Dear Life

dear life

Before reading Dear Life I was unfamiliar with Alice Munro’s work.  I have never read many short stories, but wanted to try this set after hearing so many wonderful things about the author’s work.  Having received the book as a gift from a friend I added it to the top of my TBR pile – and I am thankful that I did.  I know that I have another of her collections sitting in my pile of unread books and I may need to move it closer to the top…

What’s extraordinary about this book is how it examines ordinary moments in life. Ms. Munro has the uncommon ability to take the sameness of everyday life and pull out a moment, one that may seem unimportant initially, and show the many facets of humanity that make that moment meaningful and real.

This is a hard book to review or to have a one-sided discussion about.  Because nothing happens, and everything happens – life happens.  There are no moments of extreme conflict or sugary happy endings or brutal slayings or mysteries solved.  It is simply a collection of stories about life, even though there is nothing simple about them.

The last four stories are autobiographical in nature, making them a unique glance into the author’s past.  But my favorite has to be In Sight of the Lake, the story of an elderly woman suffering from dementia.  While all the stories were wonderful, I was struck by the simple sadness of this story.  Life not as it should be, but life as it all too often is.

Title: Dear Life
Author: Alice Munro
Genre: Fiction, Short Stories
Pages: 336
Publication: Knopf, November 2012

The Cherry Cola Book Club

cherry colaI really didn’t like this book.  I really wanted to – it’s the story of a small town librarian, Maura Beth, who has been told by the city council that she has until the end of the year to show the worth of her library or it will be closed.  There is a cast of small town characters – a restaurant owner, an elderly genealogist, a retiree, a cooking show host – who rally around as Maura Beth starts the Cherry Cola Book Club in an attempt to boost library usage and secure their future funding.

Given the current state of library funding as a priority throughout the country, and the importance of libraries to their communities, this book could’ve been so much more than what it was – a sweet story with likable characters of a town pulling together to save their library – at least temporarily.

My frustration with the book was the author’s apparent lack of knowledge about libraries and librarians and what they actually accomplish in their communities.  Maura Beth has been the director for six years, has virtually no one using the library, and this is the first time she’s trying to do something about it?!  Reading this book I had a hard time understanding why she’d been getting paid at all for the past six years – the author made it seem like all she did was sit in her office and occasionally order some books.  But now that her job is in jeopardy she thinks it might be important to do something more?  And her miraculous plan is to start a book discussion group?  Don’t get me wrong, book discussion groups are great – almost all libraries already have them along with computers, internet access, early literacy programming, summer reading programs, entertainers, movie nights, author presentations, computer classes, art classes, writing groups, teen groups, job hunting and continuing education resources, reference resources, GED and ESL classes…

The problem that libraries have is not a lack of use – many libraries are seeing increased usage year after year – the problem is a lack of public funding as budgets continue to shrink and public libraries attempt to support greater need with less resources – the problem is a lack of understanding about what libraries actually do and why it’s so important to our communities.  Someone should write a book about that.

Title: The Cherry Cola Book Club
Author: Ashton Lee
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 304
Publication: Kensington, March 2013

Stories within Stories

I read a couple of books in the last week that contained stories within the story.  You know the type, each chapter from a different character’s perspective, each telling their own story, but their stories all come together somehow.  In the case of the books that I read, their stories came together in a cooking class and at an inn in Ireland.  Although very different in many ways, I liked both of these books for the same reason.  Regardless of where people (or characters in a story!) come together, many of the messages are very similar.  We will have an impact, sometime in the future, on people that we have not yet met.  Our lives are bound to others in ways that we cannot foresee.  You never know the burdens that others carry.  Everyone’s personal story is unendingly complex, truly personal.  There is always hope.

ImageA Week in Winter, the last book written by Maeve Binchy before her death, was certainly my favorite of the two books.  Knowing that it was the last Maeve Binchy book made me a little melancholy before I even started reading, and a book set on the rocky and stormy Atlantic coast of Ireland will have plenty of melancholy already!  I love books set in Ireland, and while this one offered no surprises to fans of Maeve Binchy, it transported me to Stone House, an inn opened by Chicky Starr with the help of Riggy (a troubled young man who needs to find his way) and Orla (Chicky’s niece trying to find her place).  Separate chapters focus on each of these characters as well as an American actor who ends up there on a whim, a couple of doctors that are trying to recover from the tragedies they’ve witnessed, a psychic librarian, a cantankerous school principal, a Swede torn between family duty and his love of music, a young girl and her not-happy future mother-in-law, and a prize-winning couple.  Each has a different story and separate reasons for being at Stone House, where they will hopefully (mostly) find hope and a way forward in their lives.

Unfortunately, Maeve Binchy did not get a chance to finish editing the book before her death, and in places, it shows.  There are several awkward transitions, some characters that are not as well-developed as in her previous works, and some storylines that seem to be left unfinished.  However, it is still Maeve Binchy, comforting and thoughtful storytelling.

  Title: Week in Winter
   Author: Maeve Binchy
   Genre: Fiction
   Pages: 336
   Publication: Knopf, February 2013

ImageThe Art of Mixing, the sequel to The School of Essential Ingredients, is now on the shelves at the library and I decided it was time to bump the first book up to the top of my to-read list!  The story focuses on a cooking school being taught at a restaurant owned by the instructor, Lillian.  There are chapters in the book devoted to the back story of each of the students – the struggling teenager, the shy computer guy, the beautiful Italian woman, the harried mother, the forgetful elderly woman, the sad widower, and the older married couple.  Other chapters in the book focus on the cooking class each week and the interactions that the students have with the instructor, each other, and food.  Food is certainly a character of its own in this novel, and there are beautiful passages describing food and the art of cooking that could cause me to gain twenty pounds!  There are parts of the book that may be a little too saccharine, and maybe things end a little too neatly for everyone, but ultimately it was entertaining, a light set of stories about people and the way that food touches our lives.

   Title: The School of Essential Ingredients
   Author: Erica Bauermeister
   Genre: Fiction
   Pages: 240
   Publication: Putnam, January 2009

Sense of an Ending

ImageOK, before I talk about the book I need to talk about the length of chapters in a book.  This is a silly little idiosyncrasy of mine, but I like the chapters in the books that I read to be a reasonable length.  I often read when I go to bed at night.  And whether it’s because my eyelids are growing heavy, or because they should be because the alarm clock will go off all too soon, I often tell myself that I will put down the book “after I finish this chapter”.  If the chapters are absurdly short, 2 or 3 pages, I often break the promise to myself and end up reading another 4 or 5 chapters.  But when chapters are unreasonably long, or really half of the book, like they are in The Sense of an Ending, finding a natural place for my bookmark before turning out the light becomes a frustrating pursuit.  Does that double space between paragraphs indicate a natural break?  To find out I need to keep reading, and then, well, I’m still reading.  Silly, I know, but a little pet-peeve of mine.

Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for The Sense of and Ending and it received much critical acclaim, so it’s difficult for me to admit that I didn’t really like it, and not just because there were only two chapters in the entire book.  Don’t start yelling at me about how amazing it is; I will admit there were moments in the book that were thought-provoking and amazingly written.  The story is told in two parts (hence the two chapters), following the life of the main character, Tony, through his youth and then transitioning to his retirement years.  Central to the book are the stories and relationships that he shares with a love interest, Veronica, and a school friend, Adrian.  Julian Barnes certainly has a way with words as Tony ponders his life, his perception of his memories, love, loss, and friendship. Some of my favorite quotes, ones that made me stop and think, are included below:

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.” 

“When you’re young – when I was young – you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life, create and define a new reality. Later, I think, you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become. You want them to tell you that things are OK. And is there anything wrong with that?” 

“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” 

“History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious or defeated.” 

So, with all of the great writing, why didn’t I like it?  What I love about books is the stories that they tell and the characters that they bring into my life.  Honestly, I wasn’t enamored with either in this book.  The characters were ones that I could not be inspired to love, hate, connect with, or even care all that much about. I found Tony to be dull and obsessive and a little ridiculous.  I thought Veronica was vague and aloof and difficult and annoying for no real discernible reason.  And as I spent each night trying to figure out where to stop and put my bookmark for the night, I kept waiting for the story to get good, for it to rope me in and make me care.  Unfortunately, when the story was all told, and the surprise ending revealed, I still just didn’t care.

   Title: The Sense of an Ending
   Author: Julian Barnes
   Genre: Fiction
   Pages: 163
   Publication: Knopf, October 2011

Uniform Justice

ImageWhile many books can take you on adventures in new places, give you new ideas to contemplate, and introduce you to new and complex characters, there is comfort in curling up to drop in on old friends.  I love a good mystery (OK, even some not-so-good ones) and a good mystery series is even better.  I will not bore everyone by carrying on about every book in a series, but I will occasionally highlight the one I’ve most recently read, hoping it will inspire someone else to check it out!

I just recently finished the 12th installment in Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series.  The series takes place in Venice and is one of the rare books where the location itself is a main character.  In Leon’s series it is easy to become absorbed in the descriptions of Venice, the canals, the architecture, the art, the fashion, the food (which all sounds fabulous even when I’m not sure what it is!).  Against this backdrop of beauty Leon writes about a corrupt city void of trust in the law, where things get done based on who you know and what you are willing to pay.  Commissario Guido Brunetti is a man of honor, struggling within this system, often walking a thin line between pursuing justice and using a corrupt system he abhors in order to do so.  Brunetti is surrounded by a cast of vivid characters including both trusted and devious co-workers, an inept boss, a sly and useful secretary, and a loyal, opinionated, out-spoken, and supportive wife.  It is against this backdrop that these mysteries become less about who-dun-it and more about why and what to do with the answers.   How can justice truly be served?  Can justice be found at all?

“Brunetti had no taste for this, not any longer.  ‘There’s no justice here, Dottore,’ he said, frightened to realize that he meant not only for this man and his family, but for this city, and this country, and their lives.”

The 22nd installment of the series will be release in March of this year, leaving me many more hours to spend curled up on the couch with Brunetti!

  Title: Uniform Justice   
   Author: Donna Leon
   Genre: Mystery
   Pages: 259
   Publication: Atlantic Monthly Press, August 2003