Genre: Literary

Bookish Illumination: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (2015) by Rachel Joyce

Bookish Illumination: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (2015) by Rachel JoyceThe Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy on March 3rd 2015
Pages: 384
Goodreads
four-half-stars

From the bestselling author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry comes an exquisite love story about Queenie Hennessy, the remarkable friend who inspired Harold's cross-country journey. A runaway international bestseller, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry followed its unassuming hero on an incredible journey as he traveled the length of England on foot--a journey spurred by a simple letter from his old friend Queenie Hennessy, writing from a hospice to say goodbye. Harold believed that as long as he kept walking, Queenie would live. What he didn't know was that his decision to walk had caused her both alarm and fear. How could she wait? What would she say? Forced to confront the past, Queenie realizes she must write again.   In this poignant parallel story to Harold's saga, acclaimed author Rachel Joyce brings Queenie Hennessy's voice into sharp focus. Setting pen to paper, Queenie makes a journey of her own, a journey that is even bigger than Harold's; one word after another, she promises to confess long-buried truths--about her modest childhood, her studies at Oxford, the heartbreak that brought her to Kingsbridge and to loving Harold, her friendship with his son, the solace she has found in a garden by the sea. And, finally, the devastating secret she has kept from Harold for all these years.   A wise, tender, layered novel that gathers tremendous emotional force, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy underscores the resilience of the human spirit, beautifully illuminating the small yet pivotal moments that can change a person's life.

Illuminations of Spirituality:

Was I ever delighted to discover that Rachel Joyce was writing a companion novel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye! If you read my review of that one, you know that I read this book last fall for the first time. I picked up a copy in London and fell in love with the story and with its characters. A man who decides to walk the length of England to visit a dying friend? At first it may not sound all that exciting, but it was such a beautiful and moving story, filled with ordinary encounters hiding the extraordinary.

Knowing I would be able to return to a world with Harold Frye and Queenie Hennessy, but this time with more of Queenie’s story made my world get just a little brighter! The story takes place at the SAME TIME as the other book. It just focuses on Queenie’s perspective instead of Harold’s.

I am starting again, I thought. Because that is what you do when you reach the last stop. You make a new beginning.

Like Harold Frye, this novel really highlights the importance of looking beyond appearances and recognizing that people are complex individuals who deserve respect and connection. We are all striving to connect with each other, and I think that both of Joyce’s books effectively depict characters who need that kind of connection. These characters become willing to reach out so these connections form with others.

Long ago Harold said to me:

“There are so many things we don’t see.”

What do you mean? I asked. My heart gave a flip.

“Things that are right in front of us,” you said.

There’s no sugar coating how difficult life can be in this story. Queenie is a flawed and broken woman, but she’s honest about that, and through flashbacks, the story illuminates different points in her life that give insight into the woman she has become.

The place was a part of me in the same way that the past was a part of me and you were a part of me and so were my bones.

Not only does the book illuminate matters of the heart in a way that speaks to me of the book’s spirituality, the story also highlights an appreciation for the beauty of the natural world. This is revealed through Queenie’s sea garden, and her memories of the garden represent a significant part of the book, for it gives further insight into who Queenie is. She’s experienced Beauty, but beauty can reach us in different ways.

Every once in awhile you have to stop in your tracks and admire the view, a small cloud and a tree outside your window. You have to see what you did not see before. And then you have to sleep.

The last thing I wanted to mention about this book’s spiritual aspects is the notion of forgiving yourself. Queenie has to come to terms with some events in her life, and one key question for her is whether she can forgive herself for something from her past. It is with the help of others and through her own writing that Queenie begins this journey towards forgiveness. In case you haven’t read the book, I won’t say anything more.

Who Should Read This Book:

If you enjoyed Harold Frye, you will appreciate this story. But, even if you didn’t read Joyce’s other book, I would still recommend this one to you if you’re in the mood for a moving and beautiful story about broken individuals striving for connection and love in the world.

I can honestly say that this book brought tears (like Harold Frye) but it was a good kind of tears. You will know this if you read Harold Frye, but Queenie does have cancer and is living with other people with terminal illnesses in the book. But it’s definitely not a depressing story–Trust me!

The Final Illumination:

I approached this book with some particular ideas about what Queenie would be revealing and who she had been in love with. I actually was quite surprised by what I discovered, and I appreciated that element of surprise. I may have even enjoyed this companion novel to Harold Frye even more, because we don’t get much of Queenie’s perspective in the other book. And that’s ok, because it is Harold’s book and his pilgrimage. This is another fabulous book club book, like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye.

“People think you have to walk to go on a journey. But you don’t, you see. You can lie in bed and make a journey too…”

I wish I had someone else to chat with about this book, so if you read it (or are reading it) do comment below or tweet me your thoughts!

I received an e-ARC from the publisher via Netgalley and this in no way affected my review.

four-half-stars
What Katie Read

Middle Grade Bookish Illumination: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Middle Grade Bookish Illumination: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Published by Penguin on August 28th 2014
Genres: Autobiography, Literary, Middle Grade, Prejudice & Racism, Social Issues, Women
Pages: 336
Goodreads
five-stars

National Book Award Winner Jacqueline Woodson, one of today's finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.  Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become. Praise for Jacqueline Woodson: Ms. Woodson writes with a sure understanding of the thoughts of young people, offering a poetic, eloquent narrative that is not simply a story . . . but a mature exploration of grown-up issues and self-discovery.” —The New York Times Book Review

Illuminations of Spirituality in Brown Girl Dreaming

Not only does this autobiography in verse deal with issues of family relationships, dreams, and social justice, the story also highlights the topic of religion. For example, whenever Jacqueline stays with her grandparents in South Carolina, she is taught the ways of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and she takes classes, attend church, and goes door to door. In this way, the author’s childhood religious formation figures in as an important dimension of the story.

What I really appreciated was the way the author came to some resolution about this faith through the closing “chapters.” You definitely finish the book knowing more about how Woodson came to terms with her childhood faith. I think the closing “poems” of the book are some of its strongest—I was truly impressed with the way she wrapped everything up. I was sad to see the book end and sad to say goodbye to the characters.

I believe that honoring our heritage and appreciating the sacrifices our family members have made for us can be a spiritual practice, in a way. Brown Girl Dreaming definitely reflects this aspect, and I found myself returning to the family tree at the beginning of the book again and again. I wanted to look up particular family members and trace the year they were born, and the year they died (if they weren’t still living). In this way, I felt a closeness to the story—the family tree invited me into the living room of Woodson’s life, and gave me a chair to sit in.

I felt like I knew Woodson’s grandfather and grandmother in South Carolina. I could hear the squeak swing from the backyard and smell her grandmother’s cornbread baking in the oven. This story was filled with sensory detail that put me right in the middle of the action.

To sum up: Brown Girl Dreaming reflects some aspects of spirituality in a sensitive and moving way. Woodson highlights one particular faith in her own life, but not at the expense of shutting out every other kind of faith.

Who Should Read This Book:

This is a Newbery Honor book for 2014—the ALA awards were announced just last month, and the Newbery is an award to take note of. I honestly thought this had a chance at the Newbery and I was right—for it received an honor. That being said, I think any and all readers should sit down with this beautiful novel in verse. It won’t take you as long to read a middle grade novel in verse as it would one in narrative form, but you may find yourself stopping to soak in the beautiful imagery and rhythm of these poems. You may find yourself reading certain pages aloud—and that’s a good thing.

If you’ve ever had a dream that seemed impossible, read this book. It’s a lovely testament to how someone who struggled with reading became a beautiful and world-changing writer.

The Final Illumination:

I LOVE novels in verse! When I taught Middle School English, my 7th graders read Crossing Stones by Helen Frost, and did we ever have fun with that book in the classroom! Poetry is also one of my favorite genres to read and write—so Middle Grade novels in verse (which are becoming more and more prevalent) are a group of texts I genuinely enjoy reading (if the story is something I’m interested in). In this case, I thought Woodson’s text was inspiring, lyrical, and moving. I know I’ll definitely return to it.

There are so many rich passages in the book, but I’ll leave you with just a few:

Then I let the stories live

Inside my head, again and again

Until the real world fades back

Into cricket lullabies

And my own dreams. (99)

 

I know

If I wanted to

I could write anything. (156)

 

Did you read Brown Girl Dreaming? What about other novels in verse you would recommend?

five-stars
What Katie Read

“We want to be remembered”: Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel

“We want to be remembered”: Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John MandelStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on September 9th 2014
Genres: Action & Adventure, Adult, Apocalyptic & Post-Apocalyptic, Literary, Science Fiction
Pages: 352
Goodreads
five-stars

An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.   One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them. Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.   Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it. [GoodReads]

“First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.”

I know this book has been reviewed so many times in 2014, but I HAD to share this on the blog after I read it at the end of the year and it became one of my new favorites. Enjoy!

Illuminations of Spirituality in Station Eleven:

Station Eleven was absolutely amazing and thought-provoking in all the ways a work of literature should be. Thought-provoking, beautiful, and flawless in its ability to remind the reader of what’s the most important in the wake of loss and tragedy: relationships.

In the beginning of the book, we meet Kirsten as a child actress in King Lear. The story follows her closely when it skips about fifteen years into the future after the horrendous flu has ravaged the population. Kirsten is now part of a traveling theatre troupe and we learn more about her life after the terrible flu, but we gain this knowledge through a series of flashbacks that continue throughout the entire narrative. In fact, this is how we find out about other figures in the story—Miranda, Arthur, and the Prophet.

We are more connected than we think, and our actions have consequences, some more earth-shattering than others. This is another theme threaded throughout the book that really made me think about my own world.

Though we are not currently facing a deadly flu (thankfully!), I was reminded of the importance of striving to connect with people. Think of E.M. Forster’s famous line from Howard’s End: “Only connect.” Though this book was written decades later, I think it’s echoing Forster’s call to connect with people—to really “see” people. I love books that accomplish this—these are the kind of stories I think are especially “illuminating” because of what they say about the human experience and what’s significant for the human heart.

Who I Would Recommend Station Eleven To:

Even if you aren’t a fan of YA or Adult Science Fiction or Post-Apocalyptic fiction, I will still recommend this book to you. Because this isn’t just a work of science fiction by a brilliant Canadia author. If you appreciate beautiful prose, fascinating and complex characters, a plot that could go anywhere, and a thought-provoking vision of the world, grab this book now! This may go on my Permanent Favorites shelf and is easily one of my favorite reads for 2014. I had been warned I might like this one—so many bloggers had given this book glowing reviews, so I was excited. And the book did not disappoint.

The Final Illumination:

If you look at my copy of Station Eleven, you’ll see it tagged with at least a dozen of my floral page stickies, because there were so MANY passages worth tagging. The author just has this way of crafting beautiful prose that stays with you after you’ve finished a chapter. In addition to containing content that nurtured my own spirituality by reminding me that people are what’s important, and that my connections with the people I encounter every day are significant—even if I don’t know the person—the way the story was told is another element of its spirituality. I think that the gorgeous way the author structured her narrative with flashbacks and passages that really called to the heart of the reader is a spiritual aspect of the story in itself. I don’t often see this with a book, but Station Eleven has fast become one of my favorite reads of 2014 (I read it right at the end of the year!) and this is one reason for it: its rich spiritual depth.

It’s not a “loud” book but a mysterious, beautiful, and luminous one. At its heart is a story of what happens to the human spirit in the wake of a terrible tragedy. In this case, it’s the Georgia flu, which wipes out about 99% of the population. But even then, people survive.

Passages of Illumination:

“She had never entirely let go of the notion that if she reached far enough with her thoughts she might find someone waiting, that if two people were to cast their thoughts outward at the same moment they might somehow meet in the middle.”

“A fragment for my friend–If your soul left this earth I would follow and find you Silent, my starship suspended in night.”

View Spoiler »

“But these thoughts broke apart in his head and were replaced by strange fragments: This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air.”

“We long only to go home,’ ” Kirsten said.

Did you read Station Eleven? What stood out to you about this book? What did it make you think about? It’s such a thought-provoking book—I think it’s the perfect pick for a Book Club.

Happy Reading if you are planning to sit down with this for the first time. I don’t think you’ll regret it.  

five-stars
What Katie Read
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