Thursday 15 February 2018

Quick Lit February 2018

Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy for short reviews of the past month's reading.

I'm a looong way from bookstagram, but I'm trying!

Laura Vanderkam - 168 Hours: You have more time than you think
I didn't pick this book up for the obvious reasons - overhauling my life - but because we're moving and I can't fathom how we'll have enough hours in the day to get and keep the house ready for selling. The book is well-written, and once you fight down the temptation to keep arguing back about why this wouldn't work for you (Vanderkam's life is scarily focused), there's a lot of useful ideas. I don't know if it will help me stage the house, but it's given me inspiration for balancing my new job and family life when we make the move.

James Boswell - The Life of Samuel Johnson
Trying to convey everything I feel about this book in a few lines is impossible (so I wrote a full review too). It's a giant of eighteenth century biography - about an man who is a giant in his own right. Boswell, Johnson's close friend, follows his mentor's advice to tell all: the serious, the trivial, the flattering, the negative, the beneficent, the petty. I can only sum up with a quote from the end of the book: "The character of Samuel Johnson has, I trust, been so developed in the course of this work, that they who have honoured it with a perusal may be considered as well acquainted with him." Tears in my eyes, I had to say, "yes".

Elaine N. Aron - The Highly Sensitive Person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you
I felt a strange disconnect while reading this book: according to all the quizzes and criteria, I'm way over the threshold for an HSP, but I don't feel that way any more. I think that now, in mid-life, I've learned to live in a way that harmonizes with my personality. I also have to confess that the author's style did not appeal to me, but I kept reading, as I also have children with HSP traits and I didn't want to miss any insights. I'm certain this book will be incredibly useful for HSPs and those who know them, but unfortunately it didn't click with me.

Maggi Andersen - Hostage to Love
My online critique group are graciously letting me hang around virtually while I'm 'on leave' from writing fiction, so I'm trying to repay them by keeping up with their new publications. I'm not a romance reader in general, but Maggi's stories are always a treat, and definitely worth more than the Kindle price: heroines you immediately like, strong and feminine, and plots that are usually enlivened with a mystery or suspense element. This takes place in London and France during the French revolution. Actress Verity Garnier is sent to England to seduce widowed Viscount Anthony Beaumont and entice him to France and the clutches of the revolution in return for the safety of her imprisoned father. But Verity falls in love with Anthony, and when he unexpectedly leaves for France of his own accord, to rescue his brother-in-law, Verity and his daughter Henrietta follow in a bid to save him. Put your feet up and indulge yourself - and if you want a quick(ish) romance binge I recommend her novella collection, The Baxendale Sisters Series. See her website for details.

A Tale of Two Bibles
I believe that well-rounded people in the West should know the basic religious and mythological stories of our culture regardless of their beliefs/non-beliefs, and to that end, child-oriented Bible story books (and Greek mythology books) are a staple of our household. I needed a new toddler Bible and did a little research. The Paraclete Bible for Toddlers (Paraclete Press) was recommended on several sites, including Catholic ones, so I thought I was safe to order it, but I (actually, every family member who read to my toddler) were disappointed. The illustrations are cute and colourful, but the text is full of death and judgement. This may be my wishy-washy ingrained Anglicanism, but I think children should start off with the fun stories and the idea that God is love.

I tucked it in a cupboard to sell in the move, and went shopping in person to my local bookstore, which I should have done in the first place. The bookseller recommended The Beginner's Bible from Zondervan. The illustrations and text are aimed at a wider age-range (toddlers and young children), and the view point is what I expect from a children's Bible. We're happily reading this one instead.

I hope you are still cosying up with some good books, and wish a holy Lent to those of you who observe the season.

Sunday 11 February 2018

Book Review: The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell

This is a standard book for those of us with English literature degrees, so I can't believe - or even remember - why I avoided it for so long. Maybe it began as a slight aversion to the eighteenth century, which was never my favourite period of history or English literature. That's certainly changed over the years as I've come to have a deeper appreciation of how innovative - and modern-sounding - many of the prose writers are.

One maxim Dr. Johnson pronounced concerning the writing of lives was to tell all, and his devoted younger friend, James Boswell, (almost) dutifully complies in this monumental biography: the serious, the trivial, the flattering, the negative, the beneficent, the petty - all is here in a just-about-chronological miscellany of history, exposition, letters, quotations, and analysis that reads like a Who's Who of eighteenth Century England.

It's tempting to call Boswell the first fan boy, but his love and admiration for Johnson, though blinkered, isn't entirely blind. Johnson protests continually against seeing men as cardboard cutouts of saints or sinners, and the man that bursts from these pages is fully three-dimensional. We see the Johnson who rails against granting any sort of liberties for American colonists but who (to Boswell's rare disapprobation) supports the complete abolition of slavery; the Johnson who will capriciously argue with his literary club on whichever side he thinks will be most contentious, but who gives an honest answer to a little girl who dares to ask about his famous tics; the Johnson who will insult the rich and famous merely to be witty but who buys his own cat food lest his servant feel demeaned by the task.

Dr. Johnson and Hodge, "A very fine cat indeed."

The edition I got from my local library - the 1946 "Collector's Library" edition from Doubleday - turned out to be abridged. At 631 pages! I felt a little like I was cheating, but I have to say that the professed reason for the abridgment, to include numerous pen and ink sketches and portraits by Gordon Ross, made the read more pleasurable. I'd consider the Life accessible to any serious reader. The shortish chapters, divided by chunks of letters and exposition, make the biography easy to digest in smaller portions. I started slowly, but I was engrossed by the end, and had tears in my eyes at Johnson's death. (The only other biographer who has managed to do that to me was Peter Ackroyd in his life of Sir Thomas More.)

And the little pleasures and surprises were innumerable. I smiled almost every time I read of Johnson repairing to his friends' country villa in Streatham (anyone who knows the modern town will understand). And, though I'd get skinned if I gave exact details, I have to confess I was blown away with just how much a physical and mental colossus of the eighteenth century could resemble - and offer insights on - a twenty-first century teenage girl. I'd finish by saying don't wait thirty years to read it, like I did, but I've a feeling that three decades more of experiencing life's vicissitudes enhanced the pleasure. So, read it now, but be sure to read it again later in life. I intend to.