Catching up again.

Servants of the Map by Andrea Barrett

I've been reading this for what seems like a very long time. It's a collection of intelligently written short stories all related in one way or another to geography, biology or botany. I read it in small sections, just a few paragraphs at a time, over months and it really didn't work for me like that. It would have been better to read one entire story at a time. As it was, I lost track of characters and lost interest in plots. Understand, it's a very good book. I just didn't give it the attention it deserved.

When Rum Was King by Ruby M. Cusack

This is the story of the prohibition years in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. Written from a legal standpoint, there are an awful lot of dates and facts and laws, but mixed in are a few interesting anecdotes. It was boring to read, but it did give me a better understanding of the province's history.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This classic deserves a much longer and more detailed review that I would or could give it. The truth is I didn't read it because I wanted to. It's on my Guilt List, the list of books I feel I should have read long ago. I read two of Tolstoy's novels because they were on the list and they didn't leave me looking forward to the other Russian novelists. They are so emotional, so over-the-top dramatic that I find it exhausting. The stories and the writing are great as you would expect, but I find the histrionics tedious and that ruins it for me.  As the title suggests, Crime and Punishment is about a young man who commits a crime then tries find a way to live with the consequences. The psychological process he goes through and how that seeps into every relationship in his life makes for a fascinating story if you can get past the melodrama.

My Glimpse of Eternity by Betty Malz

Set in the 50s and 60s, this is the story of a 27 year old woman who was pronounced dead, had the sheet pulled up over her head, then a short time later came back to life, pushed the sheet off, and told the stunned staff and her family about having been to Heaven. That part of the story is the main event, but this book is also about how God used that experience to change a proud, difficult person into the woman He had always intended her to be.

"The Storied Life of A.J. Firky"

The Storied Life of A.J. Firky by Gabrielle Zevin

A.J. Firky runs a bookstore on tiny Alice Island. When Amelia Loman, representative for Knightley Press, first meets him he is angry and rude, swearing at her and making her cry. And he's drinking himself into oblivion over the loss of his wife, Nicole.

Then two things occur. First, he is the victim of a robbery in which he loses a valuable old book that was meant to be his future security, then a two year old girl is left unattended in his bookstore with a note asking A.J. to raise her. He accepts his misfortune in losing the rare book and, surprising even himself, he also accepts guardianship of the 2 year old, Maya. In time, his relationship with Amelia Loman develops and also his friendship with book-loving local Chief of Police Lambiase, A.J. stops the drinking and takes up living again.

Each chapter begins with a book or short story title and a few comments on how it pertains to A.J.'s relationship with Maya. These are all notes written to Maya later when he becomes ill and verbal communication is no longer easy.

I'm trying to find words to say how much I loved this book and what, specifically, I loved about it. Why is it always so much easier to write about the books I don't like? I have no trouble putting into words the specific things I don't like in a book. I seem to be able to articulate their faults quite easily and I can get rather passionate about how they could/should have been improved. Yet here I am with a book I love, and all I have are these vague thoughts about how good it is. It makes me furious.

Wait. There is one definite thing I can say about it. While I read it, I was also reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. I have an issue with Russian classical literature that I've talked about before, and this book was an absolute relief to pick up after a couple of chapters of that. The Russian characters are up and down like mercury in a thermometer - the term "overwrought" was made for them. After a few pages I'd be wanting to throw the book across the room, and then I'd pick this one up and read about A.J. and Maya and the others, who had their share of problems, but didn't go on and on and on about them. They suffer like everyone else, but they do it without flailing emotionally. They don't fling their feelings around until they're practically bouncing off the walls. I love the quiet style of Gabrielle Zevin's writing. It's an emotional book, but not emotionally draining. It's emotionally energizing.

I also like the way the characters are put together. They are fleshed out with virtues and flaws. They make mistakes and then move on and live their lives in the best way they know how. They are realistic, and that makes them inspiring. I feel as though Zevin invited us into their heads and their hearts and gave us a reason to care about them. I'd like to have these people as neighbours. Maybe if I spend more time getting to know people, I'll find out I do. How many books can do that for an introvert?

The blurb on the front of the dust jacket calls it a "wonderful, moving, endearing story". It is all of those things, but what it is not is mushy or sappy. The story is told in a way that lets you, the reader, decide how emotionally involved you want to be, rather than wringing the emotion out of you. That alone is reason to buy it and read it. I'm not against e-readers (I use one myself for night-time reading) but for this book, get a paper copy. You'll want to hold it in your hands as you ponder the changes happening to A.J. and his friends and family. You'll want to feel and smell the paper as you immerse yourself in this story of book-lovers.

This book falls into a category of books I love but don't know what to call. They must well written, that's a deal-breaker, with credible characters and plots about quiet lives, well lived.  Others that fit into that category are The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, The Unexpected Journey of Harold Fry, and Gilead. They are all somehow comfortable, and comforting, books, but they also leave me wanting to be better, to do better in some way. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is another one. I wish I could find a thousand more.

It seems I did find a few things to say other than I Love It. I hope you'll read it, and I hope it will encourage you too. I'd like to hear your response to it so please take a minute to come back and add a comment.

Thanks, and may all your books this week be enjoyable.

"Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald"

"Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald" by Therese Anne Fowler

I'm not sure we really needed another fictional tale about the Fitzgeralds, but there it is. This was my book club's selection and I had looked forward to reading it. I think because his name is connected to it, I was hoping for writing as incandescent as Fitzgerald's, which of course makes no sense at all.

Like everyone else, I'd read a fair bit about them and so had a general idea of their lifestyle and their personal problems. This book adds a lot of detail, but being fiction, it can't truly give anyone a better understanding of their lives.

I've read a lot about Zelda's "madness". In this novel she is diagnosed with schizophrenia and she spends a lot of time in asylums. I'm getting a little tired of hearing how crazy she was, while her husband is simply labeled a misunderstood alcoholic and is lauded for generously putting up with her and paying all her medical bills. They were both unceasingly self-involved, but he treated her like a possession and not a person. She was his property and as such was at his mercy in every area of her life. They both had flaws, but just for a change I'd like to see an author hold him accountable for his. Zelda didn't ruin Scott's life, he was more than capable of doing that all by himself.

For me, all the characters in this story fell sort of flat. It was narrated by Zelda, but I don't feel like we were ever really invited into her inner life to know her. Scott was just ridiculous and Hemingway was a jerk. I know it's fiction, but I still expect a book's characters to touch me in some way. These two have a tragic story. It should have invoked an emotional response, but I was just tired of them by the end of the book, especially him.

I read somewhere that authors are best met inside their books. With the Fitzgeralds, and probably a lot of others, I think that might be good advice.
   

"The Solitude of Prime Numbers"

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

I just finished reading this and am still trying to decide what I think of it. The main characters, Alice and Mattia, are both so wounded that they barely function in society. Their painful experiences were hard to read, but it's a credit to the author that he made me feel their misery.

Mattia is haunted by the loss of his twin sister in childhood, a loss for which he is responsible. Alice's life was changed forever when her leg was permanently damaged in a skiing accident as a little girl, for which she blames her father. They suffer through their school years, both the brunt of cruel jokes by other kids, and eventually they meet in all their mutual awkwardness to begin a friendship of sorts.

Mattia is a brilliant student who becomes a Professor of Mathematics at a European university, while Alice quits university and apprentices herself to a photographer. As years pass they grow apart and lose touch. Mattias has always seen himself and Alice as prime numbers, misfits who are unlike everyone else. He compares them specifically to twin primes, those prime numbers that are close together but still separated, never quite touching, like 17 and 19, or 41 and 43.

At one point Mattia thinks that he and Alice are "united by an invisible, elastic thread buried under a pile of meaningless things, a thread that could exist only between two people like themselves: two people who had acknowledged their own solitude within the other." Is that thread strong enough to connect  twin prime numbers that are never side by side?

I can't say I liked the book; it's too full of misery to enjoy it. I do think it's well written, with real insight into the emotional ramifications of childhood trauma. I found the characters' pain almost overwhelming. They can't help, to a certain extent, who they are, but their problems keep them so self-involved that they hurt other people, people who care about them. They are utterly incapable of returning any affection given to them, so everyone gets hurt.

I'm still trying to figure out the ending. I have a fairly good idea about Mattia but exactly what happens with Alice is a little vague. Anyway, do read it if you get the chance. See what you think then please come back and let me know because I'd love to hear other viewpoints. I may not have loved it, but it certainly was memorable.


"A Rather Remarkable Homecoming"

A Rather Remarkable Homecoming by C.A. Belmond

Ok, I've been enjoying the ride but I've had enough. I found this one boring and full of way-too-convenient co-incidences. The dialogue written for the "I" of the story (the narrator, Penny) is cheesy and unbelievable. The whole thing was a bit over the top.

There's a scene where a man has been kidnapped and a ransom is being delivered in exchange for his release, but it's very hard to take a crime scene seriously when the criminals are referred to as "hooligans" - and not by an older person who may have lived when that term was actually used.

In another scene a drug deal is going down and two of the bad guys are said to have "popped" out of a truck. I almost expected them to hug and exchange cell phone numbers.

And, when the victim of the kidnapping was released no one even bothered to ask him if he's alright. Was he hurt, did he suffer? Not important, apparently, when the main characters want to move on and follow another clue.

I enjoy a certain amount of light reading. It's exactly what I need at times. As Anna Quindlan says; "reading has as many functions as the human body, and ...not all of them are cerebral. One is mere entertainment, the pleasurable whiling away of time". The first three in this series were simply the pleasurable whiling away of time, but this fourth one had me rolling my eyes too many times and I just wanted it over.

If you're in the market for some light reading, this series might be just what you're looking for. The fourth book is set up to lead into another, and I just read that there will indeed be a fifth one out sometime this year. As for me, it's time to wade into "Crime and Punishment". I've been putting it off, but I'm ready. It should more than satisfy my current need for something with a little more substance, and will probably send me running eagerly back to the lighter end of my bookshelf when I'm done.

"A Rather Charming Invitation"

A Rather Charming Invitation by C.A. Belmond

In this, the third book of four, Penny and Jeremy are engaged and planning their wedding. Sort of. Penny is procrastinating, putting off choosing invitations, ordering flowers and planning the reception, and is aided in her stalling by a number of family disasters.

When a young female cousin she's never met, and who is currently being arrested, calls her for help, it drags her into the personal lives of a whole new-to-her section of family in France. The family invites them to dinner and offers to loan Penny and Jeremy a priceless family heirloom for their wedding, and of course things go downhill from there.

In the ensuing chaos they rush madly around Europe - this time England, France, Monte Carlo and Switzerland - following leads and getting themselves into some pretty hair-raising situations from which they only narrowly escape.

This book has some interesting history, great locations, and gives the reader a glimpse inside the perfume-making business. There are some memorable characters, like two formidable women, a French aunt and an English grandmother, both of whom are accustomed to having things their way, but who also, even with their quirks and foibles, do have redeeming qualities.

As in the first two books I found the dialogue a bit weak in places but it doesn't matter at this point. The books are fun. I'm having a very nice, very cheap, European vacation brought to me by C.A. Belmond.
 

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