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Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Alzheimer’s seems to be serendipitously (is that word only for happy things?) popping up all over in my life lately. I saw a reference to a PBS special on Alzheimer’s on my Facebook feed last night, had a conversation about relatives with the disease a few days ago, and then, I read this book.

Still Alice is fiction told from the point of view of a research psychologist who is progressing, or regressing, into the fog of early-onset Alzheimer’s. I thought the author really understood the experience of a person who is diagnosed and then lives with the disease of Alzheimer’s. I suppose she ought to understand: she has degree in Biopsychology and a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Harvard University. But degrees don’t alway equal empathy and insight. The book is realistic and yet compassionate, not without hope. It would be a hard read for someone who has a relative or friend with Alzheimer’s, as do I, but ultimately I think it is encouraging rather than discouraging.

Lisa Genova seems to specialize in novels about characters with devastating injuries or illnesses and the family dynamics involved in such illnesses. In addition to Still Alice, she’s also written Left Neglected (about traumatic brain injury?TMI), Love Anthony (about an autistic child), and Inside the O’Briens (a father with Huntington’s Disease). I also read that there’s a movie based on the book Still Alice. Has anyone seen the movie or read any of Ms. Genova’s other books? What did you think?

“I used to know how the mind handled language, and I could communicate what I knew. I used to be someone who knew a lot. No one asks for my opinion or advice anymore. I miss that. I used to be curious and independent and confident. I miss being sure of things. There’s no peace in being unsure of everything all the time. I miss doing everything easily. I miss being a part of what’s happening. I miss feeling wanted. I miss my life and my family. I loved my life and family.”

“You’re so beautiful,” said Alice. “I’m afraid of looking at you and not knowing who you are.”
“I think that even if you don’t know who I am someday, you’ll still know that I love you.”
“What if I see you, and I don’t know that you’re my daughter, and I don’t know that you love me?”
“Then, I’ll tell you that I do, and you’ll believe me.”

I have two relatives currently living with Alzheimer’s, and one who died with Alzheimer’s, and what I have observed in them is that they have and had much the same personality before and after the onset of Alzheimer’s as they did before. All three of these relatives were joyful, giving, selfless people before they began to lose their memories and intellectual abilities. And they are still that kind of people, sometimes frustrated by their inability to recall things or to perform simple tasks, but still joyful, still generous, still themselves. I don’t know if that’s true of everyone who has Alzheimer’s. Maybe some people do truly lose themselves and become other. Maybe my relatives still will lose themselves. I hope not. Right now, they laugh a lot about their disabilities and memory lapses, and they know they are loved, even when they can’t recall the names of those who are their caregivers. May it always be so.

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

I don’t really want to summarize the plot of this novel because for me it wasn’t about the plot. In fact, as an older teen or an adult reads the book, he or she can pretty well predict what’s going to happen to fourteen year old Joan as she goes from life on the farm to the big city of Baltimore to escape her father and find a new life for herself in 1911. Her only real knowledge of life comes from a few chance remarks from her beloved teacher, Miss Chandler, and from the three novels that Miss Chandler gave her: Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Just think what your ideas about how the world works would be if you had grown up rather isolated on a farm with an emotionally abusive father, a devoted but sickly mother, and those three novels to inform your views. I haven’t read Dombey and Son, but I can easily imagine the romantic excesses that Jane Eyre and Ivanhoe might lead one to commit. And Joan is just the sort of strong, passionate, naive girl to get her self into quite a bit of trouble, well-meaning but a bull in a china closet.

The Hired Girl is a diary novel; Ms. Schlitz allows us to see into the mind and motivations of a fourteen year old Catholic housemaid in a Jewish household in the early part of the twentieth century. And the author gets Joan’s voice just right. I really believed in this innocent but intelligent girl, hard-working, trying to become a “refined lady”, confident yet dangerously naive. She reminded me of Jo March, without the nervous energy of a March daughter, or Anne Shirley with a somewhat harder road to hoe. Joan, who calls herself “Janet” to disguise her identity, lucks out in that she gets a job with a kind, rich Jewish family, but she does not get a Matthew or a Marilla to adopt her and treat her as a daughter, although she almost gets a substitute father and mother in her employer and the elderly housekeeper that she works with. She also, like Anne, lets her passionate nature and impulsivity get her into a lot of scrapes, but Joan/Janet’s scrapes are quite a bit more serious and even dangerous than Anne’s ever were. (That’s why the book is for older teens, at least the age of the main character or older.)

And yet the book is funny. I laughed out loud sometimes at Joan’s artlessness and enthusiasm. And I became very anxious when I saw the direction in which her decisions were taking her. It’s a direction that the reader will know is bound to lead to disaster, even though Joan, caught up in imagining herself as the heroine of one of her favorite novels, is oblivious to the impending ruin that her innocence and ignorance are inviting. The juxtaposition of Joan’s rather immature but devoted Catholicism and the sophisticated, ingrained Judaism of her employer’s family was quite well-written and so intriguing. Not many writers can write religion and religious differences both convincingly and respectfully.

I can only imagine the skill and hard work that were required for Ms. Schlitz to pull this novel together, make its voice, that of a fourteen year old innocent, true and convincing, and still show the reader what is going on behind the scenes, in the minds and decisions of the other characters in the novel. I’d recommend The Hired Girl to mature teens and adults. Anyone who’s ready for Jane Eyre should be ready for this one, too, although I suppose an argument could be made that fourteen year old Joan wasn’t quite ready to really understand and interpret Jane Eyre in all its full meaning. It’s an interesting question. What novel(s) could Miss Chandler have given Joan that would have better prepared her for living as a hired girl in the city? (Not that Miss Chandler knew that Joan would be running away to the city.)

Maybe she should have read Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, published in 1900, as a sort of cautionary tale. Or Madame Bovary. But maybe the lessons of those adult novels would have gone right over her head.

Reviewing Old Books: March/April 2016

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books…. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.” ~C.S. Lewis

I have my Saturday Review of Books, a place for all the bloggers’ reviews from the past week to be linked and enjoyed. However, I thought today that it might be a good thing, once a week or once a month, to do a post where I round up the reviews I find of “old books”. We could all use a few more “old books” to season our reading lives and to give us a different perspective on things. Lewis was probably writing about really old books, written in classical Latin and Greek, but for the purposes of this round up, I’m going to go with 70 years old or more, so published before 1946. I’ll post the reviews I’ve come across this month of books more than 70 years old, and if you have written a review of a qualifying book or if you’ve seen one, please leave a link in the comments. I’ll be happy to pull it up into the post.

So, without further ado, the monthly (?) round up of reviews of old books, for your reading pleasure:

The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations by George Herbert (1633) at Operation Actually Read Bible.

An Account of the Life of Mr Richard Savage, Son of the Earl Rivers by Samuel Johnson (1744) at Tweetspeak.

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville (1853) at Across the Page.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859) at Semicolon.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens (1870) at Happy Catholic.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (1889) at Barbara’s Stray Thoughts.

Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy (1899) at Semicolon.

Beatrix Potter’s Tales (1902-1905) at Simpler Pastimes.

I Will Repay by Baroness Orczy (1906) at journey-and-destination.

Sir Nigel by Arthur Conan Doyle (1906) at journey-and-destination.

Pollyanna by Eleanor Porter (1913) at Living Books Library.

Peacock Pie (1913) by Walter de la Mare at Wuthering Expectations.

South! The Story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Last Expedition, 1914-1917 by Ernest Shackleton (1919) at Margy Meanders/Powell River Books.

The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck (1932) at Becky’s Book Reviews.

The Flowering of New England by Van Wyck Brooks (1936) at Faith, Fiction, Friends.

The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White (1938) at Barbara’s Stray Thoughts.

The Baker’s Daughter by DE Stevenson (1938) at Books and Chocolate.

New England Indian Summer 1865-1915 by Van Wyck Brooks (1940) at Faith, Fiction, Friends.

The Long Ships by Franz Gunnar Bengtsson (1941, 1945) at Brandywine Books.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945) at journey-and-destination.

For more “old book” suggestions and reviews, check out:

The 1938 Club at Stuck in a Book. Here are the links to reviews of books published in 1938.

Books of the Century website lists best-selling books by year beginning in 1900.

Back to the Classics Challenge 2016.

The blog Simpler Pastimes has a Classic Children’s Literature event going on, where bloggers can add links to reviews of classic children’s books written at least 50 years ago, so published prior to 1966.

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

The Winter Sea is a novel of historical fiction set before, during and after the Jacobite attempted restoration in 1715 of James III of England and James VIII of Scotland, the Pretender, to the throne of Scotland, recently merged with, or sold to, the English government, much to the dismay of some Scots. A twenty-first century author, Carrie McClelland, is writing a book about Sophia Paterson, an 18th century ancestress of hers who lived during the Jacobite uprising. Both women find romance as their memories become intertwined.

What I liked:

Set in Scotland. What’s not to like about Scotland? Oh, if only all men were born with a Scots accent. But then I suppose it wouldn’t be so appealing, just normal.

The historical information. Granted there’s a lot of telling. Instead of having the characters in the thick of the action as James Stuart, the Pretender, tries to reclaim the throne of Scotland and England from his sister Anne, they are mostly on the sidelines. Watching and waiting are the occupations of the 18th century heroine, Sophia, and researching and channeling dead voices take up almost all of the days and nights of the author, Carrie McClelland, who is writing about Sophia and her adventures. Nevertheless, there’s a great deal of history in the book, and I liked that aspect.

The genealogy angle. The two intertwined stories that make up this romance novel are all about history and the main present day character’s genealogy. In fact, Sophia and others in the past turn out to be related to the author, Carrie, who is writing a historical novel. Yes, it gets a tad confusing, just as real genealogical research does, but I enjoyed all the who’s-related-to-whom stuff.

What I disliked:

Bed before wed. As in most romance novels (and movies) of the twenty-first century variety, the author/heroine and her hero/love interest are abed together before the ink can dry on the page telling of their mutual attraction. I find this disheartening, but at least the reader is spared a graphic description of their sexual adventures. This issue is one major reason I do not read romance novels, not even historical romance novels which might appeal to me because of the history. The historical pair are sorta, kinda married before they engage in marital relations, but only just barely. At least there’s a commitment between the two.

Male possessiveness. Both of the male leads tell their respective inamoratas: “you were mine from the moment I met you”, or something to that effect. And both are fond giving orders and expecting them to be obeyed, even though Carrie, at least, is described as an “independent woman.” I didn’t like the possessiveness that Grant and Moray exhibited.

Florid writing. Romances tend toward purple prose, which is another reason I don’t usually care for them. Here’s a mild example from this novel, chosen at random: “For that swirling moment, all she felt was him—his warmth, his touch, his strength, and when he raised his head she rocked towards him, helplessly off balance.”

So, you can probably judge from all that to-and-fro whether or not this historical fiction novel is for you. If so, enjoy. If not, but you still want some 18th century England/Scotland setting historical fiction, try:

The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. by William Makepeace Thackeray. 1691-1718. England.
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott. 1715-1719. Scotland and England.
Devil Water by Anya Seton. 1715-17??. England and America.
The Sound of Coaches by Leon Garfield. England.
Smith: The Story of a Pickpocket by Leon Garfield. England.
Waverley by Sir Walter Scott. 1745. Scotland.
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. 1750’s. Scotland.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. 1750’s. England and the ocean-sea.
Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. 1789. South Seas.
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forrester. 1793.

Or, if you just want something set in Scotland, I can recommend:

Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett.
44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith.
The 39 Steps by John Buchan.
Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter.
Mrs. Tim Gets a Job by D.E. Stevenson.
The King’s Swift Rider by Mollie Hunter.
Immortal Queen by Elizabeth Byrd.
The Iron Lance by Stephen Lawhead.
The Fields of Bannockburn by Donna Fletcher Crow.

The Hawk and the Dove by Penelope Wilcock

It was Easter, two years after Father Peregrine had come to be their abbott. Easter, the greatest feast of the Christian year, and all the local people had come up to the abbey, and the guest house was full of pilgrims come to celebrate the feast of the Resurrection. So many people, so many processions, so much music! So many preparations to be made by the singers, the readers, those who served at the altar and those served in the guest house, not to mention those who worked in the kitchens and the stables. The abbey was bursting with guests, neighbors, relatives, and strangers.

The Easter Vigil was mysterious and beautiful, with the imagery of fire and water and the Paschal candle lit in the great, vaulted dimness of the abbey church. Brother Gilbert the precentor’s voice mounted joyfully in the triumphant beauty of the Exultet; all the bells rang out for the risen Lord, and the voices of the choirboys from the abbey school soared with heart-breaking loveliness in the music declaring the risen life of Jesus. Easter Day itself was radiant with sunshine for once, as well as celebration. Oh, the joyful splendor of a church crammed full of people, a thundering of voices singing, ‘Credo –I believe.’

In The Hawk and the Dove by Penelope Wilcock, an English mother tells her daughters, especially her fifteen-going-on-grown-up daughter Melissa, stories about their long ago ancestor, the abbot of a Benedictine abbey, and the monks under his care. The stories are deceptively simple and quotidian: stories of forgiveness asked and given, monks who are injured and need healing, others who don’t fit into the abbey life and must learn to do so. However, these are the same issues that Melissa, her mother and sisters must deal with in daily family life, and they’re the same things we try to iron out and work through here at Semicolon House.

In the other two books in the trilogy, the brothers of St. Alcuin monastery continue to work together and grow in community. They also grow older and must confront the difficulties that old age brings in its train. In fact, the third book in the series is about death and dying and living with serious impairments —all to the glory of God. It’s quite timely in these days of “death with diginity” and compassion redefined as hurrying the dying into death, but it may be a bit too much for children. Again, I think the entire family will enjoy at least the first two books in the trilogy.

A few more excerpts:

“Theodore saw his hopes of a new beginning turn to ashes in the miserable discovery that even men who had given their whole lives to follow Christ could be irritable, sharp-tongued, and hasty.” How many new Christians upon becoming involved in a church have stumbled over that particular realization? Monasteries, and churches, are simply places for imperfect people to come and begin to learn to serve and show kindness and love, not places where the already perfected live in flawless harmony.

Fifteen year old Melissa to her teacher in English class: “Mother says, that love is only true love when it shows itself in fidelity, —ummmm, faithfulness. She says if a person has the feeling of love, but no faithfulness, his love is just self-indulgent sentimentality. And that’s what Shelley was like, isn’t it? He wrote fine peoms to his wife and his lovers, but he wasn’t a faithful man. So how can his poetry about love be worth anything if his love in real life wasn’t worth anything?” From the mouths of babes, can an untrue person write truly? Can he write true poetry that he hasn’t lived in some fashion, however imperfectly?

“Mother said these stories were true, and I never knew her tell a lie . . . but then you could never be quite sure what she meant by “truth”; fact didn’t always come into it.”

I assure you that the stories in Ms. Wilcock’s Hawk and the Dove trilogy are quite true —as fiction sometimes is.

Web of Traitors by Geoffrey Trease

A mysterious plot to overthrow the democracy of Athens is foiled by young Alexis and his friend Corinna. The story includes appearances by Socrates, Plato and Xenophon, competition at the annual Athenian drama festival, and an exciting torch race through the countryside near Athens. Alexis, the Athenian second son of an Athenian nobleman, and Corinna, alien daughter of a cook and innkeeper, form an unlikely friendship when they meet out in the country near Alexis’s father’s farm. And the two of them discover that that the Spartans are in league with an exiled Athenian traitor to overthrow the Council and install themselves as dictators.

Subtitled “An Adventure Story of Ancient Athens” and originally published in England as The Crown of Violet in 1952, Web of Traitors is a good accompaniment to the study of ancient Greece in history. The student who reads this “adventure story” will be introduced to Athenian theater and sport, to the rivalry between Athens and Sparta, and to the culture and customs of Athens. However, this novel is not just a history book in disguise. The characters are fun and fresh and believable, and the story itself is intriguing enough to hold the interest of middle school readers, even of those who go into the novel with very little knowledge of interest in ancient Athens.

According to Jan Bloom’s author guide, Who Then Should We Read?, Geoffrey Trease, a British children’s author with a background in the classics and in theater, “once commented that he could write about any period if he could figure out what made those people laugh.” He wrote more than fifty historical novels for middle grade and young adult readers, set in all different time periods from the Athens of Socrates and Plato to the time of Shakespeare (Cue for Treason) to the French revolution (Victory at Valmy). His novels are said to combine historical accuracy, adventure, and a love of drama to make great reads.

Here are a few of Trease’s novels, along with the setting of each, that I would like to read and to own for my library:

Message to Hadrian: Roman Britain.
Escape to King Alfred: Ninth century during the reign of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex.
Cue for Treason: Shakespeare’s England. I already own this one and plan to read it next.
The Silken Secret: Eighteenth century London and the beginnings of silk manufacture in England.
Victory at Valmy: French Revolution.
The Iron Tsar: St. Petersburg during the reign of Czar Nicholas I.
The White Nights of St. Petersburg: 1916, the Russian Revolution.
No Boats on Bannermere: contemporary with publication in the 1940’s.

In fact, I’m excited about reading as many of the books of Geoffrey Trease as I can get my hands on. I like this first book of his that I’ve read far better than I enjoyed the few books by G.A. Henty that I’ve read. Henty is popular among homeschoolers, but I think for exciting and informative historical fiction, I may decide that Trease is better.

Silence Over Dunkerque by John Tunis

Mr. Tunis was known as “the inventor of the modern sports story.” He wrote numerous sports novels featuring young baseball players and young football players, but her did not consider himself a “children’s writer”, even though his publishers insisted on marketing his books to young people. Since there was no separate “young adult” publishing sector at the time that Tunis wrote his books, they were sold to children and teens and adults. The books mostly feature high school and college age, sometimes even older, protagonists.

In fact, Silence Over Dunkerque, is not a sports story and is mostly about Sergeant George Williams, member of the British Expeditionary Force and his escape from occupied France during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Since he has fourteen year old twin sons back home in England, Sergeant Williams is obviously older than the average Tunis protagonist, and though the story also features a fourteen year old French girl, Giselle, and also the twins to some extent, Sergeant Williams is the main character and the anchor for the story.

Silence Over Dunkerque was published in 1962, and it’s not quite as fast-paced as a more contemporary YA novel might be. Sergeant Williams is caught in the maelstrom of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, and he has adventures—escape from the Germans, a failed attempt to evacuate from the beach, encountering Nazi patrols, the capture of a German parachuter—but these adventures are interspersed between times of waiting in long lines on the beach, hiding out in a French farmhouse, hiking across enemy territory, rowing tediously across the Channel.

And there’s a dog. Sergeant Williams befriends an abandoned dog in a small French village on his way to Dunkirk. The dog tenaciously follows Sergeant Williams through all his journey across France and even across the Channel, and Williams comes to appreciate the dog’s loyalty and protective instincts. The dog, the twins, Sergeant Williams’ wife searching for him on the beach at Dover day after day, Sergeant Williams’ companion in his adventures, Three Fingers Brown, all add to the human interest of a story that is essentially a humanization of an episode in World War II history: Operation Dynamo, the Dunkirk evacuation.

World War II history buffs and general history buffs (like me) will enjoy the novel and appreciate the ebbs and flows of plot and action and the sturdy prose of a sportswriter turned novelist. Recommended.

If you’re interested in a list of other books and movies about Operation Dynamo, the evacuation at Dunkirk, check out this post about Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose.

Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon

The first book I read in 2015 was Jan Karon’s Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good, in which Dooley and Lace finally become engaged to be married. My first book of 2016 was Come Rain or Come Shine, the story of Dooley’s and Lace’s wedding. And to top that bit of serendipity off, we celebrated our own family wedding on January 2, 2016 when my beautiful Dancer Daughter married her loving groom, The Beast (nickname given in all respect as appropriate nomenclature).

If you don’t know who Dooley and Lace are, you should hie yourself immediately to a library or bookstore and pick up the first of Jan Karon’s Mitford books, At Home in Mitford. You have a feast ahead of you. Come back when you’ve finished book #12, and I’ll whet your appetite, if it needs any whetting, for a book about a not-so-fairy-tale, but still very happy, wedding.

Come Rain or Come Shine is the 13th book in the series, and it’s a very satisfying read, especially for a mom who is still recovering from marrying off her first child to be married. (Only seven more to go.) There are lots of secrets and glitches and interruptions and surprises, including a very unexpected guest who crashes the wedding, but they do get married. Dooley and Lace become Mr. and Mrs. Kavanaugh.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“He and Lace and everybody else had done all in their power to keep it simple. They made their own invitations, saved a ton by not having a caterer or a tuxedo rental or an over-the-top bride’s dress to drag around in the chicken manure. What happened to their laid-back country wedding where people could chill out, relax, no problem? Okay, so maybe there was no such thing as a laid-back wedding, no matter how hard you tried.”

Our family motto, decided today:
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. Ecclesiastes 4:12.

“He had prayed in cathedrals and at the bedsides of two or three bishops, but never with more to give thanks for than this day, in this generous place where they were celebrating a marriage, a child, a new home, family ties, a new business, the completion of academic studies, and of course, all those further, though often unseen, blessings bestowed by Almighty God made known through Jesus Christ. . . ‘Almighty God.” He cleared his throat, concerned that he may choke up. Then again, how could he not?”

“Love, cherish, honor, keep. A handful! Honey Herschel hoped these kids had thought it over carefully, but even if they had, they would still not have a clue. You never had a clue about anything till it happened and you learned the truth about yourself.”

“We might say that a good marriage is a contest of generosities. How wonderful that it’s possible to ensure our own happiness by seeking the happiness of another. Is it our job to make the beloved happy? It is not. The other person always has a choice. It is our job to generously outdo, no matter what, and discover that the prize in this contest of generosity is more love.”

I’m gonna love you, like nobody’s loved you
Come rain or come shine
High as a mountain, deep as a river
Come rain or come shine
I guess when you met me
It was just one of those things
But don’t you ever bet me
‘Cause I’m gonna be true if you let me
You’re gonna love me, like nobody’s loved me
Come rain or come shine
We’ll be happy together, unhappy together
Now won’t that be just fine
The days may be cloudy or sunny
We’re in or out of the money
But I’m with you always
I’m with you rain or shine.

Christmas in an English village, 1974

The Christmas Mouse: A Story by Miss Read.

“The Christmas tree, dressed the night before by Jane and Frances—with many squeals of delight—stood on the side table. This table, spangled with stars and tinsel, displayed the Victorian fairy doll, three inches high, which had once adorned the Christmas trees of Mrs. Berry’s childhood. The doll’s tiny wax face was brown with age but still bore that sweet expression which the child had imagined was an angel’s. Sprigs of holly were tucked behind the picture frames, and a spray of mistletoe hung where the oil lamp had once swung from the central beam over the dining table.

Mrs. Berry leaned back in her chair and surveyed it all with satisfaction. It looked splendid and there was very little more to be done to the preparations in the kitchen. The turkey was stuffed, the potatoes peeled. The Christmas pudding had been made in November and stood ready on the shelf to be plunged into the steamer tomorrow morning. Mince pies waited in the tin, and a splendid Christmas cake, iced and decorated by Mrs. Berry herself, would grace the table tomorrow.”

Dora Saint, aka Miss Read, was a former schoolteacher who wrote novels of English country life, set in the fictional villages of Thrush Green and Fairacre. Village School, her first novel, was published in 1955, and Miss Read continued to write, with more than thirty books published, until her retirement in 1996. Miss Read/Dora Saint died in 2012.

The Christmas Mouse is a 172 page Christmas novelette set in the nearby village of Shepherd’s Cross. It is also available as one of three stories in the book, Christmas at Fairacre. The Miss Read stories and novels are a perfect fit for the Jan Karon fans, among I number myself and many of my friends, especially those who are also Anglophiles. Miss Read writes gentle tales of small town people going about their daily business with grace and dignity.

In this Christmas story, Mrs. Berry and her daughter Mary, both widowed, are preparing for Christmas with Mary’s two young daughters, Jane and Frances. There is a spiritual component to the story, as Mrs. Berry prays and hopes for Mary’s recovery from the tragic loss of her husband, Bertie, in an automobile accident. As the little family receives two unexpected “guests” on Christmas Eve, and an unexpected invitation, Mary begins to open her heart to wonder and even joy.

The theme of this story can be summed up in these words from Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

It’s a good truth to be reminded of at Christmas time.

Historical Fiction and Nonfiction: Seventeenth Century Europe

Last week I reviewed several books set during World War War II. This week my book travels have taken me to seventeenth century Europe. I haven’t read every single one of the following books, but I can generally recommend either the book or the author.

What have you read that is set in seventeenth century Europe, either England or the continent? About Puritans, Cavaliers, Cromwell, the two Charleses and two Jameses, Louis XIII and Louis XIV, the Sun King, metaphysical poets, English civil war, philosophy, pirates, astronomy, physics, fables(La Fontaine) and fairy tales(Perrault), slavery, and religious upheaval?

Children’s and Young Adult Fiction:
The Dark Frigate by Charles Boardman Hawes. c.1630. England. Newbery Award book.
I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino. Early 1600’s. Spain. Newbery Award book about the painter Diego Velasquez and his slave and friend, Juan de Pareja.
Down Ryton Water by E.R. Gaggin. 1620. Half in Europe, and half in the New World. The book gives a good picture of life for the Pilgrims in England and in Holland before their removal to the New World. Newbery Honor book.
The Walls of Cartagena by Julia Durango. 1639. Cartagena, Colombia. Reviewed at Book Nut.
Campion Towers by John and Patricia Beatty. 1640’s. England. A Puritan girl, Penitence, is transplanted from New England to the England of Cromwell and Charles II.
The Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat. 1647. England. The four Royalist Beverley children are orphaned during the English civil war, and they hide from the Roundheads in the New Forest where they learn to live off the land.
Lark by Sally Watson. 1651. England. Lark is a pert, lively, likable girl who, rather than marry her unpleasant Puritan cousin, runs away from home.
Cast Off by Eve Yohalem. 1663. Amsterdam to the East Indies.
The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands. 1665. London, England. Apothecaries being targeted in London.
A Parcel of Patterns by Jill Paton Walsh. 1665. Village of Eyam, Derbyshire, England. The plague quarantines an entire village.
Master Cornhill by Eloise Jarvis McGraw. 1665-1666. London, England. An orphan boy lives through the Great Fire of London.
Pirate Royal by John and Patricia Beatty. 167?. London, Bristol, Cuba, Jamaica, Venezuela. Young Anthony Grey is kidnapped from a Boston tavern and impressed into service with the notorious pirate Henry Morgan.
Huguenot Garden by Douglas M. Jones III. 1685. La Rochelle, France.

Adult Fiction:
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. 1625. Mostly France and sometimes England.
The Child from the Sea by Elizabeth Goudge. 16??. The love story of Lucy Walter and Charles II.
The King’s General by Daphne duMaurier. 1642-1656. Devon/Cornwall, England during the English Civil War.
The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliffe. 1642-1656. England during the English Civil War.
Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas. 1645-1650. France.
The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later by Alexandre Dumas. 1660-1667. France. (includes Louise de la Vallière, and The Man in the Iron Mask.)
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. 1665-1666. England.
Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne duMaurier. c.1670. Cornwall, England.
Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini. 1685-1688. England and Barbados.
The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. by William Makepeace Thackeray. 1691-1718. England.

Children’s and Young Adult Nonfiction:
Along Came Galileo by Jeanne Bendick. 1564-1642. Italy.
A Piece of the Mountain: The Story of Blaise Pascal by Joyce McPherson. 1623-1662. France.
The Flight and Adventures of Charles II by Charles Norman. 1642-1688. England.
The Ocean of Truth: The Story of Sir Isaac Newton by Joyce McPherson. 1643-1727. England.

Adult Nonfiction:
A Coffin for King Charles: The Trial and Execution of Charles I by C.V. Wedgwood. 1648-1649. England.
The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. 1691. Paris, France.
Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees by Peter Kreeft. Blaise Pascal, philosopher and mathematician, lived from 1623 to 1662.
The Compleat Angler by Izaak Walton.
Religio Medici by Thomas Browne. 1652.

Seventeenth Century Poets:
George Herbert
John Donne
Richard Lovelace
John Milton
Henry Vaughan
Isaac Watts
Jean de la Fontaine.