"....few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into [her] heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memories to which, sooner or later - no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover or how much we learn or forget - we will return." -Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Long Way Home by Louise Penny is a balm for the soul

Evening on the North Shore by Clarence Gagnon
The Long Way Home (A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel) by Louise Penny is the tenth installment in the series. All of them I have loved (with the possible exception of #9). None of them have I written about, until now.

The reason may have as much to do with laziness as with my feelings about the actual books, or it may be that this one finally unearthed what it is I adore about Ms. Penny's novels.

In the Long Way Home, the author employs repetition of an old spiritual to coax the reader into the book: There is a Balm in Gilead.

There is balm in Gilead,
To make the wounded whole;
There's power enough in heaven,
To cure a sin-sick soul.
At first I thought it just sounded nice. But as the characters in the book repeated it, the deeper meaning began to surface. It felt like a meditation. I noticed that I was unwittingly repeating it throughout the day, and in the quiet moments before sleep. I wasn't sure exactly what it meant, but as the author asked me to explore its meaning vis a vis the characters, and as the story moved onward, I was liking the way it made me feel.

There is a balm in Gilead.

In the book, Ms. Penny talks about how art (mostly paintings - the characters' as well as Clarence Gagnon's, figure prominently is this story - but also sculpture, poetry and song) can convey a feeling. The art itself may be considered good or bad, may be misunderstood or defy understanding, but it is felt.

It finally dawned on me, THAT is why I love the Gamache books. They are good books. I've loved the characters, and the setting of the Quebecois village of Three Pines from the beginning. However, there is also something more, something I couldn't quite put my finger on, that attracted me to the books, seduced me. It grew stronger as I read the series.

The Gamache books subtly transmit feelings. Feelings about creativity, fear, hope, trust, love and redemption. Feelings about life, and something greater than that. I'm still reaching for words to describe it. I may be for quite some time.

There is a balm in Gilead. To make the wounded whole.

While the hymn is Christian in origin, I think it can be viewed through the lens of any religion or philosophy. I viewed it in a yogic way, as a mediation. I've just finished the Long Way Home, so what the meditation means to me will continue to expand. For now, it is a balm for this soul.

There is a balm in Gilead.

Photo credit: Irina

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris held me in thrall

Etna Community Church in Etna, NY 
I'm a quick reader. I can usually get through a book in a few days to a week. The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris took me well over a month. It wasn't because it was a long book; it was less than 400 pages. It wasn't because I didn't like it, quite the opposite. It was because I was so overwhelmed by its tendency to move me, to leave me deep in thought and to crack my soul wide open, that I could only handle it in little bits. It held me in thrall.

The Cloister walk is full of life-altering ideas. My mind swims with where and how to begin talking about it.

Kathleen Norris, a protestant, became a Benedictine Oblate and spent a year at the monastery. Her thoughts on the Bible, its use of metaphor (and Americans' insistence on ignoring the metaphor and taking it all literally), and the impact of praying and reading the Bible communally forced me to reevaluate my own beliefs. And that was just the first few chapters. The book's effect on me was so immense that in order to get something down, which I feel I must, I need to start somewhere.

So, I'll share a couple of startling revelations:
  • Praying is not about asking for stuff, nor is it necessarily about showing devotion to a thing, person, deity, etc. It is about reaching a meditative state such that I can drop the anger (or fill in your go-to negative emotion here), so I can better serve myself and the universe. I can begin to clear the path that walks me toward my calling, not to fill up my own cup, but to spread peace, joy and love.
  • And, then, on a seemingly unrelated note: Poets may not know what they write. Yeah, go ahead, read that last sentence again. Whaaat? Hold the phone! This not only gives me permission to not understand poetry (I often don't), I would  say it necessarily follows that I don't get it. Furthermore, she says, that poetry is necessary and must be written and read. Whether we understand it or not, the poet and the reader often "know," on some level, its meaning.
While the second bullet may appear a bit out of sync with the rest of the book, Kathleen Norris is a poet by profession. She talks of the Psalms being poetry and having the same effect on the reader/listener/singer/writer.

She frequently quotes Emily Dickinson. My favorite was, "Consider the lilies is the only commandment I ever obeyed." As Ms. Dickinson was surely a pious soul, this is meant to tell us that even those that appear to be without sin are not. They are also not without humor.

Another quote really got me thinking. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, "The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, 'Look, here it is!' or, 'There it is!' For behold, the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20-21). Akin to what I realized about praying, she drove home the point that knowing God is not about what church we go to (or don't go to), nor how little we sin. Knowing God is about becoming the person we were all created to be - a being full of love for oneself and others. Or, at least striving to become that person.

I don't know about you, but this stuff makes me tired. In a good way. A contented and peaceful way.

Photo credit: pastorbradetna

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Life after the Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver is more than a vocabulary lesson (no, I'm not going to tell you, if you wanna know, you'll have to look it up). It is a work of historical fiction in which I learned more about ancient Mexican civilizations, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the McCarthy era in the United States than I did in thirteen years of compulsory public eduction. I'm not knockin' school. I'm just sayin', either they didn't teach it or I wasn't paying attention.

Ms. Kingsolver got my attention and held it for near on seven hundred pages. As I began to read the Lacuna, I fell deeper under its spell with every page. Let me stop, though, because this isn't a review of the Lacuna. It is my (hopefully coherent) ramblings about how I decide which books to read and whether I end up liking them or not.

The tale begins when our protagonist is a boy, and we soon learn that it will end when he is much, much older. That kind of tale usually gets me right away. I love the epic. By the time we arrive at the house of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo about a quarter of the way through, I was so entranced that I started to ponder: Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors, the Lacuna is the type of novel that has me ga-ga from the get-go, so if this book was released four years ago, why am I just reading it now? And really, I'm reading it as a last resort. I picked it up at a yard sale for fifty cents on a summer holiday for lack of anything better to read.

Then it came to me. About four years ago, as I was driving home from work I heard NPR review this book. Maureen Corrigan hated it (read her review here). I remember thinking that she was being a bit harsh and that she couldn't be talking about MY Barbara Kingsolver, but her words must have put doubt in my mind. Over time, I had forgotten this review, but I had also lost all interest in reading the latest work of an author I greatly esteem.

(By the way, I have since read a book of Maureen Corrigan's about how much she loves books. I loved it!  So, no hard feelings, eh, Mo?)

The reviews for the Lacuna weren't all bad.  Many "important" people liked it and it took first place at a few book contests. For me, it was one of those books by which I mark time - my life before I read the Lacuna and life afterward.

I'm sure there is no need to state the obvious for all you literary types and English majors (you can skip the rest of the paragraph). For all others, I'll state it plainly. How I feel about a book is very personal, and should not be based upon the opinion of others, no matter how fashionable or in the know said others might be.

Thanks to Ms. Kingsolver, Ms. Corrigan and yard sales for driving that lesson home. Life after the Lacuna is good!

Do you base book choices on reviews or the opinions of others?

Photos credits: Urban Combing, Jose Antonio Gelado

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Huff's summer reading

Now that I am home, full-time, with an infant and a three year old, I have precious little time to read. We are on holiday for the summer - and so is my reading. Hence, my lack of posts on Huff Reads Stuff. I still think about books, like, all the time, though. So, I thought I'd talk about some of my favorites and readers can take them or leave them as suggestions for something to read this summer.

Compiling this list felt monumental.  For me, reading is an experience that I find difficult to describe (and yet I created a blog about it?). Each book I read changes me, or maybe helps me become who I am. I experience the place, time and characters in the book as if I am there. At times it is so intense, that it's a bit scary. I often go back over and over again, to visit what I felt as I read a book, both in dreams and in dreamier waking moments.

So, this is not simply a list to me, it is a reckoning; a walk through my past.

Okay enough blah, blah, blah.  I present to you Huff''s 19 favorite authors (I'm sure after I post this, I'll think of several more, so I reserve the write to edit):

They are in no particular order. For me, trying to put books in order of favorites would be like listing which child I like best - totally not cool. I also had a little trouble narrowing it down to specific books, so instead of dithering, I decided to just get something down and start with authors.
  1. Walter Mosley - Series: The Easy Rawlins Mystery series - Black Betty is a good place to start; the Socrates Fortlow series - Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned is my favorite; the Fearless Jones series; and the Leonid McGill series. Non-series: The Man in my Basement; Fortunate Son; and The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray. Do not, I repeat, do not, read his Science Fiction, nor his Erotica.
  2. Margaret Atwood - Top 3: The Blind Assassin; The Handmaid's Tale; and Alias Grace. Add Moral Disorder and call it an even 4.
  3. Louise Penny - start with the first in the Chief Inspector Gamache series, Still Life.
  4. Jacqueline Winspear - Maisie Dobbs novels. Maisie is my soul mate.
  5. Janet Evanovich - a bit lowbrow? I love all kinds of books and Stephanie Plum is crazy funny.
  6. Jon Katz - all the dog books and the Suburban Detective series.
  7. Sarah Dunant - several historical fiction novels (love, love, love); the Hannah Wolfe detective series; and Mapping the Edge.
  8. Charlotte Bronte - Jane Eyre, hello!
  9. Carlos Ruiz Zafon - Shadow of the Wind is his best, but they all put me smack dab in the middle of Barcelona pre-World War II. I literally walked the streets with Daniel. These books helped me appreciate that plot isn't everything. I enjoyed being inside it, regardless of what was happening.
  10. Marion Keyes - Chic lit? Why, yes, yes I do. It's Ireland for Pete's sake.
  11. Alexander McCall Smith - No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series; Isabel Dalhousie series; and Corduroy Mansions series.  I don't care for the 44 Scotland Street series, and I'm lukewarm about the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series.
  12. Philippa Gregory - The Other Boleyn Sister has the most common appeal. I love the others too, but they may be a bit Anglophile for some. I have an unnatural obsession with the courts of Henry VIII, most likely due to past life stuff.
  13. Marge Piercy - In college, the budding feminist in me could not get enough of her. I've read many of her books, my favorites are Gone to Soldiers and Sex Wars.
  14. Alice Walker - The Color Purple; Possessing the Secret of Joy; Meridian; and The Temple of my Familiar.
  15. Toni Morrison - I read all of her books, up until Paradise, at which time I had to stop. Her books haunt me.
  16. Gloria Naylor - Mama Day and Bailey's Café are my favorites.
  17. Barbara Kingsolver - The Poisonwood Bible; Prodigal Summer; and of course, Animal Vegetable, Miracle.  High Tide in Tucson is a good one, too.
  18. John Mortimer - The Rumpole series; Felix in the Underworld; and Quite Honestly, because it is the only book I've ever read that starts with the letter "Q."
  19. Edith Wharton - House of Mirth started it off for me and Mrs. Wharton. I also love The Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence.  Edith Wharton herself is as fascinating a character as any in her novels.
I would love to hear about your favorite authors, so please comment away!

Photo credit: QuotesEverlasting

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Parishioner by Walter Mosley is not Easy

From what I've seen in the blogosphere, readers generally love Walter Mosley's latest, The Parishioner, which is offered to us as an e-book.  Dear Reader, I do not feel the love.  The best thing I can say about The Parishioner is that it's not terrible.

I like the concept.  A no-name church in a no-name place with an unordained minister.  The congregation contains sinners of the worst kind who have left their lives of heinous deeds behind and are trying to walk the path of righteousness.

Our guy, the Parishioner, has done some terrible things.  Murder not even being the chief among them.  His real crime is not caring about the lives he's destroyed. But once the pastor of the church with no name recruits him, he is a disciple.  It's almost as if he is in a trance.  He leaves the life behind, becomes a newspaper delivery man and does everything the minister tells him in order to be delivered from his sins.

The story revolves around a mission the pastor gives the Parishioner.  Help a fellow sinner atone for her sins by finding the now-grown boys she kidnapped and sold for adoption twenty three years ago.  The Parishioner knows this mission is going to put him smack dab in the middle of the places and people that will temp him back into his evil ways.  No matter, he's up for it.

There are several twists and turns.  Everyone and their mother ends up being involved in the convoluted mystery of what happened to these boys.  The Parishioner even dabbles in romance. 

There are some attractive themes here: can people change; is redemption possible; what exactly is religion, or faith for that matter?

My problem with all this?  This character feels like Mosley put Easy Rawlins, Socrates Fortlow and Leonid McGill in the blender and poured out a smoothie called The Parishioner.  I was somewhat entertained and mildly interested in the outcome, but in the end, I was seriously underwhelmed, and just kept thinking that the people, plot and scenery felt a little recycled.  I expect more from Walter Mosley.  I expect something or someone as good as Easy Rawlins.

There was one part of the book that I LOVED.  The last few pages contained an excerpt from the new Easy Rawlins mystery due out in 2013.  That's right Reader, Easy lives!

Are there books you have read by beloved authors that have let you down?

Photo credit: BugMan50

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Who and when is Thursday Next?

I'm not really one for Science Fiction. The only two Science Fiction books I've liked in my long reading career are The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, which is more dystopia than Science Fiction, and Kindred by Octavia Butler.  Although, come to think of it, The Handmaid's Tale is one of my all time faves.  And, now that I'm writing about it, I don't know that I've read many more Science Fiction books.  Maybe I do like Science Fiction?

Recently I jumped from two Science Fiction books under my belt to four.  It's not often a reader squares the number of books they've read in any particular genre, is it?  The verdict?  I loved my new finds.

The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book are the first two in the Thursday Next Series by Jasper Fforde.  I happened upon the first book as I did a search for books about Jane Eyre.  I didn't really know anything about the book, including its genre, but if it had Jane Eyre in the title, I figured it was worth a go.  I hit the daily double when I not only loved it, but found out it was the first in a long series of books.

Thursday Next lives in London in the 1980s.  It's not immediately clear what has happened to this world of ours, but things are different.  Time travel is common, though highly illegal.  Literature is one of the most important and hotly debated social and political issues of the time.  Genetic engineering has left some strange creatures walking down the sidewalk. And, England has been engaged in a land dispute over the Crimea with Russia for the last hundred years.

Our girl, Thursday, is a veteran of the war and is now a Literary Detective.  In the first installment, she is on a hot case that brings her face to face with her mortal enemy, Archeron Hades.  This guy is sick.  He possesses the power to change anyone's mind, he can't be captured on film and he delights in supremely evil acts. 

He has stolen a rare first edition and Thursday must get it back.  Their game of cat and mouse leads them both into the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, where they have the power to change the plot, based on their actions and interactions with the characters. I loved getting to know Mr. Rochester off script.

A few subplots play themselves out as we progress: Thursday's long lost love reappears; we encounter her father (whose name she has never known) who is on the run from the ChronoGuard and keeps one step ahead of them through constant time travel; and Thursday must make some big life decisions, like stay in the big city or move back home to Swindon.

There are instances when the Science Fictiony parts of the story are tedious for me, and a few bits about the time travel and politics get confusing to the point that I began to skim.  On the whole, though, it had everything I look for in a book: Jane Eyre, a strong female lead character, London and time travel.  I can't wait to get the next  Thursday Next from the library!

Do you have a favorite Science Fiction Book?

Photo credit: miss_leslie

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray is life itself

I'm not secretive about my love for Walter Mosley.  I love him.  I love him.  I love him.  So, one might be inclined to believe that I love everything about him.  Au contraire, mon frere.  Like any good relationship, my love for Walter Mosley means I have to take the good with the bad.  I have not loved everything he has written.  In fact, a couple of his books bothered me so much that I considered breaking up with him. 

Fortunately, I did not act hastily and I wrote off Killing Johnny Frye and Diablerie as some very annoying habits that I decided I could live with.  I'm not going to try to change him; I'm just going to accept him, flaws (and Johnny Fryes) and all.  Today, our relationship is not only intact, it is stronger than ever.

Case in point, his latest work: The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray. Ptolemy Gray has a secret. It has to do with a pirate, his treasure and the location of a whole lot of buried gold.  Unfortunately, ninety-one year old Ptolemy can't quite remember where the treasure is buried, or if it is even real, for that matter.

When we meet Ptolemy, he has seen better days.  His memory and reasoning skills are failing him.  He has lost everyone he has loved. To keep his feelings of loss at bay, he cocoons himself inside his home with all the stuff he has collected throughout his lifetime. His apartment is not a pleasant place, though. The plumbing doesn't work and it is stuffed to the gills with trash and mementos. But what's really tripping him up is that he can never be sure where he is and whether he's merely dreaming about the past or actually reliving it.  For Ptolemy, things have gone a bit haywire on the time-space continuum.

The only way Ptolemy gets by is a great-grand nephew that visits a few times a week to take him food shopping and use the toilet in a nearby diner.  As the story opens, this young man is murdered.  Ptolemy suddenly feels a connection to the outside, present-day world that he has not felt for the last few decades.  He feels responsible for bringing peace to his nephew's soul by finding his killer.  He must also find that treasure so he can take care of his nephew's family.

Ptolemy's only hope of making sense of all the memories, feelings and facts floating around in his head is a doctor he's heard about.  He meets with the doctor and enters into a classic Faustian bargain.  If Ptolemy takes the doctor's drugs, he will regain clarity, understanding, memory and reasoning.  He will also be dead within a week, and the doctor will take possession of Ptolemy's body for scientific research. Ptolemy decides that finding the treasure is worth his soul, so he goes for it.

What the reader experiences next is Ptolemy's journey through past and present, in which love, loyalty, justice and intellect don't need to conform to a linear construct of time. They just are, as we just are.  Through Ptolemy's odyssey, the reader has the opportunity to drink in the very meaning of life.

Does Ptolemy find the treasure?  Does good win out over evil?  Does the devil take Ptolemy Gray's soul? If you know Mr. Mosley, you can probably guess that the answer is not a simple yes or no, but somewhere in the "Gray"ish middle.

I love Walter Mosley, I loved The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray and I love side-stepping the time-space continuum, if only for a couple hundred pages.

What are your favorite tales of Faustian bargains?  What did you learn from them?

Photo Credit: David Shankbone