Posts Tagged ‘Mitford’

ordinary light book journal

This February was up and down: weather-wise, work-wise, sleep-wise (the Olympics messed with that last one). But it included some fantastic books. Here’s the latest roundup:

Love and Ruin, Paula McLain
I loved McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, about Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, but frankly wasn’t sure I was up for another novel about the man. But the narrative voice of Martha Gellhorn, a fiery journalist who became his third wife, captivated me. McLain charts their passionate, stormy relationship and Martha’s fierce battle to build her career while living in Ernest’s shadow. Great writing, lots of drama (world and personal) and a searing portrait of complicated love. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 1).

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
This short novel garnered a lot of hype a few years ago, and I finally read it for my book club. It’s a string of vignettes and musings by a highly anxious woman in NYC whose marriage hits a rough patch. The viewpoint flips about halfway through from first to third person. I can see why others found this one compelling, but it didn’t work for me.

Ordinary Light, Tracy K. Smith
Smith, the U.S. poet laureate, turns to prose in this memoir, which chronicles her childhood in California and her mother’s powerful influence on her life. It started slowly for me, but I took my time and enjoyed it, especially the later sections. A few beautiful passages (one set in Lamont Library) and a thoughtful exploration of loss, belief and growing into ourselves. I also read Smith’s striking new collection, Wade in the Water (out in April), for review.

I Shall Not Want, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Russ Van Alstyne is grieving a great loss, and Clare Fergusson is balancing ministry and her assignment in the National Guard. They and the Millers Kill PD, including brand-new officer Hadley Knox, are swept up in a case involving undocumented immigrants, drug smuggling and murder. I can’t get enough of this series; this book was possibly the most powerful and honest yet.

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
This novel opens with teenage arson: a shocking act in most places, but especially in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a meticulously planned, rule-following community. Ng explores the interplay of two contrasting families: the stable, self-assured Richardsons, and newcomer Mia Warren (an itinerant artist) and her daughter Pearl. A page-turner with some compelling characters. I loved Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You, and this is a solid second novel.

To Be Where You Are, Jan Karon
I’m a longtime repeat visitor to Mitford, Karon’s fictional North Carolina town. In this latest novel (#14), retired priest Father Tim finds himself with a new job, as his son and daughter-in-law struggle with their own challenges. I always love visiting Mitford; it’s small and homey, but the struggles are very real. Funny, comforting and wise.

One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Clare Fergusson is struggling to readjust to civilian life after a year in Iraq. She joins a local veterans’ group, and when one of her compatriots ends up dead, she (of course) dives into the investigation. Meanwhile, the other group members are wrestling their own demons, and it’s a small town, so it’s all connected. Powerful and heartbreaking; the seventh in a fantastic series.

Let Your Mind Run: A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory, Deena Kastor (with Michelle Hamilton)
I’m a novice enthusiastic runner; Kastor is a pro and an Olympic medalist. I was fascinated by her memoir of running: her early career, the wisdom she gained from coaches and teammates, and her focus on mental toughness. She’s relentlessly positive but not trite, and I loved following her journey. To review for Shelf Awareness (out April 10).

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?


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advent book stack

We’ve come around to the season of Advent again – that quiet, twinkly time of anticipation before the glorious joy of Christmas. As usual, I’m marking the season by humming “O Come O Come Emmanuel” over and over again, and by reading.

Fittingly, I discovered Advent because of a book: Watch for the Light, a collection of readings for Advent and Christmas, which I picked up at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., many years ago. The contributors are a diverse, thoughtful group of scholars, poets, philosophers and theologians, and their words help me live more deeply into this season every year. From essays by Kathleen Norris and Brennan Manning to poems by T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath (yes, really), this collection always wakes me up, reminds me to pay attention – which is what Advent is all about.

Kathleen Norris’ lovely memoir The Cloister Walk is loosely organized around the liturgical year, and I turned back to the Advent chapters last weekend, rereading them by the light of our glowing Christmas tree. She speaks of reading the words of the prophet Isaiah on the first Sunday of Advent at a Benedictine monastery, and being grateful that such poetry exists in the Bible, and that “it tastes so good in [my] mouth.”

Madeleine L’Engle, another one of my guides, wrote an odd, striking memoir-cum-meditation, The Irrational Season, that is also somewhat tied to the liturgical year. Some of it is a little esoteric for me, but the Advent chapter, “The Night is Far Spent,” is quietly moving. Madeleine writes of being wakeful in the night, standing at the window of her New York City apartment with a mug of bouillon in her hands, musing on time, creation and the mystery of Advent. It’s an image I return to every year.

I fell completely in love with Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice when my friend Julie handed it to me, several Christmases ago. It’s a quiet, lovely story of five rather vaguely connected people who all end up at an old house in northern Scotland at Christmastime. All of them are struggling with different griefs, and all of them find unexpected joy and redemption during their time together. The ending makes me cry.

Someone has said that poetry gets us closest to the mystery of this season, and for that I like Luci Shaw’s collection Accompanied by Angels, which takes us through the life of Jesus. Many of the poems are short, with striking images. Taken together, they form a mosaic that highlights a few new facets of this Jesus who is so well known and yet so mysterious.

I’ve long loved Father Tim Kavanagh and his adventures in Mitford, North Carolina. Shepherds Abiding, the eighth Mitford novel, is a sweet story of one Advent/Christmas season in which Father Tim restores a derelict Nativity scene as a gift for his wife, Cynthia. Meanwhile, other denizens of Mitford are going about their own Christmas business. Like all the Mitford novels, it’s funny, down-to-earth and quietly hopeful.

I reach for this stack of books every Advent, and their words – especially those in Watch for the Light – have become for me part of the fabric of the season, a way to observe these few liminal weeks between Ordinary Time and Christmas. As the days grow suddenly dark and short, I am watching for the light in both literal and metaphorical ways. These words help light the way for me, every year.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading during this Advent season?

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brookline booksmith interior twinkle lights

I’ve been easing into 2015 with some really lovely books – because I need a good story (or a stack of them) in the wintertime. Here’s a quick roundup of what I’ve been reading:

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good, Jan Karon
The newest Mitford novel made me laugh and cry – as they all do. Father Tim and his fellow townspeople are as wise, flawed and engaging as ever.

Murder with Ganache, Lucy Burdette
As Key West food writer Hayley Snow prepares for her best friend’s wedding and deals with tense family members, her teenage stepbrother disappears. Another engaging cozy mystery. (I’ve read the series all out of order, but it’s OK.)

First Impressions, Charlie Lovett
“After five years at Oxford, Sophie Collingwood had mastered the art of reading while walking.” This book has so many things I love: bibliophiles, Oxford, Jane Austen, a sweet love story, a literary mystery. (Though the heroine is impossibly naive at times.) So much fun.

The Grand Tour, Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
This sequel to Sorcery & Cecelia finds cousins Kate and Cecy traveling around Europe with their new husbands, trying to thwart a magical coup. Witty, romantic and even better than book 1.

My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead
I have not read Middlemarch, but I loved this thoughtful literary memoir about it. Mead explores the book’s profound influence on her life while also delving into George Eliot’s life and writing process. (I heard Mead speak at the Boston Book Festival in October; she’s also engaging in person.)

Right Ho, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
Facing romantic troubles and family problems, Bertie Wooster decides to take matters into his own hands – with predictably disastrous results. Jeeves, of course, steps in to save the day. Hilarious and so well written. (My first Jeeves novel.)

I’m linking up with Anne at Modern Mrs Darcy for Quick Lit.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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Some holiday books, a couple of fun adventure tales, more Thursday Next and some serious airplane reading – here’s what I delved into as 2011 drew to a close:

Wildwood, Colin Meloy
Part Narnia (talking animals, evil queen, great battle), part coming-of-age story, part pure fantasy – I enjoyed this story set in “the Impassable Wilderness” near Portland, Oregon. I’d seen Carson Ellis’ work before (she illustrated the fun Mysterious Benedict Society series). She’s also married to Meloy, who is the lead singer of The Decemberists. Anyway, Wildwood is action-packed, entertaining and often quite funny. And it’s the first in a planned trilogy – so I’m staying tuned.

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
I’ve seen the stage play, the Disney version and the Muppet version – but had never read the original story. I enjoyed reading Dickens’ words, particularly the well-known lines in context – though for pure pleasure, I prefer Gonzo’s narration with Rizzo’s asides. A classic, and one I’m glad I finally read.

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels, Jasper Fforde
The BookWorld, as usual, is in dire straits – and it’s up to our heroine to do what she can, while dealing with a cranky teenager, a missing daughter and two written versions of herself, one rebellious, one far too meek. (This series gets more meta with every book.) Another fun literary romp, with lots of diplomatic intrigue, bookish puns and cheeky jokes.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing, Jasper Fforde
The real Thursday Next is missing – so the written Thursday Next must try to find her, while dealing with the usual assortment of odd BookWorld problems, not to mention her own limitations as a fictional character. I missed the real Thursday and her family this time around, but a journey through the BookWorld is always good fun, and we met a couple of entertaining new characters. I’m curious to see what will happen in Book 7 (due out in 2012).

Shepherds Abiding, Jan Karon
I love this Mitford Christmas story – I well up every few pages, even when reading on the subway. Not because life in Mitford is perfect but because it isn’t – and yet these people still face trials and Christmas busyness with faith and joy and humor. And I love watching Father Tim restore a derelict Nativity scene, and rejoicing as Hope Winchester, the bookseller, gets her own happy beginning.

Little Women and Me, Lauren Baratz-Logsted
I’m a longtime devotee of Little Women – so I loved this Thursday Next-esque tale of a modern-day girl who gets transported into the story of the March sisters. Emily tries to keep Beth well and schemes to set Jo up with Laurie – and while the Marches accept her as part of the family, no one can quite remember why she’s there. The narrator did get a bit whiny at times, but overall the book was witty, well-written and fun, with lots of little inside jokes for Alcott fans.

Day of Honey, Annia Ciezadlo
Roxanne recommended this “memoir of food, love and war,” by an American journalist who marries a Lebanese man and follows him to Beirut, then to Baghdad. A deliciously written, thoughtful, incisive memoir on civil war, being a conflict junkie, love and marriage, and the food that binds people together no matter what their culture. (And a stack of delectable-sounding recipes in the back.)

My Life as Laura, Kelly Kathleen Ferguson
The author sent me this book to review. As she faced down a midlife crisis of sorts, Kelly retraced Laura’s pioneer journey – in a prairie dress – and reflected on her lifelong obsession with the Little House series (which she calls “the Books” – I have the same yellow-covered box set). Her narrative voice is witty and engaging, if quirky and sometimes a bit repetitive. A fun journey through the Midwest and one woman’s love of Laura.

All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorps, ed. Dave Isay
I loved this honest, sweet, often funny, touching collection of recorded, transcribed interviews on love, grouped into three sections on love found, lost, and found unexpectedly. StoryCorps is a wonderful oral history project that has recorded thousands of people’s stories – and this sampling was such fun to read. To review for Shelf Awareness (and set to be released right before Valentine’s Day).

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A Red Herring Without Mustard, Alan Bradley
This third Flavia de Luce adventure was just as engaging, smart and funny as the first two. What’s not to love about an 11-year-old sleuth with a passion for poison, who names her bike “Gladys” and is always poking her nose into crime scenes? As usual, I can’t wait for the next book. SO fun.

The Girls from Ames, Jeffrey Zaslow
I devoured this fascinating inside look at 11 women from Ames, Iowa, and the decades-long story of their friendship. The author did his homework – conducting extensive interviews not only with the women, but with many of their families and loved ones. He treats difficult situations with sensitivity, and the depth of these women’s bonds really shines through.

Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, Winifred Gallagher
In our multitasking, ADD-plagued world, attention is seemingly at a premium – yet lots of us spend our days flitting from one task to another, never quite focusing on anything. Gallagher presents a lot of scientific and psychological info (in a readable manner), along with a healthy dose of philosophy, to emphasize the importance of paying attention (ha ha) to where – and how – we direct our attention. (I’ve also read her book House Thinking – equally fascinating.)

The Mitford Years, Books 1-6 (At Home in Mitford, A Light in the Window, These High, Green Hills, Out to Canaan, A New Song, A Common Life), Jan Karon
It’s no secret I love a good dose of comfort reading – and I love this “little town with the big heart” in North Carolina. So I spent the last week of April hiding out in Mitford, with these characters who know and care for one another. This series has so many things I love…faith, family, quirky characters and frequent moments of hilarity. Somehow, spending a little while there always helps me face the world again.

What are you reading these days?

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I’ve been hiding out in Mitford. To the tune of rereading half the series in just a few days, ignoring the stacks of shiny library books on my coffee table. I’ve been alternately chuckling and wiping away tears on the T, not caring who sees me. These books are that good.

I love them for their honest depiction of faith, for the cast of quirky characters filling their pages, for the beautiful ways in which “all things work together for good” for Father Tim and his ever-expanding family. And oh, I’ve needed a good dose of all those things lately.

During a strange transitional season, when I might leave the house in wellies and a coat and come home in ballet flats and a cardigan; when some weekends brim with fun and rich community and others feel oddly barren; when some days on the job are fulfilling and others are just plain flat; when I alternately long for the comfort, safety and warmth of Abilene and try to enjoy this new adventure…

…it’s nice to escape to “the little town with the big heart,” where everyone takes care of each other, where everyone is known, and where, somehow, things always work out for the best.

Where do you go to hide out?

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I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately.

Shocker, I know; but I think I’ve been doing it for a different reason than usual. I’ve been feeling a bit adrift since the holidays, as we returned from Texas, and as J and everyone else have headed back to work. I’ve had a lot of freelance work to do, but am still spending much of my time alone in our apartment. And the contrast between my solitude and the warm embrace of our dear ones in Abilene has seemed greater than ever.

So I’ve been reaching mostly for books about small, tightly knit communities: Creagan, Scotland; Big Stone Gap, Virginia; Avonlea and Carlisle and Glen St. Mary, Prince Edward Island; Deep Valley, Minnesota. The kind of small towns where you run into people you know at the grocery store or walking down the street. Places where a close circle of friends are in and out of each other’s daily lives, spending real time together, not just talking on the phone or via email. Places like the ones listed in the comments of Mike’s recent post, where he asked readers, “Do you have a Mayberry?”

Boston isn’t our Mayberry. Not even close. We still haven’t met many of our neighbors; we have to drive for a while to get to church or go to Nate and Abi’s or have dinner with other friends. I love walking around the city, especially the Beacon Hill area, but then it’s a 20-minute T ride back home. Here in Quincy, I can walk to the branch library and the drugstore and the post office, but I’m still not likely to run into anyone I know. We are – I am especially – still feeling our way, trying to find our place in this new community. In some ways it will never feel like Mayberry, or like Mitford, or like Abilene. That’s all right.

However, it’s still a bit lonely sometimes, and it’s comforting to know I can pick up a book and head to one of my favorite small towns whenever I need to. I don’t even have to buy an airplane ticket or fill up the car with gas. All I have to do is turn the page.

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