August Minireviews – Part 2

So I find that I not-infrequently read books that I just feel rather “meh” about and they don’t seem worth writing an entire post about.  However, since I also use this blog as a sort of book-review diary, I like to at least say something.  So I’ve started a monthly post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

I’ve had a lot of meh reading going on, plus a minimal desire for blogging, so this actually the second round of minireviews this month.  Part 1 can be found here.

The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler

//published 1949//

After really enjoying the first few books starring the gritty Californian private investigator Phillip Marlowe, The Little Sister was a bit of a disappointment.  While I was still give it a 3/5 for having a decent mystery, the overall story really lacked the wit and tongue-and-cheek-ness of the earlier books.  Instead, Marlowe is completely disillusioned with…  well, everything, it seems.  It’s a sort of midlife crisis kind of book, and doesn’t really make for uplifting reading.  I struggled to get through it, as it also seemed to lack some of cohesiveness of the earlier books.  It made me give up on these books for a while, but I think I’m about ready to pick up The Long Goodbye and give Chandler another try.

PS Reading the introduction to this book, the introducer stated that The Little Sister was the only one of his books that Chandler never read again – apparently he disliked it as well, and was writing it during a dark time when his wife was dying, so that all makes sense in a very sad sort of way.

The Whisky Wedding by Elizabeth Ann West

//published 2016//

I got this Pride and Prejudice variation for free, which was really the only good thing about it.  It starts with a decent premise – the Bennets receive word of Lydia’s elopement before Elizabeth and the Gardiners leave on their journey.  However, I was already a little leery of the tale when Mr. Bennet, Mr. Gardiner, and Jane go to London while Elizabeth, Mrs. Gardiner, and all the Gardiner children (??!!) head north on the road to Scotland.  Despite the incredibly impracticality of this, I was willing to let it slide for the setting up of the story… except that was only the first in a long litany of absolutely ridiculous actions, including Darcy and Elizabeth eloping while Elizabeth is drunk, Mrs. Gardiner abandoning Elizabeth in Scotland and returning to London by herself, Elizabeth running off with no one but a footman for company, Jane wandering around London by herself looking for Lydia, and Mr. Bennet shrugging his shoulders because Oh well Lydia is a whore now, nothing we can do about it, guess I’ll just read a book.

In between, conversations were nonsensical, characters didn’t remotely resemble their originals, and no one was particularly likable.  Mr. Bennet was ridiculously uncaring (while lazy and selfish, I never get the impression that Mr. B would willingly just stop looking for his daughter after one day of halfhearted searching).  Mr. Bingley was portrayed as a pathetic, whimpering puppy, which always annoys me – yes, in the original he was swayed by his friend, but the arguments that kept him from returning to Jane were Darcy’s reassurances that (1) Jane didn’t actually care for Bingley and (2) that Jane’s mother would force her into a marriage with Bingley regardless of Jane’s feelings.  Thus, Bingley’s non-return to Jane wasn’t completely due to a weak spirit, but also due a misguided attempt to do what was best for Jane.  But in this version he is a completely pathetic wuss, and Jane is instead won over by the manly spirit of Colonel Fitzwilliam.

Point being, I slogged through this for over half the book and then realized that I was just being bored out of my mind (because yes, on top of everything else, it was SO so boring), so this book ended up as a DNF at 67%, with my only regret being that I waited that long.

Mail-Order Bride by Debbie Macomber

//published 1987//

Something quite strange is the fact that The Whisky Wedding isn’t the only book I’ve read lately that involved a drunk bride!  I was trapped at the doctor’s office once day and finished my current book.  This Macomber book was a freebie I had picked up recently, and since I really enjoy the trope of marriage first and then love, I knew I had to at least give it a try.  Despite the fact that Macomber is incredibly prolific, I actually don’t particularly remember reading any of her books, although I probably have at some point.  This is one of her earliest books, recently released as an ebook for the first time.

Unfortunately, the story just wasn’t that great.  The trope itself was done well – the events leading up to the  marriage are completely believable and I was pretty pleased that the story was actually going to be plausible.  Carolyn’s aunts give her a trip to Alaska to help Carolyn recover from the breakup with her fiancee… except that they’ve actually answered an ad for a bride, placed by Paul who lives in a remote Alaskan village but yearns for companionship and a family.  Of course, Carolyn is upset when she finds out that she’s married to Paul (the drunk thing is actually done in a way that is mostly believable), but it felt like Macomber just cut a big chunk right out of the middle of this book, as we go from Carolyn being angry and trying to escape to Carolyn being desperately in love with Paul and super jealous of his past.  There never felt like there was a time where they were just becoming friends and learning about each other’s pasts.

I really wanted to like this book, but in the end it was just another 3/5 meh read with a decent set-up followed by a pretty sloppy plot.  I’m sure I’ll end up reading another of Macomber’s books one of these days, but Mail-Order Bride didn’t really inspire me to hunt any up.

Mind Your Manors by Lucy Lethbridge

(British title: Spit and Polish)

//published 2016//

I think the problem I had with this book was that I was a bit misled by the synopsis, which says, “Lethbridge reveals these old-fashioned and almost-forgotten techniques that made British households sparkle before the use of complicated contraptions and a spray for every surface. A treasury of advice from servants’ memoirs and housekeeping guides…”  Going in, I think I just thought that this would be somewhat of a reference book, when in fact it is more of just a book full of little tidbits that were interesting, but not necessarily for practical application.  (The ‘practical application’ part was basically ‘use vinegar and baking soda!’)

So while I did enjoy this book and find it interesting, it was much shorter and less practical than I anticipated.  I also couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the American edition, which not only changed the title, but even the subtitle from ‘Old-Fashioned Ways to Banish Dirt, Dust and Decay’ to ‘Tried-and-True British Household Cleaning Tips’ because apparently Americans didn’t clean things the same way as British servants, so we need to clarify that these are going to be British tips, not American tips!  Why, publishers, WHY?!

Overall, while this book was a pleasant read, I didn’t feel any need to add it to my personal reference library.

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Patrick Henry: Firebrand of the Revolution // by Nardi Reeder Campion

//published 1961//

This is an older biography of Patrick Henry (1961), with target audience of middle school/junior high.  Overall, this was a really excellent read, with plenty of details about Henry’s life and career, but not too overwhelming.  It’s written to engage younger readers, so there is some dialogue and little anecdotes along the way, but most of these stories added to the character development of Henry, helping us to see what shaped him throughout his younger years and even as an adult.

It’s been a while since I studied this era of American history, so my memories of Henry were a bit vague, other than attributing his famous cry of “Give me liberty, or give me death!”  Reading this book made me want to learn more about this fascinating man – poorly educated, more comfortable in the wilderness than anywhere else, a failure at so many careers, a self-made lawyer, a man who lived his religious beliefs, a non-drinker, father of seventeen children, the first governor of Virginia, and a passionate advocate of personal freedom and the equality of all men.

Campion did a really wonderful job of putting Henry in his time period as well.  For instance, the topic of slavery is touched on a few times – something that Henry struggled with, but was more or less resigned to, a product not just of his time, but of time immortal, as there have always been slaves throughout the history of mankind.  (Which obviously does not justify it, but I think sometimes people get really hung up on the concept that the founding fathers could fight so passionately for their freedom while ignoring the fact that so many people were enslaved.  A terrible thing, yes, but not as hypocritical as we may believe at this time.  There has been slavery throughout every time of recorded history, and are still slaves even today; I think it is rather unfair to expect those founding fathers to not only set up the world’s first democracy from scratch, but to also expect them to reject a concept ingrained in humanity for thousands of years, as though their failure on that point means that everything else they did was worthless.  But I digress.)

While Henry was initially friends with Thomas Jefferson, their relationship soured over the years, and Campion also weaves that story throughout the book, helping the reader to see how this breakdown could have occurred.  And while Henry was a passionate speech-maker, he was no writer, which means that much of our perspective of Henry as a person is through people who, at the time, were writers… like Thomas Jefferson.  While Campion never comes across as defending Henry, she does remind the reader that historians are people, too, who have personal opinions and beliefs, so when someone like Jefferson says that Henry was “avaricious and rotten-hearted,” he may not have been completely objective.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am interested to read more about Henry’s life.  Campion’s description of the build-up to Henry’s greatest speech genuinely gave me chills.  I wished that I could have learned a little more about his  home life (with seventeen children, it seems like there would be scope for something interesting there!), and I also think that a more in-depth biography would have more information about Henry’s negative views on the Constitution (which Henry believed was basically worthless without a Bill of Rights to accompany it).

All in all, Firebrand of the Revolution was a great place to start – enough to give me a good overview of Henry’s life and leave me interested to learn more.  5/5 and recommended.

The Nesting Place // by Myquillyn Smith

//published 2014//

I have this crazy idea in the back of mind that I will finish writing reviews for books read in May and THEN do an April/May Rearview…  except it’s already June 12…  ah well.  Yesterday was my last day of my seasonal job, so I’m anticipating a better pattern of reading and reviewing (haha) in between playing with the puppy, keeping up the garden, doing laundry, running my Etsy shop, etc….

Somewhere along the line I stumbled into this book.  I’m rather drawn to home organizational books and magazines; I love looking for ideas that I can use (or tweak a little and then use), especially since we somehow seem to always be remodeling something around here.  This book had delightfully smooth and glossy pages and perfect binding; lots of photographs and beautiful font, so I was immediately attracted.  And once I started reading, Smith’s friendly and encouraging writing kept me turning the pages.

This book felt like a letter from a friend, possibly because Smith is actually a blogger.  But despite the warm tone, the book stayed focused and orderly, making it not just enjoyable for a one-time read,  but a book that can be referenced again and again.

I was expecting a typical book about organizing your home – step-by-step instructions and suggestions.  I was also hoping for some tips on home decorating, as I sometimes struggle with making things look ‘right’, especially in our small home where it is very easy to cross the line to ‘cluttered’.  What I wasn’t anticipating was an actual message that would both encourage and challenge, as Smith believes that the first step to decorating your home is getting your heart and attitude in the right place.

She starts by outlining her own house history, which involves 13 houses in 18 years of marriage – I believe this qualifies as a lot of moves by any standard.  As Smith talks about the different houses, she also talks about how, at the time, each one wasn’t ‘the one’, and so she didn’t make much of an effort to nest in.  But what she began to realize was that everyone house is ‘the one’ for the current season, and while it may not be worthwhile to throw down thousands of dollars on projects in every house, it is always worthwhile to make every house your own home.

A lot of what Smith discusses has to do with the importance of contentment.  So often we cheat ourselves out of enjoying the present because we are wishing we had something different.  I love the quote that she attributed to Epicurus – “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you have now was once among the things you only hoped for.”

Smith’s message is not a complicated one; in fact, I was rather blown away by its simplicity.  Appreciate where you are now.  Work within your current means.  Be willing to try something new.  Stop worrying about what other people think and instead create something you love.  Remember that your home is a haven, and go from there.

According to Smith, perfection is overrated.  Because we set “perfection” (a somewhat vague term when it comes to home decor) as our goal, we become frozen with fear and do nothing.  “Done is better than perfect,” Smith says.  “Welcoming and comfortable do not have to equal perfection.”  She quotes Sandy Coughlin –

Excellence is working toward an attainable goal that benefits everyone, while perfection comes from a place of great need – usually the need to avoid criticism and gain praise and approval.

One of the big things that really hit me was Smith’s discussion about apologizing for things in the home.  “Sorry, it’s such a mess today,” or “I’m so embarrassed by what a disaster this kitchen is!”  These types of comments do not make people feel comfortable and welcomed.  Instead, apologizing not only broadcasts your discontentment with your current state of affairs, it sets up whomever is receiving your apology to wonder how harshly you would judge their messes if you were in their home!

After quite a bit of time on attitude and contentment (time that was not at all wasted, in my opinion), Smith gets down to some of the nitty-gritty of nesting.  She says that a big part of making decorating decisions is first of all determining the purpose of your home and of the different spaces within it.  She points out that most of us want things that are somewhat intangible for our homes.  Smith suggests taking a moment to “think about words you would use to describe the feel of the home you’ve always wanted,” and later she lists several words that she gathered from some of her blog readers.  The words were things like “restful,” “welcoming,” “comfortable,” “safe,” “fun,” and “joyful.”  Start with your words, she says, and go from there to create intentional spaces.

I’ve rambled on quite a bit about this book, but it really impacted me, and I highly recommend it.  While I’ve talked a lot about Smith’s thoughts on attitude and contentment, she also has a lot of practical advice.  A huge take-away for me was the importance of making the spaces in my home purposeful – to look at each room/area and decide what it is I want that space to do, and then only place things in that space that further the purpose.

Funny story, I thought I would start with the little dining nook off our kitchen, and I started to write down the different things we use that space for, and realized that the one thing we don’t use it for is eating… and now we’re in the process of turning the entire area into a pantry, and there are boxes of food stacked all over the place and construction dust everywhere, so be careful whilst reading this book!

I also have to say that Smith has been a renter throughout the majority of her married life, and her book reaches out to renters as well as home-owners.  So  many of her suggestions and thoughts are inexpensive and easily changed (hanging pictures, moving furniture, painting things, etc).  I found myself wishing that I had read this book back when we were renters and I so often found myself staring at those dreadful flat-beige rental walls!

All in all, The Nesting Place was an unexpected encouragement.  Warm and thoughtful, challenging and practical, I highly recommend this book if you are feeling a smidge overwhelmed about creating a “look” for your home.

February Minireviews

So I find that I not-infrequently read books that I just feel rather “meh” about and they don’t seem worth writing an entire post about.  However, since I also use this blog as a sort of book-review diary, I like to at least say something.  So I’ve started a monthly post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World by E.L. Konigsburg

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//published 2007//

So growing up, Konigsburg’s The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was one of my favorite books.  As an adult, I discovered her book The View from Saturday and loved that one, too – a lot (I even read and reviewed it again!).  But for me, The Mysterious Edge just didn’t work the way her other two books did.  The plot is disjointed and strange, the characters inconsistent and unrealistic, and the entire premise centers around a lot of coincidences.

I really wanted to like this book – two kids becoming friends while helping an elderly lady clean out her house that’s full of interesting stuff – doesn’t that sound like fun??  But the old lady, Mrs. Zender, is really weird, and so are both of the boys – and not in the realistic, quirky way of some of Konigsburg’s characters in Saturday – just weird, weird: the kind of weird that leaves you scratching your head in puzzlement.

A lot of the story centers around a picture that one of the boys finds, a drawing of a naked woman.  Now we’re informed that this is art, so this is a “nude” which is different from just someone being naked.  But…  it still felt really inappropriate for the age of the characters and the intended readers, and, once again, was just kind of weird.  Like why does the picture have to be of a naked person??

There are almost some good discussions about how people perceive us and how we perceive ourselves, about people who are rich and people who aren’t, about whether or not a government should be able to decide what is or isn’t art.  But none of those conversations really go anywhere, so the whole book feels awkward and stunted.

All in all, 1/5 for a book that I wanted to like but just couldn’t.  I’m still planning to read some more of Konigsburg’s books because I have enjoyed a couple of them so very much, but I don’t see myself ever revisiting this one.

American Gardening Series: Container Gardening by Suzanne Frutig Bales

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//published 1993//

This is one of those random books that I picked up for a quarter at a library book sale at some point.  It’s not a terribly thick book, but it does have a lot of photographs and plenty of good information about choosing plants for container gardens and then keeping them alive after you’ve planted them!  Bales has a lot of enthusiasm for container gardening as it is very flexible and can be done in almost any amount of space.

I’ve been working through several gardening books this month, and I always glean some new tips and ideas.  This one is well worth the shelf space as a great reference book.  I especially enjoyed the chapters that focused on planning container gardens – I think that a lot of times people go into container gardening assuming that you just sort of jam some plants in and it will look great, but this book spends some time talking about not just the color of the plants you are planting, but texture, size, and growing requirements.  Definitely recommended if this is a topic you’re interested in learning more about.

The Princess by Lori Wick

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//published 1999//

This is a (multiple time) reread for me, and I have a more detailed review here.  Sometimes I just need some happy fluff, and this book always fits the bill.  It involves my favorite trope (marriage than love), and just is a happy, gentle little tale that I have read many times and yet always find enjoyable.  I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump here at the end of February, what with starting my new job and being super tired all the time, so The Princess helped get me through!

Terms & Conditions // by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

termsconditions

//published 2016//

It occurs to me as I am writing this that this is actually the second book I have read by this title in the last few months, which seems peculiar.  It also has absolutely nothing to do with this review, as Robert Glancy’s Terms & Conditions was absolutely nothing like Graham’s!

Some of you may remember, back in the mists of time (and by that I mean in December), that I received my first issue of Slightly Foxed, an absolutely delightful literary magazine.  I enjoyed it so much that I actually wrote a review of a quarterly full of reviews!  SF publishes a special edition book every quarter as well, and for this winter it was Terms & Conditions.  Everyone spoke so warmly of this volume that I felt that I had to have it – and when it comes to books, I nearly always indulge my whims!

First off, we simply must address the physical perfection of this book.  Everything about it is exactly as it should be, from grey-blue cloth-bound cover to the ideal size (perfect for slipping into a pocket or reading in bed) to the book-marker ribbon to the excellent quality binding that allows the book to lay flat no matter where it is opened.  I wish all books would be published with such care!  All this meant that reading this book was always a lovely experience.  Every time I picked it up, my spirits were lifted before I even opened the book.  It is that perfect!

As for the book itself – well, conveniently, that is delightful as well!  This is a nonfiction book, a memoir of sorts, although not in the traditional sense as Graham has mostly collected the memories and stories of people other than herself.  So in a way it is a memoir not of a specific person, but of a type of person – of a group of people who all went through a similar experience.  And while each of them brings her own voice and memories, together they create a type: Women who attended British boarding schools between 1939 and 1979.

Before I began this book, I found myself wondering if I would really relate to anything it said.  After all, I’m an American who was home-educated and wasn’t even alive during the first seven decades of the twentieth century!  But to my delight, reading this book reminded me afresh that the simple kinship of being a woman is frequently enough of a bond to make the stories of other women relevant to me.

Graham’s book doesn’t really follow a linear story, a specific character, or even a particular location.  Instead, she has divided her book into chapters that each delve into an individual aspect of boarding school life during this period.  Throughout there are quotes from women who were students at this time, all with their own memories and stories, a rich reminder of how childhood experiences and friendships can stay with us throughout our lives.

I was a bit afraid that Graham was going to use this book as a platform to rant about the educational inequalities between girls and boys during this time.  But while she did discuss this – as it was an important aspect of boarding school life – I never felt like the book ventured into the polemic.  Instead, Graham balanced much of what she was writing with the concept that while some of the girls did suffer educationally because they were ambitious and their ambitions were dismissed merely because of their sex, other girls genuinely did want to find a nice husband and settle into their homes and raise their children, so for them an education that focused more on the social rather than the scientific was not detrimental to their future lives.

And in the end, I appreciated many of Graham’s conclusions –

These women were trained not to see themselves as the centre of the universe, but always to think of others, even when it came to the method for being passed the salt.  They learned early that ‘it’s not all about me’.  This lack of self-centredness is, I think, the biggest difference between privileged childhoods fifty or sixty years ago and privileged childhoods today.  Yes, these boarding-school girls came from affluent families, but they did not go on skiing holidays every year, and they were not given the idea that things should be arranged mainly for their benefit and delight.  Their schools taught them that their duty was to be of service to the community: they learned to look outwards and away from themselves rather than to wallow in introspection.  Thus they grew into an unselfish, un-self-pitying generation.

A while back I worked for an elderly woman (born 1919) who was born rich, raised rich, married rich, and is probably going to die rich (last I checked, she was still going strong!).  But what really amazed me about this woman was how despite the fact that she definitely felt entitled to a great deal (and honestly it was kind of hilarious to work as a servant…  like if she had people come to visit I would legit bring them tea and then go hang out in the kitchen until they left haha at least I didn’t have to wear a uniform), she believed it was so important for her to give back to her community.  In her lifetime she had personally overseen the purchase and restoration of a beautiful historic home that was slated for demolition in our downtown – it’s a museum now, and it was amazing to take her there for different events and listen to her stories about how even though other people helped, she almost single-handedly had done this.  And that wasn’t the only thing – she led committees and fundraisers that benefited all sorts of different local charities and organizations.  She was wealthy and privileged (she drove a custom-made Lincoln Town Car with her name engraved on the dashboard for pity’s sake!), but like the women in this book, she was also raised with the concept that being wealthy and privileged meant that you had responsibility.  And while she – and most of the women in the book – didn’t have a career, that did not stop her from being a productive, intelligent, competent citizen who devoted hours every week of her life to bettering her community and the lives of the people who lived in it.

All that to say that I do think that it is excellent that girls are given equal educational opportunities nowadays, but it does sometimes feel as though we have sacrificed that ingrained knowledge (in both girls and boys) that if you have, you are responsible for helping the have-nots.

My only complaint about this book was that I somewhat felt that Graham did not establish context.  I mean, yes, these girls definitely had a hard time of it – but so did almost everyone in those war/post-war years.  I don’t think going to a boys’ school at that time was a bed of roses, but at times the book edges towards implication that girls had it so much worse than the boys.  I don’t think they had it worse – I think they just had it different.

But on the whole, this was a delightfully entertaining and interesting read.  Plus, it’s nonfiction, so I’m already working on my goal of reading more nonfiction in 2017 – bonus!  I definitely recommend this book that manages to take a very specific piece of societal history and place it in relevant terms.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to seeking out more of Graham’s works soon – not to mention more of Slightly Foxed’s lovely special editions!

Sunsets // by Deborah Howard

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//published 2005//

This book, subtitled Reflections for Life’s Final Journey, is, in short, a book about death.  And while it wasn’t necessarily the most uplifting book to read, Howard approaches this subject with hope and encouragement.

Deborah Howard has worked as a hospice nurse for many years, and eventually felt compelled to write this book as an aid to guide people through the process of having a loved one die, or even knowing that the reader is facing death himself.  Howard is a Christian, and this book is unapologetically so.  While there is a great deal of emphasis on God, eternal life, and the perspective towards death that that mindset brings, Howard also provides much information about hospice that is useful even if you are not in agreement with the tenents of Christian faith.

I actually only had a vague notion of what hospice does before I read this book, so I found those parts of the book extremely interesting and informative.  Howard talks about how hospice was founded with the idea that people who are dying deserve to do so with dignity, with as little pain as possible, in their own homes, and surrounded by those they love.  She says that the founder of hospice was horrified by the way that those who were dying in hospitals were more or less considered failures of the medical profession.  (Granted, this was decades ago when hospitals were quite a bit different from what they are now.)

Having recently watched a loved one suffer through the final stages of cancer, I sincerely wish that I had been more familiar with hospice and the alternative that they offered.  While we were comfortable and cared for in hospital, there will always be something impersonal and vaguely routine about the care there.  Looking forward, with another relative diagnosed with terminal cancer, it was encouraging to understand that for someone like him, who hates hospitals and strangers, there is another option for him, and that he can spend his final weeks in his own home.

Howard emphasizes hospice as an alternative to the growing movement of assisted suicide.  Because patients who are enrolled in hospice have a terminal illness and a prognosis of less than six months to live, and all potentially life-saving options have been exhausted, the goal of hospice is not to help the patient “get better.”  Instead, their goal is stated as helping the patient “remain comfortable and free of suffering for the rest of his/her life.”  This is done, not by putting the person to sleep as though they are worth no more than a dog, but by providing them with equipment and medication that they need to make their final days as comfortable as possible.  Enabling someone to be in their own home, surrounded by their own family and loved ones, creates a situation where the focus can be on the joy of the patient’s life.

Throughout the book, Howard opens each chapter with the next part of a story of a hospice patient and his family.  She uses this story to illustrate the various stages of dying, from diagnosis onward.  Howard is realistic in her portrayal of human response to dying: we don’t want to!  But as she discusses the different stages and puts them into an eternal perspective, the reader is shown how death is inevitable but does not have to be viewed with terror.

She reminds the reader that preparation for death can (and should!) take place at any time in one’s life, not just when a life-threatening prognosis is given.  We do not know when our last moment will be – it can happen at any time.  I greatly liked the line she quoted from Dr. Charles Hodge:  “It is important that when we come to die we have nothing to do but die.”  In another place she tells a story of St. Francis –

It has been said that someone found St. Francis working his garden and asked him, “What would you do if you knew that you would die in ten minutes?”  St. Francis replied, “I’d try to finish this row.”

Howard discusses what happens after death, as well.  She believes in the Biblical definition of eternity, obviously, so although she examines other beliefs, she mostly does so to show how she does not believe that they logically fit into the real world.  I can see where a non-Christian may be greatly offended by much of this book, but I also think that it is a book that can put forth a challenge to that non-Christian’s beliefs.  If nothing else, it gives the reader much to consider, as so often we prefer to pretend that we will never die, when in fact we all will.

As I said at the beginning of my review, Sunsets wasn’t a super cheerful read.  But I still came away from it encouraged and informed.  I feel like I have a lot more information about hospice, and some clarified thoughts about death and the afterlife.  Howard’s book is written in a gentle and loving way.  It is never harsh or disparaging, even when she is discussing beliefs that she does not believe are true.  I would strongly recommend her book to anyway who is facing the challenge of becoming a caregiver for a loved one who is terminally ill.  This book is full of practical and helpful information to guide people through this most difficult of times.

So, Anyway // by John Cleese

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//published 2014//

While I cannot say that I am a passionate Monty Python fan, it has still been a strong influence in my life.  So much of my family’s vernacular traces back to a Python sketch, and I think I may have fell in love with my husband at the point in our relationship that he told me that he could have been an aeronautical engineer, except he spent most of high school memorizing Monty Python instead.

So when I stumbled across John Cleese’s autobiography, I thought that I would give it a whirl.  About 2/3 of the way through the book, however, I realized that Cleese wasn’t just taking a long time to get to the Python years – he wasn’t going to get there at all!  Closer perusal of the jacket summary does say that he tells his story “to the founding of the landmark comedy troupe”…guess I missed that “founding” when I first read it!  Truthfully, I was much more interested in reading more about Fawlty Towers, which is also a long-time favorite (my family legit quotes from the episode with the Germans all the time), but we didn’t even get to that point in life.  Ah well.

Other than wondering when we were going to get around to Python stuff, the book was an interesting read.  Cleese is a little too fond of self-analysis for my taste (things like, “As an adult, I was talking with a therapist when I realized that this episode of my childhood caused me to blah blah blah”), but that was mostly in the early chapters.  The early chapters also included a lot of slightly crude humor, with jokes involving things like penises, but thankfully that also wasn’t as prevalent for the entire book.

There were multiple things that caused me to laugh while reading the book.  For instance, I loved when he was talking about the bombing, during World War II, of his hometown, Weston-super-Mare, and how the people there were, in a weird way, proud that they were bombed on multiple occasions.

The Germans were a people famous for their efficiency, so why would they drop perfectly good bombs on Weston-super-Mare, when there was nothing in Weston that a bomb could destroy that could possibly be as valuable as the bomb that destroyed it?  That would mean that every explosion would make a tiny dent in the German economy.

Cleese spends several chapters describing not just his early years, but also how his parents met.  His parents actually eloped since, Cleese tells us, the social gap between them was too great:

You see, Dad came from, at best, the middle-lower-middle class; to be exact, he was middle-middle-lower-middle class.  Whereas Muriel Cross came from the great auctioneering house of Marwood Cross, who were almost middle-middle class; their lowest possible social classification was upper-upper-lower-middle-class.

Throughout his book, Cleese actually returns to this concept of class on multiple occasions.

He was the epitome of the Oxonian code of “effortless superiority,” whereby to be seen trying really hard to achieve something was in many ways worse than actually failing at it.

As Cleese’s history continues, he goes to school and then to college, and then is a teacher, and then works for the BBC…throughout, there is this sense of randomness that Cleese admits is real.  He didn’t have much of a plan, and things just sort of seemed to come together.  Once he reaches adulthood in his story, the book gains in interest (for me, anyway), as he talks about stumbling into the drama group at college and how things grew from there.

One tidbit that he mentions is how none of the Pythons considered themselves actors – they were all writers who also acted.  And so what you see as you read about Cleese’s life is how writing became more and more important as he began to find his place.

A final thing that really struck me was when Cleese was talking about one of the things that made so many Python sketches work –

…no matter how wacky the premise of a sketch was, once it had been established, its rules had to be followed, or else the sketch would lose coherence and, thus, “believability.”  It may seem bizarre to use the word “believability” about a Python sketch, but in some mysterious way the audience will accept any premise, no matter how weird, and then allow it to set the rules for what is, and what is not, believable in that piece.

I think this really stuck out to me because this is an issue that I have with a lot of fantasy/sci-fi that I read, or even just a piece of regular fiction where the characters don’t make sense – any story has its own rules.  The important thing isn’t that you have make “believable” rules, or rules that are real-life rules, but you have have consistent rules.  The same goes for a character – I can accept any crazy character if that person stays true to the character as established.  It’s so frustrating to read a book and feel like it is floating around wherever the author wants to go because the author hasn’t bothered to tighten up his rules.  That’s a big reason that I stopped reading the Pern books once they were being written by Todd McCaffrey – he just never seemed to understand the world of Pern, and all of his books felt so discordant, not just with the series as a whole, but even within each story.

Anyway, this was an overall entertaining read, worthwhile if you are interested in Cleese or in learning about how someone becomes a successful comedy writer, but it isn’t particularly one of those autobiographies where you get a real scope of the times or anything like that.  Overall recommended.