Monday, December 28, 2015

Reviewing Kenneth Oppel's "Silverwing" Trilogy

Long ago there was a war between the birds and the beasts. The bats, who shared attributes of both, abstained from taking a side, making them equally contemptible by both. In the present day, in an alternate reality not so far removed from our own, a young bat named Shade breaks the taboo that has kept the peace for years: he gets a glimpse of the sun. By breaking this law Shade brings down retribution from the birds onto his entire colony, and finds himself alone and without a home.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Comfortable with Quiet

I’ve known for a long time that there is a word to describe what I am.  Introvert.  Even before I knew the word, I knew even longer what I was.  There are other descriptions people have used on me. Shy.  Anti-socialKeeps to herselfNot outgoing.  These are the words I overheard as I was growing up.  Some people have blamed my upbringing, saying I wasn’t adequately socialized because I was home-schooled.  But that is not the reason.  Not to take a stand on the whole “Nature vs. Nurture” debate, but I knew that I was introverted before I was school-age.  I didn’t call myself that.   I called myself “Laura.” But I knew that I did not “need” to be around kids my own age.  I didn’t rely on others to have fun.  I had me. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Reviewing Philip Yancey's "Reaching for the Invisible God"

Philip Yancey is possibly my favorite writer on theology, and that is despite of—or perhaps because of—the fact that he often doesn’t answer his own questions. 

Some readers might take comfort from reading theologians who seem to have it all figured out, the spiritual optimists who know God has a plan for everything and never doubt either His presence or their own faith. Spiritual optimists aren’t wrong, but as a natural pessimist it often leaves me feeling like a failure because although I know these truths from the Bible, I so often don’t feel their reality in my life. God’s presence is nebulous, elusive, and as for my own faith…actually, perhaps the least said about that debacle the better.

So when I see books written under the titles Where is God When it Hurts?, Prayer: Does it Makes a Difference?, The Jesus I Never Knew, Disappointment With God, and Reaching for an Invisible God, even the titles are encouraging. Not the questions they raise, but the fact that there is someone else out there asking them. Every book by Philip Yancey that I’ve read has been authored with humility, sensitivity, and (somewhat oxymoronic considering the sensitivity) brutal honesty. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Reviewing Skinner and Kimbrough's "Our Hearts Were Young and Gay"

I have a friend who is an avid reader of half a dozen book blogs, most of which she tends to forward to my personal e-mail as recommendations despite the knowledge that my own self-imposed To Be Read Pile is incredibly vast and I do not require her help in making it vaster. However there was one recent book that I immediately put on hold, and it paid off. 

“Laura, you must read this, it is basically a book about us,” my friend urged. Now, I don’t believe she has actually read it yet, but just going from the description of “two college graduates travel to Europe, shenanigans ensue” was enough to convince me that there were some striking similarities. I have not traveled much, nor would I proclaim myself to be culturally astute—I regularly find myself embarrassed whenever I eat at an Indian restaurant, both me and the waiter constantly trying to outdo the other in a Politeness Contest, and me never quite knowing whether the check should be paid at the table or when I leave. By contrast my friend believes herself to be more wise in the world, banking on the fact that she has been to Europe and parls Fransay,* though I’m sure both of us would stick out like sore Midwestern thumbs were we to embark on a voyage together. Basically our experience would be doomed to be like that of the dynamic duo of Cornelia and Emily in this book.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Fairy Tale Blitz

In my reading life, I’ve entered a sort of second childhood.  Mind you, I don’t know that I ever really left.  When it came to Childhood, it was simply too short and there were just too many good books to attempt to finish before WHAM next thing I knew it I was an adult being forced to read Mrs. Dalloway in my first college literature course. Like so many things, adult literature, the kind that is respected by academics and critics at any rate, is not nearly as fun as children’s lit. 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Reblog: Here’s Why Libraries Could Be The Best Solution For The Nation’s Homeless

"It’s easy to walk past a public library without giving it a second look.After all, we live in an era where millions of books and newspapers and overwhelming amounts of data are one click away. However, behind those doors there are librarians, patrons and even social workers making their community a better place."


Monday, November 2, 2015

Thoughts on C.S. Lewis’ “On the Reading of Old Books”

“[…First-hand] knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”

It is an apt way to wrap up my series of reviews on C.S. Lewis’ God in the Dock than his essay On the Reading of Old Books. When one is a book-lover, it’s always a pleasure to read not only books, but books written by other book-lovers. C.S. Lewis was just such an author. Although this particular essay was really an introduction to a translation of St. Athanasius’ The Incarnation of the Word of God, a lot of it resonated with me not only with reading theological books, but older literature in general.

Monday, October 19, 2015

C.S. Lewis’ "Dangers of National Repentance"

“…men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable.”

This short essay of Lewis’ references young British students and the contemporary trend to take responsibility for World War II.  Looking back on it, this was just the beginning of the Allies trying to “repent” of their part in the bloodshed; my own history classes in college taught that it was the “unfair” treatment of Germany in World War I which bankrupted the country and made it “desperate” enough to turn to Hitler and the Nazi party for survival.

Monday, October 5, 2015

What are you, a Man or a Rabbit?

I love C.S. Lewis’ writings, from his children’s fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia to his Science Fiction Trilogy (particularly Perelandra) to his Faustian, dark-humored epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters. His nonfiction writings are equally as well-written, perhaps more so.  I won’t deny, however, that his theological and philosophical arguments sometimes go over my head. So in reading the collection of essays, interviews, etc. compiled in God in the Dock, it was a bit of a mixed bag. One chapter might be deep and dry and incomprehensible to me, the next would be illuminating and fun and a challenge to my character and growth. This book definitely gave me plenty of food for thought, so much that I took several months between reading it earlier this summer before attempting to write about it now. I just re-read it, trying to find what nugget of wisdom I initially thought of interest. I found much more merit the second read around.

In the essay Man or Rabbit? Lewis poses the question “Can’t you lead a good life without believing in Christianity?” It’s a conflict between Christians (most of whom would say, “No”) and the rest of humanity, whom Lewis refers to as Materialists. There’s another conflict here, which Lewis poses as a question as whether we’re Men or Rabbits. (I’ll try to unwrap that conflict later.)

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Betty and Veronica Effect in Victorian Fiction

Betty and Veronica are two comic book characters in the comic Archie.  The two women vie for the affection of the titular hero, forming a love triangle.  One would think that Archie would have a more difficult choice if both women were very similar, but no: they are dynamically different, with Betty being the wholesome girl-next-door and Veronica is the dangerous Vamp.  One need only refer to TV Tropes to see that this is a common storytelling technique, seeing whether the hero will choose safety or danger, good or bad, light or dark.  But as I’d like to point out in the following blog entry, this sort of character dynamic is much older than Archie.

I’ve read a lot of Victorian novels, and most—especially those written by male authors—have a tendency towards saintly female characters who are so very good and yet so very, very boring.  Most of them may have upright natures, but they are helpless to stop whatever injustice is done to them or their loved ones.  

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Novel Without A Hero: A Review of Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”

I normally would NEVER use an image of marionettes,
Thackaray's novel is presented as a puppet show, so this image is unfortunately fitting.
William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair is subtitled “A Novel without a Hero.” It’s a moral piece, meant to show the fallibility (the “vanity”) of every human being in a realistic, unapologetic way. It’s also a sort of parody or farce, a self-proclaimed “puppet show” where Thackeray is the puppet-master and omniscient of every action or thought of the characters, on or off the stage. Above all, it is what in literary jargon is referred to as a “picaresque;” an episodic story dealing with the various adventures and mischief-makings of  the hero, who is usually rude and amoral, but nevertheless charms the audience into liking him....or, in this case, her. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Iron Ring by Lloyd Alexander: A Review

I love classics. They are probably my favorite “genre” of book to pick off the shelf, though of course classics can’t be defined into one particular genre of romance, suspense, mystery or tragedy. Yet no matter how many classics I read—the centuries-old stories lauded by contemporary and modern audiences and critics alike, written about by scholars, argued by academics, and force-fed to students—I always eventually return to Lloyd Alexander.

I had already read all of Jane Austen’s novels, David Copperfield, Robinson Crusoe, several Shakespearean dramas, Jane Eyre, and all of the Sherlock Holmes stories before I picked up my first Lloyd Alexander YA novel. But for a shy, introverted bookworm such as myself, it was akin to meeting a best friend. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Archaeology of Reading

I can not imagine ever not being a reader. Some people might invest their identity into a career, or a specific sport fandom. For me, it's always been books. Books aren't just a way of adding to one's identity the same way someone might build an addition onto a house. They're a way of uncovering aspects of one's character, or verbalizing unconscious thoughts, that already existed. Reading is a sort of excavation of identity.  

Monday, August 17, 2015

Reviewing Twain's "A Tramp Abroad"

It is both a part of Mark Twain’s charm and a part of his unreliability as a narrator that one is never quite sure whether he is telling the truth. I first came across this conundrum whilst reading Life on the Mississippi, which is supposedly a partial autobiography, partial history, partial travelogue based on Twain’s experiences as a Mississippi riverboat pilot and traveler.

I came across it again more recently—and more palpably—in A Tramp Abroad. This book, which I later found out is an unofficial sequel to The Innocents Abroad (which I haven’t read yet), is about how Twain and a friend named Harris set out to travel Europe—a bit of France and Italy, but mostly Germany and the Alps—on foot. Basically their goal was to do what young adults and college students do when they “backpack” across Europe. Which I suppose makes Twain a purposeful hobo or an accidental hipster.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Five Stages of Grief Caused By An Awful, Anachronistic Book Cover

My sister saw them first. We were at the used library book sale that we always go to, every year. We even have our own place where we gloat over sort out our finds before we go to the checkout table.  

I didn't see them because I not only have read all the Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery, I used to have the complete set. Later in the sad time of weeding my collection, I got rid of all but the first volume. Because, let's face it, charming as all Montgomery's books are, the Anne books get increasingly fillerific as one progresses through the series, in a case of "Author Is Sick of Characters But Needs Money From Popular Franchise."

So I didn't see these monstrosities of covers because I didn't even see the spines. I wasn't looking to buy any Montgomery novels, and was far too distracted by the five matching volumes of Ogden Nash poetry I found at the same table. 

It was the Vintage table, the very table I always make a beeline for when I'm fresh-out-the-gate at a booksale. And while these covers are "vintage"...well, I feel like someone's definition of "vintage" is vastly different from mine.

Witness, if you will, Anne of Green Gables: The Sixties Update of the Beloved Novels, Set in Edwardian-World War I Canada:

Monday, August 3, 2015

Three Steps to Impressing People with Your Reading Prowess

Alas and alack, reading seems to have become a lost art, drowned out by more Informative things like the internet, and by more Entertaining things like television.  People assume that if a person likes to read, said person is academically-minded. So, since they’re going to be impressed by the fact that you are reading anyway, let’s take it a step further:

First, choose a book that is a classic. Yes, everyone knows of Frankenstein or Winnie the Pooh. But few have actually read the books that share the characters’ names. What’s the use of reading The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas if nobody knows you’re reading an awesome espionage book by the author of The Three Musketeers? Not very effective in astounding passersby with your magnificent literacy, is it? No, better not to discover forgotten treasures, or at least read them in private. When reading in public, find something more hum-drum or popular. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Reality Vs. Fiction: Bathsheba Everdeen and the Rules of Characterization

Thomas Hardy is not my favorite author, because most of his characters are unrelatable. I don’t just mean that I don’t know what it feels like to be a shepherd (though this is true), but because the emotions and reactions to situations were so disconnected to what I would do. 

This problem is particularly evident in the beautiful Bathsheba Everdene, who vacillates from being the clever, strong woman of means that every man adores, to a weak, undecided, irrational servant of her own emotions. It was as if the character of Bathsheba took on a life of her own against Hardy’s will, and he felt the need to inflict all the negative stereotypes of women on her in order to control her. The problem with this characterization is it isn’t stable.  Hardy tries to have it both ways: he makes a great assertive character, someone who is lovable because she is strong and independent and fiery, in order to make it believable that all these men would fall in love with her. But then he turns around and makes her needy, passive, compliant, so that she isn’t completely “out of their league.” Because face it, all three men are boring compared to Bathsheba. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Reviewing Thomas Hardy’s "Far From the Madding Crowd"

In a nutshell, Far from the Madding Crowd is about the beautiful, mercurial feminist Bathsheba Everdene and her three stalkers.

The story starts with the humble shepherd Gabriel Oak, giving the reader the false impression that he is the main character.  Because his name is Oak we know right away that he’s solid and steadfast and wholesome like a great oak tree.  He sees the beautiful Bathsheba from afar, and immediately pegs her for proud because she’s practicing her smile in a mirror.  Nevertheless he also immediately falls in love with her.  Because she’s beautiful, in case I didn’t mention.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Romeo and Juliet: An Alternate Version

It is the true mark of tragedy, particularly the literary genre, that the terrible ending is almost always completely avoidable. The saying goes, “But for a horse, the kingdom was lost.” When it comes to Shakespearean pacing, however, it’s not so much a horse that’s missing, as just a few more soliloquys. 

Let’s take Romeo and Juliet, since, as the death of the main characters in any Shakespearean tragedy is a foregone conclusion, I doubt it would cause an uproar if I spoil the ending. 

Most people know the ending of the play, but here is the recap of what happens right before the tears get jerked: Romeo and Juliet, being from two feuding families, have fallen in love and married in secret. Juliet is being pressured by her dad to marry this other guy named Paris, and since she’s gotten married in secret to her father’s mortal enemy she can’t well explain the whole situation. Well, she could. But that would have forced the families to get along without their children’s untimely demise.  Can you imagine the Thanksgivings?* Since this is a tragedy, though, that would be totally ridiculous. So instead Juliet does the only rational thing. She runs away and a Friar helps her fake her death.

Monday, June 22, 2015

You're Never Too Old for Picture Books

The first thing I do when I go "booksaling" is find the Classics/Literature section, elbowing and hip-checking pesky book retailers out of the way. But sometimes all this combat goes for naught; all the used book sales have are twelve different paperback editions of Tom Sawyer, editions that cannot take the place of my own hardcover, gilt-edged Readers Digest copy. Even then, though, book sales that lack adult literature aren't necessarily a bust.  I always make a point to flip through the children's books.

Monday, June 15, 2015

If You Give a Laura a Booksale

With the coming of summer, Booksale Season is once again in full swing.  Now,

If you give a Laura a booksale (especially when it's close by), she's going to want to go to it.

When she goes to it, she'll want to buy some books.

She'll buy some books.

She'll get them home and wash them, stack them like dominoes to dry, and 
she'll put them away.

When she goes to put them away, she'll realize
She has no room.

Monday, June 8, 2015

"Seams Unlikely" by Nancy Zieman: A Review

My family knows me so well. For my birthday this year I received three books.  Actually, for as long as I can remember, there has not been a gift-giving occasion (birthdays or Christmas) where I have not received at least one book. It's become a tradition, and I now insist on the giver inscribing my book with "To Laura from ____" and the date. 

(This is also a good way of making sure that I don't get rid of the book in the midst of "weeding" my shelves to create more space. Not that this event is all that likely, anyway.  After all, book storage is more necessary than having a bed, isn't it?)

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Agency Series by Y.S. Lee: A review

It is entirely possible that I read more contemporary YA and Juvenile books than I read contemporary Adult fiction.  Keep in mind, though, that I read vastly more classic adult fiction than contemporary anything.  Another reason I read more YA is because every stinking book seems to become a series.  There are very few standalone novels in the teen section of my library.  Perhaps this is a ploy to get teens hooked into reading more.  If so, I certainly hope it’s working.  It certainly worked on me.

I most recently finished a YA quadrilogy by Y.S. Lee, entitled The Agency and with each volume having a subtitle (A Spy in the House, The Body at the Tower, The Traitor in the Tunnel, and Rivals in the City)At the top of each book is written “A Mary Quinn Mystery,” after the books’ heroine, so I suppose I’m supposed to use that as a guide for what I call this series.  However, I much prefer calling it “The Agency Books.”  To me, these books are less about the mystery of Mary Quinn figuring out whodunit, and more about espionage and the actual footwork of collecting evidence and stopping criminals, so although Mary Quinn is undoubtedly the center of these books, her work as an Agent is what makes these books notable.

This book series is very much like a Victorian Era Nikita, with half-Chinese, half-Irish orphan Mary Quinn saved from the noose by a secret, all-female covert operations Agency.  In her first assignment she’s charged with posing as a companion to a rich family’s daughter.  Sparks fly when she comes up against James Easton, who may be in league with the criminal she’s trying to track down, or might be an ally in her investigations. 

The author’s blurb explains that Y.S. Lee has a PhD in Victorian Literature and culture, and although she shows her work by filling out a very intricate picture of Victorian London, she doesn’t let these details bog down the action of Mary’s adventures undercover.    Lee is adept at making these characters believably Victorian, but also relatable to the modern reader, and her dialogue is usually sharp and witty.

I have really only two complaints about this series.  First, the romance part of these books is far too sensual for my taste—it is YA, after all.  Now, I am well aware that there are tons of books (mostly other YA books, but also adult contemporary) with much more graphic sensuality than this. However, for a book written by a Victorian Lit/Culture PhD, it seems quite a leap to be so attentive to historical accuracy, then suddenly having the main character think about the taste of some guy’s lips.* While nothing “happens” in the books that would be super inappropriate in our time, I’ve read enough Victorian literature myself to be puritanically shocked by this.

My second complaint is more substantial than that.  Because while the first objection was one of content, this second objection is one of storytelling.  I think that there should not have been a fourth volume.  First, stylistically it would have been apropos to have a novel about the Victorian era written in Three-Volume structure, since the three volume novel was a staple of Victorian literature (and is even referenced in Rivals in the City).  Second, Rivals in the City felt very much like a let-down, like a neat tying up of some loose strings that I as a reader didn’t need tied up, while also leaving several other more important plotlines unresolved. 

In the end, I would recommend this book to mature teens as a sort of Victorian escapism, and to readers who enjoy adventure/spy novels as well as books by Dickens.  My only suggestion would be to skip the fourth book.  The third book ends on a cliffhanger, but it is so much more satisfying a conclusion. 

*This is mentioned more than once, and stuck in my poor brain mostly because it brings to mind either that part of Shrek where Prince Charming is wearing cherry-flavored lipgloss, those edible Wax Lips.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Trio of Fairy Tales: "The Little Book of Princesses," "The Rumpelstiltskin Problem," and "The Ordinary Princess"

Back when I was toying with decoupage as a possible hobby, I was kind of evil at book sales, buying books with every intent of cutting them up for their illustrations. I stopped for three reasons:
1.      I found out most of the paper I was using to form my magnificent collages was rife with acid and would yellow and eat away with time. Nothing quite puts a damper on a hobby like finding out it’s not going to last long enough to be put on exhibit at the museum.
2.      There’s only so much you can decoupage. And, while peeling dried Mod Podge off ones hands does have a strangely pleasant aesthetic appeal, it simply wasn’t as interesting as I’d thought.
3.      The Little Book of Princesses, compiled by Clare Charlton and edited by Philippa Wingate

Monday, May 4, 2015

Reviewing Gabor Boritt's "The Gettysburg Gospel": Part 2

So much for the “Gettysburg” part.  What about the “Gospel”? 

In religious terms, “gospel” is a Christian term, which means “good news,” and refers to the perfect life, sacrificial death, and the triumphant resurrection of Jesus, all in order to save everyone on earth from eternal punishment and to give each person a chance to reconcile with God and have a relationship with Him.

Throughout The Gettysburg Gospel, Boritt kept making the point of Lincoln using the word “God” instead of referring directly to Christ. The implication was that Lincoln was throwing those pious masses a bone. In my tabula rasa state, I had no real preconceptions that Lincoln was a Christian (I have my doubts about other presidents), but it seemed odd that Boritt kept underscoring this.  But, this being the first “adult” nonfiction book I’d read about Lincoln, I didn’t know who to trust. Was Boritt being a secular historian trying to minimize Lincoln’s spirituality?

Well, I went to someone I do trust, not only in American History matters, but in everything else.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Reviewing Gabor Boritt's "The Gettysburg Gospel": Part 1

I went into this book feeling like I had preconceptions about Lincoln, Gettysburg, and the American Civil War. But I knew I was ignorant, and in a way acknowledging ignorance is a good way of becoming a sort of tabula rasa.  

It was easy to admit ignorance (at least to myself). With a title like The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech Nobody Knows I expected to learn something I didn’t know. And I didn’t feel ashamed of it, since apparently nobody knew it. 

The book doesn’t recount the events of the battle of Gettysburg. It assumes the reader already knows it was the turning point of the war. And though the reader may assume he or she knows how bad the devastation was, Boritt begins his book with in-depth descriptions of how bad it actually was. Imagine wounded and dead in such large numbers that it overwhelms the population of a city. Bodies lay neglected in fields because there simply wasn’t manpower to remove them to hospitals or to bury the corpses. Even when corpses did get buried, it was such a hasty job that later they had to dig up the graves in the attempt to figure out the identity of the soldier lying there, what side he’d fought on, who his next of kin were…and finally, to give him a decent burial.

That was the reason Lincoln came to Gettysburg. Not to give his famous speech, but to lay the buried dead to rest in a national cemetery. Boritt describes the dignitaries, the journey by train to the site, the celebrity fever that caused people to flock to Gettysburg to hear the dignitaries and catch a glimpse of the president.* He poses the question of whether Lincoln wrote the speech in a flash of inspiration (as was the legend), or if he wrote it carefully over a period of time (as some historians suggest); Boritt never quite answers this question, instead going over the impact the Gettysburg Address has had over the course of history from the World Wars to September 11. 


Monday, April 20, 2015

The First Time I Met Lincoln

This entry probably should be subtitled “A review of Gabor Boritt’s The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech Nobody Knows.” However not only is that subtitle too long (and also confusing because The Gettysburg Gospel also has a subtitle), but it wouldn’t quite be true.  This entry could double as a review, I suppose, but its focus is not on the book (for once).  Because though the content of the book was interesting enough, it sparked a process of thought that meandered far away from the author’s original purpose.

But we’ll start with the book at least. The Gettysburg Gospel was a whim checkout at the library. I was in need of an audiobook, my holds of said “listening material” taking far, far too long to come in. When my commute is an hour a day, I rely on a constant flow of audiobooks for making the time move faster, as well as actually chipping away at my colossal reading list. While I’m in the car, I’m literally a captive audience, making a good book like the embrace of a friend, and making a bad book tempt me to reinvent the Frisbee with the compact discs. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sometimes Books Are Unexpected: "Grecian Calendar" and "Seven Wonders of the World"

I'm sure I've told this story before, but several years back my dad--who works are the local school district--found out the school's libraries were doing a major overhaul of their curriculum, weeding out obsolete textbooks and a lot of other books that were published before 1970 or so. He got permission for our family to go through these weeded books before they were sent away to be recycled. It sounds like dumpster-diving, but actually this was located in a tiny room right off a gymnasium. It felt like a supply closet, and the shelves the books were stacked on were more suited for storing basketballs and hockey-sticks.  Nevertheless, it was a beautiful sight. Books stacked floor to ceiling along the walls, books heaped in the center of the room, smaller stacks of books scattered across the floor, with only bits of tile flooring visible, like little stepping-stones, and only enough standing room for three bodies.  

This was the where, when, and why of how I accumulated the bulk of my nonfiction collection.  With access to thousands of books for free, we took away hundreds of volumes in those days. And I'm still going through them, reading the ones that I picked up on a whim just because the title or cover seemed an iota of interest. I pretty much grabbed every book that was about my favorite nonfiction subject at that time, which was Ancient History.  

The thing is, not all those books have turned out to be about Ancient History. Take, for example, Grecian Calendar by Christopher Rand. I saw "Grecian," figured the "calendar" part meant it was one of those "a year in the life of an ancient Greek person" type books, and also saw a black and white photograph of a Greek city on the cover. I didn't read the back. I didn't read the blurb.  I didn't read the author bio at the back. In fact I very much doubt I looked at more than the spine at that point. I just grabbed it.  

Monday, March 30, 2015

Reviewing Gene Stratton Porter's “A Girl of the Limberlost”

Freckles is about a teenage boy looking for his identity and family. A Girl of the Limberlost is about a teenage girl who knows who she is, who knows who her relatives are, but is nevertheless still searching for those relationships. 

In many ways this sequel…well, isn’t a sequel. This second book exists in the same “world” as Freckles, but in it the Limberlost becomes almost a fairy tale environment. The danger is mostly gone from the days Freckles had to worry about the swamp sucking him up, or poisonous snakes, or the murderous Black Jack and his gang. Moving in and making herself at home in Freckle’s old garden” room comes highschooler Elnora Comstock. Freckles, his Swamp Angel, and the Bird Woman are all there, but they are almost like fairy godmothers to Elnora. 

Elnora is bright, hard-working, compassionate and generous. She lives at the edge of the Limberlost with her mother Katherine, who is cold, harsh, unloving and miserly. For the purposes of Elnora’s fairy-tale life, Kate Comstock fills the roll of “evil stepmother” for most of the book, and most of the plot hinges on their mercurial relationship. Against her mother’s wishes Elnora strives to educate and better herself, first by going to high school—though she finds herself a subject of ridicule for her hillbilly appearance—and then by earning money to go to college by helping the Bird Woman collect rare moths.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Reviewing Gene Stratton Porter's "Freckles"

During the cold, grey winter, it felt so good to get back in touch with nature that after reading Sterling North's Rascal I continued deeper into an imaginary forest by reading Freckles and its better-known sequel, A Girl of the Limberlost. Written by photographer, conservationist, and naturalist Gene Stratton Porter, these novels are set in the Limberlost, a marshy area of Indiana during the turn of the 20th century. 

In Freckles, the titular character is a one-handed orphan boy of Irish descent, just old enough to be released from the care of an orphanage. Freckles has no money, training, education or family. He doesn’t even have a name beyond “Freckles,” which is solely due to the liberal sprinkling of said spots across his face. Because he has no education he has to look for physical labor to support himself, but because he was crippled as a baby, Freckles has the use of only one arm, and finding physical labor he can do one-handed makes his plight all the more hopeless. Being crippled and nameless is the main inner struggle Freckles has to undergo during the book. He’s convinced that his own mother crushed his arm, and the thought haunts him, making him doubt that anyone would ever want or love him.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Reviewing Sterling North's “Rascal”

When I finished reading 100 new, chapter-length books in a year last November, I did something I normally don’t do. With all of December open before me, I actually re-read some books that I’d been meaning to re-read for some time. Some books are just like a good glass of cool water on a parched throat. They hit the spot so well that even as you lick your lips at the last drop, you wish you could go back and feel that sense of satisfaction for just awhile longer. 

But with so many new books I want to read—and as that list is constantly growing—I rarely get time to do more than peruse and skim the books I own and have read once before. Some readers, I know, don’t re-read at all. Others are almost the opposite; they find a series they love and re-read it every year, some of them rarely venturing into new territories at all.  My heart lies somewhere in the middle. New books are like traveling. Re-reading is like going home. And with that longing for home in mind—especially around the holidays—I decided last December to read some books that my mom read to me when I was home-schooled. It was a middle-ground: I’d heard the words, but technically I’d never “read” these books myself. 

Every Christmas I come down with what I call “Charlie Brown” syndrome. A desire to get away from all the commercialism and lights, and get a feel of what Christmas really means. I think that’s reflected in what I decided to re-read, as well. And there’s no better place to start looking for a story of “a simpler time” than Sterling North’s Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Reviewing George Eliot's "The Mill on the Floss"

I just finished listening to the audio version of George Eliot's novel, and will warn you now that I have basically recounted everything in the book below. Therefore if you're the kind of person who hates knowing the end of the book until they've read it, don't read past the page break because I've not blacked out most of the spoilers. 

The Mill on the Floss is essentially about two siblings: the practical, unimaginative but hard-working Tom Tulliver, and his emotional, dreaming, and misfit younger sister Maggie. As I read the story, I began to suspect each sibling might be symbolized by the two things in the title: Tom is the hardworking, stolid Mill, Maggie is the turbulent, changeable river Floss.  The story opens when they're children and follows them into young adulthood, through all their family tragedies and personal conflicts with one another.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Thoughts on William Cullen Bryant's "A Winter Piece"

From William Cullen Bryant's poem "A Winter Piece":

But Winter has yet brighter scenes—he boasts
Splendors beyond what gorgeous Summer knows;
Or Autumn with his many fruits, and woods
All flushed with many hues. Come when the rains
Have glazed the snow and clothed the trees with ice,
While the slant of sun of February pours
Into the bowers a flood of light. Approach!
The incrusted surface shall upbear thy steps,
And the broad arching portals of the grove
Welcome thy entering. Look! the massy trunks
Are cased in pure crystal; each light spray,
Nodding and tinkling in the breath of heaven,
Is studded with its trembling water-drops,
That glimmer with an amethystine light.

If you're like me, a resident of the northern hemisphere and thus trapped inside for several freezing
months at a stretch, then like me, you may need a reminder that even when Winter is bitter in its cold,
it is beautiful as well.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Learning About Things, And Learning About Yourself, Through Books

I find that nonfiction is sometimes a great way to "shake things up" when I get into a literature rut and start mixing up fictional characters, relationships, and plot points. It's also a legitimate way to read books that have quite a few pictures in them--as some nonfiction have lovely full-spread photography or information graphs--while also learning a lot of new information. And, as I discovered recently, nonfiction is a way to discover new things about yourself, explore possible new hobbies and interests, all from the safety and ease of your armchair (or wherever you happen to be reposing whilst reading).

I thought reading about caves would be a good idea. It was a bit of a random scientific field I chose, and I have learned a lot, such as:

1) Most caves are formed out of limestone, but there are also caves created from volcanic activity. 

Monday, February 2, 2015


Just the knowledge that a good book is awaiting one at the end of a long day makes that day happier.  ~ Kathleen Norris

Lately I've been struggling to keep up my usual stamina with reading. It isn't that I don't still love it. I genuinely enjoy reading once I've started. It's not even that it's too hard to start reading in the first place. It's the idea of "making time" so I can start in the first place.

It's a simple thing to say "How to read a book? Why, just do it. Start and don't stop until you've finished." This is partly true, of course. If you're not quite sure what your priorities are in life, just look at what you make time for--not what you have to do (this includes work, grocery shopping, laundry, etc.) but what you sacrifice sleep in order to do AFTER you've done what you needed to do.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The (Original?) Unreliable Narrator: Ishmael of Moby Dick

Call me suspicious. 

The main evidence of who Ishmael is—and by extension his reliability as a narrator—takes place during the first part of the story where he actually talks about himself and his actions.  After that, he sort of fades into the background.

Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg seems to me strange, because of Ishmael’s initial reaction.  It’s almost as if he’s a greenhorn, with no experience of the sea and in awe of everything around him, especially those of different cultures, rather than someone who has been to sea before—as Ishmael claims.  And yet if I disregard Ishmael’s assertion that he has been to sea before and is simply looking for a different ship, then that may explain his complete ignorance to seafaring life, but not his immediate acceptance of Queequeg as a friend and equal in a time when a colored man would be treated as a servant or property.

As for the type of relationship they have, I’m not convinced that this “bosom friendship” is very deep, since they don’t communicate very well.  Not that words necessarily speak louder that actions, but even when they get onto the Pequod, Ishmael doesn’t mentioned Queequeg individually all that much.  It doesn’t seem like they are all that close after Chapter 10.  In fact, aside from inform us what the other characters are doing, Ishmael himself doesn’t seem close to anyone. 

Take “The Mat Maker” chapter: The entire crew gets involved weaving a swordmat, and the metaphor of the loom could be interpreted as the relationship between fate, free will, and chance. 
Ishmael says that he “kept passing and repassing” as Quequeg and the others remained stationary in their tasks.  He’s like a shuttle weaving back and forth between static threads.  While every individual life on the ship was fixed in place, only Ishmael’s fate is, at that moment, in a state of flux.

Is this guy Ishmael reliable?  We know he says “Call me Ishmael,” but is that really his name?  He says he’s been to sea before, but doesn’t seem to know the major port of Nantucket all that well.  He narrates the ongoing thoughts of Ahab and Starbuck among others, while he as a character is entirely passive, almost completely fading from the activity of the Pequod.

So, barring Melville’s awkward use of the novel genre—we know it’s his first novel, and he sometimes incorporates elements of drama—either Ishmael has some mental-telepathy thing going on, or maybe he doesn’t really exist at all.  That is, he doesn’t exist in the same way the other characters exist.  It’s like he’s on another plane of reality, in a way that transcends identity, which is why he identified with Queequeg and Ahab and knows everyone’s innermost thoughts.  It’s like he’s a phantom, which makes him being the sole survivor of the Pequod ironic.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Classical Cravings

In the winter, some animals go into deep hibernation. For them, the entire world slows down, even down to their heartbeat. And, with sub-zero temperatures, icy roads, flu season, and the general post-holiday blues, I earnestly envy the animals. At this time of year, when the days are supposedly getting shorter but the darkness still wraps around me like a cocoon, there's nothing I'd like more than to curl up by a fire with a plateful of chocolate chip cookies and a good long book.  

Though I can't actually stay home--alas! alack!--I do indulge in the 'good long book' portion of this fantasy. And, if I can't slow down my metabolism like a bear, I can at least read about times that were set in a slower era.  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Reading Challenge 2014 Summary

In 2013 I completed four reading challenges. In 2014, rather than try to one-up myself and end up reading for quantity rather than quality, I put a ban on my signing up for any reading challenges online. Instead, I self-imposed challenges which will hopefully diminished that behemoth To Be Read pile that swallowed up my nightstand, bed, and pretty much half my room.  

Monday, January 5, 2015

Those Crazy Captains VI: Captain Queeg of "The Caine Mutiny"

Herman Wouk’s masterpiece The Caine Mutiny is a fictitious account of (guess what?) a mutiny aboard a minesweeper U.S.S. Caine in the Pacific during World War II. It could be regarded as war fiction, but really the main conflict of the novel is not so much physical as it is psychological, as one inexperienced “by-the-book” captain attempts to take control and earn the respect of a ragtag and undisciplined crew, only to have everything go horribly,  horribly wrong.

The main character, Willie Keith, and his whole coming-of-age transformation from a high-class, lazy momma’s boy to a self-driven Navyman, is very much like Humphrey van Weyden and Harvey Cheyne Jr. But really, Keith’s journey—and his B-plot romance with the struggling singer May Wynn—is really secondary, almost to the point of being superfluous to the plot. 

Just like Ishmael is the narrator but not the protagonist of Moby-Dick, Keith is the primary perspective, but the main character and driving force of Wouk’s novel must be Captain Phillip Queeg, orbited by the sardonic academic Keefer and the simple and good first officer Maryk. The main question the novel poses the reader is: Is Queeg insane?