"Barchester Towers"

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

This is my first Trollope novel and I'm hooked. I loved pretty much everything about it: the writing, the time period, the characters, and the way Trollope turns away from the story every now and then to talk to the reader. As a technique, that can be distracting, and I've read authors who have tediously used it as an opportunity to preach to the reader, but with Trollope it's different. It adds interest and makes the reading that much more enjoyable. I love the language of this book so much he could probably write about tax law and I'd still be happy with it.

The story is set in the village of Barchester and follows the goings-on of the local people. It's character, not plot, driven so anyone looking for a lot of action will be disappointed. The plot involves things like who gets local government and church appointments and who gets romantic with who. Think Jane Austen, not Dan Brown.

I loved the naming of the characters. The haughty lady who thought she was above everyone else was called Mrs. Proudie. The clergyman who couldn't be trusted was Mr. Slope, and Mr. Vellum Deeds was an attorney. Then there was Mrs. Lookaloft, Mrs. Clantantram and Farmer Greenacre. Oh, and Mr. & Mrs. Quiverful, who, of course, had a lot of children. I've found this common with Victorian writers and not at all unique to Trollope but I always find it entertaining.  

What is most appealing to me about this book is Trollope's wit. It's brilliant. He makes the sharpest observations about his characters and their lives without descending into sarcasm or unkindness. Everything he says has an edge, but not an unpleasant one. If you aren't familiar with Trollope's work here's a sample:

"Wise people, when they are in the wrong, always put themselves right by finding fault with the people against whom they have sinned. Lady De Courcy was a wise woman; and therefore, having treated Miss Thorne very badly by staying away till three o'clock, she assumed the offensive and attacked Mr. Thorne's roads. Her daughter, not less wise, attacked Miss Thorne's early hours. The art of doing this is among the most precious of those usually cultivated by persons who know how to live. Who can go systematically to work, and having done battle with the primary accusation and settled that, then bring forward a counter-charge and support that also? Life is not long enough for such labours. A man in the right relies easily on his rectitude, and therefore goes about unarmed. His very strength is his weakness. A man in the wrong knows that he must look to his weapons; his very weakness is his strength. The one is never prepared for combat, the other is always ready. Therefore it is that in this world the man that is in the wrong almost invariably conquers the man that is in the right, and invariably despises him.  .....Poor Miss Thorne was altogether overcome. She knew very well that she had been ill treated, and yet she found herself making apologies to Lady De Courcy. To do her ladyship justice, she received them very graciously..."

I'm glad I discovered Trollope and his books and will look forward to reading more.

Top Ten Tuesday

This week's topic for Top Ten Tuesday is "Top Ten Characters You Wish Would Get Their Own Book". Here's the list of ten characters - some fictional and some real - whose points of view I'd like to read:

1. Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

2. Aunt Ada Doom in Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

3. Lila Ames in Gildead by Marilynne Robinson

4. Mme de Bonneuil in Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

5. James Mortmain in I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

6. Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

7. Miss Hargreaves in Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker

8. Antonia Shimerda in My Antonia by Willa Cather

9. Will Schwalbe’s father in The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

10. Deborah Lacks in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish every Tuesday. Each week they post a new Top Ten list that they hope many other bloggers will join. They request that you link back to their blog on your own Top Tuesday post and add your name to the Linky list so everyone can see your list and they can see yours. I don't take part every week, but when I get a chance and there's a topic that interests me it's fun. Sometimes I find out things about myself that I'm not even aware of until I begin to work on the list.

What would be on your top ten list this week?

"The Seven Last Years"

The Seven Last Years by Carol Balizet

This was my book club selection for October, otherwise I probably wouldn't have read it. There were a lot of "end times" novels in the 70s and 80s and I overdosed on them so I wasn't much looking forward to this one.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing because I find a lot of  "Christian" novels poorly written and predictable. I know I won't win any popularity contests saying that but as a Christian it bothers me that we settle for mediocrity in our novels. There's no reason why we shouldn't have the same high standards as everyone else for our literature, music, movies and art. Anyway, in most of this book I thought the writing was good. It held my attention and at times got quite exciting. The problem was, it didn't stay that way. Just when I'd be really getting into it, I'd come across a passage that fell flat. The dialogue would become dull, the characters would behave in a way that was either a cliche or just nonsensical, and it would seem like I was reading "just another end times novel."

It was odd how the book went from good to poor to very good to boring to exciting to disappointing. I wondered if two different people were writing, the author seemed to have such ups and downs in creative energy, or imagination, or something. I can't the explain the inconsistency, but it's there and it was annoying.

I found the characters similar, too similar, to those in other novels of this type that I've read. Of course, the general story-line was also similar because it's based on the book of Revelation, but there's all kinds of room to expand on it and still stay within the Biblical parameters. Some of what the author chose to do with the plot was interesting but there were a couple of places where I think she went off track and got things absolutely wrong. There was a scene where a man knew he was going to die within minutes and it was implied that it was too late for him now, too late to believe in God, too late to repent and confess. I think Scripture says just the opposite: while there is life, there is hope. If you use your last breath to turn to God, He will hear you and receive you.

I did some research on the author and found her to be quite a controversial character. A strong advocate of home birthing, she recommended no professional medical interference at all, regardless of the circumstances. She also took a strong stand against public education and banking. Her philosophies caused her quite a number of problems, but I won't get into that here. There's lots of information about her on the internet if you want to know more.    

Overall it was an easy read and it was at times fairly interesting. Eventually there will be a last seven years and who knows, they could possibly be a little like the events recounted here, but the bottom line is that I just didn't enjoy it that much.

Top Ten Books I Want To Reread

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is Top Ten Books I Want To Reread, and though it's a couple of days late, here's my list:

1. The Lord of the Rings trilogy - J.R.R. Tolkein
2. A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
3. Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
5. The Anne of Green Gables series - L.M. Montgomery
6. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
7. The Singer Trilogy by Calvin Miller
8. The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkein
9. The Space Trilogy - C.S. Lewis
10. Old Christmas - Washington Irving

Now that I see the list I realize why I've been putting off rereading. A number of them are series and as much as I want to read them again, I don't want to take the time from new reads. A good problem to have I guess. 

Which ten books would you most like to reread?

Check out The Broke and The Bookish to see which books other people are listing. Anyone is welcome to take part in the meme. All they ask is that you link back to The Broke and the Bookish on your own Top Ten Tuesday post AND add your name to the Linky widget. 

A Difficult Time

Ten days ago my mother passed away, on her ninetieth birthday. She'd had health problems for many years but always overcame them. We called her Iron Woman because it seemed nothing could take her down. Over the past twenty years there were a lot of hospital stays with congestive heart failure, pneumonia, and various surgeries. A few years ago she suffered a massive heart attack after knee surgery. Her blood pressure hit rock bottom, causing the doctor to call the family in, but, amazing everyone of us, she came back. She stayed in the hospital for 3 months, then went home and picked up her life again.

This past winter she had several mini-strokes, her heart further deteriorated, her kidneys began to fail and she was diagnosed with the beginnings of dementia. She was in the hospital for 6 long months this time, with not one of the medical staff believing she would ever go home again. Surprise! She did go home and spent 7 more weeks surrounded by her own things and visited by family members before having the stroke that finally ended her life. The truth is we had all gotten used to the idea that she could survive any crisis, so we were stunned when this time, her body failed her.

It really doesn't matter what age a person is or how sick they are, you are just never ready to lose them. I'm feeling the awful truth of these words from Gustave Flaubert: "There is always after the death of anyone a kind of stupefaction; so difficult is it to grasp the advent of nothingness and to resign ourselves to believe in it.It's the nothingness in her place that is so hard to comprehend. Will I ever get used to it? I miss calling her. I miss her voice. I miss her face.

After the graveside service I came home to a package sitting on my back steps; the post office had delivered the Christmas gift I'd ordered for her. I had taken an old photograph of the five of us kids sitting on the front steps of my grandmother's house back in the 1950's and had it woven into a throw. She was always cold and I thought she'd enjoy having this reminder of her - and our - younger days on her lap on chilly winter evenings. It turned out better than I'd ever dreamed it would and I want so much to show it to her. I want to see the look of surprise and hear her exclaim how much she loves it. I want what I'm never going to have again in this life.  

We had her for ninety years, making us much more fortunate than some who lose their mothers earlier. I know that, and I'm grateful, but it doesn't really help. It doesn't change the incomprehensible fact that she was here and now she's not. That she'll never be here again. Never. There are consolations, of course. I know she's in Heaven and that I'll see her again, and when I do it will be without all the little personality differences and idiosyncrasies that caused us to get on each other nerves at times. Our love for each other will be perfected, a day I look forward to a great deal. But that's not now.

For now, we'll try to get used to this. We'll try to adjust. We'll cry and we'll remember and we'll tell stories and cry some more. We'll check in on each other to see how everyone is doing, particularly my sister, who was my mother's caregiver and closest friend for many years. We'd had a small family party planned for the day she passed away; not many make it to ninety years old and she was proud of the accomplishment. We did each get to say Happy Birthday to her, not really knowing if she heard or understood. I think she knows and is glad that we were all there; I believe it's what she would have chosen for her final day.

I'm glad you're in perfect health again, Mum. I'm glad you've been re-united with your parents, brothers, and sisters. I'm glad you're experiencing that greatest of joys: seeing Jesus face to face, and I wouldn't wish you back here to suffer for one more minute. You entered Heaven on your birthday, a wonderful day for you but a hard one for us. We miss you.

P.S.  We ate your cake.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My goodness, what an great story. A fascinating combination of science and personal interest. Far better, and quite a bit different, than what I was expecting. And now I really must get back to writing in complete sentences.

Henrietta Lacks died at the age of 31, just a few months after being diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer. A wife, and mother of 5 children, one just a few months old, her family didn't find out until 20 years later that her cells were being used for research at laboratories all over the world. Those cells, labeled HeLa from the first two letters of both her names, had been reproduced millions of times and were responsible for some of the most important medical developments of the century.

Rebecca Skloot spent ten years doing thousands of hours of research and interviews with Henrietta's family and doctors in an attempt to make her story public. She manages to explain the science in a way that is fairly easy for a non-scientist to understand and still tell the deeply personal story of Henrietta's family. Most of her family contact was with Henrietta's daughter Deborah, who put her off for a long time because she and her brothers felt they couldn't trust anybody to tell them the truth.

This book raises a lot of ethical questions about the use of human cells without the patient's permission. Who owns those cells - the patient, the family, the researchers who use them to advance medical science, or the corporations who multiply them millions of times over for sale at a profit? It also takes a realistic look at the suffocating effects of poverty and the lingering consequences of slavery and discrimination on black families even now. It's not always an easy story to read, but it is worth it.

I had read a few unflattering reviews that suggested the story was being told for the sole purpose of making the family some money, but I can't see how that is accurate at all. The family doesn't seem to have received anything, a situation I still have reservations about. So much benefit has come from Henrietta's cells, yet her family couldn't afford medical insurance to pay for needed procedures. Is that right? I don't know, but I'm glad I read the story. I met some great characters who have given me a lot to think about.    

Hope you'll check this one out!