAT?” and then I tell the secret to my nearby husband, who will never read the book, and who can never fully appreciate my shock.)

Now that I’ve completed the entire Kate Morton catalog to date, here’s my personal ranking of each title:

#1: The Secret Keeper
I had mixed feelings about this one the whole way through, because I didn’t like some of the characters. But the last fifty pages bumped this one all the way to the top of my list. The ending is perfect, in my opinion– the perfect blend of shocking, redemptive, and full of poetic justice for all.

#2: The Lake House
This one is fun because one of the main characters is a writer, and it’s always interesting to read novels about novelists. Before I read this, I heard someone say that the ending is just a bit too neat, and I wonder if that tainted my perspective? But…I felt like the ending was just a bit too neat. (The final fifty pages were my least favorite part of the book, but I loved getting there–the twists and turns of the unfolding mystery kept me guessing!)

#3: The House at Riverton
This was my first experience with Morton, and I can still quote the line that wrecked me when I read it. I’d tell you, but it’s a spoiler! This plot and conclusion are terrific, but tragic, which is why it’s bumped to third place. I like the redemption that comes at the end of #1 and #2.

#4: The Forgotten Garden
This one featured sad but compelling characters, including another writer, which is always a plus. However, the plot lacked the shocking conclusion. I read the last few pages thinking, “Oh, okay,” instead of “AAAHHHH!” Apparently the Morton Twist is very important to me, because this one tiny flaw knocked an otherwise interesting story all the way to fourth place.

#5: The Distant Hours
I finished this one late last night, at least an hour after I’d intended to be asleep. It has everything I look for in a Kate Morton book, including not one but several surprising twists. But everything was just so SAD, I closed the book feeling totally bummed out. It had several elements that always make me despair: former-glory estates, regretful old people, tragic misunderstandings, untreated/mistreated mental illness, dysfunctional families, traumatized children. I mentioned in another post that I’d been wanting a book that made me feel all the feels, but I take it back. Some feels are better left unfelt.

Light of the World (Elizabeth Alexander)

In a word: Breathtaking

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This book was a jewel. I read the whole thing in a day (which I never do). I cried through almost the whole thing (which I REALLY never do).

(A side note about the crying: I was seriously worried about myself after I kept my composure through the end of Me Before You, a book with the ending that had everyone else I know curled up on the floor in the fetal position. Dry-eyed, I finished the book on the evening of February 14, and announced to Stephen, “It’s official. I don’t have a heart.” He graciously responded, “It’s one of the many things I love about you.” Happy Valentine’s Day, right?

But I feel vindicated. I’ve been wanting to have a visceral reaction to a book ever since I learned from the What Should I Read Next podcast that it’s the thing to do while reading, and now I can join the club.)

So, on to the book. This is the story of a marriage cut short by the sudden death of the husband just after his fiftieth birthday. His death occurs in the first few pages, and the rest of the narrative alternates between the blissful past and the anguished present. (Although time moves forward in the “present,” and you walk with the author through her healing process, ending in a place of strength and hope.)

An Ivy League professor of literature, the author delivered a poem at President Obama’s first inauguration. Here, her poet’s voice is evident in her prose. Each chapter is a snapshot of a moment, and I loved Alexander’s reverent attention to detail. It feels like this book is a response to the inevitable blurring of memories that occurs after a person dies; it’s like each page is crystallizing the everyday details of courtship, marriage, family life, early grief that might otherwise be forgotten.

(I wish now that I had held onto the book long enough to write down a few perfect quotes to illustrate my point here. But I was in such a hurry for Leslie to read it, I passed it along before I made any notes. So…you’ll just have to take my word for it.)

I highly recommend this touching tribute to an extraordinary man and an inspiring love.

When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi)

In a word: Tragic

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Read in one afternoon. Cried lots of tears.

 

As Kalanithi’s wife puts it, “What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.” This is the autobiography of an almost-neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal cancer, the last record of a promising life cut short. Although Paul’s story is certainly tragic, it is also an exploration of life, meaning, value, and humanity. In his college days, Paul sought to find out what gives life meaning. This search took him deep into literature and into biology. This book is graphic–he was studying to be a neurosurgeon, so he was face-to-face with all sorts of suffering and tragedy–but it is also beautifully written and thoughtful. He saved lives and he watched lives drastically change, but he had such conviction, such hope. Paul believed that this line of work was his calling; he wanted to be there to guide and comfort people through the hardest days of their lives. When his own life-changing diagnosis came, he wrestled with his convictions in a new way. He lived bravely and purposefully until the end.

I still have a hard time talking about how this book made me feel. When I closed the cover, I had to sit and think for a while. It is beautiful and thought-provoking, but also so hard to read. I don’t know if it is universally appealing, but it will certainly leave a mark on anyone who reads it. Paul’s story was a reminder that cancer doesn’t discriminate. I hope that if I was ever in a similar situation that I would respond with the grace and strength that he did.

Note: If you don’t cry on the last page and in the epilogue, are you even human?