Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

When I decided to write a blog, I read over 250 book review blogs and resolved to leave my personal life out of my reviews after reading far too little about books and much too much about cats and grandchildren.  Having neither, I thought it’d be an easy resolution to keep but I’m breaking it because telling how profoundly The Summer Book touched me is impossible without explaining the turn my life took this spring.

After Heidi Durrow, whose book The Girl Who Fell From the Sky was my favorite book in 2010, recommended The Summer Book in a piece on NPR:, I purchased it.  I had just begun it on April 12 when I got a phone call that my husband was in a hospital in Arlington, VA, after having a significant stroke while on a business trip.  As I packed to fly east, I tossed The Summer Book into my suitcase. A few nights later when I moved into a narrow chair bed next to my husband in the hospital, I began falling under its spell.  This novel comforted me and made me smile just when I most needed it.  This summer I’ve reread it in a happier time as my husband’s therapy leads him on the path to full recovery.  Once again it swept me away, made me laugh out loud, and helped me ponder its wisdom.

Six-year-old Sophia and her impervious grandmother portray a world awakening to life and nature on a miniscule island in the farthest reaches of the Gulf of Finland in the late 1960s. Sophia’s mother has died and her grandmother quietly guides her to conquer her grief and gain confidence in a series of simple events.  Any book about a girl as impish and unique as Pippi Longstocking, as bold and audacious as Tom Sawyer, and as insightfully witty as no one but herself would be enough to savor.  But when you add a distinctive archipelago that I long to visit and a grandmother who builds a replica of a Venetian palace out of bark and twigs while smoking and wryly commenting on outrageous situations, you have a classic that American audiences will love if they’ll just give it a try.  Told in a series of brief vignettes, the little treasure imparts sage philosophies that will appeal to those who enjoyed The Elegance of the Hedgehog as well as to those just wanting an enchanting story spare enough to allow room for imagination.

In a chapter that must be read aloud, Sophia, horrified by an earthworm she’s cut in half with a spade, learns that it’ll grow into two beings.  To grasp the concept, Sophia writes a book about the process of growing separately.  She dictates to her grandmother: “They realized that from now on life would be quite different, but they didn’t know how, that is, in what way.” Obviously that line spoke directly to my situation in the hospital but I now realize that, like everything else in this novel, it speaks to the entire human condition.

Our Book Club’s Discussion:
Over thirty people packed into the book store where our spirited book discussion began with the question: “Did The Summer Book comfort you or unsettle you?”  It comforted the majority but some found the sparse language and the uncertainty of the grandmother’s fate unsettling. Others noted that the spare language enhanced the setting. One grandmother commented that she loved that the grandmother wasn’t a “Hallmark grandma” but a real person. As we read various sections aloud, laughter ensued along with vigorous debate about the many themes. All concurred that the book was great for discussion and should be read aloud almost in its entirety. We pondered whether “city folks” could appreciate the portrayals of living in nature or whether they’d seem too foreign. One woman revealed that she planned to read it every summer to see which themes resonated at the time.

Summing it Up:  Make this your next book club selection and get ready for a dynamic discussion.  Read it to enjoy Sophia’s witticisms, to visit to an enchanting island, and to allow it to impart its wisdom however and whenever you need it.  This is truly the perfect summer book.

Rating: 5 stars    Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Soul Food, Book Club

Publication date: 1972, NYRB Classics reissue in 2008

About the author: Tove Jansson was most famous for her comic strips and books about Moomintroll, a hippo-like character.  The Moomin family has spawned theme parks and an array of clothing and accessories in Finland and Japan where they rival Hello Kitty’s popularity.  Visit these sites to learn more about this unique author:  and

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield

Readers who love southern-fried characters suffering a heap of misery alongside precocious children who lead their elders into doing what’s right will devour this beach book.  Fannie Flagg and Dorothea Benton Frank aficionados will fly through the pages while enjoying the humor and the fact that the “good” people triumph.  I don’t happen to be one of those readers. I appreciate the author’s ability to describe the land cinematically. She’s a screenwriter who wrote The Man in the Moon and The Outsider and I like the dialogue that moves the book along but I wanted more fully developed characters.  Other than Swan Lake (yes, that truly is the name of the child protagonist – and no, the reason she got the moniker isn’t explained), a Huck Finn of a 1950s girl, the characters all seem to be cardboard caricatures of good or evil Southerners.

Samuel Lake, a preacher who’s lost his pulpit due to speaking the truth, moves to the farm where his wife’s family is grieving a loss that should cause them to question themselves but seems only to make them want to preserve the past. Daughter Swan finds Blade, a neighbor boy who needs her help, as she avoids Blade’s “Old Testament” evil father.  The sins of the fathers of both families hover over the action like a smothering fog that threatens an evil storm.   If you like action, this book has it with rape, suicide, wife beatings, adultery, murder and even kitten killing.

Summing it Up: Read this if you like good-old Southern charm, engaging children and evil characters who get what’s coming to them.  Skip it if you prefer more literary fiction.

Rating: 3 stars   

Category: Fiction, Grits and Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Publication date: July 12, 2011

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