I read a lot this month. I’m not sure how, because it doesn’t seem like I spent an abundance of time reading, but apparently I did- more than any other month this year.
But before I get to the books I must announce that Tara is the winner of the contest to guess how many unread books I have on the Haunted Kindle. I won’t tell you how many I have, but I will say that she came the closest. So I will be sending you a fun little prize, Tara, along with a present for Mads from the girls. 🙂
Now, onto the books.
Muffins and Miracles: Church Service in the Real World by Linda Hoffman Kimball is an awesome book. The Church of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as Mormons), the church to which I belong, has no paid ministry. Everybody volunteers their time and efforts. This book is a collection of true stories about people’s experiences serving others in the church. Most of the experiences are good, some are kind of awful but the person learned something from it, all of them are uplifting. Some passages I liked:
The real test of service comes from maintaining our Christlike charity even when we disagree with the “how, where or when” of charity.
Years ago I made a decision to “watch the edges”, making a conscious effort to reach out to those who are often easy to overlook.
In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woodsby Matt Bell is one of the most stunning books I read all year. I have so much to say about it, and I don’t know how to say any of it. The simple version of the premise is that a husband and wife move to a house between the lake and the woods, and try to conceive a child, and the wife is unable to maintain a pregnancy. What happens after that is hard to describe. A lot of reviews I’ve read of the book interpret most of the action of the book as actually happening- I tend to read it differently. The story is told from the husband’s point of view, in his voice, and I read everything that happened as going back and forth between reality and metaphor, with most of it describing what is happening to him psychologically. I’ve never read a book about the desire for/loss of/grieving for a child from the point of view of a man, and this whole book is poetic and primal and psychological and devastating. It deals with the guilt we carry, the wishes that turn to rot as we hold onto them at the expense of newer opportunities; the extents we are willing, or not willing, to go for those we love. Some passages to give you a feel for it:
Always I had planned to be the maker of things, a steward of artifice, and yet here she was, able to call from within what I had to cull from without.
Of all the many elements we had claimed and named, I had not given a number to family, had not even counted it among them, and this omission had not gone unnoticed by the fingerling, that relentless cataloguer of all my faults: Now it was family that would be missing, that in that moment was already gone, as my wife stood to carry the aggrieved foundling away.
A Question of Death by Kerry Greenwood. I don’t have an link for this one, because it’s only showing up as super expensive on Amazon- perhaps it’s out of print. This is a reread for me, I watched all of the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries (which I highly recommend, they’re on Netflix), and was in the mood to read some Phryne. Phryne is a scandalizing detective in 1920’s Melbourne, Australia. This book is a collection of short stories, and it’s fun. It’s also got beautiful illustrations and drink recipes that go along with the stories.
I started reading The Cats of Tanglewood Forest by Charles de Lint to the girls, and then stopped part way through and finished reading it myself. I’ll finish it with them later. It’s an absolutely beautiful story, just a little intense for small ones, for reasons I will shortly explain. The premise of the story is that a young girl lives near a forest and pretty much has her run of it. She is kind to the animals she sees, and is always on the lookout for magic, but never finds any. One day she falls asleep under a tree and is bitten by a snake. The cats of the forest find her dying, and decide to save her, so they turn her into a kitten ( because the kitten’s body wouldn’t be dying). When she wakes up, she decides that she doesn’t want to be a kitten, and goes off to find someone who can reverse the magic. But reversing the magic has unforseen tragic consequences, and luckily I read ahead before we got to that part, and we stopped just as she got happily turned back into a kitten. But as I said, it’s a gorgeous story. Everything works out beautifully in the end, but not before lovely insights about choices and consequences and love and grief. I highly recommend it to adults, and to any kids old enough to deal decently well with death and grief.
Murder on a Midsummer Nightby Kerry Greenwood is another Phryne Fisher book, and one that I’d read before, though I didn’t remember that until the end when the solution to things started seeming very familiar. I recommend all of this series, including:
Unnatural Habits by Kerry Greenwood. This is the most recent of the books, #19, I believe, and it’s excellent.
Six Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente shows up on Amazon as being only available for pre-order, but somehow I ordered it last month when another listing for it showed up. So if you’re interested in it, keep an eye out for other listings. And you should be interested. Catherynne Valente is one of my favorite authors, and in this book she puts her vast knowledge and insight into fairy tales to great use. This is the story of Snow White- set in the days of “cowboys and indians”, when a rich man takes (literally) a beautiful Native American woman as his bride. She bears him a daughter before she dies, and when he remarries, his new wife sarcastically renames the girl Snow White, for everything she will never be. While the story rides on the framework of the original fairy tale, it is oh so awesomely different, but in an educated way. A lot of people who update fairy tales add things in for the sake of it, but every element in this book serves the purpose of the fairy tale. Every fairy tale imparts truth, a lesson- sometimes many lessons. And so does this one. It really is exceptionally good.
The terrible covetous heart of Mr. H immediately conceived a starvation for the girl not lesser in might than his thirst for sapphires or gold.
You can make a little girl into anything if you say the right words. Take her apart until all that’s left is her red, red heart thumping against the world. Stitch her up again real good. Now, maybe, you get a woman. If you’re lucky. If that’s what you were after. Just as easy to end up with a blackbird or a circus bear or a coyote. Or a parrot, just saying what’s said to you, doing what’s done to you, copying until it comes so natural that even when you’re all alone you keep on saying hello pretty bird at the dark.
A while back, I thought about writing a novel called “Molly Ringwald Lied”, about the false ideas we all got from John Hughes movies. Like how Molly ends up with the rich guy at the end instead of Ducky, when we all know that relationship was never going to survive the walks down the school halls between class. Then it turned out that Daniel Handler already wrote Why We Broke Up.
Min, short for Minerva, is breaking up with Ed Slaterton, and so she writes him a letter that accompanies a box of keepsakes from their relationship. And as we read the letter we discover that while there is one big reason why they broke up, there are so many more little reasons. If there is one thing that Daniel Handler is good at (and he is good at a lot of things), it’s writing smart teenage girls. I don’t know how he comes by this skill, but in both The Basic Eight and this book, his main characters are very intelligent young women with a distinct sense of self, that react realistically (mostly, in the case of the Basic Eight) to the vagaries of high school life. Min is an “arty” kid, while Ed is on the basketball team. They shouldn’t be together, but when they run into each other at Min’s best friend’s “Bitter 16” party, he asks her out. And as she comes to realize that this person who is so different from her friends is a person, not just Ed Slaterton basketball player, she falls in love with him in the way that only someone experiencing that realization for the first time can. And they try to make a relationship work when they share none of the same friends or same school habits or even same interests, outside of liking each other. They try, they really do.
I’d ruin any day, all my days, for those long nights with you, and I did. But that’s why right there it was doomed. We couldn’t only have the magic nights buzzing through the wires. We had to have the days too, the bright impatient days spoiling everything with their unavoidable schedules, their mandatory times that don’t overlap, their loyal friends who don’t get along, the unforgiven travesties torn from the wall no matter what promises are uttered past midnight, and that’s why we broke up.
You know I want to be a director, but you could never truly see the movies in my head and that, Ed, is why we broke up.
The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron is horror in a Lovecraftian vein- the “there is darkness and unspeakable evil lurking everywhere” kind. The stories are very well written, and enjoyable in their dark way. It’s a collection that’s probably best read over time, as by the end I was a bit wiped out by all the evil.
The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes: Nine Adventures from the Lost Years by Ted Riccardi is a collection of stories about Sherlock Holmes in the East, in the time after Reichenbach Falls when most of the world thought he was dead. These are less mysteries and more adventures, but they’re a fun read.
I’m almost positive that I’ve read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams before; in all probability I listened to it in the car on the way to Utah on a family vacation when I was younger. But I remembered nothing about it as I read, which was great because it was all brand new. (The parts that I remember about Dirk are, I’m assuming, in Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul.) Anyway, Dirk Gently is a possibly psychic (but he’ll deny it), possibly devious (he’d deny that too) private detective who ends up getting involved when his old college friend is implicated in a murder investigation. Except he’s not trying to figure out who killed his friend’s boss, he’s trying to solve the question of why his friend did something impulsive and out of character (sneaking into his girlfriend’s apartment to steal the answering machine tape that he left a message on). Nothing is quite what it seems, and it’s pure crazy, wacky, awesome Douglas Adams goodness.
I love the movie Moonrise Kingdom, so when I saw that the screenplay was available on kindle I snapped it up. I haven’t seen the movie recently enough to notice any differences, but the screenplay is a joy. Wes Anderson is just such a master at capturing subtleties that just break your heart. My two favorite moments:
MRS. BISHOP: I’m sorry, Walt. MR. BISHOP: It’s not your fault. Which injuries are you apologizing for? Specifically. MRS. BISHOP: Specifically? Whichever ones still hurt.
MRS. BISHOP: We’re all they’ve got, Walt. (Mr. Bishop takes a deep breath. He says finally, with a dawning realization) MR BISHOP: It’s not enough.
Kate Delany’s The Woodcutter was one of my absolute favorite books this year. So I was delighted to find out that she had other books too. A Spirited Manor and Spirit of Denial are the first two books in what I hope will be a continuing series. Clara O’Hare is the main character, a young widow who is invited to a seance at a remote country house and of course, things go horribly awry (as these things do). She and a professional medium (who is, of course, handsome and single) are thrust into the middle of an ancient mystery, and as things progress, it’s discovered that while he is not a real medium, Clara might just be. The second book picks up where the first leaves off, with the mystery continuing as Clara and Wesley try to stop curses and horrors from continuing. Both books are highly entertaining, and while the romance angle moved a bit quickly (I just met you! I love you!) it wasn’t irritating. And there were some lovely twists and surprises that I didn’t see coming at all.
The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life by Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens is marvelous. It clearly presents answers based in LDS doctrine about why we suffer in this life, why bad things happen to good people, who God is in relation to us, and why he doesn’t just step in and stop bad things from happening. The crux of it is that we are His children, and that we came to this Earth to grow- and growing only comes from experience. The point of this life is not to get through with no pain and return to God, it’s to become closer to and more like God through our experiences (and return to God). The title of the book refers to the perfect compassion God has, which causes Him to weep at our sin- not because of anger at our disobedience, but in sorrow because of our suffering. It’s really an excellent book, and I highly recommend it. (The one thing that bugged me about it is a lack of numbered end notes. There are notes at the end, but they are not numbered in the text.)
The call to faith, in this light, is not some test of a coy god, waiting to see if we “get it right”. It is the only summons, issued under the only conditions, which can allow us to fully reveal who we are, what we most love, and what we most devoutly desire. Without constraint, without any form of mental compulsion, the act of belief becomes the freest possible projection of what resides in our hearts.
It is not their wickedness, but their misery, not their disobedience, but their suffering, that elicits the God of Heaven’s tears. Not until Gethsemane and Golgotha does the scriptural record reveal so unflinchingly the costly investment of God’s love in His people, the price at which He placed His heart upon them. There could be nothing in this universe, or in any universe, more perfectly good, absolutely beautiful, worthy of adoration, and deserving of emulation, than this God of love and kindness and vulnerability.
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan is utterly delightful. It’s the “memoir” of a Victorian lady who fell in love with dragons as a child, and grew up to study them as an adult. Dragons are real in this book, but that’s really the only fanciful element. The rest of Victorian society is pretty accurate (at least what I know of it) and the limitations that would have existed for young women exist in this book. But Lady Trent marries advantageously and ends up with her husband on a trip to study dragons. The trip has its dramas, and while the story is delightful, it also gives interesting insight into how such research studies might have impacted the local people.
Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman is short and wonderful. I read it to see if it was appropriate to read to the girls for our viking section in history, and luckily, it is. Odd is a young boy without a father and with a crippled leg. When he follows a fox and saves a bear who is caught in a tree, he finds himself helping Odin, Thor, and Loki. The story is fun, and it gives a nice introduction to Norse life and the gods.
That’s 17 books this month, for a total of 121 this year. I’m currently reading Oscar Wilde In America: The Interviews, which is precisely what it sounds like- transcripts of interviews that Oscar Wilde gave on his trip through America. I don’t think I’ll finish it by tonight, however, so we’ll state the official total as 121. I’ll post the year book wrap up in the next couple of days. It’s been a good year of reading!
What are you reading right now?