19 December 2013

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

As is normally the case, I’m a late to the party. Carrie’s Reading to Know Book Club read Little Women for their November selection. I’m not sure why it took me so long locating the book, but I did, a few days ago, and read the majority of it in two days. I love Little Women. I think it can be a little preachy, but overall a sweet story that I hope my daughters will love, if I ever have daughters, but reading it in two days, is just too much of a good thing. Aside from reading too much Little Women at a time this was a really fun reread.
     Little Women is made up of two books really: Little Women and Good Wives. Most of the time Good Wives isn’t treated as a separate work and it really shouldn’t be anyway. I believe the second part was written after the overwhelming reception of the first, but Louisa May Alcott combined the two not too long after both were on the market. Little Women is a story of the four little March girls: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. It’s another one of those books that just takes a normal flawed little family and follows them into adulthood. So boring right? Well, wrong, in my opinion, but I have seen people decry this book as saccharine and boring and a tough sell to today’s kids. It is a little dated and it is a little preachy, but the last time I looked, kids today deal with envy, vanity, death, and discontent just like they have for generations. I firmly believe in books gently easing children into tough subjects by dealing with said subjects in a quiet manner and I think Alcott pulled it off. None of the girls are perfect (Ok, Beth kind of comes a little close), but they are all trying. There is an element of Christianity in the book, but I’m just going to skim over that because it seemed to be more of a moralistic type Christianity. It made sense because it’s kind of a little book of morals wrapped around a story about four girls, but I don’t think there is much to wrestle with there.
     Little Women is interesting to me because I found parts of myself in all four of the girls (Ok, maybe not Beth), and I think that is the beauty of the book. Most women and girls can find parts of themselves in the characters or at least fully relate to one of them. I am not the eldest sister but I’ve always played the role of the eldest sister and some of the way Meg interacted with her younger sisters was like me. I connected with Jo’s independence and love of reading and writing. And Amy struggled with being selfish. That’s all I’m gonna say about that.
     When I was younger and read Little Women I remembered finding Beth so annoying because she was SO dreadfully perfect, but I didn’t feel like that this time around. It could be that I now noticed the small struggles she had, but I think it had more to do with being older and recognizing Beth’s good qualities. As I age (she says from the lofty age of 27) I find those literary and biblical paragons of perfection to be much less annoying than I used to find them. I guess we all have to strive to look like someone right? I mean, Christ was perfect and we want to look like him.
      There are plenty of little lessons that are sprinkled throughout the book, but two I particularly liked were Beth’s resigning herself to dying and Mrs. March’s little lesson about how she has “plans” for her girls.
     I always think it’s fascinating when books for children take on death and still convey peace and hope. We have contemporary examples like The Fault in Our Stars which do a terrible job making death real to children while leaving them hope and this is lauded as “real life” but I actually think Alcott’s picture of Beth struggling with the concept of dying and finally coming to terms with God and the shortness of her life, to be more inspiring and more real. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about people who go through hard times and still continue in faith and what a testimony that is to God, rather than the people who go through good times and have no trouble being faithful, or the people who let tough times get the better of them and crumble beneath them. There will be times of sorrow, but God has His plan, and trusting him throughout pain is such a wonderful testimony to His power and His goodness.
     The other thing that I found interesting was when Mrs. March told her daughters she had plans for them; how she wanted them to marry but more than that she wanted them to be good, admired, and respected. There are quite a few people who scorn Little Women for telling girls to be little homebodies and just to get married and have no say in your life, but I think that’s not at all the plans Mrs. March has for her daughters, “Better be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands…One thing remember, my girls. Mother is always ready to be your confidante, Father to be your friend, and both of hope and trust that our daughters, whether married or single, will be the pride and comfort of out lives.” I thought those were some wise words which sounded awfully similar to my own mother’s thoughts on marriage.
     I was glad to have re-read this one. I wish I had taken a little more time and spaced it out, but it was a fun one to visit again. I like it even more as an adult than I did as a child.
     I refrained from using the RTK book club image because this really is too late to be counted as part of the discussion, but as always I thank Carrie for putting this on and reminding me of all those titles I love so much!

Fun Goodreads Review: 
Pro: "I believe Alcott was ahead of her time, way ahead of it. She was even ahead of the feminist revolution that occured during the century after her time. In her novel, she illustrates what a lot of women are coming to realize, that domestic, family life is very rewarding, fulfilling and escalates the female race to a stature of importance beyond any occupation society offers outside of the home (and is in many ways more challenging than any other occupation). I believe that feminism is reshaping itself as more and more women come to realize that there are some opportunities related to the traditional female role that can never be reclaimed once passed over."

Anti: "I hate Jo, and her supposed tomboyishness, and the fact that she is the most flat, and dull, and stupid character I've ever come across. I hate Amy, because she's a vapid idiot who contributes nothing to the story. I hate Meg, even though I don't remember anything about her. I HATE Beth more than them all combined because she is so holy-holy, and meek, and perfect, and then she goes and dies"

13 November 2013

The Autobiography of Malcolm X As Told to Alex Haley

          There is a certain fluidity that sometimes comes from my reading that is unplanned and often quite serendipitous. I have experienced it before, but not quite so strikingly as when I began The Autobiography of Malcolm X just as I finished Travels with Charley. Steinbeck had just traveled, with Charley, down into the Jim Crow south and there is quite a large section in the end dealing with racism. Now, I felt some amount of hypocrisy at Steinbeck’s northern reaction to the “southern problem” of racism. Though racism manifested itself in very ugly and very public ways in the south, but they have hardly held a monopoly. After all, Jim Crow had actually originated in the North (according to respected historian C. Van Woodward) and made its way down South. Somehow that has been conveniently forgotten. But I still was eased into the ugly subject by Steinbeck’s travels, so I was prepared to read about the life of Malcolm X, possibly one of the most contentious figures in the Civil Rights movement.
I’d like to offer a few caveats here. I am hoping to avoid making any judgments or political statements. It’s very hard to look back in time and scoff at or revere people, institutions, or ideas. They are who and what they are, and they have already happened. My job is only to wonder at how God has worked things out through history. I don’t need to have all the answers and I don’t need to have little lessons in nicely wrapped packages either. I also do not know what it is like to be a black man in the early 1960s. I don’t know what it is like to have my friends and family killed or frightened or threatened or have their houses burned down or be run out of town. I have no idea what that feels like or what that would do to you, especially if you do not have the hope of Christ in your life. Malcolm X was not a believer and he lived under the impression that he would die a violent death. This is not an excuse, but it is an explanation.
The other caveat is that this book is a little slippery. It’s called an Autobiography, but it’s really a biography. Not only that, it is a biography written by Alex Haley who many claim is sooort of an odd blend of fiction and memoir. I mean, really isn’t ALL memoir a bit of a blend of fiction and memoir? Now, Alex Haley also had the most extensive interviews with Malcolm X of anyone, so this should be the best place to get information about him. Unfortunately there are some scholars who believe that this work should really be viewed as the work of both men, and since Haley was the author he probably eventually had more control over what was said and what wasn’t. There are at least two substantial pieces (Malcolm X’s anti-Semitic thoughts, and his thoughts on Elijah Muhammad) which were somewhat modified or suppressed by either the publishers or by Alex Haley. So, with ALL of that in mind…
I was hooked from the first page. The writing is gripping and immediate and who isn’t fascinated by the more appalling times in our past and in the pasts of other countries? I knew a little about Malcolm X. You either hear that he was the guy who “wanted to kill all the white people” or you get a little blurb about him in any book that covers the Civil Rights movement. The book went very far into his past and his upbringing and his coming of age, and it is interesting to trace some of his influences and be able to sort of understand him a little bit more.
That being said, I don’t think he really seemed like a pleasant person. Whatever sort of symbol he may have been for anyone else; he didn’t seem very respectful to women. Now, to be fair, he encountered a lot of women who weren’t exactly ladies, to put it mildly. I don’t really think that was an excuse, but again, perhaps an explanation. Even when he converted to Islam, his thoughts about women did not exactly improve. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca (one of the five pillars of Islam) later in his life and on the way back, he made a stop in Lebanon where he notices that the dress of the young women there is much less modest. He then concludes, “any country’s moral strength, or moral weakness, is quickly measured by the street attire and attitude of it’s women.” Yikes. No pressure ladies. I guess that didn’t particularly surprise me since I don’t think that particular religion is very woman-friendly anyway.
Also, no matter which skin color is involved, racism is always wrong. He was a racist. Like I said earlier, I have no idea what it is like living in fear, or living feeling beat down by others so if I were in the same situation I might have been racist too, but it’s not right. It’s not even ok. Jesus came to earth to be perfect for ALL people because NO ONE can be, and he died the death and experienced the separation from God that ALL people deserve. God sees every person as a saved person by Jesus’s blood, or a lost person. That’s it.
I should point out that after Malcolm X’s Hajj (pilgrimage), he concludes that religion is something that can transcend color lines. He still continued to believe in the necessity of keeping the races separate, and the fact that non-whites have suffered much at the hands of whites, but he realized that he could have white brothers in Islam. That’s just an interesting thing that I didn’t know prior to reading this book.
Something I learned by reading this is that he didn’t actually suggest killing white people, but I do think I know why people think this about him. What Malcolm X wanted was separation. He basically wanted a “promised land” (he used the newly formed Israel as an example) for Africans. He didn’t want integration or intermarriage or even buying things at stores with white owners. He wanted the races separate. However, when he was a part of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, a documentary was released called The Hate That Hate Produced and it was a supposed expose of the Nation of Islam. The makers of the documentary zeroed in on a morality play by one of the members in which, “the white man” is put on trial for all his past crimes and sentenced to death. Thus a lot of, “Aha! They want to kill us all,” and a lot of fear was spread around. Have we seen this before? Islam in the media anyone?
While reading about Malcolm’s eventual break from Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, it occurred to me how sad it all was. I mean, Elijah Muhammad came into Malcolm X’s life when he was in prison. Malcolm X stopped doing drugs and stealing and sleeping around. He began to pray and read and teach others to live this morally straight lifestyle, but in the end Elijah Muhammad betrayed him. First by living the very lifestyle he preached against, and eventually by allegedly hinting around that Malcolm X should be put to death. It reminded me of Psalm 146:3 “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” All of the morality Malcolm X adopted after his conversion to Islam would never save him. Even after his pilgrimage and finding more out about the real Islam, Malcolm X would still be lost. And when he died at age
For the conservative reader, Malcolm X’s led a very rough life before he was imprisoned and there is fairly frank descriptions of things you might not be very comfortable with, so bear that in mind. I wouldn’t go so far as to say graphic, so I think I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the man or his time. 

26 June 2013

Supreme Court Decision

     I mean, was anyone surprised? Yeah, me either.

     Well, at least now the "marriage" equality people may now stop pretending they are the most persecuted people since Athanasius of Alexandria.

06 June 2013

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

      Sometimes the ladies in my library book club pass around books they’ve finished and don’t plan on reading again. Before I began my Great Book Purge (in anticipation of moving, of course), I was very willing to pick up any book at the great price of “free” and give it a shot. I would not have picked up American Wife if I’d had to pay for it. I read another Curtis Sittenfeld title before and I did not care for it. This one was not added to my list of favorites either.

     American Wife is based loosely on the real life Laura Bush. This is unfortunate, in my opinion because Laura Bush is still alive. Not that I believe in slandering people after they are dead either, but it does seem awkward to make a novel based on someone (and add your own juicy details) who can possibly contact you and tell you, you are out of line. Now, some things in the book do actually match the facts of the life of the real Laura Bush, but I’m sort of surprised Ms. Sittenfeld has been allowed to get away with some of this stuff.
     The story is of the life of Alice Blackwell nee Lindgren raised a democrat (true) in the state of Wisconsin (false). She was involved as a teenager in a hit and run accident with a classmate (true), who she was interested in since childhood (possibly?) and for the rest of her adult life she is plagued with wondering “what if” knowing forever that her “secret heart” will always belong to this young man (gross speculation). She lived with her parents and grandmother who was a closeted lesbian (uhhh…) and was a librarian with a deep love of books (true). Sometime during her younger more vulnerable years she gets pregnant by the brother of the young man who was killed in the tragic accident (unable to verify and totally out of line) and gets pregnant and has an abortion (at this point I’d be a little angry if I was Ms. Bush). She met George Bu—er, Charlie Blackwell at a barbecue (true) and married him later on (true) agreeing to support him as a wife while disagreeing with his political views (true).
     So, if I try to read this without picturing Laura Bush (this is virtually impossible), it’s an interesting story, but far far FAR too inappropriate for me to read. This is the exact problem I had with the last Sittenfeld novel I read, so I think this will be the last time I try. Ms. Sittenfeld is a good author who has good ideas. She spins a great yarn, you could say but I guess she’s of the school of writers who think you have to “spice up” your books to attract the reading public. *sigh*
     If I read the book thinking of Laura Bush, an unexpected (and ironic) aspect comes up. I’vewritten before about gossip in politics and how one should be careful to mock someone like Sarah Palin for her gaffs and make sure they know the whole story. There is an element of forgiveness for Charlie Blackwell as a person. After almost losing his wife, and getting a DUI, Charlie gets in touch with a pastor and is “born again.” Now, honestly, I don’t know if even Ms. Sittenfeld is aware of what that means other than “Charlie stopped drinking.” But George Bush did claim to be a Christian and only God and George Bush know whether he is or not. So, to dwell too much on his past sin of over indulgence in alcohol is out of line, unless there is a repeat DUI and he is running for President. Everyone makes mistakes and some can be forgiven. It has always confused me that the same people who worry about George Bush’s DUI are completely unconcerned about our current president’s former marijuana use. I think both are mistakes committed and should be treated the same.
     Also, a lot of the book talks about the war. This isn’t really a surprise, since George Bush will probably be remembered for his response to 9/11. In the persistent Great Man historiographical tradition, wars and presidents will forever be the milestones in most historical survey classes. So it would be impossible not to discuss George Bush without talking about the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. I respect the way Ms. Sittenfeld wrote about this. It would be easy to take cheap shots and in many ways some of them could be deserved (from what little I know), but she doesn’t. Like a good novelist she shows the full character of a human being who makes mistakes, sometimes with tragic consequences, but who isn’t the demon/antichrist/nazi character that the media often sets up. She uses her main character, Alice, to talk about how fickle the American people were in supporting the war originally and then denigrating Charlie for continuing it. Charlie Blackwell isn’t the hero of the story, but he isn’t the villain either. He is a conflicted and flawed man.
     Something else Ms. Sittenfeld brings up through Alice’s thoughts (and here is the irony) is the effects of fame. How people will act around you. How even the people you grew up with will modify their behavior. How you will be villainized. How you will be praised for the wrong things. How people will address you in blogs or on the news. And how people will smugly mock or criticize you, seemingly unaware that you have feelings as a person. Now, I find this somewhat funny considering the fact that Ms. Sittenfeld created an alternate Laura Bush who doesn’t fully love her husband, had an abortion, and has a lesbian grandmother. Along the way Ms. Sittenfeld casts aspersions on the brother of Laura Bush’s former classmate, who in the story rapes, or at least very very VERY strongly pressures, an underage Alice Blackwell into a sexual relationship with him. So, I do find it hypocritical that the theme of gossip, lies, and misrepresentations of the famous (particularly politicians) is brought up in a book full of all three.
     I can’t say I enjoyed the book, but I do try to get something out of what I read (even if it’s a free book that I didn’t like) and what I decided to walk away with was to be careful what I say especially on my blog regarding famous figures. They are just people and not immune from being hurt and slandered. 
     On a somewhat related note: Yes, the author is a woman named Curtis. I didn't get it either. I actually don't really care enough to look her up much. She's certainly a good storyteller, but I could only become interested if she ratcheted back the sex scenes. 
     On another somewhat related note, a "1Star Review" on Goodreads said: "I think I began to feel jipped when I realized there wasn't going to be an elaborate wedding scene in the novel, that Alice was never going to wear the wedding gown (or anything nearly like it) pictured on the book jacket." Do you hear that book cover people? Do not use false advertisement, you will disappoint the wedding dress aficionados.

13 May 2013

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

     I read The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver along with the rest of my Library Book Club for the month of April. I actually was hosting a friend from my old college at the time, so I didn’t attend the meeting. I do like to keep up with what the club is reading so I was able to finish this title not too long ago.
     Barbara Kingsolver, if the name rings a bell, is the author of the 1998 bestselling novel, The Poisonwood Bible. I took a contemporary literature class in college (I wasn’t a fan, but it was helpful in knowing more about today’s literature, she admits grudgingly) and we were given a list of novels to write a paper on. We all go to choose our own and I actually chose Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. Ask me what my paper was about? I have no idea. Ask me what the novel was about? I think, a war? As you can see Ms. Hazzard left a huge impression. I did take note of Ms. Kingsolver’s book and told myself I’d like to read it. Now, don’t get too excited about the word “bible.” She’s not a Christian. In fact, I have every reason to believe it’s one of those, “Oh-behold-another-hypocritical-pastor” novels. But I somewhat like interacting with those novels because I know other people are reading them, and I want to be able to say, “Yes, I’ve read them. Here’s why I disagree.” More recently, the name came up again in a list compiled by Leland Ryken in his new study on Pastors in the Classics. I’ve been trying to read a lot of the books on that list, and so when Ms. Kingsolver’s name came up in my book club I was pretty excited. Even though this was a different novel.
     Barbara Kingsolver is a talented writer. No dispute. She has eccentric and beautiful ways of crafting her books sentence by lovely sentence. I often fall for books based on the beauty of the language. She’s one of those people who can take something you feel and speak about it in a way that makes you say, “Yes! That’s exactly what it’s like!” Her powers of description and storytelling were absolutely mesmerizing. I can’t overstate how wonderful this book was.
     However (of course there has to be a however), the main character is a homosexual. Now, this neither adds nor takes away from the story. In fact, I think Ms. Kingsolver included it for the same reason Mr. Young portrayed "god in his unfortunately best selling book The Shack, as an African-American woman. Basically to be hip/edgy/relevant/cool, whatever you want to call it. (Though it has been suggested she used his orientation as a way to get him out of military service later on. Homosexuality was considered a mental deficiency and as such those who were weren't accepted for military service) I actually thought it was sort of a disappointment considering how fabulous this story is, that she felt like she had to be cool and shock the puritanical reading public (as if!) with a homosexual protagonist. The nice thing is, Ms. Kingsolver is very discreet. There are a few intimate interactions between the protagonist and another man, but you just barely get the idea of what is going on. In fact, it took me actually a hefty way into the book to realize that he wasn’t attracted to women. So, hats off to that. I guess if you must have sex scenes, at least be somewhat discreet. The puritanical reading public (or at least this corner of it) really appreciates that. So, I’m not kidding when I say his orientation neither adds to nor takes away from the story.
     The story is about Harrison Shepherd whose father was American and whose mother is Mexican. He was raised mainly in Mexico, went to school in America, worked back in Mexico, and ended up a writer in Cold War era America. Being outside the culture of communism v. anticommunism, his insight into things like J. Edgar Hoover and patriotism and HUAC were spellbinding. During his time in Mexico, he ends up a cook in the house of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo-Rivera (yes, the real life artists) who eventually take in the exiled Leon Trotsky (yes, the real life leader of the Bolshevik revolution). So, eventually, his past catches up with him as the anticommunist furor in America heats up. Mr. Shepherd begins with a great love for America and ends feeling betrayed, but you also don’t feel like you are reading a story set up to bash America (which I feel like is a bit overly popular for my taste).
     The book opens with Harrison as a young boy in Mexico, interested in a nearby underwater lacuna, which basically means gap or emptiness. He even goes far enough to get through the gap into the other side despite warnings that he might drown, but for the rest of his life there are holes in the story of his life that never get entirely filled in due to fear and self-censorship. This personal experience is widened in mid century America, as fear and censorship begins to control the general public arena.
     Like some of the best stories, it's a love story. An ultimately platonic (see orientation) relationship between Harrison Shepherd and his secretary Violent Brown plays a big role in the second half of the book. Ms. Brown urges Harrison to write the story of his life. She is his best friend and main encourager, eventually sacrificing her own reputation to see him succeed. She is, in my opinion, the steadying influence and voice of reason throughout the novel. She's also introduced at the beginning as the person compiling the notes and diary entries that comprise Mr. Shepherd's life, so it makes sense that she is the person bringing everything in order. The affection that grows between them is confused, but it's actually very touching.  
     This is a well crafted story that combines themes of friendship, love, patriotism, and the power of words. Also, I cried at the end. Books that move me that much are winners in my estimation. So, I actually do recommend this. Yes, I surprised myself, but as long as you take the drawback into account, I think this is a really powerful and beautiful story, by a talented author. I actually am even more excited to read The Poisonwood Bible as a result.
     On an interesting personal note, when I was avisiting Boyfriend last month I met a friend of his who had come up to see an exhibit at the closest big art museum by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. I actually hadn't heard of them until she was talking about them. Then I began this book and I was about halfway through the part of the story that was about them, before I realized that it was THAT Diego and Frida. 

29 April 2013

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

     Special Topics in Calamity Physics has many of the elements I don’t like in a story. Bratty teens, teen drinking, teen sex, teens doing drugs, possibly sketchy student-teacher interactions, and a teacher who committed suicide (or DID she!? Dun dun DUNNN), but I’m getting ahead of myself.
     Special Topics in Calamity Physics is the story of 17 year old highly intelligent, and somewhat precocious Blue Van Meer (so named by her late mother who was interested in butterflies and could only seem to catch Blue Morphos). Blue and her unpleasant father (lecturer, professor, womanizer, and well rounded intellectual) have been leading a transient life since Blue’s mother died. She’s been in and out of schools all her life, until her senior year when they decide to spend one whole year at a high school in Stockton, North Carolina in order to get Blue into Harvard. Blue finds herself sucked up into a strange small social group by the maneuverings of the enigmatic film teacher, Hannah Schneider. But when Hannah Schneider is found dead (allegedly a suicide), Blue takes on the mysterious life and death of her former teacher armed only with her wit and cultural lexicon (I actually have no idea what “cultural lexicon” really means, I merely stole it from the back of the book)
     Ok, this is an exciting story. As I mentioned at the beginning it’s not a clean story. It’s also a weird story. I can’t get over Blue and her father’s relationship and conversation. He sounds excruciatingly impressed with himself and their overly witty repartee doesn’t sound natural to me. 
     So, why did I read this book you might ask? Well, wouldn’t you read a book with that name? I think I picked it up (at Goodwill) and bought it because the title of the book gripped me. I mean, isn’t that just the craziest title you’ve ever heard?
     You may want to know why I kept reading it. Well, so do I. I guess because the mystery was so gripping. If the mystery is mysterious enough I have a compulsion to know the end. At the end; however, I’m not sure I knew much more than I did at the beginning, though there were some serious surprises. I mean, you know why Hannah died, and you know the people involved in her death, but the story leaves you feeling a little incomplete. So, I can't say it was a fulfilling read.
     The one good thing about this book was the interesting main character and her relationship with her father. Though it was hard for the author to convince me that this was an actual seventeen year old interacting with her father, I did somewhat enjoy their wordplay. I did find her a little bratty at times, but the father was so unpleasant I couldn’t quite find it in my heart to feel sorry for him. It's not a relationship I would want to have with my own parents, but it was oddly fascinating.
     Overall, I think it was one to skip despite the interesting title and pretty catchy mystery. 

26 April 2013

No Name by Wilkie Collins

     April is at an end? Already? Well, thankfully I did finish No Name by Wilkie Collins in time to participate in the Reading To Know bookclub. The book was chosen by Tim at Diary of an Autodidact. This review will contain spoilers. 

Reading to Know - Book Club
     This was my first Wilkie Collins book, and I hope it won’t be my last. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Being a contemporary and close friend of Charles Dickens, there shouldn’t be too much of a surprise when I tell you that the two authors are similar in style. I do think Dickens is the more masterful (and also more verbose) of the two, but that is a personal preference thing. Also, I’m not fully qualified to make that judgment since I’ve read countless Dickens books and only one Collins book. Anyway, I loved it. I rated it five stars on Goodreads, so that should say something.
     There is something wonderful about reading “the classics.” It might just be in my head or it might be just a purely emotional attachment, but I feel wholesome while reading it. I feel like I’m reading a great story, written by someone who has withstood the test of time. I feel like the book is adding to my life and bolstering my soul. I tightly cling to a (perhaps mystical, but perhaps not) belief that the things on earth that we find Beautiful or True or Good (note the capital letters) are teeny insights into the joy we will experience in heaven. So, I hope I’m not being too unorthodox when I say I believe reading a great novel, is a little bit like being in heaven.
     No Name is part revenge thriller and part social commentary. Collins spends a fair amount of time exploring the theme of illegitimate children, and how the law is particularly harsh on innocent children for the sins of their parents. I do think Collins deserves credit for not being too preachy on this theme. He is definitely exploring the social aspect of the illegitimacy laws, but folding it into a very fascinating story of a young girl seeking revenge for herself and her sister.
     Magdalen Vanstone and her sister Norah find out very early on in the book, so I don’t feel bad about revealing it, that their mother and father were only very recently married, and died before they could make a will leaving their money to their children. Thus, their father’s fortune was given to their cruel uncle, who only gave the girls a pittance to help them start their lives. Norah, the elder sister, resigns herself to her fate and goes to work at once in order to support herself. Magdalen, the younger sister, steels up her heart and works toward revenge at any cost. And I mean, ANY cost.
     Now, I don’t think the treatment of illegitimate children in this age was very good; however, these days we have way more illegitimate children. In fact, more than half of the children born to women under 30 are illegitimate. So, in actuality, illegitimacy is the norm. Perhaps if the consequences of illegitimacy were harsher, there would be less illegitimacy? Please don’t hear me saying that Magdalen and Norah deserved what they got. I don’t believe they did. But I don’t think we in the 21st century have the right to look down on the laws of the 19th  and assume we have progressed as a society. Yes, we don’t necessarily have a problem of innocent children being stripped of their inheritance by heartless uncles, but we have fatherless children and high rates of abortion and kids who don’t even know their family background. I think when looking at the past we often fall into two ways of thinking that are unhelpful. We either think, “Wow, things were SO much better back in the day. That’s the simple life. Things have seriously gone downhill.” Or we think, “Wow, things were SO much worse back then. It’s a good thing we’ve progressed so much further than our backwards ancestors.” In the historical profession these two ways of thinking are Nostalgia and Progressivism. From now on I want all my readers to avoid these two ways of thinking. Got it? Great.
     This story kind of reminded me, in a way, of Rebekah trying to trick her husband into blessing her favorite son. God had already told her that the “older will serve the younger” in chapter 25 of Genesis, but instead of trusting God to bring His own plans to fruition, Rebekah goes through an elaborate scheme to make sure her younger son is given the blessing. Jacob, the younger son, goes along with his mother’s schemes and lies to his father and supplants his older brother. Now, the analogy falls apart because we do know that was how God intended things to work out and Esau wasn’t exactly a model citizen, but in No Name we see the younger sister lying and manipulating and ruining her reputation to try and claim what is “rightfully hers.” Whereas Norah, the older sister, takes her fate in stride and sets out in gentleness and humility to make her way in the world. As it turns out, the injustice is set to rights mainly by Norah’s quiet humility and less by Magdalen’s striving and conniving.
     This was a wonderful story and accomplished author to add to my “Completed” list, and I’m grateful to Tim and Reading to Know for the opportunity.   
     I’m sad to report there weren’t any funny reviews on Goodreads to add to this one, but instead I’ll point out that No Name is actually the name of my favorite doughnut from Voodoo Doughnuts, a popular doughnut shop in Portland, OR. It’s just a chocolate frosted doughnut, but with rice krispies and peanut butter on the top. It’s delicious. I actually thought it would be fitting to eat one of the donuts while I read the book, but this never actually came together, sadly.
     Anyway, I have every intention of reading another. Blogger EmmyD put it bluntly by commanding me “Get thee to A Woman in White.” I will definitely comply.

17 April 2013

Hushing Gosnell

     I don't always put up political posts, but when I do it's about something entirely unethical. There is a murder trial happening that I just found out about. Just found out. Like, this morning. The only reason I found out was because I read Christian blogs. Apparently when people who claim Christianity blow up abortion clinics it's a huge deal (it is, by the way, please don't claim to bear Christ's name and try to kill people), but when an abortionist commits atrocities we like to pretend to not notice.

     The last two days I've seen running commentary about the tragedy at the Boston Marathon. It's heartbreaking and horrible, and I cried over some of the stories coming out of there, but more people were killed by Kermit Gosnell than were killed at the Marathon. President Obama declined to comment about the trials since it was an open trial. Who is shocked? Any hands? No? No one?

     There are pro-choicers who are trying to turn this around by saying things like, "Yeah, well, see, this is where women will go if they have no access to a safe and legal abortion." (Cause you know...safe and abortion totally make sense in the same sentence...no) But oddly enough there had been complaints and investigations into Gosnell's clinic, all the way back to the 80s. No one did anything about them. This shouldn't be a big surprise since this was a clinic for minority and lower income women. Since abortion rights were strongly endorsed by a major eugenicist and racist, I don't imagine things have changed that much. No one really cares if poor minority women and babies are dying. No amount of regulations or money will make anyone care, or will make abortions safe for anyone.

     I don't know how obvious it is, but I'm seriously bent out of shape over this. I mean, the fact that I know Gosnell isn't a rarity. The fact that women are being sold their "rights" when actually they are being victimized. The fact that abortion is really just a way to get rid of poor minorities and no one understands that, and the fact that I saw Casey Anthony's face every day for nearly two years on the news or online for killing one child. This man kills countless children and a woman in horrifying ways, and I'm just now hearing about this and this is the 5th week of this trial.

     Trevin Wax from The Gospel Coalition posted 8 chilling reasons why we are ignoring this story.

"Whenever we see news stories about abortion, the clinic must be portrayed as a “refuge” for women in distress, not a "house of horrors," where women are taken advantage of. But it is impossible to spin this story in a way that keeps “abortion clinic” away from negative connotations...Whenever we see news stories about abortion, the discussion must be framed in terms of providing “access” for low-income, minority women. But it is impossible to spin this story in a way that keeps people from wondering if perhaps some abortion providers are “targeting” low-income, minority women." (Read more here)

    Another blog post by Ann Voskamp was particularly touching and inspiring to me while thinking about this tragedy.

"And hear me, Son — our voice about women’s abortions lacks authenticity unless we speak of male promiscuity. Male promiscuity is about power and pleasure and no presence. Male promiscuity is about sensuality and fertility and no responsibility...And the truth is — We turn away from Gosnell because it’s our high school friends and it’s our sisters, its our daughters and our sons, and our children, our stained hands. It’s our grief of loss and our sins of neglect and our failure as a community. The tender mourning of it is that: Abortion is a sign of failure of community." (Read more here)

29 March 2013

Maud Hart Lovelace

     Well, the end of March is upon us and my procrastinating nature again thought, “Meh, this is a series for kids, I can start it later on." So, I’ve officially only read through two books from Maud Hart Lovelace this month. Namely: Betsy~Tacy and Betsy, Tacy and Tib. I am going to go ahead and finish out the series because I read the first three as a kid, and didn’t even realize the series continued after that. There are ten. TEN!
     I’ve also learned from my fellow bloggers in the Reading To Know Book Club that the Betsy Ray series is not her only series. I really only just discovered this. I’m kind of delighted because the stories are so sweet and for whatever reason they are packed with good memories for me.
     Children’s literature author Emilie Buchwald (who by the way I’ve never read anything by outside of this quote that I happen to love) says, “"Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” And this is so true. Most of my favorite children’s books were books that were given to me as gifts from my parents. I was also raised around books. We’ve always had bookshelves even at the eye level of a baby just learning to walk, and I’ve spoken before about my interest in Jack London at four years old, possibly based solely on the fact that it was shelved where I could see it.
     Anyway, I don’t know how old I was when I was given the first three Betsy Ray books. It was one of my birthdays under ten presumably. Later I passed them on to Little Sister who loved them to their actual deaths, so unfortunately there was nothing to pass down to Littlest Sister.
     So, nothing actually happens in these books. There isn’t necessarily an over arching adventure or underlying mystery, it’s just a story of three friends who live in a small town in the late 1800s. This could be a criticism, but I think there is also some simple beauty to it. In the introduction to Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, Ann M. Martin (author of the infamous Babysitter’s Club series) says that these girls are timeless. While they are set in a particular historical setting, they are just three little girls doing things little girls have always done: dressing up, climbing trees, setting up a fort, going on picnics. They are relatable to generations of little girls. While reading the chapter about paper dolls, I remembered how Older Sister and I used to cut out the ladies from magazines and use them for paper dolls. And Betsy and Tacy are right, finding the guy paper dolls IS the hardest part.
     Something noteworthy is Betsy’s love of storytelling. She is constantly entertaining her friends with stories about the three of them and often their older sisters and parents. You certainly see the beginnings of an imagination at work. I think this love of words and stories helps her as she comforts Tacy when Tacy’s baby sister dies.
     If anyone is interested, these books were apparently referenced in the movie You’ve Got Mail. That’s really all I have to say about that, but I thought it was kind of cool.
     Anyway, apparently I need to read Emily of Deep Valley because I’ve read everyone’s comments on that book and feel the need to experience this book myself. It sounds like perhaps it digs into life at a deeper level than the Betsy series.
     I read these books by Maud Hart Lovelace with the fine bloggers participating in the Reading to Know Book Club hosted by Carrie. The author was chosen by Annette at This Simple Home.  Thanks Annette and Carrie for helping me re-indulge in some good memories.

Reading to Know - Book Club

27 March 2013

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Flowers for Algernon was one of those books I’ve been aware of for a long time and has flirted on the edges of my to-read list. It didn’t really settle there however until Boyfriend told me he was reading it. (Boyfriend is a reader, by the way. Can I brag about that a little? In addition to all the work he does trying to get his doctorate, he makes sure he has time to read other things. That was one of the first things that drew me to him back when we were just friends *happy sigh*…ok, back on track) I have this thing with wanting to read what my friends are reading, and think of that multiplied by ten and that’s how I am with things Boyfriend is reading. I immediately requested Flowers for Algernon from the Library.
     Flowers for Algernon is the story of Charlie Gordon, a mentally handicapped young man, selected for his desire to learn, to be a part of a scientific endeavor. He undergoes some form of brain surgery (we aren’t really told what) to correct what was wrong with his brain. The book is written in “progress reports” by Charlie, and the reader watches as his spelling and comprehension and power of recall improves as Charlie moves from an IQ of 68 to an IQ of 180. It’s actually quite fascinating. I thought the narrative voice sounded very authentic. As Charlie’s intelligence grows, he begins to struggle with things he never understood until now. He’s swiftly outpacing his co-workers who used to laugh at his slowness, and now resent his intelligence. He has moved from wanting to please his teacher, Ms Kinnion, to falling in love with her, to moving so far past her that she feels dull in comparison to him. He begins to notice cruelty and deception and posturing and hypocrisy.
     I didn’t realize until today, that the book was originally written as a Science-Fiction Short story and later turned into a novel. I also learned that Daniel Keyes taught a class of mentally handicapped students, which explains his compassion for Charlie and his interest in this often overlooked people group.
     First, let me just get the usual warning out of the way. This book was written in the late sixties so it’s fairly modern. (Carrie has a nice scolding of the modern novel that you might want to see.) There are two sex scenes that are about a six on a one to ten explicit scale. They don’t leave you any doubt as to what is happening, let’s put it that way. There is some cursing and sexual allusions. Also, there is some implied child abuse in Charlie Gordon’s flashbacks.
     The appeal of Charlie Gordon’s story lies partly in the compelling character of Charlie himself and partly in the question of the worth of knowledge. The story begins and ends with a reference to Adam and Eve and their tasting the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. At the beginning of Charlie’s surgery, a nurse suggests that what the doctors are doing is wrong and she links it to Adam and Eve’s grasping after knowledge. Later at the end of the story, the last book reference Charlie makes is to Paradise Lost by Milton. Yet another link to this unlawful seeking of knowledge. Now, as a believer, we know that it wasn’t that Adam and Eve wanted knowledge, it was that they sought to be like God. But they did eat from the tree that gave them the knowledge of good and evil. When the surgery is successful and Charlie begins to acquire knowledge, he also starts to understand evil. Up until this moment he believes the people laughing at him are his friends. He has lived a fairly content life, not remembering his stormy unloved childhood, but his intellect brings the conscience of evil into his life. So, the major question is, is it better to know and know the evil in the world, then never to have known at all?
     The treatment of the mentally handicapped is also an easily noticed theme. It’s a topic I admit I don’t spend much time thinking about, but it is pretty important. Charlie spends much of his time trying to remind the scientists and professors working with him, that he was a person before the surgery too. At one point in the story, Charlie goes to tour the home he used to stay in as a teenager. The “boys” in the home are handled by the author with great respect and compassion, but with honesty as well. It wasn’t easy for me to read it, but I’m glad there are books that deal with people like this. In case you were looking for another book with a mentally handicapped character who I felt was also handled with dignity, you could read The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. (Insert same modern novel cautions here.) I like to read things like this because it keeps the mentally handicapped in our cultural conscience and gives them a place beside any other story’s protagonist. It helps us think of them as people too.
     Anyway, I can’t say this was a pleasant read, but it was a good one. I don’t regret reading it, and I’d tentatively recommend it, while making sure to attach all my “Reader Beware” warnings. It certainly made me consider what knowledge means to me and to others. And it made me think about a section of humanity, I don’t often consider, and that is always good.
     Lastly, I think some of the reviews and ratings on Goodreads are kind of hilarious. I think from now on if I review a book I’ll try and include a “helpful” comment from the good people of the Goodreads community. This is what an unnamed person had to say about Flowers for Algernon. This is the review in its entirety: “I liked this book because I too have a filthy rat for a friend.” Fair enough, fellow reader, fair enough.