Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson

by James Wallace Harris

Why do we love some books more than others? Why are some books so enchanting? Why is it so hard to always find the perfect book to read? Especially when we’re old and jaded and have read thousands of books.

I just finished Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson and I want to explain why I loved it so much. I mostly read science fiction, but lately, I’ve gotten tired of the genre. Well, not completely. I recently found a science fiction novel that completely enchanted me too, but it was an old science fiction book that came out in 1939, the setting was England in the thirties, and wasn’t sold as science fiction. See my review of The Hopkins Manuscript by R. C. Sherriff.

I just finished Miss Buncle’s Book by D. E. Stevenson and it pushed all the buttons that make me love books. Am I so burned out on science fiction that any decent story from any other genre would charm me to pieces? I don’t know.

Can I examine these two books and draw any conclusive conclusions that would help me always find a great book to read? And what is great? I might think Miss Buncle’s Book and The Hopkin’s Manuscript are great novels and other people might think they’re both snooze-fests.

Both books are set in England during the 1930s and I have to admit that I’ve been watching a lot of TV shows and reading other books about England before 1960. Maybe I’ve just found a new fictional setting that I like better than those offered by science fiction right now. But why England? And why older books? (I should admit that I still like older science fiction books. Maybe my reading problem is the 21st century.)

Is this a case of reading the right book at the right time? Would they have been so entertaining if I had read either of these books when I was in my teens, twenties, forties, or fifties? Is part of the equation for finding the right book include the age, gender, and philosophical outlook of the reader? I worry about recommending books because even when I love a book, I’m never sure someone reading my review will.

One reason why I’m sick of science fiction is I’ve read too much of it. But I’ve also got tired of the future, especially the far future. But the present isn’t very appealing either. I think I’m looking for comfort books. For cozy novels. And Miss Buncle’s Book fits the bill perfectly.

Normally, I wouldn’t pick a book aimed at women readers, but in the last year, I’ve read quite a number of books by women authors aimed at women readers. I had just finished reading a science fiction book by D. E. Stevenson, The Empty World and while researching her I found this video from The Comfort Book Club:

The enthusiasm of the YouTube host and her mother, as well as the testimonials from the show’s viewers, convinced me to give Miss Buncle’s Book a try. I’m so glad I did.

This 1934 novel is set in the small village of Silverstream. That might be in Yorkshire because we’re told Barbara Buncle has a Yorkshire accent. Barbara has a problem. The depression is on and her investments are no longer paying dividends. She needs money and decides to write a novel. Unfortunately, she has no imagination and writes a story about all the people in her village, just changing the names. She submits the book with the pen name of John Smith and it gets accepted. The publisher loves it, thinking that it’s either a very gentle satire or the work of a very simple mind. However, the publisher renames her novel, Disturber of the Peace.

Slowly the citizens of Silverstream discover the book. Even though it’s set in Copperfield and the characters’ names are different, they recognize themselves. Barbara Buncle has a knack for realistically painting portraits in words. Some of the village folk find it a pleasant read but others are outraged, especially Mrs. Featherstone Hogg, who is livid that the novel reveals she was once a chorus girl. She wants to find out how John Smith is and have him horsewhipped.

Miss Buncle is so mousy that no one suspects her. Several of the Silverstream citizens make it their business to ruin John Smith. But we’re also shown many villagers who are good people. The plot gets quite involved and it eventually becomes a book within a book within a book story when Miss Buncle writes a sequel.

Having this book within a book plot is rather clever. The humor is relatively dry since the story is told realistically even though the action gets rather far-fetched. Its humor is not like P. G. Wodehouse, but I imagine Wodehouse fans will love D. E. Stevenson too. If you like the TV series All Creatures Great and Small and the James Herriot books they were based on, you’ll probably like Miss Buncle’s Book. Miss Buncle’s Book is the first in a series of four. The blog Books and Chocolate thought Miss Buncle’s Book had the same appeal as Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson.

But why did I prefer Miss Buncle’s Book now over my standard fare of science fiction? The writing in science fiction has gotten rather baroque in both prose and ideas. Miss Buncle’s Book is very straightforward and simple, yet very detailed. The characters are far more appealing and realistic compared to what I see in 21st science fiction.

However, I think the most important factor is the novelty of the setting. Science fiction and fantasy settings have gotten old and tiresome. Right now I’d much rather visit a small English village than Mars, or the future, or an interstellar spaceship. However, I wouldn’t mind if a Martian or a human from the future was visiting a 1930s English village.

If you’re a Scribd subscriber, they have the first three Miss Buncle books on audio. They are also available for the Kindle at Amazon and audio at Audible.com. There are nice paperback editions of the first three books from Persephone Books.

JWH

Why I Need To Side With Amazon/Audible

by James Wallace Harris, 1/1/23

Daniel Greene just posted The Audible Situation on his YouTube Channel. Greene is not attacking Amazon/Audible, but he is reporting on a controversy that began when author Brandon Sanderson posted “State of the Sanderson 2022” about why Sanderson wanted to publish his audiobooks first with Speechify rather than Audible. Amazon/Audible is moving towards becoming a monopoly for indie publishers and Sanderson wants to counter that and give other publishers a chance. Greene sides with that idea, and I sympathize completely. However, I need to explain why I and probably many other readers will stick with Amazon/Audible.

I’ve been buying audiobooks for maybe thirty years and buying them from Audible for twenty. I’ve been buying ebooks since the Rocket eBook came out, which was a little over twenty years ago. I have over a thousand Kindle books in my Amazon library and seventy-four pages of audiobooks (20 per page) in my Audible library. That’s a huge library of digital books I want to protect, and Amazon/Audible does a fantastic job of helping me. If my house burned down I’d lose all my physical books along with my iPad, iPhone, and Kindle. But I could buy a new iPhone, log in and have instant access to all my Amazon/Audible books.

Over the decades I have bought ebooks and audiobooks from companies not owned by Amazon/Audible. Nearly all of them have been lost as I moved from computer to computer, or forgotten the places and accounts I bought them from. I’ve bought books from Kickstarter, Apple, Barnes & Nobel, Recorded Books, Downpour, Humble Bundle, Phoenix Picks, O’Reilly Books, and many other publishers. I also bought audiobooks on cassettes and CDs, For example, we bought all the Harry Potter books on CD as they came out, but recently when my wife wanted to hear them again, she rebought them on Audible because it was convenient and because they will always be in her library.

Some of the ebooks I bought I sent to a Kindle device, but they don’t stay there as I’ve moved to new devices. And they don’t always look right in my Amazon library.

Years ago I realized that the only secure way of “owning” a digital book was to buy them from Amazon/Audible. I know they could change their policies or go out of business, but since Amazon is so big I’m betting they will be there until I die.

Amazon/Audible has become my trusted library to store digital books. They keep them fairly well organized and easy to find. They bought Goodreads and that helps me remember and review my books. That ecosystem makes for a very good digital library system. Even when Audible stops selling an audiobook I still have my copies. Of course, with thousands of books, some may have been deleted and I haven’t noticed.

There are times when I remember owning a book and going to Amazon/Audible and not finding it. When I search my mind I realize it’s missing because I bought it elsewhere. Sometimes I can still find them on my computer or remember the publisher and my account, but as time goes by, that’s becoming rarer.

If we thought of books like buying a movie ticket and watching a film, then buying books from any publisher wouldn’t matter. It would be a one-time experience. But if you buy books to build a library that doesn’t work.

I often see wonderful deals on Humble Bundle. I would buy them if they instantly became part of my Amazon library. And that’s true for deals from other publishers. But I’ve stopped getting those deals because I can’t easily keep up with their books for the long haul.

I do agree that it’s wrong that Amazon/Audible has gotten such a stranglehold on the industry. And I don’t see why Amazon/Audible must demand exclusive deals from authors. Amazon/Audible should stop that practice just to show goodwill to the book world.

I can think of some farfetched solutions to this problem. If there were an international registry of digital ownership that was separate from the publishers and sellers that would track what digital works a person owns, then that would break the monopoly. Booksellers would offer readers the best deal, and readers could pick from whichever seller they liked. But their purchase would be added to the registry. And they could then always download a copy of that book even if the bookseller or publisher went out of business. Such a system would even allow readers to leave their library to someone when they died.

Of course, Amazon/Audible has already created such a registry, and that’s why they are so successful.

JWH

2022: Year in Reading

by James Wallace Harris, 12/30/22

It’s always amusing to look back over the books I read during the year to see how many I’ve forgotten. For some reason, I remembered them all this year. Oh, I couldn’t have made a list from memory, but when I look at Goodreads database every book came back to me. That’s unusual. It could be I’m getting better at picking memorable books to read. I tried to review many of them, so that might be a factor too. I read eight anthologies for a Facebook group devoted to reading a science fiction short story daily. And six books were read for a nonfiction book club. Also, I got interested in four authors this year: Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, Elizabeth Strout, and Anthony Powell. Finally, this was my year for reading history, especially about the ancient world.

2022 was the year of reading Elizabeth Strout. I read seven of her nine novels. I binged on them, reading those novels in about seven weeks. But when I look at my list, I see I read Bewilderment by Richard Powers at the beginning of the year. If I think on it for a while, my memories suggest I might have liked it better than Lucy by the Sea, my favorite Strout book, and the novel I currently think of as the best I read in 2022. Memory is tricky and comparing books is so hard.

On the other hand, An Immense World by Ed Yong feels like my favorite nonfiction book right now, but when I dig through old thoughts, I have to wonder if I didn’t like Where the Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon better? It wasn’t The Soul of a New Machine or Hackers, but it did press my love of computer history button long and hard.

Whether I’m reading a novel or a nonfiction book, the best ones often feel like the most amazing book I’ve ever read — while I’m reading them. So, instead of picking the best books of the year, I’m going to bold any book below that I highly recommend. I really enjoyed all the history books I read, but I doubt many people would, so I’m hesitant to recommend them.

Here are the books I read in 2022. Links are to my reviews.

  1. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery
  2. Bewilderment by Richard Powers
  3. The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg
  4. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony
  5. We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick
  6. Dr. Bloodmoney or How We Got Along After the Bomb by Philip K. Dick
  7. The Other Side of Philip K. Dick by Maer Wilson
  8. Philip K. Dick: Remembering Firebrght by Tessa B. Dick
  9. Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Breman
  10. The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
  11. Star Science Fiction Stories No. 1 edited by Frederik Pohl
  12. Hugo & Nebula Award Winning Stories from Asimov’s Science Fiction edited by Sheila Williams
  13. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber
  14. Breakfast with Seneca: A Stoic Guide to the Art of Living by David Fideler
  15. Over My Shoulder: Reflections on a Science Fiction Era by Lloyd Arther Eshbach
  16. The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone by Edward Dolnick
  17. Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World by Philip Matyszak
  18. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon
  19. No Man on Earth by Walter F. Moudy
  20. The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Six edited by Neil Clarke
  21. Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
  22. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome by Susan Wise Bauer
  23. The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg
  24. In the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories about SF edited by Mike Resnick
  25. Galaxies by Barry Malzberg
  26. Time’s Last Gift by Philip Jose Farmer
  27. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
  28. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade by Susan Wise Bauer
  29. Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller by Alec Nevala-Lee
  30. John Brunner by Jed Smith
  31. Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein
  32. Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
  33. Methuselah’s Children by Robert A. Heinlein
  34. Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein
  35. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
  36. For Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs by Robert A. Heinlein
  37. Revolt in 2100 by Robert A. Heinlein
  38. The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
  39. A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell
  40. A Buyer’s Market by Anthony Powell
  41. The Acceptance World by Anthony Powell
  42. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  43. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
  44. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
  45. Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
  46. The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople by Susan Wise Bauer
  47. At Lady Molly’s by Anthony Powell
  48. The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
  49. Index: A History of the by Dennis Duncan
  50. Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout
  51. Oh, William! by Elizabeth Strout
  52. The Good New Stuff: Adventure SF in the Grand Tradition edited by Gardner Dozois
  53. The World Turned Upside Down edited by David Drake, Eric Flint, and Jim Baen
  54. Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout
  55. An Immense World by Ed Yong

For many years I’ve ended my yearly summary of reading with my reading ambitions for the following year. I’m not going to do that this year. My reading tastes seem to be in flux. I like trying to read one book a week, or 52 books a year, but I’m not sure is that’s a useful goal anymore. What I love is finding great books to read. I think I’ll worry less about genre or subject, or how many, and focus on making every read count. It felt really wonderful to discover Elizabeth Strout this year. And to be honest, I am finding reading science fiction, by favorite genre, becoming less rewarding. I might just be burned out on the genre for a while.

I’m also excited about the Anthony Powell books from his A Dance to the Music of Time series of twelve novels. I’m on the fifth book and so far they show more promise than they deliver. I’m hoping if I read all twelve, and think about their total impact, my impression might change.

I’ve been studying the Best-Books-of-2022 lists and there are many I want to read. So, I’ll just call them my reading goal for the year.

JWH

Historical Bible Study Counteracts Irrational Faith Better Than Books by Atheists

by James Wallace Harris, 12/22/22

Most Christians acquire their faith in childhood. A growing proportion of Christians drop most of their early beliefs as they get older and better educated. But a significant proportion of Christians cling to childhood beliefs their entire life. Faith in the irrational can be extremely strong, no matter what evidence to the contrary is given.

Why do some people hold onto their cherished childhood beliefs with such tenacity? We know that a baby taken from a Christian culture and raised in a Muslim culture will become Islamic rather than Christian. Beliefs children are exposed to in their early years, imprint on them stronger than beliefs acquired later in life. It is very hard to deprogram early beliefs, even silly and irrational beliefs. Why is that?

One theory is cognitive dissonance. That theory studies the psychological stress caused by people experiencing conflicting information, usually caused by having old beliefs exposed to new and contradictory information.

For some people, accepting new information can undermine their psychological stability so it becomes imperative to go to any extreme to preserve the beliefs that define their sense of reality. Decades ago, a number of books became popular promoting atheism, with some becoming bestsellers. They may have had an impact because the percentage of people attending church has been declining faster in the last decade. On the other hand, many Christians left the mainstream churches and joined evangelical churches which advocated even more extreme Christian beliefs. In contrast, other believers just doubled down on their faith.

Many from that demographics became anti-science in several ways and politically skeptical. They deny climate change, vaccines, the medical profession, scientists, and even democracy. I’ve wondered if it was to maintain their Christian faith. Their cognitive dissonance is so great they are being forced into extreme views about how reality works. To some family and friends, these people are embracing disturbing irrational beliefs. This is further polarizing our society. If we are to solve our civilization’s problems we’ll need to heal this cognitive schism. To fix our relationships with each other and the Earth we must agree on what is real.

This divide will be the defining crisis for Christianity in the 21st century. If Christianity wants to regain its validity, its message must be universal. Christianity should have some core values that all denominations embrace, and even non-Christians will admire. Christianity needs to coexist with science, philosophy, history, and all other areas of knowledge. It can’t keep breaking up into smaller and smaller denominations and sects that claim they each own the truth, especially when those truths are so crazy sounding to the average person.

I’ve been discovering a different approach to Christianity in the last decade, which has been an emerging academic discipline for a couple of centuries. That is the historical study of Christianity and its texts. People who embrace both the sacred and the secular are pursuing these studies because it’s the most fascinating cold case in history. Who was Jesus, what did he really believe, and how did Christianity develop. The major focus is on the first century CE. What happened then and how do we know it.

And one of the primary methods for analyzing this period is the study of the New Testament. Most Christians, even the ones who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible seldom study the New Testament with such scrutiny. This kind of Bible study used to only exist in seminary schools – now it’s becoming a popular self-study. However, not all scholars pursuing this history are doing it with the same level of discipline. Many true believers have become Biblical archeologists to prove the validity of their faith even when it conflicts with secular truths. But what’s interesting is Bible study has become a powerful force for eroding faith in the irrational. There are several former evangelicals who are now university scholars that don’t believe what they once believed. And we’re discovering that the Bible does match up with history in many ways, but often not in the ways the faithful want.

Whoever the historical figure we call Jesus was and what he said is hidden by two thousand years of revisions and creations. Jesus, and that wasn’t his real name, is portrayed differently by the Apostle Paul, and the writers of the four gospels. The human being we call Jesus probably didn’t consider himself divine or claim to perform miracles. Everything we think we know about Jesus was invented by ordinary people decades after he died. They gave him an origin story and superpowers to compete with other figures of their times. Did you know that Augustus, the Roman Emperor, was also called a son of God? The followers of Jesus had to top that. And they kept topping every other competing belief system at the time. Their best recruiting promotion was to promise ordinary people everlasting life. No other religion promised that at the time.

Are there any clues to what the historical Jesus said and did? Maybe. One intriguing approach is the Jesus Seminar.

Many of the people who are doing historical analysis of Jesus and Christianity have examined a tremendous amount of information. Getting where they are coming from requires reading countless books. And it requires learning the disciplined approaches of professional historians. Yesterday, I discovered a video on YouTube that covers some of this territory in a very concise matter. It’s a good introduction to what I’m talking about, although some of the faithful might not like their light, even flippant approach.

After that, I recommend reading the books of Bart Ehrman or watching his YouTube channel. I find his books to be a more efficient method to take in information than watching hours of his YouTube interviews. In 2016 I wrote a review of some of his books for Book Riot. Back in 2014, I reviewed five of his books for this blog.

Trying to decipher who Jesus was is an enticing historical mystery to solve, and I think from the YouTube videos I’ve been seeing, it’s becoming very popular. I’m guessing that it will reshape Christianity. I’d like to think the teachings of the historical Jesus had certain unique philosophical insights but it’s almost impossible to know them until we can distinguish what he might have said from the fiction created about him during the first and second centuries.

JWH  

Reading Elizabeth Strout

by James Wallace Harris, 12/15/22

My fiction of choice has always been science fiction, but I’ve recently had my fill of that genre and started reading contemporary and literary fiction. I got hooked on the books of Elizabeth Strout and Anthony Powell. I’ve finished Oh, William! today, my sixth Strout book in six weeks, and started my seventh, Lucy by the Sea. She only has nine novels, so I will run out soon. Hopefully, I’ll be satiated and can try somebody new, but I’m hooked on her now. (Concurrently, I’m on the fifth book of the twelve in Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series, but that’s another story for another time.)

I began my addiction to Elizabeth Stout with Olive Kitteridge, a “novel” composed of 13 short stories. I saw the HBO miniseries based on the book years ago, but when I tried to watch the show again after finishing the book I realize it wasn’t the same experience. My image of Olive is not Frances McDormand’s version even though I liked her version very much.

I also read the sequel Olive, Again which adds another 13 stories to the Olive Kitteridge saga. We meet Olive in her sixties in the first book, and we last see her in her eighties in the second book. I’ve seldom read books about old people, but now that I’ve become old myself they have become very appealing.

Of the Strout books, I think I’m the most partial to the Olive stories, but I also love the Lucy Barton books too. There are four in that series, My Name is Lucy Barton, Anything is Possible, Oh, William! and Lucy by the Sea.

I feel both series are kind of experimental. Olive’s story is told in short stories, where some stories only have cameo appearances by Olive. Lucy narrates her story in the first, third, and fourth books, but in the second novel, we hear about Lucy from other people. I found that perspective fascinating after the first book. I listen to the books on audio, and in the books where Lucy narrates, they each feel like one long monologue. The only standalone Strout story I’ve read is Abide With Me, which has a best-seller-type third-person structure.

What’s striking about both series is the sparse, clean prose that feels like a hyperrealistic painting. I believe that’s why I like these books so much after all the science fiction I’ve been gorging on. They are hard, concrete, and mundane which contrasts sharply with the otherworldy fantasy of science fiction.

I got hooked on Strout because of my friend Linda. After I read Olive Kitteridge I started mentioning Strout to my friends and I learned that Anne (Old Anne) had already gotten hooked too. She was reading Strout in publication order and insisted that I should start over and do the same. I didn’t agree. When I mentioned to Annie (New Ann) that we were reading Strout, she wanted to read her too.

Along the way, Linda told me that she heard a Kelly Corrigan interview with Nick Hornby where she asked him what was the last book he was most impressed with, and Hornby had said Oh, William! (For now, I agree too.)

You can search online for the recommended reading order for reading Elizabeth Strout and find opposing opinions. I don’t know if it matters, even within the Olive and Lucy series. For example, if you only read Oh, William! it would work fine as a standalone novel. But I was happy that I read them in series order. Starting Stout with her first book is fine, but I feel her later books are the best.

One reason why I don’t think reading order is important is they all have the same theme. Stout likes to explore how we really don’t know each other, especially our parents, siblings, children, and spouses. And we also don’t know ourselves either. Her books inspire me to pay more attention to the folks in my life and myself. Don’t worry, they aren’t heavy. Strout succeeds with lightness.

I’ve been listening to the Elizabeth Strout books, but I liked them so much that I’ve been buying hardback copies to study. I even ordered a copy of Best American Short Stories 2013 where Strout was the guest editor. I want to see what kind of fiction she admired.

Are any of y’all fans of Elizabeth Strout?

JWH

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