Archive for December, 2017

Although 2017 has not yet come to an end, due to scheduling conflicts (namely, no time to finish the book I am currently reading, Sketchbook by Washington Irving, before the year comes to an end) I decided to post my year-end book reflections a bit early. For those of you new to this blog, I am continuing with a tradition I started 4 years ago, below you’ll find my reviews of books that I have read in the past year, written shortly after I have read the books (or listened to them if they are audiobooks). The first two books I actually read while I was off on Christmas break in 2016, but I chose to include them here because I had already posted my Year 2016 Reflections before finishing them.

Cat in an Alphabet Endgame by Carole Nelson Douglas
This is the last book in the Midnight Louie Alphabet series of mysteries. I finished this book in less than three days, so that gives you some idea as to how interested I was in the story. While I did enjoy reading it, there were several things about this last installment in the series that I did not like.

First, the typos. The author addresses the typo situation in the acknowledgments, so at least she realizes they are there. I don’t remember so many typos in earlier books in the series so I’m not sure what happened this time around, but they do disrupt the flow of the story. Second, the solving of the cases seemed rushed to me. I understand that all the loose ends had to be wrapped up in this book, but it was difficult to follow how the characters arrived at the conclusions that they did in order to solve the cases. And third, the last chapter. What was that? I thought it would have made for a more meaningful/satisfying ending if the book would have ended with the second to last chapter and Louie’s adventure with his collar. I don’t understand why the author chose to end the series as she did, except that maybe that last chapter was an intro to a future Midnight Louie book. After all, the author did say that the alphabet series is ending, and not Midnight Louie’s adventures.

On the plus side, I was happy to read that Temple chose a modest wedding dress to wear. No strapless gown for her! I was also glad to read that Max, Sean, the Kinsellas, and the Kellys are one big happy family again thanks to the help of Temple and Matt.

Overall I would give this book 3 1/2 stars. I think that overall the positives outweigh the negatives, but it’s not one of my favorites in the series.

Simplify by Joshua Becker
This is the second book that I’ve read by Joshua Becker, that is if you can call listening to an audiobook reading. The first book (the audiobook) was actually a newer one called The More of Less (see my 2016 Reflections for my review). I was interested in reading Simplify for two reasons: (1) I’ve had an ongoing resolution for several years now to declutter and simplify my life and (2) I follow Joshua Becker’s blog Becoming Minimalist.

I would call this e-book more of a booklet. It’s quite short and can be read in a matter of hours, but this book is not meant to be read cover to cover in one sitting. It’s meant to be a manual about how to implement rational minimalism. Becker defines rational minimalism in terms of 5 attributes, but I would say that it really boils down to the first:

It is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from it.– [Kindle, Location 141-46]

This principle extends beyond physical clutter into other “cluttered” areas of our lives too. Becker emphasizes that minimalism is not a one size fits all endeavor. He advocates finding “a style of minimalism that works for you. One that is not cumbersome, but freeing based on your values, desires, passions, and rational thinking.” [Kindle, Location 166-68] He also warns that your particular definition of minimalism that’s right for you will change as you go through the process and as life circumstances change.

In all, this book presents seven principles of how to achieve a minimalist lifestyle. He doesn’t go into too much depth on each principle/suggestion but does offer practical tips. I think because of the way Becker approaches minimalism, it’s easier for people to follow his advice and suggestions than it would be to follow the advice of someone who advocates living with 100 things or implementing Project 333. Also, because his approach extends beyond just the physical clutter and offers advice for simplifying your whole life I think his techniques offer a better chance for success on the road to rational minimalism.

Personally, most of the suggestions in the book are good reminders to keep me on track with my decluttering. Where I am now in my journey, I think I got more out of Becker’s book The More of Less than I did with Simplify, but for people contemplating decluttering or beginning their journey to a more simplified life, I think reading this book and following its advice is a good place to start.

April Morning by Howard Fast

We had made a mistake. We were stupid people. We were provincial people. But over and above everything, we were civilized people, which was the core of everything. We were going to argue with the British and talk them out of whatever they intended. We knew we could do that. We were the most reasonable, talkative people in all probabilities that the world had ever seen, and we knew we could win an argument with the British hands down. Why, no one on our side had even thought of firing a gun, because when you came right down to it, we didn’t like guns and did not believe in them. Yes, we drilled on the common and had all sorts of fine notions about defending our rights and our liberties, but that didn’t change our attitude about guns and killing. That British Major Pitcairn on his champing horse knew exactly what we were and how we thought. He knew it better than we knew it ourselves. — page 103, Adam Cooper reflecting after the British attacked his fellow citizens on the common.

This book is a re-read for me. For as long as I can remember April Morning has been on my bookshelf, not this particular edition I read this year, though. I don’t even know how the one I originally had, along with Howard Fast’s The Immigrants came to be on my bookshelf. They aren’t novels that little children would read. Perhaps my father brought them home from the store he used to work at thinking that they would be useful for my education someday. According to my aunt, he gave my cousin several books from there. So perhaps. When I moved out of my childhood home I donated my copy of April Morning but kept The Immigrants, probably because I had read the former but not the latter. Years later I bought the copy I currently have from a used book sale intending to read it again but it ended up being one that sat on my bookshelf for years before I did. Several years ago I finally got around to reading The Immigrants and liked it. Not enough to want to read the rest of the books in the series, but I liked it nonetheless. I liked how the characters seemed like real people. I also, especially, liked how Howard Fast paints a picture with his writing, how he tells a story. April Morning has these qualities also. The novel is a fictionalized account of April 18-19, 1775 and the Battle of Lexington in the Revolutionary War as told by a 15-year-old from Lexington, Adam Cooper. It’s a coming of age story in the midst of war. A warning to any readers: the author’s descriptions of the battles are graphic. While this book has been taught in middle and high schools, probably due to the age of the protagonist/narrator, I think it would appeal to adults also. Personally, I would give this book four out of five stars.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Bantam Classic edition, translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett)

Note: Contains some spoilers.

This was another of my books that had been sitting on my bookshelf since at least college (approximately 20 years or so). I bought the book figuring that any well-read person ought to read this book. Periodically this book is referenced in articles and sometimes even on TV. In fact, it was referenced on a rerun of The Joey Bishop Show I watched recently.

This book took me several months to plod through. That should give you some idea of how I felt about this book. The themes of redemption following suffering and intellectualism leading to psychological imprisonment seem to not be realized until the Epilogue. Does Raskolnikov suffer? Yes, throughout the book. We are made painfully aware of this throughout. But, redemption seems to only come at the very end and in a rushed way. No gradual build-up. No slow revelation. Just in the last 10 or so pages is all this revealed to the reader and to the character.

The entire book is dark, from the oppressive heat of St. Petersburg to the way the characters live, to the plot itself. There seems to be nothing but suffering in the lives of these characters. Attitudes towards suffering by some of the characters, which is revealed about half-way through, plays an integral role in the revelations at the end.

Somehow, even though the main character, Raskolnikov, committed two senseless murders, I still felt sorry for him, cared about him, which is a credit to the author. This most likely was because, despite the horrific crime, which we are at first led to believe he committed because of his life circumstances, Raskolnikov is not pure evil. He is constantly doing selfless acts of kindness. But, when we find out the true reason for his crime and that his views on the matter do not change when he is in prison, I just found him detestable. His redemption seemed out of place to me. In my mind, true redemption cannot take place until he admits what he did was wrong on all levels and admits that his thinking that led him to commit such a crime is misguided. I didn’t get the sense that he did that.

“Why does my action strike them as so horrible?” he said to himself. “Is it because it was a crime? What is meant by crime? My conscience is at rest. Of course it is a legal crime, of course the letter of the law was broken and blood was shed. Well, punish me for the letter of the law…and that’s enough. Of course, in that case many of the benefactors of mankind who snatched power for themselves instead of inheriting it ought to have been punished at their first steps. But those men succeeded and so they were right, and I didn’t, and so I had no right to have taken that step.”

It was only in that that he recognized his criminality, only in the fact that he had been unsuccessful and had confessed it. — page 467

I suppose that the delirious dreams he had while he was sick and feverish in prison were what finally made him realize the error of his ways, that intellectualism without moral considerations is a fallacy, and that’s what made his redemption possible. But the way that played out in the novel seemed so contrived to me, especially since this all happened in the last three pages of the book when finally there were warm, sunny Spring days and Raskolnikov’s rebirth of a sort coincided with Easter. I suppose this could be considered poetic and is partially why this novel is considered one of the best ever written, but I personally didn’t care for that ending.

As I said previously, it took me several months to read this novel. While the translation/language was not “heavy,” so to speak, at times I felt as though the translation changed the tone at various spots — from that of a classic novel to that of a gangster movie. Did Dostoyevsky really mean to use the Russian equivalent of that type of slang in this book? The change in tone startled me a bit when I read those passages. Overall, I found it better to read one chapter (at least) per sitting. Anything less didn’t allow me to get immersed in the plot and I found it more difficult to remember what I read. Am I glad I read this book? Yes. Would I voluntarily read it again? No. Frankly, I found the book to be boring overall although it did have its interesting moments, like the interactions between Porfiry and Raskolnikov. I’m passing this book on to the local library book sale.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (audiobook)
I’ve been wanting to read this book since 2009, but I never got around to actually buying the book or checking it out of the library. A few months ago I was looking through a flyer from our local theater and saw that the National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was going to be in town in April. Since my wedding anniversary is also in April, I decided to get tickets for me and my husband. Although I would’ve still liked to have read the book before going to see the play, it wasn’t looking like that would be the case. I was busy reading another book (Crime and Punishment, see review above) and I don’t like to read more than one novel at a time. Then unexpectedly, I came across the audiobook version and decided to check it out. I was hooked from the very beginning. The audiobook is about 5 1/2 hours long, and if I didn’t have other responsibilities, I think I would’ve sat and listened to it in one sitting. It’s quite an inventive book, in my opinion, to tell the story from an autistic boy’s point of view. While I guessed early on who killed the dog, I was still drawn into the story because ultimately it’s not about the dog at all, but about Christopher’s journey uncovering the truth about his family, and what happens once that truth comes to light.

Cat to the Dogs by Shirley Rousseau Murphy
This is the 5th book in the Joe Grey series of cozy mysteries, and the 5th in the series that my husband and I read together. Not much I can say about this book. It’s an enjoyable cozy mystery. It’s the first book in which we’re introduced to a kitten who has the same mysterious quality of being able to talk as Joe Grey and Dulcie do. Perhaps that’s why she is shunned by the rest of the feral clowder because they can sense that she is not a cat like they are? The little kitten even helps to solve the murder and helps the police get the goods on the murderer. It took my husband and me quite a long time to finish this book, but if someone would read by themselves, I think it would be quite a quick read. I’d give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Resisting Happiness by Matthew Kelley
Every Lent I try to pick out at least one religious or spiritual book to read. This year I was thinking of re-reading Rediscover Jesus by Matthew Kelly, the book that was used for Dynamic Catholic’s The Best Lent Ever program last year. Although the Best Lent Ever series this year used a different book, Resisting Happiness, to accompany its videos, I wasn’t sure I wanted to buy this year’s book. Then the Deacon at the church I go to announced that the parish would be giving each family a free copy of Resisting Happiness so I decided to again do Dynamic Catholic’s The Best Lent Ever program. Unlike the more in-depth questions at the end of each chapter of Rediscover Jesus, this book gave short, practical advice that a person can put into practice to help him or her overcome what Matthew Kelly calls Resistance, which is whatever keeps us from doing what we know we should be doing in order to become “the-best-version-of-ourselves,” the person that God knows we can be and wants us to be. Some of the advice involves inner reflection (reflect on your image of God). Some of the advice involves prayer (ask God for his advice). Some of the advice involves action (go to Reconciliation). Not all of this advice will work for everyone, and frankly, if one would follow all of his advice, there would be no time left for work, spending time with family, sleep, etc. which is not very practical. I think this book is meant to give people several ideas about how to help them overcome whatever is stopping them from opening their lives up to God’s will, overcome what’s making them resist happiness since true happiness comes only when we do God’s will. After all, God put us on this earth for a reason and it is only in doing what we are meant to be doing that we find true happiness. Not all of the advice will work for everyone, but I think there are enough practical tips and thought-provoking chapters that nearly everyone can find at least one thing that will work for them. One of the chapters that I found particularly thought-provoking was “Are You a Pilgrim or a Tourist?”

Tourists want everything to go exactly as they have planned and imagined it. They rush around from one place to another making sure they cram everything in. They are constantly buying souvenirs and knickknacks, many of which they look at when they get home and wonder, “What was I thinking?” Tourists get upset if there are delays. They demand prompt attention and service to their every need and desire. They focus on themselves, often shoving past others to get where they want to go. Tourists go sightseeing. Tourists count the cost.

Pilgrims are very different. They look for signs. If a flight gets delayed or canceled, they ask, “What is God trying to say to me?” Pilgrims are not concerned with seeing and doing everything, just the things they feel called to see and do. They are not obsessed with shopping. They are aware of the needs of others. Pilgrims go looking for meaning. Pilgrims count their blessings. — Kelly, Matthew, Resisting Happiness, pages 147-148.

I’m the type of person who tries to be in control, who tries to plan for every contingency, and who gets anxious when things don’t go as planned (or worries that things aren’t going to go as planned). When I think about approaching life as a pilgrim instead of as a tourist, I can see how much less stressful it must be. Will I be able to put that into practice in all aspects of my life? I don’t know. But I can certainly try…

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
An inspirational true story about a teenager, William Kamkwamba, in Malawi who overcame obstacles in his life, including famine, to go on to build a windmill from spare parts in a junkyard with the intention of bettering the life in his family, his village, and eventually all of Malawi. What makes this even more remarkable to me is that this all would not be possible except for some donated books in the village library and Kamkwamba’s drive to keep up with his studies on his own (while he started secondary school twice, his parents could not afford the fees to keep him in school). All of Kamkwamba’s knowledge about windmills, electricity, and physics was self-taught. This story starts out with Kamkwamba in Primary School and follows him through the years of drought and hardship, through his building of the windmill and wiring of his family’s house for electricity, through his TED talk in Tanzania and the opportunities that followed and ending with him attending the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“My fellow students and I talk about creating a new kind of Africa, a place of leaders instead of victims, a home of innovation rather than charity. I hope this story finds its way to our brothers and sisters out there who are trying to elevate themselves and their communities, but who may feel discouraged by their poor situation. I want them to know they’re not alone. By working together, we can help remove this burden of bad luck from their backs, just as I did, and use it to build a better future” — William Kamkwamba, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Kindle edition, Locations 4144-4149

While this wasn’t my favorite book, I’m glad that I read it. Besides telling Kamkwamba’s story, he also paints a picture of life in Malawi, and specifically in his village and on the family farm. In retrospect, I wish I would’ve known more about electricity and physics before reading this book because Kamkwamba does go into some detail when he describes putting together the windmill and wiring the house. But overall, the lack of that knowledge did not hinder my interest in the story. Personally, I would give this book 3 1/2 to 4 stars.

Who Am I This Time? by Kurt Vonnegut
I heard about this story from a fellow commenter on YouTube. CBS posted a video from the TV show, Scorpion, in which Walter and Paige tell each other that they are in love with each other. One of the commenters mentioned that there is a precedent for a relationship like Walter and Paige’s in the Kurt Vonnegut short story Who Am I Now?. Since I am obsessed with Scorpion, a big fan of Walter and Paige and their relationship, and like to read, I checked it out. Thankfully Google Books had a pdf copy online to read, so I read it on my lunch hour. It’s a delightful love story about a shy, awkward hardware clerk who is a genius actor and his leading lady who without him can’t act at all. Together on stage, they give a spectacular performance and she falls in love (though I suspect he too fell in love but was too shy to show his feelings). Luckily, she had an idea to use plays and acting to get him past his shyness and awkwardness so they could spend time together and express their love for each other… and the rest is history.

Rome Sweet Home by Scott and Kimberly Hahn
In the Fall of 2016, my husband and I took the Alpha Course that was offered at the church we attend. My husband, being a non-Catholic, wanted to learn more about the Catholic faith. Unfortunately, the Alpha Course is more about generic Christianity rather than a course in Catholic theology. At the end of the course, each student was given a copy of this book. The book is about the conversion to Catholicism of the author, an anti-Catholic Presbyterian minister (Scott) and his wife (Kimberly). Scott is now a Catholic lay theologian, author, professor, and Christian apologist. Each chapter of the book is split between Scott’s perspective and Kimberly’s.

Several things stood out for me in this book (warning, spoilers):

1. The more Scott studied scripture, the more questions he had about his own religion and the more that he found that “the Roman Catholic Church that [he] opposed seemed to be coming up with the right answers on one thing after another, much to [his] shock and dismay. After a number of instances, it got to be chilling.” (page 46). At the same time, he found his own religion lacking: “…liturgy and the sacraments were not the things we studied. They weren’t in our background; they weren’t what we read in the text; they weren’t things we were open to. But going through the Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of John made me see that liturgy and the sacraments were an essential part of God’s family life.” (page 45).

2. Kimberly was not as open to the Catholic perspective as Scott was. The more Scott studied and came to believe what the Catholic Church taught, the more Kimberly feared for what all this meant for her family, what all this meant for her as a faithful Presbyterian. Although earlier she had come to believe in the Catholic view of birth control after much study, she, at first, wanted nothing to do with Scott’s new-found Catholic faith. Kimberley at this point went through a dark night of the soul. And, yet, she trusted in the Lord so much during this time. Despite a spiritual distance between them, despite feeling deeply betrayed and abandoned when Scott came to her to ask that he be released from his promise to wait five years before he converted, she still released him from that promise after praying about it. She knew that she should not stand in the way of his obedience to the Lord, even if that obedience meant there would be more distance between them. Kimberly wrote that at that point their marriage “was in the midst of the greatest challenge we had ever had.” (page 95).

3. “Lord, I’ll go wherever you want me to go, do whatever you want me to do, say whatever you want me to say, and give away whatever you want me to give away.” (page 115).

For thirty days I prayed every day, “God, give me the grace to pray that prayer.” I was so afraid that by praying that prayer, it would seal my fate—I would have to throw away my brain, forget my heart and follow Scott like a moron into the Catholic Church.

Finally, I was ready to pray that prayer, trusting God with the consequences. What I found was, I was the one who had made the cage, and, instead of locking it, the Lord opened the door to set me free. My heart leapt. Now I was free to begin to want to study and to probe, to begin to explore things with a measure of joy once again. Now I could say, Okay, God, it isn’t the way I planned my life, but your dreams are good enough for me. What do you want to do in my heart? in my marriage? in our family? I wanted to know. (page 116)

On a personal level, I wish I had as much enthusiasm for praying the Rosary as Scott does and I wish I had as much enthusiasm for the Catholic faith as the Hahn’s do. This book has inspired me to read the Bible more and study the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Scott also recommended reading The Documents of Vatican II. I don’t know if I’ll get around to doing that, but perhaps once I make reading the first two a habit some of that enthusiasm that I had back when I entered fully into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil 20 years ago will return.

Takedown Twenty by Janet Evanovich
I rescued this book from my in-laws’ book recycling pile when they were preparing to move. For a while now I had been wanting to read a Stephanie Plum novel to see what all the hype is about (#1 New York Times Bestseller), but I really didn’t want to buy one of the books in case I didn’t like it. Also, I hadn’t yet gotten around to checking one out of the library.

This book is silly, hilarious, and dirty. It’s that third part that turned me off. That and I just did not care about the characters, although they did kind of grow on me as the book progressed. Maybe if I would’ve started reading the series at book #1, instead of book #20, I would feel differently about the characters and Stephanie’s relationships with Morelli and Ranger. I didn’t like that at all, but maybe if I knew more about how they both ended up as Stephanie’s romantic interests I would feel differently about that too.

This book will be donated to the library book sale and unless I get another Stephanie Plum novel for free, I won’t be reading another in the series. And even then I might think twice.

Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie
I bought this ebook on deep discount and I’m glad I did. On the one hand, I’m glad I was able to read another Agatha Christie novel; on the other hand, I didn’t enjoy reading it. The plot was somewhat interesting although also somewhat predictable at times. The characters themselves were not that interesting to me. It has been a long time since I read an Agatha Christie novel, so I can’t really compare this to others she has written, but after reading this novel, I thought to myself that this is certainly not up to the usual standards of a great author such as Christie. That being said, the belated search for justice and peace for a man’s family actually bringing just the opposite I found interesting.

The Riddles of Hillgate by Zoey and Claire Kane
This is book 1 in the Z&C Mystery series. It’s a quick read that, in my opinion, ends quite abruptly. The story kept me interested, however, I didn’t care for the mother and daughter duo who are the main characters in this book, and have the same name as the authors. I would give this book three stars. A cozy mystery that’s a fun, quick read.

Maple Syrup Murder by Grace Lemon
This is the third book in the Oh Fudge! Mystery series. I started out reading the third book because I was looking for a cozy mystery a while back and Amazon offered it with a deep discount at the time. Interestingly enough, at the end of this ebook, there is an offer to get the first book in the series for free, if you subscribe to the mailing list. I thought it a small price to pay for a free book in a series in which I liked one of the books, so I signed up. I don’t know if the offer is still available as of this writing though.

As I said, I enjoyed this mystery. It’s a fast-paced read that can be read in a few hours. I thought the part where the main character, Ida Noe, suddenly puts two and two together to solve the murder seemed a bit abrupt. The later scene at the library when she’s trying to find proof for her theory kept the reader in the dark until the end, but that was a good thing because it kept me interested to read until the end. I also thought it cute how the police found out what Ida knew. That was a nice touch. Another nice touch was to include several recipes at the end of the book, including Ida’s Maple Bacon Fudge, which is mentioned several times in the book. Ida owns the fudge shop in Cider Island, the city where this mystery takes place. Overall, I’d give this book 3 1/2 to 4 stars.

Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith
Many years ago a co-worker recommended the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series of books to me. Back in 2009, I Netflixed the TV show to see what it was all about. I fell in love with the characters’ lives and became interested in the plot lines. It’s too bad that a nice show like that lasted only one season.

After seeing the show, I checked out the audiobook version of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the first book in the series, and enjoyed it. It was my intention to eventually read all the books in the series, and I still want to do that, so when I saw Blue Shoes and Happiness in our neighborhood’s Little Free Library I knew that was the book I wanted to check out.

[Warning: Spoilers]
I read through most of this book twice. The first time I read it only every few days and eventually I noticed that I was forgetting much of what I read. I was off from work for the 4th of July so I decided that I would spend much of the day reading out on the porch, starting back at the beginning of the book. This is the seventh book in the series. So much has happened in the lives of Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi since the first book. Although I would recommend reading the series in order, this book can also stand on its own. That being said I don’t think a reader can get the full extent of how charming this series and its characters are by reading just this book, although as always Alexander McCall Smith does paint a wonderful picture of Botswana through the eyes of Mma Ramotswe. The cases the detectives have to solve in this book are not fully solved in my opinion — no one goes to jail, at least no one the readers see — so it’s a bit different than your typical crime/detective story I think. And for me, that’s a bit unsatisfying. Us readers are left to assume that the doctor is disciplined in some way. We know that the blackmailer will stop blackmailing Mma Tsau, but what about the other person (or people) she’s blackmailing? And as for Mma Tsau, is she still stealing food at the university to give to her husband? If so, shouldn’t something be done about it? Also, the case in Mokolodi, that came to a tragic end. I was surprised how hard I took the death, especially since it was of a fictional character in a work of fiction.

These books have several philosophical reflections by Mma Ramotswe. These are a few quotes from this book that particularly spoke to me:

“It was all very well sitting there on her verandah thinking about the problems of others, but it was getting late in the afternoon and there were things to do. In the kitchen, at the back of the house, there was a packet of green beans that needed to be washed and chopped. There was a pumpkin that was not going to cook itself. There were onions to be put in a pan of boiling water and cooked until soft. That was part of being a woman, she thought; one never reached the end. Even if one could sit down and drink a cup of bush tea, or even two cups, one always knew that at the end of the tea somebody was waiting for something.” (page 12-13)

“To use strong language, she thought, was a sign of bad temper and lack of concern for others. Such people were not clever or bold simply because they used such language; each time they opened their mouths they proclaimed I am a person who is poor in words.” (page 95)

“…it was always difficult for Mma Ramotswe not to feel sympathy for another, however objectionable his conduct might be, however flawed his character, simply because she understood, at the most intuitive, profound level what it was to be a human being, which is not easy. Everybody, she felt, could do evil, so easily; could be weak, so easily; could be selfish, so easily. This meant that she could understand–and did–which was not the same thing as condoning–which she did not–or taking the view–which she did not–that one should not judge others. Of course one could judge others, and Mma Ramotswe used the standards of the old Botswana morality to make these judgments. But there was nothing in the old Botswana morality which said that one could not forgive those who were weak; indeed, there was much in the old Botswana morality that was very specifically about forgiveness. One should not hold a grudge against another, it said, because to harbour grudges was to disturb the social peace, the bond between people.” (page 97)

“‘Well, that’s the important thing, isn’t it, Mma? To feel happiness, and then to remember it.’

‘I think you’re right,’ said Mma Makutsi. Happiness was an elusive thing. It had something to do with having beautiful shoes, sometimes; but it was about so much else. About a country. About a people. About having friends like this.” (page 217)

“Mma Ramotswe leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. She knew that there were places where the world was always green and lush, where water had meant nothing because it was always there, where the cattle were never thin and listless; she knew that. But she did not want to live in such a place because it would not be Botswana, or at least not her part of Botswana… She had been happy for those people, because they had water all about them, but she had not felt that it was her place, which was in the south, in the dry south. No, she would never exchange what she had for something else. She would never want to be anything but Mma Ramotswe, of Gabarone, wife of Mr J.L.B. Matekoni of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and daughter of the late Obed Ramotswe… God had given her gifts, she thought.” (pages 219-220)

“…’It is important just to be able to sit and think.’

Mma Potokwane agreed with that. ‘I often tell the orphans not to spend all their time working,’ she said. ‘It is quite unnatural to work like that. There should be some time for work and some for play.’

‘And some for sitting and watching the sun go up and down,’ said Mma Ramotswe. ‘And some time for listening to the cattle bells in the bush.'” (page 226)

I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy charming stories and charming characters. Although I would recommend readers read the series from the beginning, if an opportunity presents itself to read this book out of order, I would recommend the reader not pass up that opportunity to do so.

Grace Under Pressure by Julie Hyzy
I rescued this book from the book recycling pile when my in-laws were preparing to move. This is a charming cozy mystery, the first in the Manor House Mystery series, that left a smile on my face at the end. However, while this book does provide lots of background for the main character, Grace, it fails to provide a sense of place for the story itself (i.e. where in America? mid-west? east coast?) I’m not sure if I want to read more books in the Manor House Mystery series, but I am curious how the relationship between Jack and Grace develops. I’d give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

The Complete Peanuts: 1950 to 2000 by Charles Schulz
This book’s content is different than the others in the Complete Peanuts series. The other books contain, in order, the Sunday and daily comic strips that were published in newspapers from 1950 to 2000. This book contains cartoons, comics, and stories that show the Peanuts characters or precursors to them that were published in various formats: cartoons for the Saturday Evening Post, comic book stories that were drawn by Schulz himself (not collaborators as most of the comic books of the 1950s and 1960s were), advertisements, storybooks, and spot-drawings focusing on Snoopy.

I found this book quite interesting, seeing the Peanuts characters in other than a comic strip. Before reading this book I didn’t know that Schulz didn’t draw most of the strips for the comic books of the 1950s and 1960s. The afterword by Jean Schulz, Charles Schulz’s wife, was also an interesting read. She talks about what Charles Schulz was like personally. Reading that he used to like to ask people off-the-wall questions to make them think, or ask questions that might be considered by some too probing, or that he always turned the conversation toward others rather than himself made sense to me. He was a storyteller and so liked to hear about other people’s lives (their stories) and through his storytelling he liked to make people think of deeper questions often. My favorite sections of this book were the reprints of the 1984 book Things I’ve Had to Learn Over and Over and Over (Plus a Few Minor Discoveries)1 and the 1981 book Things I Learned After It Was Too Late (And Other Minor Truths).2 My favorite advice/words of wisdom/observations:

“A hug is better than all the theology in the world.”1 page 190
“You can’t discuss something with someone whose arguments are too narrow.”1 page 193
“Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.”1 page 201
“Never neglect writing letters of appreciation to someone who has been good to you.”1 page 206
“To avoid getting sick while traveling, be careful what you eat, and stay home.”1 page 209
“Be thankful and drink a toast to the man who invented the roof.”1 page 211
I can think of one person who must’ve read this book and taken this quote to heart: “And when all else fails, blame it on the media.”1 page 211

“There’s a lot more to life than not watching TV.”2 page 215 (I’m a Scorpion and Murdoch Mysteries addict fan.)
“Feet are always mad about something.”2 page 220
“Never lie in bed at night asking yourself questions you can’t answer.”2 page 224
“Life is easier if you only dread one day at a time.”2 page 225
“It’s impossible to be gloomy when you’re sitting behind a marshmallow.”2 page 230

Billy Budd and Typee by Herman Melville (Introduction by Maxwell Geisman

[Warning: Spoilers]

This book was my cousin’s when he was in high school. When he moved out of his parents’ house, he left this book (and others) in his room. After my father died, I moved into his old room and when I moved out my aunt offered me the books he left, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading this particular book until nearly 17 years after I moved out.

The introduction to this volume is informative as an in-depth analysis of Billy Budd and explains why these two titles are compiled in this one book.

Reading Billy Budd is an exasperating endeavor. After about 40 pages, the story is written more like a story, but before that, the story is interrupted by digressions that are supposed to add background and a sense of the times the characters are living in. However, I found the digressions to be long-winded and distracting. The story is written to be like a narrative of a true event, as evidenced by the last 3 chapters, but there really isn’t much to the story itself and, in my opinion, it could’ve been told in half the amount of space. Also, Melville’s referencing what he had written previously in the text is annoying. On the plus side, there were quite a few footnotes in this volume to explain the now obscure historical and literary references.

Typee is the second story in this volume. This book is about the adventures of two sailors, Tom and Toby, whose ship is anchored near one of the Marquesas islands. They decide to take off and live on the island for a few days after they and several shipmates are given leave for the day. After some unexpected obstacles, they early on run into the Typees, one of three tribes on the island and the one rumored to be the most fierce. This book chronicles their adventures as captives, and later their separate escapes several months later. This is written as though Tom, after having returned home, is giving an account of what he has actually experienced during his time on the Marquesas islands.

Personally, I found this book boring. The descriptions were bland. I could not get a picture in my mind of the island or its inhabitants. The author does provide descriptions for some of the foods, but the more interesting descriptions would’ve been the practices of the islanders (savages the author calls them, but then goes on several times in the book to compare them to “civilized” people back home and the civilized do not always come out in a favorable light in these comparisons). However, the author does not explain why the savages do what they do, why their religious practices are the way they are, why some practices are taboo, etc. All through the book, I kept asking “why” and the author never answers, which made me less and less interested in the story. Also, the ending seemed totally out of the blue. There were two factions of Typees: one that wanted to keep Tom captive and another that wanted him to go back to the ship so he could go home. Throughout the earlier part of the book, all the Typees seemed to agree to keep him captive. Again, the author does not offer an explanation as to why either (a) some of the Typees had a change of heart or (b) if they always felt that way, what made them take a stand now against those that wanted to keep him captive. Again, more questions than answers.

After the main story is concluded, there is a sequel, “The Story of Toby,” that answers what happened to Toby after he left the Typee village in order to get help for an ailing Tom. At the end of this section, there is this: “He always thought of me as dead — and I had every reason to suppose that he too was no more; but a strange meeting was in store for us, one which made Toby’s heart all the lighter.” Yet, the next and last section, titled “Appendix,” speaks of the author’s time in Honolulu after escaping the Marquesas. This is written presumably to bring to light the truth to what the author describes as a gross misrepresentation of “events which occurred upon the arrival of Lord George Paulet at Oahu.” But, nowhere in this narrative is Toby spoken of. So again, more questions: what of this strange meeting between Tom and Toby? An account of that would’ve probably been more interesting to read than what is actually written in the Appendix.

Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom
Mitch Albom is one of my favorite authors, but despite that I had not read this book, published in 1997, until this year. I saw this book in our neighborhood’s Little Free Library so I traded the book Grace Under Pressure for Tuesdays With Morrie.

This book is a conversation between Albom and a professor he had back in college, a professor he had grown close to, considering him a friend and mentor (he called him “coach”). Despite saying he’ll keep in touch after he graduated college, Albom never did and life went on. Then one night he was channel surfing and came across Nightline’s Ted Koppel interviewing Morrie Schwartz, Albom’s old professor, friend and mentor who now was suffering from ALS. That led to Albom reconnecting with Morrie and having a one-on-one conversation about the meaning of life, Albom flying out to visit every Tuesday for many weeks until Morrie’s death.

The reader may find this book sad as he or she reads about Morrie’s deteriorating health. But at the same time, the reader may also find hope and gratitude for Albom and Morrie spending this time together so that Morrie could impart his wisdom not only on Albom but on all who read this book.

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” — Henry James (page 79)

There are so many passages in this book that touched me. I’ve bookmarked so many pages so that I could go back and re-read them. Part of me wants to keep this book forever and part of me wants to put it back in the Little Free Library so that others will be able to learn from its wisdom. I do believe I will do the latter, but not before presenting here some of the passages that spoke to me in some way.

Albom wrote out a list of topics he wanted to discuss with Morrie, topics that confuse many people and topics that hundreds of self-help books still do not seem to offer adequate answers to. Albom was hoping that Morrie could provide clarity. The list included: Death, Fear, Aging, Greed, Marriage, Family, Society, Forgiveness, and A meaningful life.

None of the quotes below gives a complete picture of the conversation at hand. Despite what some reviewers I have read have written, this book cannot be whittled down to quick little sound bites. This book is more than pockets of wisdom; it shows a redeveloping close relationship between two people, even though one of the two is at the same time slipping away. I would recommend this book to everyone, even to those who think books like these are not “their thing.” I would guess that most people who read this book will be changed by it in some positive way.

The phone rang yet again and Morrie asked his helper, Connie, to get it. She had been jotting the callers’ names in Morrie’s small black appointment book. Friends. Meditation teachers. A discussion group. Someone who wanted to photograph him for a magazine. It was clear I was not the only one interested in visiting my old professor—the “Nightline” appearance had made him something of a celebrity—but I was impressed with, perhaps even a bit envious of, all the friends that Morrie seemed to have. I thought about the “buddies” that circled my orbit back in college. Where had they gone? (page 32)

I envied the quality of Morrie’s time even as I lamented its diminishing supply. Why did we bother with all the distractions we did? Back home, the O.J. Simpson trial was in full swing, and there were people who surrendered their entire lunch hours watching it, then taped the rest so they could watch more at night. They didn’t know O.J. Simpson. They didn’t know anyone involved in the case. Yet they gave up days and weeks of their lives, addicted to someone else’s drama.

Morrie…had developed his own culture—long before he got sick…He read books to find new ideas for his classes, visited with colleagues, kept up with old students, wrote letters to distant friends. He took more time eating and looking at nature and wasted no time in front of TV sitcoms or “Movies of the Week.” He had created a cocoon of human activities—conversation, interaction, affection—and it filled his life like an overflowing soup bowl. (pages 42-43)

[Note: although I think creating a “cocoon of human activities” is a worthwhile pursuit, and I sometimes think I want this in my life, I’m still not ready to give up watching the “Murdoch Mysteries” and “Scorpion” TV shows, and in the case of “Scorpion” blogging about it and carrying on online conversations about its characters and plotlines.]

“The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.”

His voice dropped to a whisper. “Let it come in. We think we don’t deserve love, we think if we let it in we’ll become too soft. But a wise man named Levine said it right. He said, “Love is the only rational act.” (page 52)

…”even I don’t know what ‘spiritual development’ really means. But I do know we’re deficient in some way. We are too involved in materialistic things and they don’t satisfy us. The loving relationships we have, the universe around us, we take these things for granted.” (page 84)

“The fact is, there is no foundation, no secure ground, upon which people may stand today if it isn’t the family. It’s become quite clear to me as I’ve been sick. If you don’t have the support and love and caring and concern that you get from a family, you don’t have much at all. Love is so supremely important. As our great poet Auden said, ‘Love each other or perish.'”

“Say I was divorced, or living alone, or had no children. This disease—what I’m going through—would be so much harder. I’m not sure I could do it. Sure people would come visit, friends, associates, but it’s not the same as having someone who will not leave….” (pages 91-92)

“…If you hold back on the emotions—if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them—you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid. You’re afraid of the pain, you’re afraid of the grief. You’re afraid of the vulnerability that loving entails.

“But by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your head even, you experience them fully and completely. You know what pain is. You know what love is. You know what grief is. And only then can you say, ‘All right. I have experienced that emotion. I recognize that emotion. Now I need to detach from that emotion for a moment.'” (page 104)

[Note: I wonder if this experiencing and detachment works for anxiety?]

…if aging were so valuable, why do people always say, “Oh, if I were young again.”…

He smiled. “You know what that reflects? Unsatisfied lives. Unfulfilled lives. Lives that haven’t found meaning. Because if you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward. You want to see more, do more. (page 118)

“Remember what I said about finding a meaningful life? … Devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” (page 127)

Upon reflection, while all of these tidbits of advice are wonderful, one thing that no one ever gives advice on is how to do these things. More specifically, how to make friendships that last. In the past, I’ve written letters and emails to reconnect with relatives and old friends. I’ve also gotten involved in my community in the past. But none of this has led to a “cocoon of human activity” or closer relationships with relatives or close friendships. I’m thankful for the friends that I do have, even if we’re not as close as we once were. I’m also thankful for my husband, who without him, I would have no close friend or family at all. Having a “cocoon of human activity” and friends and family around you are important, especially as you get closer to the end of your life. But, how can this happen when no one wants to reciprocate your attempts at friendship or any other type of relationship for that matter? A question that seems to not have any answers, unfortunately.

To Be Where You Are by Jan Karon
This latest, and alas final, book in the Mitford series takes place over several months and is split evenly over life in Mitford and life at Meadowgate. Although the book starts out with a death, overall, this last book in the series is about new beginnings, the most obvious one being Dooley, Lace, and Jack’s as a family.

Although I realize that Ms. Karon has to write about Dooley and Lace’s life, especially since their wedding was such a big part — OK, the whole part — of the last book, Come Rain or Come Shine, I will have to confess that I don’t like that storyline as much as any storyline with Father Tim, Cynthia, and the residents in the town of Mitford. That being said, Lace and Dooley’s surprise announcement at Jack’s name day celebration had me smiling from ear to ear.

It’s my belief that certain books come into our lives at the just right time, whether it be the story itself or a quote within that story that will impact our lives in some way if we let it. One morning I was reading this book before it was time for me to leave for a medical appointment. The appointment was routine; most people wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but I was anxious. Then at the last minute before I had to close the book and head off to my appointment I read this:

“He embraced her and decided to say what Peggy used to tell him all those years ago—when he had a skinned knee or another wound from his father, or when he was about to have three teeth yanked out at one go:

‘Everything’s going to be all right. Everything…is going to be all right.’ (page 223)

Coincidence? Divine intervention? Thank you Father Tim.

And thank you Ms. Karon for writing a series of books in which the characters seem like friends and the town of Mitford feels like home.

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