Book Review: To Be Where You Are

To Be Where You AreI don’t often read books “hot off the press.”  Usually I have so many stacked up from my last birthday, Christmas, etc., that anything new goes behind them. But Jan Karon’s books are an exception: they go straight to the front of the queue! To Be Where You Are is her newest, and its action starts right on the heels of Come Rain or Come Shine, in which Father Tim’s adopted son, Dooley, married his fiance, Lace.

In this book, Dooley and Lace have been fostering a four-year-old boy named Jack, and they’re making plans for a big celebration on what they call Name Day, when their adoption becomes final. That’s probably the major plot line, but as always in Mitford, there are multiple things, large and small, going on at any one time. Some of the other happenings in this book, just to name a few: one long-time Mitford resident passes away; another faces a serious illness and others offer to pitch in at his place of business; major plumbing problems wreak havoc at Dooley’s practice; Lace is offered a major art project which would take care of the plumbing bills, but it’s in California; a number of romances are blossoming; another Mitford resident is looking for ways to spice up his marriage; another is considering running for mayor; another is writing a book (not Cynthia!).

A few favorite spots:

She thought that one of the hardest parts of marriage was being loving when both partners were exhausted or wounded at the same time. When you had the least strength, that’s when you had to dig beyond your limits and grab whatever could be found and give it away.

She needed complete solitude to do this huge thing. No music, no interruptions, just the work. But that was not going to happen, and she had to get used to it.

Lights on in the town at the foot of the hill. Stars on in the great bowl above.

How could he do possibly want to do this fool thing?…Maybe it wasn’t about wanting or not wanting. Though he was beyond serving the mission field, wasn’t his own town a mission field?…And didn’t charity begin at home?

Once in a blue moon they got an October morning like this. It was a day when he could almost smell the ocean, when a gull might wing overhead. He wasn’t the biggest fan of sand and sea, but occasionally some hungering gnawed at him for the visual feast of the Atlantic plain and the knowledge – more like a secret revealed only to Tim Kavanaugh – that over there were Ireland and England and Scotland and Italy and…

His sermon had been preached 24/7 on the floor of The Local for more than three and a half decades.

Reading the Mitford books is like coming home for an extended visit. It was fun seeing how things had changed and yet stayed the same. The same warmth, gentle humor, and undercurrent of truth pervades this book just as it has the others. I don’t know how long Jan will continue writing Mitford books, but I’ll keep reading as many as she wants to write!

Another nice plus to reading this volume now is that the book started in October, and I also started reading (or listening) to it in October, so there were parallels in the setting to what I was experiencing personally.

I listened to the audiobook, wonderfully read, as the other Mitford books have been, by John McDonough.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)



Book Review: Come Rain or Come Shine

Come Rain or Come ShineIn the very first Mitford book, At Home in Mitford, a young boy who has been deserted by his alcoholic mother and left to the care of his aging grandfather ends up on Father Tim’s doorstep. Father Tim later becomes the guardian of Dooley Barlow, and over the several Mitford books we’ve seen Dooley transformed from a surly, standoffish, hurt boy to a kind, thoughtful, responsible young man, due to the grace of God shown largely through Father Tim’s care, instruction, and example and Miss Sadie’s investment and belief in him. Now in Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon, Dooley is about to graduate from vet school, take over his mentor Hal Owens’ vet practice and farm, add some heifers and a bull to the mix…and get married, all within the space of a few weeks’ time.

Dooley and his fiance, Lace Harper, have planned on a simple country wedding. But no wedding is simple, and there are various snafus one might expect and a few no one expected.

I don’t want to spoil any of the details of the story, but, as often happens at weddings, there is a bit of a reunion with several characters, and sweet and tender moments arise in the midst of the details and hecticness.

I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say that at the end of the last Mitford book, Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good, it seemed like there was a definite passing of the torch from Father Tim to Dooley as a main character, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I’ve been interested in Dooley’s welfare and liked him well enough, but I read the Mitford books for Father Tim. But Father Tim is still a large presence in the book and still a main character, though of course the emphasis is on Dooley at this point.

The book is written from multiple points of view, which I enjoy: I like knowing what the various characters are thinking and what an incident looks like through various eyes. The only problem in this case is that, in listening to the audiobook, there were not any pauses or spacing between sections, so often I didn’t realize the “he” or “she” or “they” had changed to different characters until a few sentences into a new paragraph.

I particularly liked getting to know Lace a little better. She first appeared in These High Green Hills as an abused child, and we saw her adopted by town doctor Hoppy Harper and his wife Olivia. As she got older, she and Dooley went to different schools and had a rather stormy beginning, but we haven’t really seen much of her character and particularly what she has been thinking. I liked that she noted that people often said she and Dooley were so much alike, but it was actually their situations that were alike, though their personalities were quite different. I enjoyed getting to know Lace as a person and seeing some of those differences fleshed out more in this book.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to listen to the audiobook of this one: I enjoyed going through the audiobook series of most of the other books, wonderfully narrated by John McDonough, but I had read them all previously, so listening was a nice way to revisit them. I wanted the reading experience first with this one. But as I already had several books on my reading plate and knew I wouldn’t get to it for a while that way, and I had credits with Audible, I decided to go ahead, and I am glad I did.

The only aspect of the book that was jarring and out of place was one character’s taking God’s name in vain a couple of times. I don’t remember Karon ever including that in one of her books, though perhaps my memory is just faulty.

I’ll leave you with a couple of my favorite quotes from the book:

“You could tell a lot about people who would stop what they were doing to watch the Almighty go about His business” (said as several stopped to watch a beautiful sunset, Chapter 14).

“There is no such thing as too many deviled eggs” (Chapter 10) (Agreed!)

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good

SomewhereSafeJan Karon had thought that she had finished up the Mitford books, but her fans desire for more encouraged her to write another book about Father Tim in Mitford (according to this article, which also includes an excerpt from the first chapter.) Thankfully she indulged her fans, and her newest book is Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good, just released last month.

The last two novels are called Father Tim novels rather than Mitford books because in one he took an interim pulpit for a time somewhere else, and in the other he and his wife were in Ireland. A few of the Mitford folks were here and there, and the books were good – just not the same as the Mitford-based ones. This book is set squarely in  Mitford, however. And though visiting in Mitford is cozy, that doesn’t mean everything goes smoothly and perfectly. Different characters have serious situations to wrestle with.

Father Tim and Cynthia are just back from Ireland, and he feels a restlessness. He’s not sure what to do with himself in retirement. He has little odds and ends things to keep busy, even things that useful to others, but it is just not the same as having an overall purpose and focus that comes with a regular job, or in his case, church. Then, due to tragic circumstances, he is offered what at one time would have seemed like the ideal job. But should he take it? He had to retire due to health reasons. Could he manage the full time load again for a time as an interim, or would it be wiser to step aside?

As he contemplates this dilemma, he is also waylaid by another. Sammie, Dooley’s younger brother, was found in an earlier book and moved into Mitford, and though he could pass for Dooley in looks, his attitude and demeanor are quite different. He is out of control, out of temper, destructive, and about to be kicked out by his landlady. Nothing anyone does seems to get through to him. Of all of Dooley’s dysfunctional birth family, Sammie in some ways had the worst situation in living with his alcoholic father. Father Tim knows he can’t deal with him like he did  Dooley, but it’s hard to know just how to deal with him.

Meanwhile Hope Murphy, manager of the Happy Endings bookstore, is in danger of losing her unborn baby and even her business due to the need to be on bedrest. Father Tim and a couple of others offer to keep her shop open for a couple of days a week.

There are other subplots – aging Esther Cunningham, former mayor, thinks about throwing her hat in the ring again, a new eatery opens in town, an Internet romance blooms, someone discovers and unknown relative, and Coot Hendricks, who has always been a background character before, has a particularly sad and sweet storyline.

I think one challenge an author like Karon might have would be how to keep the Mitford books similar enough so they have that same familiarity to them, yet different enough so that they’re not just remixes of the same thing. I think she does that skilfully. This book was like a visit back home with a stop to see all the loved ones and neighbors, but there were enough differences to add more interest. For instance, Fancy Skinner, the motormouth hairdresser in hot pink, (never one of my favorite characters) in several of the books subjected Father Tim to an inevitable long harangue while she cut his hair and he couldn’t get a word in edgewise. In later books Karon has managed to include her and show her personality without having the same scene repeated every time.  Similarly, Mule Skinner never knows what he wants to order at restaurants, and the scenes with him are familiar enough to think, “Yep, that’s ol’ Mule,” but different enough that they don’t get boring.

Then, too, there are signs that everything is not quite the same, just like in real life. Different characters feel the effects of aging, one passes on, some have serious changes to deal with. I loved how Karon showed, without stating it, that Esther is really not up to running for mayor again and demonstrates how that “take charge” personality can manifest itself when one gets older.

As always in Karon’s books, there is an underpinning of faith naturally and seamlessly woven in.

Some of my favorite moments from this book:

When a young, bookish boy in the book store asks Father Tim about a book by Wordsworth (Father Tim’s favorite author), “He turned away for a moment, smacked by the beauty of complete surprise” (p. 197).

“Since retiring, he hadn’t been able to find the groove worn by all those years of priesting. Getting up at five had remained routine, as had Morning Prayer, but from there, routine staggered off the cliff around 7:30 a.m. and perished on the rocks below. He had missed being in a groove” (p. 217).

“Books! Man’s best friend. Next to the dog, of course” (p. 217).

“‘You love him. I can see it’
‘More than anything.’
That alone should be enough, he thought, but of course it never is. Courage has to come in there somewhere, and perseverance and forbearance and patience and all the rest. A job of work, as Uncle Billy would say, but worth it and then some” (p. 337).

And a quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “The happiness of life is made up of minute fractions – the little soon forgotten charities of a kiss or smile, a kind look, a heartfelt compliment, and the countless infinitesimals of pleasurable and genial feelings” (p. 440).

I loved catching up with the folks back in Mitford. I don’t know if Jan Karon is planning any more books. There was a distinct “wrapped up” (except for one storyline that I felt was left hanging, but I guess enough was said to give us an indication that everything would be all right) and refocused feeling at the end. But who knows? Maybe if her fans keep clamoring for more, she’ll keep indulging us.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

The Mitford Books

Last December I reread, or rather, listened to a book I had previously read: At Home In Mitford by Jan Karon. I reviewed it here and then set off to listen to audiobook versions of the whole series. I found I wasn’t necessarily inclined to write a review of each one, though, I suppose because although there are movements of plot in each book, the overall people and themes are the same. So I decided at the end of the series I’d write one post summarizing each one.

I wrote previously that “I first encountered Jan Karon in the pages of Victoria magazine some years ago. Victoria chooses a “Writer-in-residence” whose work they showcase in each issue throughout the year, and Jan was featured one year. I loved her warmth and hominess and clear faith depicted — in fact, I was surprised and pleased that a secular magazine would feature a writer whose faith was integral to her stories. I believe it was there I also first heard of and then sought out Mitford.”

The series mainly follows the life of Father Tim Kavanagh, a sixty-something Episcopal priest, and the various characters in the fictional small town of Mitford, NC. Father Tim is a hard-working single priest, but in the first book an appealing single lady moves in next door, and though he thought he was a confirmed bachelor, he finds himself entranced but not sure what to do about it.

His flock consists of a number of memorable characters: his sometimes annoying secretary, Emma: Miss Sadie Baxter, town matriarch; LouElla, her companion; Uncle Billy Watson, resident joke-teller, perhaps to take the edge off of living with his wife of several decades, Miss Rose, who is schizophrenic but refuses to take her medicine; Esther Bolick, who expresses her love via her famed Orange Marmalade Cake; the “Turkey Club” he eats lunch with regularly at Percy Mosely’s Main Street Grill, the “man in the attic” (one of my favorite story lines), and a host of others.

Mitford is a typical small town where everyone knows everyone’s business, which can be a thorn in the flesh occasionally, but overall everyone genuinely cares. I think of it as something like Mayberry but not as corny. 🙂 Though every book contains some of the same familiar, comforting elements, the lives of the characters do progress: people fall in love, marry, babies are born, people face crises and grow and some die. Father Tim himself progresses over the series and deals with a couple of lifelong issues; his wife Cynthia is a bright spot in his life and helps him become less staid and more sure of himself.

The Mitford books were not marketed as Christian fiction that I remember, but there are ample amounts of Biblical truth and pure gospel woven in naturally.

So here are brief descriptions of each book in the series:

At Home in Mitford (reviewed here): Father Tim, the town, and its characters are introduced; a dog “as big as a Buick” finds and “adopts” Father Tim and becomes a pleasant companion; new neighbor Cynthia moves in next door; neglected orphan Dooley Barlow enters Father Tim’s previously quiet life.

A Light in the Window, reviewed here: Father Tim and Cynthia become more serious while a widow in town also sets her cap for Father Tim and he doubts whether he can give himself in marriage as he should; Miss Sadie takes an interest in helping Dooley, who is now living with Father Tim, by wanting to send him to a prep school out of town; the Main Street Grill is in danger of being closed; a very abrasive, rough around the edges construction supervisor, Buck Leeper, is in charge of the nursing home being built with Miss Sadie’s donated money.

A Common Life: The Wedding Story, not reviewed, was not published until after the next three books had been written, but fits in here in the story line. It is Father Tim and Cynthia’s wedding story, both sweet and comical.

These High Green Hills, not reviewed: Father Tim adjusts to marriage; a severely abused child ends up at Father Tim’s door; an unidentified burn victim is brought to the hospital; Dooley’s mother is found; a long-time Mitford resident dies.

Out to Canaan, not reviewed: Father Tim contemplates and prepares for retirement; Mayor Cunningham faces an unlikely opponent; a mysterious Florida corporation is trying to buy up Mitford property, including Miss Sadie’s Fernbank.

A New Song, not reviewed: Father Tim supplies a pulpit as an interim in Whitecap, an island on the NC coast, gets a disturbing phone call about Dooley back in Mitford, discovers a mysterious neighbor, and performs an unusual wedding.

In This Mountain, not reviewed: Father Tim deals with retirement and wonders what his life has been worth while his wife’s fame as an author and illustrator soars to new heights; neglect of his diabetes causes a major breakdown; a serious accident plunges Father Tim into a season of depression. Though this is a bit darker than the other books, it was still a very good read.

Shepherds Abiding, not reviewed: a lovely Christmas story dealing with many aspects of the season; Father Tim, who has worked with his mind most of his life, discovers the pleasure of working with his hands by restoring an old Nativity scene in a state of disrepair as a Christmas gift for his wife; bookstore owner Hope Winchester may have to close down and move, but then the possibility of may open new doors. (In the audiobook, smaller gift books Esther’s Gift and The Mitford Snowmen are also included.)

Light From Heaven, not reviewed: Father Tim and Cynthia “house sit” at Meadowgate Farms while dear friends, the Owens family, are away for several months; Father Tim is asked to revive a little mountain church and discovers another batch of unique characters: gentle Agnes and her deaf son, Clarence, who kept up the church building for years in faith that God would bring it back into use, invalid Dovie, crusty Jubal, and many others; Dooley, nearing the end of his college career, learns about an inheritance.

Throughout the books, too, each of Dooley’s lost siblings were found, though I neglected to note which one came in which book.

Two other things I loved about this series is that Karon weaves in a number of literary references throughout each book (some of the quotes are gathered into two separate books, Patches of Godlight (which I own) and A Continual Feast: Words of Comfort and Celebration (on my wish list), both in the style of Father Tim’s quote book), and that with just a few words she can set a scene that is very warm and homey.

The only real negative in the books was that many characters have a tendency to say “Good Lord!” or “Oh Lord,” which I perceive as taking the Lord’s name in vain, using something holy and glorious as an empty epithet. It’s tame compared to the type and amount of objectionable language found in many modern books, but still it rankles.

Some have felt that the series lagged a bit in the middle books, but I did not think so: there is enough sameness to keep it familiar but enough difference in each one to keep it moving and interesting. Probably the first one is my overall favorite, with These High Green Hills and In This Mountain tying for second, but I enjoyed each one.

The audiobooks I listened to were read by stage actor John McDonough. It took me a while to get into his style, but in some parts he reminded me of a beloved pastor from my teen and college years, and once I got into the stories I enjoyed his rendition very much. He did a wonderful job with the variety of voices and accents involved, and his voice will always embody Father Tim’s for me.

Finally, one last note, The Mitford Bedside Companion is a wonderful accompaniment to the books. In it, Karon tells how the Mitford stories came about (I was surprised to learn they started as a newspaper column), groups some favorite scenes from the book under different headings (characters, prayers, meal scenes, etc.), adds some essays, some recipes, trivia, a quiz, crossword puzzle, and a list of most commonly asked questions. I haven’t read all of it, but I have enjoyed dipping in at various places in it.

There are two more books concerning Father Tim, Home to Holly Springs, where he revisits his home town and comes to grips with events from his past, and In the Company of Others, (both linked to my reviews) about his and Cynthia’s long anticipated trip to Ireland, but they are listed as a separate Father Tim series rather than a continuation of the Mitford series, fitting since they take place away from Mitford with only a few references to some of the people. I would like to listen to them as well, but I think I’ll take a little break from Mitford for a while. I always enjoy visits there.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: At Home in Mitford

MitfordI first encountered Jan Karon in the pages of Victoria magazine some years ago. Victoria chooses a “Writer-in-residence” whose work they showcase in each issue throughout the year, and Jan was featured one year. I loved her warmth and hominess and clear faith depicted — in fact, I was surprised and pleased that a secular magazine would feature a writer whose faith was integral to her stories. I believe it was there I also first heard of and then sought out Mitford.

At Home in Mitford is the story of Father Tim Cavanaugh, a nearly 60 year old single Episcopal priest ministering in a fictional small town in NC which is replete with colorful and sometimes eccentric characters. He is so busy with his parish that he hasn’t been on a vacation in years and can’t seem to get away for more than a day or two, and the strain is starting to show.

Then unexpectedly a dog “as big as a Buick” comes bounding into his life, an untamed, neglected boy comes into his care, and a new enchanting neighbor “pops through the hedge” to visit. The discovery of stolen jewels weighs heavily on him, he’s asked to bear burdens and secrets of his people, and a condition of his own begins to manifest itself.

I strongly disagree with this assessment that Karon “satirizes Father Tim and the citizens of Mitford.” I see no satire here at all but rather realism, warmth, humor, and pathos. The characters are clearly and lovingly drawn with flaws, quirks, and endearing features intertwined realistically. As I mentioned earlier, there is a warmth, a hominess, a coziness in Karon’s stories. Here is one example when Father Tim goes to the home of good friends for dinner:

In the center of the kitchen was a large pine table, bleached by age, with benches on either side. A mason jar of early wildflowers sat in the center, along with a deep-dish apple pie, fresh from the oven. A dazzling beam of light fell through the windows that looked out to the stables.

Their guest stood transfixed. “A foretaste of heaven!” he said, feeling an instant freshness of spirit.

And then follows gently irony as he muses on the fact that everything is calm and peaceful and nothing dramatic or surprising happens there just before he’s blindsided by major news (good news this time.)

I enjoyed as well the beginnings of a “older” romance later in the book. It’s nice to see love stories aren’t just for the young. 🙂

Karon also weaves quotes from various authors, poets, and preachers throughout the book. She must be widely read but does not come across as pretentious at all.

I don’t know if her books would be classified as Christian fiction: I don’t think so. But faith is integral to the story. I had not know much about Episcopalianism before reading this book and I don’t know all the fine points of their beliefs, but the gospel is quite clearly and naturally presented.

Later books were a bit too ecumenical for me, but I could read them as a continuing part of the story, acknowledging but not agreeing with some of the happenings. The one thing that particularly bugged me was that many characters have a tendency to say “Good Lord!” or “Oh Lord,” which I perceive as taking the Lord’s name in vain, using something holy and glorious as an empty epithet. It was often said that Father Tim used such phrases as a prayer, though.

I was surprised to learn recently that this book started out as a weekly newspaper column and was begun when Jan was nearly 50 (that gives me hope that there may be a story in me yet!)

When I first read the books however many years ago, I borrowed them from the library. This time I listened to the audiobook read by stage actor John McDonough. It took me a while to get into his style. He seemed a little ponderous at first, but in some parts he reminded me of a beloved pastor from my teen and college years, and once I got into the story I enjoyed his rendition very much. Mitford is not a place to rush through, but to sit down, relax, and take your time.

I thoroughly enjoyed this revisit. the only problem now is that I want to sit down and devour the rest of the books in the series. But I’ll look forward to delving into a few more of them next year.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)