Month in Review: April 2017

This month was incredibly intense as various work, personal, and health crises hit all at once. Everything is fine, but it was stressful for a while! I apologize for not visiting and commenting on as many blogs as I usually do — hopefully I will have time for this enjoyable task again very soon.

In spite of all the craziness, I did manage to mount the third annual Elizabeth Goudge Day, with many thanks to all who participated. I always find Goudge’s books to be a source of comfort and solace in such hectic times, so it was actually a helpful focus to have.  I hope you found it so as well.

My real-life “Trying to Understand” book club has folded for lack of attendance after three meetings. However, I’ll still be reviewing books on this topic on the blog — Strangers in Their Own Land will be next — and look forward to discussing them with you.

On the plus side, I just discovered that my small town has an ongoing book club that I never knew about, even though I’ve lived here for four years. (Ah, those secretive New Englanders…) The next selections are A Gentleman in Moscow and The Last Days of Night, both of which I really want to read, so I’m excited. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Reviews

  • Bronze and Sunflower was a lovely story of friendship set in rural China.
  • A new memoir of spiritual enlightenment through abortion, May Cause Love addresses a controversial but important topic.
  • For the 1951 Club, My Cousin Rachel was a masterfully ambiguous story of Gothic suspense.
  • Towers in the Mist, set in Elizabethan Oxford, was my read for Elizabeth Goudge Day this year.

Other Books Read

  • The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier
  • The Winged Girl of Knossos by Erick Berry – Review to come
  • Smoky House by Elizabeth Goudge – Mount TBR
  • The Transcendental Murder by Jane Langton – Mount TBR
  • The Incomplete Amorist by E. Nesbit
  • It Ends with Revelations by Dodie Smith – Mount TBR
  • The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams
  • Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild – Review to come
  • Why On Earth? by Signe Schaefer – Mount TBR
  • The People in the Castle by Joan Aiken

Other Features and Events

 

Shared in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer, the Month in Review linkup at The Book Date, and the Monthly Wrap-up Round-up hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction

Elizabeth Goudge Day Wrap-up

Thank you, everyone, for another fantastic Elizabeth Goudge Day! Here is what I have gathered from those who participated — please let me know if I missed your post. And congratulations to Jorie of Jorie Loves a Story, who won the giveaway of Towers in the Mist!

Helena Rae, who is not currently blogging, commented about The Dean’s Watch:

“The Dean’s Watch is a gentle and inspiring story of finding one’s joy through the transforming power of sacrifice and courage. It is a beautiful, spiritual story that expounds the idea that “if you turn for your joy to the intractable and explosive stuff of human nature it’s in for a penny, in for a pound.” How often we let our own insecurities hold us back from helping or showing a real interest in others. The characters in this story teach us that when we do so, unexpected and remarkable things beyond our imaginings can happen. I didn’t find a weak element to Goudge’s writing. Her strongest was the sense of place. She managed to evoke an enchanting town with a fairytale quality, imbued with a sense of history and thoughtful detail. This book has secured a place in my top ten and in my heart.”

Helen of A Gallimaufry wrote about Goudge’s autobiography, The Joy of the Snow:

“This memoir shines with Elizabeth’s sensitivity to place, her great kindness and sympathy, her feeling for the magic of life and her joy in detail, both in nature and in people.”

Helen of She Reads Novels loved Towers in the Mist:

“I loved getting to know Faithful and the Leighs (and Nicolas, who ended up being one of my favourite characters after undergoing a bit of a transformation which I hadn’t expected at the beginning) but there are also several real historical figures from the Elizabethan age who play a part in the story… Goudge admits in her note at the beginning that not everything in the book will be entirely accurate historically, but I think she is very successful at capturing the overall feel of the Elizabethan period even if it may not be correct in every detail.”

I had a similar reaction to Towers:

“Goudge herself makes no claim to have achieved historical accuracy, only to having made an attempt at reconstruction that no doubt fails in many points. Yet she does somehow manage to convey the lively, vivacious spirit of the early Elizabethan period, of a people who have endured much trouble and suffering without losing their zest for life. It makes sense that this period produced a great flowering of English poetry, examples of which are given at the beginning of each chapter. Love of learning, of words and of the Word, are in abundant evidence in Goudge’s Oxford, and in that she seems to have gotten to the heart of things.”

I was delighted that Jean of Howling Frog Books managed to track down a copy of the hard-to-find children’s book  The Valley of Song:

“It’s an unusual story, that’s for sure, combining a fantasy tour of all creation, a love of one particular English village, and a deep belief in the possibility of redemption for everyone, no matter how lost they feel.”

Ruthiella of Booked for Life found universal relevance in her first Goudge, The Rosemary Tree:

“What I think I liked most about it was that it showed how our actions can positively touch others and just how interconnected we are despite our best efforts to think we can live in isolation.  And while the book does have clear religious overtones, I think I can be read by anyone.  Its message of connection and forgiveness can be appreciated by a reader of any creed  or belief system.”

Jane of Beyond Eden Rock appreciated the children’s classic, The Little White Horse:

“Elizabeth tells her story beautifully; she really was a mistress of the art of story-telling. Every sentence is beautifully wrought; every character is clearly and distinctively drawn; every place, every meal, every setting is perfectly explained; and there is a wealth of lovely detail. I think that this  is a book that would work best read in childhood – and I do wish I had discovered it as a child – but it still has a great deal to offer to the grown-up reader who is still in touch with her inner child who loved books.”

And so did Jenna of Falling Letters:

“I read The Little White Horse when my mind was all abuzz with concerns of practical adult life. Although I found it difficult at times to focus, this lovely little tale kept me grounded by being just what I needed to put my head in the clouds.”

A couple of readers were still in the midst of their books, but I hope you are enjoying them and that you’ll still share your responses with us when you have a chance.

As I mentioned on Monday, I’m planning to take a break from this event next year in order to focus on other things…but if someone else should take it up, I would be an enthusiastic supporter. It’s been a joy to share our appreciation of this author and her wonderful books for the past three years, and I wish you all happy reading.

Elizabeth Goudge Day 2017

The day is here! Have you been reading something by Elizabeth Goudge in honor of her birthday? Please let me know in the comments, and I’ll include your post in a wrap-up on Friday.

I posted my review of Towers in the Mist yesterday, an evocative exploration of Elizabethan Oxford; click the link for my thoughts. I also read Smoky House, a delightful early children’s book set in Elizabeth’s beloved West Country. It was marvelous to be transported to these two magical places.

Along with sharing your reviews, or visiting others’ posts, please don’t neglect to enter the giveaway sponsored by Hendrickson Publishers, which will be open through April 26. You can enter to win a new paperback edition of Towers in the Mist — international entries are welcome.

After three years I am planning to take a break from this particular event, but it’s been wonderful to connect with more Goudge fans and to perhaps encourage some readers to take up her books for the first time. Thanks to all who have participated — I hope you have enjoyed this event as much as I have!

Towers in the Mist

Elizabeth Goudge, Towers in the Mist (1937)

This book is offered in a giveaway open through April 26. Click the link to enter!

Oxford has changed much in the eighty years since Elizabeth Goudge lived there, and even more since the sixteenth century. Yet it still bears within it the weight of its long history, and it is fascinating to imagine all the people and events that have passed through its walls and buildings and churches and quadrangles. That is the task Goudge has set for herself with Towers in the Mist: to imagine a well-known place of the present as it might have been in the past. For anyone who loves the university or even just the idea of it, it’s a wonderful if somewhat unwieldy hodgepodge of a book, an imaginative journey that touches us with the author’s own affection and enthusiasm.

Her Elizabethan tale introduces us to several well-known personages of the time (such as Thomas Bodley, the Earl of Leicester, and the young Walter Raleigh and Philip Sidney), but is mainly centered around the fictional Canon Leigh of Christ Church, whose motherless brood is growing up in a time when children were expected to become adults very early. As the older children are occupied with finding their place in the world, with balancing love and duty, the younger ones experience the universal joys and sorrows of childhood that Goudge always portrays so delightfully. Around them swirls the pageantry of city and university in glorious confusion, with bursts of rowdiness as well as moments of transcendent beauty.

I found it particularly interesting to see how Goudge deals with religion here; she’s writing about a time in which doubt was nearly non-existent, almost everyone lived and breathed within the embrace of the church, and the wars between Catholics and Protestants meant that many died for their beliefs. It is extremely difficult for people of our materialistic age to imagine the mindset of such an era, and Goudge doesn’t try to enter into it very deeply. Rather, she lightly suggests that even in a time when religion ruled daily life there could be many different modes of experience and ways of encountering God. Her Elizabethans express a wide variety of approaches to faith, from simple, heartfelt devotion to worldly-wise practicality, and all seem convincingly possible.

In the latter category, I love the story of how the Christ Church undergraduates appointed just one of each of their groups to listen to the Sunday sermon on which they would later be tested; the others were then free to “think great thoughts” during the hour-long discourse. Meanwhile, their teachers marveled at the burst of earnest conversation taking place later that day among the scholars (during which they filled each other in on the sermon’s contents). It’s just one example of how Goudge pokes fun at a revered institution, while fully appreciating its gifts to our culture.

Hall of Christ Church College

Nor is faith depicted as a fixed, immutable quality, but as something that can move and grow and change, depending on how each character meets and takes up the challenges of life. For example, we see young Nicolas, initially one of the most flippant and worldly of the scholars, becoming more serious and courageous under the influence of love. Meanwhile, upright Canon Leigh, when approached by Nicolas for the hand of his beloved daughter in marriage, must reconfigure his expectations and admit that the young man he would previously have dismissed as an indifferent scholar may actually perceive something in his child that he does not, and which is necessary to her happiness. Both must adjust their view of the world, must humble themselves in some ways and strengthen themselves in others, in order to move forward into the future.

Such characters and relationships are the most interesting thing to me about Goudge’s work in general; they show her willingness to embrace all kinds of human thoughts and experiences with compassion rather than with a critical, judgmental eye. This helps me in turn to look at my own life with the possibility that if there is a divine world, it may regard me in the same way, holding my foibles and errors within a greater perspective of love — and it also inspires me to try to look at other people in the same spirit. To me this is the most important function of all fiction, whether it be overtly “religious” or not.

This is not to say that Towers in the Mist might not have benefited from some judicious pruning. In her wish to create as comprehensive a view as possible, Goudge has wedged in a number of awkward side stories and historical characters, while the overall plot is rambling and often improbable, and certain “patriotic” passages are marred by an excess of sentimentality. The descriptions are elaborate, the pace leisurely, the digressions many. But for those who are willing to take a roundabout journey, there is still much pleasure to be found on the way.

Goudge herself makes no claim to have achieved historical accuracy, only to having made an attempt at reconstruction that no doubt fails in many points. Yet she does somehow manage to convey the lively, vivacious spirit of the early Elizabethan period, of a people who have endured much trouble and suffering without losing their zest for life. It makes sense that this period produced a great flowering of English poetry, examples of which are given at the beginning of each chapter. Love of learning, of words and of the Word, are in abundant evidence in Goudge’s Oxford, and in that she seems to have gotten to the heart of things.

This post was written to celebrate Elizabeth Goudge’s birthday, tomorrow, April 24. I’ll be checking in then to see who else has written posts in honor of this beloved author, and sharing them with you. Please join us!

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Are you going to Book Expo?

A year ago, I was so envious of all those who got to go to Book Expo America in Chicago that I thought I would make it a priority to attend this year, when it would be in New York and not require a plane trip. I would have to get time off from work, which is not a straightforward task in my job, but I thought it would be worth it to connect with other bloggers and enjoy the excitement of the book publishing scene.

When the new format and fees for the convention were announced, though, I lost interest. Previously there was specific content for bloggers, but now that was gone, and bloggers were being vetted for legitimacy and their numbers limited. I do not fault the organizers for making these changes, but they did make the event less attractive to me. I realized that my main reason for going was to meet people, and I could still do that by trying to organize some get-togethers in my own area. (I am planning to do this once the snow melts, New England blogging friends!) It wouldn’t be such a grand extravaganza, but it also would be less costly and stressful.

As for the gathering of ARCs and other book swag, in my earlier years of blogging this was much more attractive; now I feel a bit overwhelmed by what I have on hand already. I’m actually relieved not to have the pressure of acquiring MORE books that I then feel obligated to read.

So, I’m not going after all. But I don’t want to discourage anyone else who is! I hope you will have a marvelous time and tell us all about it. If you’re going, what are your hopes and plans? And if you’re not, do you wish you were?

The 1951 Club: My Cousin Rachel

Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel (1951)

The 1951 Club is the latest in a series of events put together by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, which encourages us to read books published in a particular year. Please visit Simon’s blog for links to other 1951 books — this builds up a wonderful picture of a particular moment in time, through the combination of famous and obscure choices.

My Cousin Rachel is a masterfully ambiguous novel of psychological suspense, one that begins with the question “Was Rachel innocent or guilty?” It ends with the same question, but adds to it the question of the narrator’s own guilt and complicity in the final tragedy. Much more than a simple “who done it” in the external sense, this is a story that delves into the secrets of the human heart and that may make us think about the complex sources of our own motivations and actions.

That narrator is Philip Astley, who has been raised by his much older cousin Ambrose on their family estate in 19th century Cornwall. When the seemingly contented bachelor Ambrose ventures abroad and there marries another cousin, the half-Italian widow Rachel, Philip immediately is consumed with jealousy; later, upon receiving some cryptic notes from Ambrose, he becomes suspicious. He journeys to Florence but finds that Ambrose has suddenly died and his widow vanished.

Philip is determined to seek revenge upon Rachel, but before he can do so, she arrives in Cornwall and turns out to be nothing like the demon of his imaginings. In fact, he is soon completely entranced by her himself. As he descends further into passion, Rachel becomes even more of an enigma. What are her true intentions and feelings? Who is she?

Rachel may indeed be a manipulative and greedy woman; but what the first-person narration masks, and the reader slowly comes to realize, is that Philip may be more than a match for her. Having grown up without a mother, and even without a nurse — Ambrose sent the last one packing when Philip was three years old — and apparently never having recognized sexual love or desire, he has remained stunted in his own emotional life. (As a sign of this, he is incredibly callous and insensitive toward the neighbor girl who obviously is in love with him.) When Rachel bursts upon Philip with all her feminine wiles he is utterly unable to cope with them in a mature way, and the worst kind of unrecognized feminine qualities rise up within him: jealousy, possessiveness, pettiness, impulsiveness, and finally violence.

The result is to shatter them both, and leave Rachel a question forever, an image seen through Philip’s fractured mind. Who is the villain of this piece? Perhaps both, or neither. The Gothic shadows are never dispelled.

Back to the Classics Challenge: A Gothic or horror classic
Classics Club List
The 1951 Club

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New Release Review: May Cause Love

Kassi Underwood, May Cause Love (2017)

At the age of nineteen, Kassi Underwood had an abortion. She was a directionless college student, drinking too much and pursuing a road-to-nowhere relationship with a drug dealer in the absence of her childhood sweetheart from her Kentucky home town. Abortion seemed the only logical, the only compassionate option, yet she could not let go and move on. Her choice continued to haunt her, especially after her ex had a child with another woman. How could she find peace, go through the grief and pain that the world told her she either shouldn’t be feeling or was feeling for the wrong reasons? How would she get through to the other side without losing her mind?

One problem was that it was so difficult to find other women who were willing to talk honestly about their abortion experiences, even though according to statistics they should be walking around everywhere. Kassi desperately needed to feel she was not alone, that she was not the only person who had terminated a pregnancy without wanting to either subsume herself in religious shame or toe a feminist party line. But those voices seemed to be silent, including her own.

I was sorry about the abortion, not necessarily because I’d made the wrong choice, but because other voices had been so loud that I hadn’t been able to hear my own. Nineteen years of listening to the schizophrenic collective conscience about girls and pregnant people and motherhood and money had filled my head with opinions that did not belong to me.

It took years and much searching and soul-work for Kassi to find her voice, but through many small steps she has come there — and in the process created the community she was looking for. Her account of her “unexpected journey of enlightenment” is woven of her learning from therapists and healers and religious leaders, from protesters and haters as well as listeners and supporters. It’s also an account of her life and love and work journey during this time, of her own growing confidence in writing and speaking about her abortion, of encouraging others to do the same, and of her evolving relationship with God. It moved me to tears at times, but also made me laugh at the ridiculous antics we go through in running away from who we were meant to be. With honesty and trust, Kassi lays it all out before us, and may help us to look at some of the buried truths that lurk in our own pasts.

Some will complain that most women don’t have the resources or the opportunities that Kassi did, that not everyone can attend multiple retreats or have personal rituals created for them or fly across the country looking for answers to their questions. But that doesn’t mean that Kassi shouldn’t have done those things. The fact that she needed to take extraordinary and sometimes expensive measures in search of healing simply indicates that finding our one true self is worth everything we can give, whether that everything be much or little. For Kassi to share her story lays her open to attack and misunderstanding, and may even endanger her life. She does it not as an act of self-aggrandizement or pride, but in the hope that it will empower and strengthen others, and for that I personally can only be grateful.

Not everyone will want to read a book like this. You’ll need to be willing to read at length about abortion, and to consider it not as a fixed, immutable watershed of moral virtue or political values, but as a gateway to the complex, unstable, confusing business of what it means to be a human being in this world. You’ll also need to be willing to contemplate the contributions of many different religious traditions to the journey, along with psychics, energy healers, and a “midwife of the soul.” There are swear words (even if some of them are disguised with asterisks). There are drinking and drugs and addiction and infidelity. But if you can keep an open mind and heart, as Kassi so beautifully does, you may find that it’s all part of the quest to disentangle the mixed-up mess of joy and pain and ecstasy and suffering that is this earthly life, and find the thread of love.

Why was I here? Because I had quit running. Because you can run from grief and sorrow and responsibility and rush headlong into a new relationship or a new city or stalwart friends who will love you while you run, but if you want happiness, if you want love, if you want to become the figure you see in the distance, the future self calling your name, if you want to live the life you chose, one day you will have to stand still and hold all of it — scorched heart and broken brain, bones and skeletons of the past, the black wave of grief and the lucid thoughts of forgiveness.

Like Jacob with the angel, Kassi has wrestled her torment to the ground and extracted from it a blessing of untold value. May her story inspire each one of us to do the same, knowing that truly, we are not alone.

Thanks to the publisher and to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to review May Cause Love. For more stops on the tour, click here.

For information from the publisher, HarperCollins, click here.

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Mount TBR Checkpoint #1

Mount TBR Challenge host Bev of My Reader’s Block has posted some questions for our first quarterly checkpoint here. Here are my answers along with a list of what I’ve knocked off my pile so far.

Tell us how many miles you’ve made it up your mountain (# of books read). 

I’m impressed that I’ve managed to keep up with my goal of 5 books a month, aiming at 60 total for the year. With 15 books read, I’m a quarter of the way up the mountain!

Post a picture of your favorite cover so far.

Who has been your favorite character so far?

Though I’ve enjoyed meeting many characters from different times and places, I think I felt closest to the thoughtful anarchist scientist Shevek in The Dispossessed.

Have any of the books you read surprised you?

Troy Chimneys surprised me by being more emotionally moving than I expected.

My Cousin Rachel surprised me with its cleverly ambiguous story of suspense.

What I’ve read so far:

  • Bronze and Sunflower – Cao Wenxuan
  • Carry On, Mister Bowditch – Jean Latham
  • The Chemical Wedding by Christian Rosencreutz – John Crowley
  • The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin
  • A Fugue in Time – Rumer Godden
  • Hell and High Water – Tanya Landman
  • I Was a Stranger – John Haskett
  • The King Must Die – Mary Renault
  • Midnight Is a Place -Joan Aiken
  • A Month in the Country – J. L. Carr
  • The Morning Gift – Eva Ibbotson
  • My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier
  • Sophie Someone – Hayley Long
  • Troy Chimneys – Margaret Kennedy
  • Wild Strawberries – Angela Thirkell

What I’m reading now:

I’m currently reading Towers in the Mist in preparation for Elizabeth Goudge Day. What else I will manage this month remains to be seen!

 

New Release Review: Bronze and Sunflower

Cao Wenxuan, Bronze and Sunflower (Candlewick, 2017)

A Chinese children’s classic finally comes to the English-speaking world with this gently absorbing tale of sorrow, friendship, and growth. Set in rural China during the Cultural Revolution, it centers on the relationship between Sunflower, a city girl who has come to the country with her artist father, and Bronze, a mute boy from the village whose family takes Sunflower in when tragedy strikes. Their immediate bond only grows stronger as it is tested by poverty, unsympathetic neighbors, and natural disasters.

With its depiction of rural life, from detailed descriptions of making shoes out of reeds to the terrible depredations of a plague of grasshoppers and the resulting famine, Bronze and Sunflower strongly reminded me of the Little House on the Prairie books, and should appeal to the same audience. Tradition and family loyalty are extremely important, foundational as they are in Chinese culture, but the love between Bronze and Sunflower goes beyond that. The mute boy and the orphaned girl show how the flower of true humanity can blossom in the unlikeliest of places, and though separation threatens at the end, what they have gained from one another cannot be destroyed.

The Communist regime is only obliquely referred to — Sunflower’s father was part of the “Cadre School” program of re-education that sent city folk to do hard manual labor in the countryside. The political significance of this is not dwelt upon, nor do the characters occupy themselves much with what is happening elsewhere in China, concerned as they are with merely surviving another winter. The themes and incidents are both specific to a certain time and place, and strongly archetypal, linked to eternal natural cycles of growth, harvest, and decay. For this reason, the book could be a good starting point for a broader study of China with older children, or can be experienced on its own with no special knowledge or background necessary.

Here is an interesting interview with the translator, Helen Wang, who won a major prize for her work on this book (which was only her second translation). Wang has done an excellent job of preserving some of the special character of Wenxuan’s leisurely prose while making it accessible for an English audience. I hope there will be more to come from both author and translator.

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