As a young girl, I read all of the wonderful Laura Ingalls Wilder books about life on the prairie: On the Banks of Plum Creek, The Little House on the Prairie, By the Shores of Silver Lake . . .  I could list them all but, if you are a fan, you know them all; if you aren’t, you don’t care. I consider myself fortunate to be old enough to have read the series before the televising of the vapid, sugar-coated program that followed. Therefore, I was able to form my own mental images of the Wilder family and the challenges – and glories – of their experience on the American prairie. I also consider myself fortunate that I was happily unaware of the reality of their true lives on the prairie, which were far more challenging that the Little House series let on.

Prairie Fires is the true story, which Wilder wrote during the Great Depression when she was in her sixties and needed the income. It’s a darker and grittier story than the Little House series tells. Caroline Fraser (who was the editor of the Library of America edition of the series), in writing Prairie Fires, has dug down into the reality of that life on the prairie, one of hardship, deprivation, uncertainty, and danger.

In this version of the Ingalls’ life on the Great Plains, we see the true struggle for life and death, the constant dependence on the vagaries of climate, health, poverty. The grown-up story. Life on the prairie was not for the weak or faint of heart. Backbreaking labor was rewarded by insect infestations that killed the crop that settlers relied on to sustain themselves. Infants died. So did their parents. Moments of happiness and glory were hard won but, if Wilder is to be believed, appreciated and savored.

This book has been deeply researched and was rightfully rewarded with both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle award. It is well researched and well written. It pulls back the curtain on a specific time and place in a way that left me, a lifetime admirer of the Little House series, even more impressed by the courage and fortitude of our forefathers and mothers.

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | March 10, 2019

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

 

As this engrossing novel opens, we watch as sixteen year old Catherine Goggin is denounced in church by her priest and, literally, kicked out of the chapel. We are in Ireland in the 1940s, and Catherine is pregnant and unmarried. Her family disowns her, and she uses  her small savings to move to Dublin. She is befriended by a young man, Sean MacIntyre, who suffers mightily for being homosexual. In a country that was – at least in it’s own eyes – pious and superior, it was not safe to live outside the the church and its dictates. As a single mother in this country, at this time, there was no realistic way for her to provide a good life for her newborn son, Cyril, and she releases him for adoption. Cyril is adopted by a married couple, the Averys, who, to the very end of their lives, remind their adopted son that he is not “a real Avery.”

The story is Cyril’s story, and I won’t try to tell it. It’s well written, engaging – sometimes humorous, often heartbreaking, and covers a span of approximately seventy-five years. The author, John Boyne, deftly weaves the cultural and political events of the era into Cyril’s experience without laying too heavy a historical hand on the plot but, for Cyril, the central theme of his life is being homosexual in a time a place where that is simply not acceptable.

In his search for his place in the world, Cyril’s life takes him from Ireland to Amsterdam to New York and, at the heart of it, into the cultural events that surrounded the AIDS epidemic. In 2015, Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage, leaving Cyril to wonder,

I’ve spent so much time pushing the boat out that I forgot to jump on and now it’s out beyond the harbor on the high seas, but it’s very nice to look at. And that’s how I feel. Standing on the shore, looking out at the boat. Why couldn’t Ireland have been like this when I was a boy?

But if Cyril had to struggle for acceptance – from himself and society – by the end of the story we have gained not only a greater understanding and appreciation of the time and place, but the opportunity to see our protagonist – who surely represents so many who suffered as he did – come to a place of peace and acceptance.

Grade: B

Posted by: Jeanie F | February 24, 2019

And the winner is . . .

Best Book of 2018

Full review is available at

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

 

 

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | February 23, 2019

Holy Lands by Amanda Sthers

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It has been quite a while since anything I’ve read has made me laugh, cry, search online for background information, and wish that the author had made the book about three times longer than it is. Of course, the brevity of the story is probably part of its charm – it’s one of those rare books that grabs you immediately and won’t let you go until you reach the end. If it was longer, I would probably have had to put it down more often and, possibly, escaped the lasso that kept me firmly on the couch with my Kindle in my hand. It takes less than two hours to read.

Holy Lands is an epistolary novel, a series of letters written between the members of a family who live apart, both geographically and emotionally. We are there as voyeurs who share their stubborn attachment to old wounds as well as their willingness to try to find their way back to each other.

Author Amanda Sthers has worked a special kind of magic that allows us to be both frustrated by their intransigence and touched by their unwillingness to give up on each other. If you have ever been part of a family (and, of course, you have), you will recognize these people and the complex relationships that tie them together.

That’s all you need to know. Read it.

Grade: A+

 

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | January 13, 2019

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

I was shocked to discover that I have never written a review about Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner when it is, in fact, one of my all-time favorite books. I have probably read it three – maybe four – times and, if I had to bet on it, would bet that I’m likely to read it again sometime before my vision and mental acuity have completely deserted me.

I happen to be rereading it now because it is our book club book this month. This is the story of two couples who meet early in their marriages and form a lifelong friendship. It is told by the narrator, Larry Morgan who, along with his pregnant wife, Sally, moves to Wisconsin to begin a new teaching assignment in the university’s English Department. They soon become friends with another university couple, Sid and Charity Lang. There is an instant chemistry between the couples that lasts a lifetime – and sees them through academic pressures, pregnancies, illness, and death. They survive the myriad challenges that life brings to us all with no wavering in their devotion to one another.

The beauty of this deceptively simple story is the complex undertones that bring these individuals to life. Each of them, individually and together, both struggle and succeed over the decades in the way that we all do. Professional and physical highs and lows, opportunities to love and to lose those we love, the exquisite detail of shared experiences that follow us through a lifetime that may be, on its surface, a rather small life, are shown to be of the greatest import. It is the steadfast strength of this foursome that creates the fabric of this story. Life is best lived with friends.

Crossing to Safety is Stegner at his best. If you’ve never read his work, you could do a lot worse than to begin here. To quote from Publisher’s Weekly, “… [Stegner] has created a believable human drama the dimensions of which reach out beyond the story’s end and resonate in the reader’s heart.”

 

Posted by: Jeanie F | August 31, 2018

Picking Favorites

 

Has one of your kids ever asked you, “Which of us do you love best?” Impossible question to answer, when you love them all, all of the time (except that time when Sherry put the tack in front of Everett’s chair because he cut the hair off her favorite doll, and you had to rush him to the ER for a tetanus shot . . ).  Every year I try to cull through my posts and choose the book that is my “favorite,” a tough job because I love so many, even the ones that don’t always meet all of my standards. Most books, even the greatest, often come with a flaw or two. We can overlook them when, for the most part, the writing is good, the plot engaging, the characters well-drawn, and we close the covers after the final page with a sense of satisfaction.

I realized recently that I have kept a list of my “favorite” books for many years (you can find the list here). When I went back to look it over, I was surprised to find that I still agreed with most (although not all) of the choices I made for my favorite book each year. I had stopped after 2014 (maybe because, at the time, I felt like nothing could ever be better than We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I so loved), so I decided it’s time to update.

Here are the 2015 – 2017 winners, linked to the full review:

2015: Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

What I said about it:

Cormac McCarthy is never what you would call a pleasant or enjoyable read. If you decide to read a McCarthy novel you know you are about to take a walk on the dark side of life. Child of God, McCarthy’s third novel, is a dark tale: shocking, disturbing, revolting. It is also lyrical, poetic, humorous (okay, sick humor, but still . . .). When you read McCarthy you are going to encounter some of the most beautiful writing you’ve ever read, telling you one of the most horrific stories you have ever heard.

I know this doesn’t sound like a stellar endorsement, and I wouldn’t recommend it for the squeamish, but it IS amazing, engrossing, and incredibly well written.

2016: Plainsong by Kent Haruf

What I said about it:

 It was such a joy to reread this wonderful book, to revisit the McPheron brothers and Victoria Roubideaux, to admire Maggie Jones strength and Tom Guthrie’s strong character. I almost literally devoured the book, so happy to be reading great writing about characters I loved treating each other with kindness and respect, coping with problems in human ways, trying again and again to get it right.

2017: A Tie!

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

What I said about The Underground Railroad:

Colson Whitehead, author of this disturbing novel, has done his homework, combing through the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s for background information. He does not spare his readers the harsh truth.

What I said about Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine:

I’m writing this post on my iPad while on vacation in Maui, so forgive me if the formatting comes out a little weird and the review short, but I really couldn’t wait to tell you that you should read this book.

First of all, it is a great vacation book in that it is funny and quirky and light. But it is also much, much more than that. It is heartbreaking, human, and transformational.

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