Mini-Reviews: Sacred, Nursing, Swan

Sacred Wood and Major Early EssaysNursing Home MurderMurder on Black Swan Lane

T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays

Despite its shortness, this book was a real challenge for me. It’s a collection of essays by T.S. Eliot about literary criticism, mostly focusing on specific critics and their (rare) success and (common) failures. Since I hadn’t heard of, much less read, the vast majority of these critics, I found most of Eliot’s arguments extremely hard to follow. On the other hand, I do think reading this book was good for me — the mental equivalent of strenuous exercise. But this is probably the type of book best read in a college course, with a professor and other students on hand to help make sense of it.

Ngaio Marsh, The Nursing Home Murder

When the Home Secretary contracts acute appendicitis and dies on the operating table, his wife insists that he has been murdered. After all, there’s no shortage of suspects: the man had many political enemies, including one of the nurses who assisted with his operation. Another of the nurses was his mistress, who was devastated when he broke off their relationship. Even the operating surgeon is a suspect, since he’s in love with the mistress himself. Then there are the dead man’s wife and sister, who each inherit a substantial sum under his will. Fortunately, Inspector Alleyn and Sergeant Fox are on the case. I found this a thoroughly enjoyable Golden Age mystery, despite some pejorative discussion of mental illness (referring to it as a “taint” in someone’s heredity, for example). I’m slowly working my way through this series and am glad Ngaio Marsh was so prolific!

Andrea Penrose, Murder on Black Swan Lane

All London society knows about the animosity between the scientifically minded Lord Wrexham and the Reverend Josiah Holworthy. Cartoonist A.J. Quill has even been selling pointed satirical sketches about their feud. So when Holworthy is murdered, Wrexham is the number-one suspect. To clear his name, he hunts down A.J. Quill and discovers that “he” is actually Charlotte Sloane, a poor widow using her artistic talents to earn a meager living. They team up to solve the murder and are soon plunged into a sinister plot involving alchemy. I love a good Regency mystery, so I had high hopes for this book, but I ended up being a little disappointed. It’s not bad, per se, but nothing about it stood out to me, and I doubt I’ll continue with the series.

Mini-Reviews: Midwife’s, Check, Talking

Midwife's ApprenticeCheck Me OutTalking as Fast as I Can

Karen Cushman, The Midwife’s Apprentice

Catherine, Called Birdy was one of my favorite books as a child, but I don’t think I’d ever read The Midwife’s Apprentice by the same author. It’s about a young girl in medieval England who is completely alone; she begins the novel by sleeping in a dung heap to keep warm. But the village midwife eventually takes her in as a servant/apprentice, and the girl’s life improves somewhat. Eventually she learns enough about midwifery to make herself useful, makes a friend, and even gets a name of her own: Alyce. But when Alyce makes a mistake in her work, she runs away, certain that everyone will hate her. Will she ever find a place she truly belongs? I was charmed by this book and wish I had read it as a child; while it’s not a keeper for me now, I would definitely recommend it to elementary schoolers!

Becca Wilhite, Check Me Out

I really liked the premise of this book, with its librarian heroine and Cyrano vibes, but the execution was disappointing. Twenty-four-year-old Greta loves her job and her BFF Will, but she hasn’t managed to find romance yet. That is, until she meets dreamy Mac in the poetry section, and he sweeps her off her feet with his good looks and romantic texts. The trouble is, in person he’s not as sweet or witty as he is in print. Meanwhile, the library is in danger of shutting down, so Greta embarks on a series of fundraising schemes to save it. I thought the library-related stuff was interesting, and the book did a good job of covering the complexities of the situation (community benefits vs. budget, historical value of the library vs. need for a modern, accessible space). But the romance was frustrating for me; I felt Greta was clueless and shallow, and her descriptions of Will (who is overweight) were downright cruel at times. Overall, I was disappointed in this book and wouldn’t recommend it.

Lauren Graham, Talking as Fast as I Can: From “Gilmore Girls” to “Gilmore Girls” and Everything in Between

A fun celebrity memoir by Lauren Graham, best known for her roles as Lorelai Gilmore on Gilmore Girls and Sarah Braverman on Parenthood. As a huge Gilmore fan and someone who has always admired Lauren Graham, I was definitely the target audience for this book, and I enjoyed it overall. It doesn’t delve very deeply into Gilmore Girls, which I was a little disappointed by, but upon reflection it makes sense: Gilmore was legendary for its long hours and demanding showrunner who expected every line to be word-perfect, so it makes sense that Graham would be reticent about the probable difficulties of working on the show. She obviously feels much more warmly about Parenthood, a show I stopped watching after season 1. Still a worthwhile read for fans of either show, and Graham has a funny, likable voice. But Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s two memoirs are still my favorites in this genre.

Mini-Reviews: Scandal, Death, Enchanting

Do You Want to Start a ScandalDeath on a Friday AfternoonOnly Enchanting

Tessa Dare, Do You Want to Start a Scandal

This Regency romance is the story of Charlotte Highwood, who has been nicknamed “the Desperate Debutante” because of her mother’s aggressive matchmaking efforts. Her mother’s latest target is Piers Brandon, Lord Granville; so Charlotte seeks him out at a house party to reassure him that she doesn’t wish to marry him. This strategy backfires immediately when the two are found in a compromising position — they accidentally interrupt a lovers’ tryst, but everyone else believes they are the lovers. Charlotte decides to clear her good name by unmasking the real lovers. But of course, the more time she and Piers spend together, the more they fall in love. This book was fine, although I found the comic style a little forced and overwrought. Not bad, but not particularly recommended.

Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross

I chose this book at the beginning of Lent as an appropriate spiritual read. As the subtitle suggests, each chapter is inspired by one of the seven last words of Jesus from the cross. Each “word” provides a jumping-off point for the author, a Catholic priest, to discuss various aspects of his faith. Sadly, since I read this a while ago, I don’t remember a lot of the details! But I do remember the chapter on “I thirst” being particularly interesting because it discussed the question of universal salvation (is it possible that everyone will be saved?). I’d say the book is geared more toward intellectual than devotional purposes. Overall, the book gave me a lot of food for thought, and I definitely plan to reread it in the future.

Mary Balogh, Only Enchanting

I’ve yet to be disappointed by a Balogh book, and this Regency romance is no exception. It’s part of the Survivors’ Club series, about a group of people who have been deeply wounded (physically, emotionally, or both) in the Napoleonic Wars, but it can be read as a stand-alone novel. The hero, Flavian, has returned from the war with a head injury that left gaps in his memory. When he is thrown together with Agnes, a widow living a quiet rural life, he impulsively proposes to her, and together they are able to fill in some of the blanks in Flavian’s memory — and fall in love in the process. That makes it sound like love magically cures Flavian’s mental injuries, which isn’t the case…I feel like I’m not describing the plot terribly well! But I really liked the book and will continue reading more in this series.

Mini-Reviews: Prim, Reading, Headliners

Awakening of Miss PrimI'd Rather Be ReadingHeadliners

Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, The Awakening of Miss Prim (trans. Sonia Soto)

This is a strange little novel about a young woman, Prudencia Prim, who applies for a position as a private librarian in a remote French village. A modern woman herself, she is initially shocked by the villagers’ old-fashioned beliefs and behavior. But she soon observes the happiness and prosperity of those around her, and with the help of her enigmatic employer, she comes to see the merits of their way of life. I think this book is aimed at a very particular audience, namely a certain subdivision of Catholics who are huge fans of G.K. Chesterton. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d say this book is probably not for you! Even as part of the target audience, I still found it a little much.

Anne Bogel, I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life

I’m a big fan of Anne Bogel’s podcast, What Should I Read Next? So when I found her book at a library sale, I snatched it up! The essays are fun — nothing particularly new or memorable, but bibliophiles and fans of the author should enjoy them. A fun read, but not a keeper for me.

Lucy Parker, Headliners

Lucy Parker is an auto-buy author for me; I really love her contemporary romances set in the London entertainment world. In this one, protagonists Sabrina and Nick are rival TV presenters who are forced to work together to revive their network’s struggling morning show. If you enjoy enemies to lovers, this book is a great example! I especially liked how Sabrina and Nick resolve their conflicts like adults; there are no stupid misunderstandings or secrets kept for no reason. I note that, while this book can technically stand alone, it does refer back frequently to the events of the previous book, The Austen Playbook. Definitely recommended for romance fans, although my favorite Parker books remain her first two, Act Like It and Pretty Face.

Review: Play It Again

Play It Again- An Amateur against the ImpossibleAlan Rusbridger, Play It Again: An Amateur against the Impossible

The author of this memoir is, at the time of writing, a 57-year-old amateur pianist with a dream: to competently play Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23. This is an extremely difficult and demanding piece, and Rusbridger is understandably nervous about whether he’ll be able to achieve his goal. His project is further complicated by the fact that his day job is editor of the Guardian, a major British news outlet. And of course, the time frame he’s chosen for learning the Ballade happens to coincide with high-profile news events such as the Wikileaks story and the News of the World phone hacking scandal. Nevertheless, Rusbridger manages to carve out at least 20 minutes to practice most days, and he also asks for advice wherever he can get it, including from books, music teachers, and even concert pianists. Rusbridger documents his quest to learn the Ballade in diary format, sharing his strategies, doubts, successes, and failures along the way.

I picked up this book because the premise sounded like something I might actually want to do: I’m an amateur pianist who took lessons from second grade up through college, and I still play occasionally for community theater musicals. I also own the score of the Ballade, though I’ve never attempted to read more than the first couple of pages. I think some familiarity with the Ballade is necessary to get anything out of this book; luckily, there are a ton of performances on YouTube, and Rusbridger includes his annotated score in the appendix. But he does spend a fair amount of time discussing the minutiae of the piece, referring to specific measure numbers, fingerings, and rhythms. So if you’re completely nonmusical, I wouldn’t recommend this book. I largely enjoyed following Rusbridger along his journey, although I couldn’t help noticing his privilege in being able to consult world-famous pianists about his project. The book also gets a bit same-y after a while, which made the last stretch somewhat tedious. Nevertheless, I’d definitely recommend this book to any musician, professional or amateur!

Review: Discerning Religious Life

Discerning Religious LifeSr. Clare Matthiass, CFR, Discerning Religious Life

This short book, written by a religious sister, is a guide for Catholic women that describes the process of discerning a religious vocation (that is, a call to become a religious sister or nun). It describes various “steps” of this process in detail, from a woman’s first inkling that she might be called to religious life, to the attitudes and habits she should possess before beginning to discern seriously, to what will happen when she starts researching specific convents and communities. The book is peppered with anecdotes from the author and many other religious sisters who share their experiences of being called and of living out their vocations. The book doesn’t spend a lot of time digging into the theological and historical background of religious life, assuming that the reader will already be familiar with the basics. But it does provide very practical advice and reassurance to women who are questioning whether the religious life might be for them.

Obviously this book is going to be useful only for a very small audience: unmarried Catholic women who are still trying to discover God’s plan for their lives. I fall into this category, and while I’ve never particularly felt called to religious life, I found a lot to think about in this book. My favorite aspect of the book is that it spends a lot of time discussing the sacrifices of religious life — particularly the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience — and the various obstacles and doubts that many women confront as they consider this vocation. It frankly acknowledges that the religious life is difficult and that the sacrifices it requires are significant. At the same time, the personal stories from the author and the other religious sisters clearly demonstrate the joy they find in their calling. I also really appreciated the book’s discussion of prayer and will definitely be applying some of those lessons to my own prayer life. Overall, I got a lot out of this book and would definitely recommend it to any woman in a similar stage of life.

Review: Ex Libris

Ex LibrisAnne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

This collection of essays by Anne Fadiman deals with a topic that is dear to every reader’s heart: books and reading. In “Marrying Libraries,” she describes how she didn’t truly feel married to her husband until they merged their book collections. In “My Odd Shelf,” she shares her idiosyncratic passion for polar exploration narratives. In “The His’er Problem,” she discusses the English language’s deficiency in not having a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. In “The Catalogical Imperative,” she cheekily admits her love of mail-order catalogues. And in “Never Do That to a Book,” she divides readers into “courtly” book lovers and “carnal” book lovers, proudly declaring herself to be one of the latter. Throughout these essays, Fadiman keeps a fairly light, playful tone, but she also deals with weightier topics such as her father’s deteriorating health. Still, the focus remains on books and how the love of reading can shape a person’s life.

I don’t seem to be very good at reading essays; I tend to read them all in one gulp, like a novel, even though I think I ought to dip in and out, reading only a couple at a time. As with any short story or essay collection, some installments are better and more memorable than others. The one I enjoyed most is probably “Marrying Libraries,” which not only touched on serious issues like whose copy of a book should be kept and whose discarded, but also showed a sweet little glimpse into Fadiman’s relationship with her husband. I found “Never Do That to a Book” to be the most controversial, as Fadiman seems to poke fun at people who take care of their books as physical objects. She and her family, it seems, don’t mind dog-earing, tearing out pages, breaking spines, and so forth. I’m not saying those things are wrong, but I also don’t think it’s wrong to keep one’s books looking nice! Overall, I sometimes enjoyed Fadiman’s breezy tone and sometimes found her a bit pretentious. But the essays are certainly fun reads for book lovers!

Review: To Know Christ Jesus

To Know Christ JesusFrank Sheed, To Know Christ Jesus

“This modern spiritual classic by Frank Sheed, the renowned author, publisher and lecturer, is brought back into print for the benefit of new generations of readers to develop a deeper, more profound knowledge of Jesus Christ. Sheed’s concern with the Gospels is to come to know Christ as he actually lived among us, interacted with all the various people he encountered from his infancy to his passion and death–the God-man who was like us in all things except sin. Sheed has tried especially to see Our Lord in his effect upon others–seeing how they saw him, trying to see why they saw him so. There is much about Mary and Joseph in their task of bringing up a baby who was literally adorable; about John the Baptist; about Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalen; about Nicodemus; about people we meet only for a moment, like the man born blind and the owners of the drowned swine; and why the Pharisees, not only the worst of them but some of the best, would not accept Christ. Faith, doctrine, prayer, worship–all the content and consequences of Christian belief–rest on the person of Christ Jesus as recorded in the Gospels.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

This book does pretty much what it says on the tin: it examines Jesus’s life and teachings as recorded in the four gospels. I really appreciated this deep dive into Scripture, and it definitely gave me a lot to think about. Sheed discusses the historical context of Jesus’s life, including the Roman occupation of Palestine, background on the Pharisees and Sadducees, and contemporary expectations of who the Messiah would be. He also interprets Jesus’s words about the “kingdom of God” in a very interesting and (to me) unique way. This book is definitely written from a Catholic perspective, which may annoy other Christian readers, but I think the focus on the Biblical text would be appreciated by Christians of all denominations. Overall, I would recommend this book to Christian readers and think it might make good supplemental material for a Bible study.

Review: Unapologetic

UnapologeticFrancis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

“Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic is a wonderfully pugnacious defense of Christianity. Refuting critics such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the “new atheist” crowd, Spufford, a former atheist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, argues that Christianity is recognizable, drawing on the deep and deeply ordinary vocabulary of human feeling, satisfying those who believe in it by offering a ruthlessly realistic account of the grown-up dignity of Christian experience.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

A coworker recommended this book for my Lenten spiritual reading project, and I honestly had no idea what to expect, but I ended up liking it quite a bit. As the summary blurb indicates, Spufford is in some sense responding to popular atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens; so the book’s tone is conversational, informal, and peppered with swear words. Spufford isn’t concerned with making logical arguments in favor of Christianity. Rather, he describes how it fulfills people’s emotional needs in a way that (in his opinion) modern secular culture doesn’t. I liked the premise and found the book a quick, enjoyable read. It doesn’t go into very much depth about Christian theology, but that might make it more accessible to a secular audience.

Review: God or Nothing

God or NothingRobert Cardinal Sarah and Nicolas Diat, God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith (trans. Michael J. Miller)

“In this fascinating autobiographical interview, one of the most prominent and outspoken Catholic Cardinals gives witness to his Christian faith and comments on many current controversial issues. The mission of the Church, the joy of the gospel, the heresy of activism , and the definition of marriage are among the topics he discusses with wisdom and eloquence.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

I read this as part of my Lenten spiritual reading project, but I must say, it isn’t quite what I expected. I thought it would focus on theology and Christian living, but it reads much more like a memoir or autobiography. I did find the story of Cardinal Sarah’s life fascinating; he was born in a small village in Guinea, was educated by French missionary priests, and eventually joined the priesthood himself. I was especially interested in his time as a bishop, during which he often came into conflict with the Communist regime of Sékou Touré. Ultimately, I think this is a good read for people who are interested in the history of postcolonial Africa and/or the institutional history of the Catholic Church. But it’s not great for devotional reading or for learning more about Catholic doctrine.