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.

26 March 2013

What's on Your Nightstand: For the Month of April

     I feel like I haven't done one of these in a long time and I saw everyone else doing and thought...why not! At least I'll be able to set reading (and hopefully reviewing) goals for myself and everyone loves a good goal. So...

What's On Your Nightstand

  • Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horowitz: I read this a while ago. It was part of an introductory history class in college, and way back when Boyfriend was doing his prelims this was one of his books. I'm still reading through his prelims books, and it will be interesting to re-read this one.
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl: I'm about 150 pages in. It's...weird. I don't have a handle one what I think yet. I'll let you know.
  • Beach Glass and Other Poems edited by Paul Molloy: This is a compilation of old and new poetry including one of my favorites from Mark Strand called Eating Poetry. The first line is "Ink Runs From the Corners of my Mouth." If you think that sounds familiar it's because it's the name of my poetry blog.
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky: I've read a lot by Dostoevsky, and he's someone I'd consider the greatest writer of all time. However, I've never read this one. You know, the one that everyone reads in school. We were apparently hipster homeschoolers.
  • The Meaning of the Millenium: Four Views edited by Robert G. Clouse: This book was lent to me by a man in my church a month and a half ago, so I really need to finish it and give it back. It's set up like a debate between a Dispensational Premillenialist, an Historic Premillenialist, A Postmillenialist, and an Amillenialist. If you think I plan on defining those, I'll have you know it was a workout just to type the names, so I don't plan on doing that. Wikipedia exists for a reason. Anyway, the interchange has so far been interesting. 
     So, that's all I'm going to put down though I'll probably read more than that. I'm trying to follow Carrie's realistic goal setting here. Plus, I think Crime and Punishment is enough of a handful (brainful?) that I will be quite taken care of for this month.
     What's on your Nightstand is hosted by Five Minutes for Books. 

01 March 2013

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

     I read The Scarlet Letter, in high school or middle school or whatever the age that people think is a good idea to make kids read stuff like this, and of course didn’t get it. I mean, I thought I got it, it was about a woman who committed adultery and was forced for the rest of her life to be branded as an adulterer by a big letter A on her clothes.
     Up until recently I remember it being basically anti Puritan propaganda. Those mean old Puritans who actually took sin seriously and went around hating everything and everybody and thought it was more holy to look dour all the time. That sort of thing. Also, for some reason, in my head Hester was punished for her adultery, but the man who sinned with her got off with nothing. I don’t know how I came to that conclusion, but after re-reading it I was glad to find out that that wasn’t true.
     For anyone who has been living in a small box in the woods somewhere and happened to get their hands on a computer to read my blog, and doesn’t know the story, The Scarlet Letter is set in the early part of the 17th century in a New England village. It chronicles the life of Hester Prynne who was found with child after her husband had been presumed dead. She is asked to reveal the identity of the father of her child, but she refuses. She is sentenced to wear the letter “A” sewn onto the front of her dress for the rest of her life. The remainder of the book watches the child grow, and the identity of the father slowly come to light as well as the identity of a mysterious stranger in the village with some connection to Hester Prynne. Both Hester and her baby daddy (is there another word for this? I hate to use it in a review) suffer in different ways. She must go for the rest of her life shunned by society and left alone to raise her child, and he must maintain his own good character, knowing all the while that it is a lie.
     So, as for the Puritan bashing. It’s still there. I wasn’t wrong about that. It was a little more nuanced perhaps than I originally thought, but we are all supposed to take umbrage at the horrible treatment these sour awful mean-spirited joyless people give to poor Hester Prynne whose only sin was falling in love. As far as the nature of the Puritans, I suggest everyone go read Leland Ryken’s Worldly Saints. I think he gives a much fuller and more accurate account of the Puritans. He doesn’t gush about them, but he doesn’t take the easy and popular way out either.
     As for my other problem with the book, that of the difference in how the genders were treated, it was completely different than I thought. In fact, if anything, I’d say the mystery man was punished even more than Hester was. He didn’t have the relief of his sin being already exposed and was forced for seven years to carry it in his heart without confessing it and continuing to compound it with lies.
     So, first let me get out of the way that I think Hester should have been punished. I do. She was wrong. She sinned. She made a vow and I don’t care how hastily it was made or how old and gross the guy was with whom she made it. She married someone else, and can’t be sleeping around. There is no way around that. Nor do I think Hester ever really repented. I thought for a while she was going to, but later I found reason to believe she wasn’t sorry for what she had done.
     Sort of a side note, that I picked up on personally because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, is the role the women of the village played particularly at the beginning of the book. There are a group of women who are discussing Hester’s punishment and how it wasn’t enough. Some wanted her skin branded, another wanted her to be put to death. The way it was being talked about wasn’t the way Christians should mourn for another Christian who has sinned greatly. It was being talked over with glee. You could tell that the women didn’t think they could ever sin the way Hester did. Now, this is something we can take away from the book, not just as women, but as fellow believers. Sometimes if we witness wrong or know someone in disgrace we have the reaction these women did. We get outraged and congratulate ourselves for not being “that bad.” I think this would have been a great opportunity for these women to befriend Hester and talk to her about grace and forgiveness.
     There was a particular passage that stood out to me about the village women that I’d like to highlight. Time has gone by since Hester was first made to wear the letter and her reputation as a good seamstress had been spreading. She would often be called upon to sew this or that article of clothing. The public shunning; however, was still pretty intense. “Dames of elevated rank, likewise, whose doors she entered in the way of her occupation, were accustomed to distil drops of bitterness into her heart; sometimes through that alchemy of quiet malice, by which women can concoct a subtle poison from ordinary trifles; and sometimes, also, by a coarser expression, that fell upon the sufferer’s defenseless breast like a rough blow upon an ulcerated wound.”  This is something I’ve noticed a lot more recently. It probably won’t be a big surprise to anyone when I say women hurt each other in really sly and awful ways. We need to stop it. I don’t have any big life changing answer about how to stop that, but it should stop. I mean, if women in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s time were doing the same thing they do to one another in the 21st century. I think we, as a gender, need to be more gracious. Again, Hester sinned. They shouldn’t have overlooked this, but they should have exhorted her as a sister. They should have been in her life before this tragedy took place. They should have been praying and they should have been caring. We need to do this same thing today.
     Carrie mentioned in her review that she thought it was mercifully short (or something to that extent). I couldn’t agree more. It WAS interesting. In a way it was strangely fascinating, but I think if it had gone on much longer my brain would have melted. The writing was clunky and strange. One particular passage I actually laughed out loud over was when Hester and her child were walking into the Puritan village and they came across some sour faced horrid little Puritan children who happened to call out, “Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!” (I’m tempted to add…said no child ever)
   Anyway, it was a good read, and I’m happy to have some issues with it laid to rest and to have wrestled with some other topics that I wouldn’t have thought of as a younger person. If you’ve only read this once and you were too young to get it, I would absolutely suggest a re-read.
Reading to Know - Book Club
     I read this book along with several other bloggers in the Reading To Know Book Club 2014 hosted by Carrie. The discussion of The Scarlet Letter was led by Shonya from Learning How Much I Don't Know.