Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy (2012)

I have seen Mave Binchy's books on the shelves, and finally decided to try one. This Week in Winter just happens to be on the current shelf of my audio book shop, so I am starting with this. Turns out this was her last book and that Binchy died days after finishing it. Turns out she is one of Ireland's most popular authors of all times.

 We have Stone House on the shores of the Atlantic in western Ireland. It is owned by three unmarried sisters and eventually all the characters described in the book become a part of Stone House, either working there or visiting the cozy hotel Chicky Starr creates out of the old house. I was especially drawn in by the first two stories of Chicky and Rigger. They each have a difficult past that they need to forget and create a future for themselves. 

Each character or couple gets their own section of the book, going back as far as necessary to get to the past that has landed in the current dissatisfaction with life. Rigger gets in trouble as a kid and keeps hanging out with the wrong crowd, Winnie has found a great man, but with a horrible mother, American John misses a flight and ends up at Stone House, a Swedish accountant loves Irish music, two doctors are deeply affected by patients that commit suicide, etc.  As they arrive in Stone House, their story furthers the general story, and at times their lives are intertwined. Chicky has created the warm setting, but the atmosphere is created by all of them, heals almost all those who come. I enjoyed all the stories of people's lives. I could only complain of the fact that it was a bit contrived to have almost all of them come out with major changes in their lives and futures to look forward to.

I may turn to Maeve Binchy when I need a feel-good about humanity type book.

Whistling Season by Ivan Doig (2006)

I wanted to read something about Montana or by a Montana author. I discovered
Ivan Doig, though the first book I picked up turned out to be about Seattle, so I didn't finish that. This IS about Montana and very close to the area I was visiting.

This is a wonderful story about a family, community and one room school house. The story is told by Paul, who is a superintendent of schools in recent day Montana, but he remembers 1910, when he was a student in his local schoolhouse. I always heard about the slogging for miles through snow to schoolhouses in other parts of the US and in Latvia, but Paul and his brothers rode to school on their horses.

Paul and his brothers Damon and Toby live with their father Oliver, who is the head of the local school board, farms, and works on the Big Ditch. (This last was the most unclear part of the story for me, I think it was meant to be an irrigation ditch or even some form of canal.) Their mother had passed away and the household of males is having a hard time with housekeeping and cooking. They see an ad in their paper from someone who "Can't cook but doesn't bite." They don't believe a woman can't cook, but Rose really does not, though she is a great housekeeper. She and her brother Morrie, who ends up teaching at the schoolhouse, change the lives of this family, and in a sense the whole community.

This book was more laid back than what I usually read, though there were moments of excitement. What the book did provide was a glimpse into the rural lives of Montana in the early 20th century with connections to the present day. It was heartwarming, uplifting, emphasized the importance of education, and gave me hope for humanity. The relationships between family members, students, neighbors - with all their different variations seemed realistic. Bullying and teasing have been a constant through the centuries, but I liked Doig's comment: "the politics I am in today could learn some civility from the playground kind..." (pg. 305) I enjoyed the way the focal family interacted and how they related to various difficult people around them. 

I got a better sense of how teachers kept eight grades going in one room - an incredible challenge. I know the kinds of things they learned are different from what I was taught or my child was taught, but if done well, it produced a thinking, literate populace. Morrie was the epitome of a teacher that could engage, and there were many examples of that. 1910 was the year of Haley's comet, and he focused the studies largely around that event. I did not realize that Mark Twain was born and died on the years of the Haley's comet.

I have a lot of books in my "to read" pile, but I hope to get around to something from Doig again in the future.

Kill Shot by Vince Flynn (2012)

Since Vince Flynn recently passed away, I felt like reading more of his Mitch Rapp books, and they are great to keep one awake on long drives. So it was what I listened to on my drive back from Wyoming. Though this book was written in 2012, it is the second in the series - early in Mitch Rapp's and Irene Kennedy's careers. I found my blog entry on the first Mitch Rapp book I read, where I comment on the ethical problems I have with America sending out assassins around the world, but I like Mitch Rapp and I must have bought into the idea, that maybe it is a simpler way of solving some major world problems.

Mitch has been putting away dangerous terrorists and drug lords around the world from a list that has been compiled by a seelct few at the black ops at the CIA, where he works. While killing a Libyan diplomat in Paris, things go terribly wrong and he has to figure out what is going on. On the home front Stan Hurley, who has his own issues with Mitch, thinks he has blown the assignment and to not reveal the black op side, feels Mitch has to be eliminated. We now understand how Mitch's personal ethical system evolves and why he tends to not trust anyone.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (2012)

Barbara Kingsolver has written another great book. First of all, it gives us an
insight into the nitty-gritty lives of rural Tennessee, where they work hard only to eke out a living, where no one aspires to college and the science teacher would rather shoot hoops with the kids than teach. My favorite part was where an environmentalist reads our main character a list of what people like her  should do to protect the environment, like take a container to a restaurant for leftovers. The woman had not eaten out for two years and almost all the things on the list she never did, because she could not afford to. She asked if it counted as reuse that they were on their third motor in the truck.

The story is told from the view of Dellarobia (name after wreaths arranged with natural things) who is dissatisfied by her narrow life and it is a joy to see her blossom and grow during the book. She does love her husband Cub (son of Bear) and kids Preston and Cordie. She is bright and had dreams of going to college, but she got pregnant, married, and stayed in the small town. But she thinks, and her common sense way of looking at life fascinated me. For instance, at one point she wonders what it would be like to work next to men without the flirtation. I lived in a small rural town for a few years, and it was scary to me when I ran into some of the narrow thinking. Dellarobia gets involved with the scientists studying the butterflies and she realizes she is capable of learning and doing more than just maintaining a house, farm and family.

Kingsolver would not be Kingsolver if she did not have some cause to share with her readers. The central event in the book is that the Monarch butterflies don’t migrate to Mexico for the winter, but land in Tennessee. As a scientist and his helpers come to research the butterflies, we learn a lot about the wondrous life cycles of generations of Monarchs. The author explains at the end of the book that everything except their landing in Tennessee is true. This leads to discussions of global warming and the destruction of habitats and milkweed as major issues for the survival of Monarchs. The professor's explanations got a bit heavy handed , but is an important issue.  I have to admit I have not been keeping on top of environmental issues as much as I used to and somehow have missed things like the 350 group. A friend just sent a link to an article on decreased Monarch population in Minnesota.

The last thing I would like to comment on is Kingsolver’s rich language and unusual metaphors. Since I listened to the book, I didn't get to mark down any passages, but here is an example: "He won people over in a different way, using his hands to push and pull his congregants as if kneading dough, making grace rise."

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Black Hills by Nora Roberts (2009)

It look me a long time before I realized I had read this, but it must have been a while ago, and I had not recorded it in my blog. I chose this book, because it was set in the Black Hills of South Dakota, close to the region I was going to visit on my vacation.

This is Nora Roberts at her best. She gives us a glimpse into a profession - this time Lil Chance runs a wildlife refuge for mostly large cats that have been injured or are no longer wanted as pets. Her love interest Coop helps his grandparents take care of a horse farm that provide trail rides.

There is mystery - the young couple finds a dead body and ten years later stuff starts happening. We get a creepy bad guy and get to see his thinking as he warps his Native American ancestry. The mystery keeps the story suspenseful as the couple works through their differences.

Lil Chance and Coop Sullivan meet as kids when his parents send him to south Dakota to spend a summer while they try to work out their own relationship. Cooper, the city boy, is miserable until he finds Lily, who also like baseball and he learns to love horses. Over the years their friendship continues and grows. Then they separate to educate themselves and pursue their careers. Now when he returns to help his ailing grandfather, she is not sure she can trust him. I don't remember any of Roberts' books giving us that much background on her main characters. Plus there were other people around them we got to know fairly well - his grandparents, her parents, her colleagues. I enjoyed the side romance too.

The South Dakota setting was the main reason I picked up this book. I got a sense of the Black Hills and rural living, where Rapid City is the "big town."  And learned some more things about our wild cats.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Love Anthony by Lisa Genova (2013)

An amazing book on autism and unconditional love. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, as I really enjoyed the way it evolved. Two women living on Nantucket year round, which is deserted in the off season, like Saugatuck. You have to really love it to live there, as nothing is happening in the winter - businesses are closed, it is hard to make a living. Then during the summer you have to put up with the the crowds of tourists and summer people. You have to find something that can earn you enough off the tourists to tide you over, or be a teacher or something that serves the year round population. The local population is still active – they have families, sports & other after school activities, book clubs, a library :). I know I am totally digressing, but I am heading out to Montana, a sparsely populated state, that still creates a close sense of community with the few people it does have, as does a place like Nantucket. I like to understand how people live. Like where do the Vail store clerks and ski area workers live? Not in Vail – way too expensive. 

Beth finds out her husband has been seeing another woman and kicks him out. This triggers a self-examination that leads her back to creative writing and she seems to be fascinated by autistic children. Olivia has come to Nantucket to grieve the loss of her autistic son. She needs the space and time to heal. I liked that she discovered she could use her photography skills to earn some income.

This book is largely about autism, and gives us a great insight into the autistic mind. A mind a little further along the autistic spectrum than the person in the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time that is mentioned in this book. I liked these parts of the book best, and that both women learned something. The unconditional love depicted was also beautiful, touching and difficult.

This book made me think of my own life and taught me something, as a good book should. For example, a therapist asks a couple to write down what they need to feel wanted, happy, secure, and loved. The guy can do it easily, the woman struggles. Made me think what my answers would be.