Monday, December 28, 2015

The "Silverwing" Trilogy by Kenneth Oppel

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.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Introverted Illustrations

Because just because being an introvert has taken on negative connotations in our culture doesn't mean we have to be solemn and heavy-handed whenever we talk about it.


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. 

War is bad.  

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. 

I first learned of the picaresque genre in a college class. The word comes from the Spanish meaning “rogue” or “rascal,” referring to the less-than-sterling character of the protagonist. In that class we read Lazarillo de Tormez, a short story about such a rogue who is trying to explain his actions to the Spanish Inquisition. A more widely-known example of picaresque might be Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, about a boy every reader would secretly like to have been (or at least befriended) as a child, but whom no adult would like the responsibility of babysitting.

In a way, Vanity Fair is comprised of two plotlines that sometimes intersect. The first is for Amelia Sedley, a young lady from the family of country gentility whose family slowly loses all its money and influence, and whose own short-lived, disastrous marriage leaves her a young widow grieving over the ideal memory of a man she barely knew. Amelia is the stereotypical Victorian lady, all purity and amiability and reliance on the men in her life. Her love is selfishly selfless, in that she wants what’s best for her young son so much that she obsesses over him, doesn’t discipline him, and doesn’t stand up for her own rights or what she knows to be right. I said that Thackeray portrays all his characters as flawed: Amelia’s flaw is that she forces herself to fit into the mold of Perfect Sacrificial Lady and Mother so much that she actually idolizes it and her identity is consumed by this ideal.

The second plotline is the picaresque story of Becky Sharp, a shrewd, talented, and amoral young orphan who is classmates with Amelia at the beginning of the book. Aside from the fact that she is clever, witty, level-headed, clear-sighted, frank, a good singer, able to speak French, brave, and beautiful, there is nothing likeable about Becky Sharp. She’s cruel, cold-hearted, mercenary…which is entirely uncalled for, even if she is an orphan with no money and who needs to work or marry well in order to survive. Unlike Amelia who is consumed with an identity that society demands she fit into, Becky claws her way to the top with well-placed words of flattery. Her marriage to the dragoon Rawdon Crawley is just as scandalous as Amelia’s own marriage, and both of these unions are met with disapproval and disowning. Yet Becky has a knack for bouncing back from misfortune, and flirts and flatters her way back into everyone’s good graces. Like Hardy had to derail the independent Bathsheba Everdeen with uncharacteristically foolish decisions, Thackeray has a hard time keeping the reader from downright liking the incorrigible Miss Sharp, and so has to add that she’s a terrible mother--and possibly worse--just to keep us from cheering her on quite so much.

Though Margaret Mitchell apparently denied it with vehemence, in my opinion there is no way that Vanity Fair did not have some sort of influence on the writing of Gone With the Wind. There is far too much resemblance in the characters of Becky and Amelia to Scarlett and Mellie, as well as the whole “two women caught on a battlefield” scenario which appears in both novels.  If you've read Gone With the Wind or at least watched the movie, I’ll simply say that you have some idea of the story of Vanity Fair, without completely giving away every twist or turn of its plot. 

In conclusion, I agree with Thackeray’s subtitle: There is no hero. All the characters, even the faithful Dobbin and the “innocent” children, are flawed by vanity, pride, instinctive neediness or greed, and selfishness. There is no hero in this novel, just as there is nobody perfect in real life. I would, however, suggest that there might possibly be a heroine.  It simply depends on your point of view who that heroine might be.

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. 

Lloyd Alexander’s novels for children and teens are almost always action-adventure books.  Often the main character is a young man who must come of age through a series of misfortunes that usually lead him to meet a despicable Villain (often a corrupt bureaucrat abusing his authority) and helped by at one or two Comic Relief sidekicks and one feisty Heroine with whom he falls in love. 

These characters are sometimes a bit caricatured, but in the world Alexander creates—somewhere between a heightened reality and a book of fairy tales and fables—they are definitely vivid and alive.  The reader easily identifies with the emotions and problems of the main heroes.  And then there is always Alexander’s distinctive sense of humor.  And beyond the formula of these novels there is usually something deeper, a theme that is taught in a non-preachy way. 

The Iron Ring is one such story.  Set in a pseudo-Indian world of talking animals, a caste-ridden society, and principalities that struggle amongst each other for power, King Tamar of Sundari is our young, idealistic hero.  When he shows hospitality to a fellow-king—the rude and condescending King Jaya—he finds himself forced to prove his dharma and defend his dignity…by gambling away his life in a dice game.  The next morning he wakes up, and none of his advisors or servants remember Jaya’s visit.  Tamar is almost convinced it was a horrible dream…until he notices an Iron Ring on his finger, a symbol of what he owes Jaya. 

Because he is a man of his word, Tamar sets out to Jaya’s kingdom, unsure if it really exists.  On the way many side-adventures threaten to distract or keep him from his goal: he becomes embroiled in a blood-feud between brother princes, he rescues the impudent Monkey King Hashkat from the King of Snakes, Shesha, and finds himself enthralled by the beautiful and unconventional cow-tender Mirri, to name a few of his adventures. 

The common thread running through every episode is Tamar’s strict code of honor, his strident clinging to dharma, which in the book is explained as the rules of nature for every being’s station in life.  For the monkey Hashkat, for example, he is only following a monkey’s dharma when he is tricky and thieving, while to a human king like Tamar trickery and theft are completely against his lot in life.  The problem with Tamar’s attitude, though, is that he allows social expectations to guide him more than his own moral compass: it is only when he has lost everything that he thought was true about himself that he can finally know what kind of person he is, and is freed to follow what is good and right rather than what is expected of him and his kingly caste.

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.  

Friday, August 28, 2015

The House-top

A Night Piece
Battle Pieces: Civil War Poems by Herman Melville, July 1863.

No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And binds the brain--a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.
Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads
Vacant as Libya.  All is hushed near by.
Yet fitfully from far breaks a mixed surf
Of muffled sound, the Atheist roar of riot.
Yonder, where parching Sirius set in drought,
Balefully glares red Arson--there--and there.
The Town is taken by its rats--ship-rats
And rats of the wharves.  All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe--
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve,
And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.
Hail tot he low dull rumble, dull and dead,
And ponderous drag that shakes the wall.
Wise Draco comes, deep in the midnight roll
Of black artillery; he comes, though late;
In code corroborating Calvin's creed
And cynic tyrannies of honest kings;
He comes, nor parlies, and the Town, redeemed,
Gives thanks devout; nor, being thankful, heeds
The grimy slur on the Republic's faith implied,
Which holds that Man is naturally good,
And--more--is Nature's Roman, never to be scourged.

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain: A Review

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.

This book is no Rick Steves.  In fact, Twain constantly contradicts the tourist authority of the time, his Baedeker guide, on details such as how long it takes to travel roads (Baedekers apparently don’t take into account that the speed of travel might be much slower on foot).  And while Twain might touch on the usual touristy topics of attending German Opera, hiring guides, visiting hotels, and viewing art, he does it in his own characteristic way, a blend of sarcasm, exaggeration, and Blatant Lies. 

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.

1. Denial
Surely this cover is period-accurate, when you really think about it.  I mean, my hair is up in in a bun and everything.  And I have a high collar.  Look at the tucks in the bodice!  That's gotta be Edwardian, right?  Maybe the collar is a little...ah...wide, but maybe Anne goes as wild for wide collars as she does for puffed sleeves!  Or maybe Marilla can REALLY not sew.  There are tons of possibilities!

2. Anger
Who are you to judge my wispy hair and weird knit blouse?  Are you on the cover of this book?  No!  I'm just the model, people!  You don't know me or my life. I need the money to buy books, and if i have to pose for a few anachronistic photos to do it, so help me I WILL.  And if you don't like it, I will take you down in the back alley of Barnes and Noble.

3. Bargaining

How about this?  As you can tell from photo #5, these books were originally $5.95.  Now you can get them for a dollar a piece.  Actually far less, practically free, considering this is a bag sale that is $10 a bag, and we both know you're already three fourth's of a Piggly Wiggly bag full anyway.  What's to stop you from just slipping a few of these beautiful volumes in?  After all, they are hardcover!  You can't get any Anne books in hardcover in stores anymore.  And if you could, they'd be like $35 dollars a pop.

4. Depression

You're right.  I am scum.  I am the sweat of a pig.  I am sorry forever.

5. Acceptance

You know what?  Who cares if I'm not even a flaming redhead?  God gave me this hair, and I am going to ROCK it in bangs and a ponytail. I also have this spankin' cobalt blue turtleneck that Marilla totally couldn't have knitted for me, and BANG I also got a new purse.  Haters gonna hate.

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. 

Second, sometimes you might be able to find an Annotated or Fully Illustrated edition.  This causes what might have been a short children’s paperback novel to become a large, thick, hefty hardcover not to be trifled with.  I’m thinking in particular of copies of Alice in Wonderland or The Phantom Tollbooth.  

Third, choose a book that has a lot of academic journaling to it.  When a book is a classic, it invariably will have lots of stodgy professors writing boring essays about it.  These essays, forwards, introductions, afterwards, commentaries, appendices, et al, are included at the front, back, and the footnotes of any self-respecting classic book, and will multiply the pages.  Not only will this make it look to the innocent standersby that you are reading a book much longer than you actually are, if you skip these mostly superfluous commentaries you will seem to be reading at a break-neck pace, further impressing onlookers.   Shakespearean plays are especially good for this purpose.  I once had a copy of The Taming of the Shrew where half of the book was introduction and afterward, and even once I got into the text of the play half of the pages were comprised of footnotes.  

Monday, July 20, 2015

Reality Vs. Fiction: The Rules of Characterization

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 loveable 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. 

I get that in real life, people are contradictory.  Emotions are unstable, so that one day a person might be calm and collected, the next impulsive and irrational.  Hardy uses this emotional instability and chocks it up to Bathsheba being a woman, as if men were exempt from such pendulous mood swings.  But even if Bathsheba were bipolar in some way, that doesn’t explain how she could be a good businesswoman, running her farm (albeit with Gabriel Oak’s help) on her own, and then suddenly she’s crumbling with self-doubt and submission.     

As I said, in real life, people are contradictory.  But in books, authors are not allowed this one piece of verisimilitude.  Characters, as opposed to flesh and blood human beings, must stay within certain parameters of that characterization.  The Spunky Woman Of Means is not allowed to blend with the Wishy-Washy Damsel.  An A-Type personality like hers doesn’t suddenly become a B-type without Author Interference on a major scale.  In this way, just as novelists simplify the world in general, distilling it into words composed of a mere 26 letters, they also have to compress humanity into set stereotypes.  

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 
then she'll put them away.

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

So she'll completely take apart her bookshelves in the vain attempt at "rearranging to somehow create more space."

She will probably fail.

When she fails, she will decide that she must read some of those history books that are so very thick and taking up so much room.

Which will leave her no choice but to read them.

She reads them.

Half of them she decides are worth keeping.

Fortunately the other half she puts in the very small, very sad Giveaway Pile.

Now that she has gotten rid of some books, she'll want to

When she's done rearranging, she'll find that she has some more space.

And when she has more space,

She'll need to go to a booksale to fill it.

It's a vicious cycle, really.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Need. This.

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?)

One of those three was an autobiography I'd been eyeing for awhile now: Seams Unlikely: The Inspiring True Life Story of Nancy Zieman, written by Zieman with Marjorie L. Russell.  I'm not a major biography reader, but I've seen the show Sewing with Nancy on our public television station for all my life...even before I wanted to watch it.  When I was a child I thought it was boring, and it annoyed me that I had to share the TV with my mom on Saturdays, cutting into my valuable Looney Tune marathon.  Now that I've adopted quilting as my hobby, Sewing with Nancy has become my "Saturday Morning Cartoons."

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

I got The Little Book of Princesses for the illustrations.* Years later when I discovered this little-known backwater website called Pinterest I began a board for art from fairy tales, and lo and behold all these artists like Arthur Rackham and John Bauer are actually famous.  And here I thought this book was the only place I could get a-hold of them!

At the time I had no idea of this, however. As a matter of courtesy I thought I’d read the book before cutting it up. The introduction, “What is a Princess?” caught me by surprise:

“Princesses are the daughters of kings and queens, but in fairy tales there is a lot more to being a princess than that….The girls in these fairy tales are prepared to risk danger or disgrace in order to behave like a ‘proper’ princess.”

The first story is East of the Sun West of the Moon, and reading this destined-for-confetti-book was the first exposure I had to what eventually became a favorite fairy tale of mine.  Needless to say, I kept the book.

I love fairy tales even as an adult. But even as a child, I had issues with some of them. The characters are usually not characterized, and the plot devices sometimes made me close the book and bang my forehead against it, they were so nonsensical. (I mean, Hansel and Gretel, really. How come Hansel can’t get out of their house to get white stones the second time? Because the door was locked. From the outside. Apparently. I guess?)

Vivian Vande Velde provides some possible answers to one of the stories in The Rumplestiltskin Problem, a collection of short stories all based on Rumplestiltskin. Some are scary.  Some are funny. Some are ironic. But each one provides a solution to the many inconsistencies and questions posed by the original fairy tale.

I would like to note a possible parental objection for one of the stories, Straw into Gold, which ends with The Miller’s Daughter running off with Rumplestiltskin…after she married the king.  Granted the king forced her to marry him, and was by all accounts an unloving at best, homicidal at worst, character.  But I’m still recommending this book for older tweens/teens who possess the maturity to consider such moral implications. 

M.M. Kaye wrote The Ordinary Princess in a short span of time, and it is just as possible to read the entire book in an afternoon. It’s a simple tale, with no real villains and a very ordinary heroine named Amethyst Alexandra Augusta Araminta Adelaide Aurelia Anne…Amy for short. She is “cursed” with ordinariness by one of those “fairies that come to the christening,” making her different from her perfect, archetypal princess sisters. When she grows up and it’s clear that she doesn’t fit into people’s expectations of what a princess should look or act like, she runs away to find a place where she’ll fit in.   

It’s a very sweet, simple book with warm humor and neat line-drawn illustrations. Not an actual fairy tale re-imagining per se, but there’s plenty of references to Sleeping Beauty and other tales to firmly situate The Ordinary Princess into the same universe as Grimm and Perrault.

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.

“Dad, was Lincoln a Christian?”*
“No, I don’t think he was.”

Well, that settled it. I continued to listen to Boritt, freed from the nagging suspicion he was trying to retroactively impose his own worldview onto Lincoln. 

This helped a lot. Now I could comprehend there was an irony in calling his book The Gettysburg Gospel. The Gettysburg Address, given by a man who didn’t believe in the Christian Gospel. A man who possibly didn’t even believe in the afterlife, dedicating a field to lay the dead to rest. And what about the entire idea of a man who wasn’t “a technical Christian”** fighting to free slaves, when several Christians before and after rationalized the slave trade and racism? It’s a heavy load of thought! 

What I think Boritt was getting at ultimately was that with the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was providing a sort of political gospel. A secular gospel. The speech is about how all the soldiers that died “gave their lives that the nation might live,” and how it is our responsibility—every American that has lived since that speech, not just those who were present to hear it in person—to make sure the democratic model of government works, in order to ensure that “these dead shall not have died in vain.” 

The thing is, this address is not a gospel.  It’s not “good news.” It’s a eulogy of people who died. Yes, they may have died for a good reason, but it’s still not good news that they died.  It’s a commission for the living to take up the quest for a new nation dedicated to liberty.  That’s a noble calling, but not good news. There’s no guarantee that the USA will last until the end of time as we know it. There’s no promise that even if it lasts it won’t be corrupted beyond all recognition from the ideals it was founded on. 

Remember the circumstance of this speech was a dedication of a cemetery. There is no real hope, no expectation of inevitable success, in the Gettysburg Address. And though that sounds depressing, it’s really okay. Because even though there is no true “political gospel,” there is a true capital “g” Gospel:

*My dad’s personal library consists mostly of books called “The Blue and the Gray”—or books that are literally blue and gray. 

**According to his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.

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. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

An Apology

This weekend I read Blogging for Writers in which I discovered the norm for blogs is to be short and sweet.  While I hope I have still been somewhat sweet, I know I have not been short.  For this I apologize to you, dear reader.  I know your time is valuable, and I hope I have never wasted it.  I will attempt to be more succinct in the future.  Either that, or I’ll just post one bit of a “regular” entry at a time. 

*Sigh.*  Sometimes I wish I didn’t learn unfortunate truths when I read.

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.