It's been a while since I reported on books finished. So, here's a recap:
#3: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym: This is the story of Mildred Lathbury, a clergyman's daughter, and a spinster in 1950's England. Spinster seems a hard word, for she is certainly not past marrying age, but she arrived a marriageable age at a time when many of the "best and brightest" were off at war--and I think her spinsterhood was more a result of the diminuition of the pool of marriageable men. I have a dear friend who is British, and she often talks of the large numbers of unmarried women--all her aunts but one remained unmarried.
Mildred is one of the "Excellent Women" of the title--those women who do rafts of good works, involved in charities and church. Not as the "pretty people", but as the worker bees who make things go. Mildred can't quite help being drawn into other peoples' lives, working first here and then there to make things work, to smooth things over, to facilitate things happening. Pym draws a sharp contrast between the "queen bees" and the "worker bees", and the sympathy is all on the worker bee side. We come to see that a life without a significant romantic relationship can still be a good life, a full life, a life very much worth living.
At some points, this book was hard for me to read, because I identified so strongly with Mildred. It is very much what my life without my precious PapaC would look like.
#4: Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl. Ruth Reichl is the restaurant critic for the NY Times (or at least she was when this book was written--I haven't looked to see if she still is). This is her memoir of growing up around food. It starts with life with her mom (who, we later come to see, is bipolar) who is an erratic cook and a scattered hostess of parties. She also has a weird idea of what is OK to use in recipes--making young Ruth feel it necessary to protect the guests she particularly likes from her mother's food. After parties, her mom routinely fielded calls, saying "No, everyone here is fine, and we ate everything!"
Told in short chapters, we see how food was important, and how it is tied to the various characters of her life. Recipes at the ends of chapters. Thoroughly enjoyable. This is my book club book for April. We're going to make recipes from the book to bring to the meeting. If you like to read about food and/or eccentric characters--this is the book for you!
#5: A Miracle for St. Cecilia's by Katherine Valentine. An obvious attempt at a Catholic Mitford series. Sweet--really, too sweet. It is the story of St. Cecilia's, a parish in the northeast that is scheduled to be closed after its Easter services. It has a group of parishioners who are mostly poor, mostly old, but all holy. Parts of the story are funny--like the Marian "apparition" which first appears to a non-Catholic heating repairman--but it ties up way too neatly. The one death even has a good outcome. Everything comes out exactly right, too many easy coincidences.
Those things don't necessarily throw me off--I like a happy ending better than any one I know. And coincidences happen, and things turn out well. I don't know. People complain about the Mitford series, too. But there's something there that is not here. I wouldn't be averse to reading another of Valentine's books to see how they progress. But I wouldn't specifically look for another.
#6: Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz. OK, here's my dirty little secret--though not much of a secret since I've spilled it here before. I am at least a "semi" fan of horror novels. Horror is one of the few genres that still assumes there is something that is really evil out there. It seems far less cynical, even in its bloodier forms, than a lot of modern writing. Stephen King has written some books that I adored (Salem's Lot, The Shining, Cujo, The Stand (love me some apocalyptic literature!), Pet Sematary, and Misery come immediately to mind) and a bunch of books that I don't like at all (the Dark Tower series for one). But Dean Koontz can write with the best of 'em, at least some of the time. Character is his forte, and even when the plot comes crashing down with a thud, there are still characters that resonate with you, long after you are finished with the book. Watchers, the first Dean Koontz book I ever read, still stays in my head 20 years later. While Odd Thomas doesn't rise to that level for me as a whole, the lead character in the book is one that I liked very much.
Odd Thomas is the story of, well, Odd Thomas, a twenty year old fry cook who happens to be able to talk to the dead and see malevolent spirits. He is a simple guy, living in Pico Mundo, California, on the Mojave desert. The book starts with Odd seing a little girl, and finding out that one of his friends from high school was, in fact, the man who murdered her. Odd is not physically large, but he has a gift, and a destiny, that he must follow. Soon after rounding up the girl's murderer, he notices malevolent spirits showing up--a harbinger of something awful to come for his little town.
Koontz's great gift is character. From Terri, the owner of the restaurant Odd cooks in, who mourns her dead husband and learns about Elvis, to Terrible Chester the peeing cat, to Stormy Llewellyn, Odd's girlfriend and soulmate, we meet a host of characters that we care about.
And it's a story about gift and the cost of those gifts. Of honor and perseverance in the face of danger. And the unending-ness of love.
Not a terribly gory book. Worth a read if you like suspense/horror. But read it for the characters, more than for the plot.
#7: Possession by A. S. Byatt. Our February book club book. Unfortunately, I missed the discussion on this one because of PapaC's trip to the hospital!
I'm really of two minds about this book. I haven't been so divided about something since I saw Pulp Fiction when it came out. No, Possession isn't anything like Pulp Fiction in plot line or yuck factor or anything. But both were cases where I could see that the creators had talent to burn--and used it in the service of storylines that, in the end, I didn't like.
Byatt has talent. Talent oozing out of her pores and pen. This book has it all--poetry, Victorian correspondence, a modern day story wrapping around the old one. A host of characters, artsy and academic, that often are given too short a shrift in the juggling of so many. This author had so much to say and she tried to say it all in one book. The book was so dense that it took forever to read--again, not a fatal flaw, necessarily, in my eyes, but it made it exactly the wrong book for our book group. I probably would have liked the book a little better had I not been reading it toward a deadline.
But, in the end, I looked back at the plot--the affair between the Victorian poets--and thought "How is this different from, say, The Bridges of Madison County?" Oh, it's a thousand (maybe a million?) times better written, but it is still the story of "star-crossed lovers, soulmates, who just happen to be married to someone else, but, oh well, let's throw that aside and have a brief, intense affair that will tide us over for the rest of our lives." That those others to whom faithfulness had been sworn have problems? Well, that just lends justification for the characters do. Or at least it's supposed to. Look, I'm not looking for a book with perfect people in it (see reviews above), because that just makes a silly book. But I am tired of books (and movies) that glamorize the sin of adultery. "Oh, isn't it romantice how they had their affair and went back to their previous lives." Well, no, in my eyes it isn't. I have no patience for this--see my rants in the past on Wuthering Heights both book and movie.
But I know I'm in the minority here. The book spent a zillion weeks on best-seller lists of all types. Not sorry I read it, but it just wasn't for me what it was for the friend who recommended it so breathlessly--"the best book I've read." Nope. Well written? Oh, yeah. Worth reading? The jury is out.