Brother Cadfael's Penance (Brother Cadfael, Book Twenty)

Monday, January 27, 2020

Brother Cadfael's Penance (Brother Cadfael, Book Twenty)
Ellis Peters, 1994

Premise: News comes to Shrewsbury that brings Cadfael to a crisis with his vocation.

I put off reading this one for a while because it's the last one. This series has been reliably enjoyable throughout, but the personal nature of the plot elevates this one to greatness.

Many of the books are about love, some about duty or society. As I expected, this one is about parents.

It's about Philip FitzRobert, who publicly breaks with his father when he switches his loyalty. It's about a mysterious murder in a city at truce that turns on a secret relationship. It features more directly than any other in the series the Empress Maud, daughter of the late king.

Most of all, it hinges on the most emotional recurring plot point of the series: Cadfael's son, Olivier.

Cadfael is faced with a hard choice between his oaths as a Benedictine and a quest to find Olivier, taken captive after a battle. He finds that it is no choice at all, although he fears what will come of it.

For many of these books, the Anarchy is background or only tangentially affects the plot. It is interesting to see the major players close up in this one.

Like most, it's full of excitement and heart, but the emotion runs high in this one. I loved it. I loved seeing all Cadfael's goodness and bravery laid out for a personal cause. It's a delightful capstone for the series.

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make The Most of Their Time

Monday, January 13, 2020

I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make The Most of Their Time
Laura Vanderkam, 2015

Premise: Insights into how real women in high-profile, high-powered jobs balance their lives.

I took a long break in the middle of reading this book. A two-month-long break, in fact, that covered multiple illnesses and holidays. I had gone so long that I almost didn't go back to it. I had forgotten what I was reading, and I thought I had gotten what I was going to get out of the book - a way of charting time to think about it more clearly.

But I decided to jump back in and give it another chance, and I ended up devouring the rest in two days.

So, yeah, I'm glad I went back to it.

This book (and, apparently, much of this author's work) strikes an interesting and inspirational balance. Yes, it's about time management. But it's not about how to multitask more efficiently or get up earlier - although those topics are touched on. It's about recognizing that your time is yours, and you probably have the time to build a great life.

The book is based on 1,001 days' worth of time logs completed by working mothers earning over six figures. The logs provide the data foundation, and interviews provide the nuanced pictures. The women in this book are busy, but when they actually wrote down what they did every day for a week, many realized that they were making time for family and for themselves, more than they realized.

The author calls the logs the Mosaic Project to illustrate the principle that your time is made up of all these different pieces, work and family and personal time, client meetings and sleepovers and lazy weekend breakfasts. How you assemble them creates each day or week or year. A lot of the book is about busting open myths and assumptions about how busy/tired/etc. people are. These assumptions become self-fulfilling when we buy into them too far.

On a personal note, I paid particular attention to a short section about being aware of patterns when kids are very small that can cause parents to set habits around leisure and housework such that they don't recognize opportunities to adjust as the kids grow.

The message of the book is that you have the time, even if it doesn't look like what you expect, or it's not in the perfect shape you want. I found the stories full of encouragement to use the time you have - not by applying organizational gimmicks, but by realistically keeping an eye on your priorities.

The book says that sure, you physically can't be a superstar at a high-profile job AND a full-time parent AND a world-class romantic partner AND maintain a spotless home AND have time for yourself. But would you really want to try? Because if "all" is defined as a happy, loving family, satisfying and remunerative work, and time for personal growth? You can have it all. The stories in this book are living proof.

I really liked it, and I'll definitely bookmark this author for the next time I need some encouragement.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Monday, January 6, 2020

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
J. K. Rowling, 2000

Hugo Winner - 2001

Premise: ... It's Harry Potter.

Throughout this project to read all the Hugo-winning novels (moving into its ninth year!) I have tried to read and review these books with care. I try to explain when I hit a book that I don't like but I can understand its importance. I try to bear in mind the books' historical and cultural context; in fact, understanding each book's context is a lot of the pleasure in this quest to read them all. At the same time, I try to take each book as a unique work of literature and evaluate what I see as its merits and flaws for today's reader.

I was stumped by this book.

Harry Potter is too ubiquitous. I know too much about the characters, the world, fan commentary, meta analysis, etc. to be able to read it with anything resembling an open mind.

And I don't even seek out Harry Potter content. I just hang out on the geeky parts of the internet.

Although maybe I would have been skeptical about this book no matter what. After all, I've never actually liked Harry Potter that much. I quit the first book partway through and didn't go back until after the first few movies came out. I used to say that I thought people should just watch the movies until at least book 4. I liked book 5 when I read it, but then (in my opinion) book 6 was all setup and book 7 was a tedious slog. (Something the movies, unfortunately, re-created faithfully.) I deeply appreciate the way the series made reading cool, but I have never really enjoyed it.

I hoped that maybe rereading one would change my mind, but I spent the first three-quarters of this book frustrated and bored. Some random thoughts:

  • How would it have been different if the Dursleys were more than feeble caricatures and fat jokes?
  • There's got to be a better balance between writing realistic child characters and writing absolute morons who insist on creating problems for themselves.
  • Oh, all that business with Hermione and the house elves is so, so much worse than I remembered.
  • Also, she lies to a teacher so she'll be magically made more attractive. (Realistic behavior? Possibly. Kind to young readers? No.)
  • It's so dumb that the tournament is stretched out over a whole year but only takes like a few days total.
  • I just don't empathize with or enjoy reading characters being low-key terrible to each other/idiots because they're young.


So at this point, I'm just speeding through, and thinking why the heck did this win the Hugo?

Oh right, the ending.

The whole book turns on a freaking dime and the stakes shoot through the roof.

Now, the book nearly derails it all with several long villain monologues that belabor every last detail in ludicrous depth. But at the end, you're still left with a world that is fundamentally bleaker, a glimpse of what the adults are working on behind the scenes, and a bunch of teenagers who were just told they better grow up in a hurry if they want to survive. And that's really impressive for where this series started out.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

Index of Hugo Award Winners