What I Read – January 2018

For although a man is judged by his actions, by what he has said and done, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done – a judgment that is necessarily hampered, not only by scope and limits of his imagination, but by the ever-changing measure of his doubt and self-esteem.

– The Luminaries

One of my goals for 2017 was to read more classics. As such, I re-read The Power and the Glory, an amazing classic that I read several years ago but so many things in it felt like I was reading it for the first time. I’ve also (finally) begun to tackle The Silmarillion. I think my dad will be proud of me.

And, as always, I want to read more from my own library (Meaning read some of the stacks of books that I already own but have not yet read.) 84, Charing Cross Road, Rules of Civility, The Luminaries, Purple Hibiscus, and The Painted Girls all fit into that category.

I managed a couple of book reviews (titles are linked) but hope to do better in February. Feel free to share your favourite reads of the month in the comments!

Read:

  1. 84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff (Penguin Books, 1970)
  2. The War that Saved my Life – Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Penguin Books, 2015)
  3. Rules of Civility – Amor Towles (Penguin Books, 2011)
  4. Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist – Martina Scholtens (Brindle & Glass, 2017)
  5. The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (McClelland & Stewart, 2013)
  6. The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 1979)
  7. Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012)
  8. The Painted Girls – Cathy Marie Buchanan (Harper Collins, 2012

There was silence all round him. This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven; but he realized that after all it was possible to find peace there, when you knew for certain that the time was short.

– The Power and the Glory

Currently Reading:

  1. Rest, Play, Grow – Deborah MacNamara
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. The Hut Builder – Laurence Fearnley

But Ilúvatar knew that Men, being set amid the turmoils of the powers of the world, would stray often, and would not use their gifts in harmony; and he said: “These too in their time shall find that all that they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work.”

– The Silmarillion

*Friendly reminder that you can follow me on Instagram @karissareadsbooks if you’re into that sort of thing. Mostly pictures of what I’m reading as I’m reading and my kids.

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Book Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (McClelland & Stewart, 2013)

My main problem with The Luminaries was that it was too big. Not too long – I definitely could have read more from Catton. The book is over 800 pages and in hardcover it was just too large for me to hold with one hand. And since I do much of my reading these days while holding a baby, I wasn’t able to get through the novel as fast as I wanted to.

Seriously though, I enjoyed this book a lot. As with any book of this size there are definitely parts that could be edited down or reduced. However this is a well and thoughtfully-crafted novel. Catton fits a lot in and the form and pace of the novel is superbly done.

Set in the mid-19th century in a gold mining town in New Zealand (Who knew New Zealand had a gold rush? Not me and not anyone I mentioned it to.) the story opens on the day Walter Moody arrives in Hokitika. He unwittingly stumbles across a council of twelve unlikely men, meeting in secret to discuss recent events. A hermit has been found dead, his house filled with stashed gold. The town’s richest man has disappeared. A prostitute has apparently attempted suicide in the road. All in one day.

The twelve men lay out their tales to Moody, who has his own strange experience en route to Hokitika to add to the mystery. The first section of the novel outlines how these twelve came to meet together and steadily unfolds all the strange elements of this story and how a hermit, a rich man, and a prostitute might be connected. From there we move forward in time in the next couple of sections and then back to the previous year.

The story is complex and sometimes confusing. There is a hoard of gold that changes hands so many times through so many various means that I really had to concentrate to make sure I understand the plot. However, the characters are clear and unique, well-drawn and fascinating. Catton does well at introducing them in the first section and letting the reader see their various biases and influences. Each man is connected and implicated somehow and while this adds to the complexity it also makes the story all the more fascinating and the tension greater.

Some of the most interesting stories belong to two Chinese characters, Ah Quee and Ah Sook. While life in Hokitika and New Zealand at this time is hard and dirty and often degrading, this is most seen for these two men. Their stories are truly heart-breaking and a harsh reminder of racist attitudes held around the world in history. By contrast, the female characters are weaker. There are only two (and fair enough, this would not have been a welcoming place for most women) and they each fall into stereotypes in their own way, despite both being very important characters and each at the crux of the mystery.

The part of the novel that missed the mark for me was the astrological structure of it. Granted, I know nothing of astrology so the outlines and references to charts and signs was meaningless but it also never seemed to be explained within the context of the story. Towards the end, there is some suggestion of a more powerful and spiritual answer to some of the unanswered questions. There are tantalizing hints given that greater forces may be at work but this feels like something the author tiptoes to the edge of. By neither staying completely in the realm of realism or diving fully into the realm of the mystical, Catton weakens the solution she does provide and ended up frustrating this reader.

All in all though, a truly excellent novel.

Book Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

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Rules of Civility – Amor Towles (Penguin Books, 2011)

First things first, I liked Rules of Civility better than A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles’ first book and I think I’m in the minority in this opinion so I’ll explain why. Both novels are well written and Towles clearly excels at bringing historical time periods to life, whether that’s New York in the 1930s, as seen in Rules of Civility or Moscow in the 1920s, as in A Gentleman in Moscow. My main issue with Gentleman was that Count Rostov was too good at everything. He lacked any real flaws and thus never felt like a real person to me.

Rules of Civility is the story of a year in the life of Katey Kontent, a young working woman in New York in the late 1930s. Katey tells us the story herself, looking back from a vantage point of middle age. She is young, beautiful, a little poor but independent and hopeful. On New Year’s Eve, she and a friend meet a rich and handsome stranger and their three lives become intertwined in some unexpected (and some expected) ways.

This is a very American story. It is a story of how people can re-make themselves, how they can become something different from the generations before them. It’s also a story about what that might cost a person and whether or not the something new and different is better than what came before. There are obvious influences of The Great Gatsby here and Katey is a bit of a Nick Carraway figure as she tells the story of Tinker Grey. However, she is much more intimately involved in the tale than Nick was with Gatsby and this allows Towles to expand the world of the story and introduce other characters, some of whom act as counterpoints to Grey and the other upperclass types that Katey begins to mingle with as the novel and the year progresses. Katey also has her own history that informs the story and how she views those around her.

As in A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles seems to idealize a less than ideal time in history. There’s very little reference to the Depression or how that might affect characters (several of whom are bankers). The rich seem as rich as ever and the poor seem ever on the cusp of changing their lives, if they only want it enough. The story is interesting though and the characters compelling so I didn’t find myself questioning it much as I read. I felt that there was more depth here than in Towles’ second novel and it made me far more sympathetic to and interested in the characters.

Book Review: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

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84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff (Penguin Books, 1970)

Generally speaking, I don’t enjoy books centred around bookstores. I find they tend to romanticize an experience I’ve known very well in the real, practical world. So I didn’t begin 84, Charing Cross Road with high hopes, despite the fact that it was recommended to me by a bookseller. In the end, it surprised me. This slim book compiles 20 years of letters between Hanff in NYC and Marks & Cohen Books in London. What begins as a search for books evolves into a friendship with friends that never meet.

This is less a book about books or even bookstores and more a book about people and how they can be drawn together despite physical distance and cultural divide. Helene is brash, sometimes funny, occasionally rude, and often big-hearted while her English penpals tend to be much more restrained. As the letters continue and the relationship grows though the individual personalities of the bookstore employees (and their families) come out in charmingly cheeky ways.

The book also offers a peek into life in London following World War Two. Helene begins to send packages to the bookstore for Christmas, giving her long-distance friends treats like tinned ham and fresh eggs, things that are not available in post-war England. The letters she receives in thanks are quite lovely, demonstrating the deep appreciation for her gifts and the beauty of generosity among strangers.

 

Christmas 2017

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Happy New Year!

Back in October, or November, I intended to share a little about how our family is adjusting to life with two little ones. But I never seemed to have the time or energy to sit down and write a post…so that probably tells you what you need to know about life with a two-year-old and a newborn. As we finish out the holiday here, I’m feeling a little more settled into life. Sleep-deprived, yes. Not looking forward to Peter going back to work, yes. But also knowing that the hard days are just days and they end and the good days are so, so good.

Christmas this year was particularly lovely. For the first time, Pearl was really able to look forward to the season and to be excited. We had to hide things and speak in code and wrap gifts after she went to bed and I loved every minute of it. At the beginning of the month I put together a little Advent calendar for her and I and hung it on our picture wall in the dining room, as seen above. Every day there was a little tag to turn over with an activity to do together. Sometimes it was opening a new book, sometimes it was making cookies, sometimes it was sending a Christmas card. It was a fun way to open the season together.

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Pearl loves being in the kitchen with me right now so we did a lot of baking together in December. This is a picture of her helping me roll dough for cinnamon buns.

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We hunted in the woods near our house for pine branches and pine cones to decorate our house.

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Rose showed very little interest in the Christmas preparations but has continued to be a super mellow and happy baby, content to sit in her little chair while Big Sister and I bake, or to nap on the couch while we play on the floor next to her. Rose is smiling and laughing now and I love it so much.

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Their sister relationship is sometimes so lovely I can’t believe it – when Pearl asks to hold Rose or kisses her good night. Most of the time though the best case scenario is that Pearl ignores Rose. We are taking it day by day, working through jealousy and frustration and all the big emotions that come with being not-quite-three-years-old.

We also continued one of my favourite traditions: The Great Christmas Tree Hunt. We drove into the forest nearby and cut down a Christmas tree. Pearl had vague memories of previous trees in our home and was thrilled to decorate again. Our tree had a cluster of lovingly placed ornaments on the lowest branches.

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We were able to keep it simple this year while still seeing both sides of our families. We were very grateful that everybody travelled to us for Christmas. We spent Christmas Day with Peter’s family and mind came up after New Year’s Day. Being able to spend time together without schlepping a newborn into the city was a real gift.

We tried to keep things simple for our girls too. Rose’s interests are few – her stocking was filled with soothers and washcloths. Pearl was very excited about presents but her excitement covers all manner of things so we could have wrapped almost anything and put it under the tree and she would have been happy. One afternoon I took her to the toy store and let her pick out a present for Rose. That turned out to be the noisiest toy in our house now and Rose is more scared of it than anything else but maybe in a couple more months she’ll enjoy those singing frogs. (Rose picked out a present for Pearl too, with my help.)

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This picture kind of sums up their relationship. Matching Christmas dresses on Christmas Eve, just before heading to church. I did not buy them matching dresses. I did buy them matching pyjamas to wear that night, with visions of Christmas morning and showing up at the grandparents in their adorable matching jammies. The girls had other plans; Pearl woke up Christmas morning crying that she didn’t like her pyjamas and wanted to change immediately and Rose had a blow-out before breakfast. So it was not a perfect Christmas but it was pretty darn close.