Howards End by E.M. Forster

Howards End was the July SBC selection, and finishing it, I’m no longer behind on my reading for my own book club! Check out the SBC page for the titles we have coming up and to look through the ones we’ve already read. You can join the conversation in the comments or in our Goodreads group.


This novel is beautifully written and, for a book written before World War I, surprisingly relevant to today’s political and social climate. The central conflict seems to be between Margaret’s ideals and how these manifest in real life. She is intellectual, well-educated, and has a strong will, which makes it disappointing to see her make choices that seem counter to these aspects of herself. I felt so irritated with her for some of the mistakes I saw her making, for seeming to choose bad relationships over good ones, but in the end, she seems to come to a place of compromise that is better for (nearly) everyone involved than what would have been available had she dug in her heels from the beginning.

The novel seemed to be gearing up for a grand confrontation and dramatic decisions, and so at first this compromise ending was unsatisfying to me. But upon reflection, I decided that the ending is all the more realistic for the lack of fireworks. Gradually I saw that the decisions Margaret made that were so frustrating to me were frustrating because they’re the kinds of decisions I think anyone makes who has ideals and also lives in the world. It’s more satisfying to read about people bucking convention, throwing off everything they once valued and making a clean breast of it as a shiny, new person, but it’s not realistic. We can make changes, but we don’t really become new people, or if we do, it’s a slow metamorphosis and one governed by forces outside of our control, contrary to the promises of self-help books, talk shows, and websites selling fitness programs (and I don’t mean religious or supernatural forces, but the natural forces of biology, economics, politics, environment, and genetics through which we all muddle as best we can).

Compromise doesn’t trigger the dopamine release that I crave, and it doesn’t feed the desire I still feel despite my constant efforts to the contrary to see punished people I think have done wrong, but it provides a much more loving and sustainable model for change than the dramatic ending. Only connect.

Some quotes that spoke to me (page numbers from the 2000 Penguin Books paperback edition):

p.25: “It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile, and that a million square miles are almost the same as heaven.”

p. 52: “I’m tired of these rich people who pretend to be poor, and think it shows a nice mind to ignore the piles of money that keep their feet above the waves.”

p.91: “Actual life is full of false clues and signposts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have moved mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken…Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.”

p. 128: “The feudal ownership of land did bring dignity, whereas the modern ownership of movables is reducing us again to a nomadic horde. We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians in the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret to their imaginative poverty.”

p.132: “I don’t believe in suiting my conversation to my company. One can doubtless hit upon some medium of exchange that seems to do well enough, but it’s no more like the real thing than money is like food. There’s no nourishment in it.”

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland was the SBC selection for May 2017. Visit the SBC Page (linked above) for more books we’re reading/have read.


This novel took me forever to read. I started with the audiobook on May 5, but couldn’t get into it. Then I got the paper book thinking that maybe that would grab me better, but still I labored. The writing is beautiful, spare, poignant in its simplicity, but before I was fifty pages in, I decided to quit reading. I set the book on the kitchen table, and “Pulitzer Prize” glared up at me from the cover, so I made myself open the book again and keep going.

Despite the writing, despite the characters so realistically flawed, despite the kind of pacing that I usually love, which allows me to luxuriate in the language, the book remained a slog for me until the last page. Maybe the plot is just too much like real life: slow and accidental, full of poor choices and in the end meaningless, or at least pointless.

The “Pulitzer Prize” written on the cover on its own wouldn’t have carried me through the novel. Four sentences (or two sentences and two fragments) a little more than a hundred pages in gave me the boost necessary to keep me reading:

“Though he looked like any other Bengali he felt an allegiance with the foreigners now. He shared with them a knowledge of elsewhere. Another life to go back to. The ability to leave.” (113)

Although my life experiences are dramatically different from Subhash’s, I could relate to the experience of being in a place where so many others feel at home, surrounded by people for whom the possibility of living anywhere else simply doesn’t exist. For me, the possibility of leaving the place where I am is not only a possibility; it seems almost an inevitability. But since I’m not at home where I am anyway and never have been, this brings me comfort. It’s the prospect of staying in one place that’s unsettling to me.

I know this isn’t quite what Subhash is feeling in this moment. He’s not a perpetual stranger but rather has returned home a stranger because circumstances have cut him loose from the bonds that held him to that place, to those people. Even though the situation was different, those sentences spoke to me nevertheless and kept me reading.

However, the promise of those sentences was never realized for me. I don’t regret reading the whole novel, but I probably could have stopped at any point and been no worse off.

Bookends: November 2016

Between the cold weather and the relentless holiday cheer, this is the time of year when I just want to curl up with a stack of books and ignore the world. And that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing this month. It’s really helped me avoid buying holiday cards and putting together our yearly photo book. I’ve been making photo books each year since 2005, and while I like having the books to look through and I like that the grandparents appreciate the books, I’m not all that enthusiastic about actually making the books. And this year it’s even worse because with our weekly hikes there are so many pictures to sort through.

With that kind of task looming over me, I derive even more pleasure than usual from retreating into books and sorting my book lists on Goodreads and LibraryThing. I’m a little surprised at just how happy all of this reading and bookish re-organization has made me, but I’m not sure how healthy this happiness is. With my books, I’m fiercely giddy, like a food-aggressive labrador. Only I guess I’m a book-aggressive Charity. Either way, tread with care.

In other news, I would love your suggestions on some books. I’m on a quest for well written, literary horror that I have to read in bed because after closing the book I get too scared to walk through the house with the lights off.

Books I’ve found that are like what I’m looking for are Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and several books by Neil Gaiman (including The Ocean at the End of the LaneCoraline, The Graveyard Book). Bonus points if it’s literary horror by a woman author. None of the books I read this month fit all of these criteria, although Tananarive Due’s The Good House was close. The books already on my list are near the bottom of this post and in my “scary” shelf on Goodreads.

So, let me know your suggestions, and in the meantime, here’s what my family has been afraid to stop me from reading this month:

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

16176440We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was the SBC book selection for November. Join the conversation in the comments or join our Goodreads group to discuss this month’s book or any of our other selections. In December, we’re reading Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle.


This book was darned near amazing to me. Karen Fowler captured college life in the mid-90’s well (at least as I experienced it). Some of the slang was different, but that could have been a geographical difference. There was a mention of the BabyBjörn carrier being used in the mid-1970’s in the United States, which may be anachronistic (the carrier hit the European market in 1973, and while I can’t find a reference for when it showed up in the U.S., I associate the brand more with the mid- to late-90’s and early aughts), but even if it’s outright incorrect, I’m okay letting it slide.

Aside from these small things, the novel rang with emotional truth and depth. I really resonated with an idea that the narrator repeated throughout the story: “Where you succeed will never matter as much as where you fail.” (this one’s on p 288 of the copy I read) I wonder if that’s a particularly GenX sentiment or if it’s just a point of view the narrator and I share. If it is a GenX thing, it could explain why we were so commonly accused of apathy. I feel hopeless just thinking about it. Read More

Bookends: October 2016

I’m typing this from the stairs that overlook our front door, interrupted every few minutes by children dressed in costumes I can’t identify and begging for candy. Actually, it’s less begging and more demanding, and when I offer them the candy bowl, they empty a quarter of it with two handfuls. If the candy is going to last, I’m going to have to start handing it to them myself. Although if I let them take it all right away, I can turn off the porch light and ignore the door for the rest of the night. What a tempting idea…

These kids and their Halloween. They don’t seem to realize that last weekend was the real holiday: Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon! Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas pale in comparison, and now that Dewey’s has been and gone, there’s nothing to look forward to until the next readathon in April. (Well, except maybe for this in January.)

I’ve read online about people who give books to trick-or-treaters. It’s an interesting idea, but I wouldn’t want to hand out picture books or middle-grade lit. No, this would be my chance to make a difference in the world outside my household by handing out titles like What Are People For? by Wendell Berry, Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin, Living More With Less by Doris Jantzen Longacre, and How to Live Well Without Owning a Car by Chris Balish. Or I could get into the Halloween spirit and share Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. I’d bet their parents would really appreciate my promoting a love of reading in their children.

At any rate, here’s what I read (or stopped reading) this month before I devoted myself to being an active Halloween Scrooge:

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Bookends: September 2016

September was here and gone with more stealth than the LEGO bricks that appear under my feet as I run across the room in an attempt to shoo the retching cat so that he eructs his hairball onto the bare floor. Thankfully, the past month was less unpleasant than cleaning up cat sick from the rug and much less painful than stepping on educational building toys made exclusively of corners (although come to think of it, I did a little of each in the past thirty days). We picked apples, got our first colds of autumn, bought a new toilet, put up two birdbaths, and found a new logic curriculum.

The logic curriculum is a big hit, by the way. My only complaint is that I can no longer talk to anyone without silently noting to myself which logical fallacies my conversational companion is employing. My friend shares an anecdote and “tu quoque” whispers through my mind. As I mentally attempt to bat that one away, “ad hominem” alights on my shoulder. All the while I pray that my face is still fixed in an expression of active interest rather than in a vacant smile.

If I were still of an age and temperament to be interested in excessive alcohol consumption, I would put this new-found superpower to good use and turn the next presidential debate into a logical fallacy drinking game. Since I don’t feel much like having my stomach pumped, I’ll just have to content myself with being a surreptitious ass (albeit kind of a classy ass because I’m judging in Latin and Latin’s classy).

When I wasn’t silently judging the unsound arguments and false premises of my unsuspecting friends and acquaintances this September, I was reading. Here’s some of what I read:

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Bookends: August 2016

August was a month of berry-picking and watching monarch caterpillars turn into butterflies. I love having the monarch caterpillars chowing down on milkweed in my dining room and forming their chrysalides and then flying around sipping nectar from the flowers in my yard. The new butterflies often perch on my children’s hands or shirts for a little while before flying off, and we all get to see them close up.

“Look! He has fur on his back!” says my son.

“See his proboscis?” asks my daughter, pointing. “He’s unrolling it like a long spring!”

There’s a 50-caterpillar special going on at the place from which we order our monarch caterpillars and/or eggs. I have been so tempted, but alas! I don’t really have the space—or the milkweed supply—to rear 50 butterflies. Maybe I could add a “butterfly room” to my house and fill it with milkweed and caterpillars. I’m sure that would improve my home’s resale value.

Here’s what I read in August when I wasn’t picking (and eating) berries or feeding toxic plants to insect larvae (don’t worry; it’s not toxic to them):

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Bookends: July 2016

July was hot here. Of course, New England heat isn’t as hot as Utah heat or Arizona heat or the heat southern California had earlier in the summer, but we complain about it because we don’t expect it. Cold we revel in. Snow? Bring it on. But we don’t know what to do with heat but run our air conditioners and drive everywhere because it’s too hot to walk.

Not being a native New Englander, I walk in any weather and complain about both the heat and the cold. But more than the weather, I complain about driving. Man, do I hate driving around here. Except it does provide one of the only outlets for my creativity as it inspires myriad assemblies of swearwords never before heard by human ears. You know how in music there are only seven notes (plus sharps and flats) but an essentially infinite number of unique compositions? That’s how my swearing is when I’m behind the wheel. I’m a maestro of malediction. A virtuosa of vulgarity. An expert at expletives. It’s a skill that makes my children’s homeschool education rather more well-rounded than I would like and part of why we walk as many places as possible.

At any rate, here are the f***ing books I read during July:

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Atlas of Unknowns by Tania James

Atlas of Unknowns was the June 2016 selection for the SBC (the accidental book club I started with my sister). Comment below, or check out our Goodreads group to join the discussion.


4330608I am not sure why I finished this book. Maybe it’s just because I love stationery and enjoyed the invitation card subplot. Because I wasn’t really engaged with the characters, most of whom I found flat, and much of what happened I found either overdone (like the documentary film thing and the points about immigration, which were excellent points but were handled in too heavy-handed a fashion to feel very poignant to me).

And the ending was a particular disappointment. Characters acted in ways that I found inconsistent, and the portrayal of seven-year-old Linno didn’t seem realistic to me. Based both on my experience of seven-year-olds and on the way James wrote her parents, I find it highly unlikely that Linno would have been aware of the America debate, much less reflecting on it to the depth that she did.

Two things I found interesting: Read More

The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier

This was the July selection for the SBC. It’s not too late to join the discussion! Visit us at our Goodreads group to discuss this or any of our other selections. August’s book is The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan.


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The Parasites was a thoroughly satisfying read for me. In ways it reminds me of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, a book that I did not like, but somehow I care more about du Maurier’s Parasites than I do any of Mitford’s characters.

Plot points are revealed quietly rather than lit with spotlights, to the point that there was one major relationship that I missed for a good chunk of the novel. I love this way of telling a story. The characters were annoying, selfish little people, but they were also so full of potential that I just couldn’t help hoping that they would change, just as I do with myself and every other human being I care about. Read More