Here is one last peak at my bookshelves before summer.
I think one of these might be just the thing for that afternoon in the hammock, the long car trip, those sweaty hours between events at the swim meet.
I plan to read as much as possible these next few months. I’m imagining quiet afternoons with a sleeping baby and three kids with noses-in-books, but the reality is more likely to be me on my green sofa, one eye on the so-close-to-crawling baby and one on my book, while I try desperately to tune out the shrieks of three children running circles around the room. Yes, I’m trying to be realistic.
Either way, my plan is to bring These Farmhouse Bookshelves back in September with fresh recommendations.
One of my favorite writers (she is a master of the revelatory interior monologue) has a new book. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life: A Novel is the best thing I’ve read in a long time.
I was skeptical at first. Perhaps you remember my distaste for literary gimmicks? Atkinson’s latest is structured around a stunning gimmick, but this excellent novel doesn’t deserve that pejorative term.
The book’s heroine is Ursula Todd, an Englishwoman who lives (and dies) through the Great War, the Spanish Flu epidemic, World War II and the London Blitz, and all of the upheaval of early twentieth-century European history. She lives, and she dies, and then she is born again, always and, it seems, forever on the same snowy night in 1910.
That is the novel’s literary device, and though it seems to break so many rules (most importantly, the reader’s assumption that the very worst thing cannot befall a novel’s primary character), Atkinson uses it to brilliant effect.
Ursula’s many lives and deaths, and the fascinating ways in which her story changes or does not, add up to a compulsively readable novel (after moving slowly through the first third, I couldn’t put it down) and one that gives us so much to think about: from questions of history and personal fate to the God-like role of novelists themselves.
Life After Life is the coming-of-age novel writ large. Ursula is given chance after chance to live well. We are given only one. We can learn a great deal from a character who knows the depths of the adage that “practice makes perfect.” The important question is, in that tumultuous time and now, what constitutes a well-lived life? What does “perfect” really look like?
Sylvie’s knowledge … was random yet far-ranging, ‘The sign that one has acquired one’s learning from reading novels rather than an education …’
A Time to Keep: The Tasha Tudor Book of Holidays may be the best children’s book I never read as a child. I love it so much, I feel as if I have lived in its pages the way only a young child can.
Featuring Tudor’s beloved illustrations, this picture book shows us twelve months of celebration in a rural, New England family about a hundred years ago. Based on Tudor’s childhood memories, we have beautiful pictures and brief descriptions of a bonfire on New Year’s Eve, a syrup-making party in March, a dance around the Maypole, and a very special August birthday, to name just a few.
This is a book about the special rhythms of the seasons and of family life. It is sweetly nostalgic and inspiring. Enthralled by the book’s August birthday party, my daughter and I have decided that someday, somehow, we will float a candlelit birthday cake down a stream at twilight.
August brought your mother’s birthday which we celebrated at night by the river. The table was set with birch bark plates and gourd drinking cups.
I pulled this last book off my shelf last night and promised myself I’d reread it over the summer. Even the summer months deserve something of high literary value, but I find that short stories are easier to squeeze in between visits to the pool, park, and farmer’s market.
The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin is a collection of realist short stories by one of The New Yorker’s most gifted writers, Maeve Brennan. Out of print for decades, these stories were republished four years after Brennan’s death in 1993.
Born in Ireland, Brennan lived in New York from the age of 17, but the stories are each set in Dublin. These are stories about family and affection as well as the uglier emotions which can mar those relationships: emotions like grief, envy and even hatred.
These are stories in which each detail of a character’s dress and environment matters. They suggest that a writer’s primary task is observation. Writers, especially, appreciate Brennan’s work, but I think she has something to teach all of us. Whether we write or not, our lives are enriched when we pay close attention. To the arrangement of dishes on our kitchen shelf. To the face of a friend or child.
… you would think, looking at such an arrangement, that the boxes contained something of interest or of value. And what did they contain? Old bills marked paid thirty years before. Recipes for dinner she had never cooked, dinners so elaborate that she must have been dreaming of a vist from the king and queen of England when she cut the menus out of the magazines in which she had found them.
What do you plan to read this summer?
I like to think of myself as an adventurous reader. A curious reader. A willing-to-give-it-a-go reader.
Truthfully, there are quite a few things that almost always trigger a “No, thanks,” from me. Almost always, that is. This Saturday, I bring you a few of those books I still don’t know why I read. But I’m so glad I did.
The descriptor ripped-from-the-headlines is a major stop sign for me. I can’t even watch Law and Order. I appreciate the headlines and the stories behind them (mostly via NPR). I love utterly fantastic, creative storytelling. I don’t like any mixing of the two.
In my view, the truth is generally more incredible than fantasy. Also, excellent fantasy is generally more truthful than reality.
Here’s the exception: Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue. Actually, this book also defies another of my stop signs: never read a book in which terrible things happen to a child.
I wish I could remember why I ever picked up this book, but, heavens, am I glad I did. This is the story of a little boy who has never known anything but a single, small room. He is the child of a young woman who was kidnapped and is being held prisoner in a backyard shed.
I know I’ve already lost a few of you, but I hope you’ll stick with me. Truly, this is one of the most incredible novels I have ever read.
Because Donoghue tells her story from the little boy’s perspective, our overwhelming impression is one of wonder, never horror. The skill with which this child and his world are depicted simply boggles my mind. In fact, writing this, I am itching to read this one again. Just so I can figure out how she did it. Because what she has done is amazing.
This is a beautiful story. It will leave you in awe of the power of a mother’s love. It has an exciting, page-turning plot (will these two incredible people escape their imprisonment??). Finally, it has an emotionally satisfying ending.
Room breaks all my rules and does it beautifully.
Stories are a different kind of true. – Emma Donoghue in Room
Another of my rules? I don’t do literary adaptations. The sequal to Peter Pan? An update on Hamlet? Noooo! They can never equal the original, and they strike me as creatively lazy. Derivative. Come up with your own characters, why don’t you!
But, then I read The Flight of Gemma Hardy: A Novel (P.S.) by Margot Livesey. You could call this a retelling of Jane Eyre. Like me, you are probably thinking, “Why not just read Jane Eyre?” And, yes, if you haven’t, you should.
But thanks to Livesey, I think I now see the point of retellings, adaptations, and imaginative sequals and prequals. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It creates echoes and other artists, in other places and other times, respond to those echoes. It is as if The Flight of Gemma Hardy is in conversation with Jane Eyre. It helps us to see the old classic with new eyes, and it is, in itself, a beautiful work of art.
Running, I soon realized, was the best way to stay ahead of fear. – Margot Livesey in The Flight of Gemma Hardy
One final no-go: gimmicks. I don’t like them. Also, anything that seems needlessly disrespectful towards the things I hold most dear. So, why I ever read The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A. J. Jacobs is beyond me.
First, this book is hilarious and slightly gimmicky, but it is written with earnestness and humility. Jacobs really does want to understand the Bible and the many ways people profess to live it out, and he shares his growing wisdom with us.
In the end, this memoir is funny but it’s no joke. With curiosity and empathy, Jacobs encounters Biblical literalists from the Amish in Pennsylvania to Samaritans in Israel all while trying (and failing) to live the Bible as literally as possible. At the end of his experiment, Jacobs is humbler and wiser.
And so are we.
I’m still agnostic. But in the words of Elton Richards, I’m now a reverent agnostic. Which isn’t an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there’s a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It’s possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn’t take away from its power or importance. – A. J. Jacobs in The Year of Living Biblically
Find previous book recommendations here: week one, week two, week three, week four, week five, and week six.
Another Saturday, another peak at my bookshelves … this time with a little Downton Abbey inspiration.
Now, Sybil, dear, this sort of thing is all very well in novels, but in reality, it can prove very uncomfortable. (Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham)
I’m a lucky lady. Not only will my husband happily watch hour after hour of PBS Masterpiece Classics like Downton Abbey, but he’ll put up with my distracting, far-too-knowledgeable-for-my-own-good asides.
I spent ten years of my life studying the literature and culture of early twentieth-century Great Britain, so I get a tad opinionated about historical accuracy (for instance, Downton’s portrayal of master/servant relations is decidedly rosy, and no one would have disapproved of Edith’s marriage to an older man, there simply were not enough eligible men left alive after the war).
A bit of Ireland’s tumultuous history is reflected in the Tom/Sybil plotline. If you’d like to take a closer look, I’d recommend Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Last September. Bowen was, herself, the daughter of an Irish Big House. Many of her neighbors and friends lost their great houses in the literal flames of Ireland’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule.
Bowen wrote her novel only a few years after the historical events she describes, but in those years the entire culture of Anglo-Irish landed gentry had all but vanished. For the Anglo-Irish, whose Protestant ancestors had arrived from England hundreds of years before to claim Irish land in the name of the British government, it really was the “last” September. Irish independence left them, metaphorically and often literally, homeless.
Here, there were no more autumns, except for the trees. … Next year, the chestnuts and acorns pattered unheard on the avenues, that, filmed over with green already, should have been dull to the footsteps – but there were no footsteps. Leaves … banked formless, frightened,
against the too clear form of the ruin. (from The Last September)
Interested in a country house novel for the beginning reader? Yes, there is such a thing! Of course, the main characters are, as one would expect, not people but mice. My daughter loves Tumtum & Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall by Emily Bearn. Again, this is that rare combination: funny, clever, and easy-to-read.
No list of country house fiction would be complete without a ghost story. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize (I almost always love the Booker Prize winners).
This novel about a declining family, their haunted manor house, and the village doctor who becomes entangled in their fate is smart, subtle, and atmospheric. Like most good, literary ghost stories the ghost itself is almost beside the point. In this portrayal of post-WWII Britain and the decline of the old family homes, it’s easy to imagine a Downton Abbey sequal in which that formerly bustling estate is inhabited only by Lady Mary, one aging servant, and the ghosts of a once-glittering past.
Find earlier book recommendations here: Week One, Week Two, Week Three, and Week Four.