Category Archives: out of things to read

THE MONDAY BOOK: Oh William by Elizabeth Strout

We apologize for the lack of blog posts last week. In a world filling up with words resulting from tragic events, it seemed best not to add to them. We’re back now.

This week’s Monday book comes from the irrepressible Janelle Bailey. She would love to hear comments on this blog, as she is sharing one of her favorites this week.

Oh, Elizabeth! So dependable an author, you are. Few write in such a way that they can be so completely trusted, with each and every book they produce, to transparently share, somehow and so valuably the critical stuff that is inside of a soul. I find that every one of your characters help readers to see clearly another and to gain from better understanding what makes them tick; coinciding, they may see glimpses into themselves and do a little therapy by reflecting. Your “stuff” is always just so believable, your characters dependable narrators and well developed.

In this book the soul unwrapped and revealed most fully is title character William’s ex-wife, who is the writer Lucy Barton. Devoted readers of all books Strout may remember her from My Name is Lucy Barton. In the addressing of her inner soul and guts, Elizabeth, you bring us readers to cringe and struggle and smile and tear up and more, as we go through all of this with Lucy.

Strout’s stream of consciousness storytelling takes us back into Lucy Barton’s past and all the sense she has tried to make–or avoid–of it these many years since her…well, maybe she’s been trying to escape it, really.

This book is also about William, for sure, as it shares things about his life and past, and his mother Catherine Cole’s as well, most especially presenting the relationship she and Lucy had as mother-in-law and daughter-in-law when Lucy and William were married and how that influenced things after their divorce as well.

While it’s not necessary to have read, let alone recently, Strout’s earlier book about Lucy—for sufficient reference is made here to the pertinent elements of her character and past–I do think reading or re-reading that book first would enhance one’s richer experience in reading this one as well as provide the reader opportunity to spend more time with these characters (and also with Strout’s high quality writing). Her books are not long, and I am always a wee bit sad when they end…simply because they are over. I have read every single one of them.

You have to go there to know there: you have to read Strout to see how truly she represents everywoman and the struggle to now simply be, given all one has seen and been and lived and felt. It’s not easy to be any of us…but Strout makes it all…okay. Survivable. Strengthening. While I feel one gains the very most by reading every Strout book to know all of her characters and know them well, a new-to-Strout reader can certainly, instead, pick up just this one (or another) and be quite satisfied by THAT story in a stand-alone experience.

Can’t wait for you to read this one if you have not already. Then let me know what you think!

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The Monday Book: THE EXILE by Pearl Buck

I picked up a set of Buck novels at a yard sale some time before the pandemic. And there they sat, until last month when I took The Exile to a conference with me.

The Exile is what I would call a character study. It is about Carie, a missionary in China who was a child during the American Civil War, and lives through both the Boxer Rebellion and the Chinese famine of the early 1900s. The story is told from someone observing Carie, occasionally slipping into first person and saying “I remember,” but usually a distant third person kind of narration. Not much dialogue appears in the book.

In fact, some 30 pages in I was tempted to set it aside, but something about the well-drawn Carie, mother to many babies only half of whom survive, a practical Christian less interested in prayer than feeding people, married to a man whose passion is for Christ—but then there are all those babies….

The story is told so subtly, how she winds up in predicament after predicament, some intense, some silly, a couple potentially lethal. As the young narrator describes how Carie faces down some threats, and flees from others, she continually builds up the practical wisdom and the sense of helplessness a woman of limited means and large heart would feel as she watched those around her starve.

Carie’s life with her husband Andrew is often glossed over, except that Andrew is the praying partner, and Carie feels a sense of ineptitude in her own relationship with God, when she sees the surety of Andrew’s. That said, it’s not a small part of Buck’s narrator’s voice that Carie is an amazing example of real compassion. At first I thought this was a story that told us about Carie rather than showed her character through dialogue and situations. But the more I read, the more I realized the subtle power of how Buck gets inside a female mind, displaying the power and prudence found there in understated ways.

The title is also a subtle pun, referring both to Carie’s life outside her beloved America, and her disquiet with traditional ways of expressing Christian devotion. She is an exile in many ways.

I’m not sure this novel would make a hit parade in modern times, but in 1936 it won the Nobel Prize. Modern readers will find flinch-worthy moments in relationships and assumptions between cultures.

In her day Buck was one of West Virginia’s most celebrated writers, and what is perhaps her best known work This Good Earth continues to be read in Classics classes. The Exile is quieter, more subtle, and yet somehow even more compelling. I never could resist a novel where character drives plot, and Carie is one of the most finely drawn, pencil-and-charcoal, light-and-shade characters Buck ever created. Highly recommended.

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Filed under book reviews, out of things to read, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch