Book Review: To Be Where You Are

To Be Where You AreI don’t often read books “hot off the press.”  Usually I have so many stacked up from my last birthday, Christmas, etc., that anything new goes behind them. But Jan Karon’s books are an exception: they go straight to the front of the queue! To Be Where You Are is her newest, and its action starts right on the heels of Come Rain or Come Shine, in which Father Tim’s adopted son, Dooley, married his fiance, Lace.

In this book, Dooley and Lace have been fostering a four-year-old boy named Jack, and they’re making plans for a big celebration on what they call Name Day, when their adoption becomes final. That’s probably the major plot line, but as always in Mitford, there are multiple things, large and small, going on at any one time. Some of the other happenings in this book, just to name a few: one long-time Mitford resident passes away; another faces a serious illness and others offer to pitch in at his place of business; major plumbing problems wreak havoc at Dooley’s practice; Lace is offered a major art project which would take care of the plumbing bills, but it’s in California; a number of romances are blossoming; another Mitford resident is looking for ways to spice up his marriage; another is considering running for mayor; another is writing a book (not Cynthia!).

A few favorite spots:

She thought that one of the hardest parts of marriage was being loving when both partners were exhausted or wounded at the same time. When you had the least strength, that’s when you had to dig beyond your limits and grab whatever could be found and give it away.

She needed complete solitude to do this huge thing. No music, no interruptions, just the work. But that was not going to happen, and she had to get used to it.

Lights on in the town at the foot of the hill. Stars on in the great bowl above.

How could he do possibly want to do this fool thing?…Maybe it wasn’t about wanting or not wanting. Though he was beyond serving the mission field, wasn’t his own town a mission field?…And didn’t charity begin at home?

Once in a blue moon they got an October morning like this. It was a day when he could almost smell the ocean, when a gull might wing overhead. He wasn’t the biggest fan of sand and sea, but occasionally some hungering gnawed at him for the visual feast of the Atlantic plain and the knowledge – more like a secret revealed only to Tim Kavanaugh – that over there were Ireland and England and Scotland and Italy and…

His sermon had been preached 24/7 on the floor of The Local for more than three and a half decades.

Reading the Mitford books is like coming home for an extended visit. It was fun seeing how things had changed and yet stayed the same. The same warmth, gentle humor, and undercurrent of truth pervades this book just as it has the others. I don’t know how long Jan will continue writing Mitford books, but I’ll keep reading as many as she wants to write!

Another nice plus to reading this volume now is that the book started in October, and I also started reading (or listening) to it in October, so there were parallels in the setting to what I was experiencing personally.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully read, as the other Mitford books have been, by John McDonough.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

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Book Review: A Portrait of Emily Price

Emily PriceIn  A Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay, the title character is a “fixer.” She works for an insurance company in restoration, particularly of art pieces, but she also tackles wall damage, toys, even appliances. In the rest of her life, her dysfunctional broken family developed the “fixer” in her as well. When her sister can’t keep a job, Emily has to find a new one for her. When her clients reveal issues beyond the fire damage in their home, she tries to help the visible as well as invisible family problems. She would like to be an artist as well and has a degree of talent, but something is missing.

Though she lives in Chicago, she’s been sent to Atlanta for her most recent assignment, and her company rented space in a conservator’s studio for her work. The proprietor, Joseph, takes her to his aunt and uncle’s Italian restaurant her first night in town, where she meets his brother, Benito, or Ben. Ben is visiting from Italy, where he works in his family’s restaurant, and is helping his aunt and uncle revitalize their place. Immediately attracted to Ben, Emily agrees to help him restore the restaurant in her spare time. They fall in love (no spoiler, as this happens early in the book and is mentioned in the summary on the back), marry, and she accompanies him back to Italy.

But it’s no fairy tale honeymoon. Ben’s mother doesn’t approve and feels hurt that she was left out of her son’s wedding. Much of the family lets her know in covert ways that she doesn’t fit in. She feels constantly in the way, and efforts to help usually end up making things worse. Ben’s time away has left the family restaurant in a mess, so he’s working all hours to get things back in shape. Only Lucio, Ben’s father, shows Emily any kind of warmth or welcome, and later, Ben’s sister Francesca does as well.

Emily’s fixer mode kicks in, but without understanding the background of the issues, the family, and the culture, her advice and actions backfire. She has to learn that everything can’t be fixed, and furthermore, it’s not always her job to try. But somehow amidst all the pain, she finds a new freedom in her own art.

Yet when she unwittingly stumbles across a long-hidden family secret, it seems to be the last straw, for her as well as Ben’s mother. Will all the relationships shatter, or can they find the grace to heal?

One of Reay’s hallmarks is the wealth of literary allusions in her books. There didn’t seem to me to be quite as many this time, and they mainly came in Lucio’s book recommendations to Emily. Sadly, I wasn’t familiar with most of them, but one I did know was Jane Austen’s Emma. One review at Amazon mentioned this book was a nod to Emma. I hadn’t really caught that – the plots aren’t similar, but Emma and Emily do share “fixer” tendencies (and name similarities I just noticed.) I wished I had thought of that in the passages where Emily discussed her thoughts on Emma.

Reay also usually writes Christian fiction, and around 3/4 of the way into the book, I realized that aspect was absent, and Emily herself seemed woefully ignorant about the Bible or spiritual things. But it does come through in the end. Since it’s in Italy, it’s heavily Catholic-flavored, but the need and provision for grace do come through.

Reay infuses the book with a lot of detail about art restoration, Italy, and Italian cooking, but it flows naturally and nothing sounds overly technical. I almost felt like I could see the sunflowers out the window and smell some rich sauce simmering in the kitchen.

I loved her characters here, especially Emily, Ben, and Lucio, but all of them are well fleshed-out.

This was a book that pulled me in and made me want to spend all day curled up with it.

Update: Here is an interview with the author about this book, her blog, and the C. S. Lewis roots to her stories. It’s an excerpt from a longer interview here.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: A Fall of Marigolds

marigoldsIn A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner, Clara Woods is a nurse on Ellis Island in September of 1911. She describes it as something of an in-between place. Immigrants who come in are kept on the island for a time if they have been exposed to any kind of contagious disease. Clara is in her own in-between place as well. Some months earlier she had worked in Manhattan and encountered a man named Edward every day on the elevator. Their relationship had never progressed beyond mutual attraction, but she felt certain they were going to know each other better. But she lost him in the Triangle Factory Shirtwaist Fire.  She moved to Ellis Island to work and hasn’t set foot in Manhattan since. She does her work well and is friends with her roommate, but never goes out, never pursues other friendships, has no future plans.

One day she notices one of the incoming immigrants has a colorful scarf, a woman’s scarf, around his neck. She learns that he lost his wife to scarlet fever on the voyage to America. Since he has been exposed, he is detained, and he indeed comes down with the fever. Clara is drawn to him in their mutual grief, and in trying to help him, gets herself embroiled in a dilemma that causes a crisis of conscious.

In September 2001, that same marigold scarf is brought into the heirloom fabric shop where Taryn Michaels works. It has been passed down through the customer’s family, and she and her sister both like it and wanted to see if the print could be found to make another one. Taryn is delayed in meeting her husband by the customer, but that ends up saving her life, as the 9/11 attacks occur while she is on her way. Unfortunately, her husband was in the Towers and could not escape. So for ten years she has been in her own in-between place, until the tenth anniversary of 9/11 causes a resurgence of photos from the event, one of which shows her with the scarf, the beginning of a chain of events

The author goes back and forth between the two women’s timelines to unfold their stories, their similarities, the history of the scarf, and how the women get out of their in-between places.

I loved the historical aspect of this book. I hadn’t known much about Ellis Island and nothing about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Taryn’s experiences on the streets of NYC just after the 9/11 attacks were gripping.

The two women’s journeys toward moving on were compelling and empathetic as well, except it was a little hard to account for the depth of Clara’s grief given that she had known Edward for only two weeks and only on the surface at that. Of course, she was dealing with not just the loss of the relationship, but the potential as well. There is an interview with the author at the end of the book in which she says, “I really do believe that the capacity to love is what gives meaning to our lives, even though we are never more vulnerable than when we let down our guard and trust our hearts to others. The world isn’t perfect; nor are other people. It’s quite possible that loving flawed people in an equally flawed world is going to subject you to the worst kind of heartache. But I like to think that the heart is capable of surviving the costs of loving because it was meant to. The heart is made of muscle; we are meant to exercise it. This is what Taryn and Clara come to realize. It seems to me the best kind of takeaway I could hope for.”

A few of my favorite quotes:

The person who completes your life is not so much the person who shares all the years of your existence, but rather the person who made your life worth living, no matter how long or short a time you were given to spend with them.

It should always make us happy to say that loving someone and being loved by someone is worth whatever price paid.

Everything beautiful has a story it wants to tell. But not every story is beautiful.

If the book was meant to be Christian fiction, I found it a little lacking in that department: I didn’t find much distinctly Christian about it except that the characters wonder sometimes whether God is at work behind their circumstances. But if it was meant as a clean, historical, inspirational novel, then it was very good.

Genre: Historical inspirational fiction
Objectionable elements: A couple of “damns”; God’s name used carelessly a few times.
My rating: 8 out of 10

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carole’s Books You Loved)

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Book Review: The Prayer Box

prayer-boxIn The Prayer Box by Lisa Wingate, Tandi Jo Reese has just escaped from a manipulative, law-breaking husband and is trying to make a new life for herself on Hatteras Island in the North Carolina Outer Banks. She’s coming out of a fog in more ways that one: after a serious accident, her doctor-husband supplied her with pain-killers, and it’s not until she determined to get off of them that she realized she had left her 14 year old daughter Zoey and 8 year old son J. T. to largely fend for themselves, and now Zoey resents any of Tandi’s intrusion into her life. She tries to find a job but doesn’t want to use references because she doesn’t want her ex-husband to find them.

She’s rented a little cottage next to an old Victorian house, and after realizing she hasn’t seen her elderly neighbor for a while, she goes to investigate and finds that the 91 year old lady, Iola Anne Poole, has passed away. Iola has left her house to the church, and someone from there asks Tandi if she would be interested in earning a little money by cleaning the house, especially getting rid of old food, etc.

As Tandi goes through the house, she discovers in Iola’s closet 81 decorated boxes. She pulls one out to investigate and finds that they are prayer boxes, each representing a year, in which Iola wrote out her prayers to God. As Tandi starts reading, she gets caught up in Iola’s past and her faith. The island people knew little about Iola, some even resented her for various reasons, but few knew the real woman.

Tandi grew up with con artist parents who often neglected their kids but wouldn’t allow her grandparents to take them. She tends to be attracted to the wrong kind of man, mainly succumbing to their admiration of her, and is stunned to realize her daughter is about to follow in her footsteps.Though Iola’s situation was much different, in reading her letters to God, Tandi finds much that speaks to her own heart.

A number of themes run through the book: the need for a healthy sense of self-worth, the truth that though we have to accept our past as part of us, it doesn’t have to bind us, and that family sometimes transcends blood ties.

I loved the setting of the book. We lived in SC for most of our married lives, and I always thought the Outer Banks would be a nice place to visit. I grew up near the coast of TX with frequent visits to Padre Island, and one of my favorite vacations with our family was right on Folly Beach in Charleston, SC. I don’t think I’d want to live on a beach, but there’s something about it that draws me, and this little coastal community in the book sounded like such a lovely place.

In some places Lisa’s writing sings: in other places it drags. I know writers are advised to tuck descriptions throughout the narrative rather than having long paragraphs of it like writers used to do. But there were a couple of times when Tandi was going through Iola’s house, and the passage described details of what she saw and wondered about so much that It seemed to take an insufferably long time. Maybe that was supposed to heighten anticipation, especially the second time (when Tandi thinks someone is in the house), but it had the opposite effect on me. And sometimes in conversations the author has Tandi thinking about something else for several paragraphs until she answers, making it seem like she just left the other person hanging while she was lost in her thoughts for a while. It may have seemed a little more like that because I was listening to an audiobook: though I love them, one problem with them is that you can’t speed up or slow down as you could when reading.

My only other complaint is that though there are great spiritual truths in the book, faith in general seemed a vague and nebulous thing. I’ve written before that I don’t think every Christian fiction book has to have a conversion scene or the plan of salvation, I understand that novels aren’t sermons, that good fiction sometimes employs nuance and suggestion rather than spelling things out for the reader. As I said there, it’s not so much the amount the the gospel that is presented in a book, but rather the clarity of the gospel (or lack thereof) that I often have trouble with. I think an unbeliever reading this book might get that some of the characters have faith (of some kind) and help people, that some of the characters’ lives change, that God the Father loves us and we can talk to Him and ask Him for forgiveness….but I don’t remember any of that being based on Jesus and what He did to make it possible or the need to believe on and accept Him personally – unless I just overlooked it. Then again, perhaps the author intended this for a Christian audience who would already understand these things. I’ve been debating with myself about whether to elaborate more, but I think I’ll just leave it at that for now.

My favorite passage in the book is from one of Iola’s letters written when she was older:

What does a lighthouse do? I ask myself. It never moves. It cannot hike up its rocky skirt and dash into the ocean to rescue the foundering ship. It cannot calm the waters or clear the shoals. It can only cast light into the darkness. It can only point the way. Yet, through one lighthouse, you guide many ships. Show this old lighthouse the way.

Here are a few more favorite quotes:

We do not choose the vessel we’re given, Iola Anne, but we choose what we pour out and what we keep inside.

Fear builds walls instead of bridges. I want a life of bridges, not walls.

The trouble with drowning in the mess of your own life is that you’re not in any shape to save anyone else. You can’t be a lighthouse when you’re underwater yourself.

Maybe there came a point in life where you had to quit categorizing whole groups of people by a few bad experiences.

Help them to show the world that our greatness is not in things we do for ourselves, but in things we do for others. In power that channels itself into kindness, in a hand outstretched in love.

Some of the hardest things you go through will teach you the most.

Overall I did enjoy it and am looking forward to reading more in this series.

Genre: Inspirational fiction
Potential objectionable elements: Someone walks in on a couple undressing and obviously heading for sex, but nothing is explicit: the scene is more about betrayal. A few instances of drinking and drunkenness, not presented favorably.
My rating: 8 out of 10

(Sharing with Carol‘s Books You Loved and Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

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