The Queen, Cassandra Austen, and Me

In the hubbub surrounding the recent passing of the queen, the word I keep encountering in all kinds of places is duty.

It’s a concept I was already mulling over as I finished the excellent Miss Austen by Gill Hornby. The novel, wreathed in calm shot through with an old loneliness, extrapolates from a famous but mysterious incident in the Austen family—that after Jane’s early death, her sister Cassandra was known to destroy correspondence written by her famous sister.

After all, “Cassandra was the executor of her sister’s estate: the keeper of her flame; the protector of her legacy.” Our protagonist is defined by this sense of obligation. Wearily in old age, Cassandra observes to herself, “A single woman should never outlive her usefulness.” Later, she remarks, “It is as if Nature can only throw up one capable person to support each generation. In my family that has always been me. […] Our fortune is to have families who need us. It is our duty, our pleasure. Our very worth!”

Throughout the novel, then, Hornby works to valorize this humble dedication to duty, illustrating the unflashy devotion Cassandra shows her sister, Jane, and their family, even when it requires self-denial. In this way, Cassandra resembles the quieter heroines her sister dreams up: the Elinors, the Fannys, the Annes. This duty is no pitiful delusion, either, for as Cassandra declares silently, “Look at me, Isabella! I have known happiness. Without man or marriage, I found a happiness, true and sublime!” (And this, the cautious reader should note, is not revealed to be a secret anachronistic fling, either, rest assured.)

Struck by tragedy while still a young woman, Cassy resolves, “From the moment the news had been broken to her—badly, insensitively, not as she would have liked or deserved, but no matter—Cassandra had identified that as the occasion to which she must rise.”

By Doyles of London, via Wikipedia

While we can and maybe elsewhere should argue whether the late queen’s duty was one worth always following, even when it pitted her against ex-subjects in the developing world or her own family, certainly we can recognize that in her day to day life, in both its splendor and tedium, Elizabeth unstintingly gave her life to her perceived duty.

And maybe that’s what fascinated so many of us, whether we were avid consumers of royal gossip or simply casual viewers of The Crown: her duty was both like and unlike our own. In her decades of service were jewels and rich brocade, private jets and dignitaries, far from our own sometimes dull-as-dishwater domestic duties. And yet there is something recognizable, something lacking in the lives of so many public figures, who seem committed only to a life of ambition or pleasure. This may be part of Elizabeth’s enduring appeal for many, that, like the costume dramas to which so many of us kinda religious, kinda stay-at-homey ladies find ourselves drawn, in Queen Elizabeth we recognized a woman like ourselves, trying (though sometimes failing) to discern what was right and to do it — rather than just what would make her happy.

We have, of course, the purer, undiluted example of the saints. But for so many of these, the example is often a fierce and alien flame: a blazing martyrdom, a heroic triumph. That’s why we gravitate to the small and attentive dutifulness of figures like St Thérèse of Lisieux, I think, toiling away in their mundane, quiet corners, but find the writ-large duties of the royal materfamilias so fascinating.

Cassandra’s reward for a lifetime of service comes in perusing a last letter of Jane’s, in which Jane deems her the “dearest, tender, watchful sister,” and, with a rare straight-faced earnestness, proclaims, “As to what I owe her, I can only cry over it and pray God to bless her more and yet more.”

It’s all any of us can work for then—a little gratitude, a little recognition, the prayers of those around us, whether we end up as the longest reigning monarch of England or the sister in the shadows. I hope that ultimately Queen Elizabeth found those things for herself—and that I might, too.

2021 in Books

Total: 60. Comparable to last year’s record-breaking year, likely due to the two P’s, pandemic and pregnancy. Woohoo.

Fiction Favorites:

  • Crossbows and Crucifixes: A Novel of the Priest Hunters and the Brave Young Men Who Fought Them (Henry Garnett): what a subtitle, right? Despite the hokiness of the title, this was a fun one to read aloud to Pip — genuinely engaging and not overly didactic. I don’t know if I’d recommend it broadly to adults and I doubt I’ll read it aloud to Scout, but I’m glad we found it for him.
  • St Patrick’s Summer: A Children’s Adventure Catechism (Marigold Hunt): I promise not to choose only sectarian children’s books!!
  • Once Upon a River (Diane Sitterfield): See? A delightful audiobook centered around a pub on the Thames
  • None Other Gods (Robert Hugh Benson): OK, another Catholic thing but for adults! An engaging story of one young man’s self-abnegation — funny and challenging by turns.
  • The Midnight Library (Matt Haig): just a really fun audiobook
  • Very Sincerely Yours (Kerry Winfrey): just likable people falling in love. The sort of thing you want in a rom com but I (for one) can rarely find.

Nonfiction Favorites:

  • The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom (Corrie ten Boom). I talk about this one, which everyone except me has read, back here.

Notes & Trends:

I was all over the place; you can see the different threads of aloud-with-kids, passing morning sickness time, pre-pregnancy, etc.

  1. Crossbows and Crucifixes: A Novel of the Priest Hunters and the Brave Young Men Who Fought Them (Henry Garnett): aloud for Pippin’s school as a sub for an AO choice.
  2. Home (Marilynne Robinson): re-read
  3. Beach Read (Emily Henry): recommendation from my sister
  4. Burning for Revenge (John Marsden): comfort re-read
  5. A Killing Frost (John Marsden): comfort re-read
  6. The Dead of Night (John Marsden): comfort re-read
  7. Tomorrow When the War Began (John Marsden): comfort re-read
  8. Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh): re-read, aloud to Pip for fun
  9. Evvie Drake Starts Over (Linda Holmes)
  10. The Switch (Beth O’Leary)
  11. Still Life (Louise Penny)
  12. The Atlas of Love (Laurie Frankel)
  13. Dragons in a Bag (Zetta Elliott): aloud with Pip
  14. Barren Among the Fruitful: Navigating Infertility with Hope, Wisdom and Patience (Amanda Hope Haley): loaner from my friend Lindsay
  15. The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)
  16. A Thousand Acres (Jane Smiley)
  17. First Frost (Sarah Addison Allen); audiobook
  18. Garden Spells (Sarah Addison Allen); audiobook
  19. The Light Invisible (Robert Hugh Benson)
  20. None Other Gods (Robert Hugh Benson)
  21. The Moonlight School (Suzanne Woods Fisher); audiobook
  22. The Bride Test (Helen Hoang); audiobook
  23. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (Barbara Kingsolver); re-read, audiobook
  24. The Modern Cottage Garden: A Fresh Approach to a Classic Style (Greg Loades)
  25. Lemons (Melissa Savage); audiobook, recommendation from Pip
  26. The Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom (Corrie ten Boom)
  27. Patron Saint of First Communicants: The Story of Blessed Imelda Lambertini (Mary Fabyan Windeatt); aloud to the kids for school
  28. The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Sitterfield); audiobook
  29. You Have a Match (Emma Lord)
  30. The Vanishing Half (Brit Bennett); audiobook, recommendation by Beca
  31. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (Gail Honeyman); audiobook
  32. The Midnight Library (Matt Haig); audiobook
  33. The Half-Acre Homestead: 46 Years of Building and Gardening (Lloyd Kahn)
  34. In the Time of the Butterflies (Julia Alvarez)
  35. Mandy (Julie Andrews Edwards); re-read, read aloud to Scout for school
  36. St Patrick’s Summer: A Children’s Adventure Catechism (Marigold Hunt); aloud to the kids for school
  37. The Long Winter (Laura Ingalls Wilder); aloud to the kids
  38. Once Upon a River (Diane Sitterfield); audiobook
  39. On to Oregon (Honoré Willsie-Morrow): audiobook with kids
  40. The Little Duke (Charlotte Yonge); aloud with Pip for school
  41. The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell); audiobook
  42. Real Learning Revisted (Elizabeth Foss)
  43. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz); audiobook
  44. By the Book (Amanda Sellett); audiobook
  45. Even as We Breathe (Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle)
  46. The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry (Wendell Berry); audiobook
  47. Musical Chairs (Amy Poeppel)
  48. Green Dolphin Street (Elizabeth Goudge)
  49. The Abolition of Man (C.S. Lewis); re-read
  50. Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years (Catherine Newman)
  51. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky); re-read
  52. Jayber Crow (Wendell Berry); re-read
  53. Teaching From Rest: A Homeschooler’s Guide to Unshakeable Peace (Sarah Mackenzie); re-read
  54. Anne of the Island (L.M. Montgomery): audiobook, re-read
  55. The Life Intended (Kristen Harmel)
  56. Anne’s House of Dreams (L.M. Montgomery): audiobook, re-read
  57. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee): re-read
  58. The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame): re-read, aloud to Pip for school
  59. Yours Very Sincerely (Kerry Winfrey): gift from my sister
  60. The Guest List (Lucy Foley): audiobook

June Books

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Synopsis: Raskolnikov is going through something major. In the midst of his melancholia (?) / funk (?) / morbid obsession (?) he convinces himself that murdering an unlovable old pawnbroker is justifiable. But can he live with himself?

Let me just say you can’t really discuss a major work like this, at least not in the same way I’ll discuss and dismiss the books below. All I’ll say is that I’m glad I tackled it, despite dreading it; that it read easier and I brought more to the story than when I first read it at 18; and that it made me think all over again about this ten-year old murder committed by one of my Great Books classmates. How do any of us pry apart pathology and sin and fatal philosophy? How do any of us determine culpability? And yet, of course, we must. (The translation I read this time, though it had a cover that freaked out the kids, probably also helped make this reading less impenetrable.)

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Synopsis: New to the Dakota Territory, the Ingalls family are not new to difficult frontier living. But an unremitting series of severe blizzards will test them, and their community, in ways they never imagined.

As it was for most of you, 2020 was our own personal long winter, summed up hilariously (and with lots of profanity, be warned) in this piece from McSweeney’s. Reading The Long Winter aloud to my kids during our stir-crazy months of isolation helped us keep perspective, but naturally wasn’t an entirely delightful experience, not funny like some of our favorite read-alouds, which is probably why it took us long past wintertime to finish, but profitable nonetheless. As a bonus, it also made me deeply glad all over again we didn’t take that position in the Midwest.

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

Synopsis: Claire Waverley is the contented if somewhat aloof spinster of her small North Carolina town, where her popular catering, featuring edible flowers from her grandmother’s garden, earns her a reputation as more than a little magical. She’s the Waverley sister who stayed, but soon she’ll have to contend with the arrival of her little sister Sydney in “the year where everything changed.”

There is a particular category of books I really enjoy but rarely come across. Like romantic comedy films, too often the books I pick up thinking they might fit this elusive designation are too frothy or frivolous or explicit. Garden Spells might gain entry into the category, though — the “light and bright and sparkling” woman’s fiction (?) / literary fiction (?) — the sort of thing you want to read when you have a cold and plan to read for hours and hours. (Marisa de los Santos, and particularly her Love Walked In are the gold standard for what I’m talking about.) I listened to this as an audiobook and it lit up the time I spent hand-washing dishes at our Airbnb. It isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s baking and gardening and sisterhood and romance and a little frisson of magic and just undemanding.

The Light Invisible by Robert Hugh Benson

Synopsis: An old priest relates to the narrator, a young priest, a series of visions and spiritual experiences from his life.

Last month I loved None Other Gods and this was my other RHB haul. And this one I…nothinged. It was OK. Very short, with some spiritual insight but many parts that felt heavy-handed. Unfortunately the vision that stands out most vividly to me a few weeks after reading is a part I hated, about the spiritual consolation of the death of a child. I couldn’t help thinking that in the ranks of Plotless Books About Old Clergymen Reflecting On Their Lives, this was no Gilead.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Synopsis: In the world of high-prestige butlers, Stevens has dedicated his life to a dying profession, sacrificing love, self-knowledge, everything to his trade. (Stevens is such a professional that we never even learn his first name.) But over the course of a long drive across a countryside where servants are leaving big houses, as Stevens himself grows old, he must confront his choices and weigh whether they were the right ones.

A beautiful, fairly shattering exploration of how we actually think, remember, and understand our lives, and especially vivid after we’ve all thought about upstairs-downstairs dynamics through the prism of Downton Abbey. Sobering, even when it’s funny, and always lovely.

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Synopsis: Think King Lear, but pitch it among a successful Midwestern farm dynasty.

Oh gosh, I guess I liked this, but it was brutal! King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare, so I snatched this from a pile of books my grandmother-in-law was giving away and didn’t really think about what “modern adaptation of Lear” would mean, but even Pippin knows about Shakespearean tragedies: EVERYBODY DIES. My GIL Judy didn’t find any of the characters sympathetic, but I did, at least at first, and as the book is told from Goneril’s perspective, this definitely fell into “of the devil’s party” territory. I thought the application of the old plot to Smiley’s setting worked well without feeling forced to perfectly correspond, and was pleasantly surprised to find the critique of industrial agriculture running throughout.

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen

Synopsis: More Waverleys! It’s ten years since the events of Garden Spells and here we follow the angst currently surrounding Claire, Sydney, and Sydney’s teenage daughter Bay.

Did we need more Waverleys? Not necessarily. Is the plot, as in Garden Spells, a not especially satisfying afterthought? Yes. Is the characterization of the small town charming? Sure. Was it fun? Yes. Bonus points for a sympathetic not-quite villain and the unconventional teen love story. Boo for a very deus-ex-machina adoption storyline.

Barren Among the Fruitful: Navigating Infertility with Hope, Wisdom and Patience by Amanda Hope Haley

I don’t know whether it was reading First Frost and A Thousand Acres, both of which feature infertility plots, or answering so many questions about our family size while we were back home this month, or just coming up on the due date again of our lost little one, but I finally felt ready to read this little book, loaned to me years ago by a friend who’d struggled with infertility so I could better understand another friend’s struggle (who I’m pleased to say now has a toddler and a second baby on the way). While a lot of this I couldn’t relate to — written from a Protestant perspective, it left all fertility technology on the table — and because I do, in fact, have three living children, it did help me to understand what God could be doing in the lives of all of us with fewer children than we’d hoped for.

May Books

Most of what I read this month was eleventy billion pages of Crime and Punishment, if you must know, but I did make it through these guys:

The Moonlight School by Suzanne Woods Fisher

Synopsis: It’s 1911 and Lucy Wilson is looking for a fresh start when she arrives in rural Kentucky to work for her strong-willed, charismatic cousin Cora Wilson Stewart, superintendent of schools. She carries her own grief and guilt, and along with it, her prejudices against the mountain people she encounters.

I was not prepared for this book — somehow I didn’t realize it was Christian fiction, a genre I don’t usually read, although it did remind me pleasantly of reading Christy as a teen, and I guess that is also inspirational fiction? At first I found passages too cloying, but I was drawn in by the fascinating culture Fisher was describing. The plot felt a bit stilted, as we don’t even get to the creation of the Moonlight School (a chance for illiterate adults to gain some education) until quite late in the book, with an extraneous thread of romance and the solving of a mystery I found both too neat and kind of…heavy-handed. That’s a lot of complaints, but I liked it. Send me more book recommendations about adult literacy and/or Appalachia!

None Other Gods by Robert Hugh Benson

Synopsis: Frank Guiseley walks away from Cambridge, his inheritance and his family when he enters the Catholic church. Instead, he takes to the roads of England, feeling out his faith and encountering all kinds of people in his rambles through the Edwardian countryside as he undergoes a sort of purification.

Why do I get high and mighty about Christian fiction and then make glaring exceptions for books like this? Because I, like you, contain multitudes, dear reader. In my very first trip to a bookstore after becoming fully vaccinated, I stumbled upon this book and another of Robert Hugh Benson’s books at the neighborhood used bookstore and got very, very excited, then plowed through this on a romantic swampside anniversary trip. (Multitudes, I tell you.) RHB was a name I’d heard bandied about, and he definitely carries echoes of many other authors I love, especially Chesterton, and some of his settings and humorous details feel very Evelyn Waugh. There are more lyrical descriptions, especially of nature, than in those others, though, which help lighten the serious trajectory of Guiseley’s life. Read more about Benson’s short but extraordinary life here — I’m looking forward to trying the other book of his I scooped up, too.

Takeaway Passage:

“Religion doesn’t seem to me a thing like Art or Music, in which you can take refuge. It either covers everything, or it isn’t religion. Religion never has seemed to me (I don’t know if I’m wrong) one thing, like other things, so that you can change about and back again. It’s either the background and foreground all in one, or it’s a kind of game. It’s either true, or it’s a pretense.”

Mary Azarian: Wendell Berry for Small Fry

Woodcuts are not a medium I naturally gravitate toward in children’s book illustrations. I miss the soft hues that characterize, say, Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius, and will always have a weakness for watercolors, but Azarian’s strident, rustic woodcuts carry their own sparse beauty.

Here Comes Darrell: Schubert, Leda, Azarian, Mary: 0046442416054:  Amazon.com: Books

My introduction to Mary Azarian came years ago when her charming book with Leda Schubert, Here Comes Darrell was reprinted in a collection of truck stories I scored for Pippin. Darrell is a farmer in rural Vermont who fills his year serving his neighbors until he finally must accept his neighbors’ help in the end to repair his long-neglected barn roof. It was my favorite in the anthology and often found me tearing up by the end.

Rural community! Neighborly care! Small-scale agriculture! I thought of the story again while reading so much Wendell Berry this year, and so lugged home a stack of Azarian’s work from the library to read through and test out on my children/captive victims.

The comparison between the two artist/thinkers is not unfounded, as it turns out — Azarian has done woodcuts to accompany Berry’s poems, such as here. Azarian grew up on a Virginia farm and, after an education at Smith College, moved to Vermont with her family where at various times she taught in a one-room school house, farmed, and worked full-time on her woodcuts. (I collected this last information from her wikipedia page, which is clearly and adorably edited by one of her grandkids.)

While Azarian serves as an illustrator to many authors, she’s definitely developed a particular niche. Here are some of her books our family enjoyed:

From Dawn till Dusk by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock

Discusses the protagonist’s siblings’ complaints about the hard work of their upbringing on a Vermont farm by juxtaposing each with the fun to be had in each situation. My girls especially loved the barn kittens.

Tuttle’s Red Barn: The Story of America’s Oldest Family Farm by Richard Michelson

This longer-length picture book is a great living book for moving through the history of one particular piece of New Hampshire farmland, continuously owned by one family since Pilgrim days. You can watch the permutations of each generation in many arenas: the evolution of the farm house, the diversification of the farm economy, the recycling of names from generation to generation. Spoiler alert: I read up on the place afterwards and it’s since been sold out of the family. (This is my second-most-depressing post-book research finding, second only to learning several people in On to Oregon were soon after killed in a raid.)

Barn Cat: A Counting Book by Carol P. Saul

For the youngest listeners — a vaguely Kliban-esque cat encounters a variety of animals around the farm in her quest for a bowl of fresh milk.

Before We Eat: From Farm to Table by Pat Brisson

The most Berryian of these books, Before We Eat is a simple litany of the people to whom we owe thanks as the producers of our food. The gentle rhyming text highlight the sources of various foods and concludes with an open-air intergenerational meal. “Sitting at this meal we share, / we are grateful and aware, / sending thanks upon the air… / to those workers everywhere.”

Image via

A Gardener’s Alphabet by Mary Azarian

We have a flower alphabet book already, so I was pleased to see the diversity of Azarian’s selections for each letter were not confined to just flowers.

Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel by Leslie Connor

In a vaguely Miss Rumphius story arc, Miss Bridie leaves Ireland with only a shovel and uses it to build a beautiful, satisfying life for herself in New England.

Have you read any Mary Azarian before? What other children’s book illustrators point to the beauty of a simple life for you?

April Book Reviews

This was a lighter reading month — both because it’s warm enough to begin frantically putting things in the ground and because I’m slowly wading through Crime and Punishment for Well-Read Mom. (Pippin’s Dog Man: Grime and Punishment is apparently not an acceptable substitute.)

Lemons by Melissa Savage

Synopsis: When nine-year-old Lemonade Liberty Witt’s mother dies, she leaves behind her city to move in with a grandfather she’s never met, in a small town in northern California obsessed with Bigfoot. Her mom named her Lemonade hoping she’d always be able to make lemonade out of the worst situations, but has Lemonade lost her ability to find the good as life hands her lemon after lemon?

My first-ever book recommendation from Pippin, who loved the audiobook. He says it’s the sort of book Yoda would assign Luke Skywalker because it talks about overcoming sorrow and anger. High praise!! As an adult reader, I found this book fine — the narrator was a little squeaky (think the little brunette in Garfunkel & Oates) and the story was fairly predictable for a jaundiced old reader like myself. But I thought its emphasis on emotional resiliency, its quirky cast, and its charming setting all made it a good story for Pip and a pleasant enough read for me.

The Modern Cottage Garden: A Fresh Approach to a Classic Style by Greg Loades

Mr. Loades, I guess I don’t like prairie perennials all that much, or at least, I find it hard to get excited about ornamental grasses. But I appreciate your emphasis on working with a gardener’s whims in accumulating plants, and your challenge to extend the season of interest for a garden with late bloomers and interesting foliage.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

I remember clearly reading this beside the pool the summer after Uganda, the summer we rented a pool house, back in 2009. I was 23, and couldn’t cook very well, although most of what I knew I’d picked up cooking seasonally (by force) in the Rwenzori Mountains the year before. At the time I was interested, but not especially motivated: adult life was already bewildering enough without adding in any additional strictures. Now it’s interesting to see how much I’ve learned and grown and changed in the interim, and to find myself with the margins to keep pushing more into Kingsolver’s direction. (And, bonus, we are now in the same growing zone!)

Takeaway Passage: “When we traded homemaking for careers, we were implicitly promised economic independence and worldly influence. But a devil of a bargain it has turned out to be in terms of daily life. We gave up the aroma of warm bread rising, the measured pace of nurturing routines, the creative task of molding our families’ tastes and zest for life; we received in exchange the minivan and the Lunchable.”

The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry by Wendell Berry

I finally made it through this behemoth, narrated yet again by the lovely Nick Offerman. There was some overlap with the collection of Berry’s essays I listened to earlier in the pandemic, The Unsettling of America. I’m still not convinced audiobook is the way to go on these — I had to stop periodically because I’d realize I wasn’t retaining anything and try again weeks or months later, and these are definitely meaty ideas that would benefit from being marked up so I could wrestle with them and remember them better later.

The collection’s essays, in seeking to distill Berry’s ideas and writings across five decades, tackle local food economies; our relation to place; the human responsibility to care, both for our landscape and each other; and critique technology. Berry, as ever, resists clear conservative/liberal definitions and challenges the reader. This would be an excellent introduction to Berry and such fun for a reading group or book club to work through.

The Bride Test by Helen Hoang

Synopsis: Vietnamese-American Khải Diep’s mom, refusing to accept that her son is successful, dutiful but a loner (who’s ever heard of autism in Vietnam?), takes matters into her own hands when she brings home Esme Tran. Esme, raised in desperate poverty in Vietnam, has her own reasons for accepting an offer to spend a summer in the US trying to romance an eligible — if resistant — bachelor. But what lessons do Khải and Esme need to learn about themselves before they’re ready to love another?

The same is true for romcom books as for romcom movies, I guess — while I claim to like the genre, I rarely find one that actually satisfies me. This one was raunchier than I’d hoped. I really, really don’t need a play-by-play of the male love interest’s arousal at any given moment. (I find Modern Mrs. Darcy’s distinction between open- and closed-door romance helpful; I’m closed-door all the way.) I was interested in the conversations about culture, poverty, privilege, and the agency of women, though, and enjoyed the relationship between Khải and his brother, Quan, who accepted how Khải was different while challenging his little brother when he needed it.

Takeaway Passage: “My heart works in a different way, but it’s yours. You’re my one.”

March Reviews

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Synopsis: Like every good novel heroine, Eleanor Oliphant has life figured out. Her life just happens to look different than those of other heroines: As she puts a traumatic childhood behind her, she manages a functional work life and crippling loneliness with structure, frankness, and a weekend bottle of vodka. That is, until she sees a singer perform and falls for him hard. Can she overhaul her life to make it more normal, more appealing? And what about if her past insists on intruding?

I liked but didn’t love this. I liked Eleanor, and many of the characters who gradually populated her lonely life. I laughed aloud at points and cheered for Eleanor. But the ending included what felt like a superfluous bit of showmanship in a plot twist — I think a quieter ending would have suited me better.

Takeaway Passage: “There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.”

Confessions of an Organized Homemaker: The Secrets of Uncluttering Your Home and Taking Control of Your Life by Deniece Schofield

Another recommendation from Real Learning Revisiting — surprisingly engaging prose and weirdly nostalgic, as the author, revising her book for the 1990s, is basically chronicling the minutiae of my suburban childhood. A shocking amount of the content was outdated, things have changed so in one generation (!), but it did get me to start slowly reorganizing my cabinets and basement, making order out of chaos in this weird, still season as I waited for spring.

The Exiles by Christine Baker Kline

Synopsis: Follow Evangeline, an unworldly new governess whose missteps lead her to prison and from there to a sentence of transport to the colonies. She, and the women she meets along the way, will form a chorus that speaks of the injustices of colonial life in Tasmania.

I hated this! So much! And yet I listened to it all! I was excited to read a book set in colonial Tasmania, but the book was unremittingly and sometimes gleefully grim and while I get that Kline set out to show the harsh realities of prison transport and the powerlessness of women in the early 1800s, it was just a lot to deal with, and not worth it. Also — and, ok, I’m not that good at placing accents — I felt like some of the reader’s here were Not Good.

Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards (yes, that Julie Andrews)

Synopsis: Mandy lived in the orphanage all her life, but suddenly new vistas open up when she discovers a forgotten cottage just beyond the orphanage grounds. Soon she’s sneaking every spare moment to make the little cottage her own, but at what cost?

I remember reading and loving this as a tween, but found it just better than meh as an adult. As a kid, I found stories of kids striking out on their own, and especially the mundane details of their housekeeping, fascinating. (Hey, look at me now!) But rereading it as an adult, I was struck by how wobbly Edwards is in walking the very delicate psychological territory of an (obviously traumatized) orphan presented with a new home. (If you want to know what I’m talking about, think about how carefully Gertrude Chandler Warner skirts around the deaths of the Aldens’ parents in Boxcar Children. The parents have to die so the kids can have this adventures, but also the kids can’t be at all broken by the experience or the book won’t be a fun adventure!) Edwards keeps tiptoeing into Mandy’s psyche when I think it would be better to just gloss over that reality or abandon the project entirely. Still, I was reading it, a chapter or so a week, to Scout, and she LOVED it, so I guess that’s the point. Just be a kid, and think about how fun it would be to grow your own garden and decorate your own little cottage. (If only your parents would just kick it so you could go to the orphanage!!)

St Patrick’s Summer: An Adventure Catechism by Marigold Hunt

Synopsis: Cecilia and Michael are just a couple of kids in the British countryside, wiling away their days until they can make their First Communion when HOLY MOLY St. Patrick himself starts appearing sporadically to elucidate theology and church history.

This was so good, you guys. I know I made fun of it in the synopsis, but seriously, it has glimmers of a more focused, more Catholic and and more rigorous Narnia. We have been doing a very inane video-based First Reconciliation and First Communion prep the church requires, and while I think Pip learns something there and certainly enjoys the cartoon gerbil (!), I looked forward to this book to come along behind and do the heavy lifting. There’s time travel and apparitions amongst the theologizing, and concepts are broken down with helpful analogies. My kids and I particularly connected with references to the persecutions under Queen Elizabeth because of our time in York in 2019, especially at the Bar Convent Heritage Centre. A couple caveats: St Patrick’s Summer is firmly pre-Vatican II so you may have to explain some differences in the Mass to children unfamiliar with the Latin Mass, and it’s also not even a little bit ecumenical, so while there are explanations and beautiful passages that I think would still work well in a high church Anglican family read aloud, some of it is going to be a bit uncomfortable.

The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett

Synopsis: Stella and Desirée Vignes are identical twins, inseparable and firmly ensconced in 1960s small town Mallard, Louisiana where fair skin and “white” features are everything, even if you are, technically speaking, still classified as “colored.” Then they light out together for New Orleans, and it’s not long before they prove not so inseparable after all. The girls’ lives diverge as Stella disappears, bent on passing as white; Desirée returns to Mallard fleeing an abusive marriage — with a very dark daughter in tow.

I wanted to love this more than I did, as it came highly recommended. The beginning was compelling — as an audiobook, the variations of tone and accent are stupendous — but something about the pacing felt off. We abruptly veered from Desirée’s story and by the time we looped back to her head (only a few days later in my reading!), I’d lost the thread of who she was, having seen her from so many other perspectives. I wanted more on the men in the novel, especially Early. And while I get that the book was about all kinds of loneliness, alienation, and not belonging, I thought Bennett cast her net a bit wide and drew some false equivalences that clouded what she was trying to say. Beautiful prose and lovely characters, though, prickly and broken and loving.

Takeaway Passage: “When you married someone, you promised to love every person he would be. He promised to love every person she had been. And here they were, still trying, even though the past and the future were both mysteries.”

Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City by Eric Toensmeier

A book out of Holyoke, where I cut my teeth in librarianship! It was so cozy to read about references to all the landscapes that hosted my grad school years, and it made me wish the book had come out while I was still working in Holyoke, as it would have helped me to understand the city better. I’m skeptical of the low-effort claims of permaculture — it’s cool they don’t have to weed, but they’re also out hand-pollinating some of their trees, so I suspect it’s at the very least a wash. Still, much more approachable than my other recent library checkout, The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach, which will forever live in my memory as “the book about peeing on plants,” but most of which I didn’t understand. (I’m not reviewing that one as I only spent about two hours skimming it and refusing to try to understand its weird charts.)

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Synopsis: Vida Winter is the world’s most famous author, a cross between Charles Dickens and J.K. Rowling. But here’s the thing: she famously never tells the truth about herself interviews. That is, until she summons reclusive bookseller Margaret Lea to her spooky manor, inviting Margaret to write Winter’s biography. But is the fantastic story Margaret is hearing real? And if so, what is she supposed to do with Vida Winter’s story?

People I know who’ve read this adore it and prefer it very much to Once Upon a River, so I was surprised at how much I disliked it! But maybe the explanation is in that eternal question from I Capture the Castle — “Which would be better – Jane with a touch of Charlotte, or Charlotte with a touch of Jane?” For me, the answer is obvious and unequivocal: Jane all the way, and down with the Brontës. And this, dear reader, is a Brontë book. Still lovely prose and a mystery that kept me reading even as it exasperated me, though.

Takeaway Passage: “People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in the ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.”

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

Synopsis:

This is a book I was probably supposed to read between the ages of 15 and 21 but somehow didn’t. And it was worth the wait! For a lifelong Christian, I feel like I have a pretty low tolerance for earnest Christianese in books (…and conversation), but Corrie never made me roll my eyes with her gentle faith and her family’s. The story was staggering (I didn’t know it), especially, and unfairly, in the context of a nice, dumpy late middle-age spinster. (Can anyone else think of another conventionally unattractive heroine in the same vein?) Just a truly uplifting read and a very good Holy Week pick.

Takeaway Passage: “Mama’s love had always been the kind that acted itself out with soup pot and sewing basket. But now that these things were taken away, the love seemed as whole as before. She sat in her chair at the window and loved us. She loved the people she saw in the street—and beyond: her love took in the city, the land of Holland, the world. And so I learned that love is larger than the walls which shut it in.”

February Books

Real Learning Revisited by Elizabeth Foss

Synopsis: More or less a tour through the Foss family homeschool, both at the time of the book’s original publication and now (thus the “revisited”). Foss’s whole-life approach is Catholic, Charlotte Mason-inspired, and, as a wry friend noted, very “NoVA.”

I struggled a bit with the tone of this for some reason. Maybe if I had read it earlier in my homeschooling research I would have found her a little less superwoman and smug in some sections — it really seemed like she was able to spin all the plates effortlessly most of the time. This is a critique of the book’s voice, rather than the actual content, or, heaven forbid, poor Elizabeth Foss’s actual character. (Maybe if I were a longtime blog reader I’d cut Foss more slack — Kendra Tierney is similarly super-capable and she doesn’t annoy me.) Still, this was the first book-length synthesis of Charlotte Mason philosophy and Catholic educational theory I’ve read, and valuable for those early philosophical sections, as well as for some of the closing sections. (I especially liked “What I’m Not Going to Tell You.”) Also, she may have softened my heart just slightly toward team sports. (But seriously, ugh.)

Takeaway Passage: “[P]arenting will always be more about self-discipline than it is about bending or shaping a child’s will.”

On to Oregon by Honoré Willsie Morrow

Synopsis: When his parents both die suddenly along the Oregon Trail, 13-year-old John Sager takes responsibility for his six younger siblings, including a newborn, as they press on to Oregon despite many obstacles.

A book recommendation I got from Real Learning Revisiting, so there’s value right there. We worked through this as an audiobook whenever I needed to run errands and everyone was enthralled to varying degrees, with Pip being the most enthusiastic. (Foss had mentioned it appealed most to her eldest son and improved his attitude to his younger siblings — my initial reason for trying it!) I found the historical detail interesting and it tied in well with our current work with Classically Catholic Memory — as a librarian, I also appreciated how the author cited diaries and letters from her research so my kids could see research in action. On the other hand, I found the constant peril of the newborn baby sister painful (probably a legacy from my miscarriage) and the attitude toward Native Americans required a lot of conversations — probably good to have those, but also a little painful. (Then again, original publication date: 1926.)

In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Synopsis: Explores the lives of the Mirabal sisters and the enormous impact their lives and deaths held on the Trujillo-era Dominican Republic.

I know nothing about the Dominican Republic! Except that maybe some good baseball players come from there (?) and also that it’s on the same island as Haiti! (I mean, I think?) Still, In the Time of the Butterflies completely engrossed me, though: the political intrigue, the nuances of four very different sisters, the question of what we owe our families, our faith and our nation. Lovely prose, lovely book.

Takeaway Passage: “‘Dictatorships,’ he was saying, ‘are pantheistic. The dictator manages to plant a little piece of himself in every one of us.'”

The Half-Acre Homestead; 46 Years of Building and Gardening by Lloyd Kahn and Lesley Creed

Very aspirational hippie stuff about a couple out in California who built their own home in the 1960s and have been tweaking and modifying it as a self-sustaining tiny piece of land for the last four and a half decades. J would panic if he leafed through it — lots of sections on greywater (maybe someday) and roadkill taxidermy (never), but it has some clever solutions and inspiration for living a frugal and handmade non-Instagram life. It is more like a magazine, a glancing and wide-reaching overview, than a how-to manual on any particular subject, but with a lot to interest in the breadth it covers and the life it describes.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Synopsis: On the winter solstice, at a merry pub on the banks of the Thames, a badly beaten man comes to the door bearing a dead little girl. But is she dead? And to whom does she belong?

I can’t begin to say how much I loved this one. Such a lovely surprise — I didn’t go into it with any kind of recommendation, just happened upon it in the library e-audiobooks, and, having loved Juliet Stevenson’s reading of Middlemarch, decided to give it a go. Well, Juliet didn’t point me wrong. The book just felt old-fashioned, even a little Dickensian, with any character who cropped up once appearing before the end, and its strict and merciful distribution of satisfying justice, but also peppered with very of-the-moment discussions of what parenthood and children call forth from a person.

Takeaway Passage: “A child is not an empty vessel, Fleet, to be formed in whatever way the parent thinks fit. They are born with their own hearts and they cannot be made otherwise, no matter what love a man lavishes on them.” (Also, Robert Armstrong may be one of my favorite literary creations of recent memory.)

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

This was a struggle. I listened to it as an audiobook and it just felt like a complete assault of information, coming too fast for me to process it. Massacre, treaty, migration, massacre, massacre. I could’ve gone slower, of course, if I’d read it as a book, but I’m skeptical I would have made it through. The last section, about the repatriation of artifacts and remains, was the most interesting to me, probably because I was best able to understand it, with less hopping around geographically, historically, and culturally, and with my limited knowledge of the subject from my sister-in-law’s work. I’m hoping this is a step in the right direction of correcting my woeful ignorance, and that more fiction like Even as We Breathe and heck, even counterexamples like On to Oregon, will populate my imagination and give me a better framework to build on.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Synopsis: Nora has nothing to live for. So when the last few threads holding her to other humans finally fray, she makes a rash decision at midnight and awakens in the Midnight Library, where she will live different variations on her life until she finds the one that makes her want to keep on living.

Despite the macabre start, a really charming, life-affirming little novel with shades of It’s a Wonderful Life, Family Man, and Jo Walton’s My Real Children. Very cinematic, and full of humor and pathos. Enough philosophy to not make it completely superficial, and honestly a little too much physics for me, but maybe that’s your thing.

Takeaway Passage: “You’re overthinking.” “I have anxiety. I have no other type of thinking available.”

January Books

By the Book (Amanda Sellet)

Synopsis: A teenager raised in a large, literary family finds herself thrust into the deep end when she’s unexpectedly sent for the first time to the big public school in town. She leans on the nineteenth century novels she loves to understand her new world, but mistakes ensue. (YA)

Lots of fun quipping, a bit like Love Walked In. As an adult I enjoyed this for likable, smart young characters, but the group I’d recommend it to skewed a little older than I expected.

Takeaway passage: “There was something highly literary in the idea of succumbing to a fateful solitary misery, like working myself to death making hats.”

The Little Duke (Charlotte Yonge)

A read-aloud for Pippin’s school about a little boy who becomes duke when his father is unexpectedly murdered in medieval Normandy. Good balance of compelling action and thoughtful practice of Christian virtues in this medieval middle grade novel — Pip enjoyed it and I didn’t find it gratingly moralistic or at all tedious.

The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame)

Can you tell we finished term two for Pippin’s second grade? This is at least my third time through WW and I still love it so incredibly much. This podcast was a delightful romp in that world.

Takeaway passage: “No animal, according to the rules of animal-etiquette, is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter.”

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)

What can I say about this? It was a massive audiobook, close to a day long, and kept me fascinated even as I got more and more uneasy about the direction of the plot. This is the first book I’ve read by Mitchell (and admittedly may be the last) but what kept me going was the depth and nuance of the characterization. Most of the narrators are at least somewhat and sometimes appallingly morally reprehensible, but very deep and real-feeling. Still, I was left hating quite a lot:

  • While the opening section with Holly’s narration tiptoed through the delightfully unworldly, creepy area covered by Graham Joyce in Some Kind of Fairy Tale, later in the novel a LOT of explication goes into the true mechanics of the universe and they are stupid.
  • There’s a narrator near the end who is very deus ex machina and the sort of omniscient hero who drives me crazy in later Harry Potter (Dumbledore), the last Traveling Pants (Tibby), when Sherlock suddenly has martial arts skills, basically any superhero movie…
  • The very last narrator or two are very angry with religious people, especially Catholics, and the whole thing feels like the long, beautiful set-up of the His Dark Materials series, just to trash God.
  • I have tried to avoid post-apocalyptic stuff during our latter-day plague and I was not counting on this book veering that direction, so be warned.

Takeaway passage: “People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth’s Riches knowing—while denying—that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.”

and also: “Civilization’s like the economy or Tinkerbell: If people stop believing it’s real, it dies.”

Even As We Breathe (Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle)

Nineteen-year-old Cowney Sequoia is desperate to escape from his small town, and relieved to snag a job as a groundskeeper at an Asheville hotel serving as an internment camp for Axis diplomats in World War II. But it’s not easy to enter the white world as a Cherokee, and new discoveries about his past shake him further.

I heard about this one on an NPR piece and immediately bought copies for myself, my mom and my sister, because the little town of Cherokee, NC, lies near the mountains where my mom spent all her childhood summers. The book is touted as the first published novel of a registered Cherokee, and as introduction to a time and people of which I’m ignorant it was valuable, but I found Clapsaddle’s writing too snarly and fever dreamlike, moving between past and present, imagination and reality, without firmly established transitions. Cowney’s first person narration is often delivered in a lyrical style that doesn’t fit his spoken speech or interests and…I just didn’t like it very much.

Green Dolphin Street (Elizabeth Goudge)

Synopsis: Two sisters, Marianne and Marguerite, fall in love with the same boy. When he sends a letter from the New Zealand frontier years later, he accidentally requests the wrong sister, but the bonds the three share will grow and endure from childhood to old age and across oceans.

While this was beautiful, I found it difficult to make myself read — the pace, the sometimes disappointing behavior of the protagonists. Still the story, if occasionally a bit dated (holy moly Maoris), was so rewarding — one of the most thoughtful and inspiring explorations of prayer I’ve ever come across. Worth struggling through on and off for over a year.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

My first re-read since I had my own Scout, and so warm and welcome. A whole year gone without a trip through the Deep South, and I miss those landscapes and cadences. Certainly Mockingbird isn’t meant to be a comforting book, or at least not mostly a comforting book, and our WRM discussion fell during our chaotic January, but still, the book made me laugh at an unsettling time.

Obscure Advent Recommendation: The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman (Laurel-Leaf Books) (9780375895210):  Plummer, Louise: Books - Amazon.com
My elderly copy

Ok, stick with me here — I am about to make a recommendation so obscure, I know it’ll need a little explanation.

So here goes: Louise Plummer’s under-appreciated 1995 YA rom com masterpiece, The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman, is the just-for-fun book you should read this Advent. (Or Christmas. Or whenever.)

Kate Bjorkman is doing just fine. She’s a high school senior and lives with her pleasant, humorous parents in a close-knit neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota. She classifies herself in the second tier of Christmas happiness, even with Coke-bottle glasses and a 6′ frame, but when her big brother arrives home for Christmas unexpectedly with his new wife and old best friend — the one Kate’s had a crush on for years — suddenly she’s in the running for the top tier of Christmas bliss. But does Richard feel the same way?

I’m really picky about rom coms, both on film and in books. The very best ones, in my opinion, have relatable narrators and likable love interests, but, at least as importantly, a rich community of quirky characters. (Think You’ve Got Mail — or even Notting Hill, where, as far as I’m concerned, the side characters are the only thing that save the movie from its tedious leading couple.) Unlikely Romance has just such a cast: a capable but not obnoxious Pinterest mom (before Pinterest was a thing), a sleepy linguist professor father, nuanced friendships and a life-changing teacher who flits through the pages. Characters offer glimmers of backstories and inside jokes and complicated histories that just might make the villain a little less villainous. This community surrounding Kate makes the stakes both higher and lower: an enduring relationship leading to marriage is the unstated goal, but she has a full life even if Richard never declares his love:

“Anyway, the minute I began walking down Folwell Street, I felt glad to be alive. Even before the hero entered, I was pretty happy with my life. I’m not the sulking type. My father, the linguistics professor, had been playing one of the Brandenburg Concertos when I left, and I felt as if the flute music were trapped inside me and that if I opened my mouth, it would trill out into the night air.”

It’s a funny book, with the kind of whip-smart dialogue I love in Love Walked In, and Kate, a very self-aware narrator, often draws cutting comparisons between real-life romance and the stories she read in her friend’s favorite romance novels. But Plummer’s book is also noteworthy for raising serious questions about romantic love, contrasting the will-they-or-won’t-they romance between Kate and Richard with her newlywed brother’s relationship and her parents’ longstanding marriage. Characters cast a critical eye on romantic overtures and grand gestures and instead try to get to the bottom of what makes a real, warm love. It’s a consideration that rewards re-reading at different life stages—I loved it when I first discovered it in my early teens, and I love it still, even when my life stage is much more that of Kate’s parents. I can’t think of an example of another YA book that inquires so seriously into the real work of love — can you?

Family-friendly? I think the book suggests ages 12 and up; I’d skew a bit older for references to virginity, even though the protagonist doesn’t lose hers.

Where to get it: Bookshop.com has it; a lot of local libraries seem to have weeded their copies.

Obscurity level: 9/10; the only people I know who know it are ones I’ve made read it.

The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman : All About Romance %
Bringing the cover into the 21st century?