Downton Abbey fans, now that season 3 has come to a close for us American viewers, are you looking for a Downton Abbey-ish read to fill the gap until season 4? You might find it in Fay Weldon’s Habits of the House. Habits is the first book in Weldon’s new trilogy, and it is light but entertaining fare. The more you read, the better it gets.
The House is the House of Dilberne, 1899. The Earl has lost his fortune and decides the answer to his financial problems is for his son Arthur to marry the daughter of a successful American business man. The daughter has her own reasons for looking for a prince in Europe, and without today’s social media, she just might get away with it. Imagine the fabulous costumes, the scenic vistas, the actors, and enjoy a purely entertaining read.
I love a good memoir, and at this time of year, I thought Jana Reiss’s Flunking Sainthood would be an appropriate choice. Jana Reiss decides she needs to jump-start her relationship with God. While she is not a holy roller, she is determined and perhaps worthy of more credit than she gives herself. How does a person like this aim for sainthood? With a book deal: research twelve different spiritual practices (one per month) over the course of the year. As she prepares to explore these different practices, Reiss decides that just reading about each practice isn’t enough; she needs to try them. What follows is a cleverly told account of fasting, fixed hour prayer, gratitude…a year’s worth of practices from a variety of faiths. Interwoven throughout the memoir are brief snippets from Reiss’s life, and small windows into her relationships with family and friends. Though Reiss doesn’t think she succeeds at any of the practices, she does incorporate versions of a few into her life. Maybe a month is not enough time for mastery and maybe the fact that some of these practices come from faiths not her own adds to her frustration and sense of failure. As I neared the end, I thought, good read, maybe four out of five stars. Then…the end. I won’t spoil it so you can fully experience the real purpose for Reiss’s exercise, but let me say that the cumulative effect of these failed spiritual practices equalled enough successes to give Reiss strength when she needed it most. A beautiful ending!
Summer, 1918. As the first World War comes to an end, Leon and Louise’s life long love affair begins. Both are living in a small French village, helping with the war effort: Leon takes a job deciphering Morse Code messages, and Louise informs families when their soldier has died. Both are injured by German artillery fire and think the other dead. Though devastated, both move on with their lives, and when they meet again, years later, Leon is married with a family and a good job. He never stopped loving Louise, but he does love his family, and has to figure out how to live with his heart torn. Capus explores love during wartime, and the dilemma Leon, Louise and Leon’s wife each face.
Leon and Louise is a quirky wartime love story, perfect for a weekend read. It is the story of the author’s grandfather, which makes it that much more appealing.
The Secrets of Mary Bowser is the story of Mary Bowser, a freed slave who returns to Richmond, Virginia to spy for the Union. Mary and her mother are slaves for the prominent and wealthy Van Lew family. When Mary is 12, Bree Van Lew decides to free Mary and her mother, and to pay for Mary’s education in Philadelphia. At school, Mary befriends Hattie, whose father is an undertaker and helps slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Mary gets involved and is soon helping slaves journey north. When the Civil War starts, members of the abolitionist movement convince Mary to return to Richmond and go “under cover” as a slave in Jefferson Davis’ house. There she overhears top-secret conversations with other Confederates, and reads documents detailing Confederate strategy. Mary conveys her intel to the abolitionists. Really, if this wasn’t based on a true story, I wouldn’t believe it. It was a good read, and a great opportunity to be inspired by the courage of a young woman willing to sacrifice everything for the freedom of others. Her compassion is remarkable, especially in the face of the difficult decisions she must make and the risks she chooses to take. I am intrigued by the parallels between Mary and some of today’s refugees. The challenges and choices are not so different.
A great first novel-worth reading and discussing!