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

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.”

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?

“Books I Want to Read by My 18th Birthday”

Last weekend I went down into the basement to change over the laundry and discovered a water line had burst and was spurting water over half the basement. We got it stopped quickly and the only real damage was that my yearbooks got a bit soggy.

As I fanned the yearbooks out so they might dry out without mildewing, cursing myself for not taking that book preservation course in library school, I found the typed document below:

I’m 34 now, and so I made this list at least a half a lifetime ago, and while I have no memory of it, I assume the books are selected from my parents’ shelves, judging by how eclectic the list is.

Some of these, as is evident, I read by high school graduation. The last four were cheating, added after I’d read them for class; Lord of the Rings I read to impress a boy — a boy I’d later marry, a series from which we’d eventually draw our firstborn’s name. Silent Spring I read in what was probably my favorite high school class, AP Environmental Science, whose ideas inform a great deal of my home making and daily life, and whose classes took me canoeing the springs of North Florida and constructing my own mini ecosystem.

The Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, The Constitution, and Utopia I read in Great Books in college and discussed in the warm, high-ceilinged rooms of the old college chapel — I remember arguing particularly hard on behalf of Milton’s earnestness against other students’ preference for the devil. Mrs Dalloway I read for my English major and I was still thinking of Woolf’s depiction of London when I studied in the U.K. my senior year. I know I read at least bits of Walden and Leaves of Grass in undergrad but I’m hesitant to say I read all of either, though I remember the zing of some of those zesty lines.

A Passage to India I read as a newlywed in Uganda because it was free on my iPod Touch (!!). I also read all the bits of the Bible we hadn’t touched in my college classes.

The Once and Future King I read lonely and hopeful on a couch in rural western Massachusetts as I waited for everything to begin: grad school, a job opportunity in the crumpled economy of 2009, the friendships that would shape my next six years.

Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein I read (or re-read) and discussed in my 30s in Virginia, huddled with a cup of tea and something sweet in the living room of one of my closest friends for book club.

That leaves a good eight or so to read in the next eighteen years, and it’s hard to imagine where life will find me then. Some I can’t imagine why I wanted to read then or why I would now—In Cold Blood and Slaughterhouse Five are probably both too gory for me, and I’m too old now to have a chance of empathizing with Holden Caulfield or even idealistic, unflinching Thoreau. But maybe homeschooling will have me reading Gulliver’s Travels or Robinson Crusoe with the kids someday; maybe Well-Read Moms will tackle Moby Dick, and this list reminds me that I never have gotten around to Faulkner.

The girl who wrote this list couldn’t imagine the woman I am now, and sometimes it’s hard now to remember the girl I was then. But books form the threads between the two of us, each existing in time, so different in our dreams in experiences, but linked to one another by a shared love of the written word.

Books and Movies I Now Highly Regret

A Vulture piece on Emily St. John Mandel (her book Station Eleven discussed below) observes, “But there can be something reassuring about taking in a fictional disaster in the midst of a real one. You can flirt with the experience of collapse. You can long for the world you live in right now.” I can sort of get it, as an anxious person who’s always found end-of-the-world books weirdly comforting, but now that things are actually tough, I, for one, will be inhaling LM Montgomery, The Secret Garden and other comfort reads like it’s my job.

Still, I thought I’d take a 7QT romp through some of the eeriest post-apocalyptic things I’ve read and seen that populate my brain with a lot of now-unwelcome imagery:

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1. How I Live Now (book and film) for vividly depicting borders abruptly closing and lack of information. Bonus points for the chillingly understated title. How are any of us living now? Pretty differently.

2. World War Z (book, not movie) for prophecies about an illness breaking out in China and the quick and prudent quarantine in Israel. Very much regretting reading this one earlier this year.

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3. Children of Men (book and movie, but especially movie, which I rewatched last Advent) for life going on mostly as normal while things quietly, mundanely fall apart.

4. The Girl Who Owned a City (book) for a world of only children after a pandemic decimates the adult population. I read this a long time ago, when I was a kid myself and found it thrilling. Will not be reading it again anytime soon.

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5. Tomorrow When the War Began (mostly book, but some movie): people go out on a wilderness trip, return to find the world utterly unrecognizable — a thing that happened this month, thanks to coronavirus and an ill-timed rafting trip.

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6. Shaun of the Dead (movie): Why the everloving heck did J convince me to watch this movie earlier this very month?! (He’s always loved it, but I don’t handle violence in movies particularly well.) Anyway, kudos to the Shaun guys for forecasting the sort of apathy and self-absorption that still plagues our culture even when things are falling apart. And further applause for the duo teaming up to create this Shaun-update PSA for the time of coronavirus.

7. Station Eleven (our gold star winner) for picking a highly infectious disease that breaks down human connectedness as its agent of destruction.

If you find you want to read one of these (you weirdo) and your library is closed, maybe try ordering from The Bookshelf or another small bookseller? They could really use our help.

Seven Tiny Book Reviews

In writing my year-end writeup of everything I’ve read, I realized there were a few titles I wanted to revisit with you. Have you tried any of them yourself? What did you think?

  1. A Quiet Life in the Country: Lady Hardcastle and her lady’s maid Flo have retired to the countryside after a life of high adventure at the turn of the century, but things in their new hamlet are not as quiet as they seem. This cozy mystery has deeply delightful banter but I just didn’t care about the mechanics of the storyline, and the only characters with any depth were the two main characters. I almost liked them enough to try another in the series, but I doubt I’ll bother — at least as an audiobook, where it’s particularly difficult to focus on plot details.
  2. Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope: I’ve never read anything else by her, because her name seems ridiculous and her covers are always kind of frivolous and embarrassing. BUT ARE THEY ALL THIS GOOD? For more of my thoughts, check out my year-end reading post.
  3. A Confederacy of Dunces: Ok, so I’m glad to read this one — a bad Catholic book club pick if ever there were one — but I definitely wouldn’t have made it through if the group weren’t led by a medievalist who loved it and whose taste I trust. I just hate the earthiness of medieval stuff, which I think is one of the reasons I struggle with Dante. I know I’m supposed to laugh but I’m grossed out and that makes me feel like a prude which makes me mad. So: knowing that John Kennedy Toole loved Flannery O’Connor helped me through the book, and it ending with some hope and mercy helped a bit, but I’m not sure I’d be able to recommend the book, overall.
  4. The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s: When I was in high school, I believed I was laidback (!!). Later, my boyfriend pointed out that I’m only competitive in arenas where I think I can win, and now I look back and see the marks of perfectionism all over my childhood. I still struggle today, and I often refer back to a favorite line from Anne Lamott: “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.” Colleen Carroll Campbell urges us in this book to be gentle with ourselves, to accept God’s love, to trust, to deliberately and diligently root out all the places in our lives where we grasp for control and grow harsh in our striving. A must-read for any ambitious Ravenclaw Catholic.
  5. Underground Airlines: I loved Ben Winter’s Last Policeman series and was fascinated by the premise of this book. This is an America where the Civil War was settled differently, and slavery maintained in certain Deep South states, and here, Victor, an escaped slave, has made a deal with the devil to catch escaping slaves on behalf of the US government. I thought the plot grew convoluted, though, and I thought the optimism of the end and setup for a sequel were both a bit clunky. I don’t think I’ll read any subsequent books in the series.
  6. Waiting for Tom Hanks: Another kind of embarrassing one that I ended up enjoying. I had forgotten how much I enjoy the cringiness of romantic tension, and the self-aware references to favorite films like You’ve Got Mail certainly helped. The plot itself was fairly improbable (as per the genre) and a bit given to wish fulfillment and neat endings, but the characters were relatable and I really loved how — as in movies like the aforementioned YGM and Notting Hill — the community surrounding the protagonists had warmth and color.
  7. Marilla of Green Gables: I didn’t love this one. I felt like the author was imposing too much on the character, refusing to accept her for the rigid but warm person she is in the canon and instead inserting a lot of anachronistic social justice stuff like so many period dramas, which rush to make every character espouse the most progressive views, regardless of their social context.