September Recap

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The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (Historical Fiction)

LOVED. The Invention of Wings was a really beautiful story that is based on the true story of the Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two sisters who were activists for Civil rights and women’s rights in the 1820s and 30s. The book also tells the fictional story of Handful, a slave girl who was given to Sarah on her 11th birthday. This story is beautiful and heartbreaking, telling the stories of two girls who have hopes and dreams of rising above the lives they are born into.

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin (Fiction)

I was sadly not very impressed by this one. I saw it in the library and grabbed it because I love Steve Martin (yes, the actor), but it was not my favorite. An Object of Beauty follows Lacey, a young up-and-comer in the art world in New York. There are many, many descriptions of famous paintings and artists (which I don’t have a lot of knowledge about), and also, Lacey was a terrible person. I don’t always have to love characters I’m reading about, but there was not enough in the book for me to like to get past a very unlikable main character. I read to the end of the book, but it was definitely not one I would ever pick up again.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (Fiction)

This was my book club choice this month, and it was SO fun. A quirky, socially incompetent genetics professor comes up with “The Wife Project”, a survey that will find him a suitable partner. Around the same time, he meets Rosie, a wild, unpredictable girl enters his life. The both find that there are things to learn from the other and (SPOILER ALERT) find love in very unexpected ways!

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin (audio-celebrity memoir)

I have always had a really warm spot in my heart for Steve Martin, but I have realized that that is actually more about George Banks and less about the actual person of Steve. I still did enjoy this audio book, but it was not quite as good as I had built it up in my mind. I do not really know much about the world of stand-up comedy, so it was interesting to hear about Steve Martin’s journey from Disney World to magic shows to stand up to acting.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (Nonfiction)

One of my friends called this “an uncomfortably great read” and I think that is the perfect description. I never would have picked up a book about cadavers, but my good friend told me that it was super interesting and worth reading. For a book about dead bodies, it is surprisingly upbeat. Mary Roach does a great job of presenting facts and stories in an accurate, but not overly gruesome way. She explores the history of cadaver use in medical study as well as other fields. It was FASCINATING. This book is definitely not for the faint of heart or for the squeamish, but I learned so much! If you are into biology or science history, I think this could be a good book for you.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (Classic)

I am putting this book into the unfortunate “Overrated Classics” category. I’m sorry if you love this book, but I thought it was SO BORING. I think I could have enjoyed an abridged version of this book because each chapter seemed like about 15% plot and 85% descriptions of sea creatures. I suppose that may be interesting to someone interested in ocean life, but for me it was soooo hard to get through.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown (YA-dystopian fiction)

This is my favorite fun (if you can call a book about training teenagers the tactics of war “fun”) I’ve read in a while. I love a good dystopian story, and this one did not disappoint. It has a Hunger Games-y feel, but it may be a little bit darker. It has been a long time since I’ve read HG, but from what I remember, this one seems to have a lot more killing and violence. BUT. I loved. it. I will probably do a full review once I finish the last book of the trilogy. Red Rising is about a society that has a strict color caste system; each color has a specific place and role in their world, some more glamorous than others. A rebel group rises up from the lowColors and tries to infiltrate the system from the inside. It is dramatic and gripping and interesting and just so good!

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Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie)

In a word: Surprising

After I finished  Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rock Star, I decided that I needed to read a classic for a little mental palate cleanse. I settled on Peter Pan, which I had picked up for a steal at the same book sale as Darcy. My kids have been ob-sessed with the Disney cartoon of Peter Pan, so I had been planning to preview the original J.M. Barrie novel as a possible family read-aloud for this year.

I’d never read it before; the Peter Pan story never really captured my imagination because I was always that kid who couldn’t wait to grow up. (It wasn’t until I was an adult that the idea of childhood appealed to me!)

Barrie’s Peter Pan did not rock my world, but I was entertained by it, and I definitely enjoyed the way it kept catching me off guard. The narrator is cheeky and wry, and is as entertaining as any of the actual characters. The book is definitely funnier than I expected. At the same time, it’s darker than I would have guessed; Neverland is a creepy place full of real villains and danger.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

One day when [Wendy] was two years old…Mrs. Darling put her hand over her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this forever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning.

‘No, no,’ Mr. Darling always said, ‘I am responsible for it all. I, George Darling, did it. Mea culpa, mea culpa.’ He had had a classical education.

Every boy had adventures to tell; but perhaps the biggest adventure of all was that they were several hours late for bed. This so inflated them that they did various dodgy things to get staying up still longer, such as demanding bandages, but Wendy…cried ‘To bed, to bed,’ in a voice that had to be obeyed.

The difference between [Peter] and the other boys at such a time was that they knew it was make-believe, while to him make-believe and true were exactly the same thing. This sometimes troubled them, as when they had to make believe that they had had their dinners.

So, yes, all very charming, wouldn’t you agree? But then there are little passages   like this…

The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out; but at this time there were six of them.

[The eyes of Jas. Hook] were of the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly….

Undoubtedly the grimmest part of him was his iron claw. Let us now kill a pirate, to show Hook’s method. Skylights will do. As they pass, Skylights lurches clumsily against him, ruffling his lace collar; the hook shoots forth, there is a tearing sound and one screech, then the body is kicked aside, and the pirates pass on. He has not even taken the cigars from his mouth.

After a time [Peter] fell asleep, and some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy. Any of the other boys obstructing the fairy path at night they would have mischiefed, but they just tweaked Peter’s nose and passed on.

So at the end of the day, this was a worthwhile read, although it’s not one I’ll revisit again. I do think that I’ll hold off on reading it to my kids; I have a child with a vivid imagination who would surely never drift off to her own Neverland if I filled her mind with Pan right before bedtime!

Classics for Dudes

A few days ago a friend asked me for recommendations for classics she could give to her husband as a birthday gift.

Not to indulge in gender stereotyping, but many classics have a reputation of being kind of girly. We think they are full of of long descriptive passages, plots hinging on conversation and courtship rituals, and, always, ladies in long dresses. The thought leaves our husbands feeling the pain of Mr. Bennet: “No lace, Mrs. Bennet, I beg you!”

I enlisted the help of my husband Stephen, and we came up with this initial list. It’s just a starting point, as it is limited to books I could pull off of my own shelves, minus a bunch of obvious ones that I didn’t personally like (ahem, Dickens).

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For the history lover:

Beowulf– the Seamus Heaney translation is the only way to go, according to my sources. Plus the cover is way cool.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin- you’d think this one would be clever and interesting, and you’d be right.

The Scarlet Letter– you have to know that Nathaniel Hawthorne is not an objective source. But this classic is much more interesting than you remember from tenth grade, especially if you are a Reformed-theology type with a soft spot for the Puritans.

To Kill a Mockingbird– This one defies girl book/guy book categories. If you are human, you need to have read this one, probably multiple times.

The Grapes of Wrath– This one is long but it’s not a difficult read. The setting of Depression-Era America is integral to this classic. It’s one of those weirdly encouraging books that will remind you that lots of people have had it worse than you. (Trigger warning: there’s a crazy breastfeeding scene toward the end.)

For the guy who likes dystopian fiction:

Fahrenheit 451- this futuristic novel is eerily prophetic, over 50 years after its publication

Brave New World- see comment above

Lord of the Flies- one of Stephen’s favorites, and basically the doctrine of human depravity in narrative form

For the man who loves an epic story:

The Lord of the Rings– I don’t care for these books myself, but every man I know loves them. Get your feet wet with The Hobbit if the trilogy is intimidating.

The Count of Monte Cristo– An epic tale of wrongful imprisonment, revenge, and redemption that will leave you pondering the big themes of justice, mercy, and forgiveness.

Treasure Island– Pirates! Treasure! Treachery! This classic is will thrill boys of all ages.

For a man who likes a challenge:

Atlas Shrugged– I LOVED this thought-provoking classic. There are a few parts where Rand lets characters pontificate for pages on end. Although those are probably the most important parts if you’re trying to really get a handle on the author’s world view, I skimmed/skipped them to find out what happened next.

Crime and Punishment– This one is morally complex, tackling the question, “Is it ever okay to murder a shady old lady with the blunt end of an ax?” Warning: the long Russian names are hard to keep straight.

Stories about great dads:

To Kill a Mockingbird– Sorry for the double-dip here. But, Atticus Finch.

Little Britches– the true coming-of-age story of Ralph Moody

The Little House series- You can pitch this as one “to read to the children,” but if your husband is like mine, he will be inspired by the Great Charles Ingalls. Who, for the record, is not very much like the crying Pa of the TV series.

Cheaper by the Dozen- This true story of an efficiency expert and father of twelve will have your man in stitches! It’s written by two of the Gilbreth children, which makes it extra special.

 

Now it’s your turn. What would you add to this list?

April Recap

Now that we are halfway through May, I thought it was time to look back on the books I finished in April. April was a good month for me, reading-wise. Reggie traveled several weeks, we took a few road trips, and I picked up some books that were just easy to crank through. I already detailed through my big categories I try to hit each month, and I’ve written individual review posts for a couple of these, but I wanted to give an overall recap of what I read in April, in chronological order.

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The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I received a beautiful copy of The Secret Garden as a bridesmaid gift from my college roommate and best friend Julie last December. We were both education majors, and we did a lot of projects on Children’s Lit. I have fond memories of Julie and I sitting in our living room working on our Literary Elements Project and her constantly stopping to read yet another quote from this book. When I saw The Secret Garden on Modern Mrs. Darcy’s list of “Books that are Better in the Spring,” I knew this was the month to finally sit down and read it cover to cover. It was lovely. I enjoyed the sweet story, the beautiful imagery, the character growth, the rich quotes.

Favorite quote: “At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done–then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.”

My Lucky Life In and Out of Showbusiness by Dick Van Dyke (audiobook)

I love a good celebrity memoir (especially on audio read by the author), and this one did not disappoint. I checked this one out on recommendation from Lindsey, and it was delightful. I did not grow up watching The Dick Van Dyke show or even Mary Poppins, but even so, I really enjoyed hearing about his life. He seems like a kind, genuine man, and his book was much more wholesome and family-friendly than many celebrity books are these days. It was fun to hear his stories about the early days of sit-coms and Hollywood.

Best takeaway: When I finished the book, I spent a while on YouTube watching videos of Dick Van Dyke dancing. He really is amazing.

Emma by Jane Austen

I already wrote an entire post about this one. I loved it. You will love it. Everyone in the world should read it.

Favorite Quote: “Vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief.”

Favorite Takeaway: I made Reggie watch the BBC movie with me and not only did he enjoy it, he has started saying, “Badly done!” anytime someone does something stupid. I didn’t know I could love him more than I did, but I do.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This one got its own review post AND commonplaces post, so I won’t bore you with my thoughts on it more here. It was thought-provoking and rich and very sad.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Gripping, interesting, but also a little hard to read. I posted a full review earlier this month.

Looking forward to: The movie! I try to read books before their movies come out, and I am so curious to see if they do this crazy story justice on the big screen!

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

The House at Riverton is a split-narrative mystery set in England around World War II.  You learn pieces of the story from an old woman talking in present-day, but also from her as a young housemaid in a scandal-ridden family. I enjoyed the story all the way through, but the thing that made me love this book was the major plot twist at the end. I liked Kate Morton’s style and look forward to reading more of her books (plus, I hear this is actually the darkest of hers, so that makes me look forward to the others even more).

Memorable quote: “Wars make history seem deceptively simple. They provide clear turning points, easy distinctions.: before and after, winner and loser, right and wrong. True history, the past, is not like that. It isn’t flat or linear. It has no outline. It is slippery, like liquid; infinite and unknowable, like space. And it is changeable: just when you think you see a pattern, perspective shifts, an alternate version is proffered, a long-forgotten memory resurfaces.”

Bossypants by Tina Fey

I am really bad at knowing about famous people, and my TV time is devoted mostly to re-watching The Office and Parks and Rec. I read (and loved) Amy Poehler’s and Mindy Kaling’s books, but for some reason I have never fully jumped on the Tina Fey bandwagon. I enjoy her movies (mostly), but I have tried to read her book before and failed. I decided to try it again on audio this month, and it definitely made a difference. Bossypants still didn’t top my other favorite girls-in-comedy books, but I laughed out loud a lot.

Favorite quote (there were many great ones): “Lesson learned? When people say, “You really, really must” do something, it means you don’t really have to. No one ever says, “You really, really must deliver the baby during labor.” When it’s true, it doesn’t need to be said.” and also the entire essay on childbirth. So funny.

Best takeaway: When I started reading this one, I also started watching 30 Rock. Reggie and I have really enjoyed it! I don’t know if it will go on repeat like Parks and The Office, but it’s been a fun mix-up to our sit-com routine.

Favorite book of the month goes to…EMMA. I just loved it. 

Pilgrim’s Inn (Elizabeth Goudge)

In a word: Refreshing

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I didn’t love everything about this book. I’ll start with that, because I want your last thoughts of this book to be the good ones.

  1. Character-driven. This is not, in itself, a bad thing. But it does mean that no matter how much I enjoy a book while I’m reading it, I have to make myself keep picking it up to read all the way to the end–especially if I’m reading a more fast-paced book at the same time.
  2. Mystical qualities of settings and symbols. Again, this is not always a deal-breaker, but in this case it did not enhance the story for me.
  3. Precocious child characters. I’m realizing this is a pretty constant literary pet peeve of mine. And the little five year old girl, Josephine, was nicknamed Jose´, which I just couldn’t get over.

Despite these three tiny complaints (and all matters of preference, not legitimate criticism), I am glad that I read this book, and I’ll probably read the other two in the series. First of all, the writing was delightful, as you already know from the commonplace post. I actually kept a stack of sticky notes in the front cover of the book because I ended up wanting to mark a passage almost every time I picked up the book (and it was a borrowed copy, so I couldn’t make pencil marks or fold down corners!).

Other than the aforementioned precocious twins, the characters were likable and often surprisingly complex. My favorite character was Nadine, because her theme was one that is crucial in real life but that basically never shows up in books or movies: It is possible to talk back to your feelings, do the right thing even if you don’t want to, and still find happily ever after.

It seems like a truth universally acknowledged by every storyteller that once you fall in love with someone (this can happen in mere seconds), then that person has a claim to your heart that can never be revoked or overruled. It doesn’t matter if twenty years go by, if one or both of you marry other people, if you discover that the other person is actually an ogre, or if you have otherwise incompatible values and lifestyles.

It’s very important to my personal happiness that this “truth” is not actually true, and so I found Nadine’s story particularly inspiring. She was in love with someone who was not her husband. In any other story, this would have meant the end of her marriage. But, no! Nadine discovered that feelings can be reasoned with, and she turns her back on the affair, releases her lover to find happiness elsewhere, and ultimately, she finds contentment and peace in duty and faithfulness. Similarly, she thinks of herself as ill-suited to motherhood. And, yes, she does hire some good help. But she also learns to embrace her family and her home, and to find joy in living the life that she has been given.

You are not a slave to your feelings.
You are not limited by your natural temperament and weaknesses.
People can change and grow.
Joy and fulfillment can be found on the other side of duty and commitment.

These are themes worth celebrating!

How to Identify a Classic: The x100 Test

If you’re ever wondering if a book should be considered a “classic,” here is one simple test: read it one hundred times in quick succession and see if you still like it at the end.

I was reminded of the “x100 Test” recently due to Abby (age 5)’s sudden obsession with audio books.  She’s new to listening to chapter books, and I had been excited to get her started on The Boxcar Children, a childhood favorite of mine.  We listened to it from start to finish, and then I gave Abby free rein with the CDs and the player, and she listened to it in almost every waking hour for the next three weeks.  We kept it for a long time past the due date until I finally got a call from the library that our next request, Charlotte’s Web, had arrived and was waiting for us to pick it up.

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I tweeted this toward the end of our time with the Alden kids

Here is the thing: Charlotte’s Web is not even one of my favorites.  But it’s on all the lists as a good first chapter book, “They” say it IS a classic, and Abby was interested in it after watching the movie at church one time. So, I checked it out.

Thirty-plus listens later, I was convinced: Charlotte’s Web is incredible.

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The quality of the audio recording is part of this book’s appeal.  It’s read by E.B. White himself, and he has a voice I could listen to all day: it’s like having a gentle old uncle telling stories from the corner of the living room or the back seat of the car.  But the text of the book itself is exceptional.  Each sentence is like a string of pearls: carefully chosen details, advanced vocabulary, nuanced descriptions, and interesting and clever narration.

I love the story of the Boxcar Children, but every time I listened to a passage, the writing seemed more flat and stale.  I still liked the concept of the four kids on an adventure, but I grew tired of the characters and the details of the plot.

In contrast, I still don’t love the story of Charlotte’s Web.  I don’t like animal stories as a rule, I find Wilbur annoying and emotionally demanding, and I think Fern grows up too quickly in too short a time.  Yet the writing itself is such a pleasure that I happily turn the CD on–again– every time Abby asks.  With every listen, I hear yet another sentence that makes me smile: what perfection! what mastery! what delight!

I’ve lived by the x100 Rule in my adult life without ever really thinking about it.  Back in my pre-baby days when I read a lot more, I had a pretty long list of books that I’d return to once every year or two.  I kept a well-worn copy of The Chosen in my purse and when I’d get stuck at a doctor’s office or a traffic light I would pull it out, open it up at random, and enjoy a few paragraphs or pages.  (In these moments I now read Twitter, which I’m not sure is an improvement in my quality of life.)  The year I taught Julius Caesar, I remember the astonishing way the nuances of the text would leap off the page at me by eighth period, in what was my sixth reading of the day.  (Alas, my assurances to my students that they would understand their assigned passages if they’d just read it six times fell upon deaf ears.)

And every year when a precocious nine-year old (and there was always at least one) would eye my bookshelves on the first day of school and proclaim, “I’ve already read The Sign of the Beaver!“, I’d smile and respond, again, “So have I!  We’ll enjoy reading it again.”

I knew the secret I hoped they’d discover one day: Rather than getting stale, great literature reveals more richness to savor with every re-reading.

Goodness knows I have nothing against mindless reading; it’s most of what I do these days.  But it’s been refreshing to remember how deeply satisfying a great book can be.  I’ve been inspired to return to some of the trusted old friends on my own bookshelf and to be mindful of what kind of words and sentences and stories and characters I permit to occupy my imagination and my mind.  My soul will be stronger for it.

As for Abby, I’m trying to feed her a little more Charlotte and a little less Clifford, because I believe that E.B. White is right: “Children always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.”  I want to give her things to hang onto that will be strong enough to hold her up.

 

(P.S.  YES, of course I want to share some of my favorite Charlotte lines with you.  But this post is long enough, so I’m posting them in a separate commonplace)

 

This post was originally published at Running in Circles.

Emma (Jane Austen)

In a word: Classic

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I can’t believe it has taken me 23 years to finally crack a Jane Austen book, but I’m so glad I finally did. I have grown up loving Jane Austen stories (primarily the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice), but this year was the first time I officially started reading her writing. And goodness. She is incredible and timeless.

I fell in love with the Emma story by watching the BBC movie (if you haven’t seen it, you are seriously missing out), so I had a pretty good handle on the plot points going in, but I was swept away in the beauty of the text. It took me forever to read the book because every page was packed full of vivid descriptions and witty banter. I seriously wanted to copy down every line of conversation between Emma and Mr. Knightly. Lindsey can attest to this–I constantly stopped my reading to text her yet another clever quote I had stumbled upon. I do think that I enjoyed reading the book more because I knew the story; because I didn’t have to work hard to figure out what was going on, I was able to savor the writing.

If you haven’t read Emma, you should. It is so worth the time it takes. If you don’t have the time to read it, you should at least find a copy of the BBC movie because Mr. Knightly is perfection. I’ve included a few of my favorite gems below.

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“Til [men] do fall in love with well-informed minds instead of handsome faces, a girl with such loveliness as Harriet, has a certainty of being admired and sought after..”

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“Vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief.”

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“Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives.”

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“What is right to be done cannot be done too soon.”

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“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.”

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“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” (all the heart eyes)