Thursday, December 11, 2014

2015 Reading Challenges

Lately, I'm more interested than ever in reading. I think life has finally gotten into a good routine and I have the mental energy to spend on all the books I've been interested in exploring. In 2015, I plan to join several reading challenges. The first one is the Full House Reading Challenge, hosted by Book Date.

In this challenge, I will try to complete a Full House on this special card she's made up for this year. You can learn more about the challenge at Book Date. Let me know if you decide to sign up too!

A second one from Book Date is the Women's Fiction Reading Challenge. This one should be fairly simple for me, as I read and review a lot of Women's Fiction. In this one, readers challenge themselves to different levels depending on the amount of books read in that genre:

  • Motivated 1- 5
  • Savvy 6 - 10
  • Classy 11- 20
  • Go-getter 20 -30
  • Fearless 30+

Next is Roof Beam Reader's TBR Pile Challenge. This is one I definitely need! I will read at least 12 books from my TBR shelves that have been there for more than a year. Here are the books I'll be reading:

1.  Lady Susan by Jane Austen
2. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool
3. Home Discipleship by Kimberly Williams
4. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
5. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
6. The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James
7. A Fine Brush on Ivory by Richard Jenkyns
8. Silas Marner by George Eliot
9. At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald
10. 1984 by George Orwell
11. Tales from the Secret Annex by Anne Frank
12. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Two alternates in the event of a dud:
1. The Princess by Lori Wick
2. The Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West

Finally, I'll be joining the New To You Challenge at Herding Cats & Burning Soup. This one is easy as I'll just read things that are new to me: new authors, new genres, debuts...anything that is new to me. Here are the levels:

Level 1--   6 "new to you"s
Level 2-- 12 "new to you"s
Level 3-- 24 "new to you"s
Level 4-- 36 "new to you"s
Level 5-- 48 "new to you"s
Level 6-- 72 "new to you"s
Level 7--100+ "new to you"s

So, there you go! Lots of challenges to keep me reading and reviewing. I'm excited to bring more excellent book reviews to Belle's Library and would love to hear about your reading plans for 2015. Need a place to publish your review? Check out my Writing Opportunity link at the top of this page. I'd love to have you on board!

Linking with:
The Art of Homemaking
Good Morning Mondays
Inspiration Monday @ Your Homebased Mom
Motivate Me Monday 
Modest Monday @ The Modest Mom 
Living Proverbs 31
Inspire Me Monday @ Create With Joy 
Masterpiece Monday @ BoogieBoard Cottage 
A Round Tuit @ Creating My Way to Success 
Monday Funday @ C.R.A.F.T. 
Marriage Monday
Making Your Home Sing Monday
Salt & Light
Inspire Me Tuesday @ A Stroll Through Life
A Return to Loveliness @ A Delightsome Life 
Women Helping Women @ Teaching What Is Good 
(Titus 2)s Days @ Time Warp Wife
The Scoop @Stone Gable

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Secret of Pembrooke Park by Julie Klassen -- Book Review

This is a sponsored post on behalf of Bethany House Publishers. All opinions are honest and are my own.

My favorite new-to-me author of 2014 is, by far, Julie Klassen. I've read five or six of her books this year, and loved every one. Tonight I finished her latest, The Secret of Pembrooke Park, and it's my favorite yet! Combing the elements of romance and mystery, and placing them in my favorite historical time setting---Regency England---Klassen has written up a true treasure. Mrs. Klassen, if you're reading this, please hear my plea: write more mysteries!

Book Description: "Abigail Foster is the practical daughter. She fears she will end up a spinster, especially as she has little dowry, and the one man she thought might marry her seems to have fallen for her younger, prettier sister. Facing financial ruin, Abigail and her father search for more affordable lodgings, until a strange solicitor arrives with an astounding offer: the use of a distant manor house abandoned for eighteen years. The Fosters journey to imposing Pembrooke Park and are startled to find it entombed as it was abruptly left: tea cups encrusted with dry tea, moth-eaten clothes in wardrobes, a doll's house left mid-play... The handsome local curate welcomes them, but though he and his family seem acquainted with the manor's past, the only information they offer is a stern warning: Beware trespassers drawn by rumors that Pembrooke Park contains a secret room filled with treasure. This catches Abigail's attention. Hoping to restore her family's finances--and her dowry--Abigail looks for this supposed treasure. But eerie sounds at night and footprints in the dust reveal she isn't the only one secretly searching the house. Then Abigail begins receiving anonymous letters, containing clues about the hidden room and startling discoveries about the past. As old friends and new foes come calling at Pembrooke Park, secrets come to light. Will Abigail find the treasure and love she seeks...or very real danger?"

My Thoughts: This book has all the elements I love in a great historical novel. An old house (in England, to boot!), a girl, a secret, a mystery...wonderful! At over 400 pages, you'd think I'd grow tired of the story after a bit. Not at all---this one kept me interested from beginning to end. Had I the time, I easily could have read it straight through in a day. It's one I definitely did not want to end. My only complaint---and not really so much a complaint as just a bit of a bummer---is that I had the whole thing figured out very early in. This happens to me often, though, so I just enjoy seeing how it's all going to play out! 

Have you read anything by Julie Klassen? I encourage you to find one of her excellent Regency-themed books and discover who is soon to be one of your new favorite authors, as well!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe by Louise Collis -- Book Review

Book Description: "This unique biography tells the story of an extraordinary fifteenth-century woman who journeyed all over Europe from England to the Holy Land. A vigorous and passionate woman, Margery Kempe was married and had fourteen children when she deserted her family to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to expiate a "secret sin" in her early life. Along the way she meets many famous prelates and dignitaries, gets into all sort of scrapes, and survives a feverish voyage in the stinking galleys of a Venetian boat. Drawing on the chronicles of her contemporaries and on her own clear-eyed autobiography---dictated to a priest near the end of her life and said to be the first written in English---these memoirs reveal a woman who has strange ideas about such things as sin and sainthood, dress, diet, and sex, and provides a colorful and detailed picture of everyday medieval life in England and around the rim of the Mediterranean. Part-time historian Louise Collis brings a novelist's flair to this fascinating, well-researched story." 

My Thoughts: I don't have a strong opinion of this book, one way or another. While there's not a lot to get out of Margery's story in particular, the research that went in to setting her story in context gives the reader an excellent education on religious practices and pilgrimages of medieval times. It made me want to read The Canterbury Tales, and I did, in fact, read through a Peter Ackroyd's Chaucer biography just after this, being inspired by this book.

At first, I was wishing that the author would have left the translation alone and let us just read it in Middle English like The Canterbury Tales. However, once she did include Middle English snippets, I realized that I was THRILLED that she didn't summarized most of it. Ha! Here's an example from chapter 14: "a fedyr bedde, a matres, too pylwys, too peyre schetis and a qwylt". While it's obvious what that says, and sort of fun to read it, the entire book written that way would drive me nuts! Or should that be, "nuttyes"?

It was very interesting to read this story on the heels of one I just finished about the cross country trek of Helga Estby in the 1890s. Like Estby, but for very different reasons, Kempe left a husband and large family to go off on her own sort of adventure. The parallels were very interesting---journeys made 600 years apart. I found it interesting that, like Estby, Kempe had to get signatures as credentials to travel. There were 500 years between these women and so many similarities. It's been 100 years since Estby and it's all changed.

At the beginning of the story, it's revealed that Kempe had a secret sin that she didn't want to make known. It surprised me that she said she'd rather risk Hell than confess it. I wonder how this harbored sin ate her up throughout her life?

I think the people of Kempe's time definitely needed to heed the Biblical advice of testing the prophets! Oh boy! This woman was messed up! I found it funny that no one could stand her but everyone feared her. Kind of like an old time Molly Brown.

I really enjoyed the chapter on the visit to the Holy amazing...and hilarious! How the Lord must shake His head at us! Other parts moved kind of slowly, but it was probably more me being distracted than any lack on the author's part.

A couple of quotes at the end of the book sum Margery up well, I think:

"Indeed, indiscipline is the keynote of Margery's life. Though respectful of the church and those of its officers she approved, Margery owned no master, not even God."

"She was the victim of religious mania, deceiving herself as to the nature of her dreams and hallucinations."

I'm glad I read this and I hope the next reader enjoys and learns from it as well.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hawthorne and the Irony of Religious Hypocrisy

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I love reading Hawthorne in the fall. I think it's because he makes me feel smart---and fall means the beginning of school--which also makes me feel smart! Whatever the reason, Hawthorne is great in any season.

I've been reading through an anthology of some of his best short stories called, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales, and have been making all kinds of notes. So, you'll probably be hearing about him more than once over the next few months!

Something I find over and over again in much of Hawthorne's writing is what commentator Q. D. Leavis calls "a symbolic recurring struggle" between two groups of former Englishmen in early America: those living the Puritan lifestyle and those not. I enjoy reading these stories because I appreciate how well he noted the ironic hypocrisy of the religious person---usually represented by the Puritan characters. I also see an innocence and naiveté in the non-Puritan people that seems to recur and makes me believe that this is the side with which he personally sympathizes. With Puritans in his family line---some of whom made life and death decisions during the Salem Witch Trials---I've always thought Hawthorne wanted to use his writing as an apology of sorts. While these elements of duplicity are evident in almost everything I read of his, the story lines in both The May Pole of Merry Mount and Feathertop epitomize this conflict.

One theme that really strikes me is the way in which characters act rashly out of fear and end up misrepresenting the goodness they claim to possess. In May Pole, as in much of what we read about Puritan history, the Puritans were so afraid of incurring the wrath of God that they made condemning judgments on those who wouldn't conform to what they believed was right. I find it sad that the heathen people had more obvious joy than the Puritans who claimed to be full of the joy of the Lord. Unfortunately, the first Puritan-like act of the "May-couple" is the act of them conforming out of fear because of all that they have lost. They have nothing left and so must now follow "the Puritan leader, their only guide." That same sort of fear is found in Feathertop's Master Gookin, who gives his daughter freedom to socialize with someone he knows to be associated with the witch Mother Rigby out of fear of the consequences she would curse him with. Not only does he welcome Feathertop into his home, but he treats him as a higher-up, calling him "my Lord Feathertop" and instructing his daughter to pay him reverence and honor.

Another thing I found in my reading is that Hawthorne was really good at pointing out those things in the religious man that make the non-religious man shun religion! Mother Rigby's threat to Feathertop that she would, "hurl thee where that red coal came from" if he didn't continue to puff away at the cursed pipe is like the threat that Endicott faced in Maypole if he were to back down on the pagan couple's punishment. Feathertop's curious puffings became more intense as his purpose changed. Where once he was obeying the witch's commands in order to "show (himself) a man," the fear she incites in him causes him to puff harder to avoid punishment. In this same way, I got the impression that Endicott saw a young and, in his opinion, confused couple who just needed some guidance. However, he had the voice of Peter Palfrey nudging him to courser actions. Not only did Endicott have to answer to God if he let them continue with their heathen practices, he would also be branded a heathen by all the other Puritans. His actions against the merrymakers weren't based on a desire to do right but rather on an over-inflated fear of doing wrong. This hypocrisy and fear are probably what turned the May Pole people off from religion to begin with!

Hawthorne's writings are such an interesting source of historical interpretations of the time of the Puritans. I always come away with heart-humbling ideas to mull over. It's interesting to see that there really is nothing new under the sun and that each of us struggle, just as the Puritans did, to keep fear from ruling our decisions and characters.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The River by Beverly Lewis -- Book Review

Beverly Lewis has long been one of my very favorite authors. Before I picked up my first Lewis book, I had never even heard of the Amish culture (well, unless you count Weird Al's Amish Paradise parody). I quickly fell in love with this people and, over time, I've learned so much about faith, family loyalty---and have even been challenged a time or two!

I recently was chosen to review a copy of one of her newest books, The River. This was a huge honor for me as I know there were many in line to get their hands on a review copy. You'd think with over ninety books under her belt that the woman would have run out of things to write about. However, she proves her worth, once again, with this touching story from the heart of Amish country.

Book Description: "Tilly and Ruth, two formerly Amish sisters, are plagued by unresolved relationship when they reluctantly return to Lancaster County for their parents' landmark wedding anniversary. Since departing their Plain upbringing, Tilly has married an Englisher, but Ruth remains single and hasn't entirely forgotten her failed courtship with her Amish beau. Past meets present as Tilly and Ruth yearn for acceptance and redemption. Can they face the future in the light of a past they can't undo?"

My Thoughts: I'd better start off by saying that this wasn't one of my favorites. Because of the way it ends, I think the story should have been carried into a sequel so the story of Ruth, especially, could be expanded on a bit. I felt that Ruth's heart was not made clear and her decision was somewhat surprising. (Yes, I'm being vague...I want you to read it!) More and more I'm seeing Lewis' books involving more of the Englishers and how the two cultures meld. I think I prefer her stories that have the Amish characters finding ways to stay true to the Lord while still remaining loyal to their heritage. I guess that seems more quaint and homey to me! Ha!

Have you read The River? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

More Than A Review Helps You Never Be Surprised By Bad Content

I'm happy to welcome Donna Feyen, creator of the site, More Than A Review, to guest post today. Read on as she shares her commitment to help readers choose books that line up with their personal standards and content preferences.

I am so excited to guest post on Belle’s Library and love that there’s another website dedicated to quality literature! My name is Donna Feyen and I love books so much that I created a website called More Than A Review. MTAR is a tool that can help readers of all book genres to never pick up a book and have the experience ruined by unexpected offensive content.

So how is MTAR different? 
More Than A Review offers a different kind of rating and review system. Most review sites offer the overall rating, which basically says “I liked this book a lot” or “I really didn’t like this book.” At MTAR, we have the same concept. The Overall Rating is the reviewer’s opinion of the book with one star being low and five stars being high.

Here’s where things get different: the Content Rating stars tell you how much violence, offensive language, sex, and drug or alcohol use will be found in the book. We’ve found these four issues are both the most commonly found types of objectionable material, and the issues that cause readers the most pause.

No stars mean no content in that category was found anywhere in the book. If “Language” shows zero stars, for example, then there is no rough language in the book.

The number of increasing stars tells the person reading your book review that there is some content in that category they may not appreciate.

Content ratings are in these categories:
Sexual content
Drug/alcohol use

Each person has his or her own level of sensitivity to a given issue and therefore might give a higher or lower rating of stars based on that sensitivity. That’s why we’ve created a guide that outlines what each star means. That review guideline is available on our website.

When you write a review, please use these definitions for the Content Rating stars. When we all do this, we can be sure that each reviewer’s stars mean the same thing. Forgive the pun, but it’s so we’re on the same page.

Who would use MTAR? 
My first response is that anyone can use MTAR but we do have a few audiences who are more likely to find it useful. These include:

Anyone with a more conservative belief system who would not appreciate certain kinds of content
Teachers and librarians needing to refer parents and older students to quality material
Those who might be sensitive to a given content area because it is a trigger for emotional distress
Parents wanting to help their teenagers discern better reading choices with cleaner content
Anyone who doesn’t want to be surprised by content in a book!

Want to learn more? Check us out at

Donna Feyen, founder of More Than A Review (MTAR), is an avid reader, a "stalker" (a.k.a. devoted fan) of popular band Third Day, and loves to scrapbook in both the traditional and digital styles.  Donna started MTAR after reading several books that fell short of their "traditional" reviews and included more graphic content than she was expecting to read. These disappointments and the inability to research the content of a book before purchase, led Donna to the purpose and vision behind MTAR.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence ~ Book Review

In August, I joined the Austen in August reading challenge at Lost Generation Reader, committing myself to reading only books by or about Jane Austen and her works. I'd had this book, Becoming Jane Austen, in my possession for several years and hadn't mustered the courage yet to dive in. It wasn't that the book itself seemed uninteresting to me, it was just that I wasn't impressed with the film that came out of it, so it was hard to get excited about reading it. I'm so glad that I did, however---it is the perfect book for the Austenite who thinks she knows everything there is to know about Jane!

I've always believed that all writing is autobiographical in some way. In Becoming Jane Austen, author Jon Spence draws parallels between Jane Austen's real life and the characters and plot lines in her novels. Focusing mainly on her cousin Eliza, as well as rumored love interest, Tom LeFroy, Spence gives ample evidence that Austen's own relationships were woven deeply into her works---even to the point of leaving clues for others to find about themselves.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the Austen family "scandals" that influenced works like Love & Freindship (sic), as well as the many ways in which she brought her personal life into the stories; the connection of Pride and Prejudice---and everything that came after it---to Tom LeFroy, for example. I've read lots of commentaries claiming there was really nothing between her and Tom and that modern readers just want to find a love story where one seems to be lacking. However, I think this book makes an excellent case for there having been a romantic relationship there---even if just from Jane's perspective.

This is definitely no quick and easy read. If you're not a die hard biography person, hungry for any unknown morsel about Jane, you might want to skip this one. But, if you're like me and just can't get enough of Austen, Regency England, or how an author's personal life and relationships can affect every aspect of her writing, Becoming Jane Austen, is an excellent choice for your cold weather reading!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Finding and Caring For a First Edition {Guest Post}

I'm very excited to welcome my Australian friend, Mozette, as my first guest blogger! Mozette is an avid reader, writer and book collector. She authors several interesting blogs, including my favorite, My Reading List, where she discusses all things related to literature. Thanks, Mozette, for sharing your experience with first edition books with my readers today!

Books are something that are beautiful and age well if cared for well.  I have been collecting books for my whole life –- well, for as long as I can remember anyway.

And if you’d like to find that particular book that is feeling elusive in your life right now, I may be able to help you.  By following your own gut feelings and being very observant when you’re out at markets and book sales, you can find yourself not only a bargain, but also a book that may be out of print –- or even a first edition –- and you won’t know it until you look it up on the internet or take it in to get it valued.

I remember when I found my first out of print book.  I was on holidays in the UK and doing a huge Trafalgar Tour of the whole country for around three weeks when the bus stopped in a little Welsh town for a toilet rest.  Seeing we had a bus full of elderly people –- and only a few young people like myself –- it was the young people who used the facilities first.  However, we then had around forty-five minutes to wait for them to go through the rest of the bus load of people. So, I asked if there was a bookstore nearby and the tour co-ordinator pointed me in the direction of an old theatre across the square.  I told them I’d be back within the forty-five minutes and took off across the relatively quiet square. 

Once inside the place, I found I was in a renovated picture theatre from the early 1920’s.  I climbed the stairs to the box office and asked the lady there where I could find biographies and autobiographies and I was directed to an old film room.  It was cramped, had a slanted roof and I couldn’t use the light switch and had to use a torch, but the place was filled with as many books as they could cram into it.  And as I scanned the room, I had two thoughts going through my mind:  I wonder what I can find in here in ten minutes and if anything runs over my foot, I’m outa here!  Well, the light of my torch scanned across the light yellow spine of a book, crammed into a bookcase full of dark brown ones and I was pulled towards it; forgetting my fear of anything running over my foot or me standing on anything that might be living in here.  What I found was The Letters of JRR Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter in hard cover format.  This book was published in 1981 originally and I was about to sit down and look through it when the bookcase it came out of creaked!  Dropping it, I pushed it up against the wall and wondered if anyone was around and called out for help… fortunately, another woman was there and she thought I looked funny until I told her what happened and she went to pick up my book off the floor to push into the space left in the bookcase!  I protested and asked if she could choose another one…of course she obliged.

As I walked up the stairs, though, I realised I had never seen a hardcover of this book around anywhere, only paperback, so I offered them an extra fifty pounds on the twelve pounds and fifty pence they had on the inside cover.  The woman there said, It’s just a book! I offered more – one hundred pounds! – but she still refused.  So, I paid the amount on the inside cover and walked out of this wonderful store thinking I had ripped them off.  

And you know, I had.  When I returned to Australia, I went into the city and got the book valued in the city and found it was so rare that Australia gained a copy and the UK lost a copy of this book and it was worth around $1200 at the time I showed it to the evaluator.  Now, all these years, later, its price can’t be put into a price tag… let’s just say that there’s not that many around anymore.  Now, I rarely let anyone look at it, I have never read it, and when I do handle it, I use gloves; and it never sees sunlight or hardly any light at all.

However, after finding that one book, I didn’t think I’d ever find another quite so easily.  So what I did was not look for them; and they seemed to show up where I was.

Now that sounds really corny and stupid beyond belief, but after about a year or so, I found that if you looked hard for a particular book you never found it.  But if you acted like it doesn’t matter – but it does – it will find you, or show up when you least expect it to.  And the feeling you get when you finally do lay your eyes and hands on that book that you’ve been looking for all this time is like falling in love at first sight!  This is a great feeling to have and the funny thing is you get the feeling every time you look at your rare or out of print book… there’s nothing like it!

After finding your book you must be willing to care for it.  There’s no middle of the road when you own a one-of-a-kind book.  You must care for it or it will vanish from the world of literature as we know it… I know that sounds really over the top and dramatic, but in today’s world of the internet, e-readers and computers, it’s people like me who collect these kinds of things that keep them not only in our world physically but also in our memories for future generations to appreciate.

Caring for these types of books takes only a little patience and the right environment in your house.  It also takes the same amount of environmental changes to make your first edition books go from being worth something to being worth nothing.

All it would take is an infestation of silverfish, cockroaches or mice and you have to flush a worthy collection of books down the proverbial drain; or even worse: mould!  The last thing you’d need is rising damp and your books aren’t worth a single thing as they’ll smell and look terrible; as books –- like us –- are porous. So, looking after your books is something you must promise to do; not because you want to but because if you end up selling them to somebody, you want to get the best price possible for them. You want them increase in value not decrease.

But if your book already smells, there are ways to get rid of that wet smell.  I have found that locking the book in a zip-lock bag with apple peelings and coffee grounds works.  You have to change it over every few days as this stuff will absorb the smells pretty quickly.  I have been recommended this treatment for a book when it came through the mail and it stunk of cigarette smoke when my parcel went through a customs search in America and the customs officer was a smoker.  They must have breathed into the envelope just before they re-sealed it and the smell of cigarettes was trapped inside all the way here; and when I opened it here in Australia, the whole book was permeated with that disgusting smell.  So, I used the coffee and apple peelings treatment for about a week and the smell weakened a little over that time.  However it didn’t go away completely until around 6 months after I’d had the book and I had to keep it separate from my main collection.

It’s been some time since my first book landed in my lap by pure chance on a holiday in the UK.  And now, when I’m out and about at second-hand bookstores, I’m always excited about which books I pick up; just in case they are first editions, special editions or rare books; or –- better still –- signed copies. There’s just something about these particular types of books that I love.  They keep me going in search of another book, and yet another, to keep this world of the written word alive and kicking in some way. Even long after it’s gone, I will still have a library of books to care for and enjoy.  And when I’m gone?  I have plans to give my first editions to the State Library of Queensland, if nobody else wants them, so they are kept in their archives.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Wuthering Heights: The Spiritual Significance of Madness

The novelist and poet, Emily Bronte, was born in Thornton, Yorkshire on July 30, 1818. The middle sister of the three famous Bronte girls, she was actually one of six Bronte children. After the death of their mother and two older sisters, Emily, Charlotte and Anne were taken from the school they were attending and were primarily homeschooled. After a series of moves, Emily ended up home in Haworth tending to her father and focusing, like her sisters, on writing. In 1845, Charlotte discovered manuscripts of poems that Emily had hidden away and was adamant that she have them published along with her and Anne’s. The girls collected their works into a volume called, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. Published in 1846 at the expense of the sisters, the volume sold only two copies. In 1847, Emily’s only novel, Wuthering Heights, was published just before her death in December 1848. 

"Madness" is a popular topic in 19th century literature. Society was beginning to see it as a medical issue and began dismissing the idea that insanity was what happened when one was possessed by an evil spirit. It has been said that Emily Bronte suffered from mental illness---madness, to those in her day. My own opinion is that many creative people are misunderstood by those who lack such wild imaginations---just throwing that out there to be on record in case my mental state is ever criticized 150 years from now!  Nevertheless, literary historians have a lot to say about this one-hit-wonder whose single work, Wuthering Heights, (the most depressing and one of the most wonderful books I've read) has left such an impact on cultures worldwide.

Author and Bronte critic, Daphne Merkin, discusses her death by saying, “the cause of her death was officially given as consumption, but it is clear to any reader of Emily’s biography that it was a form of passive suicide—that she had helped her end along by willing herself into the next world she so devoutly believed in”. This suggests that Bronte seemed to invite death to come to her; somewhat like her characters Catherine, and later Heathcliff, do in Wuthering Heights

It is possible that Wuthering Heights could have been intended to be biographical--surely it is prophetically so. More than one critic has drawn a comparison between the terrible Heathcliff and the almost-mad woman who created him. Romer Wilson, author of All Alone: The Life and Private History of Emily Bronte, when describing her as an author says, “Here appears, very early in her life, the creature who is destined to become, in time, the unregenerate, pagan, superstitious Heathcliff”

One critic, Edward Chitham, likens Emily, who is well-read and who takes care of the household chores, to Nelly, the housekeeper and co-narrator in the story. He points out the similarities in the two names: “Nelly”, a shortened version of “Ellen”, is close to Bronte’s pseudonym, “Ellis”. 

A third biographical suggestion is, in my opinion, a bit of a stretch. Katherine Frank, in her book, A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Bronte, argues that what critics have often seen as a strange mysticism surrounding the author’s personality, was really a hidden or misdiagnosed case of anorexia nervosa. Frank defines an anorexic as being, “overwhelmingly hungry, preoccupied with food, obsessed with power and control, and terrified of disorder”. She claims Emily was not free of these obsessions and asks, “How did it feel to be perpetually hungry and deny that hunger? Even more importantly, how was this physical hunger related to a more pervasive hunger in her life—hunger for power and experience, for love and happiness, fame and fortune and fulfillment?"  I have a hard time concluding that these attributes that Frank ascribes to Bronte are definite evidence for only one ailment: anorexia. Granted, there are signs in the story that Catherine and Heathcliff may have both died of starvation, but I believe their reasons for starvation were not related to their body image, as anorexia often is, but instead to their utter desperateness for one another. While Frank does offer some sound evidence, writers are often known for their high-strung emotions and obsessive behaviors. It’s possible that she was just manifesting the eccentric behaviors and emotions that artist’s tend to exhibit. I also take issue with her claims of the “more pervasive hunger(s)”. If Bronte wanted experience, fame and fortune then why did she welcome death so readily? She’d just had her only two submitted works published and was on the road to these very dreams.

There are several important themes that thread in and out of this relatively short gothic work. Bronte weaves in ideas about child abuse, patriarch-led families, social classes and the downfall of a woman who marries for money and not for love, among several other timeless matters. A central theme that I see as crucial to understanding both the story and it’s author is what Bronte calls “madness”. Discussion of and allusion to this ailment can be found in many, many places throughout Wuthering Heights and is especially obvious as it helps to accentuate the spiritual bond between Catherine and Heathcliff. Shortly into the story, Catherine makes a seemingly harmless statement that a reader unfamiliar to the entire tale would dismiss as an epithet of love. She is in the middle of chastising Nelly for suggesting that she and Heathcliff would be parted once she married Linton, when she utters probably the most famous line of the work, “Nelly, I am Heathcliff!” However, the deeper one gets into the story, the more one wonders if Catherine truly is mad and believes that they are one and the same soul—and if Heathcliff believes it as well. 

In Merkin’s introduction to the Barnes and Noble Classics edition she points out, “you choose whom you love, and, in the absence of genuine psychosis, you understand that for all your feelings of having stumbled onto your other half, you and your love object are not one and the same”. Nevertheless, over and over throughout the story, we see this theme of the two having the same restless soul. On what is to be the last night that Heathcliff and Catherine are together, Heathcliff is heartbroken over her imminent death and says, “Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you—oh, God! Would you like to live with your soul in the grave?” After Catherine dies, Heathcliff remarks to Nelly in anguish: “I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!”  It’s obvious that both Catherine and Heathcliff literally believe that they share the same soul—a belief that eventually kills them both from anguish. 

Almost every character in the story displays mad behavior at one time or another. Hindley, in a drunken fit, demonstrates despicable behavior toward his son, Hareton, which can only be described as lunatic. He utters such horrible things about him such as, “he deserves flaying alive”, and “As sure as I’m living, I’ll break the brat’s neck”, before dropping him over a railing to what could have been his death had Heathcliff not been in the right place at the right time. Hareton displays madness at a young age as he hangs a litter of puppies from the back of a chair. Even young Linton acts crazy for attention, (like his aunt Catherine did on her death bed), when he throws himself to the ground in fits of convulsions in order to get his way. 

With all of this mad behavior going on, one cannot help but compare the characters in an attempt to discover the maddest of them all. Although I think that Heathcliff takes the cake over the long haul, beginning with his detestable behavior toward Isabella, his wife and "proxy in suffering", Catherine’s behavior is what really surprises me as I believe her fake madness, as alluded to in the previous paragraph, is what led to her early death. I think that Catherine’s demented behavior began as playacting to keep from having to answer Linton when he asks, “Will you give up Heathcliff hereafter, or will you give up me? It is impossible for you to be my friend and his at the same time; and I absolutely require to know which you choose”. It is at this time that Catherine begins exhibiting physical ailments, going from stamping her foot just a paragraph before, to dashing her head against the arm of the sofa, and grinding her teeth in the next. Even Nelly, the one who probably knows and understands Catherine the best, says that there was “nothing in the world the matter” and that Catherine had “resolved, previously to his coming, on exhibiting a fit of frenzy”

I think that Catherine is going to great lengths to keep from having to admit that she’d choose Heathcliff if it came right down to it. More than that, I think that her keeping to her bed and starving herself could be to keep herself from having to make the choice at all. The point eventually becomes moot when Heathcliff is no longer available to Catherine or a threat to Linton after he runs off with Isabella. When Nelly tells her that Linton has “no idea of your being deranged; and of course he does not fear that you will let yourself die of hunger,” Catherine is adamant that Nelly forward the message to him. “Persuade him!” She shouts. “Speak of your own mind: say that you are certain I will”. To her, this is a game. Catherine is animated and talking about things that Nelly calls insane. I would disagree that Catherine is not actually in possession of her faculties here, but either way, she’s making sense and speaking coherently. When Linton comes into the room, Catherine begins to act as if she doesn’t know him. “At first she gave him no glance of recognition: he was invisible to her abstracted gaze. The delirium was not fixed, however; having weaned her eyes from contemplating the outer darkness, by degrees she centered her attention on him, and discovered who it was that held her”

Catherine’s antics are best displayed in her last scene with Heathcliff. For several minutes, the two had been expressing their love and regret to one another, frantically trying to make up for lost time before Linton came home and before Catherine drew her last breath. Although the dialogue between the two is feverish and overly-emotional, it is still sane and understandable to anyone who may be eavesdropping. However, once Linton is heard coming toward the room, Catherine resolves herself to her biggest show of madness yet. She let her body go limp and seemed unresponsive as Edgar entered the room. Heathcliff played along by placing her in Linton’s arms and left the room. Catherine was “all bewildered,” and “sighed, moaned, and knew nobody”. It seems obvious to me that, like Bronte herself, Catherine took advantage of an ailment and let it consume her to past the point of returning. This, as I said before, could be seen as a prophetic destiny that Bronte may have not realized she was writing. 

Not only do Catherine and Heathcliff exhibit signs of the same sort of madness, they also present a clear picture of a true spiritual bond. Catherine, while on her death bed, calls to Heathcliff in her imagination and says, “I’ll not lie there by myself: they may bury me twelve feet deep, and throw the church down over me, but I won’t rest till you are with me. I never will!” The idea of death does not seem to bother her in the least: it’s the thought of death without Heathcliff that she can’t seem to bear. 

Years after Catherine’s death, Heathcliff describes a scene (which only affirms his madness) in which he goes to Catherine’s grave to exhume her body. As he’s attempting to pry the lid off her coffin, he hears sighing and could feel a “substantial body in the dark”, though he knew there was no one there. Where a perfectly sane person might find this whole situation odd and a little spooky, Heathcliff claims he was consoled because, “her presence was with me: it remained while I refilled the grave, and led me home”. Just before Heathcliff’s own death, the reader gets the impression that he has received some sort of message from Catherine that he is soon to die. He comes home on a couple of occasions with a strange smile on his face and a more peaceful countenance. He claims that everything connects them. The clouds, the trees, the night air, even the material that the flooring is made up of remind him of Catherine. He attempts to explain to Nelly that he senses a change coming but “shall not know that till it comes,” and says he is “only half conscious of it now." 

When it finally does come time for Heathcliff to die, it is hard to tell if he is in a state of madness or just one of extreme spiritualism. It seems that he, too, is suffering from a lack of food—just like Catherine did. Though there is no doubt in my mind that Catherine starved herself willingly and willfully, I can’t help but wonder if Heathcliff believes he is receiving the instructions to abstain from food from Catherine from beyond the grave. Nelly reports, “I vainly reminded him of his protracted abstinence from food: if he stirred to touch anything in compliance with my entreaties, if he stretched his hand out to get a piece of bread, his fingers clenched before they reached it, and remained on the table, forgetful of their aim”. In my opinion, this is a good sign that Heathcliff was fighting against his subconscious and willing himself to follow whatever instructions stopped him from grabbing the bread. Nelly affirms this a few pages later when she says, “I concealed the fact of his having swallowed nothing for four days, fearing it might lead to trouble, and then, I am persuaded, he did not abstain on purpose: it was the consequence of his strange illness, not the cause”. It's interesting that Heathcliff would experience the same sort of death as Catherine—and the madness that preceded it. 

The spiritual element to Wuthering Heights is concluded as Heathcliff joins Catherine to eternally haunt the moors and countryside after his death. The locals claim to have seen him and say that he had been near the church, on the moor, and inside a home. Even old, crotchety Joseph says he’s seen Heathcliff and Catherine together since their deaths. Nelly goes on to describe an instance where she comes across a little shepherd boy who is frightened of the apparitions he saw of Heathcliff and Catherine. 

The last line of the book leaves the reader with something to think on. Nelly is describing a peaceful time visiting the graves of Catherine, Heathcliff and Edgar. She describes the benign sky, the fluttering moths and the soft wind and wonders: “how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth”. Although I do not believe in the ability of a soul to “haunt” those left on earth after it’s body dies, for the purposes of fiction, I say, who could blame them? They’ve got a lot of time to make up for and a lot of unfinished business to take care of.  

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights (Barnes and Noble Classics). New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004. 
Frank, Katherine. A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Bronte. New York: Ballantine, 1990. 
Kuntz, Stanley J. ed. British Authors of the Nineteenth Century. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1936. 
Wilson, Romer. All Alone: The Life and Private History of Emily Bronte. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2003.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

March by Geraldine Brooks -- {A New Imagining of Louisa May Alcott's, Little Women}

Thoughts of fall are filling my days and I've already decided the season is here---even if our 90Âș weather is telling me differently. I've been planning fall baking, fall decorating...and fall reading! I'm always drawn to certain favorites during the fall. Most autumns, I alternate years reading either Hawthorne or Thoreau---this October, I'm going for both. I always read Little Women the week of Christmas. I read all kinds of books, but there are some that I just can't get enough of.

Last winter, I read Geraldine Brooks', March. It's a thoughtfully imagined story of what the absent father in Little Women was going through during his time serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. If you're even a little familiar with the Alcott story, this would be an excellent book to kick off your fall reading. I'm especially interested to hear thoughts on the story, as I have some very strong opinions of it!

Book Description: "As the North reels under a series of unexpected defeats during the dark first year of the Civil War, one man leaves behind his family to aid the Union cause. His experiences will utterly change his marriage and challenge his most ardently held beliefs. From Louisa May Alcott's beloved classic, Little Women, Geraldine Brooks has taken the character of the absent father, Mr. March, who has gone off to war, leaving his wife and daughters to make do in mean times. From vibrant New England to the sensuous antebellum South, March adds adult resonance to Alcott's optimistic children's novel. A lushly written, wholly original tale steeped in the details of another time, March secures Geraldine Brooks's placed as a renowned author of historical fiction."

My Thoughts: What an excellent story! While I definitely have my gripes about this one, overall it was just great.

On the first day of reading, right around page 40, I stopped reading, closed the book, and wrote the following: "I must decide if I want to go on with the story. If I do, it will forever taint the innocent and peaceful joy that comes from enjoying, Little Women, one of my favorite stories." Whew! I didn't have a clue how right on I was---but I decided to keep reading and am so glad I did!

I absolutely loved the character of March---truly a good and kind man who really did love his family and fellow man, putting their best interests before his own. One scene where I didn't agree with him, but still respected him, was on the Canning plantation when he first has words with Canning about the treatment of the Negro workers. These scenes were eye-opening. March seemed starry-eyed and ignorant and it was easy for me to sympathize with Canning's point of view---especially after finishing the story and seeing that he was right to take some of the actions that he did. (If that wasn't a vague statement, I don't know what is. Guess you'll just have to read it for clarification!)

I also loved how Brooks weaved in some of the other historical figures of the day. Shout out to Thoreau---yay! And Hawthorne---even better!

I did NOT like the way Marmee was portrayed. Not one bit. This fiery-tempered, self-pitying Marmee is not the same that Alcott described. I've been through a lot of the same things this Marmee had---much worse, in fact---and I still couldn't sympathize with her unrelenting self-pity. Brooks purposefully made this endearing character so unlikeable---why? A read through her afterword might hold the clue, but it seems she may have had her own ax to grind and used Marmee to do it. Not impressed. Not at all.

Also, I don't like that Brooks made "Marmee" the nickname that everyone had used for her since childhood. Marmee was the daughters' name for their mama---why would they call her by her first name but use "father" for their dad? I think Brooks should have left that one alone, as well.

It will be awhile before I can read my beloved classic again---I don't want the screwy fake Marmee character messing up the story for me. However, I hope I will remember this excellent portrait of Mr. March and think of him in a deeper way when he's mentioned in Little Women.

Have you read March? What are your thoughts?