Showing posts with label All-time favorite books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label All-time favorite books. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer's Guide

I think this book might win my award as the most influential book this year.  It made me think about reading, writing, ethics, human communication, and politics in new ways and inspired me to keep up my own writing.

Telling True stories, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, is a compilation of writings from award winning journalists and nonfiction writers about the work of writing truly good narrative nonfiction.  (Narrative nonfiction is simply nonfiction that is story-like in tone and styles as opposed to bare-bones reporting on the facts.)  These writings are gathered from Harvard's Nieman Conference, in which journalists and nonfiction writers get together to discuss writing and give advice.  This book compiles some of the best of these.   The book is directed mainly at journalists and secondarily at other nonfiction writers, but I really do think that any person interested in reading and writing would enjoy this book.  

Here are a few of the quotes that I wrote down and loved:

"If you give your readers characters who are as complex and flawed as they truly are, your readers are more likely to trust you on matters more important than character..."-Katherine Boo

"A place defines itself by its stories."-Jay Allison

"...we create stories by imposing narrative on the events that happen around us."-Nora Ephron

And, my very favorite quote that I have to keep forcing myself to remember is:

"No one, not even the greatest writers, creates good first drafts."-Mark Kramer and Wendy Call

In fact, this last quote addresses one of the challenges of blogging.  Much of what I put out on this blog is a first draft that I have just carefully edited for grammar and spelling mistakes or some awkward phrase or sentence.  I almost never completely rewrite a blog post.  Which makes me wonder, should I write multiple drafts of blog posts?  Or is the very nature of blogs such that this isn't something expected?

I had this many questions and thoughts and more with each essay I read.  Each one was perfectly written, with a distinctive voice and flawless imagery, smooth sentences and gripping passages.  The essays were diverse and full of wonderful advice and stories from the field, from a piece about writing investigative history to a fascinating essay about the ethics of writing about immigration and the fine line of when it is acceptable to step in and help one's subject and when this will simply mess with the story.  The book is divided into the following categories: Finding, Researching, and Reporting Topics; Name Your Subgenre; Constructing a Structure; Building Quality Into the Work; Ethics (my favorite set of essays); Editing; Narrative in the News Organization; Building a Career in Magazines and Books.  Each category was started with an introduction by the editors and then ten to fifteen essays written by writers and journalists, both practical advice and stories about working in the narrative nonfiction field.  

I took a long time getting through this book.  I'd read just a few pages every night, savoring the words and enjoying the process of thinking hard and analyzing each paragraph.  It was a long and lovely process.  Because I read so much fiction, I'm used to reading much faster.  Fiction does not require a very slow pace and so I can whizz through without necessarily having read every single word.  Nonfiction, particularly good nonfiction such as this, requires that you stop and truly read every word to fully understand the writer's point.  It was a good and refreshing exercise for me.  

I highly recommend this book.  It was influential and fascinating and wonderful, wonderful writing.  It made me realize that  I want to read more truly great writing as opposed to the mediocre fiction I come across so often in the library.  This is a book that you should definitely get your hands on, even if you are not a writer.  

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Re-Creations

One of my many projects recently has been fixing up the dining room.  I'm conflicted about what to call this project.  "Renovating" or "remodeling" sounds far too serious and like it should involve load-bearing walls and ripping-back-to-studs.  "Re-decorating" or "re-doing", on the other hand don't sound serious enough. After pondering this as I ripped out the light socket covers, I hit upon a name-Re-Creations.  This is a reference to a lovely book that I read many years ago and am currently re-reading, called Re-Creations.  It was written in the 1920s by the mildly well-known Christian author, Grace Livingston Hill.  Now, normally, I gag and read no further than page 1 with Grace Livingston Hill books.  She is smarmier than any author I've ever met, endlessly preaches, and writes unbelievable characters.  But, if you write as many books as she did (197, according to Good Reads), you have to hit on at least one successful story idea.  And Re-Creations was that lucky book.
The dining room, before any kind of fixing-up.  Note the chandelier and the stencils.


"Paint, white paint, had done a great deal toward making another place of the dreary little house.  The kitchen was spotless white enamel everywhere, and enough old marble slabs had been discovered to cover the kitchen table and the top of the kitchen dresser, and to put up shelves around the sink and under the windows...."-From Re-Creations, Chapter 12

The previous owner of our house was into stencils in a big way.  Squiggles and hearts, pineapples and flowers and every other stencil image you can imagine.  She put them around the living room wainscoting and the bathroom ledges, the dining room ceiling, and the entry-way.  She also adored eccentric lighting and the chandelier in the dining room was, I thought, truly awful.  Unfortunately, it all just became part of the scenery and we never really bothered to mess with it.  However, as I stood in the dining room one beautiful spring day, I realized that I was in the mood to do some house fixing up.  So, I went to the little local hardware store and got this lovely paint color from Benjamin Moore and a snowy white trim color and started painting.  It will be subtle and fresh, and much better than whatever was there before.
This is an awful picture, but it's fitting, because the chandelier is awful.

"The dining room had gradually become a place of rest and refreshment for the eyes as well as the palate.  Soft green was the prevailing color of furniture and floor, with an old grass rug scrubbed back to almost its original color....The curtains were white with a green border of stenciling.  The dingy old paper had been scraped from the walls, which had been painted with many coats of white; and a gay green border had been stenciled at the ceiling."-Re-Creations, Chapter 12

In the story of Re-Creations, Cornelia is a young college girl, whose family calls her home urgently because their family is falling apart.  Her mother is in the hospital, father is close to a breakdown, and the children are generally going to rack and ruin.  So Cornelia steps in to the dingy little apartment in the bad part of the city that her parents purchased and moved into without telling her (without telling her?? This part was unbelievable, to me) and begins to put the house to rights.  Since she was studying interior decorating at school, one of her first jobs is to redecorate the house, the proceedings of which are described in lovely detail.
After mudding and a coat of primer.

 "Cornelia awoke with a great zeal for work upon her....The set [bedroom set] in her mother's rom was a cheap one; and that she would paint gray with decorations of little pink buds and trailing vines.  The set in her own room should be ivory-white with sepia shadows....Cheap felt-paper of pale gray or pearl or cream for the bedrooms, and corn-color for the living room...And Carey's room should be painted white, walls and ceiling and all.  She would set him at it as soon as he finished the fireplace, and then she would stencil little birds... around the top of the walls for a border, in the same blue as the curtains...and an unbleached muslin bedspread and pillow roll also stenciled in blue."-Re-Creations Chapter 10

Cornelia, like our previous owner, adored stencils.  And, if I had 1920s stencils around the wall (and bluebirds...can you think of a more charming stencil?  1920s eggshell blue bluebirds), I probably wouldn't have been as hung-ho to prime over them as I was over some hideous 1980s stencils.  Oh, and the trim color currently in the dining room?  This bizarre brown with a lot of yellow and green in it.  Not mustard per se, but definitely headed in that direction.
The window and painted-shut door.  I'm not looking forward to all the prying
taping I'm going to have to do.


I'm in the mudding/priming stage right now.  Yesterday was day one and I spent all afternoon mudding over the drywall piece that had been added to move a door and over the cracks that have developed in the plaster of our old farmhouse.  I've added a heavy coat of primer and today I plan to add more, as well as sand and probably re-apply more mud.  So far, the process is gloriously fun and I'm looking forward to having a pretty dining room.

I love this final quote from Re-Creations:

"The first evening it was all complete the family just sat down and enjoyed themselves in it, talking over each achievement of cushion of curtain or wall as a great connoisseur might have looked over his newly acquired collection and gloated over each specimen with delight."-Re-Creations, Chapter 12.

Reading Re-Creations makes me want to get to work on the dining roomwith an even greater zeal.  I well know that feeling of satisfaction after the completion of a home re-creations spurt and I can't wait to have that with this dining room.  When it's all painted, I'll be sure to post pictures!  Oh, and, if you can get your hands on a copy, read Re-Creations.  It's a lovely book.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book

Lately, my life has been nothing but a whirlwind of deadlines and stuff to do and, as you may have noticed, this is not good for my blog.  Today, I forced myself to take the afternoon off and spend it normally-weeding the soft fruit bushes, which were filled with grass, puttering around the sewing room, and then, finally, doing some recreational cooking.  My eye flitted over The Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book and I knew that I had to make something out of it.

This beautiful cookbook is written by the two owners of a pie shop in Brooklyn.  It is of the modern style of cookbook that I think of as being heavily influenced by blogging.  Lots (and lots and lots) of beautiful pictures, styled within an inch of their lives.  If you look at old cookbooks, there might be a few diagrams, a few sparse pictures just for clarifications, but piles of pictures?  Goodness, no.  And, I have to say, while I am fond of old cookbooks, I appreciated lots of pictures.

The recipes have to be some of the best pie recipes I've ever seen-interesting pie crusts from a chocolate all-butter crust, a cornmeal crust, a pistachio coconut crust, an animal cracker crumb crust. And those are just a smidgen of the gorgeous pie crust recipes.  But wait, we haven't even delved into the pies themselves.  Chamomile Buttermilk Custard Pie, Apple Rose Pie, Concord Grape Pie (in a gorgeous design),  Cinnamon Apricot Pie with Vanilla Pouring Cream, Bourbon Pear Crumble Pie....

Pie is something that has a bit of a bad reputation.  It's viewed as something that is terrify and impossible to do, particularly the crust part.  This cookbook calms all these fears.  The writers of this cookbook seem to assume that, of course, it's easy to make a pie.  Of course, pie is not the easiest thing in the world, but it is not an unsurmountable task.  And these writers communicate this through their cheerful, confident approach to pies.  There is probably about 40 pages at the beginning of the book just going over the basics and I really recommend that everybody read those thoroughly, although I still maintain that the best way to learn to bake a pie is to look over an experienced pie baker's shoulder.  However, this is definitely the next best option.  I loved how carefully they covered everything from utensils to types of flour to using locally sourced ingredients, all accompanied, of course, by stunning pictures.  Who knew that a pile of winter kitchen scraps was so beautiful?

While I love a good basic peach or apple pie for everyday, I am an experimenter cook at heart and so I really appreciated this kind of cookbook.  However, I know lots of cooks who prefer to stay with the tried-and-true and perfect the basic recipes.  If you are that kind of cook, then I probably wouldn't recommend buying this book.  But everybody needs to at least check this out of the library.

Tonight, I will be serving a lovely Buttermilk Chess Pie made with a cornmeal crust.  What a treat!  Now, go out and get your hands on a copy of this cookbook and improve your pie baking skills.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder

Here's an interesting book that I just recently finished-and really enjoyed.  Philosophy is something to which I would devote copious amounts of time, if I could.  People endlessly debating?  Yes, please!  Probing theoretical questions that, pragmatically, aren't going to matter, yet give deep insight to what it means to be a human?  Of course!  I picked this book up about two years ago and it, along with so many other books, just never made it onto my current reads pile.  I ignored it and ignored it and let it drop to the very bottom of my list.  Then, in a fit of responsible readership, I decided I was going to pick something that had been on the bottom of my list for ages.  I book I felt sorry for, if you will.  And Sophie's World, it was.

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder is an interesting book.  It's very much a work of nonfiction, yet it also is a novel.  I think that it's technically a YA book, but it doesn't read that way at all.  Sophie's World is really an introduction to philosophy.  A Philosophy 101 course of sorts.  However, it's also an engrossing, well written novel.

Sophie is a fourteen year old girl who starts getting regular letters from a mysterious pen-pal, a philosopher.  The first letter asks, "Who are you?" and from there, the questions in the letters grow more and more complex, introducing all the great philosophers in Western culture along the way.  Sophie is instantly captivated.  But there is more mystery.  Sophie keeps getting mail written to a girl named Hilde-somebody that she's never heard of before.

I think that "charming" is really the best adjective for this book.  It is fresh and interesting and like no other book I have ever read.  Unlike so much young adult fiction, there weren't these dark, complicated layers.  No dramatic family situations.  No near-death incidents.  In so many ways, it read like a 50s novel, except that there was something more to it, a wiser sense that isn't present in so much of fiction from the 50s and earlier, a lack of naiveté.  Hard to explain, but enjoyable to read.

After musing on this for awhile, I think that this may be a perfect example of post-postmodernism, sometimes referred to as the New Sincerity movement.  Here's a very interesting article about it from The Atlantic.  And a useful Wikipedia article.  In summary, it is a rejection of cynicism and irony delivered in large amounts and a return to sincerity.  However, it differs from the modernism of the 50s and earlier in that it acknowledges the progress that we made in boycotting a lot of the problems of modernity-the patriarchy, the racism, the inability to question some things (I'm not saying that these things aren't a problem any more, but we at least have started to acknowledge them).  Post-post modernism takes the best of both modernity and post modernity.  In the Atlantic article I linked above, the author writes, "Across pop culture, it's become un-ironically cool to care about spirituality, family, neighbors, the environment, and the country."

And I think that, in some small way, that was what I saw in Sophie's World.  A new kind of sincerity, with nods to post-modernity and what it gave us, particularly in regards to the philosophical world.  Maybe I was completely reading into it because I happen to be interested in the idea of this new movement (although it really isn't that new).  At any rate, I have been bitten by the philosophy bug.

Jostein Gaarder is a good writer, too, which made this book even more enjoyable to read.  Writing the voice of a 14 year old girl must not be an easy feat and he very successfully writes in Sophie's voice.  I admit to devouring the book easily within 2 days.  In addition to this, this book definitely made me want to read Sartre and Aristotle and everything in between.  I do think that I am going to add some philosophy classics to my Classics Club list, though.

This is one of those truly good books.  A nourishing book.  I spent a good portion of the book taking plenty of notes and underlining because there were so many things to remember, but then I became so engrossed that I forgot to take notes.  All this to say, this is a book that is definitely worth your time.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Searching For Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

Last week, I went to hear Rachel Held Evans speak.  I had barely heard her name and knew her only as some kind of "theology-ish" person.  However, her topic-The church and its young people-sounded very interesting.  Still, I didn't have very high hopes.  I thought it might be kind of dumb, actually.  I feel very strongly that the church is far too obsessed with "getting young people" and that the current gimmicky trends are ridiculous.  I expected Evans's talk to be more of the frantic hand wringing, but I went anyway.  I am so thankful that I ended up going!  Sure, what she said was preaching to the choir, but it was still fascinating and inspiring and generally wonderful.  In addition to a wonderful talk, all the people in attendance were given signed copies of her new book.

I hurried home and stayed up till one in the morning ploughing through this book, thoroughly enjoying and agreeing all the way.  (Warning: In this post will be a lot of Christianese and pretty divisive topics currently in the church and I'm going to spout opinions left and right.  If this sounds boring to you, I understand.  You may leave now.  Okay, let's continue.)  Evans grew up in what she calls, "the buckle of the Bible belt", namely, Dayton Tennessee.  Dayton is also home to the famous Scope's Monkey Trial and hundreds up churches.  You can read all about her church-going story in her book, but, she grew up in a typically fundamentalist evangelical Christian home and church, only to realize that she was having all these doubts and questions, doubts that her church was unwilling to let her have.

After years of struggling to regain her faith, Evans now writes and talks about what the church is doing wrong-and right-particularly in regards to the Millennial generation.  It is no secret that many people under 35 aren't coming to church.  In response to this, churches wring their hands and get a praise band and a coffee shop in a frantic effort to become relevant.  Evans, in response to this, is writing about what the church really needs to do.  I fall in the Millennial generation myself and I did resonate so much with a lot of what she said.  She argues that the church needs to lose the fog machines and the coffee shops (if you've ever been to a church-wide convention, you know exactly what she's talking about) and regain its weird. Go back to doing the strange and the uncomfortable.  The foot washing and the confessions.  The communion and taking care of the sick and wounded.

She writes that Millennials are sick of having to choose between science and faith or feminism and faith, sick of people stirring politics into religion, the culture wars, rampant exclusivity.  Tired of having church be a place that prefers the pretty, everything-put-together people over the dirty, sick, lonely, wounded people, the very people that Jesus first called to follow him.  And, as encouragement, there are many examples throughout the book of churches that have taken this radical approach to their community.

The book is arranged around the seven sacraments, as named by traditional high churches-baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage.  There are stories Evans's journey towards reconciliation with the church, stories from other people, and beautiful, poignant reflections.  In addition to be a brilliant writer, though, Evans is hilarious.  I haven't laughed so hard in I don't know how long.  The topic is serious and there are heartbreaking stories, but through it all, Evans manages to maintain her humor.  And you all know how much I appreciate a funny writer.

There were so many other wonderful points made in this book, but I don't want to give the whole book away.  It's really something that I think every Christian needs to read.  Evans is unapologetically progressive (which I appreciated), but she is also a serious Christian.  She isn't the type of Christian progressive who breaks out in hives at the mere mention of the words "confession" or "sin".  Her fresh insight into our broken, but beautiful, church inspired me in so many ways-and made me want to have all kinds of discussions.

I can't even begin to recommend this book enough.  Heck, even if you're not a Christian, I think this book might be interesting (and definitely amusing).  Also, the book, while it talks about Millennials quite a bit, is definitely geared to anybody who has left the church, was annoyed by the church, or is just interested in somebody's thoughts on how our church needs to change.  Really, go read this.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

And here it is!  The long-awaited latest Flavia de Luce mystery.  It was eminently confusing, thrilling, shocking, and very strange.  I loved it.

(I recommend reading this post before you read this if you haven't read these books)

Flavia has been sent from her beloved Buckshaw (the name of her home) in England to the Canadian girls' boarding school that her mother attended.  Feeling rejected and lonely, Flavia sets off with the awful Rainsmiths, members of the school board, to her new school, Miss Bodycote's Female Academy.  However, there may still be hope for Flavia when, on her first night at school, a mummified body wrapped in a Union Jack falls out of the chimney.  Rather than the expected child's response of fear, she pockets some pieces of evidence to examine and sets to work solving the case.  But there's more-along with all of this runs the mystery of three missing girls who are never discussed.  In addition to this, she's making friends, constantly having run-ins with the strict headmistress, and taking private Chemistry lessons from the Chemistry teacher.  And Flavia is determined that she will be the one to solve both mysteries.

Parallel to all of this is an overarching mystery that has been growing throughout this entire series.  Flavia's mother, who died in Himalayas on a mission, was in some sort of secret spy organization, or so we gather, which Flavia is now expected to join.  It is only hinted at and pretty much all we know about it is its name-the Nide.  It begins to be revealed in this book that Miss Bodycote's is a cover for all sorts of work done by the Nide, something that some of the girls and teachers are in on.  Even in this book, things just grow more cloudy and confusing, but this just gives me hope of another book in the series.

Reading through this summary, I am struck by how ridiculous and formulaic these books could be. It's my own opinion that mysteries can veer off in that direction very easily and everything about these books could, if given the chance, scream "unbelievable and cheesy".  But, Alan Bradley never for a second even considers allowing that to happen.  The books are crisp and funny and exciting and, yes, even believable.  Flavia is a gem of a character, brilliantly written, and even made me interested in Chemistry (her specialty).  The supporting characters are no cardboard props, but 3-dimensional characters with interesting stories and unique personalities.  Even the villains aren't formulaic!

In reading people's reviews, I discovered that a lot of people objected to this book on the grounds that it was too confusing and that Flavia didn't end up with a clear ending or even direction.  I will agree with this objectors that this book did feel a bit like just setting the stage for the next book.  However, what I disagree with is the objection that Flavia didn't end up with a clear direction.  She is told that she "passed with flying colors" and, though we don't know what this means yet, we can understand that she clearly accomplished something.

If you've been reading the Flavia series, you really need to get your hands on a copy of this one.  If you haven't read any of them, well, you are in for a big treat, I think.  And if you have read this book, please chime in and let me know what you thought of it!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Where I've Been and My Reading List

Goodness, I left you in the lurch, didn't I, readers?  First, my family generously shared a head cold with me that left me sneezing and feverish for several days and then on Good Friday I was stricken with a nasty stomach bug, also generously shared by my family members.  So, basically, I've been lying on the couch whining all week.  That's where I've been.  Easter Sunday, I skipped church in favor of sleeping in, then, feeling 100% recovered, I went to the family Easter Dinner and had a lovely time.  On the way home, I started to feel myself crashing.  I came home and relapsed back into my stomach bug.  So here I am, the Monday after Easter feeling weak and still pretty whiney, but I'm at that stage where I have a very strange list of food I'm hungry for, including:
1. Pizza
2. Sushi, but the pickled ginger is what I'm really after
3. Vanilla Custard
4. Chocolate Ice Cream
5. White Rice with Soy Sauce

None of these are probably a good idea, but I did end up caving and eating White Rice and Soy Sauce for breakfast and, oh, did that taste delicious!

But enough about my aggravating viruses.  Because with all that sickness comes a lovely stack of books:
1. Great Quantities of Little Women
2. A bit of Don Quixote
3. Do Butlers Burgle Banks by P.G. Wodehouse
4. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley
This book was the very best medicine.

While the rest of the books were all very enjoyable, can we just focus a moment on that last title?  Do you know what that is??  It's the latest Flavia de Luce!  Squee!  This is the book that kept me alive through these last couple of days.  Those of you who have been reading for a while will remember that I dearly adore Flavia de Luce.  In general, I don't love mysteries.  They can be formulaic, gory, boring, unbelievable (what on earth is wrong with your supposedly charming small town that there's a crime every 2 weeks?), and/or drone-y.  But Flavia is the exception.  Everything about these books exudes charm and brilliant writing with just enough thrills to keep the books exciting.

I'm not going to give a full review today because I doubt I'd be coherent, but let me just say that it was everything I expected it to be and more.

And that is where I have been, plus what I read.  Tell me, dear readers, how were your Easters?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

This book is winning the "Best Book So Far in 2015" award.  My little library, always just about one step behind the rest of the big book world just got this book, which the rest of the world was talking about back in the early fall.  So forgive me for being just a little bit behind.

Lila is one of those books that leaves you blinking, as though emerging from a trance.  Set in Iowa during the 1930s, Lila is the story of a young woman, abandoned as a baby and then, later, stolen by a woman who was working with a band of migrant workers.  She spends all of her growing up years enduring hard working conditions, a frightening case of being abandoned by her caretaker and the group of migrant workers, then being rescued again.  After the caretaker dies, Lila is left to take care of herself.

One day, caught in a rainstorm in the little town of Gilead, Iowa, Lila steps into a church, little noticing that a church service in in motion.  Lila and the old preacher's eyes meet and, though Lila doesn't say it, they are immediately attracted.  For the next 60 pages or so, Lila plays a will she stay-won't she stay game with the preacher.  She slowly falls in love with him, beginning with planting and tending his garden.  But Lila, damaged as she is, is convinced that nobody could ever love her, that everybody is going to up and leave any minute.  Finally, Lila becomes Lila Ames and goes to live with "that old preacher", as she refers to him throughout the entire book.

This book is a prequel to Gilead, written maybe 10 years ago.  I started it and never finished it, so now I am determined to go read it.  While Gilead is the preacher telling his life story to his son, Lila is set much, much earlier.  I think I might have gotten more out of Lila, had I finished Gilead.

I'll admit that it took me a while to get into the book.  It's written in a fashion quite unlike anything I've read.  There is a present and many pasts, all told in Lila's voice.  So, for example, the book starts with Lila being rescued, then jumps to her, pregnant, sitting on the porch and waiting for her husband to get home from church, then jumps to an experience with the migrant workers when she was about eight.  This makes for very confusing reading at first, but, just like an accent in a movie, after a time you stop noticing it.  The other unconventional thing about this book was that there were no chapters.  This made an already wonderful book even harder to stop reading.  Where was I supposed to stop?  I couldn't end right at that exciting part!  And so I devoured this book very quickly.

The other thing about this book is that it is written solely and completely through Lila's point of view.  There is no telling what the Reverend is thinking, if the neighbors are really looking down their noses, and if Lila really is the terrible person she thinks she is.  All we see is Lila's shame and self-deprecation, only Lila's narrow view of herself and the world.  This makes for a fascinating reading experience and a new, fresh way to approach characters.

The themes throughout the book are very interesting.  One is the intense loneliness that both Lila and John Ames feel.  John Ames, from losing his first wife and baby in childbirth and Lila from her isolated life and the way that she feels that nobody respects her.  The other emotion that seems to dominate Lila's inner thoughts is shame-complete shame at having lived such a rackety life, full of bad experiences and bad decisions; shame that she, as she sees it, will never be as smart as the Reverend.  The other theme that appears over and over is Christianity and the conflict between traditional Christian views and Lila's life experience.

Robinson, herself, is a devout Calvinist who has written quite a few books on topics of Christianity and, in particular, John Calvin's teachings.  She definitely provides a unique view of how Christianity is good at-and falls very short of-addressing deep poverty.  John Ames is not just a preacher; he also is a philosopher.  That's really what brings Lila and John together.  After she steals a Bible from church and begins reading starting, of all places, with Lamentations, they start to discuss her questions about being a Christian, life after death, and more philosophical questions.

Lila and John Ames have a very interesting relationship.  He is 65 and she, though we never know her exact age, must be somewhere in her 30s.  And yet, they appear to have a marriage of equals.  I honestly still can't figure out why.  John is very educated, respected in the town, financially secure, and much, much older.  But there wasn't this creepy element of robbing the cradle that is so often in books about relationships like this.  I think that Lila's complete, blunt honesty is part of the reason that their marriage works.  Lila is so frank, so willing to point out John's own flaws that I think they can be viewed as equal.

Lila has a hard time learning to trust-both other people and herself.  She constantly tells herself that she is getting on the next train, even after she becomes pregnant.  She worries that John will decide that she is an embarrassment to him and send her off.  And she can't even begin to trust God.  But it is through some of the strangest parts of her Bible reading (Job, for instance) that she begins to have clarity, to realize that people love her and that she can begin to rest.

There were so many times where my heart just about broke, reading Lila's story.  First, when she is sitting on the steps of her family's house, crying because she has been locked outside again.  Then when she is left behind a second time.  But the worst?  Lila is sitting listening to a conversation between John Ames and his friend, a fellow minster.  The friend begins to talk about "lost souls in China" and, with a start, Lila realizes that all of her friends, her makeshift family, are "lost souls", the people who will never get into heaven, according to traditional Christianity.  She realizes with a start that she will never get to see her makeshift mother.  She tells John Ames this and, in his explanation, you can read Robinson's own conflict.  He tells her that, though the view of saving lost souls and hell are the traditional teachings of the church, he cannot reconcile this concept of hell with that of his understanding of the vast love and forgiveness of God.

It's interesting-I tend not to read either deeply spiritual books or books involving as much heartache and drama as Lila contained. And yet, this book has to be one of my favorites now.  Robinson's genius writing, combined with some truly believable and lovable characters has created a masterpiece that I hope will make it onto lists of must-read classics 100 years from now.

Dear readers, if you made it to the end of this (long winded) post, then please, please, please go read this book and tell me what you think.  Even if this book doesn't sound like your genre of choice, the beauty and pure genius of this book is enough to make you love it.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Little Women Read Along Chapters 9 and 10

(This read along is being hosted by the wonderful blog The Edge of the Precipice and I decided to join in with my own posts.  To find out more about this read along, you can go to her blog.)

Chapter 9-Meg Goes to Vanity Fair

Poor, poor Meg.  This is the chapter where all her vanity comes crashing down.  Meg is invited to spend a fortnight devoted to shopping and parties and dances and dressing with a wealthy friend of a friend.  What fun the Marches have, packing up dresses and ribbons and what little elegant clothes they have.  But when Meg gets there, she realizes that all is not as perfect as it seems.  All the girls (and their mother) are intent on pairing Meg with Laurie.  And when Laurie sends flowers, the following conversation occurs, "Mrs. M. has laid her plans, I dare say, and will play her cards well, early as it is.  The girl evidently doesn't think of it yet," said Mrs. Moffat.  "She told that fib about her mamma, as if she did know, and colored up when the flowers came, quite prettily..."  The fortnight ends with a party in which Meg agrees to wear an immodest dress and then proceeds to drink and flounce about and generally create a spectacle, quite shocking Laurie, who has attended the party.  Like many of the previous chapters, this one ends with a lovely sermon from Marmee.
Meg, 'fessing to Marmee-Credit: Project Gutenberg

Thoughts:

  • Here we see a very firm lesson on the dangers of vanity, as seen by L.M. Alcott, and Meg learns some very hard lessons.  She desperately wants to fit in with the elegant crowd, but can't for the life of her, seem to get rid of that little niggling conscience in the back of everything.  And, when she finally gives in to being "rigged up" and tries to enjoy herself, she sees that such pastimes can be very unpleasant.  Again, poor Meg.
  • I actually appreciated Mrs. March's lecture in this chapter.  Preachy?  Oh, yes.  But I still think that some of the things that she said in that little lecture are applicable to young women today.  The message of "better to be a happy old maid than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands," may sound archaic, but I still think that it's a message that might be valuable for many.
Questions:
Did you enjoy (enjoy is the wrong word...find interesting/valuable?) Marmee's lecture?  Do you agree?
Do you think you have some of Meg's fault?

Chapter 10-The P.C. and the P.O.

After many chapters of learning lessons and preaching, we finally come to an enjoyable chapter, full of fun and entertaining pursuits.  The Marches have a newsletter called the Pickwick Papers, based off of Dickens's book (which, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is in my reading stack).  I always laugh and laugh reading the copy of the paper included in the chapter.  And then, much to Meg and Amy's shock, it is revealed that Laurie wants to join their society.  Of course, he is admitted and more fun begins, starting with the installation of a mail box, set between the two houses.
Jo, leading the Pickwick Club-Credit: Project Gutenberg

Thoughts:
  • I had a similar paper when I was young and, in retrospect, I think it was inspired by the Marches, though I never really thought of it.  I love the work and joy they put into that paper and I think that this chapter paints such a lovely, clear picture of the March family and their happy, cozy little world.
  • I love this quote at the end of the chapter about the post office box.  "The P.O. was a capital little institution, and flourished wonderfully, for nearly as many queer things passed through it as through the real office.  Tragedies and cravats, poetry and pickles, garden seeds and long letters, music and gingerbread, rubbers, invitations, scoldings, and puppies.  The old gentleman liked the fun, and amused himself by sending odd bundles, mysterious messages, and funny telegrams; and his gardener, who was smitten with Hannah's charms, actually sent a love-letter to Jo's care.  How they laughed when the secret came out, never dreaming how many love-letters that little post-office would hold in the years to come!"  (Hint. Hint. Foreshadowing left and right.)
  • Reading this chapter has bumped The Pickwick Papers right up to the top of the list, so once I finish my latest book-a very funny book by Beverley Nichols that will get a review on Monday, Pickwick Papers will definitely be my next endeavor, thanks to the Marches.
Questions:
Have you read the Pickwick Papers?  If so, did you like it?  I think it looks much more promising than the other oft-mentioned book in Little Women-Pilgrim's Progress.
Did you ever have a paper you wrote?  What about a secret post office?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Little Women Read Along Chapters 7 and 8

(This read along is being hosted by the wonderful blog The Edge of the Precipice and I decided to join in with my own posts.  To find out more about this read along, you can go to her blog.)

Hello, dear readers!  I'm back with another long, Little Women-filled post.  I am having so much fun in this read along!  

Chapter 7-Amy's Valley of Humiliation

The chapter starts out with Amy asking Meg to lend her a little money to pay for the latest school fad-pickled limes.  Meg, being the doting big sister, agrees, little knowing all the trouble this simple gesture is about to start.  The foreshadowing of what is to come begins as Amy's friends start to cluster around her, knowing that she has a big package of limes.  We also know that Mr. Davis is in a heinous mood and has firmly outlawed all sharing of limes in school.  You can guess what happens next-Amy gets tattled on and is humiliated in front of her whole class.  The chapter ends with Mrs. March writing a firm letter to Mr. Davis and pulling Amy out of school for good.
Image Credit: Project Gutenberg's free online edition of Little Women

Thoughts:
  • I admit to having a very hard time sympathizing with Amy in this chapter.  While I had several unjust teachers whom I very strongly disliked, for some reason, Amy's plight with Mr. Davis does not stir me at all.  I have never sympathized with Amy's whiney, youngest-child, princess-like behavior and I especially don't in this chapter.  
  • This quote always makes me smile a little, "Just before school closed, Jo appeared, wearing a grim expression, as she stalked up to the desk, and delivered a letter from her mother; then collected Amy's property, and departed, carefully scraping the mud off her boots on the door-mat, as if she shook the dust of the place off her feet."  Dear Jo.  Even thought she and Amy have had their tiffs, she has true sisterly loyalty in Amy's time of need
Questions:
Do you sympathize with Amy in this chapter?
Have you ever had a Mr. Davis-esque teacher?

Chapter 8-Jo Meets Apollyon

Ooooh, this chapter.  The one that makes me ache and cringe and wish I didn't have to read it.  Meg and Jo are leaving for a play which Laurie invited them to, when Amy comes up and demands that they take her with them.  Jo is rather rude and says that Laurie wouldn't want Amy tagging along.  Enraged, Amy calls, "You'll be sorry for this, Jo March!"  And Jo is sorry, for when she returns home, she discovers that the little book that she had written just for father, and only had one nice copy of, was burnt by Amy.  She is, justifiably, horrified and angry and "shakes Amy until her teeth chattered."  Poor, poor Jo.  But then it gets worse.  Jo and Laurie go ice skating and Amy tags along.  She begs Jo to wait for her, but Jo, who is still very angry, ignores her and doesn't bother to let her know that the ice is rotten in the middle.  Amy falls in, Laurie and Jo rescue her, and the chapter closes with a sisterly kiss and a sermon from Marmee.  
Image Credit: Same as above

Thoughts:
  • Can you tell that I definitely side with Jo in this chapter?  What on earth possessed Amy to do such a thing?  And I think that Amy's temper is a lot worse than Jo's.  It just so happened that the time that Jo displayed her fault, it was nearly fatal and the time Amy displayed hers, she got lucky.  Had Amy's temper appeared in other circumstances,  I think the results would have been much worse.  So then why does Jo get the motherly, 2-page lecture with nothing for Amy?  Now, I understand that everybody was terrified and didn't have the heart to scold Amy after she nearly drowned, but she was just asking for a long lecture before the events surrounding the skating event happened.
  • Now, this is not to say that I don't think Jo has a fault in need of correcting!  No, indeed!  I just think that Amy would have benefitted from having a little more of a scolding and Jo would had benefitted from a little more sympathy.  In fact, I wonder if Jo would have been a little quicker to forgive and forget, had she felt that Amy had been called out for her temper and Jo's loss acknowledged.  I think some if it is the time period.  Jo's writing was seen as a cute project rather than something bigger. 
  • All that said, people are more important than the greatest piece of writing and Jo did deserve that sermon at the end.  
Questions:
Do you sympathize with Amy or Jo more in this chapter?
Have you ever lost something that you worked on for a long time and forgot to have a back up of?

And thus closes two of my least favorite chapters in Little Women.  I'll be back tomorrow with some thoughts on chapters 9 and 10 and then I'll be caught up!


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Little Women Read Along-Chapters 4, 5, and 6

(This read along is being hosted by the wonderful blog The Edge of the Precipice and I decided to join in with my own posts.  To find out more about this read along, you can go to her blog.)

Chapter 4-Burdens

Oh, this chapter!  You can just feel the whole mood of the book dropping from the high of Christmas excitement to the low of everyday work.  Meg has to work with some very spoiled children who make her wish for pretty things more than ever.  Jo has to go to her grumpy Aunt March's to be her assistant.  Beth must return to her daily housework and her shabby piano.  And Amy must go back to her school filled with richer girls and a mean teacher.  After a very trying day, they are refreshed as they all gather around Marmee as she comforts and inspires them with stories and just a wee bit of preaching.

Thoughts:
  • Alcott's preaching thinly veiled in the form of Marmee really doesn't bother me.  I know that it gets on some people's nerves (and I'm not very far into the book…perhaps I will dislike it later on).  In fact, there are plenty of times where I think that Alcott has very valuable things to say, even for today's readers.
  • "Meg was Amy's confidant and monitor, and by some strange attraction of opposites, Jo was gentle Beth's.  To Jo alone did the shy children tell her thoughts; and over her big, harum-scarum sister, Beth unconsciously exercised more influence than any one in the family."  I love this quote.  Especially because I have seen this phenomenon so many times in real life.  
  • And the quote that made me laugh the most in this post?  "'My only comfort', she said to Meg, with tears in her eyes, 'is that Mother doesn't take tucks in my dresses whenever I'm naughty, as Maria Parks' mother does.  My dear, it's really dreadful; for sometimes she is so bad, her frock is up to her knees, and she can't come to school.  When I think of this degerredation, I feel that I can bear even my flat nose and purple gown, with yellow sky-rockets on it.'"
Questions:
Whose burden do you think is the greatest to bear of the four sisters?  I must say that I really do pity Meg, but what do you think?

What did you think of Marmee/Alcott's preaching in this chapter?  Do you think it detracted from the story, or was it a useful addition?


Chapter 5-Being Neighborly

I dearly love this chapter.  We finally get a good look at Laurie and there is a nice little adventure in the middle of the chapter.  The story starts with Jo setting off on an adventure to try to talk to "The Laurence boy".  She succeeds and even gains entrance to the elegant house.  After a long, cozy chat with Laurie, who is recovering from a cold, she retires to the a lovely library, while Laurie has a doctor's appointment.  There, to her shock, she meets the stern, foreboding Mr. Laurence, Laurie's grandfather who Jo is just a little afraid of.  However, she makes a good impression on Laurie's grandfather, who likes her at once, and she stays to tea.  All in all, this has to be one of the happiest chapters in the book.

Thoughts:

  • There is quite a bit of girl-boy friendships discussions throughout the chapter.  I think it's quite obvious that Alcott knows that she is going to shock and ruffle feathers.  Laurie pays Jo a very nice compliment, which Jo does not even know is a compliment.  Afterwards, when Jo is telling about it, Meg says, "'I never saw such a girl!  You don't know a compliment when you get it, said Meg with an air of a young lady who knew all about the matter.  'I think they are great nonsense, and I'll thank you not to be silly and spoil my fun.  Laurie's a nice boy, and I like, him, and I won't have any sentimental stuff about compliments and such rubbish.  We'll all be good to him, because he hasn't got any mother, and he may come over and see us, mayn't he, Marmee?'"
  • "And, having pulled the boy's hair by way of a caress, Mr. Laurence walked on…"  I think it is very interesting that Alcott took note of this.  I'm quite sure that paternal interaction like this was the norm and I think it's very interesting that Alcott notices, and disapproves, of this.  
  • After reading about blanc mange in this chapter (and then reading the discussion in the comments on this blog), I decided to do some blanc mange research.  I didn't find a good blanc mange recipe, but I did make panna cotta, which is basically the same thing-cream, sugar, gelatin, and then other add-ins.  Basically a custard with gelatin.  And it was very delicious!  I made a grapefruit and vanilla bean panna cotta.
Questions:
Have you ever had blanc mange/something similar?  If so, did you like it?

Chapter 6-Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful
This is the chapter that alternately makes me melancholic knowing that this won't last and happily cooing over Beth and Mr. Laurence's relationship.  Beth discovers that there is a beautiful piano at the Laurence's, but she is far too timid to play it.  Mr. Laurence gets wind of this and comes over to quietly encourage her to come and play the piano, assuring her, through Marmee, who he is ostensibly talking to, that she will not have to cross paths with any people.  So Beth ventures over.  But then it gets sweeter.  Mr. Laurence actually gives Beth his dead little daughter's piano for her very own, a little bit of heartbreaking foreshadowing that only those of us who have read the book 8 million times will notice.  I almost wish I didn't know what was coming.  And the chapter closes with Beth and Mr. Laurence walking home hand in hand after Beth gives him her personal thanks.  *Sniff*  Excuse me while I leave to blow my nose.

Image from: Pinterest

Thoughts:
  • I often fall into the camp of people that think that Beth is terribly one-dimensional and too good for words.  And then I get to this chapter and I can't help but completely understand Beth in this chapter, though my personality has never been like hers.  I think this is the chapter that redeems Beth.  She has a problem, overcomes it, and makes a new friend, all in about ten pages.  What could be better?
  • I am really wishing I had the time to read through Pilgrim's Progress (or that I had the attention span to read through what I remember as being a very, very dry book).  The constant references are just a little bit confusing.  I mean, the references aren't bad enough that this book makes no sense without prior knowledge of PP, but I think it would be helpful.  Maybe some day…
Questions:
Do you think that this chapter makes Beth more understandable and easier to identify with?
Have any of you read Pilgrim's Progress and, if so, what did you think of it?

Whew!  And that closes one of my longest posts!  I'll be back tomorrow with more thoughts about Little Women.  I am enjoying this book so much!

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Plot That Thickens by P.G. Wodehouse

As I was experiencing The Cold That Will Not Quit, I turned to my new stack of library books and knew in an instant what I wanted to read-P.G. Wodehouse.  P.G. Wodehouse can cure any ills, I am convinced, and I'm not quite sure why he has not made it onto my blog.  He is also extremely prolific, so you don't have the problem of feeling like weeping when you find a good author that wrote one book.  According to a page in the front of my book, he had written 80 books by 1973 (he started writing in the 19-teens). Wodehouse wrote the Jeeves and Wooster books, which are probably his greatest claim to fame, but in addition to that, he's written about all sorts of hilariously eccentric characters.

This book centers around a whole host of characters.  There is a secretary, Sandy Miller, in love with her boss-turned-fellow secretary, Monty Bodkin.  Unfortunately, Monty is in love with a beefy hockey player, Gertrude Butterwick, who is putty in the hands of her father who hates Monty and has forced the lazy aristocrat to earn his living for a year.  Added to this confusing puzzle is Monty's employer, the employer's controlling wife, and the employer's even more controlling step-daughter.  There is also a band of thieves disguised as friends and valets trying to steal the employer's wife's necklace.  Whew.

This book is classic Wodehouse.  It has lots of humor and sly pokes at the English upper-class, a cast of very eccentric characters that grow more complicated in their relationships by the minute, just a touch of bad guys (but only the bumbling kind), a little romance, and a problem that will be neatly solved by the end of the book.

This book was written near the end of Wodehouse's career (early 1970s) and, maybe it was just me, but I thought I could read the wistfulness in some of his references to gentlemen's clubs and "the old ways".  However, this book still has all of Wodehouse's charm and frivolity.  He lavishly sprinkles funny, well-rounded characters all through the book, makes word jokes left and right (my favorite kind of joke, by the way), and crafts a very funny, yet somehow also gripping, plot that left me hanging onto the book until the last page.

This book was the perfect thing to get me over the worst of the cold and I'm sure I made a funny sight sitting there wrapped in a quilt and alternately laughing and coughing my lungs up over a book.  I think of Wodehouse as being classic summer reading.  I'm not quite sure why, but I do know that, as soon as I had finished that book, the spring thaw began.  Hooray!

So if you are the kind of person that likes Wodehouse's humor (I would describe it as a combination of just-plain-silly, sarcastic and…well…there needs to be a term for Wodehouse's humor, because it is its own category) and would like a welcome-to-spring (or whatever season you happen to be in at the moment) read, then I really recommend this book.  I enjoyed it immensely.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Little Women Read-Along Chapter 3-The Laurence Boy

(This read along is being hosted by the wonderful blog The Edge of the Precipice and I decided to join in with my own posts.  To find out more about this read along, you can go to her blog.)


I think that Chapter 3 might be one of the most iconic and remembered chapters of Little Women.  The chapter starts with an invitation from the rich Gardiners to Jo and Meg to attend a dance and supper.  Meg, of course, wants to go at once, but Jo is less enthusiastic.  There are extensive preparations, including a mishap in which Jo burns off Meg's front hair with a curling iron.  When they get to the party, Jo can't dance because of numerous problems with her clothes, so she disappears to a corner to observe while Meg dances.  She bumps into the neighbor boy, Laurie, and thus, we are introduced to one of the most beloved characters in this book.  They have a lovely time together gossiping and peeping until Meg sprains her ankle on too-small shoes.  Laurie offers them his carriage and they return home together, starting a long friendship.

Thoughts and Observations:


  • I always laugh at Jo's blunderbussey ways.  In middle school I had an unfortunate period of extreme blunderbuss and I remember doing so many of the things that Jo does.  Burning hair off?  It's a miracle that never happened.  Jo's dresses are always burnt (including her party dress) because she backs up to the fire-something I did repeatedly.  Actually, I still do that.  *Ahem.*  Anyway, I always laugh and laugh when Jo, who has one glove stained with lemonade, scrubs up spilled coffee with the other one.  Oh dear.
  • I really noticed the commentary on fashions this time around.  I'd noticed it before, but knowing that I was going to be writing about it made me think even more critically.  Jo and Meg's toilet is very detailed and everything from the number of hair pins in Jo's thick hair to Meg's nice gloves is covered.  However, Alcott is definitely critical of the attention and pain given to women's dress.  She writes at the end of the clothing description: 
"Meg's high-heeled slippers were dreadfully tight, and hurt her, though she would not own it, and Jo's nineteen hair-pins all seemed stuck straight into her head, which was not exactly comfortable; but, dear me, let us be elegant or die!"
  • This quote made me think about women's clothing today.  Have we progressed?  I know that I love clothes and enjoy spending time thinking about what I wear, but I like to think that, should a woman prefer to wear nothing but comfortable clothes, society should respect that.  Which leads me to my second question-do you think that we suffer less pain for beauty now?  However, I am not willing to say that we, as a society, shouldn't have rules about how people dress for different things.   Because wearing jeans to a formal occasion is just not okay.  But I'm also not going to say that women have to wear spandex or high, high heels to said formal occasion.  Anyway, I'd love your thoughts on this.
  • Jo and Laurie's friendship was obviously another place that Alcott was being extremely counter-cultural.  Boys and girls and Laurie and Jo's age would have been thinking of each other only in terms of romance and Alcott objected to that.  Again, I wonder if Alcott would be pleased that men and women can be friends now without raising eyebrows.  And, again, I also see that we have not come as far as we think we have.  Who admits to having even had it cross their minds that Laurie and Jo would make a good couple?  I know I have. Sorry, Louisa.  
  • The other thing that I noticed is that I can't remember what my Book Laurie looked like.  I can remember a time, back when I read the book in, oh, 6th grade, where Book Laurie had a face.  Then, I saw the movie in high school and have always picture Movie Laurie when I read the book.  I can't remember what that face looked like and it's something that makes me a little sad. That's something that I've noticed about seeing a movie after having read a book.  I almost always have clear images of the characters I read about, but once I see the movie, those characters are erased and replaced by the faces of the actors in the movie.  Luckily, I liked Laurie in the movie, so it's not like I have the face of an unbearable character etched in my mind, but it is slightly annoying.
Quote:
"'I don't believe fine young ladies enjoy themselves a bit more than we do, in spite of our burnt hair, old gowns, one glove apiece, and tight slippers, that sprain our ankles when we are silly enough to wear them.' And I think Jo was quite right."

Questions for Discussion:
1.) What do you think about the opposite-gender friendships discussion?  Have we progressed?
2.) What about fashions of today vs. then?
3.) Would you prefer to be like Jo-standing in the corner with a good friend making snide remarks about people-or Meg-out dancing?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Little Women Read-Along Chapter 2-Merry Christmas

(This read along is being hosted by the wonderful blog The Edge of the Precipice and I decided to join in with my own posts.  To find out more about this read along, you can go to her blog.)

It's Christmas day and the girls awake to covered books that are never explicitly titled (more on this later).  After reading the little books and being much inspired, they go down to breakfast, only to find Marmee asking them to give their food to the poor Hummels who are starving and freezing.  Afterwards, there are presents for Marmee from the girls-Hemmed handkerchiefs from Beth, A big bottle of cologne from Amy (who exchanges the cheaper bottle for a nice one), Army slippers from Jo, and new gloves from Meg.  And then comes my favorite part of Chapter 2-The play performance put on by the March sisters for some friends, followed by a very kind Christmas gift of a post-supper play, provided by the neighbors, the Lawrences.
I'm going to be including a new Little Women book cover
in my posts for as long as I can keep finding them...

Here are my observations/thoughts for this chapter:


  • The never-titled books are hotly debated over, apparently.  Some people say that the books are Pilgrims Progress, a book referred to repeatedly in this book, and some say that the books are the New Testament of the Bible.  However, it seems quite obvious to me that the books are New Testaments.  Alcott's family was devout Christians, just as the Marches were and it seems that only people unfamiliar with the devotion with which most Christians view the Bible would confused Pilgrim's Progress with the following excerpts from Chapter 2:  
"Then she remembered her mother's promise, and slipping her hand under her pillow, drew out a little crimson-covered book.  She knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guide-book for any pilgrim going on a long journey."

"'Girls' said Meg seriously, looking from the tumbled head beside her to the two little night-capped ones in the room beyond, 'mother wants us to read and love and mind these books, and we must begin at once.  We used to be faithful about it; but since father went away, and all this war unsettled us, we have neglected many things."
  • I am so impressed by how gladly the March sisters give up their food for the Hummels.  Even though they are obviously very hungry themselves, they know that there is always somebody else who will be hungrier. 
  • If the Marches are as poverty-stricken as the book portrays them, why do they have Hannah as their servant?  Surely you have to at least be slightly upper middle class to be keeping a servant on to do all the cooking and cleaning?  Or is Hannah just a dearly-beloved friend who also happens to cook all their food?  I feel like this gets explained later in the book, but this does make me curious.
  • I read a biography about Alcott at some time and I remember reading that she and her sisters used to put on many plays for their family and friends.  Reading Alcott's careful descriptions of the acting, the ingenious props, and the sibling interactions shows how close to memory these plays were for her in real life.  
  • My favorite quote from this chapter of the book is:
"A good deal of hammering went on before the curtain rose again; but when it became evident what a masterpiece of stage carpentering had been got up, no one murmured at the delay….A tower rose to the ceiling; halfway up appeared Zara [Amy] in a lovely blue and silver dress waiting for Roderigo [Jo].  He came in gorgeous array, with plumed cap, red cloak, chestnut love-locks, a guitar, and the boots, of course….Then came the grand effect of the play.  Roderigo produced a rope-ladder with five steps to it, threw up one end, and invited Zara to descend.  Timidly, she crept to her lattice, put her hand on Roderigo's shoulder, and was about to leap gracefully down, when, 'alas! alas for Zara!' she forgot her train-it caught in the window; the tower tottered, leaned forward, fell with a crash, and buried the unhappy lovers in the ruins.  
"A universal shriek arose as the russet boots waved wildly from the wreck, and a golden head emerged, exclaiming, 'I told you so!'  With wonderful presence of mind, Don Pedro, the cruel sire, rushed in and dragged his daughter with a hasty aside-'Don't laugh, act as if it was all right!'."  
And then I dissolved into laughter imagining this scene.

Questions for Discussion:
1.) What are army slippers?  Does anybody know about this?  I've been trying to get a mental image and am coming up short.
2.) What do you think about the Bible vs. Pilgrim's Progress debate?
3.) Does this play stick out in anybody else's mind when thinking of Little Women?  Because I think this has to be one of my top 5 favorite Little Women moments.

Monday, March 2, 2015

March with the Marches-A Readalong

Just last month, I discovered the lovely blog, The Edge of the Precipice and have been enjoying looking through her archives and reading her new posts.  I discovered her blog because of a read-along that she is hosting for the month of March (and onward).  Bloggers will read Little Women and then post thoughts and questions for discussion every couple chapters.  You can also check in with other blogs joining the read along and join in in their comments.

Little Women is a book that has shaped my life.  When life is unpleasant or hectic or even dismal, I often pull out Little Women and am comforted by the lovely homeyness and wonderful wisdom of that book.  When life is pleasant and all is right with the world, I still turn to Little Women and am amazed at how much the lives of the March family resound with me.  I love all of the sisters, but especially Meg.  She, as the responsible big sister with a love for clothes and a strong sense of justice and what is right always reminded me of myself.  While I've never identified with Jo very much, most of my best friends over the years have been Jo Marches.  In many ways, Little Women is a picture of my life, though I never had three sisters, nor lived through civil war and death from horrible disease.

And that is why I am so very excited to be exploring Little Women yet again (for what I'm sure is the millionth time) in depth on this blog.  Because it has been such a part of my life, I think that this must be  a book that makes it onto this blog.  I hope you enjoy reading through this book with me, even if the only reading you do is my reviews.  I can assure you that I am going to enjoy it.
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Chapter 1-Playing Pilgrims

This chapter draws you into the world of the Marches from the start.  It is Christmas Eve and the girls are sitting around the fireplace griping about their lack of so many things, until Marmee comes in, bringing a letter from their much-loved father who is away as a chaplain in the war.  Here are a few of the things that struck me reading through again:

  • Even though the civil war is a huge part of their lives (Father is a chaplain and Marmee is doing volunteer work with some soldier's organization), in so many ways it really isn't present.  There are still jobs to be done, chores to do, school to attend, adventures to be had, and the many, many delightful things that the Marches do.  In spite of the very real presence that the war has in the March's lives, it by no means takes the center stage.  
  • I had completely forgotten about the play that the Marches put on in this book and I am already getting excited to read the next chapter, which focuses a lot on the play.  I remember doing just this kind of thing as a child-props and costumes and far-too dramatic dialogue.  
  • This book is just so timeless.  Cliche, I know, but, nevertheless, very true.  While thinking about this, I had a sudden observation that I've never had before-Little Women hasn't been remade a thousand times!  You know how Pride and Prejudice gets remade and remade and remade in every style from zombies to this great fictional vlog (which, surprisingly, I really loved).  But anyway, I'm getting sidetracked.  But Little Women?  Aside from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1990s movies, which were supposed to be true to the book, there haven't been many reimaginings that I know of.  I think that it is because a.) Romance is not the key feature of the book, making it less desirable to many re-writers b.) The book is really more childlike and child-focused and c.) I think that we have Colin Firth and the hype that surrounded that Pride and Prejudice edition to thank for many of the remakes of classic fiction.  Credit for this observation goes to my mother, who I was discussing Little Women with.  What do you think?  I'd love to hear your thoughts below in the comments.
Questions for Discussion:
1.) This has been asked other places, but….which character do you identify most strongly with?
2.) What do you think of my observation of Little Women and adaptations?  Why do you think Little Women isn't as adapted as other well-loved classics, such as Pride and Prejudice?  
3.) Have you seen any of the movie versions and, if so, which ones?

So those are some of my thoughts for Chapter 1 of this great book!  If you're interested in blogging along too, please join, and if not, chime in in the comments section!

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Gipsy in the Parlour by Margery Sharp

I guess I'm on a Margery Sharp roll!  This book review has been in the works for 2 months.  I read this book right after Christmas, then the review got buried in my drafts box and now I'm finally pulling it out because this book really does deserved a proper review.
Photo Credit: www.margerysharp.wordpress.com
A very interesting-looking blog devoted to Margery Sharp.

The Gypsy in the Parlor is told through the eyes of an eleven year old girl who, every summer, leaves her lonely, cold house in the city to live with her big, bold aunts and their uninteresting husbands, the Sylvesters.  The summer of our narrator's eleventh birthday, a new aunt, Fanny, the prospective wife of the youngest uncle, comes on the scene.  She is the complete opposite of the older aunts-frail, timid, weak, and, finally, the night before her wedding, she succumbs to a mysterious sickness that threatens to take down all the powerful Sylvesters.  Our nameless narrator is the only one who feels the slightest connection to Fanny and we watch as Fanny uses this to her advantage.  And then (I am working very, very hard not to give spoilers here), our narrator turns from Fanny's pawn to the force that brings Fanny down.

I am curious about the use of the word Gypsy in the title.  First of all, in my edition, it's spelled Gipsy (and spell check doesn't seem to object to this, either).  Is this simply archaic spelling?  Spelling used in a specific geographic location?  This makes me very curious and I think I will have to do some research about this.  The other thing that I wonder about is how the word "Gipsy" is being used in this book.  The Gypsy is, of course, Fanny Davis, but the book never comes out and says that she is of Romany descent, so is this being used in the sense of, "person who is of dark and mysterious origin" or, "person who has done much traveling and is dark and mysterious"?  Just in the context of this book, I'm guessing it's the latter, but I'd love any feedback you have.

I was impressed by how well Sharp wrote a child narrator.  Writing about children is a skill that many authors don't have, let alone writing through a child.  I can think of many examples of gifted authors who simply could not convincingly write about or through children.  This is the only book I know of by Sharp, though, where a child is the key storyteller, so this surprised me even more.

The book's time setting did not look promising to me.  The story begins, "In the heat of the spacious August noon, in the heart of the great summer of 1870…", and I gave a little groan.   In my humble opinion, prior to, oh, the 90s,  a lot of authors were very unskilled at handling historical fiction and positively ruined a perfectly good storyline with all sorts of annoyingly anachronistic things that weren't necessary.  For the most part, I absolutely love fiction written in this era (1930s-60s), but once those authors turn to historical fiction, I quickly abandon the book.  All that to say, Sharp actually did a very good job.  The time period was very well written.  The observations on the decline that so many wealthy women would fall into was fascinating and so believable.  The narrator tells us, "It wasn't, at the time, particularly uncommon.  Ladies lay in declines all up and down the country…" and gives a very witty and biting description of declines and the lower-class's perception of them.

Of course, Sharp's wonderful dry humor is present throughout the book as it is in all of her writing.  This isn't one of her more famous books, but it should be.  I laughed and laughed throughout this book and was completely engrossed until the last page.  In fact, this book was so captivating that, when I was first reading the synopsis on some blog, I actually got a burning curiosity about the Fanny Davis mystery (and that was just from reading a synopsis, people!).  I really recommend that you find this book.  I suspect you might have a difficult time finding it, but I think it's worth it to search for it.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Mrs. Appleyard's Kitchen by Louise Andrew Kent

"Some of the best reading in the world, Mrs. Appleyard says, is found in cookbooks.  She ought to know because she began to read them as literature long before she took to wielding the egg beater.  "

So begins this charming book that had been sitting on my TBR pile for several months.  The Mrs. Appleyard books, written by Louise Andrews Kent in the 1940s are about the indomitable Mrs. Appleyard, a busy, cheerful, plump housewife with an eye for the funny and interesting in the mundanities of daily life.  I first was introduced to Mrs. Appleyard through Mrs. Appleyard's Year-a book that covered a year in Mrs. Appleyard's life through her journal.  I loved that cozy read and was so excited when I found Mrs. Appleyard's kitchen, a book oozing with all of Mrs. Appleyard's charm and chock full of recipes I want to try.

The book is organized like a normal cookbook, with sections for meat, cheese, fish, soups, cakes, preserves, and, my favorite, "Vegetables, including Spaghetti".  I actually do want to try quite a few of these delicious-looking recipes, from the peach ice cream to the cheese rusks to almond-butter frosting.  The recipes are not presented in the more modern fashion, with pictures and diagrams and whimsical musings from the author (I scoff, but that's not to say that I don't love reading those cookbooks on occasion).

However, in addition to recipes that make me hungry, there are all kinds of stories about Mrs. Appleyard's family and her thoughts on food.  You have to read through the recipes carefully because, scattered among the recipes, you will find little gems of stories.  For instance, after a recipe for Rhubarb and Strawberry Conserve comes the following story:

"An accident, such as might happen in any home-if Mrs. Appleyard happened to be in it-produced an interesting variant on this conserve and also a word for the Appleyard family dictionary.  There were not quite enough strawberries for the full twelve cups, it was discovered after Mrs. Appleyard had been out and pulled up the rhubarb from behind the springhouse and cut it into juicy green and pink cubes [can I add how, in late February, this is making my mouths water?].  Remembering that she had seen a bowl of crushed strawberries in the ice chest, she got it out and with a sweeping dramatic gesture poured it over the rhubarb and strawberries.  Now, the flavor of onion is a delicious one, but not usually associated with strawberries.  The bowl, in point of fact, contained about a quart of borscht with plenty of onions in it.  
No one needs to think that our heroine was dismayed by this happening.  She simply added a half-teaspoon of cloves, a teaspoon of cinnamon, and a little nutmeg, two more lemons thinly sliced and quartered, and proceeded as above.  The conserve was a particularly handsome color and of a flavor that-luckly, perchance-defied immediate analysis….It was natural, after this episode, for the verb 'to borscht' to establish itself in the family dictionary….(You can borscht a dinner party, too, Mrs. Appleyard says-but not always with such happy effect)."

So, if you like reading cookbooks, gently funny novels, and books that will keep you happily absorbed for at least a day, then I highly recommend that you find this book.  I think that it should be fairly easy to find.  I'm not sure about the other Mrs. Appleyard books, but Mrs. Appleyard's Kitchen was republished in 1993.  I recommend that you seek this book out.  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Nutmeg Tree

"I had a little nut tree and nothing would it bear; but a silver nutmeg and a golden pear…."
-A nursery rhyme and also made reference to in this book title.

This book, written by the accomplished Margery Sharp, was the perfect book to get me out of a bit of a reading rut.  I was feeling generally whiny in that late-February way and I idly reached for a flimsy little WWII edition of The Nutmeg Tree.   Feeling pretty unimpressed, I opened it and proceeded to become completely engrossed for the several hours that the little book lasted.

The Nutmeg Tree centers around the very charming, very much lower-class, middle-aged theater woman named Julia.  When she was very young, she got pregnant with and consequently married a soldier during WWI and, after he died, she went with the baby girl, Susan to her new in-laws house.  However, this proper, upper-middle-class life was completely stifling for Julia, so she leaves Susan to be raised by her grandparents and returns to the city life without a pang.

Fast forward 20 years later to Julia Packett who is in a sad state without a current man and not a prospect in sight.  She receives a letter from her very, very proper daughter urging her to come.  Susan has fallen in love with and wants to marry an improper man and grandmother doesn't approve.  Eager to win her daughter's respect and love, Julia determines to go and sort out Susan's problems, while remaining at all times a perfect lady.  But Julia, who can't seem to avoid some trouble at once realizes that her prospective son-in-law is definitely the wrong sort, begins to fall for Susan's eminently respectable godfather, and has to find a way to solve her pressing money troubles.  Can Julia, through all of these trials, come to respect herself in spite of her rough past, or will she continue to keep up the facade of a respectable lady?

I'm sure that Julia's life affairs must have been truly shocking for the time this was written.  While Julia's actions definitely don't raise eyebrows today the way they did back then, I am still amazed that we can come to love, even respect Julia through the book.  It shows real skill, I think, to be able to pull off a sympathetic, but not entirely respectable character, particularly at that time.  I really appreciated the emphasis Sharp placed on Julia's good traits rather than her social standing.  While Julia had had a rough past, she was still a kind, generous woman who was quick to sympathize and willing to help and that, in the end, was what counted.

I was also interested in how lightly Julia's abandoning her daughter was taken.  In fact, that is one area where I think you would see more social stigma today as opposed to in the late 30s.  Julia states very pragmatically that Susan will have a better education, better opportunities, and will generally become a more respectable member of society if she stays with her grandparents as opposed to traveling with her free and easy mother.  I think that attitude, while still in existence is at least less apparent today.  Of course, one attitude makes a very good story and the other, more modern attitude would probably not be as interesting to write about.

I completely fell in love with these characters while reading this short book.  This was one of those books that you read as slowly as possible in order to draw out the story.  The Nutmeg Tree is out of print now, but I think you could still find it many places.  I own this book, but I know that my library also has it.  Really, seek this book out.  If only for a few hours, it raised me out of my late-winter doldrums.