Review: The Bookshop on the Corner

the bookshop on the corner

The Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan. New York: William Morrow, 2016.

Summary: Nina Redmond loses her librarian job, pursues a dream of a mobile bookshop, ending up in the Scottish Highlands, bringing joy to a cluster of small towns in her Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After, while longing for her own happy-ever-after.

I’m a sucker for books on books and so didn’t notice that this is categorized as women’s fiction, and romance, two categories I tend not to read. What is curious-er is that I actually liked it, for the most part. It was a nice break from some other heavier reads, and explored some themes I found interesting.

The story is that Nina Redmond, a librarian in Birmingham, is about to lose her job in a library consolidation. In an outplacement workshop exercise, complete with all the cliche’s of modern corporate life, she is invited to share her own dream job. And she finally admits that it is to own her own bookshop, maybe a tiny one, where she can help match up people with books they will love. The dream lingers and takes the shape of a mobile bookshop in a van. She finds the van–in rural Scotland–and finally, with the help of villagers, persuades the owner to sell it to her. They hope she will bring her little bookshop to their town, and after being turned down for vending and parking permits in Birmingham, and a near-disaster encounter with a train, she decides to stay. At last her book-beleaguered roommate Surinder will get her and her books out of the apartment.

With the help of the train engineer, a Latvian emigre by the name of Marek, boxes and boxes of books are transported from Birmingham to a train crossing near her home at Kirrinfief. She finds a beautiful converted barn to rent from a grumpy, divorcing sheep farmer, Lennox. Surinder comes up and paints the name she chooses for her little bookshop, The Bookshop of Happy-Ever-After on her van while she fits out the inside. The bookshop is a huge success and villagers who haven’t read a book in years are matched up with books they love. Some admit that when the libraries closed and no local stores were available, they just stopped reading. There is one delightful scene where she looks around the village, and sees people reading everywhere. The village embraces her and she finds she cares for them more than she would have thought–a teen girl Ainslee and her brother Ben, who are facing some trouble at home, a shopkeeper who has faced too many disappointments, and even the grumpy farmer, who she assists in delivering twin lambs that only she, with her small hands, could untangle inside the ewe.

Yes, it is a romance novel, an adult one in places. Nina strikes up this odd romantic relationship with the Latvian, Marek, who leaves books on a tree by the rail crossing for her, and she in return for him. They meet sometimes, and it nearly becomes something more. Yet, it is pretty clear to the reader that the real deal is Lennox and we all wonder what it will take to bring the two together. We wonder if Nina will find her own “happy-ever-after” or if these are just the stuff of fiction.

I loved the descriptions of the Scotland, the countryside, the short summer nights and the Northern Lights, the village life and festivals. More than this, I love the transformation that occurs both in Nina and in Kirrinfief and how books are the medium of that transformation. Nina discovers a calling in bringing people with little access to books together with books they love, books that broaden their horizons, or even books that are gateways for them into reading, as it was with Ben. In the process, we witness a village discovering what it had lost, settling for electronic media substitutes, and the joy of recovering what was lost and making the fabric of their life a bit richer. The contrast between Kirrinfief and Birmingham, with its hectic pace of life, shuttering its libraries and bookstores for an electronically mediated life, portrayed by her friend Griffin, who manages to keep his job in a technology-oriented thing called a library that has little to do with books.

None of this is heavy-handed, maybe a bit cliché at times, but an enjoyable page-turning read. This was a romance in more ways in one. Yes, there is the romantic element of Nina caught between the “puppy-eyed” Marek, and the gruff, angular Lennox. But there is also the romance of bookselling–the wonderful matchmaking work between books and their readers–as well as the practicalities of getting stock and making a living at it. More than that, we have the reminder in Nina’s rolling bookshop of how everything from Little Free Libraries to bookmobiles and libraries and village bookshops weave together to enrich the social ecology of a place.

The Month in Reviews: May 2015

May continued the trend of listening to non-Westerners discussing theology. I read a travel narrative on prayer and a business narrative rooted in a study of Joseph the son of Jacob. In the history category, I worked may way through a sprawling history of Scotland and a parallel biography of Grant and Lee and their Civil War commands. I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s musings on the English language, a work that dealt with 145 “myths” about Christianity, and a plea for “slow church”. For some reason, I didn’t finish any fiction in May, but look forward to a review of the Pulitzer Prize winning All The Light We Cannot See which is one of the best works of fiction I’ve read in some time.

That said, here is what I reviewed in May with links to the full reviews:

MythsA Year of Living Prayerfully1. Exposing Myths About Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell. Under eight headings, this book offers 145 short essays responding to lies, legends, and half-truths about Christian faith in contemporary discussions, giving concise, thoughtful and catholic responses (in the sense of representing the wide swath of Christianity) helpful both to the person exploring the faith and to apologists and others who proclaim it.

2. A Year of Living Prayerfully by Jared Brock. Jared Brock and his incredibly patient wife Michelle go on a year long pilgrimage that takes them to the Vatican to meet the Pope and to Westboro Baptist Church and many other places alternately delightful and weird in a quest to deepen their prayer life.

slow churchMother Tongue3. Mother Tongue: The English Language, by Bill Bryson. This amusing and informative book surveys the history of the English language and all its vagaries and perplexities of word origins, spellings, and pronunciations and why it has become so successful as a world language.

4. Slow Church by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. This book argues that the church has been “McDonald-ized” and that just as the Slow Food movement has returned to embracing food that is good, clean, and fair, so the church needs to embrace an ethic of quality, an ecology of reconciliation, and an economy of abundance.

Accidental ExecutiveCrucible of Command5. The Accidental Executive, by Albert M. Erisman. A former Boeing executive reflects deeply on the biblical character of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, and amplifies on these reflections from his own experience in business leadership and interviews with other executives in a highly readable account suitable for discussion groups in business and church settings.

6. Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee–The War They Fought, The Peace They Forgedby William C. Davis. This is a dual biography of Grant and Lee that studies their contrasting origins and yet similar qualities of command through back and forth narratives covering similar periods leading to their climactic confrontation, the peace they established, and its aftermath.

Preaching the NTScotlandEvangelical Postcolonial Conversations7. Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis edited by Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha, and L. Daniel Hawk. This book arises from a roundtable that sought to apply postcolonial concepts to re-visioning evangelical theology and praxis, coming to terms both with how colonialism shaped evangelical theology and mission and what it means to listen to the voices of the formerly colonized.

8. Scotland: A New History by Michael Lynch. This one volume work provides a comprehensive overview of the history of Scotland from the Roman invasions, through the kingdoms of the Picts, the Wars of Independence, the rise of the House of Stewart, the Treaty of Union in 1707, the commercial and intellectual zenith of Scotland in the late 18th/early 19th century and its continued efforts to define its relation with the U.K down to the time of writing in 1992.

9. Preaching the New Testament edited by Ian Paul & David Wenham. The contributors to this volume consider how the character of the genres and sub-genres of the New Testament shape how these texts are preached with faithfulness not only to the meaning of the text but also to the type of text they are preaching. Essays include not only discussions of genres but also issues in hermeneutics and homiletics as they bear on the teaching of the New Testament.

Best of the Month: I would have to go with Slow Church. The authors of this book propose a different way of thinking about the church from so much of the mega-church and church growth models that have dominated evangelical discussions of what the church ought to be.

Quote of the Month: I chose this one from Exposing Myths about Christianity: 

“Original sin is actually a democratic idea. Without believing in original sin, one person might pride himself or herself on being better than another and one group or race or nation might claim to be better than others. The idea that absolutely everyone is a sinner makes it much harder to be arrogant and judge others” (p. 263).

In addition to the review of All The Light We Cannot See, look for reviews of a book on preaching centered around Christ, even when working from Old Testament passages, Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, and a book on caring for the creation that seeks to develop the biblical ethics behind our care for creation. Time allowing, I also hope to review David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers.

Perhaps from all these choices you will find a good summer read. Happy reading!

All “The Month in Reviews” post may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” link on the menu bar of my blog. And if you don’t want to wait a month to see my reviews, consider following the blog for reviews as well as thoughts on reading, the world of books, and life.

Review: Scotland: A New History

ScotlandScotland: A New History by Michael Lynch, London: Pimlico, 1992

Summary: This one volume work provides a comprehensive overview of the history of Scotland from the Roman invasions, through the kingdoms of the Picts, the Wars of Independence, the rise of the House of Stewart, the Treaty of Union in 1707, the commercial and intellectual zenith of Scotland in the late 18th/early 19th century and its continued efforts to define its relation with the U.K down to the time of writing in 1992.

Despite my name, part of my ethnic heritage is Scottish but until picking up this volume, I had never read a history of Scotland. The closest I’d gotten was to read a biography of Robert The Bruce, who led Scotland to victory in Bannockburn in 1314, regaining Scotland’s independence. Despite my love of history, I knew little of Scotland’s history and Michael Lynch’s well-researched and meticulously documented one volume history amply redressed that balance, spanning twenty centuries over 450 pages.

Lynch begins with the Roman invasions and the resistance of the Caledonians leading to the building of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall to control the restive clans. He traces the Gaelic influences on these tribes and the gradual formation of the kingdom of the Picts from the petty kingdoms in the sixth century. He traces the great kings from David I through Alexander III who provided a period of stability and growth of the towns in the 12th and 13th centuries. Then there was the period of the Wars of Independence including the “braveheart” resistance of William Wallace until Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn secured Scotland’s independence from England in 1314. War continued and the Bruce line gave way to the Stewarts culminating in the reign of James VI who also inherited the throne of England as James 1 in 1603 (the King James of the King James Version of the Bible). This union of two states in one king led, after much turmoil in the 17th century to the Treaty of Union in 1707..

The next couple of centuries marked a time of great intellectual and commercial flourishing in Scotland including the development of shipbuilding in the Clydeside yards. Edinburgh became a center of intellectual luminescence giving us the likes of Adam Smith and Thomas Reid among others. The 18th century was not without uprisings as “Jacobites” contested the Union while various parties wrangled for ascendancy in the Protestant church, and Highlanders were expelled from their lands in “Clearances.”. Two wars in the 20th century led to periods of great prosperity followed by great depressions, and continuing Labor advocacy as well as pressures for an independent Scotland (most recently in 2014). The book closes with the new prosperity coming from North Sea oil revenues.

It would seem that the challenge of writing Scottish history is all the cross-currents one must deal with: Highlands vs. Lowlands, conflicting clans, Catholic and Protestant, Labor and Landowner, independence vs union. Lynch covers it all with admirable thoroughness, which is both the strength and weakness of this history. Various periods, and developments of commerce, politics, and the church are covered in turn. Yet what is lost at times is the sense of a narrative. To deal with varying factions and developments, he will often go back and forth in time over a century or more and explain various developments in careful detail. What also seems apparent is that he assumes some basic knowledge of the contours of this history, the geography of Scotland and even some terminology–likely not problematic for a native, but for Americans like me trying to understand our heritage, a bit confusing and daunting at times.

However, read map in hand and a basic timeline in front of one, this history certainly fills out the story in a comprehensive way that it appears no, or few other authors have attempted. The extensive footnotes and bibliography give the person who wants to explore further ample resources. One hopes that this work might be brought up to date, with perhaps a few more aids including more detailed maps and perhaps a glossary of terms, and maybe some judicious editing. The history of this people is full of narrative power and pathos and should not be overshadowed by the other “kingdoms” that make up the United Kingdom.

For Whom Was This Written?

Have you ever picked up a book on a subject you were interested in learning more of, and you found it very hard to read? That’s the experience I am having right now with a history of Scotland. Part of my ethnic heritage is Scottish but I know next to nothing of this history of the land where some of my ancestors lived. I also read a fair amount of history, and so I’m not unaccustomed to reading accounts of people, places and events.

The book I picked up is a general treatment of the subject and not an academic monograph. I don’t think it would necessarily be used for a textbook. There are two basic problems I think I am having with this book.

First, I think the author has assumed too much about my knowledge of Scotland, particularly the chronology of events and kings and the physical geography. What maps are included often don’t include many of the place names in the text and it seems that the author just assumes you know where various regions or locations are (can you located the Highlands on a blank map or the Hebrides?). I’m sure someone reading this can but I cannot. There are even terms referring to practices, currency and positions of which I’m not familiar. Now it is not entirely a bad thing to have to look such things up but one does not always like to interrupt one’s reading to do so.

Second, the author has organized his material in a confusing pattern and has the infuriating habit of going back to an earlier time in the midst of a discussion of a particular period and discussing an earlier king or other figure. Since nearly all of these people are fairly new to me, this gets pretty confusing and the absence of chronologies or king lists makes it very confusing. The material is also organized topically and often a new topic starts out at an earlier time than where we left off. For example, you might cover wars in the fifteenth century, and then discuss economics beginning in the thirteenth.

Third, it seems that we’re given far more detail than might be necessary or remembered in an overview of Scottish history. Obviously there is good research here and the author wanted us to have the benefit of it. Most of the time, what I would rather have is further readings if there really is something I want to go into. I find myself losing the forest for the trees.

Barbara Tuchman, whose work I have always enjoyed once said,

“The writer’s object should be to hold the reader’s attention. I want the reader to turn the page and keep on turning until the end. This is accomplished only when the narrative moves steadily ahead, not when it comes to a weary standstill, overloaded with every item uncovered in the research.”  (source work unknown).

My sense with the particular work I am reading is that the writer has forgotten for whom he was writing, or that I am not the person for whom the book was intended. But it would seem that a single volume history covering nearly two millenia is not for the academic specialist. What is missing is a “narrative that moves steadily ahead”. Rather, the feeling is one of plodding my way through a forest, where I keep losing my path and getting lost in the dense undergrowth.

So why don’t I just put it down? OK, part of the reason is that I’m probably a bit (maybe more than a bit?) compulsive about finishing books I start. And I really did want to learn about Scotland’s history and I don’t want to buy and read another book on this right now. So I will likely soldier on to the end and certainly find some things of worth. I’ve already come to appreciate a bit more why independence continues to be such a thing for the Scots and yet the inextricable history of Scotland and England.

But my plea for those writing for those who are not specialists in your field is to have mercy on us! I’ve read many historians and scientists who seem to be able to do this. But if you can’t give us a coherent narrative, it might be better not to try and keep writing for the academic journals where there might be ten people who understand you. It does no one, not even trees, a favor to write a book for which there is no audience.

Have you read books that left you wondering for whom the book was written?