Welcome to my blog where I share my book reviews
and life along the winding road

Friday, September 13, 2019

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

In Half Broke Horses, Jeannette Walls brings her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith to life with intriguing stories and showing her grandmother's admirable grit. Lily is no shrinking violet, and attacks every problem full on, helping her father break in horses, building a garage and home with her husband, treking 500 miles across the country to a school teacher's job with only her horse, Patches, for company.

The story starts with a flash flood during which Lily encourages her siblings to climb a cottonwood tree and hold on for hours until the flood recedes. They live in a dugout which her mother (of refined nature) tries to make it as gentile as possible with an Oriental rug, chaise lounge, lace doilies and velvet curtains, but scorpions, lizards, snakes and gophers also inhabited the space and sometimes during a rain storm, a goat would stick a hoof through the mud roof. Unlike her mother and sister Helen, Lily is far from gentile and learns how to fall and roll from a bucking horse, and helps her father on their spread. But it's not only the story that is enticing, but Jeanette Walls style of writing that keeps the reader hooked until the very end.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Notes from a Small Island is written with Bill Bryson's usual derogatory remarks and witty sarcasm. He has carved out six weeks for his trek around Britain either walking or taking public transport (and occasionally, with reluctance, renting a car). His reasoning is that if someone can walk from Lands End to John O'Groats (the length of Britain) in eight weeks, surely he can accomplish it in a shorter amount of time using the addition of trains and buses.

He reminisces of his first visit to England in the chaotic times of 1973 (A time I remember well). Unemployment was high, those with gainful employment were limited to working three days a week, gas/petrol was rationed, it seemed everyone was on strike, VAT (value added tax) had been introduced for most purchases, and it had only been two years since decimal currency had replaced pounds, shillings and pence. To add to the instability, Britain chose to join the European Common Market which skyrocketed the price on many products. Lamb, which had once been a fairly cheap meal from New Zealand, now was out of the reach of many.

He starts his trek twenty years later at the white cliffs of Dover and winds across the south coast of England before heading northwards, through the industrial midlands and on to Scotland.

Along the way he describes locals, architecture, historical places and things he learned from patrons over an occasional beer at a local pub. He stops at Saltaire where a mill owner built a town for his workers, found an ancient Roman mosaic floor in a field (which turned out to be a Victorian replica), wandered the beautiful south coast beaches, and left many cities amazed at the lack of planning for hideous new construction and nonsensical thoroughfares.

He refers to the British as easy to please and their pleasures small. When presented with a small pleasure such as a tea cake, scone, or biscuit (which he adds are very flavorful) they respond with "Oh, I shouldn't really," before being encouraged and agreeing to the indulgence with "Just a small one, then."

Other remarks he comes across frequently are: "Mustn't grumble," "Makes a change," "You could do worse," "It's not much, but it's cheap and cheerful."

All in all I enjoyed the book - a walk with him down memory lane of conversations that were common when I was growing up and the peace and tranquility of a walk on the moors or on a deserted beach in the winter. I wish he had ventured into Cornwall though where the Lands End to John O'Groats walk usually starts. He would have enjoyed the picturesque fishing villages.

Note: He adds a glossary in the back to refer to.

Friday, August 30, 2019

We Must be Brave by Frances Liardet

We Must be Brave by Frances Liardet at over 450 pages is not a quick read, but a novel that I found difficult to put down.

At the beginning of World War II bombs fall on the south coast of England, causing havoc and displacing many from the town of Southampton. They are evacuated to the surrounding small villages. A young child is found alone, asleep on the back seat of a bus which had brought people to the village of Upton, and Ellen Parr takes the child, Pamela, into her home along with many women to spend the night away from the bombings. But Pamela's mother cannot be found and she stays with Ellen and her husband, a mill owner, Selwyn.

Pamela is described as a five year-old (nearly six) child, but I thought she seemed younger and closer to 3-4 years old.

Ellen's love for Pamela is the thread running through the story, but there is so much more. The villagers of Upton are a close knit group who, bound together by the tragedies of war, become an extended family for Ellen through childhood hardships, a loving but childless marriage, and coming to terms with a child thrust on their family. We Must be Brave refers to not only Ellen and Pamela but those who befriend them. Many men injured during WWI and those struggling to feed their families and the disasters that come along with a war torn country. They helped each other even lending Ellen a pair of shoes for a job interview as she only had farm boots.

Frances Liardet is not only a wonderful story teller, but her attention to detail is amazing. Through her characters she notices every tiny event, each minute detail which ensconces the reader in the warmth of the story.

We Must be Brave is definitely one for my favorite books of the year list.

Note: In 1940 during The Blitz (constant bombing of English cities) over 45,000 German bombs were dropped resulting in over 40,000 civilian deaths (mostly in London). This destruction occurred more often during the night hours. The Germans hoped for an eventual surrender by the English. According to an English newspaper, more bombs were dropped in my home town of Penge per square mile than any other town in England. These were mostly V-1 bombs - Doodlebugs launched from the coast of France. They were driven by their own power until running out of fuel when they dropped from the sky. One aunt told me the scariest part was when the whistling stopped because it meant the bomb would drop.

Southampton, England

Friday, August 23, 2019

To Capture What we Cannot Keep by Beatrice Colin

To Capture What we Cannot Keep by Beatrice Colin is set in Paris during the construction of the Eiffel Tower which was designed by Gustav Eiffel with his employee Maurice Koechlin for the World's Fair to mark the 100 year anniversary of the French Revolution and was to be the tallest structure in the world at that time.

While I enjoyed the historical setting  and time period of To Capture What we Cannot Keep, the story was a little lackluster. The romance is told from the point of view of a Scottish widow, Caitriona Wallace, chaparoning two charges in Paris, and Emile Nouguier an engineer employed by Gustave Eiffel.

Ms. Colin mentioned that she chose Emile Nouguier for the fictional story because little was known about him and she was able to create his persona. He had been the head of the Method's Department at Eiffel Enterprises and involved in many well known engineering marvels all over the world.

One Amazon review summed it up "Basically a romance with a lot of history thrown in."

At the time of the Eiffel Tower construction, Eiffel Enterprises was also involved in the costly Panama Canal. Not everyone was excited to have a large tower in the center of Paris and arguments consisted of:

Blocked views of Paris from windows of houses and apartments
Possibly an unsafe structure (Eiffel agreed to pay for the demolition of the structure should it prove to be unsafe)
Others claimed it would sink into the ground.
Worries that it would be a giant lightening conductor and attract more thunderstorms to Paris and electrocute fish in the rivers.

Friday, August 16, 2019

MyAntonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia by Willa Cather was a book club read and one I might not otherwise have picked up. While I was not overly enamored with the story line, I was intrigued by the way of life and struggles of early immigrants to Nebraska from Scandinavia, Bohemia, Czechoslovakia and Russia. The fictional town of Black Hawk is based on Red Cloud, Nebraska (where Willa Cather lived) and set in the late 1800s.

Jimmy, age 10, is the novel's narrator who is sent to Nebraska from Virginia as an orphan to live with his paternal grandparents. There he meets an immigrant family from Bohemia and helps Antonia to learn English.

Life was harsh in Nebraska with people often living in mud houses, but many had escaped even harsher conditions.  The Scandinavians and eastern Europeans were eventually successful because they sent their eldest daughters to live and work in the town which brought in an income for the family while the other family members worked on the land. 

Friday, August 9, 2019

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kruger

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kruger is set in 1961 in a small Minnesota town and told from the point of view of, Frank, a teenage boy.

Frank begins the season preoccupied with the concerns of any teenage boy, but when tragedy unexpectedly strikes his family which includes his Methodist minister father; his passionate, artistic mother; Julliard-bound older sister and wise-beyond his years kid brother, he finds himself thrust into an adult world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal.

I always enjoy stories from a child's point of view, which is usually uncluttered and this is no exception. It is well written and has many different characters who cross paths frequently as in any small town. This was a book club read and will offer a lot for discussion.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Holy Envy by Barbara Brown Taylor

Holy Envy - Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor delves into world religions and the author shares with us her experiences of teaching and researching world religions.

She states that her research is not to prove her (Christianity) is right, but to understand religion from a different point of view. Faith is not a competitive sport with only one team winning for eternity. What she has heard over and over again, when in another country, is that evangelists are not good listeners. I'm going to throw in a little Christianese here - evangelism and witnessing are not the same thing. Evangelism is preaching the gospel of Jesus, witnessing is simply sharing your Christian experiences with others, hopefully in a dialog where they can tell you their experiences.

Finding out about other people and their cultures/religions is something I've been learning more about the past few years. Instead of trying to convince others they are wrong, we should look for commonality and learn where they are coming from. This doesn't mean trying to "translate" their views into your own religious views but to understand theirs from a different frame of reference. For example a Buddhist in front of a statue may not be worshiping "idols" but honoring Buddha's example (there are no divine mediators in the Buddhist religion).

What I also didn't realize is that Christians aren't the only ones who have a "Golden Rule" Judaism, Islam and Hinduism (and I'm sure others) have a version of  the Golden Rule. If we all treated others as we would like to be treated wouldn't the world be a better place?

Another point she brought up is that if you meet a Hindu, or Muslim or someone from any religion you have met exactly one person. Even in the same religion we have different views so don't judge the whole by the thoughts or actions of one person.

Barbara Taylor Brown writes that after listening to an Imam she was taken by his words "Be the best person you can be in your religion." She vowed to speak from the heart of her faith wishing others well at the heart of theirs.