31 January 2012

Lucy Maud Montgomery Reading Challenge 2012

L. M. Montgomery Reading Challenge *CAUTION: All Montgomery fans please bear with me to the end of this post. I might say something that will annoy you at the beginning, but I feel like you will like me at the end*

And with that ominous beginning: The end has come to the Lucy Maud Montgomery Reading Challenge 2012 hosted by Carrie at Reading to Know. I have not finished the entire Anne series, but I plan to. I just began Anne of Ingleside last night and I will finish the other two whenever I get to them. I'm a little annoyed with myself for not picking up my speed. I have nowhere near as good an excuse as Carrie had (she's a busy mother of three AND she's taking a college course on C.S. Lewis). I just didn't get to them in time. That being said, I am SO glad I decided to participate. Let me explain my roller coaster relationship with Ms. Montgomery.

It all started when I was four years old. Seriously. I'm not trying to brag about the fact that I was reading at four or anything...Ok, I am actually bragging about the fact that I could read at four. Quite honestly though it had nothing to do with me, you could easily make the assumption that I had a brilliant teacher (I did. I was homeschooled. It was my mother.). All my life (yes, all four years of it) or at least all I could remember, I had been ogling The Call of the Wild and White Fang. It may have been...probably was...that they were shelved at eye level, but I really wanted to learn to read, in order to read them. And I did. At four. I couldn't tell you with any certainty if I remembered what I read, but I did enjoy them oddly enough. Since then I've imagined myself a real adventure story lover. I think this is some way to compensate for the fact that I am not actually an adventure lover. I've touched on this subject before in this post so it will suffice to say, I have only recently become ok with admitting that I am not the amazon warrior adventure woman I have fancied myself since I was four.

So, a little bit later when I had to read Anne of Green Gables for school you can imagine how I responded. One word summed up my feelings of this book: Snoozefest. So, I don't think I was quite "sophisticated" enough at the time to come up with a word like "snoozefest" but it was particularly boring. Especially to one who'd already been off on a dog sled ride across Canada filled with kidnapping, rescues, and the loyalty of dog and man. It was this book about a girl with red hair, who didn't like her red hair, and she was kind of a phony cause she made up all this stuff and how on EARTH could anyone actually believe that? I don't remember actively rebelling against reading the book (my mom could speak to that probably) but it wasn't my favorite. I didn't continue the series.

Still later, in fact less than a year ago, my book club read The Blue Castle. I was altogether confirmed in my youthful prejudices. This time it was less a feeling of "boredom." Thankfully, by this time I had fully embraced how much of a nature wimp I was and while I still enjoy an adventure story (especially the real life ones of Jon Krakauer...be still my beating heart!), I have come to appreciate the more relaxed and cozy type books. When I read The Blue Castle I was scandalized. The actual plot: *spoiler ahead* A young woman gets a note from her doctor saying she has a year left to live; realizes she has not been living her life fully and decides to live with gusto, including asking someone to marry her; they end up falling in love and discover *don't read any more if you still want to read this book!!!* that she isn't going to die after all! And they live happily ever after.

You have to admit (and I did admit) this is a cute "storybook" plot, complete with happy ending. There are also a few more "twists" involved that have an O'Henry feel to it. Unfortunately the ENTIRE thing was completely ruined for me because I hated the main character. No, hated is an understatement. I loathed the main character. She was one of the most selfish characters I have read in any book I've ever read. (Insert about fifteen minutes of thinking....) Yes, I can't think of one more selfish character than Valancy Stirling. The entire beginning of the book is devoted to how much she "hates" everything (including her mother) and how since she is an "elderly" 29 and no one will ever marry her, she no longer has any will to live. She holds an almost twenty year grudge against a cousin because of a childhood incident. When she finally leaves her mother's house it's done under terrible circumstances. She then switches churches, not to glorify God but just to offend her family. She also goes to help out a dying neighbor the whole town has shunned because she was pregnant out of wedlock. This would have redeemed her except that you get the feeling she is doing it again, to spite her family and society. Her whole philosophy is summed up in deciding that she will "please herself." Yes, quite a Christian attitude to have. None of this "serving others" stuff.

Now, please don't hear me minimizing the difficulties Valancy was in. Her family was awful. Her community was awful. They made snide comments. They were constantly talking about her "old maid" status. They never let her go anywhere. They never let her do ANYTHING. They never let her be alone for a while. They were revealed to be insanely small-minded and judgmental. I mean, it wasn't fun. But this only explains why she rebels, it in no way excuses. For consideration, here are some things she did have: A mother who cared about her (did she show it well? Absolutely not, but she wasn't tying her up in the basement or anything); a house; food; water; clothing. I just think she could have done a better job being grateful for what she DID have and not whining and complaining about what she didn't.

Shall I tell you how I really feel? I did NOT like The Blue Castle. Like any book club I started to be "ok" with it after discussion just because there were other "good" lessons to garnish from the book. For example: Valancy dreams of a gigantic palace that she will one day escape her, but when she finally finds it, it is far less opulent than in her dreams. So, in ways she is learning contentment. But I was already terribly biased due to the character, and I was ready to throw Montgomery out of my life forever.

Thankfully Carrie saved the day. She hosted the LMM reading challenge as you all already know, and for some reason I decided to give Montgomery one last shot. I was SO glad that I did. I feel like the scales have fallen from my eyes! Montgomery is brilliant! Absolutely brilliant. I still don't know what happened with The Blue Castle and I think I'll never know and I don't care! I've met Anne. I mean, I've been re-acquainted with Anne, and she's so much better than I remember her, or perhaps I've grown up.

I want to go through each book and talk about high and low points of each, tell you all which are my favorites, which one I liked the least, give you the basic plots of all of them. Some day I will do this, but I think right now I will focus on why my faith in Ms. Montgomery has been restored (I always secretly had a little because my mom liked her so much) and why she has a new devoted fan.

When I read fiction (good fiction) about half of my brain surrenders to the basic art of storytelling. I'm a sucker for a good story. I think this is part of the human condition and as I don't know many people who aren't, I'll move on. The other half of my brain; however, is my never silent analytical self. While reading the Anne series both halves were loudly cheering! The story itself is just...fun. It's cozy. It's cute. The characters are lovable. Even the obnoxious ones you love to hate! It's just a quiet lovely story of an orphan girl who found a home in a small town and slowly wins the heart of everyone she comes in contact with. Well, ok, there are a few exceptions. We see her through her teens, through college, through marriage, through death of friends and family, through friendship, and through motherhood. There's nothing epic about them really, just a small life lived joyfully.

What really wins me over to them is the fact that the analytical half of my brain was over joyed by the character of Anne. She is a role model in her seemingly effortless joy in times of sorrow. Don't get me wrong, she isn't sinless and she isn't always happy. There aren't times when she falls into the "depths of despair." In her childhood she even claims that her life "is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes." In her adulthood she goes through the loss of her first child. Throughout it all she maintains a strength of character that overcomes her circumstances. She remains real enough that the reader can identify with her, yet she's enough of an ideal to make the reader want to be better.

There is a scene in Anne of the Island, *spoiler ahead! Turn back if you haven't read it!!* which, without having read the last two, I feel pretty safe in saying, was my favorite of the series, where Anne's friend Ruby Gillis is dying. There is no question between the two girls that Ruby will be in heaven, but she is afraid to go there. Anne's take on this is that of course Ruby would fear to leave this world!

"She could not tell comforting falsehoods; and all that Ruby said was so horribly true. She WAS leaving everything she cared for. She had laid up her treasures on earth only; she had lived solely for the little things of life -- the things that pass -- forgetting the great things that go onward into eternity, bridging the gulf between the two lives and making of death a mere passing from one dwelling to the other -- from twilight to unclouded day. God would take care of her there -- Anne believed -- she would learn -- but now it was no wonder her soul clung, in blind helplessness, to the only things she knew and loved."[1]
This nailed it for me. It instantly made me a fan. Yes, it’s a mite unorthodox. A bit earlier in the scene it’s taken for granted Ruby would be in heaven because she went to church. I’m not (necessarily, though there are exceptions) looking for orthodoxy in my fiction. A mind awake can always filter that through the scriptures. I do look for art that glorifies God, and I think particularly this scene does. It alone made reading the series completely worthwhile, and that was just one example of some of the beautiful philosophy put forward by Montgomery.

I’m sorry that the month is over before I could finish the very last two Montgomery books, but I’m glad I participated. I’m also glad I did not let The Blue Castle be my final interaction with Ms. Montgomery. She deserved so much better.

[1] Montgomery, Lucy Maud Anne of the Island (Mass Market Paperback: Seal Books 1983)

27 January 2012

Thoughts On Blog Comments

This will be the first in a series of posts (not consecutive), where I will rant complain discuss certain things that bother me or strike me as interesting about how certain people comment on blogs, particularly Christian blogs.

After this series is done, I hope a ton of people will read it and learn from my wisdom and STOP doing all of this stuff. I'm kidding...about the wisdom part. This is pure op-ed and you can chime in if you disagree. You have every right to be wrong...kidding...again.

So, under discussion today will be the grammar corrector. Now, this is not exclusive to Christian blogs though I saw it today on a blog from a pastor I follow. He had a lovely article (which I won't link because it will be uncomfortably clear who I am talking about) about the grace of God to sin-filled people. I went to the comments to thank him for the post, when who did I see, but the grammar corrector! The G.C. said one short "oh this is nice" but then pointed out a wrongly used word and told the author to fix the problem.

The G.C. is not exclusive to blogs. This person roams among us. IRL as they say. How many times have you been in the midst of a great story to your compadres when someone in the group pipes up "you said aren't....shouldn't it be isn't"? A pall falls over the group and there is a distinctive uncomfortable pause. The kinder of your friends will look down and pretend not to notice. The not so kind will grin and rally round the G.C. laughing at your dumb mistake and forgetting all about the hilarious tale you were telling them. You have no other choice but to say, "yes...isn't" and then go on with your tale with the cheery glow completely gone. In your heart will rankle many uncharitable thoughts toward the G.C.

Is it pride that causes us to get so angry with the G.C.? Possibly. There is an element of pride. None of us like making mistakes and none of us like to be exposed as mistake-makers. We also don't enjoy our blog post or story being interrupted and the whole point being tossed over for something so silly as that. I think; however, there is some justification for our anger. There is a way of thinking about the G.C. that adds a touch of righteousness to our wrath.

There are basically only two reasons for correcting someone's grammar, especially in public. A. You wish to humiliate them; and B. You wish everyone to know how superior you are in your grammar skills. There is a small third which is, you really care about this person and know they would like you to correct them. This is rare, and I consider it a rather hard sell when you are doing it publicly.

One of my life mottoes has been: "Language is for communication." With the constant change of "proper English" and the nature of the English language as a whole and the debilitating effects of Strunk and White, "proper grammar" is often hard to keep up with. If the grammar of the person you are talking to annoys you, who cares? If the grammar of the person you are talking to, keeps you from understanding them, ask them to explain! Must we really stoop so low as to shame them in front of others? Must we obliterate all the good they had to say for the purpose of correcting the difference between "lie" and "lay" and how one of them was just used improperly? Is it really that necessary?

I do understand the urge. Sometimes I will be talking to someone and they will say something ridiculous like, "Yeah, he don't do that no more." The same lights that light up in your brain light up in mine. Inwardly I wince and sometimes it does take me a while to recover and listen to what the person is saying. What usually helps is remembering that this is a person with feelings, and what they are saying is vastly more important than how they say it. I will correct them if I'm being particularly cruel, and if I don't like the person. Perhaps this colors my opinion of the motives of the G.C. ...possibly....

I didn't end up commenting on the blog I mentioned earlier. I knew that if I did I would chastise the mellow-harshing G.C., which would in actuality mean I was correcting her(yeah, I said "her") publicly....for correcting publicly...but still. It's annoying. Everyone should stop. Think of the person you are talking to/interacting with first. Think of their arguments/article second. Think of their sentence structure last. And if you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all.

26 January 2012

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard Times book cover by Milton Glaser

This was a long time coming. So long in fact that I feel like the actual story is slipping away from me, and I doubt I'll be able to adequately review it. Thankfully there are plenty more intelligent and scholarly opinion pieces are reviews online for you to read if you want a better one than I can provide.

I read this book because it's Dickens. I really don't feel like I need any explanation after saying that. The last Dickens I read was Bleak House which left me feeling a little unnerved to be honest. Up until I finished the last glorious page, I was sure that David Copperfield was my favorite Dickens. Now I'm no longer sure. I am sure that Hard Times is not my favorite. Don't get me wrong. It was wonderful. It had the usual assortment of blatant stereotypes, excessive verbosity, and dark humor one often associates with a Dickens novel, but it seemed a little more barbed than I was used to. Plus, I just happened to find his other stories more appealing.

This is Dickens 10th novel and was released in sections (like most, if not all of his works) in a magazine that also featured Elizabeth Gaskall's North and South. Some of the same themes were shared between the two novels. The book was actually an attack on the theory of utilitarianism, popularized by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill (not John Stuart Mill, but close, James Mill was his father). Utilitarianism's concept is that general social welfare should be the utmost concern for all, in order to promote "the greatest good for the greatest number of people." Traces of this belief are still much influencing capitalism today, especially that of the laissez faire variety.

Louisa and Thomas Gradgrind Jr. (brother and sister), were brought up under the very utilitarian eye of their father, Thomas Gradgrind. Both children took in the teaching in different ways. Thomas Jr., upon leaving the family home became a complete hedonist and ruins his life by gambling. Louisa married her father's friend, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown. Mr. Bounderby has a compelling rags to riches tale that one would be more sympathetic to if he wasn't constantly shoving it into people's faces to marvel at. Mr. Bounderby owns mills in Coketown and there is a sub-plot (double-plot) with one of the mill hands, named Stephan Blackpool. He is described in the book as a man of perfect integrity. He refuses to join the union's strike and is blacklisted by the other mill hands. The lives of the Gradgrinds and Mr. Bounderby end up coming together in a rather surprising way, which I won't tell you about because I think you should read it. I will let you know that at the end Utilitarianism is exposed for the fraudulent and unfulfilling philosophy that it is.

Like I said before, the novel, perhaps because it was definitely out to prove something seemed a mite sharper than his works typically are. I felt better when I poked into this a little more and realized that other literary critics and other authors are split on this book. It seems that Mr. Dickens went out of his way to show the wealthy as wholly immoral (Josiah Bounderby) or amoral (Louisa Gradgrind-Bounderby). The poor in the story (Stephan Blackpool and his love interest) were depicted as noble, impeccable, upstanding people despite their circumstances. Not that I didn't love both of those characters. If you read the story you won't be able to resist their humble integrity throughout, but is life really that uniform? Is the (forgive me) 1% all really monsters, and the 99% noble upstanding citizens?

(Sidenote: George Orwell really praised Dickens and Hard Times so I'm not sure I can toss the whole thing)

I would say if you are new to Charles Dickens, or (God forbid) don't really like Charles Dickens, I'd save this title till you have read some of his other works, or till you've decided to get on the old, straight and narrow and appreciate his genius.

23 January 2012

Something to Chew On with Rob Bell pt. 2

"That is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don't love God. They can't because the God they've been presented with and taught about can't be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable." ~Rob Bell

"Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, 'What are you making?' or 'Your work has no handles'?...Thus says the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him: Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands?" ~Isaiah 45: 9&11


"So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, 'Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?' But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, 'Why have you made me like this?' Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory-" ~Romans 9: 18-23

19 January 2012

Something to Chew on with Rob Bell

Matthew 7:13 "“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many."

Rob Bell Love Wins: "The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives."

04 January 2012

"Turn Right at Machu Pichu" by Mark Adams

Can't get enough of what I say here? Why don't you check out my review of Mark Adams's Turn Right at Machu Pichu over here.

03 January 2012

Lucy Maud Montgomery

Just letting everyone know that I am doing this:
L. M. Montgomery Reading Challenge

I'm reading through the entire Anne of Green Gables series, which should also help with the reading contest I'm having with a friend of mine. I really really really like winning. Anyway, you should all participate in this reading challenge because L.M. Montgomery has cute and fun stories and why not start off the year with warm fuzzies?