Showing posts with label Children's Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Children's Books. Show all posts

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.

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!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bits and Bobs

I decided to write a rambling post today.  While I'm enjoying the Little Women read-along so much, I decided to take a day off and write about happenings.  Early March seems to make me ramble.

The kitchen has been filled with activity all week.  With chilly weather and blizzard-like conditions pretty much all the time, we've been keeping the kitchen going to keep the house warm, since the kitchen is the draftiest, coldest room of the house.  There is always something on the stove or in the oven these days-sourdough bread, lime and sea salt brownies, hot and sour soup, pots of stock, baguettes, and much more.  While the table was a mess, the sun came streaming in a window and I snapped a couple of pictures.  It's amazing how pretty a baking mess can look.
The baguettes.  Delicious, but not pretty.
Lime and Sea-Salt Brownies from Kitchn.  Delicious!
Just a pretty mess.  A tea towel, dusts of flour, and the lime zest for the brownies.

Homemade Hot and Sour Soup, also from Kitchn.

I started a book called To the Wild Sky by Ivan Southall who is, apparently a fairly well-known Australian children's author from the 50s and 60s who wrote about children having adventures.  To the Wild Sky is about six children who are on a plane to a birthday party in New South Wales.  Their plans are immediately thrown to the wind when the pilot dies, leaving them in a rapidly falling plane.  One of the boys steers the plane to safety on a deserted island, where the children have to learn to fend for themselves.  It's very exciting and I'm really enjoying having such a gripping book.


While spring is lovely and I absolutely can't wait to see ground again (even muddy ground!) I saw struck by the absolute gorgeousness of winter as I looked out the window at this.



Today is World Book Day!  What are you reading today?  I have To the Wild Sky, Little Women, a few inspiration cookbooks, and November Knits, a knitting book.


It's the Easter Dress time of year again!  I have my dress about half done and waiting by my sewing machine.  I found some fairly cheap organic cotton voile that looks like watercolors.  I'm making it up in a 50s party dress pattern, which I think is going to work perfectly as an Easter dress.

I'm doing the view with sleeves


I am so proud of those neat little pin tucks all down the front.  I still have buttons, a skirt,
and sleeves to put on, but it's starting to feel like a real dress now!




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.
*********************************************************************************
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!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Thoughts on Narnia

(Girl With Her Head in a Book did a lovely post on Top Ten Irritating Book Characters.  One of the characters she listed was Susan, the responsible big sister in Chronicles of Narnia.  And that is how this train of thought started.)

Narnia is a series that I remember so fondly.  Throughout my elementary school years, my dad was primarily the evening read-aloud parent and we plowed through so many classic children's books together-Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, A Wrinkle in Time and Meet the Austins, Matilda, and so many more.  And, of course, The Chronicles of Narnia made it onto the list.  I remember loving them.  I wept bitterly through Aslan's death and resurrection and laughed at dear Mr. Tumnus and all of the other wonderful characters.  Narnia is one of those books that will live on in my memory probably forever.  Then I picked up the books again at some point recently (maybe 2 years ago?) and I began to notice new elements.

Of course, by the time I read the books again recently,  I was well acquainted with C.S. Lewis and had enjoyed The Great Divorce and the Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity and all of those books.  And I really do admire Lewis as a thinker and a Christian.  However, I also came to realize that he was very much a man of his time and his opinions come through loud and clear.

Of course, it's a pretty much universally known piece of information that Narnia is one great biblical analogy.  The books are about the Christian story, starting with the new worlds created when Edmund and Lucy jump into the pools in The Magician's Nephew and ending with the Book of Revelation-filled The Last Battle.  Aslan is, of course, Jesus and the four children are everyman/everywoman/other biblical characters as needed.  The evil white witch is, I suppose, Satan.  You could go into a whole analysis of why the representation of evil is a human female and I know that many people have.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The thing that drove me wild while reading these books recently was that C.S. Lewis was sexist as all get out.  I think it's interesting that this came out most in a children's book.  It didn't cross my mind when I was reading, say Mere Christianity, but the message is loud and clear throughout most of the book.  I think that we can say very mildly that Lewis did not, ahem, have a very contemporary view of gender and race.

Susan, in particular, bothered me.  She goes from being the personality-less big sister whose sole purpose in life is being the stable Martha-like (as in the Mary and Martha story) character to being cast out of Narnia because she has become interested in makeup and parties.  This struck me as so strange and I will confess to be annoyed to no end on behalf of all big sisters everywhere. And then there's the white witch and her other evil counterpart who appears in The Silver Chair, The Lady of the Green Kirtle, or the Emerald Witch.  There were some weird comparisons to Eve in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of The Magician's Nephew.  Those are just a few off the top of my head.

The other thing I cringed over was the racism in the Horse and His Boy.  I mean, it was bad enough that I was cringing while reading.  Sheesh, did he really just say that?  And that does make a book uncomfortable to read.  The portrayal of the Calormens is hard to take at best; they are every Middle Eastern stereotype you've ever heard.  And the way that they are constantly contrasted with the fair people of Narnia made me gag.

It gives me a bit of a pang to admit all of this.  See, I still absolutely adore Narnia.  The imagery is some of the best out there, the characters are all lovable and the plot is perfectly crafted.  I would be loath to tell any parent not to read these books to their children.  On the contrary, if I were running the world, I would insist on every parent reading these books to all of their children, simply for the beautiful storytelling.  There are some pretty wonderful truths throughout the books that I think everybody should hear, like sibling loyalty and the importance of a culture and, oh, a thousand things.  I could write a whole series of posts on things that Narnia taught me.

So I wonder, am I overreacting?  Should I treat Narnia like I would any old book-appreciating the good stories and the wonderful things they have to offer, while also acknowledging that we have moved on in some ways in our modern world?  And the thing is, all authors are human and, therefore, all authors are flawed and products of their times and places.  Can any book ever be perfect?

I'm not sure why this book struck me particularly.  Perhaps because it was such a crucial book in my childhood, or maybe just because it's such good writing.  Maybe if the writing were less that perfect, I would be willing to write off the author's flaws more easily.  Is it because C. S. Lewis is such a good, good writer that it is harder to acknowledge his personal flaws?

So those are my Narnia musings, all set off by a simple comment and having read the books recently.  Now, tell me, what are your thoughts on Narnia?  Should it get a free pass on any kind of scrutiny because it is such beloved and wonderful writing?  Should we just throw it out and stop romanticizing over the writing?  Or should we strike some kind of happy medium of acknowledging it's problems while also accepting that this is some of the loveliest children's fiction out there?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle

As part of giving up library reading for the month of January, I've been spending lots of my perusing my own bookshelves.  I have quite a collection of children's books from my own childhood and one that I re-read on a whim during this Christmas vacation was Meet the Austins.  Pretty much everybody I know has read and loved this dear book by Madeleine L'Engle.  If you haven't read this, I am, frankly, shocked.  You must go at once and read it.
I think this might be an original.  See the 60s hair and the mother below in her 60s swing coat?



Meet the Austins is narrated by 12 year old Vicky Austin.  Right on the cusp of adolescence, Vicky, along with her charming family-Her father, mother, older brother, John, younger sister, Suzy, and younger brother, Rob, as well as a kindly bachelor uncle and a doting adopted aunt-experience a whirlwind series of events.

It all starts after a description of a lovely day that completely convinced me of L'Engle's writing powers before the book really started.  This description was so lovingly written that I instantly flashed back to so many evenings like this in my own childhood.  Everybody roaring around, dinner cooking, the mad race to the telephone every time it rings.  And then everything comes to a standstill when Aunt Elena, mother's roommate from boarding school, calls and tells them that her husband is dead in a plane crash, along with his copilot who has left a little girl.

Of course, the Austins agree to take in the little girl, Maggy, since Elena, who was made her godmother, is a concert pianist about to go on tour.  Maggy completely upsets the family's daily life by turning out to be a train wreck of a child.  But, over time, she comes to find a home with the loving Austins.

Along the way, there are funny and charming family stories.  There is one, in particular, that made me laugh out loud in which the whole family dresses eccentrically to shock one of the uncle's snobbish girlfriends.  The Austins have all kinds of adventures while getting used to the shell-shocked Maggy, from picnics to stargazing to a trip to see the grandfather who lives in a barn.

One of the reasons I love this book so much is that it is a direct refutation of Hemingway's famous quote about unhappy families, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  This book shows that, no, happy families are different and interesting and absorbing.  To be miserable does not necessarily mean that one is romantic or interesting or enjoyable to read about.

The story is also interestingly written.  It's written exactly like a child telling you a (slightly longwinded) life story.  Of course there's a plot and direction and flow to the book in a way that a child's story wouldn't, but there is something about the quality of the writing that is so childlike.  For one thing, everything is presented exactly at face value without a lot of analysis on the part of the narrator.  Also, the sentences are kind of run-on.  It's not in a bad-writing-run-on-sentence kind of way, but in a child talking kind of way.  Just think about the last conversation you had with a 12 year old.  That's what the book reads like.  But trust me, it's charming, not annoying.

Some interesting things stood out reading this book this time through.  The main thing was my perception of Maggy.  Now, realize that I last read this book in 6th grade, maybe.  I absolutely despised Maggy and was truly enraged at how she consumed the Austin family life.  This time around, I ached for her lack of family and her brattiness simply read as a very sad, neglected little girl.  Also, there were some pretty dated discussions and references (this book was published in 1960) that I thought were funny reading this time around that I never would have thought to notice back whenever I first read this.

This book is so beautifully told, so funny and poignant, there is just no way you can go through your whole life and not pick up this book at least once.  If you have a child in your life, this would make an absolutely marvelous read aloud.  And if not, or even if you do, you must read this for yourself.


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What I Read in 2014

I read a lot this year.  I think I read so much because I had this blog that was quietly tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me to take the time to read and write on my blog.  Yes, there was my (brief) hiatus from blogging, back in the fall, but I could never completely leave this blog and, so, I'm committing to a brisker blog schedule and even more reading this year!  I thought I would compile a list of what I read this year.  I was so pleased, readers!  The list starts in March because that was when I started blogging and, honestly, I have absolutely no memory of what I read before that.

March

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery (And my first blog post!)
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Still one of my favorite works of fiction)
The Penderwicks Books by Jeanne Birdsall
Two Sherlock Holmes Books
Canterbury Tales
Kilmeny of the Orchard by L.M. Montgomery
Hotel Paradise by Martha Grimes
Don't Look Now by Daphne DuMaurier (NOT a hit!)
The Beginning of Flavia de Luce
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays
The Life of Pi

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden

Well, dear readers, I'm back!  I'm afraid I've left you in a bit of a blogpostless desert, so I have a nice long book review for you today to make amends.

I started the beginning of a long Christmas vacation and, to celebrate, I grabbed the book on top of my (mountainous) book pile-The Diddakoi.  It had been highly recommended to me, so I was eager to start it.  I read the whole book in about 2 hours and then emerged, blinking, into the real world.

The Diddakoi is about a 7 year old gypsy girl, Kizzy, who lives with her great-great grandmother and her beloved horse in a caravan on the edge of an old English admiral's property.  There are some of the loveliest description scenes I have ever read, such as this one:

"And they (her clothes) did smell, but not of dirt.  Gran washed them often, hanging them along the hedge, while Kizzy wrapped herself in a blanket; they smelled of the open air, of woodsmoke, and a little of the old horse, Joe, because she hugged him often."

And with that little quote, I am instantly transported to this scene.  However, Kizzy's romantic life outdoors is not to be.  She is sent to the local school with the (spoiler alert: nasty!) children.  They tease and torment her, calling her all kinds of awful derogatory terms that were, apparently, in common vernacular at that time and place, from "Diddakoi to "Clothes-Washer" to many, many more.  They pull her hair and push her and smack her and make fun of her endlessly, to the point where it isn't just little kids insulting, but real, concentrated hatefulness.  And, to make matters worse, the teacher is a well-meaning lady who has no idea how to handle the children.

One day, Kizzy comes home from school to the news that her grandmother has died.  The gypsy relatives show up, burn the caravan, as is customary, and then prove themselves to be quite unsavory people.  Kizzy runs away with dear Joe, her horse, who has just been threatened with being sent to the butcher.  She goes to the first place she knows: the admiral's large mansion.  He takes her in, despite being an old curmudgeonly bachelor and he and his two trusty assistants from the navy nurse her back to health (oh, yeah, she got pneumonia somewhere along in there).

But Kizzy's happiness is not to be and she is taken before a local magistrate and told that she must leave the kindly gentlemen and go somewhere with a woman's influence.  After all sorts of awful adults discuss children's homes and foster parents, she is taken in by the kind, yet serious magistrate herself.  And Kizzy proceeds to learn to be a Nice English Middle-Class Person.

After I finished the book, I was in too much of a daze to analyze properly.  But now I'm ready.  Let me just say that the book gets worse, actually.  Stop reading here if you don't want more spoilers.  Kizzy is really abused by the little girls in her class.  There's one scene where they think her neck might be broken from being beat up.  It's awful, really.  But the thing that most offended me is that Rumer Goden refers several times to the girls picking on Kizzy as, "kittens fighting with their fur all on end".  By using the word "kittens", Goden has instantly made this situation "not that bad" and nothing more than children's nonsense.

Now, I understand that bullying as we have to come use the term was not a commonly addresses issue at the time Godden wrote this (60s, I think, but don't quote me).  And I have read (and heard personal stories) of pretty awful things happening at the time because adults were just not paying attention.  But here's the thing that made me truly disgusted at the end of the book.

SPOILER!  SPOILER!

After these girls beat up Kizzy over and over, they are finally caught by the Magistrate who scolds them and takes Kizzy home with her.  Some of the adults are properly upset and agree that these girls must be punished.  But the magistrate prevails and says that they must none of them do anything, because, after all, "this is a children's war".  Gah.  This excuse absolutely makes me froth at the mouth. And so they do nothing.  Kizzy is hauled back to school where, magically, she is made a popular British schoolgirl who is fascinating to all and everybody starts using the derogatory terms in a fascinated, loving kind of way.

This argument of, "This is a children's war.  We can't get involved," might be appropriate if the kids are bickering over something minor and nobody is getting singled out and pummeled.  But this?  This is truly disgusting.  And that's the thing that drove me wild about this book.  This is not normal children's behavior and Godden was treating it as such.  And it may have been a different time, but children have not changed that much in the last 50 years.  It does make me wonder what kind of tortured childhood Godden might have had.  And the ending message that Kizzy should have faced actual bodily harm so that she could end up popular and beloved by the little demons who hurt her?   Sheesh.

This book I was loaned was an old library copy and was marked, "Youth", which surprised me.  Evidently, Godden wrote this as a children's story.  I know I wouldn't hand that book to any early-chapter-book-reader.  And, really, it is an adult's story.  There are all of the heinous bullying scenes, but the book isn't even written from Kizzy's perspective.  The story is being told about Kizzy, but there's almost no internal dialogue from Kizzy's point of view.  It's the perspective of an adult outsider, looking in.  All to say, this is very much an adult's book.

The way that gypsies were addressed in the book was also interesting.  They were written about in a very romantic way, alternating between shock at their "wild ways" musing over their gorgeous outdoors, rugged life.  It was a little weird and probably not something you'd read in a book today.

So what did I like?  Well, the first 1/4 of the book, with the cozy caravan scenes and the heavily romanticized loveliness of it all.  Oh, and the section where the kindly admiral goes to the department store and buys Kizzy piles of lovingly described clothing.  And Rumer Goden is a truly gifted author.  She wrote An Episode of Sparrows, which I loved and she is a very good storyteller.

In closing, I wouldn't really bother with this book.  TBR piles are too high anyway.  However, I'm not going to scream, "Don't read this!" from the rooftops.  If you're really in the mood to have a good British Schoolchildren in the 60s analysis, then go ahead and have a good time.  Believe me, there's plenty to analyze.  It also appears that people who were exposed to this book as children/teenagers and have fond memories associated with this book seem to speak far more favorably of it than the people who picked it up for the first time recently, like me.  So if you've read it before, then go ahead and give it a reread!  You might have a completely different reaction.  I'll be back tomorrow with a picture post.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Peggy Parsons at Prep School

My latest read has been a very indulgent one-Peggy Parsons at Prep School-one of those boarding-school-girl books from the teens and 20s that were a dime a dozen back in the day.  I have a certain fondness for these books and found this particular one in a dusty little, out-of-the-way bookshop that was housed in an old mill.  I think the charming setting went to my head, because I bought three or four of this genre of books, I read all of them except for this one, which I finally got around to reading just this past week.

Peggy Parsons, etc. etc. is, of course, about Peggy Parsons and her multitude of wholesome adventures at her charming prep school.  Of course, there are the characters who have to be won over by Peggy's charming personality.  And there is the problem that is cheerfully solved by the resourceful heroine.

In this book, the main problem is the joining together of a handsome college boy (who conducts a serenade with the glee club for the prep school girls in the first chapter, by the way…that part was pretty fabulous) and his long-lost,  gruff grandfather who has a soft spot for Peggy.  But, along the way, there are picnics and midnight fudge parties and matinee shows at the local theater and strict headmistresses to win over.

Here are two excerpts from the book, so that you get a picture of what this book is like to read:

"The domestic science class, well under way with an excellent teacher, decided to have a 'bacon bat', after the custom of the Smith College girls, all by themselves on some bit of rock that jutted into the river….There was a jar of bacon strips in a paper bag, the bottle of olives in another paper bag, and two dozen rolls, a generous supply in the biggest paper bag of all.  There was a tiny box of matches, too, that Peggy slipped into the pocket of her rust colored jacket."

And…one of those fudge scenes that are so frequently talked about in this type of book:

"The room, with the little whispering group of girls in it, some on couches and some on the floor, garbed in all the delicate shades of boudoir attire, pale blue, pink, and rose, saffron yellow, lavender, and dainty green; with the tiny spurts of golden candle flame dotted here and there on table and mantlepiece; with the hot, chocolate-smelling fudge bubbling away in the chafing dish, looking like some fairy meeting place…When the fudge was done they put the pan out of the window and hoped that it wouldn't fall down and all be lost.  It didn't, and before it had fairly cooled, they cut it and lifted the squares in their eager fingers and ate them with greedy pleasure, down to the last, last crumb."

The book by no means displays good writing and is quite formulaic, but there is something so charming about such adventures, full of pretty 20s clothes and archaic food the likes of which I have never heard or seen.

I don't quite know why these books hold such charm for me.  They are often sub-par-ly written and, after you've read one, you've read them all, but for some reason, that doesn't disgust me.  They were also obviously a huge money-maker (rather like the Nancy Drew books) back in the day and written in large part to secure the attentions of girls for years on end while more and more books were churned out.  In a modern book, I would not hold with any of these things and would firmly refuse to ever pick up such a cheap bit of book, but something about the age of this book keeps me from throwing it out or refusing to read it.

I wonder, did these boarding schools actually exist, or were they romanticizations of a certain school-girl lifestyle that rarely, if ever, existed?  I don't know the answer to this question, but I do know that these authors always present these stories as if every other girl was going to one of these boarding schools that are always full of fun and games and little education.

If this sounds like something that you would enjoy reading, purely for a little enjoyment and light reading, I highly recommend seeking one of this type of book out.  They are fast reads and are an interesting, much-forgotten bit of fiction.  Unless you just happen to stumble upon a few of these at some cheap bookshop, they can be very hard to find and, when found, ridiculously expensive.  Also, most libraries don't have them anymore.  So if you happen to find one, like I did, snap it up and enjoy yourself!