MISS BENSON’S BEETLE by Rachel Joyce: A Review

I have an admission to make. When I chose this book, all I remembered was I had read “something” by Rachel Joyce before and enjoyed it. Looking at the title, my thoughts went to a schoolteacher who owned a Volkswagen. When I discovered it was about an old-maid home economics teacher who had been an entomologist looking for an undiscovered golden beetle, I lost patience after the first twenty pages and put it down.

Fortunately for me, blogger Deb Nance of Readerbuzz read and mentioned it in a post; our tastes in reading are closely aligned, so since she liked it, I decided to give it a “go.” I’m so glad I did.

When I read the afterpages, I discovered I had read and truly delighted in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye, The Love Story of Miss Queenie Hennesy, and The Music Shop–all novels by this same author.

Miss Benson, fed-up with her uninteresting, mundane life, decided to do something about it–something that fueled her passion for beetles. She planned a scientific expedition to New Caledonia, the other side of the world from her home, where the rumored beetle was “likely” to be discovered, if anywhere. Hiring Enid Petty, a “floozy,” as my grandmother would describe her, as her assistant, Margery Benson soon was enmeshed in the adventure/misadventure of her lifetime. Joyce even throws in a madman of sorts, who after being turned down for the position of assistant, stalks the two women wherever they travel. One can expect humor and warmth from Joyce, and this book delivers them in spades.

Joyce explores the theme of women’s friendships, and the ending is quite extraordinary. In the back of the book the “Acknowledgments”and “Afterwards” only add dimension to the reading experience. There are insightful discussion questions in the “Reader’s Guide” and a charming “Interview”of the two main characters by the author–something I’ve never come across before. Like the author titles this section, “In Fiction Anything Is Possible.”

TUESDAY TEASER

Hosted originally by The Purple Booker, this little meme advises us to copy a sentence or two from our current read to see if we can “tease” others into wanting to read it too. Here’s where I left off in Pachinko:

A wonderful story, a wonderful novel

“Haruki Totoyama married Ayame, the foreman of his mother’s uniform shop, because his mother had wanted him to do so. It turned out to be a wise decision.”

Can’t you just hear with your “mind’s ear” the precision of the Japanese language and culture. This story of Koreans living in Japan, recipients of racial hatred and discrimination, is a fascinating story of refugees living in an alien country. It is already a “darned good read” a little over half-way through the book.

THE QUICKENING by Michelle Hoover: A Review

A former student sent me this book before Christmas, and it wasn’t until recently that I got to it. I finished it earlier this week and mailed it back because she confessed she hadn’t read it either. I think she will enjoy this debut novel as much as I did.

The word “quickening” means a coming to life, specifically the sensation a woman has when she holds life inside her womb, and it stirs. Two women, Enidina and Mary, neighbors on the prairies of the midwest during the summer of 1915-the winter of 1950, are the main characters. Their stories and their strange relationship unfold throughout the hardships of farm life during the droughts, dustbowl and Depression of the U.S. Frank and Jack , their husbands are as different from one another as are their wives. The story is “gripping at its very core,” and deals in spousal and child abuse, infidelity, repeated miscarriages, and dark secrets that accompany the characters hardscrabble lives. The characters are all complex and authentic, perhaps because Hoover is “the granddaughter of four longtime farming families.” She captures the women’s voices in their dialog and their sense of self-preservation in their thoughts. The novel is a page turner, written in “elegant prose.” I recommend it as a darned good read.

FIRST LINE FRIDAYS

Thanks to Hoarding Books for the use of their meme

Today’s Friday Firstliner comes from Tanya Maria Barrientos’ Frontera Street.

“DEE

There are fourteen verb tenses in Spanish, so much more than the past, present, and future. That’s what it said in the first sentence of the paperback I bought, thinking I just needed to brush up.”

I plan to start this one today.

RETURNED TO THE LIBRARY

This first new week of the New Year, I returned two books to my library:

This weird cover would attract anyone!

This debut novel by a well-known Irish musician has been described as “quietly brilliant,” and I would concur. It is about “two single, thirty-something men,” who are friends, and belong to the “uncelebrated [population] of this world.” In one word, they are nice.

Unlike so many thirty-somethings of today, they seem to understand the meaning of life.

Not much happens to either character, and not much happens in the book. “Hungry Paul sat slumped in the sitting room and stayed there for most of the evening, catatonic with failure and looking out the front window as car after car ran over a lost glove in the road.”

One big thing happens to Hungry Paul:

“President Mike (of the Chamber of Commerce) handed Paul a giant cheque for ten grand…[Paul] accepted the congratulations of his family, the Chamber of Commerce members, and other well-wishers.”

A big thing happens to Leonard as well. After losing his mother and continuing to live in the empty house he and she had lived in, Leonard meets Shelly, then loses Shelly. How this eventually plays out, you will have to read for yourself.

It is an engaging, fast read, bordering on the Minimalist style of writing. It is not an in-depth character, nor is there much action in the novel, but, overall, it’s a darned good read.

Another book in the Minimalist tradition

Perhaps because it is a translation from the original Japanese, this “fable-like tale” feels more like a connected collection of short stories than a novel. It deals with the unfolding of human relationships and missed opportunities. It has been described as both “mysterious” and “quirky”; I would have to agree.

Four customers at an back-alley cafe in Tokyo travel through time when they sit in that chair when the ghost-lady leaves it once a day to go to the restroom. Rules govern their trips: they must sit in that seat and not leave it or they will return abruptly to the present; they must visit someone who frequents the cafe; they can not change the outcome of the present; they must return before the coffee gets cold. Interestingly, only one customer travels to the future.

All in all, it is a “very charming read.”

FIRST LINE FRIDAYS

I first heard about this fun meme on this blog.

Today’s Friday Firstliner comes from Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Oshikazu Kawaguchi (Wait, let me check and see I put all the letters in!)

” ‘Oh gosh, is that the time? Sorry, I have to go.’ the man mumbled evasively, as he stood up and reached for his bag.”

Evidently this is the beginning of a lover’s quarrel. Hmmmm, looks like I’ll have to start this library book today to find out.

THE ART OF PURRING by David Michie: A Review

The second book in a series about the Dali Lama’s Cat

I read this book on my Kindle, and I found that I am enjoying reading electronically almost as much as handling a physical book. That’s progress for me! HCC, His Holiness’s Cat, aka Snow Lion contemplates the question, “What makes cats purr?” As a matter of fact, she meditates on purring, an act of joy, contentment and satisfaction through the whole book. Interestingly enough, there are many reasons cats purr, and HCC enlightens us with anecdotes for all the different ones. As she instructs us, we get to explore Buddhism’s views on happiness.

Told from the cat’s point of view, the story examines the deep-down happiness seen more in cats than in other animals. Michie, through his intriguing plot and developing characters warns us, the readers, about the “perils of self-obsession.” Besides the setting of the Dali Lama’s palace, the author creates The Himalaya Book Cafe, where HCC spends a great deal of her time when the Dali Lama is away and where she discovers a Karmic connection in this second book.

As one critic says, the book is filled with “wisdom, warmth, and a touch of mischief.”

ANXIOUS PEOPLE by Fredrick Backman: A Review

(publication date: 2019) I am definitely recommending this one to my book club.

By the author of A Man Called Ove

This novel is fun-ny! Opening with a scene that borders on the bizarre, one wonders how things could get any weirder. Just keep reading because they do! The interview transcripts taken by father and son cops, Jim and Jack, are masterpieces of deliberate miscommunication and humor. A conglomerate of people/individuals,”eight extremely anxious strangers,” are thrown together as we learn of their life-issues, problems, and reasons for anxiety. Their “hurts, secrets, and passions…are ready to boil over” as we read of a bank robbery that didn’t happen, a hostage situation, and a man in a rabbit suit.

Backman’s story is simultaneously “humorous, compassionate, and wise.” It is an exploration of the things in human nature that “save us in the most anxious of times.” The ending is extremely satisfying, and the interconnectedness Backman brings out of the chaos at the beginning warms our hearts better than a crackling, fireplace on a cold morning.

SATURDAY MORNING (BUT NOT) FOR KIDS

Funny thing, this week I didn’t read a single kid’s book, so instead, I will recommend and review a book about people who work with (and live for) kids: teachers, librarians, and principals. I listened to this one as an audiobook and had the best experience with an audiobook to date. Now I know why so many of my blogging friends like and read audiobooks.

I definitely will look for more books by this author.

This 2020 publication was made for me–the protagonist was a librarian in a private school located in, Galveston, Texas, thirty miles south of where I live. It was both “timely” and “uplifting,” two of the words critics and reviewers used to describe this novel. The “author’s essay at the end, “Read for Joy,” is one I intend to use in my writing class next semester as a model to emulate.

There is tragedy in this book, both in the past and the present, but that is also the “message” the author is successfully preaching–One “should choose joy even [and especially] in difficult times.”and in the midst of tragedy.

The quirky school librarian,Samantha, who is dealing with trauma and tragedy, both physical and emotional, is a character you will love and root for. Duncan Carpenter, the stoic, cold new principal, who was once a presence in Samantha’s life, is the love interest you’ll love to hate. The twists and turns will keep you engaged in this “novel full of hope and love” right down to the satisfactory “comforting warmth” you will experience at the end.

This was one of my favorite “reads” so far this year.

FRIDAY FIRSTLINERS

I found this fun meme at Hoarding Books. What one is asked to do is grab a book at random and copy the first line, so here’s mine for Friday, September 18, 2020:

” February 3 was a dark and dank day altogether; cold spitting rain in the morning and a low, steel-grey sky the rest of the afternoon.”

The above is from The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, my choice for the white book of my “Celebration of Color” Challenge.

Grab your current read, and join in.