Monday, July 26, 2021

Book Review: The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

The Cloister WalkThe Cloister Walk. Kathleen Norris. Riverhead Books (1997). 385 pages. Genre:  Non-fiction, Memoir.

First Lines of Preface:  "Ten years ago, when I became a Benedictine oblate, I knew two things: I didn't feel ready to do it, but I had to act, to take the plunge.  I also had no idea where it would lead."

Summary:  Kathleen Norris, a poet by trade, took steps to become a Benedictine oblate.  This book relates some of her experiences while on that journey along with her reflections on life inside the monastery, the liturgical world of the church, life outside the monastery, what it means to be a writer and all the things that went on in her life during this time period.  It is a memoir, but it is not told in a linear fashion.  Rather, it follows the liturgical year of the church. 

My thoughts:  If the number of quotes copied into my commonplace book is any indication of how much I enjoyed a book, this one would be near the top of the list. And I did enjoy this one.  However, I was a little disappointed that it wasn't a more linear story of her experience.  I found myself with lots of questions I wanted answered.  When I was able to just get over that, I enjoyed the journey.

I have always been fascinated with stories of people who choose to live differently than the majority of those around them.  Kathleen Norris applied to become an oblate after an encounter with Benedictines at a conference.  The St. John's Abbey website explains an oblate like this:

Saint Benedict founded his first monastery about 1,500 years ago. Over time, men and women, friends and neighbors outside the monasteries wanted to be affiliated with the work and prayer of the monks. These individuals were often married, had family obligations, and employment. They lived outside of the monastery but offered themselves to God, dedicating their lives to the guidance of the Rule of Saint Benedict as oblates. The word “oblate" comes from the Latin oblatus, which means someone who is offered up or dedicated to something.

Norris is married and has an outside job. However, she chose to become an oblate and spent two nine-month terms at St. John's Abbey. The framework for her story is the church's liturgical year. Immersing herself in this by living at the Abbey had a deep affect on her. As she tells her story, she also reflects on the liturgy and rituals of the church and Benedictine life. We are introduced to monks and nuns that she associates with as well as those from the past along with lives of the saints. Interwoven into this is the reality of her life with her husband and the difficulty of being apart for many months. We also learn something about her past, the family she grew up in, and the decision she and her husband made to move to her ancestral home in South Dakota.

Something else that made this especially interesting to me is that all of my life I have driven by the location of St. John's Abbey. St. John's Abbey is on the campus of St. John's University near St. Joseph, MN, located just off of busy Interstate 94. My family would pass it on the way to my grandparent's home. Later, my parents lived just north of St. Joseph, MN. The sister school of St. John's is St. Benedict's University. The campuses are separated by the Interstate. As a young person I attended danceline camp at St. Benedict's. Both St. John's and St. Benedict's are used for camps and retreats during the summer. However, I have never been to the Abbey!

This book was beautifully written and fascinating. Something that struck me was that those living the cloistered life as monks and nuns deal with the same struggles, temptations and difficulties that the rest of us do. Somehow I have always thought that removing yourself from "normal" life would also remove some of the difficulties. The difference is that monastics are living among people who have the same beliefs and are trying to life their lives in the same way. I guess in some ways that would make dealing with struggles a bit easier. If you enjoy memoirs or are interested in Benedictine life, you might enjoy this book.

Quotes:

"To eat in a monastery refectory is an exercise in humility; daily, one is reminded to put communal necessity before individual preference. While consumer culture speaks only to preferences, treating even whims as needs to be granted (and the sooner the better), monastics sense that this pandering to delusions of self-importance weakens the true self, and diminishes our ability to distinguish desires from needs. It's a price they're not willing to pay."

"One year at the American Benedictine Academy convention, an abbot, speaking on the subject of 'The Monastic Archetype,' suddenly dropped all pretense to objectivity and said he was troubled by the growing number of cereals made available for breakfast in his community. 'How many kinds of cereals do we need,' he asked, 'in order to meet genuine health needs without falling into thoughtless consumerism?'"

"I find it a blessing that monks still respect the slow way that words work on the human psyche."

"Moments like this are when the congregation is reminded of something that all pastors know; that listening is often the major part of ministry, that people in crisis need to tell their story, from beginning to end, and the best thing - often the only thing - that you can do is to sit there and take it."

"Metaphor is valuable to us precisely because it is not vapid, not a blank word such as 'reality' that has no grounding in the five senses. Metaphor draws on images from the natural world, from our senses, and from the world of human social structures, and yokes them to psychological and spiritual realities in such a way that we are often left gasping: we have no way to fully explain a metaphor's power, it simply is."

"The fact that the translators imagine 'night' to be an adequate substitute for 'darkness' only proves that they have a seriously impoverished understanding of metaphor and the nature of language."

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Book Review: The Invisible Husband of Frick Island by Colleen Oakley

The Invisible Husband of Frick IslandThe Invisible Husband of Frick Island. Colleen Oakley. Berkley (2021). 368 pages. Genre:  Fiction, Contemporary.

First Line: "At first when Piper scanned the docks and didn't see the familiar rickety white-pine-and-fir fisherman's trawler, she thought nothing of it."

Summary:  Piper Parrish has a near perfect life.  She is married to her best friend, lives on a small island in Chesapeake Bay and is surrounded by people who love her.  When her husband's boat is found after a storm with no trace of him, she is devastated.  She knows that Tom would never leave her, so she copes the only way she knows how.  She imagines that he is with her and goes about her daily life as it was before Tom disappeared.  The townspeople love her so much, and realize that everyone grieves differently, so they go along with the charade.  One day, reporter Anders Caldwell, is sent to the island to cover their annual cake-walk.  While there he befriends Piper and becomes fascinated with the island.  He returns to the island under the cover of doing research for a podcast, and soon befriends many of the residents.  However, Anders is hiding something and when the people of Frick Island discover his secret, they have a hard time forgiving him.

My thoughts:  When I heard about this book some of the things that caught my attention were: quirky characters, an island in Chesapeake Bay, the fascinating premise and several reviewers who said they loved it. I have to admit, I really enjoyed this one. 

While the story does include some difficult topics - death, grief, mental illness, inclusion - it never gets heavy. Along with those difficult topics were themes of friendship, found family, love, kindness, and patience with others.  I loved the hopeful thread that wound its way through the entire story.  And the island itself captured my imagination.  Once I started reading the book I found it hard to put down.  I just had to know what happened.  Why did the townspeople go along with Piper's charade?  What was going to happen when they found out about Ander's secret?

While this is not a mystery, it does contain several mystery elements.  Some reviewers have called this a romance.  There is some romance in the story, but it is just a part of the full story.  It is a well-written novel with interesting characters that will steal your heart.  I don't want to give too much away.  The less you know going in the better, I think.

Don't miss the author's note at the end of the book talking about her inspiration for the island.

If you are in the mood for a light-hearted, captivating read, I highly recommend The Invisible Husband of Frick Island.



Monday, July 19, 2021

Book Review: Death in Bloom by Jess Dylan

Death in Bloom (A Flower House Mystery #1)Death in Bloom (Flower House Mystery #1). Jess Dylan. St. Martin's Press (2021). 320 pages. Genre: Cozy Mystery.

First Lines: "I'm in the best shape of my life. I'm a Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter, blissfully married to me true love, an Italian model..."

Summary:  Sierra Ravenswood has returned to her hometown of Aerieville, Tennessee.  She has been working at the Flower House, the local flower shop, where she is definitely still learning the art of flower arranging.  So, when her boss puts her in charge of the next bouquet-arranging workshop, she is a bit intimidated.  However, she has no choice but to proceed as her boss leaves town.  Several people show up for the class and all is going well until an argument breaks out near the snack table.  As Sierra approaches the snack table one of the men involved in the argument collapses.  Before the paramedics arrive, he has expired.  It is soon discovered that the man was poisoned.  If that isn't bad enough, Sierra's boss left town suddenly and no one seems to know where he is.

My thoughts:  It was pretty hard to resist that gorgeous cover!  Fortunately, the book proved to be equally well done.  

I liked Sierra right away.  She is trying to start over after struggling to make her dream of becoming a singer a reality.  She is a big believer in positive affirmation and tries to practice it daily.  Her boss, Felix, the owner of The Flower House, has more confidence in her than she has in herself.  He leaves town and trusts her to do what she thinks is best for the shop.  Sierra's family lives in town as well and brought an interesting dynamic to the story.  The family consists of her mom, dad and brother.  Her parents own an athletic club, which Sierra has never been interested in.  I enjoyed the closeness that she shared with her family and the concern they all showed for her.  Some of my favorite scenes were when they all had dinner together. 

The supporting characters were strong as well.  Deena is a friend from high school that is back in town temporarily.  She and Sierra rekindle their friendship.  Deena becomes Sierra's partner in trying to solve the mystery.  Calvin is someone who shows up unexpectedly stating that Felix had agreed to rent the apartment above the shop to him.  We are not quite sure what to think of him through most of the story.

The killer has to be someone who was at the workshop.  At first Sierra can't believe that any of them could be capable of killing someone.  But, as the story progresses, she begins to have her doubts and soon finds herself suspecting everyone.  The sheriff has plenty to investigate as threats and break-ins continue to happen and seem to be connected to the murder.  The story was well-paced and kept me turning the pages.  The secondary mystery, of where Felix has gone, is not solved in this book.  Hopefully we will learn more in the next installment.

I enjoyed the flower shop setting.  It was unique and I actually learned a little about flower arranging and what flowers go well together.  

The author found the right balance of mystery and small town life.  I enjoyed it all and am looking forward to catching up with these characters in the next book.


Sunday, July 18, 2021

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Thursday, July 15, 2021

Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineEleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Gail Honeyman. Viking (2017). 336 pages. Genre:  Contemporary Fiction.

First Lines:  "When people ask me what I do - taxi drivers, dental hygienists - I tell them I work in an office.  In almost nine years, no one's ever asked what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there."

Summary:  Eleanor Oliphant is a woman who prefers things to stay the same.  Every day she eats the same breakfast, takes the same route to work, does the same work, eats the same lunch, goes home to the same flat and eats the same dinner.  Every Wednesday she has a phone call with Mummy.  She is completely fine.  She doesn't need anything else.  One day when Raymond, a  man who works in IT, strikes up a conversation with her, a real conversation, she finds herself enjoying it.  She doesn't remember the last time she had a real conversation with anyone.  When she and Raymond find themselves in a situation where they must save a man's life, she finds her heart softening even more.  Ultimately, it is these friendships that will save her life.

My thoughts:  I like quirky characters.  Eleanor is definitely a quirky character.  However, it took me many pages to warm up to her.  At first, she was just really odd.  But as the story moves along, we finally get a glimpse of some tenderness in her.  She becomes likeable.  I'm glad I didn't give up on her.  

Eleanor's life is void of human contact, she is lonely.  But, she doesn't think she is lonely.  Sometimes she will admit that it would be nice to have a friend.  Mostly she avoids relationships because they cause pain.  She has gone through a lot of difficulty in her life and survived.  However, in order to get through the loneliness of the weekend, she often relies on vodka.  There is some heavy subject matter is this book, but the book never feels heavy.  Eleanor is funny and very relatable.  We have all found ourselves in situations like she has.  

I really liked Raymond.  He is just an ordinary guy, well an ordinary IT guy.  But he is kind and gentle and a true friend.  He is patient with Eleanor even when she is being very difficult. 

This story shows the power of friendship, kindness and unconditional love in a person's life.  It was these glimpses that I loved most in the story.

"She was, quite simply, a nice lady who'd raised a family and now lived quietly with her cats and grew vegetables.  This was both nothing and everything."

"There was birdsong, a descant over the sounds of a television drifting through an open window. Everything felt safe, everything felt normal.  How different Raymond's life had been from mine - a proper family, a mother and a father and a sister, nestled among other proper families."

"I realized that such small gestures - the way his mother had made me a cup of tea after our meal without asking, remembering that I didn't take sugar, the way Laura had placed two little biscuits on the saucer when she brought me coffee in the salon - such things could mean so much."

If you like quirky characters or stories of friendship and hope, give Eleanor Oliphant a try.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Book Review: Night Fall by Nancy Mehl

Night FallNight Fall (Quantico Files #1). Nancy Mehl. Bethany House (2021). 336 pages. Genre: Suspense.

First Lines of Prologue: "His mother sat in the chair next to his bed, reading from The Book. He was almost twelve now, and she'd been reading it to him ever since  he was a little kid.  Adam hated it.  It scared him."

Summary:  FBI Behavioral Analysts, Alex Donovan and Logan Hart are called in to work a case in Kansas City.  There is a serial killer on the loose, who is leaving his victims in train cars along with what appears to be quotes from a book with a chapter and verse.  As soon as Agent Donovan sees the quotes, she recognizes them.  She lived with an aunt for several years who believed in The Book.  Her aunt constantly quoted The Book to her.  Alex left her aunt's house planning never to return there or think about The Book again.  But now, the FBI needs her expertise to help them catch this serial killer before he carries out a plan outlined in the book to eliminate one third of the population.

My thoughts:  Nancy Mehl does suspense well.  I have read several books she has written.  However, this one was a bit out of my comfort zone.  In fact, I probably would not have finished it if I was not familiar with the author.  This one was very creepy dealing with a dark and very evil serial killer. 

The author does a great job of building suspense and creating characters that are interesting and full of depth.  Agent Alex Donovan had a very difficult upbringing and the reader is made aware of this bit by bit.  She has overcome her share of difficulties and has made it to the position of Supervisory Special Agent in the FBI.  She works as a Behavioral Analyst.  Her difficult upbringing has given her the ability to see things that other agents don't.  

Logan Hart has heard about Agent Donovan's abilities and is looking forward to working with her. His character was a bit more shallow.   We know that he is well-liked and is often called "The Preacher" because of his spiritual beliefs. 

The followers of The Book were a fairly small group so I found it a bit unlikely that of all the people assigned to this case, Alex would have been raised by someone who was a part of that group.  Once I put that aside, it did make for a good story.  It was a race against time as the agents tried to solve the killer's puzzle and stop him before he carried out his plan.  

Nancy Mehl's books are sometimes considered "romantic suspense", but what I appreciate about her books is that the romance is way in the back seat.  In fact, in this story, it doesn't move beyond the "I think I might like to spend more time with this person" stage.  The focus is definitely on the mystery.

Something else I appreciated was the author's honest portrayal of mental illness.  Alex endured some very difficult things while she was growing up and these caused PTSD.  As she has to revisit things from that difficult time in order to solve this case, she has a hard time keeping her anxiety in check.  Also, instead of just referring to her aunt as crazy or weird, the author points out that she was mentally ill and had deep pain in her life.  

This is the first book in a new series and while it was a bit creepy for my taste, the author didn't dive deep into that evil or stay stuck there.  I will most likely give the second book in the series a try when it comes out. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Book Review: Murder on Gramercy Park by Victoria Thompson

Murder on Gramercy Park (Gaslight Mystery, #3)Murder on Gramercy Park (Gaslight Mystery #3). Victoria Thompson. Berkley Prime Crime (2001). 329 pages. Genre:  Mystery.

First Line of Prologue: "She thought of the pain as a monster that dwelled inside of her."

Summary:  Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy is called to a residence on Gramercy Park to deal with an apparent suicide.  Upon arrival Frank is met with a hysterical woman who is very pregnant.  The woman is the wife of the deceased.  Frank sends for midwife Sarah Brandt to attend to the grieving widow.  

As Frank begins examining the scene, he quickly realizes this is not a suicide, but rather a murder made to look like a suicide.  Even though everyone claims that the deceased was well liked, Frank discovers this man had plenty to hide.  As Frank and Sarah try to put the clues together, the killer seems to be one step ahead. 

My thoughts:  This series contains several things I enjoy in a book: strong leading characters who continue to develop, a strong sense of place along with historical tidbits, the inclusion of a midwife and a great mystery.  Needless to say, this was a great read!

Frank Malloy is a detective with strong morals.  While many of the other detectives on the force would take bribes, Frank is adamant about following the clues and solving the mystery rather than lining his own pockets.  In each story we learn a little more about his life outside of the police force.  He has a young son who is handicapped.  His wife died in childbirth, so most days his mother cares for the boy.  This part of the story shows that under Frank's tough demeanor there is a tender heart.  

Sarah Brandt is always helping someone.  Whether she is delivering a baby, or fixing a meal or saying hello to her lonely neighbor, she spends her days working hard.  She was raised in an upper-class family, but after her husband died, she chose to support herself rather than return to her parents' home.  Both Sarah and Frank continued to develop in this story and so did their relationship.  And they do have a relationship, but at this point it is mostly a working one.  However, they are both beginning to realize they like spending time with the other.  

The mystery was complicated.  More than once I was sure I knew who the killer was, but it turned out I was wrong every time.  There were a lot of things to uncover along with a big twist before the murder was solved.  It was hard to put this one down!

One of the themes included drug use and addiction.  It was interesting to learn about this from a historical perspective.  As the author says in the note at the end, "[people] are still seeking to escape  the problems of this world through the use of narcotic drugs".  Another theme that was interesting from a historical perspective was advances in the medical field and alternatives to traditional medicine.  The character of Sarah Brandt always brings something medical to the story.  I enjoy this. 

Here's an interesting historical bit I learned: 

"The secrets of preventing pregnancy were passed around in guilty whispers, but anyone who tried to teach modern methods was subject to fines and even arrest."

This is a great series and fortunately for me, there are several more books to keep me busy!