Holiday Reading

Despite a busy, happy, jam-packed holiday season, I was able to get in a few books. Nothing high brow, nothing earth shattering. A few lightweight holiday reads.    Just the right ending for what turned out to be a super couple of weeks.


 

Immoveable Feast

A Paris Christmas

by John Baxter

In this novel, John Baxter writes of preparing his first Christmas feast in France.  Australian by birth, living in Los Angeles.  He falls in love with a French woman:

“Struck down by that helpless love which the French call un coup de foudre – a thunderclap — I’d abandoned a comfortable life in Los Angeles and, on the spur of the moment moved to Paris to be with this woman I loved.  I knew no more French than one can pick up from movie subtitles.”

It is now several years later and he has married Marie.  This year he has the dubious honor to host the annual Christmas meal for friends and family.  Each chapter takes the reader through his search for the perfect ingredients for his menu. There’s a whole chapter on sourcing fine French cheeses, and I swear you can smell and taste each cheese.

From traveling to India for spices, to discovering the perfect wine at a bargain price in a small village grocery — the pressure is on for our poor author.   Mr. Baxter is funnily self deprecating, in awe of French style, and intimidated by their insistence on food perfection.  As a frequent dinner host, I loved watching his meal plan come together and the last chapter, culminating in the meal itself, is guaranteed to make your mouth water.

I even cheered along with his guests as they erupted in very un-French-like applause over his flaming fruit dessert.


A Rumpole Christmas

by John Mortimer

One of my great pleasures of the holiday season is to bring out and cozy-up with my favorite Christmas books.   This collection of Rumpole stories is one such delight.

Back in the 1980’s Husband and I were fans of the BBC/PBS series Rumpole of the Bailey starring the inimitable Leo McKern.  The series was based on the books and stories written by John Mortimer.   (You can currently see many of the television episodes on YouTube.)

These stories feature cantankerous lawyer Horace Rumpole, his hapless colleagues at the Old Bailey and his formidable wife, Hilda (aka She Who Must Be Obeyed).  These pieces variously appeared between 1997 and 2006 in various British publications, and I’ve since learned, are the only ones with a Christmas setting.

In Rumpole and Father Christmas, our barrister meets an old friend (of sorts) playing Father Christmas at the office holiday party. Meets him, that is, as he’s returning things he stole during the party.

One of the best of these stories is  Rumpole’s Slimmed-Down Christmas. Rumpole’s wife, Hilda has booked them at a health farm during the holidays. Enduring yak-milk and a no alcohol policy, Rumpole finds distraction by defending the owner of the health farm against a charge of murder.

In the one story that always has me chuckling out loud, Hilda and Rumpole spend Christmas at Cherry Picker’s Hall. To Rumpole’s horror, Justice Graves (Rumpole calls him the old Gravestone) is also in attendance.  

“His usually lugubrious features wore the sort of smile only previously stimulated by a long succession of guilty verdicts”

The Old Gravestone appears to find Hilda all too charming. Rumpole must endure not only dancing with Hilda, but the Old Gravestone’s attempts at flirting.

But, above all we have Rumpole himself, smoking his cheroots, swilling his cheap red wine, and always standing up for the defense.  He quotes Worsdworth and Shakespeare — he is our favorite Curmudgeon Extraordinaire.

Mr Mortimer*, who died in 2009, made his career with the Rumpole series which are based on actual courtroom trials in England.  He writes with great wit and, most admirably, injects subtle sarcasm into his writings.  (Book Barmy note:   I think many authors have difficulty writing sarcasm without seeming cruel. Mr. Mortimer is a writer who deftly crafts this fine balance.)

Rumpole’s Christmas stories never fail to delight.

* John Mortimer was a playwright, novelist, and former practicing barrister who wrote film scripts as well as stage, radio, and the Rumpole television series for which he received the British Academy Writer of the Year Award, along with his adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. He is the author of twelve collections of Rumpole stories and three acclaimed volumes of autobiography. John Mortimer also wrote one of my favorite novels Summer’s Lease


One Day in December

by Josie Silver

I was in the throes of a busy, yet fun, holiday and needed a lightweight read that didn’t require major brain cells.

One Day in December was a pure romantic Christmas delight.  I don’t often read what is coined as “Chick-Lit” or “Rom-Com” but I was taken in by the publisher’s letter in my advanced reading copy.  The letter claimed this new novel was a cross between Love Actually and When Harry Met Sally – and that it left a smile on her face for days after she finished.  Okay, perfect, I decided.

It’s December and Laurel is packed on the upper deck of a London city bus and musing on her fellow passengers coughing and sneezing~~

“It’s a wonder everyone who uses public transport in winter doesn’t keel over and die of germ overload.”

Then Laurel catches the eye of a man waiting at a bus stop and their eyes lock in tandem and the world seems to disappear around them.  Yes, corny, but seems it’s love at first sight.  Neither can move fast enough to either get off the bus (Laurel) or the guy to run to get on the bus…so life goes on.

Eventually, their paths cross, but he (Jack) is dating her room mate and best friend, Sarah…awkward.  Although Jack vividly remembers their bus sighting, and instantly feels the same connection — he decides not to acknowledge this to Laurel.  And so the years go by.

Ms. Silver has constructed her novel into chapters which delve into each character’s point of view and then into yearly sections –each year ending with a wrenching December holiday plot twist.  I can see a film adaptation in Ms. Silver’s future.

Far more complex and thankfully, not a typical romantic comedy, One Day in December was very nicely written and compelling.   The British characters are lovably flawed — the author has them stumble through friendships, breakups, dreams, jobs and finally love. They drink too much, love too much, mess up their relationships — and I found it all quite endearing.

Great literature? No.

A cheerful and heartwarming romantic comedy? Yes.

Me. Hopeless romantic?  Definitely.

 

Now I’ve got to go.  It’s New Years Day evening.  Husband has had enough football and has relinquished the television.  I’m off to watch Love Actually one last time. Back to real life tomorrow Okay?

Happy New Year. 

 

 

 

 

 

A digital advance readers copy of One Day in December was kindly provided by Broadway Books via NetGalley.

It’s Here!

Today’s the day – it’s finally here.  As in previous years, I advised you to cancel your appointments, call in sick to work and to be at your local bookstore first thing this morning to buy the newest Louise Penny book — Kingdom of the Blind.

Didn’t do any of that?  Oh well, you’ll just have to swing by your bookstore on your way home.

Let me tell you why I’m being so bossy insistent about this.

 

 

Ms. Penny is a mystery writer with a trio of talents – not seen in very many mystery series writers.

First, she has keen sense of humans, their frailties, their emotions, their kindnesses and their dreadfulness.  Her characters are multi-dimensional and fully realized.  Second, Ms. Penny creates an all enveloping sense of place – her settings are always fall-into-the-page realistic — from the cozy bistro in Three Pines to the dirty, drug infested back streets of Montreal.  Combine this with her page-turning, yet complex multi-layered, mysteries, and well you’ve got one of the best mystery series being published.

While you can read any of her novels as a standalone, I do suggest you try and read them in order as some of the story lines do carry into the next and the characters become more developed and evolved.  You can see her whole series of books in order on her website – HERE

Kingdom of the Blind picks up a few months after the last book (Glass Houses).  Armand Gamache was suspended as head of the Sûreté du Québec having deliberately allowed some seized opioids to slip though his hands in order stop an insidious street drug operation. Amelia Choquet, one of his cadets has just been kicked out of the police academy due to her own drug use and is now thrust back onto to the seedy, drug infested back streets of Montreal.  A coincidence?  We wonder…

Meanwhile, wintry Three Pines remains the idyllic oasis for its residents and friends.  But they have  lost power and are buried in snow:

Reine-Marie, at the bistro:

Why do we live here?  Oh heaven…do you have power?
Non. A generator.
Hooked up to the espresso machine?
And the oven and fridge, said Gabri.
But not the lights?
Priorities, said Olivier. Are you complaining?
Mon Dieu, no, she said.

Comfort foods that rarely fail in their one great task are abundant.

Gamache, psychologist and bookseller Myrna Landers, and a young builder have been called to an abandoned farmhouse just outside Three Pines to meet with a notary.  Once there, they find out they have been named the liquidators (executors) of a mysterious woman’s will.  The three adult children, who are the beneficiaries, have no idea why their mother chose these three unknown people to oversee her will.  It turns out there is more to the story than anyone thought — a family story of a lost European inheritance dating back hundreds of years, embezzlement, and murder.

Ms. Penny is a master of plotting and just when you think you know where she’s going (and if you’re like me, you dumbly believe you have it figured out) the plot twists in an unexpected direction. This had me flipping pages as fast as I could read, and yet I made myself slow down to savor the writing.

All Ms. Penny’s novels have a theme woven into her mysteries and this one is about blindness or our blind spots.  How humans see what they want to see.  Masterfully we are given insights into what at first seemed one thing and is reveled to be something else entirely.  A drug wasted transvestite has goodness underneath.  A beloved godfather has a nasty streak.  A trusted financial advisor should, or should not, be trusted.

Don’t worry devoted Ms. Penny fans, the cast of characters is still there from Three Pines and there’s a smattering of Ruth chuckles — but this installment is especially focused on Gamache and his second in command (and now son-in-law) Beauvoir.  Both are contemplative and confronting major decisions that will inspire life changing events.  One of which is revealed in the last chapter and will have you wanting whatever is up next in this wonderful series.

I’m going to leave it here, no spoilers and I’m really at a loss to review The Kingdom of the Blind in the fashion it deserves, so I will quote one of my favorite professional reviewers, Maureen Corrigan:

Any plot summary of Penny’s novels inevitably falls short of conveying the dark magic of this series.  No other writer, no matter what genre they work in, writes like Penny.

 

Kingdom of the Blind – don’t say no — just buy it.


Many (many) thanks to Minotaur Books for providing an Advanced Readers Copy.

 

 

 

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger was a deliciously creepy Halloween read which kept me up well into several October nights — but I’m only now getting around to this review.  Pretend it’s Halloween, which was only a few weeks ago.

It’s post-war Warwickshire, England and Dr. Faraday has been called to Hundreds Hall, the Ayres family mansion.   The doctor was here before, as a child, accompanying his mother, a housemaid for the family.  As a child he was entranced with the hall’s decorative wall panels and he secretly pried loose and pocketed a carved walnut. 

Now it’s thirty years later and Hundreds Hall has lost former grandeur. In amongst leaky ceilings and musty carpets lives the Ayres family: Mrs. Ayres, a widow who longs for the old days of her family glory; her son, Roderick, a veteran who is still suffering both physically and mentally from the war, and his sister, Caroline, a young woman who desires a life of her own.

But the most important character is Hundreds Hall  — the author spends pages (and pages) describing the crumbling and dilapidated mansion.   This provides an eerie backdrop for presenting a family tormented by the past.

[When] I stepped into the hall the cheerlessness of it struck me at once.  Some of the bulbs in the wall-lights had blown, and the staircase climbed into shadows.  A few ancient radiators were bubbling and ticking away, but their heat was lost as soon as it rose.  I went along the marble-floored passage and found the family gathered in the little parlour, their chairs drawn right up to the hearth in their efforts to keep warm.

The Ayres are stuck between the pre-war world and the post war one.  But, as we discover, they are also stuck between this world and one inhabited by spirits and secrets.

Yes, the house is haunted — mysterious writing appears on the walls, there are unexplained small fires, unexpectedly locked rooms, and creepy noises through the antiquated pipes.  Roderick succumbs to his demons (and the house’s) and is sent away to an institution.  Carolyn struggles to maintain some sense of normalcy in the highly abnormal Hundreds Hall and Mrs. Ayres begins to go mad.

At the center is Dr. Faraday, attending each family member as best he can but also striving to get to the bottom of the frightening incidents at Hundreds Hall.  Despite his lower class upbringing, Dr. Faraday not only becomes the family doctor, but also a trusted friend, and eventually, Caroline’s fiancée.

The prose beautifully builds a chilling atmosphere and a looming sense of dread.  More eerie than scary. Slow and languid but at the same time, exciting and suspenseful.  Although the novel could have benefited from some major editing, I was totally invested — reading on and on, even when I got slightly spooked — hearing things go bump in the night.

Some readers said there is no resolution – no ending.  However, by re-reading several key scenes and the last few pages — I figured out who is the little stranger and had goosebumps along the way.

 The Little Stranger is not at all like some of today’s merely adequately written thrillers, whose readers only require a ‘page turner’.  This novel is slow, subtle, literate and requires a little more thought — a thinking reader’s thriller.


Once again, they’ve made a film from a book I’ve just read.  It looks properly creepy and atmospheric.

Trailer HERE

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night is a beautiful, hopeful book – but alas, not everyone’s cup of tea. 

Set in a small town in Colorado, Louis and Addie are neighbors, both in their 70’s and both widowed.  They know each other, chat when they see each other — just neighbors of the same age.  

The book opens with Addie visiting Louis and proposing they spend their lonely nights together – sleeping in the same bed,  companionship, no sex, also with the hope they will both be able to sleep better.

The characters Louis and Addie unfold naturally through their nightly conversations telling about their lives—the happy and sad moments, their regrets, the unfulfilled dreams. They discuss their late spouses and their children. They talk about life. But most of all, they find comfort in each other’s company.  They are achingly human in their loneliness and need for companionship and they ignore what the townspeople have to say about their arrangement.

When Addie’s troubled grandson comes for the summer, their relationship deepens (yes, that’s just what it means) as they give the little boy a special summer filled with softball games, overnight camping, and the responsibility of his first dog.

Many readers are put off by Mr. Haruf’s spare writing style – his lack of quotation marks and sometimes clipped dialogue. But I admire his deceptively simple language which conveys complicated relationships, heartbreak, and humorEvery word is essential. There is nothing extra. Our Souls at Night uses elegant, almost poetic, prose to move the story forward quickly — it can be read in one evening — yet there’s a leisurely sense of time.

The ending is sad and, for me, a bit unsettling as Addie is portrayed as a capable woman who isn’t afraid to make her own choices, yet she conceded to her controlling son, and gave up a relationship that was bringing joy to her life.  But then again, Our Souls at Night is all about humans, their frailties, and the way life really is. 

All Mr. Haruf’s books are worth reading and re-reading on so many levels, for their simplicity and accessibility — but especially their literary qualities, an unfortunately rare combination. You know you have read “literature” when you have read Haruf, but the experience is effortless.

Netflix made a film based on this novel starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, and after you’ve read the book it’s well worth watching — these two actors do a wonderful job of capturing the characters and their relationship.

Trailer HERE

Sadly, this was Mr. Haruf’s last book as he passed away in 2014. 

The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge

“Pick up an Elizabeth Goudge novel and from the first page you will feel your shoulders drop.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The above quote comes from from Cornflower Books, one of my favorite book blogs.  Cornflower hails from somewhere in Northern England and her two blogs are filled with the joy of books such as this, but also gardening, knitting, cooking and art — a kindred spirit.  Click above or on the blog list to the left to see for yourself.

 

Based on Cornflower’s review and in a desperate mood for an old-fashioned read, I got The Bird in the Tree –with this dreadful cover — from the library.  (I much prefer the vintage cover above).

Elizabeth Goudge is a British writer, probably best known for her novel Green Dolphin Street (nope, haven’t read it). The Bird in the Tree is set in 1938 and is the first in a trilogy about the Eliot family and their beloved home, Damerosehay on the Hampshire coast.

Nothing better than a British house setting I thought as I opened the book, trying not to form images of the characters from the tacky 1980’s cover.

The first thing to strike this reader is that Ms. Goudge is verbose.  She obviously loved nature and takes pages to describe the beauty in her settings — from the gardens, to the sunsets, grand water views, and even   the individual birds.

Soon, however, as the quote above predicted, my shoulders lowered and I relaxed into the slow rhythm and realized I was enjoying some very nice writing.

Early in the novel there’s a flashback to when Lucilla and her young grandson first discover the house that would become Damerosehay.  The descriptions (there’s pages of them) of the abandoned home and its gardens makes for some enchanting reading.  Here’s just a taste:

…for it was such a garden as neither of them had seen before.  It was a wild, crazy garden, the kind of garden in which the sleeping beauty and her court lays sleeping for a hundred years.  Once it had been planted with orderly care and neatness, but now all the flowers and trees and bushes had gone mad together with a sort of jubilant madness that was one of the loveliest things Lucilla had ever seem. The rose trees, bright with their new green leaves, were running riot everywhere, climbing up over the old wall, festooning themselves over the cherry trees and oak trees, cherry trees to the east and oaks to the west that grew in the tangle of wild grass that had once been lawns and flowerbeds …

Lucilla,with the help of her children, purchase the house and it is transformed into the warm and beautiful place she wants as a safe haven for her children, their children and generations beyond.

Lucilla and her family are far from perfect.  The characters are revealed through both their actions and innermost thoughts and thus, we discover the Eliots share heartbreak and wounds — not to mention the art of manipulation and resentment — all bubbling just beneath the surface.  There’s an ill-advised love affair that threatens the Eliot family relations.  Some past secrets are revealed and others stay – well secret.  But mostly this is a novel about people and a home they love.

Lucilla’s son Hilary (don’t you just love British names) although the least clever of the Elliot family, turns out to be the happiest, in his role as village vicar:

…Fairhaven liked to hear the [church] bell tolling out every morning, sounding through the winter darkness as though to tell them that the night was over or ringing through the spring and summer birdsong like another bird calling in the sky.  The ungodly, rousing from sleep, set their watches by this bell, and the godly whilst also setting their watches, remembered that, at this hour Hilary was praying for them.  They were glad of that, for they liked Hilary.

Hilary as expected does give deliver advice and counsel, but it’s nothing compared to the morale high ground voiced by Lucilla and her long time ladies maid, Ellen (yes, there’s a lady’s maid).  I shook my head in amusement and dismay at their self assurance when weighing in on other people lives.

But in the end, the Eliots love each other and while they suffer from an excess of contemplation, they are good people who do the right thing – and yes, there’s a neatly-tied-up-fairly-happy ending.

Old fashioned, overly sentimental and, at times, melodramatic —  The Bird in the Tree was just what the doctor, or in this case, Cornflower Books recommended – I felt better having read it.

The second in this series – Pilgrim’s Inn is on my list for the next time I’m in need of a restorative read.

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

This book has languished on my shelf for years, and for some reason the other day I decided to give it a try…and got lost in it for days.

I didn’t just read this book — I inhabited it.

Published back in 1998 (which may be how long I’ve had it), One Thousand White Women is a fictional re-imagining of a true event. In the author’s note, Mr. Fergus writes that he came across an interesting historical record.  In 1854 at a peace conference, a Cheyenne chief made a request to trade white women for horses. The Cheyennes astutely saw the future and were looking for a peaceful solution. The women would become brides and their children would allow easier assimilation into the white man’s society.   The request was soundly rejected by the US government. 

But, Mr. Fergus wondered, what if it did happen?  What if the government agreed to this absurd proposal and sent white women to marry into the Cheyenne tribe?  The result is this wonderful and devastating book.

The novel imagines that the government recruited women volunteers from brothels and institutions under a so-called BFI (Brides for Indians) program to “assimilate the heathens”.  One Thousand White Women centers on May Dodd whose story is told through her journals and letters. 

May Dodd comes from a prominent Chicago family. When she runs off with a common laborer and has two children out of wedlock, her influential father has her committed to an insane asylum and has taken her children away to educate properly.  With nothing left to lose, May volunteers for the program:

Frankly, from the way I have been treated by the so-called civilized people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages.

And so we’re off with the first trainload of white women bound for the Great Plains and their new lives as brides of the Cheyenne nation.  On the train are a troupe of vulnerable women and these supporting characters start out predictably stereotypical.  We have Irish twins out to scam everyone, a fallen Southern belle (who hates blacks and uses the N word), a large homely Swiss woman — well the list goes on. I must admit, here the writing became clunky. But as the novel goes on, we learn each woman has their own reasons to want to start new lives.  During their long journey the women get to know each other, reveal their various sad backgrounds, and as Fort Laramie draws closer, they grow more frightened and are drawn closer.

Eventually, they reach Fort Laramie where they are told to take only what they can carry and continue their journey on horseback.  Once they arrive at the Cheyenne camp, there are nowhere near 1,000 women, merely 40-50 total and the women question their decision.

So what is our position then — officially speaking?  Are we nothing more than sacrificial lambs?  An interesting, but unsuccessful political experiment? Missionaries stranded in the line of duty?  Or perhaps easiest to explain, white women gone astray, taking up with savages of our own volition? 

After they are left behind, the women inevitably have to adapt to the camp and its inhabitants.  They are eventually paired off with Cheyenne men and wedding plans are made.  May is pleased to marry the chief, Little Wolf, some of the other women are less fortunate.  But all make the best of the situation. 

And here is where I fell headlong into the wonderful descriptions of the challenges, beauty and even the drudgery of daily life with the Cheyenne. The wild landscape, hunting for game, bathing in ponds, cozy teepees, and the Cheyenne wedding ceremonies.  But all is not idyllic, there are battles with other tribes, violent rapes (yes that’s plural), and the Cheyenne’s first experience with whisky (not good).  Mr. Fergus has done some fine research on 19th century native American culture, and his writing shows both compassion and insight.  

There’s a poignant turning point when, after six months, the women return with their husbands and tribe to visit Fort Laramie.  Wearing deerskin dresses and many now pregnant, they are not welcomed but rather met with revulsion and horror by the residents.  They now look, act, and smell like squaws and bear no resemblance to the white women they once were.

How strange to recall that six months ago we departed Fort Laramie as anxious white women entering the wilderness for the first time; and now, perhaps equally anxious, we leave as squaws returning home.  I realized anew as we rode into the cold north wind on this morning that my own commitment had been forever sealed by the new heart that beats in my belly; that I could not have remained even if I so wished.

Some readers may have trouble with the plausibility of this story and many other reviewers found One Thousand White Women ludicrous.  My only quibble was the modern day insights and actions that leaked into the journals and letters of what was supposed to be a typical 19th century woman. There were even some thoughts on global warming, which I doubt was on the minds of anyone living in the late 1800’s.

But still, I found One Thousand White Women captivating and completely different.  I often forgot reality and the fact that I was reading a novel.  I was living in a different world — in a different time. A stay-up-late adventure story filled with action, humor, romance, insight and beauty.


BookBarmy Warning: there is graphic sex and violence – this is not a book for the faint of heart or prude. Nonetheless, I’m passing it on to my mother – as she is neither.