S: Silas Marner (A-Z Blogging Challenge)

Today is day 19 of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.  The challenge began with A on April 1 and continues the alphabet throughout the
month, except on Sundays. My theme for the month will be this blog’s tagline: life, books, and all things bookish, so you can expect a little bit of this ‘n that. I’m still reading, though, and I’ll add reviews whenever possible. Thirty days of blogging is a huge commitment for me, but I’m looking forward to meeting and greeting new blog friends.
Today’s words: Silas Marner

I love George Eliot. I love her life story. She was a free thinker, in and out of the Church until she settled on her own understanding of spirituality. She was a woman of independent means–maybe not by choice, but by her wit and intelligence. She loved openly and passionately, even when her choices meant she was rejected from polite society. She was anything but attractive–but possessed great beauty.

George EliotI love the seemingly quaint moral tales she writes about life in the English countryside in the 19th century, all of which reveal some sort of illicit love and characters who lived on the margins of society–and about how they created (or tried to, anyway) the life they longed for. Adam Bede with Heddy’s forbidden love, unwanted pregnancy, and near-death; Mill on the Floss with Maggie’s love for the hunchback Phillip and that last dying embrace; Middlemarch with Dorothea’s ill-fated marriage and unrequited love.

And of course, Silas Marner, that near-sighted, hunched “old man” (who was actually, if you count the years, only 40-something!) who was brought into the warm embrace of village life when a baby, quite literally, shows up on his doorstep. A cast of characters who are as dear to me as the people who have passed in and out of my own life. Those nasty, haughty Cass boys, the ones you love to hate–Godfrey, who though he appears all heart in his life with Nancy, lived a lie; Eppie, the golden child I always picture as Shirley Temple. And Dolly Winthrup. Gosh, I love that woman and her malapropisms.

It’s a novel about betrayal and the truest of loves. It’s about burying oneself in work or working as an outpouring of love. It’s shutting down and opening up, turning within or reaching out. It’s about connection to each other.

And it all turns around that bent little man with bleary eyes who shields his heart so it can never be broken again–Silas Marner.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither (review)

Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Edelweiss)
Sara Baume
Houghton Mifflin
release date: March  8, 2016

I realise that you were not born with a predetermined capacity for wonder, as I’d believed. I realise that you fed it up yourself from tiny pieces of the world. I realise it’s up to me to follow your example and nurture my own wonder, morsel by morsel by morsel.

There are not many books that leave me sobbing great heaves, my heart in my throat. Not many books that touch some deep darkness that not even I know exists. There are not many books that speak of the sweet tenderness that connects us to all creatures great and small.

But Irish writer Sara Baume’s first novel Spill into Falter Wither was just such a book.

spill simmer falter wither Once upon a time there was Robin and Ruby and Ray. But Ray doesn’t remember that time and since then has suffered neglect and despair. Ray never attended school. He never played with other children. His world was the little salmon-colored house in the village and the view he had from upstairs was his only window on the larger world. His father came and went (but mostly went), and Ray grew into some sort of understanding of his difference.

Ray had his books. The wide sweep of the ocean outside of Tawny Bay. Weekly visits to the post-office and grocery. Sometimes church.

Long years passed. Fifty-seven, to be exact. And a year after his father died, Ray brings home One Eye, a terrier mix from a sad excuse of an animal shelter. Like Ray, One Eye is damaged goods. Like Ray, One Eye is skittish, afraid even of tinfoil crinkling. Ray tries to win him over with sardines and chocolate buttons; he cobbles together a dog bed from a child’s easy chair so they can watch out the window together.

And so One Eye and Ray set out to rescue each other.   But can they? Is it possible to rescue another from sorrow and misery that has cut to their very center, leaving their spirit nicked and torn? Is it possible to make whole a heart that never had a chance to grow in the first place?

As if the story itself isn’t enough, Baume’s writing is evocative, her voice resonant. At times the pages read like poetry and it is a powerful and wonderful gift to come across a novel that allowed me to “nurture my own wonder, morsel by morsel by morsel.”


An itty bitty Flavia & an itty bitty review

I remember the months dragging on while I waited for another adventure with Fr. Tim from Jan Karon’s Mitford series, or, drumming my fingers with the rest of the world for another Harry Potter caper. My love for little Flavia De luce is just as abiding and it can be maddening knowing the last volume of the series, Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust,  was published only nine months ago, so the next Flavia romp is still months away.

curious copperBut O Happy Day! Bradley apparently released a short story just before the publication of Chimney Sweepers, a short story titled “The Curious Case Of the Copper Corpse”. How did I miss this one?! Once again, Amazon’s magical “We recommend” flashed it on my Daily Deals and lured me to send it to my Kindle–and quick as you can say “copper corpse”, I was off to Bishop’s Lacey riding alongside Flavia and her faithful Gladys.

In this story, Flavia is twelve and back at Buckshaw. A letter slipped under her door asks for her immediate help with a (you guessed it!) corpse, murdered and covered, inexplicably, in a thin film of copper. At Greyminster, the boys’ school just down the way. The student who sent the note (one Haxton or Plaxton–the scrawl was difficult to decipher) is frantic, as anyone would be if they found a dead body in the bathtub down the hall. Flavia sniffs around, questions a few boys, sits demurly under a tree posing as a visiting sister, and–no surprise here!– solves the mystery 1-2-3.

Available only as an e-book, Curious Case is short. And fairly predictable. But in some ways that just why we read series, right? So if you just want to check in on Flavia to see how she’s doing, send it to your Kindle today.

The Lady In the Van (review)

The Lady in the Van
Alan Bennett

After I read Alan Bennett’s delightful The Uncommon Reader (review link here) I do what all readers do, I assume—I ran to get my hands on another of the author’s works. The library had a copy of a two-fer: The Clothes They Stood Up In (another novella) and The Lady In The Van (a non-fiction narrative); both pieces center around how the stuff in our lives can entrap us. The novella is about a couple who returns from a night out to find their flat bare, stripped of everything right down to the toilet paper and curtain rings. Now the Ransomes are a proper English couple, and LadyVanmuch of their life is spent keeping up appearances—but Mrs. Ransome finds that in shedding her possessions (albeit unwillingly), she gains a new sense of freedom and independence.

The book’s companion piece is the non-fiction The Lady in the Van.  Miss Mary Shepherd is a homeless (sort-of) elderly woman forced to move the van-which-was-her-home from spot-to-spot only to park at last on the writer’s street. Concerned for her safety, Bennett invites her to park in his yard—presumably for a short time. But days became weeks became months and we watch the relationship between the writer and Miss Shepherd develop with a kind of tumultous tenderness that changed them both. This is a story about mental illness and community and one would assume the story’s focus would be the Crazy Lady. And to some extent it is, of course. But it’s also a story (and I would contend it’s the real story here) about how reaching out to others often transforms us more than it does those we “help”.

The Lady in the Van was a 1999 theatrical production in London and is now a film to be released sometime this year  starring the inimitable Maggie Smith, who also starred in the original play. I had no idea this was in the making until my husband shared a film trailer he thought I’d like. “Of course I like it,” I said after watching, “ Considering I read the book several years ago.”

There’s little of Maggie Smith’s work that I haven’t adored and from what I can see in the trailer, she’s made for The Lady in the Van. I think you might agree.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey (review)

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey (Edelweiss DRC)
Rachel Joyce
Random House

We expect our happiness to come with a sign and bells but it doesn’t.

When The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was published in 2012, the novel was short listed for the Booker Prize and won UK National Book Award for New Writer of the Year. And it was that good. Harold Frye, a kind of work-a-day Everyman, goes out one day to post a letter to an old friend who has written to say she’s dying and finds himself walking from one mail box to another until he’s out of the city and into the countryside. A couple miles out, Harold decides he’ll just keep on keepin’ on and deliver the letter himself. He calls the hospice where friend Queenie now lives and asks the nurse to give her a message: “Wait for me.”

Along his nearly 700 mile pilgrimage, Harold reflects on his marriage, his failure as a father, his lonely childhood, and his pedestrian work life (pun intended). Harold dutifully calls his wife Maureen each day and buys souvenir trinkets along the way for both her and Queenie. Writer Joyce also gives the reader Maureen’s point of view and we can begin to unravel the pain and hurt that has scarred this couple for the past two decades. After some little publicity, Harold is joined along the way by a rag tag bunch of followers who co-opt his mission, but he ends his journey as he began: alone. His goodbye to Queenie isn’t what he (or, probably most readers) quite expected.

In her second novel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennesey, Joyce tells the story from Queenie’s end. And I must say, I think it’s the better novel.

Love Song of Miss Queenie HennessyQueenie Hennessey, thirty-something and pregnant, moves to Kingsbridge to start anew after a love affair gone wrong. Oxford educated, she’s floated through life, rudderless. Moored by the pregnancy she applies for a job as an accountant and refuses to budge from the office of the misogynistic factory boss who won’t interview a woman for the position. Her tenacity pays off and Queenie begins work, almost just as her pregnancy ends in miscarriage. But in the pain of losing her baby, she’s touched by a stranger–one Harold Fry, a diffident man, rather timid, and very tall. Because she needs to visit the brewery’s accounts scattered around the county and because she is a woman, the brewery boss Mr. Napier delegates Harold to drive Miss Hennesey to her appointments.

And so begins their ten year friendship. Queenie sees it at her job to make the uncomfortable Mr. Frye relax a bit, and he, in turn, treats her with gentlemanly respect and kindness. Queenie finds herself in love, but never speaks of her feelings. After several years, Queenie meets a belligerent (and probably drunk) young man on the street, immediately recognizing him as Harold’s son David. The two begin a secret friendship of sorts, neither mentioning Harold.

As often happens when secrets are involved, tragedy strikes. Queenie sets out again to begin anew, settling far away in a beach cottage in Northumberland where she creates fantastical natural sculptures in her beach garden—figures of driftwood, draped with seaweed and strung with shells. Queenie finds whatever peace she can until cancer strikes, disfiguring her and robbing her of speech.

In hospice, Queenie is cared for by tender and rather eccentric nuns: Sister  Lucy, Sister Philimena, and Sister Mary Inconnu. When news of Harold’s pilgrimage reaches the residents, they follow his trek via the post cards he sends Queenie and whatever news they can find in the newpaper or on television. To help Queenie come to terms with her life and loss, a Sister Mary Inconnu helps her write another letter to Harold Fry, but not “the sort of message he might expect from a gift card. Tell him the truth, the whole truth. Tell him how it really was.”

And so she does. Queenie’s story is, I think, more honest than Harold’s in Pilgrimage. Her voice is tender and raw and so much poetry: “Now that I have shaped the songs in my head and placed them on the page, now that my pencil has turned them into lines and tails and curls, I can let them go. My head is silent. The sorrow has not gone but it no longer hurts.”

Oddly (or maybe not) I read the two novels out of sequence. I got Love Song as an advance reader’s copy and liked it so much I wanted to hear Harold’s story, too. Both books would make a lovely gift pair and both stories are a testament to the extraordinary grace of ordinary lives–but it is Queenie’s words that are  with me still.