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Archive for the ‘Christian’ Category

InheritanceofBeauty

Something happened in Levy, South Carolina when Magnolia was seven years old. She is now in her eighties living in a nursing home, possibly with Alzheimer’s.  In her own words she is “trapped somewhere deep behind my eyes, waving… calling… but no one can hear me.” Her husband George is dying, but with his trademark dry humor, he knows that they have enjoyed a good life and he still adores his beautiful wife “even though [we're] on the first floor where dementia lives, even though we are older than dirt, she is lovely and sweet and she is my bride.” But they are both learning that the past is never lost when people who lived through it are still alive.

When a life-size photograph of Magnolia and Joe, a stranger from their past, arrive at the home on the same day, we start to learn of a tangled web of lives, in the present and in the distant past. Each character, from Annie, their kind, but disappointed caretaker, to Ash, Magnolia’s long lost brother, tells his or her own story, some in the first person, some in the third person. Most of the characters have long buried secrets to hide and may not even admit the truth to themselves, so beware: everyone may not be a reliable narrator.

The Inheritance of Beauty can be read on several different levels. First it is a straightforward novel, with a leisurely revelation of the 70-year-old mystery, while it describes the sadness of families split by terrible circumstances who never get back together because no one wants to be the first to make contact. The characters are well-drawn, memorable and mostly thoroughly likable. It can be enjoyed as a touching love story of Magnolia and George’s relationship that lasted from childhood into old age. It also has touches of magic realism that are harder to spot: when my book club discussed it, only one of us noticed that a journey to a pond and a wetting symbolized a character’s baptism and rebirth.

The Inheritance of Beauty will appeal to lovers of Southern fiction, particularly for caretaker Annie’s lovely speech patterns. It is a good book for readers of Still Alice by Lisa Genova, which also deals with Alzheimer’s Disease, but on more practical everyday level.

Check the WRL catalog for The Inheritance of Beauty.

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CallTheMidwifeCall the Midwife is a fascinating mix of social history and medical memoir, as well as a vivid portrait of a time and place, but that description (glowing as it is) hardly does justice to a book that made me laugh out loud one minute and sob in sorrow the next, and even look forward to my commute so I could enter the book’s world and hear what happened next.

Jennifer Worth (known as Jenny) was a young nurse in the 1950s and she became a midwife with a order of nuns in the slums of the East End of London. Her memoir was published in 2002 so, from the distance of five decades she is in a good position to talk about how medicine and the world have changed. Some of the changes are bad, like the breakdown of families that she has seen among poor people in London, but so many things changed for the better, like medical knowledge and standard of living (plumbing for one thing!). When she started as a midwife most births were at home, attended only by a midwife and as a 23-year-old nurse who was often the only professional present. This was a great step up from no antenatal or birth care, which she says was common prior to 1950 for the poor people of London.  If you are squeamish, this may not be the book for you: many births are described in detail. A glossary of medical terms is included at the end to help the uninitiated.

The humor throughout comes from the hijinks of young nurses and foibles of the nuns, several of whom had nursed through World War I. Worth expresses deep sorrow at the devastating conditions of the workhouse or the fourteen-year-old Irish runaway who is manipulated into working as a prostitute. Jennifer Worth is a memoirist who doesn’t put herself at the center of her story, but tells the stories of others who she came to as an outsider: a non-Catholic living with nuns and a middle-class woman among the Cockneys. She always strives to understand their lives on their terms, rather than imposing her views and even creates a 14-page appendix “On the difficulties of writing the Cockney dialect.” Her talent is capturing the diverse characters on the page, and making the reader care about them.

This book should appeal to watchers of Downton Abbey for the historical domestic British connection. For those like to hear about the lives of real and everyday people it will grab readers of Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell; Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming; or a new book, Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s Kitchen Maid, by Mollie Moran. I also recommend it for anyone who is interested in memoir, medical history, women’s lives or social problems.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife on CD read wonderfully by Nicola Barber.

I haven’t had a chance to view the BBC series adapted from the book, but it has great reviews, so it is on my list. Check the WRL catalog for the BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife.

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WorldsStrongestLibrarianThis sometimes ludicrous, but always poignant memoir is in part a love poem to public libraries and in part a moving account of living with Tourette’s Syndrome. Josh Hanagarne is a librarian in Salt Lake City Public Library who starts his book by describing  his workplace as “a giant pair of glass underpants” and pointing out that in the collection of a public library “there’s something to offend everyone.” He keeps up the literary theme with chapter headings labelled with Dewey Decimal Numbers and a sprinkling of the names of books to make his points.

At the same time that is is a celebration of libraries, Hanagarne’s book is also the story of a life lived with the involuntary tics, movements and vocalizations of Tourette’s Syndrome. Hanagarne’s tics started when he was a small boy and made a misery of his teenage years as he dealt with a a difficult and–above all–visible disease. His early adulthood was a story of  never being able to settle as he went in and out of jobs and school programs. As the subtitle points out this is also the story of the Power of Family and Josh’s family–parents, siblings, and wife–always supported him through Tourette’s Syndrome, schooling, life, struggles with infertility, and the various types of physical training which he attempted in order to control his tics. He is a large man who works his way up to a 590-pound dead lift (I am not sure what that is, but it sounds incredibly impressive), but from reading his memoir his true strength isn’t physical, rather it is his strength of character and strength as a human being that shines through.

Try The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family if you like memoirs about overcoming adversity. Other books in our library about living with Tourette’s Syndrome include: Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had, by Brad Cohen with Lisa Wysocky or Against Medical Advice: a True Story, by James Patterson and Hal Friedman.

Don’t assume this is  a dark book, because Hanagarne is able to bring humor even to the description of library patrons throwing up in trash cans or his classmates jeering at him for his Tourette’s tics. And best of all for a librarian is the paean to public libraries: “I had faith in the library long before he walked in and told me what I already knew: A library is a miracle.”

Check the WRL catalog for The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.

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ChristmasMouse1“The kettle began to sing, promising comfort.”

Sometimes only cosy* will do. On occasion I feel like action and excitement from my literature, and I am willing to put up with violence and despair to get it, but sometimes life requires a more moderate gait. When you need a gentle tome, then Miss Read will deliver.

I am new to Miss Read, despite her first book being published in 1955. I was creating a “Curl Up With a Cozy Tale” display at the library and felt drawn to The Christmas Mouse. Being slightly obsessive, I have branched out into her other titles in myriad formats; as ebooks and as audiobooks on CD. Her basic postulation seems to be that nothing in life is so bad that the sadness can’t be lessened by time, a cup of tea and the warmth of family and friends, with special emphasis on the cups of tea.

For my commute, I grabbed the first CD that was checked in and plunged into the middle of her Thrush Green series. I discovered that there are a lot of characters, like when my Great Aunty Judith tells me long and involved stories about the internal workings and external marriage problems of distant cousins, and I am expected to keep them all straight. After negotiating a tricky intersection I’d hear something such as, “Betty, Maggie and Dotty all sat down at Betty’s scrubbed kitchen table for a nice cup of tea. Outside the birds hopped among the spring flowers and chirped cheerfully. ‘Tell me all about it,’ said Betty.” I would suddenly realize that I had no idea of the identities of Betty, Maggie and Dotty, but for the enjoyment of the story it doesn’t matter because it is like meeting real people; I am introduced to them as they are now, and then slowly learn about their pasts and how they interconnect to other people we know in common.

The Christmas Mouse tells the story of Mrs. Berry who lives with her widowed daughter and two small grandchildren. Despite the tragedy of the daughter’s young widowhood, the book gently and with quiet wit paints a portrait of a close and stable family. On Christmas Eve, Mrs. Berry must face her fears–of mice and other stray creatures. The line drawings by J.S. Goodall add to the warmth. The little boy in the frontispiece exudes contentment, sitting in an overlarge armchair, wrapped up in a voluminous coat and slippers, and eating a warm bowl of bread and milk.

Try The Christmas Mouse if you are in the mood for cosy. Try it if you are tired of the commercial fuss in the lead up to Christmas, as The Christmas Mouse’s characters don’t have much material stuff, but still make Christmas a warm, loving family affair. And just in case you think this sort of book isn’t intellectually stimulating, I learned a new word, which doesn’t happen frequently in my fiction endeavors: wayzgoose, which is a printers’ outing. Literary quotes at the beginning of each chapter, from Robert Burns to William Wordsworth add to the appeal. 

* And this is definitely cosy and not cozy because this is a Very British Book.

Check the WRL catalog for The Christmas Mouse.

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I was listening to Unbroken : a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption in my car for my book club, and like many people I was shocked and horrified on many occasions.  I knew I needed to listen to The Secret Garden next to regain my equilibrium, even though it is a book that I have read at least six times.  I listened to the audiobook on CD.  The reader, Flo Gibson, wasn’t who I would have picked as she has an American accent and a kind of scratchy voice but I soon settled into the old story like sliding down into a warm bubble bath.  I had previously come to the conclusion that many of the children’s books that I enjoy reading over and over are “cozy,” so I was surprised to discover when I started working in this library that “cozy mystery” is an official designation.  It makes sense, as sometimes we all need a cozy and comforting read.

In The Secret Garden Mary Lennox is a neglected and spoiled child  who has spent her entire ten years being over-indulged by Indian servants.  After her parents die in an epidemic she is sent to another dysfunctional household, the home of her uncle at Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire Moors.  There she meets the sturdy Martha and Dickon, representatives of a family of fourteen.  She makes friends with an elderly and crabby gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, through her interest in a friendly robin.  There are also also mysterious noises and howlings down the corridors of the huge house.  And of course, she discovers a hidden and secret garden.

In this story, the Yorkshire Moors themselves, as well as the Secret Garden, are characters just as much as the people.  As the season changes from winter to spring and on into summer, Mary changes, the garden and the Moors change, and so too does everyone at Misselthwaite Manor.

This book was first published in 1911 and what I find intriguing 100 years later is the psychology of Mary and other characters.  Despite Dickon and Martha’s material poverty they are well loved and looked after and it shows in their steady, kind ways.  Mary, on the other hand, starts the book emotionally impoverished but gains a purpose and learns to love and live under the influence of attention.  The book is also full of gentle humor, especially in the character of Ben Weatherstaff.

One aspect of The Secret Garden that I missed as a child and can see as an adult is the Christian symbolism, for example, when they recite the Doxology while sitting in a circle with a fox and a lamb.  Other aspects are less overtly Christian as when  the children call the life force that helps them to heal “Magic.”  The Magic makes the Moors and garden change for spring, and when the children and other characters allow it, the Magic also changes them. Towards the end one previously stunted, but blossoming character announces,  “Being alive is the Magic!”

When I was talking about cozy children’s books, a colleague at the library recommended an out-of-print book, The Golden Name Day by Jennie D. Lindquist.  It captures the joy of being a child, that many adults are yearning to regain.  “Oh, anything can happen in this world, just anything. That’s why life is so exciting,” says Nancy towards the end of that book.  Other out-of-print (and sometimes obscure) books in this category that I love include: World’s End series by Monica Dickens, Green Smoke by Rosemary Manning, The Blow and Grow Year by Margaret Potter and Longtime Passing by Hesba Brinsmead.

For those who have read The Secret Garden before, perhaps years ago as a child, I highly recommend a second look through the eyes of an adult.  For those who have never tried it, it is a deeply hopeful story about redemption through the natural world and redemption through love.

Check the WRL catalog for The Secret Garden in book form.

Check the WRL catalog for The Secret Garden on audiobook CD.

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SilverThe book from my childhood that I would most like to see reprinted is The Golden Name Day, published in 1955 by Jennie Lindquist. Lindquist was a librarian and an editor of Horn Book, and she wrote this charming, quintessential little girl’s book by drawing on stories from her Swedish immigrant parents. Nine-year-old Nancy, whose mother is in hospital, spends a summer in the country with the Bensons, Swedish immigrants to New England. Each of the girls she befriends–Sigrid, Elsa, and Helga–celebrate not only a birthday but a “name day” as laid out in a calendar of names and dates in the Swedish Almanac. But as much as the little girls enjoy these special celebrations, there’s no “Nancy” in the almanac. Threaded through their season of picnics, animals, flower crowns, and May baskets is the story of how Nancy’s friends provide her with a name day of her own.

Sadly, our library doesn’t own The Golden Name Day, but we do own its sequel, which is even more fitting for this time of year, as it takes Nancy and her friends through the autumn, Advent, and the “Long Swedish Christmas.” In The Little Silver House, an abandoned, boarded-up house captures the girls’ imaginations, especially when the portrait of an old-fashioned ten-year-old girl is discovered in its attic. With this mystery in the background, it’s the celebrations of occasions great and small that give the book its charm. Gift-giving is the theme of the season, and the girls’ “random acts of kindness” include planting bulbs along the roadside for “traveler’s joy” and giving up some of their most treasured possessions for a special care package. Lonely newcomer Ben and others are brought into the circle of the Bensons’ warm hospitality and good food. Oh, how I wanted to be Swedish! My generic American family seemed so dull by comparison—no special traditions and not a chance that my mother was going to let me put lighted candles in a wreath on my head for St. Lucia’s day. The holidays continue with hand-wrapped karameller given to visitors, the Long Christmas Dance, Dipping Day, and “Second Christmas,” which made me wonder whether the Swedes are related at all to the hobbits.

Finding a book like this on the library shelves is as close as we come to time travel. Nancy’s yellow rose wallpaper! The horses, Whoa-Emma and Karl the Twelfth! For a nanosecond, I was nine years old again. Illustrated with the feathery pencil drawings of Garth Williams, so familiar from his work on the Little House series, these warm-hearted books will appeal to the same girls who enjoyed the Christmases of Laura and Mary Ingalls, whether those girls are nine years old or, ahem, somewhat older.

God Jul.

Check the WRL catalog for The Little Silver House.

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I love my job and one great aspect is exposure to all sorts of literature and encouragement to read things I don’t normally read. Romance is a genre I haven’t tried since I read Sloppy Sloshers  (as my Grandmother called her Regency Romances from authors like Georgette Heyer) as a teenager. I selected The Shunning by the complex method of walking along the Books on CD shelf and looking on the spine for a little red heart indicating romance.

Katie Lapp is 22 years old, which is old to be unmarried in her small Amish community. She is soon to be married to widower Bishop John, who has five small children from his first wife. Things already sound challenging, but Katie looks forward to becoming stepmother to five sweet children. What makes things difficult is that Katie has always been a rebel by Amish standards. She likes to sing songs that aren’t in the official Hymn book and has even hidden a forbidden guitar that belonged to her first love Daniel, who drowned on his nineteenth birthday. A shocking event on her wedding days leads Katie to be shunned by the Amish Community. No one is allowed to communicate with her in any way or they risk being shunned as well. Some of the saddest scenes are when Katie sits down to eat her dinner in her family kitchen, but at a separate table. Even her sweet and previously loving mother won’t talk to her.

For the Amish the event of Shunning is meant to be so horrible that the shunned person will fall back into line and do what the community requests. Katie finds the experience miserable but will she confess and repent? A revealed family secret, plus a growing feeling that she might not belong with the Amish leads Katie to consider the huge and desperate step of leaving the community.

The mystery in The Shunning was a bit predictable since I guessed two important secrets early in the book. The story moves at a moderate pace, which gives plenty of time to really care about the characters and their fates. Every character is nuanced. Bishop John is physically attracted to Katie, which is slightly creepy given their difference in age, but he is shown as a kind man who loves his children and will be a kind and loyal husband. Even the children are fully drawn characters. Although I selected The Shunning by the Romance sticker, I felt that the romantic elements aren’t extremely significant. The Amish are portrayed sympathetically and presumably realistically as the author Beverly Lewis grew up near Amish communities in Pennsylvania. I found the closeness of the families appealing, but was shocked by the harshness of their shunning.

The book was made into a movie in 2011. Like many adaptations, it misses the subtlety and depth of the book, but it was great to see what the Amish houses and community looked like – not quite what I pictured.  It has two sequels, The Confession and The Reckoning  which are currently on my bedside table waiting to tell me what happens to Katie and her family.

I recommend The Shunning if you are in the mood for a slower read with a glimpse into a contemporary and nearby, but exotic lifestyle. Try reading it  on a hot day when you need cooling off, as most the action occurs in a chilly Pennsylvania winter.

Check the WRL catalog for The Shunning.

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