Thursday, January 29, 2015

Who Needs the Classics Anyway?

My friend, Meghan at Meghan Carver, Lawyer Mom, has a love for classic literature---just like I do! She's written an excellent article on why we need the classics. I've read five classics so far this month, and am about one hundred pages in to The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. I don't know why I'm craving the classical thing lately---just making up for lost time, I guess! Be sure to check out Meghan's post and let us know what classic you've read lately!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley ~ Book Review

When I was in high school, I had a friend who was obsessed with the movie, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Whenever we'd go to his house to hang out, it was pop, snacks, and that movie. Over and over and over again. That's probably why this book has been sitting on my shelf for several years and I've continued to remain uninterested in reading it. However, it's one that I promised myself I'd read this year so I decided to get it over with.

I wish I could say I loved it --- but I didn't. I am glad I read it---but mostly so I can say that I've read it. Ha! Like Orwell's 1984, it's one of those 1001 books I probably could have died without reading.

Book Description: "The story of Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation has held readers spellbound ever since it was published two centuries ago. On the surface, it is a novel of tense and steadily mounting horror; but on a more profound level, it offers searching illumination of the human condition in its portrayal of a scientist who oversteps the bounds of conscience and of a monster brought to life in an alien world, ever more desperately attempting to escape the torture of his solitude. A novel of hallucinatory intensity, Frankenstein represents one of the most striking flowerings of the Romantic imagination."

Nah...not really. No horror. Not really profound. No hallucinatory intensity. If by "flowerings of the...imagination" we mean "great imagination---budding writer", then yeah, I'll give you that one. Mary Shelley was barely nineteen years old when she wrote this and, although it was published within months of Frankenstein, this is exactly the kind of gothic nonsense Jane Austen was parodying in Northanger Abbey.

The idea of a scientist pushing the bounds of human convention to create non-human life is brilliant.
The idea of the "monster" developing human abilities and emotions is brilliant.
The way Shelley made it all happen? Not so brilliant.

I was left with way too many questions on this one. How did the monster learn all he did in just a few months of spying on his neighbors? How does he go from inanimate blob to quoting Plutarch and Milton in such a short amount of time? His knowledge is inconsistent. For instance, he knows about the mythical character of Pandemonium but he doesn't know fire will burn him? Shelley wrote this as part of a dare between herself, Lord Byron, her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and another friend. Throughout the entire book, all I could imagine when the monster was prattling on and on was that Mrs. Shelley was really just wanting to show off all her knowledge to these obnoxious men she was in competition with.

Critics say this is a story of a monster that was more human than his creator. They say Frankenstein drove the monster to his "badness" and that it was all his fault that the monster committed evil acts. That might be the case if Shelley didn't have him rant in endless philosophical orations. She makes the monster appear more intelligent than the scientist. I'm definitely holding the monster accountable for his own actions. He obviously has a conscience.

This book fulfills my goals for the Full House Challenge: Type of Book You Rarely Read, the TBR challenge (Book #5), and the New To You Challenge for New Author. You can read more about my reading challenges here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Door in the Wall by Marguerite De Angeli ~ Book Review

The kids and I finished this beautiful tale at lunch time today---having read it very slowly over the past few months as part of one of our homeschool co-ops group read-alouds. Yes, I'll admit it, I cried at the end and the kids all laughed at me! BUT---I did see one of my boys wiping away some tears too!

Written in 1949, this sweet story tells the tale of Robin, son of nobleman Sir John de Bureford.  From Amazon: "Ever since he can remember, has been told what is expected of him as the son of a nobleman. He must learn the ways of knighthood. But Robin's destiny is changed in one stroke: He falls ill and loses the use of his legs. Fearing a plague, his servants abandon him and Robin is left alone. A monk named Brother Luke rescues Robin and takes him to the hospice of St. Mark's where he is taught woodcarving and--much harder--patience and strength. Says Brother Luke, 'Thou hast only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it.'"

We had several great discussions about this book---mainly what "the door in the wall" really means. We decided it referred to an opportunity---the chance to change one's course, simply by walking through an available door.

Some of the kids are already asking to reread it, so I'm thinking a second copy is in order. I know our family will cherish this story for years to come!

This book will fulfill the Full House Reading Challenge for: A Keeper, as well as the New To You challenge for New Author.

I also just finished reading George Orwell's, 1984, also written in 1949---a book so not worth writing a post about. It will fulfill the New To You challenge for New Author, #10 on the TBR Challenge, and the Full House reading challenge for Author New To You.  For more information on the challenges I've joined this year, visit my post called Reading Challenges.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Before Amen by Max Lucado ~ Book Review

I had the opportunity to receive a free review copy and, having not read anything by Lucado for a good 12 years or more, was pleasantly surprised by the easy-going tone and light-hearted wit in this little book.

Before starting the book, I wrote down my thoughts on prayer:

Although I don't spend as much time in Bible study as I'd like, I feel like my "prayer life" is strong. I go to God in need, just as much as I go to him in thanks. In fact, I probably thank him more, lately, than anything else. When I feel his Spirit nudging me to pray, I'm faithful the majority of the time. Without my prayer life, I don't think I'd feel close to God right now, as everything else seems far less grounded than my being able to talk to God anytime and anywhere.

Recently, my eight-year-old daughter, Selah, and I were discussing prayer and Bible reading. I told her how essential prayer is to our relationship with God. Not everyone can have daily Bible study time, but just about everyone can pray. Like Lucado points out, there's no need to be profound. Prayer is a simple conversation.

"Prayer, for most of us, is not a matter of a month-long retreat or even an hour of meditation. Prayer is conversation with God while driving to work or awaiting an appointment or before interacting with a client. Prayer can be the internal voice that directs the external action." ~page 7

Regarding prayer, Before Amen reinforced truths I know and practice. However, there was a great little section on guilt that really spoke to me. Lucado explained how guilt is God's idea and how it reveals to us the difference between who we are and who God wants us to be. It prods us to repentance. While I often deal with unnecessary guilt for things that are really out of my control, it's refreshing to be encouraged to put guilt in its proper place and understand that it can be beneficial. More than that, its nice to see someone not trying to talk me out of my guilt and blaming it on the enemy trying to discourage me at every turn. Funny how much "God stuff" we blame on the devil.

A special component of the book that I appreciate is the in-depth study guide, as well as the "prayer strengths" guide, that makes up two-thirds of the book. More than just a few discussion topics, there are sections for each chapter that provide the reader with the opportunity to pull the most possible from the reading. Whether you're studying alone or in a small group, definitely take the time to go through the study sections. They'll help you examine your current prayer habits, strengths and weaknesses, and stir up a desire to kick the good stuff up a notch or two!

Book Description: "We all pray ... some. We pray to stay sober, centered, or solvent. When the lump is deemed malignant. When the money runs out before the month does. When the marriage is falling apart. We pray. But wouldn’t we like to pray more? Better? Stronger? With more fire, faith, and fervency? We aren’t the first to struggle with prayer. The first followers of Jesus needed prayer guidance too. In fact, prayer is the only tutorial they ever requested. And Jesus gave them a prayer. Not a lecture on prayer. Not the doctrine of prayer. He gave them a quotable, repeatable, portable prayer. Couldn’t we use the same? 

In Before Amen, bestselling author Max Lucado joins readers on a journey to the very heart of biblical prayer, offering hope for doubts and confidence even for prayer wimps. Distilling prayers in the Bible down to one pocket-sized prayer, Max reminds readers that prayer is not a privilege for the pious nor the art of a chosen few. Prayer is simply a heartfelt conversation between God and his child. Let the conversation begin."

This book will be included in my goals toward the Full House Reading Challenge for Award Winning, since it's the Family Christian 2015 book of the year. For more information on the challenges I've joined this year, see my post: Reading Challenges.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Hard Times by Charles Dickens ~ Book Review

This is a proud moment. The moment in which I announce the conquering of one of my biggest literary-related fears. The finishing of a full-length Charles Dickens novel. Of course, I've read A Christmas Carol over and over---but that doesn't really count. It doesn't count because, for one thing, it's a novella. Secondly, everyone, everyone, knows the story. It's easy to read A Christmas Carol because you can fill in the hard stuff with visions of Mickey Mouse and Jiminy Cricket, if you really need to.

But Hard Times! Oh, the joy! (...and, Oh! The oxymoron!) It was just the right level of difficult for me. My knowledge of vocabulary was challenged, but I understood it all in context enough to laugh, smile, sigh, and nod my way through the whole wonderful book. I don't know why I've been so afraid to tackle 19th century classics. Every time I read one, I thoroughly enjoy it and come away feeling fulfilled and that I've spent my reading time wisely.

Book Description: "Set amid smokestacks and factories, Charles Dickens's Hard Times is a blistering portrait of Victorian England as it struggles with the massive economic turmoil brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Championing the mind-numbing materialism of the period is Thomas Gradgrind, one of Dickens's most vivid characters. He opens the novel by arguing that boys and girls should be taught 'nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.' Forbidding the development of imagination, Gradgrind is ultimately forced to confront the results of his philosophy--his own daughter's terrible unhappiness. Full of suspense, humor, and tenderness, Hard Times is a brilliant defense of art in an age of mechanism."

My Thoughts: There is so much to enjoy about this book that I do find it difficult to really put it all into an orderly review. I was surprised by the many elements of mystery, romance--even a bit of edge-of-your-seat action at the end! I do wish some of the characters would have ended up with happier endings. I found that many of Grandgrind's "facts" were truths of his own making and it caused me to reconsider some of the things in my own life that I would consider "facts". I also chuckled, a lot, at the revelation of Bounderby's "origins".

The "unwanted wife" trope, reminiscent of both Jane Eyre and Silas Marner, was interesting to see. I like to think that Dickens was riffing off Bronte's work of seven years earlier and that Eliot, in turn, was inspired to include the theme in her work, seven years later.

I liked the idea that both Sissy and Stephen's wife were making big impacts on the characters without actually being present in the story. Stephen's wife, especially, was a major player---yet her time in the novel takes up but a few sentences. If it weren't for her though, many of the characters' lives would have taken entirely different directions.

A couple of my favorite quotes were:

"If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!"

Also, Dickens's fun play on Peter Piper: "If the greedy little Gradgrinds grasped at more than this, what was it for good gracious goodness' sake, that the greedy little Gradgrinds grasped at?"

Hard Times will be included in my goals toward the Full House Challenge: "Book by an Author You Really Like". For more information on the challenges I've joined this year, see my post, Reading Challenges.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Silas Marner by George Eliot ~~ Book Review

I've had a copy of George Eliot's Silas Marner on my TBR shelf for several years now. Had I known what a treasure I was allowing to sit there lonely for so much time, I would have read it long ago! The story of Silas and Eppie is a sweet one and I know I'll enjoy this short novel again and again in years to come.

Book Description: "Although the shortest of George Eliot's novels, Silas Marner is one of her most admired and loved works. It tells the sad story of the unjustly exiled Silas Marner---a handloom linen weaver of Raveloe in the agricultural heartland of England---and how he is restored to life by the unlikely means of the orphan child Eppie. Silas Marner is a tender and moving tale of sin and repentance set in a vanished rural world and holds the reader's attention until the last page as Eppie's bonds of affection for Silas are put to the test."

There are so many great themes in this little 160 page book. Unforgiveness and redemption, innocence and the importance of honesty. I think my favorite lesson in Silas Marner is one that all of the characters learn in one way or another: just because things don't end up the way you wish they would, doesn't mean you can't still have a happy ending. Sometimes the the way things become "resolved" is by us accepting the fact that they're not able to be resolved. Accepting that and moving forward in joy is how we can truly be free from the things in our past that would want to bind us and hold us back. I have a feeling I'll take away a fresh meaning every time I read this delightful tale of Silas Marner and the people of Raveloe.

Silas Marner will be included in my goals toward these challenges:
Full House Challenge: "Novella"
Roof Beam Reader's TBR Challenge (this is #8 on my list)
New to You Challenge: New Author
For more information on the challenges I've joined this year, see my post, Reading Challenges.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman ~~ Book Review

Did you get some great books for Christmas? I did! My husband, Jamie, gifted me with two Dickens' and this one, How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Life. I've just finished reading it and really loved it! I can't wait to find more by author, Ruth Goodman.

Book Description: A delightful tour through the intimate details of life in Victorian England, told by a historian who has cheerfully endured them all.Ruth Goodman believes in getting her hands dirty. Drawing on her own adventures living in re-created Victorian conditions, Goodman serves as our bustling and fanciful guide to nineteenth-century life. Proceeding from daybreak to bedtime, this charming, illustrative work celebrates the ordinary lives of the most perennially fascinating era of British history. From waking up to the rapping of a “knocker-upper man” on the window pane to lacing into a corset after a round of calisthenics, from slipping opium to the little ones to finally retiring to the bedroom for the ideal combination of “love, consideration, control and pleasure,” the weird, wonderful, and somewhat gruesome intricacies of Victorian life are vividly rendered here. How to Be a Victorian is an enchanting manual for the insatiably curious. 

I love the idea of a "waking 'til sleeping" look at Victorian life in England. There were so many interesting tidbits and insights into how our world just wouldn't be what it is if it weren't for the enterprising Victorians. The book is lively and very readable and I found myself only skipping over a few pages about men's sports and later, a small bit about abortion.

I love how the author has so much personal experience with living the Victorian life. It sounds like she's had some very interesting employment. Some of my favorite parts include:
  • Interesting findings on her washing experiment (pages 15-16)
  • The way plaid shirts came to symbolize the manual laborer.
  • That tiny waists were fashionable for men of the time and that they, like women, wore corsets to achieve the look!
  • Her hair care regimen on page 143---I might try it!
I also found the many cases of history repeating itself to be strangely satisfying. For instance, the English Victorians also struggled with schools focusing on standardized curriculum, rather than the individual needs of the student. Also, with all the talk about the rise of obesity---especially with the way the British like to get on us Americans about it---I found it rather ironic that only 2 out of 9 volunteers were considered physically fit enough to fight in the Boer War.

This is my first book finished of 2015 and will be included in my goals toward these challenges: 
Full House Challenge: "Author Outside Your Own Country"
New to You Challenge: New Author
For more information on the challenges I've joined this year, see my post, Reading Challenges.

How about you? Have you finished a book yet this year? I'd love to hear about it!