"Watership Down"

Watership Down by Richard Adams

This is a classic children's novel but I didn't read it till it made my Book Club's 2015 reading list. Actually the only reason it was on that list is because I put it there. I've wanted to read it for a long time, but you know what it's like - there's always something else, or a dozen something elses, that need reading first.

I usually begin reading our book club book one week before our meeting. That gives me time to finish it but not enough time to forget what I wanted to say about it. (Growing older is, as Betty Davis said, not for wimps.) This time I left it too late and didn't start it till Sunday. Our meeting is on Wednesday evening. I had just enough time to finish it if I read 125 pages every day. Monday turned out to be a write off of a day so Tuesday and Wednesday I had to read it skimming over some of the descriptions (which were beautiful) and mindlessly barreling through the rest. I was able to take part in the discussion at book club but I felt like I'd cheated myself out of a really good read.

It was comical to hear comments on the title when we had our meeting. Some thought it would have something to do with a ship or submarine and had no idea it was a children's story about rabbits. Watership Down is a location in England. It's where the rabbits in the book make their home after they leave the warren that is about to be destroyed by construction equipment.

The book tells their story as they struggle to find a new home. They meet and escape from various predators. They are taken captive and have to use their wits to make their way to freedom again. Some are lost, some injured, but they keep going, learning to trust their own, and each other's , strengths and talents. Themes of friendship, loyalty and perseverance come through clearly and make for a story that children would find both exciting and satisfying. I found the short epilogue at the end to be one of the most beautiful parts of the book. A little bit sad, but in the very best way.

I think this beautiful story could be read by 9 or 10 year olds on their own, and could be read to younger children in segments. It's well written and the rabbit characters are lovable, but imperfect. I wish I had given it the time and attention it deserves. As quoted on the cover in the picture above: "Everyone who can read English should read it."

"The Bell Jar"

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I had this book on my Kobo reader, thinking I'd read a chapter every night before I went to sleep. Problem is, I couldn't stop once I started. I did the one chapter a night thing for about three nights and couldn't stand it anymore. The next day I started it over again and read the whole thing in a couple of sittings. It's absolutely fascinating. The author writes with such an authentic voice that I think most people who read it must find something of themselves in Esther Greenwood, the main character.

Esther is an attractive, intelligent college student trying to cope with life as her mental health declines. Her downward spiral is so well described that you question it's even happening at first. It's realistic to the point that it seems normal. All of us have had some of these thoughts at one time or another, or at least thoughts similar to Esther's. Eventually though, the darkness descends and you realize things are not normal anymore.

The Bell Jar was first published in 1963, but it's one of those I missed somehow and only got around to reading now. Most of you have probably read it, but if you haven't, really, you have to get yourself a copy. It's brilliant, emotional and tragic. It is said to mirror the author's own struggle with mental illness, a comparison hard to argue when you consider that Sylvia Plath took her own life a month after publication.

I'll never forget this stunning story.
Read it.


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.


 

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