Monthly Archives: December 2013

‘Benediction’ by Kent Haruf

BenedictionstarstarstarstarstarKent Haruf writes a simply beautiful story. He doesn’t sugar coat or embellish or include anything unnecessary in the telling. The novel seems deceptively plain, as if it has been stripped down to the most raw and uncluttered version of itself, but at the same time it has such depth and some heart stopping suspenseful moments as well. Haruf captures what one of his characters calls “the precious ordinary” in our daily lives and achieves a soothing rhythym  in his narrative like a graceful old hymn.

Benediction has the most touching deathbed scene I have ever read and yet there is a hopeful tone throughout. Secrets of human tragedy emerge as Haruf presents other characters such as Lyle, the controversial and troubled preacher and Frank, the Lewis’ estranged son. Everyone is broken and struggling in some way which is what makes the story so real. One reviewer said, “Dying as an unclean slate is not necessarily a death without peace.”

It’s no spoiler to say that Dad Lewis is dying. That is what this book is about. The story is set in a small rural town in Colorado and explores the pain, compassion, and humanity of the family and friends who come to say goodbye. Benediction is third in a series set in this community and though the earlier ones called Plainsong and Eventide are not necessary prerequisites to this book, they are also so good that you might want to read them in order if you can. The redemptive quality of community is what stands out for me as the central message in all of Haruf’s books. Life deals us hard blows and community is what helps to get us through. I read Plainsong and Eventide a very long time ago and I can still remember them so well.

PlainsongPlainsong is a beautiful story of how two old farmer brothers awkwardly but warmly take in a young pregnant girl who has been cast out by her own family. “From simple elements, Haruf achieves a novel of wisdom and grace–a narrative that builds in strength and feeling until, as in a choral chant, the voices in the book surround, transport, and lift the reader off the ground.”

EventideEventide picks up exactly where Plainsong finishes, and continues the story of the two brothers and others in the community. “Eventide unveils the immemorial truths about human beings: their fragility and resilience, their selfishness and goodness, and their ability to find family in one another.”

‘The Uncommon Reader’ by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon ReaderstarstarstarI discovered this wicked little gem on a table display in the library labelled “Feel Good Reads”. It is a comedic fantasy and looked like it would be fun, but I found it to be much more than that.

At just over 100 pages, despite its brevity, it is a witty and weighty multi-layered meditation on the pleasures of reading and an inside glimpse of the monarchy into the bargain. But not tabloid style. Bennett is a genius at weaving in observations of the subtleties of class and style. He also likes big words and is somewhat of a sesquipedalian. Cosy up to Merriam-Webster for this one folks! I loved the word opsimath: one who learns only late in life.

The novella’s main character is the Queen and, although she no doubt reads a lot, here she discovers how delightful it can be to read avidly, compulsively and voraciously from a wide variety of literature and novels. She is one who should be ‘entitled’, but those near her are worried and stumped about her seemingly subversive addiction and think she is suffering from dementia!

The sweet little story begins when the Queen is walking her Corgis and stumbles upon a ‘mobile library’ near the palace kitchens, ends up with a book in her hands, and accidentally drifts into reading.  There is a hilarious scene at the beginning where she learns to read and wave at the same time while sitting in the coach being brought to the opening of parliament!

It would seem remiss if I took no umbrage at Bennett’s remarks about how he doesn’t consider Canada to be bookish, despite a cameo appearance by Alice Munro. Obviously he has never listened to CBC or tuned in to ‘Canada Reads’ since I would rank Canadians very high on the ‘avid reader’ scale. Is there even such a thing? Incidentally, the title plays with the word common. ‘Common reader’ being someone who reads for pleasure as opposed to a critic or scholar, and a ‘commoner’ in England referring  to anyone who is not nobility or royalty.

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Bennett’s portrayal of the Queen does her justice and suggests she is intelligent, philosophical, and cares about things. She is an amazing woman and I have a great deal of respect for her. Since the Queen lives next door I’ve included a picture I took of her at Windsor Castle. How very common of me! 🙂

‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes

Me Before YoustarstarstarstarThis is the first book I’ve read by Jojo Moyes and I loved it! A compelling, easy read with a thoughtful and moving message. The story is written in an unsentimental voice yet conveys deep emotion. And it is not entirely predictable. I had a completely different ending in mind! It deals with a difficult moral issue that would be good for discussion. Perfect for book club.

Louisa lives a quiet ordinary life in a small town. She doesn’t have high aspirations but is content. When she loses her job, a series of events are set in motion that will change everything, even her own version of herself.

Will Traynor was a high flying rich, successful entrepreneur and world traveller, until the accident that changed his life. His new situation is joyless and sad and no one seems to be able to reach him, until Lou stumbles onto the scene.

This novel is romantic but not a ‘romance novel’. It’s probably best enjoyed by women, but I hesitate to label it ‘chick lit’. It’s better than that. I’m excited to have discovered this author and will definitely read her other books.

‘Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life’ by Richard Rohr

Falling UpwardstarstarstarRichard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, is an internationally known author and speaker. He is founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation.

In this book he presents a view of life in two halves. The first half of life is the ego-centric active part where one builds identity, family, friends, and vocation. The second half of life is characterized by a more soul-centric wisdom, where one reflects on what has gone on in the first half, with particular attention to failures and struggles. Rohr would say that “the path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers.” These halves of life are not necessarily chronological and going on the ‘further journey’ might be at different times for different people.

In a complimentary review Lauren Winner says this, “The message of Falling Upward is straightforward and bracing: the spiritual life is not static. You will come to a crisis in your life, and after the crisis, if you are open to it, you will enter a space of spiritual refreshment, peace and compassion that you could not have imagined before.”

This ‘further journey’ is well described by the author himself in this short trailer about the book.

For a more in-depth look at his ideas, there is a helpful 1 1/2 hour lecture by Rohr on many of the ideas in the book. Listening to this speech in tandem with the reading was helpful in clarifying his ideas, which are a bit hard to follow at first. This book would probably be most appreciated by those with some life experience and/or anyone post-crisis.

Father Richard Rohr “Falling Upward”

‘Code Name Verity’ by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name VeritystarstarstarstarA young adult historical novel, this is a harrowing adventure story set in WW 2. It is both heartbreaking and uplifting. The story follows two strong young women from England to the occupied territory in France. Very rarely, in all the books I have read about the second world war, have I read about the fighting that women did. In this case a female pilot and a spy. If you loved  The Book Thief you’ll like this one as well. The harsh realities of the choices that sometimes need to be made during war time are well described. I loved the scenes of Maddie flying and clever Queenie changing identities so much that’s it’s a wonder she even knew who she was at any given moment! But somehow they both persevere against the odds and considering their very different backgrounds, forge a special friendship that would never have happened if it weren’t for the war.

It’s best I say as little as possible about the plot so that you can experience it better in the reading. The book is written in two parts. The first is narrated by Verity, the second by Kittyhawk. Even though the first half is beautifully written  it seemed a bit slow going. However, I knew the reviews were stellar and the second half made me realize what all the fuss was about. The novel picks up in the middle and literally flies to the finish. It’s amazing how the author brought so many things together in the end.

The author is a pilot herself and just published a new book this year called Rose Under Fire.

Give a book for Christmas!

Here is a little history of  how “Heather’s Picks” by Heather Reisman of ChaptersIndigo came to be. I’ve always trusted her selections more than Oprah’s Picks, or rather, I seem to like more of the same books that she likes.

Of course as CEO she stands to gain from book promotion at Christmas but I liked her little clip all the same. Give a book for Christmas! And buy it from an independent book seller if you can. 🙂 Sorry Heather!