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!

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.

Friday, February 13, 2015

3 Quick Book Reviews and an Update

Hello, dear readers.  I am still here, lest you thought I was frozen into the side a snowbank, never to appear again.

In spite of my lack of blog activity, I have been up to a lot of things, some reading related.  I have 3 books on the reading pile, two of which I have finished.

1. Don Quixote-
My latest Classics Club read.  It's funny and enjoyable and the translation done by Edith Grossman is great.  I've been enjoying just a few chapters every evening by the fire with hot Earl Grey tea, my new favorite.  I usually make the tea into a London Fog-with lots of steamy hot milk.
But back to the book, there is something so eerily amazing about reading a book that is so old.  I'm quite enjoying it and there will be a full-fledged review, once I've finished it.

2. Small Victories by Anne Lamott-
I love Anne Lamott's writing and this is her latest book.  I have about 5 pages in the book and I can't wait to get a review up about it.  Lamott has had a strange, at times pretty rackety life, but the thing that strikes me reading her books is her incredible grace and wisdom through all kinds of scenarios that I am not entirely sure how I would handle.  If you haven't read anything by Lamott, this is definitely a must-read.

3. The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp-
This is a re-read, but I do love Sharp's incredible sly wit.  The Nutmeg Tree is about a young, irrepressible widow who is left in the early days of WWI with a baby.  After a dreadfully boring stint as a respectable young widow, she leaves the baby with her kindly in-laws and heads to the city. Susan, the baby, grows up dull and respectable, until she falls in love with an unscrupulous man and Julia has to help her get out of the mess.  It's really funny and was a very quick read.

In addition to all of this reading, I'm working and doing as little outside as I possibly can (which usually means just the once-a-day trudge to do the animal chores and then scurrying inside as quickly as possible).  I'm also dreaming of summer through a big stack of summer clothes that I have waiting at the sewing machine.  So see?  I haven't turned into a frozen brick of ice.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

After a month of going without any library visits, I was chomping at the bit to get to the library.  So, on February 1st in the afternoon I headed to the library and reveled in that lovely whiff of books and that something else that my public library smells like.  I headed to the stacks and then….found nothing to read.  It was quite a let-down after all of the waiting.  Well, I didn't exactly come away with nothing.  I actually don't think that is physically possible for me.  I got a book that didn't look terribly promising (can't remember the name) and then a slim little volume called Dear Committee Members.  It was on the new book shelf, but it was released this summer.  I was mildly interested and so took it home.

Dear Committee Members is written epistolary form, but it's unique in that all of the letters are letters of recommendation.  I was so impressed that an author could craft a book that was moving and funny and had, you know, a plot, that the story itself could have been pretty bad and I still would have admired and enjoyed the book.  The story is told through the letters of recommendation written by a beleaguered English professor, Jason Fitger, who is watching his little midwestern college fall apart.  He sits amid the rubble and dust in his office which sits underneath the Economics department which is being renovated to include such amenities as a heated yoga studio and showers.  Meanwhile, the eccentric English department is slowly crumbling apart as students leave for more practical fields.  There is a steady stream of students requesting letters and there is one student in particular who has caught Fitger's attention.  This boy is slowly wasting away as he works at trying to find a job so he can publish his eccentric book.  Added to this unassuming scenario is an angry ex-wife whom Fitger still loves and an old flame who also hates him.

This book is not the kind of book I would normally pick up.  It's a dry, biting humor as opposed to the more laugh-out-loud style that I normally read.  It's also a grim commentary, another genre that I almost never read.  The whole book is a eulogy to the gravy days of college life when professors were tenured and students flocked to majors that weren't necessarily job-oriented; when the arts were valued and students didn't write stories in creative writing classes about zombies and werewolves.  The book reflects sadly on the loss of such dinosaurs as the Slavic Languages department and the days of professors with multiple published books.  I think it was even more poignant because this book was actually written by an English professor.  I admit to be slightly depressed at the end of this book.

This book does not end happily.  I won't say more because spoilers can be annoying to some, I understand (I am not one of those people).  All this to say, would I have read this book if I hadn't been in such dire need of reading material?  Probably not.  But I'm still glad I took the time to pick up this book.  It's very well written and short, so even if it isn't your normal reading pattern, it's not a waste-of-time kind of book.  Now, this isn't just damning with faint praise.  I have to emphasis how good the book really was.  It's one of those books that you shut and say, "Hey, that was actually a really well-written, generally good book!"  Jason Fitger has a very funny voice and gets in plenty of jabs at the lack of grammatical common-sense in the US.  So I do recommend this book.  Go ahead and read it!


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Book Tag: I Mustache You Some Questions

Lory, from Emerald City Book Review (isn't that the best blog name?) just tagged me in a tag called I Mustache You Some Questions.  Since I have a bit of a penchant for silly puns and I enjoy book tags, I was more than happy to play along.   Here are the questions, most of them original, with one left out because I'm pretty (probably too) cautious about information on the internet and one added :

Four Jobs I've Had:
1. Multiple childcare/babysitting/etc. jobs throughout high school
2. Farming
3. Writing
4. Various musical-related things…some paid some not so much

Four Of My Favorite Songs/Artists/Composers
1. L-O-V-E by Nat King Cole-It's such a cliched, over-used song, but I still love it.
2. Doris Day-This is my cooking music
3. Chopin-When I was taking piano lessons, this was always the composer I most loved.
Even today, I will still listen to Chopin for fun.
4. Simon and Garfunkle-Actually, I love all this 60s music as a genre.


Four Movies I've Watched More Than Once

1. Mary Poppins-I think maybe 3 times?
2. The Parent Trap- Why are all my rematches children's movies?
3. Sense and Sensibility
4. Pride and Prejudice-This one wins for most-watched movie.

Four Books I'd Recommend
1. Absolutely anything by Jane Austen.  If you haven't read Jane Austen, your life is Incomplete (and that does get capital letters).
2. Something by C. S. Lewis; also because your life will be Incomplete.
3. She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith-I just read this and it's laugh out loud funny.
4. The Melendys-A wonderful children's series that needs to be read by everybody.

Four Place I'd Rather Be Right Now
1-4. Places that don't have several feet of snow on the ground

Four Things I Don't Eat
I am not a picky eater whatsoever, so I had to think for quite awhile about this one.
1. Eggs-Eggs are pretty much the only thing I don't like.  There is something that just makes
me shudder about eggs, particularly fried and dippy.  Blech.
2-4.  I absolutely can't think of anything else.  I'm not being pious.  I really can't think of anything.

Four of My Favorite Foods
1. Coconut (milk, flaked, fresh, anything)
2. Grapefruit
3. Really good curry
4. Bagels with lox, cream cheese, capers, tomato, and red onion

Four TV Shows I Watch
Well, I don't have a TV, but I do have Netflix.
1. Parks and Recreation-I've started with Season 2, because my friends told me that Season 1 wasn't any good and that the show only got funny with Season 2, and now I'm on Season 4….3 more seasons to go and I'm already feeling slightly sad about the end.  But really, if you like comedy, this is the best show.
2. Sherlock
3. PBS Miniseries, just as a class
4. Gilmore Girls-Except then it got stupid after about 5 episodes.

Four Things I'm Looking Forward To This Year
1. More reading, but of course
2. Spring
3. Some interesting job opportunities
4. Summer

Four Things I'm Always Saying
1. Have you read this book?  I can't remember the title or the author, but here's the basic plot line.
2. So I saw this thing on Pinterest…
3. That reminds me of this one book….
4. Can you find my (fill in the blank)?  (I am quite absentminded, which leads to misplacing things all the time.  For instance, the other day I stuck my scissors in the fridge and then spent a good 20 minutes looking for them.)


Friday, January 30, 2015

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren

At the beginning of January, I decided that I was going to read a serious book.  A book that would stretch me and make me work on stretching my mind just a little.  I picked up How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren.  It was the beginning of January and I was fresh off of making a good resolutions list and it felt so pleasantly stark and stiff for a gray January.  I finally finished it and I confess to almost dropping the book a few times.  However, I'm glad I stuck with it and I think that I will definitely be glad of a few tips and tricks that I picked up.

How to Read a Book was written in the 40s and was a call to arms for people to return to the serious reading of their forefathers.  This meant intelligent reading, rather than mindless reading, and also reading difficult books, rather than light novels.  In the back is a 30 page reading list of every classic that Messrs. Adler and van Doren believed to be important for the Western reader.

The book reminded me in many ways of The Well Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer.  It had similar themes and, while Bauer's writing style was much more accessible, both Adler/van Doren and Bauer were/are greatly influenced by the Great Books movement.

Not there weren't some problems with the book.  The book recommendations were extremely dated.  Now, before you say, but of course they were dated, we're talking about classics here!  The notion that Classics (with a capital C) are all written by dead, white men is a bit dated and one that I do take offense to.  And it's one of the things that I appreciated about Susan Wise Bauer's book.  She was happy to include Toni Morrison along with Charles Dickens.  Adler and van Doren's list was so skewed that Emily Bronte didn't make it onto the list.

Adler starts with the premise that there are 3 levels of reading and that we need to be fully using every level or else we will not be getting every bit we can out of the book.  First is elementary reading, which is simply the act of reading that we all learn in elementary school.  Next comes inspection reading, where you systematically skim first of all and then carefully analyze all parts of the book to gain a better understanding of it.  Finally comes analytical reading, the process of which takes up the second third of the book.  It includes pigeonholing the book, x-raying the book, coming to terms with the author, determining the authors message, criticizing the book fairly, agree or disagreeing with the author and then aids to reading are discussed.

Part 3 deals with specific instructions on how to deal with every genre of writing, from practical books to philosophy.  The last part discusses the ultimate goals of reading and ends by summarizing why we should all be reading in this way.

The section on inspectional reading was what fascinated me the most.  I had been taught to scorn the practice of skim reading, but Adler's words completely changed my mind.  He writes,

"Let us assume two further elements in the situation, elements that are quite common.  First, you do not know whether you want to read a book.  You do not know whether it deserves an analytical reading.  But you suspect that it does, or at least that it contains both information and insights that would be valuable to you if you dig them out.  Second, let us assume-and this is very often the case-taut you only have a limited time in which to find all this out.  In this case, what you must do is skim the book, or as some prefer to say, pre-read it."

Now, to be fair, the kind of skimming I scorn is not what Adler and van Doren were referring to and, if the reader determines that the book is worth his or her while, then of course, they will not stop there, but go on to read the book again.

The book really inspired me.  In fact, this book is a large part of the reason why I decided to join Classics Club.  I was so spurred on after reading this interesting book that I wanted to start in on a whole stack of classics!  However, while Adler and van Doren were thinking about classics and meaty books when they were writing this, I don't think that's any reason to not apply these tips to my everyday reading.  After all, don't I do a sped-up version of inspectional reading when I decide whether I want to read a book that looks interesting at the library?  And I'm already starting to apply little bits and pieces of the analytical reading step to my reading-asking myself what the author's message is or what the tone of the piece is.  And I like to imagine that it's helped me become a better, more thoughtful reader.

I really recommend this book and, while the book is thick and pretty tome-like, the writing is not at all difficult and I gleaned so many interesting tips that I think plowing through the book was worth it.


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?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Snow Day

We're in for a blizzard around here, which means that I'm battening down the hatches, but also making sure that I'm stocked up on entertainment and things to do.  There's a dirty house to get tidy and all the animals to tuck up first, though.  And a blog post to write, because it's been on my list for so long.  Be warned-this is a multi-part post.  So sit down with a cup of tea and prepare to listen to me ramble.
A little wooly worm that I found creeping across the icy snow.
Of course, I tucked him up into the hay in the barn.

*********************************************************************************
Part 1-Snow Ice Cream
Yesterday, the snow hadn't started for real, but we had about 5 inches, so I went outside and filled a metal bowl and prepared to make snow ice cream.  Have you heard of this?  I first read of this in the Melendys books when I was elementary school aged.  The idea enchanted me and I remember making a batch and ending up with sweet, watery milk.  After that, I abandoned the idea.  The memory of that flashed through my head and so I ran to get the ingredients and hurried outside to try snow ice cream again.  And it was delicious!  It's not like regular ice cream, but the trick is to keep everything thoroughly frozen in the snow and to eat the ice cream outside, exclaiming about how cold it is all the while.  I love making this recipe because it's pretty ridiculous to sit outside making ice cream in the middle of winter and, oh is it delicious.  I firmly shut my brain off that is reciting the litany of nasty stuff in that precipitation and pretend that I've never heard of acid rain, er, snow, and heaven knows what else and make this ice cream.  It's lovely.  Here's my recipe:
This is a terrible picture, but white ice cream against white snow is extremely hard to photograph.

Fill a smallish bowl with cleanish snow.  Sprinkle sugar liberally into the snow.  Now that I think of it, maple syrup would be delicious as well.  Actually, maybe more delicious.  Pour about a capful of vanilla into the snow.  Splash full-fat, maybe even raw (if you're a rebel) milk into that sugary snow and then lightly toss together, kind of like you stir egg whites into batter.  Your goal is to keep the snow intact so you have a kind of ice cream-ish texture.  While you're doing this, keep your bowl sitting firmly in the snow so it's staying as cold as possible.  Enjoy!
*********************************************************************************
Part 2-Winter Activities
I have the hugest pile of mending to do.  And, you know what?  I'm actually looking forward to tackling it in front of the fire during these blizzard-y evenings.  I've got a bag filled with yarn and thread and needles and a thimble and I'm ready to go.  I'm also planning to entertain myself with my camera.  I'm in the process of going through the pictures I just took off of my camera and sorting them and, I'm sure, throwing great quantities away.
The cute sweater-wearing (trust me, it's necessary) dog, but also
this perfectly illustrates wood stove season.  There is always ash.  Always.


*********************************************************************************
Part 3-The Buzzards in the Tree
I can't believe it, but these buzzards haven't made it into a blog post.  I apologize to them and now will post several pictures.  We have this very old tree that is dead, but provides great shelter to so many animals.  It is a spectral sight to look out and see that stark, old, dead tree filled with buzzards with their wings spread (we think they're drying their wings, but who knows).  I do wonder what they're watching for.  The chickens?  There are no carcasses that I know of.   I have become peculiarly fond of those old birds.

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Part 4-My Book List
I do have a book list, readers.  Of course I do.  Here it is:
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, because it seems extremely fitting
Essays of E. B. White
The Edwardian Lady: The Story of Edith Holden
The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
A new vintage magazine that I plan to read
I plan to keep busy with these titles.  I'm sure there will be more reading.  I'll keep you updated.
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Whew!  I'm finished rambling.  If you've reached the end, thank you for listening.  Now I'm off to stuff the cracks of the chicken coop with straw.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

She Stoops to Conquer-Classics Club #2

This is my second Classics Club read, which I think is pretty good, being that it's only January 16th.  This one was a fun read.  It was a running read and so I got to listen to a little every morning.  Hearing plays dramatized is really the best way to experience a play, if you're not going to go see it.

She Stoops to Conquer, set in England in the 1700s is about Kate Hardcastle, a young woman who has fallen madly in love with a young man too shy to court girls of his own class who, instead, spends his time pursuing servant girls and barmaids.  Kate meets this man, Marlow, who is being sent by his father to meet her as a possible suitor.  Kate is infatuated at once but, of course, Marlow is not.

Meanwhile, there's a secondary romance between Kate's best friend, Miss Constance Neville, and Marlow's best friend, Hastings.  In order to win Marlow over, Kate decides to play the part of a barmaid and, sure enough, he falls in love with her.  And then it gets so exceedingly complicated that I'm not sure I could even begin to summarize.  There were so many ruses and double-ruses and all kinds of mistakes of character that I must admit to my head spinning at several moments.

There are other characters involved in the plot, too.  There is Mrs. Hardcastle, the miserly mother of Kate who is forcing Constance (who, by the way, is her niece) and her nasty son Tony (whose tricks are part of what make the whole plot so convoluted) to marry.  There are Constance's jewels, which Tony wants to steal and Hastings wants to use so they can elope.  There is Mr. Hardcastle who is the main deciding factor in whether or not Kate will marry Marlow.   And there is a whole host of bartenders and sneaky servants who fill the pages and add to the general confusion.

I had a lot of fun reading (er, listening to) this.  I'm always surprised when I read a book this old and find myself laughing out loud like I would at modern comedy.  I think we as a modern culture have a bit of a representation of literature and culture at this time period as being stiff and boring and completely lacking in any kind of emotion.  And so, when something proves us wrong in that assumption, we are completely surprised.  This book was like that.  It proved that, no, people did like a good joke, even back then, and they actually laughed at most of the same things we do today.

The story in itself is very good.  It's not a well-known classic in the sense that all high schoolers read it, so if you didn't study theater or English in college, it's probably not something you would have come across.  I hadn't read the book, but had heard it mentioned in passing several times.  I'm so glad I picked up this book.  It was a really fun read and a great way to start out my year of Classics Club.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Family Circle's Complete Book of Beauty and Charm

Yep.  That's the title.  Wanna guess the publish date? 1951.  Knowing my inordinate love of all things vintage, my dear mother got me this book for Christmas.  I saved it for my Sunday afternoon reading and I just finished it this past Sunday afternoon.  And now I'm going to show it to you.

First of all, I took pictures of the inside of the book, so you get an idea of what it's like:


See?  The book tells you comfortingly that glasses can, too, be attractive, if you carefully
read their chart.

This caption says, "Even housewives need to take care of their hands!"

Properly applying foundation.
Necklines depending on your face shape.

I love books like these-books that are simply for the purpose of providing a window into another time, the purpose of inspiration.  This kind of reading is what I call Sunday Afternoon Reading, also known as inspiration reading.  Sunday Afternoon Reading is generally nonfiction, usually filled with pictures, always chock full of inspiration for the coming week.  I don't normally read for the sole purpose of getting good ideas or just for enjoying something for its prettiness.  Books normally have to hold something more for me, but not on Sunday afternoons.  That is when I pick up books just because they're pretty and inspiring and fun.  And while I wouldn't love to read like that all the time, it's actually very lovely to have that one day a week set aside where I do read like that.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Best Hot Chocolate

We've been in the middle of a pretty bitter cold snap and that means that I've been spending huge amounts of time inside.  Sure, it leads to cabin fever and absolutely must be relieved by (very) short daily runs outside, followed by standing by the fire whining about not being able to feel my legs.  However, my book load is lightening at such a rapid pace; I can't remember reading this much in a month before.
Can you see the little flash of red from the cardinal?

But, I absolutely require that there is a steady stream of hot beverages while I'm sitting by the fire of an evening.  I've narrowed it down to, truly, the best hot chocolate.  It's also the speediest.  It was (very roughly) copied off of this blogger's recipe, but I've gotten more loosey-goosey with the method in order to spend the minimum amount of time in my freezing kitchen.

When I was young, my mom used to make stove top hot chocolate when we came in from sledding-stirring cocoa and sugar and water until it boiled, then adding milk and heating for what seemed an interminable amount of time.  Then on the other end of the spectrum is the tepid watery sludge made by mixing powdered milk (blech), cocoa powder, and heaven knows what else into water that, for some reason, is never quite hot.  I'm grossed out just thinking about it.  This hot cocoa is the happy medium.  It's got the full-body flavor of the stovetop method with the quickness of the awful hot cocoa mix method.

This is like no hot chocolate mix you have ever had before.  In fact, it doesn't even deserve to have the same name as that sludge-in-a-package.  I think you'll agree with me after you've made a mug.

Here's the recipe and, oh, is it a lovely to have that hot chocolate ready and waiting in the pantry.

Get out a pint jar and into it put:
1/2 c. cocoa powder (don't bother using some cheap, Dutch-processed, alkalized baking cocoa…use a very dark cocoa powder instead-the flavor is far better)
1/2 c. white sugar
2 tsp. cornstarch (This is to make a smooth hot chocolate mix…don't leave this out!)
Now, this part is pretty optional and I haven't actually seen a huge difference when I omitted it.  However, you can add about 1/4 c. very, very finely chopped dark chocolate (I stuck mine in the food processor)
Then, when you go to make yourself a cup of hot chocolate, just dump, oh, about a tablespoon into a mug full of milk and heat.

Enjoy with your next good book!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

One of my goals for this year was to read some nonfiction and branch out a little from my usual staid fiction reading.  I started with this book because it looked funny, was interesting, I really do love science, and I owned it (fulfilling my requirement for a library-free January).  What better book to start out my January?

What If? is written by Randall Munroe, the writer of the website XKCD, a website where people post absolutely absurd what if? questions.  Some of the questions reminded me of the questions that toddlers ask repeated all day every day.  Except these are, presumably, written by grown people.  IF

Here are some of the examples:

If everyone on the planet stayed away from each other for a couple of weeks, wouldn't the common cold be wiped out?

What would happen if a hair dryer with continuous power were turned on and put in an airtight 1x1x1-meter box?

If every person on Earth aimed a laster pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?

How quickly would the oceans drain  if a circular portal 10 meters in radius leading into space were created at the bottom of Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the ocean?  How would the Earth change as the water was being drained?

Randall Munroe is a former NASA roboticist, but he's also a comic writer.  He brilliantly combines both his humorous comics with truly fascinating science.

Like I said, nonfiction is not something that I normally read, but this actually made me change my mind.  The book was funny and actually held my attention.  I wasn't reading as some sort of discipline  or goal to read something nonfiction.  I was just reading for the pure fun of it, which is something that I don't frequently do with nonfiction.

So I really enjoyed this book.  If you're looking for a place to dip your toes into nonfiction writing or just are looking for an informative, yet funny book, this is a great place to start.  I highly recommend it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Classics Club 2015

So I decided to join Classics Club!  It was on my to-do list for this year and I'm ready to start on the challenge.  I really love reading classics and so I'm quite excited to start this.
So here's my list of classics I'm going to read in 2015:

1.)  Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte-Technically, already checked off
2.)  She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith
3.) Paradise Lost
4.) Don Quixote
5.) Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
6.) Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan
7.) The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper
8.) Something by Emerson…haven't nailed that down yet
9.) Something by Dickens that I haven't read…
10.) Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
11.) A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstencroft
12.) Poems by Tennyson (I want to work on poetry reading this year
13.) Poems by Poe
14.) Poems by Keats
15.) One of Alcott's earliest writings that, according to many people, were terrible…I'm still curious
16.) How Like an Angel Came I Down by Bronson Alcott
17.) Brave New World by Alduous Huxley
18.) The Wind in the Willows (This is going to be my children's classic for the year)
19.) North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
20.) Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
21.) Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
22.)  Probably something by Wilkie Collins
23.) Watership Down by Richard Adams
24.) The Frogs by Aristophanes
25.) Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Classics Club has a rule about reading at least 50 books in at most 5 years.  I'm not going to do more than 25 this year, so next year I'll read the other 25.  I'm still debating about the other 25 and which ones I'll be reading…so I'll let you know after I've thought about it for awhile.

What about you, readers?  Is anybody else participating in Classics Club this year?  What books are you planning on reading?

Friday, January 9, 2015

Wuthering Heights-Book Club Review

Well, here's my Wuthering Heights book review, finally.  Just as I had an influx of books to review, my laptop crashed.  Gah.  So it's in the shop, but that means that I am computer-less, except for the slow, old computer up in the chilly attic that is Strictly For Work.  So I caved and went up to the freezing attic, because I absolutely have to write this post.

A few weeks ago, Girl With Her Head in a Book asked me about participating in a Wuthering Heights book discussion, hosted by Kirsty, from The Literary Sisters.  I readily agreed, even though Wuthering Heights would probably never make it onto my TBR list.  And, much to my surprise, I enjoyed it much more than I ever thought I would.

Wuthering Heights is something that pretty much everybody reads in school at least once and, many times, loathe to the end of their days, or, in other cases, love and remember fondly to the end of their days.  I was one of the former.  I don't like being wrenched and feeling as though I am being emotionally manipulated every second of a book.  I thought the characters were ridiculous and emotional to the point of unbelievability.  But then I picked up this book and my perceptions started to change.

First of all, the narration of this book is fascinating.  It's somebody telling a story about somebody telling a story about somebody else.  So this is 3rd-hand news, in other words.  It reminded me of those pictures you see of somebody taking a picture in a mirror and having it reflected in multiple little mirrors in the picture (did that make any sense?  I have an image in my head).  I was especially struck by the amount of error that could have occurred in the tellings and, indeed, Emily Bronte leads us to believe that all kinds of information is being shifted, nay, lied about.  The narrators are Nelly Dean, who leads us and the other narrator, the foppish and pompous Mr. Lockwood to believe that she is a pious and righteous woman, never prone to any kind of mistake or problem.  In her eyes, she is the warm and kindly housekeeper who can do no wrong.  And yet, brilliantly, Emily shows us how wrong Nelly can be.

The narrators also interested me because both of them are so unlikeable.  It's not a new phenomenon to have plenty of unlikeable characters in a book, but for the most part, the author writes the narrator as a sympathetic character with whom the reader is supposed to identify.  But not Lockwood and Nelly Dean.  The only reason they aren't as despicable as Heathcliff is because they haven't the imagination or the tortured personalities.

Actually, there's nobody to like in the whole book. Heathcliff is purely awful, his wife, Isabella, is spoiled and weak, Cathy is tempestuous and headstrong and decidedly selfish, exactly like her mother, Catherine, Hindley is despicable, a gambler, and slightly insane, the servants are pretty bad, too...Hareton is the closest any of the characters come to being likable.

And then there's the chain of characters that confused me until about halfway through the book.  The inbreeding is ridiculous.  Luckily, in the front of my flimsy little edition was a family tree with notes about who married whom.  Thank goodness for that, because I would have been lost without it.  Here's the family tree, which is very similar to the one that was in my book, linked from this very interesting website.
Photo Credit:
http://www.wuthering-heights.co.uk/genealogy.php

This time around, I was impressed by how actually reserved this book is.  The writing is surprisingly unflowery and dramatic.  Sure, the plot line is pretty intense (like Cathy being locked into Heathcliff's house until she agrees to marry his wormy little son, Linton), but the writing in and of itself is very withdrawn and calm.

I would love to know what experiences Emily drew from when writing this tortured novel.  The type of secluded life she lived was not exactly conducive to lots of adventure and experience with people.  Was it purely imagination?  Inspiration from other books of the time?  There is an innocence in the way she writes about such characters as Heathcliff.  They are simply bad people, but not bad in complicated ways or for complicated reasons.  And how was Isabella really dashing around the moors, supposedly pregnant by that time with Linton?  Emily doesn't appear to have wondered.  The innocence, yet the incredible understanding of human nature fascinated me in this book and that, in and of itself, was enough of a reason to read this book.

For instance, Catherine and Heathcliff's intense longing and love, mixed with loathing was written so believably.  This is the quote that so many people bring up when talking about Wuthering Heights, but I think that it really does perfectly depict Catherine and Heathcliff's intense, tortured relationship.

“I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff's miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.” 

The story was really gripping.  Each morning, I'd plow through a couple of chapters over breakfast and then in the evenings I'd tell everybody to stop talking to me so I could read Wuthering Heights.  I was drawn in and spent more time than I thought I would thinking about the characters and wondering what was going to happen next.

Would I recommend reading this book?  Oh, yes!  I recommend keeping a large-ish slip of paper in your book as a bookmark.  I then wrote notes and thoughts on it as I was reading the book.  I think a lot of observations and general notes about the characters would have been forgotten if I hadn't been writing them down.  So I think that, if you were like me, one of the people that scoffed at Wuthering Heights, turn to this book again and give it a second chance.  I think you won't regret it.  I'm certainly glad that I cracked open the pages of Wuthering Heights again.

Other posts about this book:

http://girlwithherheadinabook.blogspot.com/2015/01/readalong-review-wuthering-heights.html?showComment=1420820338260#c5963247034216209094

http://theliterarysisters.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/blogging-book-club-wuthering-heights-by-emily-bronte-classics-club-93/

http://www.emeraldcitybookreview.com/2015/01/back-to-moors-wuthering-heights.html



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.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Years Resolutions and the First Book of 2015

Happy New Year, everybody!  I had a lovely, fairly low-key little party last night and now I'm full of plans to sit by the fire and read any number of books.  My first read is Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.  I'm actually really enjoying the dramatic, yet surprisingly unsentimental account of passionate love on the barren moors.  I'm reading this as part of a book club, so I'll be writing a nice long analysis very soon.  Just 100 more pages to go!

My copy is a very ratty, beaten up one with some college notes in it.  Interesting, but not the most beautiful copy.  Anyway, that's my first read of 2015.

My reading resolutions are as follows:

1.  Better balance between blogging and reading.  It's easy to read a whole bunch and then get completely lazy and not feel like writing about the books.  Or, to spend too much time focusing on the blog and not enough on the books.  So my main goal this year is to focus on finding that balance.

2. Join Classics Club.  I have heard so many wonderful things about this great club, including the facts that it is fairly low-maintenance, gets you to read some great literature, and you can connect with others also reading classics.

3.  Read through more books that I own and stop checking out ones from the library until I've made a serious dent.  I do love the library.  I think it's probably one of the greatest civic institutions.  But I have books at home that I really, really need to read.  This resolution was inspired by Lory's great challenge for January.


4. Read some nonfiction!  I want to branch out in my reading.  I am normally a strictly fiction reader and I want to change that a bit.  I've started by reading What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.  It's a fun, quick nonfiction read and I'm really enjoying it (and I own it!).



My resolutions aren't huge, but I'm hoping to follow through with them.  I wish you all a very, very happy 2015 with lots of good reading!