Friday, December 13, 2019

Review: The Clergyman's Wife by Molly Greeley

I don't remember how old I was when I first read Pride and Prejudice. It seems as if it has always been a part of my reading history, claiming a piece of my young, voracious reader's romantic heart forever ago. It is one of the few books I've read multiple times and just claiming a passing resemblance to it will have me eagerly reading any book. A book that delves deeper into any of the characters from this beloved book will automatically hit my must read pile. The Bennet sisters are usually the focus of these stories because Austen gives us very little about their lives after the events of her novel. Greeley doesn't give us a Bennet sister though, concentrating on Charlotte Lucas and the life she lives as Mrs. Collins, the life she chose, a life in direct contrast to the life that Lizzie Bennet would have, and she gives it to us beautifully.

"Sensible [and] intelligent" Charlotte famously opted for security and a conviction that happiness in marriage is not simply a result of love but of "chance" when she accepted Mr. Collins' proposal. She knew that her options were limited, from an age and beauty perspective as well as a class perspective, and she judged that Mr. Collins was a decent man with whom she could build a life. And she has done just that. Three years into their marriage, Charlotte's life is not a bad one but it is a lonely one. She spends much of her time with her tiny daughter, never having gotten too involved in the village near Rosings Park. Lady Catherine would disapprove heartily of too much involvement and Charlotte herself has no confidence in herself as the wife of the vicar, to offer friendship and caring to those under her husband's purview. Only when Lady Catherine determines that there should be roses planted in front of the parsonage and compels a local farmer, Mr. Travis, the son of her former gardener, to plant them, does Charlotte venture into a cautious friendship with anyone in the area. As she comes to know Mr. Travis, she contrasts him with her own husband and finds that her choice three years ago might well have been the pragmatic one but it also means that she might have missed out on something quite special and indefinable indeed.

Greeley's Charlotte is quiet, accepting the life she chose with her eyes wide open. If she experiences any rebellions, they happen silently and she often reflects on the ungenerosity of wishing Mr. Collins was different, reminding herself that he is, in fact, a good man. As so much of the novel is internal, Charlotte is a first person narrator, heightening the feeling of wistfulness and melancholy throughout the pages. The story, and Charlotte's slow dawning realization of what her life will always look like, what she has missed out on, is a sensitive and light handed look at the options available to women of the time. It is heartbreaking to hear Charlotte wishing that her baby daughter Louisa will be beautiful as she herself is not. And it is hard not to sympathize with Charlotte and the stultifying daily existence she lives, her only company a husband she doesn't love, a daughter too young to talk, and a young mother's helper. It is both hard and beautiful to see her opening her heart to the people of the parish, a poor, older widow, the elderly former gardener at Rosings, and Mr. Travis. This is a gentle tale that stays true to the characters that Austen created but that adds to the original story in Pride and Prejudice, offering a contrast to the exultant happily ever after of that novel, not of a grand tragedy but of a quiet and a little bit sad acceptance of a regular life. Well done, Molly Greeley.

For more information about Molly Greeley and the book, check our her author website, like her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or Instagram, look at the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book. #theclergymanswife, @williammorrowbooks, @tlcbooktours, @mollyjgreeley

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and publisher William Morrow for sending me a copy of the book to read and review.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets by Annie England Noblin.

The book is being released by William Morrow on January 14, 2020.

The book's jacket copy says: Laid off, cheated on, mugged: what else can go wrong in Maeve Stephens’ life? So when she learns her birth mother has left her a house, a vintage VW Beetle, and a marauding cat, in the small town of Timber Creek, Washington, she packs up to discover the truth about her past.

She arrives to the sight of a cheerful bulldog abandoned on her front porch, a reclusive but tempting author living next door, and a set of ready-made friends at the St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets, where women knit colorful sweaters for the dogs and cats in their care. But there’s also an undercurrent of something that doesn’t sit right with Maeve. What’s the secret (besides her!) that her mother had hidden?

If Maeve is going to make Timber Creek her home, she must figure out where she fits in and unravel the truth about her past. But is she ready to be adopted again—this time, by an entire town…?

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Review: Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah

When you say Stanley and Livingstone, is the first thing that pops into your head, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" I know it was the first thing that popped into mine. And while this encounter is undoubtedly famous, there was much more to David Livingstone's trips through Africa looking for the source of the Nile than this. Livingstone did not exist in a vacuum, lost until Stanley tracked him down. In fact, he was surrounded by quite a large entourage of native African people whose role in his exploration, his survival on his travels, and in the end the catalyst for his body being transported to the coast over months and months and hence to England for his hero's burial, has been downplayed or minimized, effectively excluding them from the mythic narrative about the man. Petina Gappah redresses some of this erasure in her novel about Livingstone's death and the slow march to take his body to the coast, told through the voice of Livingstone's cook Halima and the diaries of the British-Indian educated, pious, missionary trained, former slave Jacob Wainwright.

Told by Halima and Jacob, this is not the story of Livingstone's journeys. It is of his final African journey, the one undertaken after his death, and as such, mostly devoid of his voice (although chapter epigraphs sometimes have excerpts from his journals). It is the story of the people who called him Bwana Daudi and who undertook the immense task of getting his body 1500 miles to the coast so he could be sent home and buried among his own people. Halima, Livingstone's cook, narrates the first part of the novel in a sly, gossipy tone. She notes the undercurrents flowing throughout the group in terms of power and sex, religion and education. She presents herself as one who knows and suggests the correct decisions to the group, even if she has to be sneaky or roundabout in convincing the men to adopt her conclusions. She is very concerned with the earthly while Jacob is much more concerned with the spiritual. If Halima is contentious with the women and mouthy with the men, Jacob is much more circumspect but not any better liked with his arrogance and his desire to convert the others to Christianity. Halima's voice is firmly from the domestic sphere, gossipy and confidential, while Jacob's, through his journal entries, is superior and judgmental, the voice of a particularly fervent missionary, one trained to scorn the wrongheadedness of his own people. Halima's account of the journey is more outward focused than Jacob's inner wrestlings (especially against his lust for one of the women) but neither one sees the whole truth of all of the goings on, the strife, the fear, the anger, the loyalty, and the compliance of those with whom they travel.

The story is slow and deliberate, echoing the journey itself. The tone is dark and ultimately tragic. And Gappah presses on the wounds of colonialism as she puts this invented tale in the mouth and pen of two real historical figures. Readers won't miss the commentary on the slave trade; the contradiction of Livingstone, an abolitionist, buying and using Africans in his own quest (or as "road wives" for his men); the tensions between religions, native, Islam, and Christianity; the rage and fear that this one dead white man being returned, with his papers, to his people will bring more waves of colonizers who will steal the land and force their ideas on the people; or the constant death and distrust that travels with the expedition. The world that Gappah has brought to life is one on the cusp, or perhaps already falling into the abyss, of massive change at the hands of outsiders and her research and attention to historical detail is impressive. There are times that some of that research is overwhelming in a story overloaded with characters, place names, and so forth that have to be explained to the reader but which wouldn't have occasioned any kind of explanation from either Halima or Jacob in actual practice, being common knowledge as they were. This is not an easy read, heavy and full of the portents of the future. It is a very different heart of darkness from Conrad's but a heart of darkness nonetheless.

Monday, December 9, 2019

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I'm sure any of you who celebrate Christmas are as underwater as I am. My to do list is atrociously long and it's not looking like it will get any shorter any time soon so I'm not sure how different this will be on a weekly basis. I'm going to try, but... This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed over the past week are:

Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn
Pretty Bitches edited by Lizzie Skurnick

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas
A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon
Out of Darkness, Chining Light by Petina Gappah

Reviews posted this week:

Educated by Tara Westover

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Miss Blaine's Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas
Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
Granny’s Got a Gun by Harper Lin
White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf
At Briarwood School for Girls by Michael Knight
The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel
All Ships Follow Me by Mieke Eerkens
Like This Afternoon Forever by Jaime Manrique
Gravity Well by Melanie Joosten
Motherhood So White by Nefertiti Austin
America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Dear Baba by Maryam Rafiee
Saint Everywhere by Mary Lea Carroll
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Tonic and Balm by Stephanie Allen
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons
In the Shadow of Wolves by Alvydas Slepikas
The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin
CinderGirl by Christina Meredith
The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones
The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis
Autopsy of a Boring Wife by Marie-Renee Lavoie
The Fragments by Toni Jordan
The Question Authority by Rachel Cline
The Plaza by Julie Satow
The Lonely Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya
To Keep the Sun Alive by Rabeah Ghaffari
Haben by Haben Girma
The Paris Orphan by Natasha Lester
State of the Union by Nick Hornby
Turbulence by David Szalay
What a Body Remembers by Karen Stefano
The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S. Laskar
Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok
Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain
Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers by the New York Public Library
The Honey Bus by Meredith May
The Liar in the Library by Simon Brett
The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib
Church of the Graveyard Saints by C. Joseph Greaves
Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery by John Gregory Brown
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
Advanced Physical Chemistry by Susannah Nix
Death of a Rainmaker by Laurie Lowenstein
No Good Asking by Fran Kimmel
Laurentian Divide by Sarah Stonich
The Abolitionist's Daughter by Diane C. McPhail
A London Country Diary by Tim Bradford
Crazy Cupid Love by Amanda Heger
A Moveable Feast edited by Don George
Tiny Hot Dogs by Mary Giuliani
Tomorrow's Bread by Anna Jean Mayhew
Love You Hard by Abby Maslin
Unfurled by Michelle Bailat-Jones
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland
Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
Hungry Monkey by Matthew Amster-Burton
Retablos by Octavio Solis
The Tubman Command by Elizabeth Cobbs
The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner
All the Wild Hungers by Karen Babine
Vacationland by Sarah Stonich
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
The Last Ocean by Nicci Gerrard
Something Like Breathing by Angela Readman
Nothing to Report by Carola Oman
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George
The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivak
A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
The Garden of Eden by Eve Adams
Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe by Melissa de le Cruz
The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde
A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler
Breaking the Ocean by Annahid Dashtgard
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
A Stranger at My Table by Ivo de Figueiredo
Breaking Away by Anna Gavalda
Eat Joy edited by Natalie Eve Garrett
The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell
Hotbox by Matt Lee and Ted Lee
Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhannon
Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald
The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresan
Open Mic Night in Moscow by Audrey Murray
A Beginner's Guide to Japan by Pico Iyer
The Ventriloquists by E.R. Ramzipoor
The Skeleton Stuffs a Stocking by Leigh Perry
Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn
Pretty Bitches edited by Lizzie Skurnick

Monday Mailbox

Just one this time. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Queen Mum by Kate Long came from me for myself.

I may never watch reality shows but I'm not above reading about fictional ones like in this book where the main character's best friend and next door neighbor signs up to swap lives with someone across town. I suspect it doesn't go well for anyone and that should make for interesting reading.

If you want to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Sunday Salon: Book Advent Calendar

Everywhere I go this year, I hear someone say that Thanksgiving was late this year. This is undoubtedly true. And for me, and presumably for those making the observation, this lateness has left them less time than usual to focus on holiday tasks. My to do list this time of year rarely varies much but somehow, it always seems insurmountable right about now. I still have a lot of gifts to buy/make/find. I have the annual Christmas letter to write; as it's the 25th year of the famous letter, I can't let it go this year although I might retire it once this version gets written. I have lots of Christmas baking and cooking to do. I make and freeze a bunch of meals for my dad (and mom) as his gift. Mom hates to cook. He's hard to buy for. And he likes my cooking. Predictable and time consuming but we're all happy with the results. Several of the stocking gifts I give (every year) are also food that I make from scratch and haven't even started assembling. I spent more than 8 hours the other day making sure that my mother's present will be under the tree. (So mom, if you're reading this--and of course you are, because you're my mom--even if the gift is terrible, pretend you love it and it's the best thing ever. Thanks!) I haven't decorated my house at all beyond throwing a wreath I bought at the grocery store up on the front door. That may be the thing that gives this year.  Or maybe I'll just go wrap scarves around the necks of the flock of plastic flamingos that showed up in our yard the night before Thanksgiving and are still there and call those my festive decorations. Surely my neighbors won't just shake their heads in disgust at my laziness, will they?

I may not be terribly on the ball this Christmas but I did add one new thing to my list this year and it's bringing me such happiness, with minimal effort, that I will probably keep it on the list in future years too. I am making a book advent calendar. I pull a Christmas/holiday themed book from my to be read stacks each day and post about it on Litsy (a book app I adore). Note I am not actually reading these books, at least I haven't yet. But it's fun to pull them and see what I might read in the coming weeks if I get on top of the to dos, or even if I don't and need a complete break from reality but still want to wallow in the season like I'm on track. It's interesting to see how many of the books are romances or mysteries. Maybe this is true because between them they capture the two most common emotions around the holidays: heartwarming and murderous. It probably tells you a lot about my state of mind that I am leaning more towards murderous right now!

So far my book advent calendar has these entries:

Day 1: The Last Noel by Michael Malone

Day 2: A Noel Killing by M.L. Longworth

Day 3: The Mistletoe Matchmaker by Felicity Hayes McCoy

Day 4: Mutts and Mistletoe by Natalie Cox

Day 5: Tinsel by Hank Stuever

Day 6: The Adults by Caroline Hulse

Day 7: Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders

Day 8: Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean

I have a big stack of others to add to my calendar as the days go by. Are you reading things for the holidays? the winter (or if you're in the southern hemisphere, summer) season? Do you have any books I definitely need to put in my list?

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Educated by Tara Westover

If you haven't yet heard about this book, you're probably living under a rock. It's been all over the book world, Westover's been on morning programs, it's in every store that carries even one book, whether it's a bookstore of not, and it certainly has turned up in every book club ever. Now, if you know me at all, you know this means that this tornado of publicity and buzz would mean that I'd wait years to read it. But look again at the last place in the list you'd have found it since it was released. Yes, it turned up in my book club too and so I went out and picked up a copy. But unlike so many others, I didn't adore this book. It is hard and astonishing but I have reservations.

Tara Westover was born into a survivalist, atypical Mormon family, one of seven children. Her parents eschewed medical care and didn't even get birth certificates for their younger children. Westover's father worried about what all the government could track about them if they were registered in any way and about the way in which the outside world was connected to Satan. The children grew up doing dangerous work in the family junkyard and not only not attending school, but not being schooled at home either.  Their upbringing was an interesting mix of strict and feral.  But Westover, the youngest child, was curious and rebellious and curiosity and rebellion will find a way. She details some pretty horrific instances from her childhood: injury, abuse, gaslighting. And she presents the reader with her agonizing over getting out of her family situation and the sorrow she feels at being estranged from this darkly, dysfunctional family. That she made it out after teaching herself enough to take the ACT successfully, to go to college, and to earn a doctorate at one of the most celebrated universities in the world after her upbringing is certainly impressive. Her story is, simply put, remarkable.

And if that's all it needs to be, then it deserves all the praise it gets. But there's more to it than just the story (and even that has some things that I question) and that's where it lost me a little. I do not doubt that Westover was abused and manipulated and that her father probably has a mental illness and her mother goes along to get along but there are some things that stretch credulity, chief among them the medical issues. The number of serious life-threatening injuries in the family that turn out to be healed without long term repercussions and often just with herbal ointments boggle the mind. Several she mentions (severe burns, cuts down to the very bone, etc.) would qualify as truly miraculous if they occurred to such a degree and healed without advanced medical intervention. Perhaps this can be written off as them being misremembered from her childhood or exaggerated for effect but it calls into question more of her recollections. She is honest in that many of her siblings' recollections differ from hers and she footnotes these differences as acknowledgement.  And yes, different people remember things differently, but it does make the reader wonder why her account should be taken as the complete and true version. And while I do believe that she has at least captured the spirit of her upbringing, there's also the story of her becoming "educated." Where was it? Yes, she puts in bits and pieces of her road to college but despite this initial jump into academia after an entire youth without school being a huge part of what makes her story remarkable, she glosses over much of her journey and barely acknowledges the massive role others outside of her family played in helping her achieve her much more connected to the world, much more "normal" life.  She has escaped from an oppressive, scary, and abusive family situation physically but there's little evidence here that she has escaped emotionally. And maybe she hasn't. Maybe she never will. But this might have had a stronger ending had she waited longer to write it, to come to an emotional maturity, to a healing that isn't yet in evidence, at least not in these pages. Finally, and it feels a little mean to say this because this was/is her life, but I found the story tedious to read. The beginning portion, when she was living at home is far more polished writing than the end, as if she has been working her early life and material over for a long time, shaping and crafting it carefully while the ending material felt less certain, less reflected upon. It's not a bad book; it's even ultimately a good book. But it's not the best book ever and not even the best book I've read this year. Given the near universal praise the book has received, it is clear that I am in a minority though.

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