Friday, February 17, 2017

Winter Reading Review

I've read several books in the last few months that I feel a little indifferent about. Not passionate enough to write a full-length review, but still have a few thoughts on each. Here's my winter reading review.

Titanic Survior by Violet Jessop (1934)

I really enjoyed this heartwarming and humorous memoir of stewardess Violet Jessop---the woman who outwitted multiple childhood illnesses, two ship sinkings, several other at-sea tragedies, and many suitors, to die a happy elderly woman in Suffolk at the end of her amazing life.

 Jessop was a great storyteller and the addition of the editor's annotations made for a clear, easy read that kept me interested and entertained.

 I was surprised at how easily Jessop resumed normal life after the sinking of the Titanic and Britannic ships. I wonder how much healing time had passed before she actually penned these memoirs as her hindsight is unnaturally calm. She exhibited a great attitude about getting right back to her work and not allowing fear to keep her from pursuing the sea life she loved.

A couple years ago, I put on a Titanic Tea Party for my kids for one of our homeschool lessons. My now 8-year-old daughter played Violet Jessop. You can see that here: Titanic Tea Party.

Paper: An Elegy by Ian Sansom (2012)

Well, I want to say that a book on paper is just as dull as it sounds. Yet, a book on paper is exactly the sort of nerdy thing that appeals to me. However, in this case---meh. I purchased this in Bath, England in September 2016 during the Jane Austen Festival so I felt compelled to finish it, but it was a push to be sure.

 There were a few interesting parts but, like many of the "biographies of things" I come across, the author includes every bit of every random detail possible and takes lengthy jaunts in odd directions in order to fill pages. So, rather than being exciting and interesting, I found many parts to be dull and droning.

 Still, here are some parts that I did like:

 I was especially intrigued by the descriptions and histories of board games. I had no idea that paper board games were so old and that there were games like Monopoly that predate it. I'd love to get a hold of some of these neat Victorian board games!

 I also loved his description of how he will go with shoddy clothes and bills owed in order to make sure he's got books. This is true Bibliomania---an ailment I suffer from without much suffering.

 ...and then there's the part where he used the word "phantasmagoric" by the third page. Anyone who can work that into a sentence deserves a good pat on the back!

Blooming by Susan Allen Toth (1978)

This book was meant to be relatable. However, reading this memoir was like reading a Judy Blume book in the 5th grade. I felt the same sense of not being able to quite relate to the awkward teen thing. I just wasn't really an awkward teen and definitely wasn't an innocent or inexperienced one. Now that I'm living a much more moral and decent life than I did as a teen, I should be able to say that I wish my teen years would have been more like the idyllic ones she describes. But really, they were great years and I wouldn't be who I am now (and wouldn't be avoiding the stuff I now avoid) without them. Does that character revelation disappoint you? Ha! Well, I guess you can take comfort in the fact that I'll always tell it to you straight---like it or not!

 In other ways, I related completely. For instance, in her chapter on being a bookworm she discusses the city library of her youth. "Entering the Ames Public Library I could feel its compelling power immediately." In describing the selection of books she says, "It was like having a box of assorted chocolate, all tempting, with unknown centers. I wanted to bite into each one right away to see what it was like." Recently, my mom and I visited the library in my hometown. So many wonderful memories came rushing back---libraries have always felt like home to me. Even upon the very first visit!

 I related well to her stories about her early days in journalism and trying to put together a feature story form an interview subject that was way over her head. Her experiences mirrored my own immature attempts to appear to be a "real newspaperwoman" in my early 20s. Like me, she didn't last long in journalism.

 The book is basically a really thorough social commentary on American life in between my mother's and grandmother's eras. Allen Toth had a simple, positive childhood, for the most part and told her story in an engaging way. Were I a good 30 years older than I am, I think this story would have affected me strongly. As it is, I can't say that I enjoyed the book---but I obviously found enough worth in it to read it through.

Aunt Dimity & the Buried Treasure by Nancy Atherton (2016)

This was my first Aunt Dimity book and I'm already in love with the characters, premise, and setting of the series. It's not often that you find a happily married mother as a heroine; that, and the fact that they're set in England, is what really attracted me in the first place.

This particular mystery was fun as my husband and I having a growing interest in archaeology having watched the first 15 seasons of Time Team on YouTube. Also set in England, the team is always finding neat artifacts like those involved in this story.

I love reading cozy mysteries but find it difficult to find clean ones. I picked this one up at our local library, taking a chance that it would be ok. I was pleasantly surprised as, for the most part, there wasn't much in it that was objectionable. After reading reviews on the series as a whole, it sounds like most are not murder mysteries and that most readers are finding them to be clean. I'm looking for the first books so I can give them a go.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (2009)

This book had been on my wishlist for quite awhile as I've always been intrigued by the history and story of the Salem Witch Trials. Author Katherine Howe is a descendant of two Salem women of the time---one who survived the Trials and one who did not. Her interest in her family history spurred her to write this story---just like my New England heritage is part of why I'm interested in the subject as well. I've read a lot on it---but nothing like this.

If I don't think too much about the plethora of plot holes, immaturity and lack of education of a supposed Harvard graduate student, extremely annoying predictability of every part of the story, and stereotypical character types; as well as the fact that the moment the protagonist has been waiting for---the unearthing of the object she's searching for throughout the ENTIRE book---is alluded to rather than actually described...if I don't think about all of that and more, this book is not so bad.

Everything I've ever read on the subject assumes the women were set up by jealous or resentful villagers or that hysteria blinded the leaders and pride kept them blind. Nothing I've read has ever asked the question that Howe asks: What if they really were witches?

What was really interesting to me is that she doesn't just ask if they really were witches---but if they were witches AND Christians? She makes the point that we really only understand things at the level of technology that we've advanced to. With the Puritan Movement in full swing in New England, there was still a lot of confusion as to how God worked in the lives of his people. The Trials served as a catalyst to decide how far one could go in interfering in the lives of others and still "blame" God for the outcome.

As far as "levels of witchcraftiness" in the book---it really doesn't become a thing until toward the end and it's not super sinister freaky weird. It still seems out of place in a book that was showing such promise "scientifically" without a bunch of supernatural nonsense.

The theme I loved the most in the story was the story of the mother/daughter bond throughout the generations.

This is one of those stories that makes everything known to the reader before the characters are aware. Whether or not that was intentional, it was interesting seeing how things played out---even though there were no surprises.

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage by Hugh Brewster (2012)

Book Description: "Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage takes us behind the paneled doors of the Titanic’s elegant private suites to present compelling, memorable portraits of her most notable passengers. The intimate atmosphere onboard history’s most famous ship is recreated as never before.

The Titanic has often been called “an exquisite microcosm of the Edwardian era,” but until now, her story has not been presented as such. In Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage, historian Hugh Brewster seamlessly interweaves personal narratives of the lost liner’s most fascinating people with a haunting account of the fateful maiden crossing. Employing scrupulous research and featuring 100 rarely-seen photographs, he accurately depicts the ship’s brief life and tragic denouement, presenting the very latest thinking on everything from when and how the lifeboats were loaded to the last tune played by the orchestra."

"It was a brilliant crowd...a rare gathering of beautiful women and splendid men." ---Lily May Futrelle

This quote at the very beginning of the book is probably why so many of us love Titanic stories: we are sad that these beautiful people had to experience such horrible tragedy. We are also the tiniest bit reassured when we are reminded that tragedy is not a respecter of persons and is often left to chance. Horrible things can happen no matter how rich and famous one is.

Books like this take me forever to read, not because they're dull but because I usually can't go two pages without finding a reason to stop and research something. I really enjoyed reading the mini biographies constructed around an in depth look at high society before WWI destroyed the Gilded Age of America and Great Britain.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Hester: The Missing Years of the Scarlet Letter by Paula Reed -- Book Review

I've been taking the kids to the library more often lately and decided to grab a stack for myself, now and then. I have such a huge TBR shelf at home, but it's fun to see what else is out there, too. I was excited? {not sure that's the word? Intrigued, maybe?} to see this continuation of The Scarlet Letter. To sum things up, I wasn't impressed. To find out why, read on.

From Amazon: "Upon the death of her demonic husband, Hester Prynne is left a widow, and her daughter Pearl, a wealthy heiress. Hester takes her daughter to live a quiet life in England, only to find herself drawn into the circle of the most powerful Puritan of all time, Oliver Cromwell. From the moment Hester donned the famous scarlet letter, it instilled in her the power to see the sins and hypocrisy of others, an ability not lost on the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. To Cromwell, Hester’s sight is either a sign of sorcery or a divine gift that Hester must use to assist the divinely chosen, as he deems himself, in his scheming to control England.  Since sorcery carries a death sentence, Hester is compelled against her will to use her sight to assist Cromwell. She soon finds herself entangled in a web of political intrigue, espionage, and forbidden love. Hester will carry readers away to seventeenth-century England with a deeply human story of family, love, history, desire, weakness, and the human ideal."

The Scarlet Letter is a story I've re-read at different times in my life and responded to differently based on maturity and experience. In my opinion, one must really be able to relate to Hester's point of view in order to really get all there is to get out of The Scarlet Letter. Yeah, you can be the scorned and bitter type and get Chillingworth, you can be the self-hating man with a martyr complex and get Dimmesdale, but to get Hester, you've got to understand redemption. You've got to "get" grace. Not everyone who reads Hester sympathizes with Hester. You sort of have to have been Hester to get it and the more life experiences I have that draw me closer to her character---all of her character---the more I cherish the story.

Reed pretty much butchers everything Hawthorne built in the character of Hester. Granted, there were some great story line themes but I was disappointed overall. As one who usually doesn't enjoy continuations, I was willing to come into this one with an open mind. I started out really admiring the new, stronger Hester; but as the author destroyed her strong and sure character more and more as the book progressed, I ended up highly disliking and disrespecting her.

It's interesting that one character trait that many reviewers seem to despise was the one thing about her that seemed completely real and believable to me. Because of her experience with the consequences of sin, Hester has the ability to see the sins of others. I, too, see hypocrisy and hidden sin in people. It's a discernment that God gives to some---a trust so one can pray and possibly speak into the situation at the appropriate time. And yes, it requires a little bit of, "it takes one to know one." Hester describes it as a mantle that they wear---I see it as a name or title they are given. As a Christian, I know that God desires us to walk with the character of Christ. When we sin, he doesn't desire to call us by that sinful name, but to give us a new name that symbolizes our redemption and salvation through him (Rev. 2). When I see a person burdened by their secret sin and that sin is named to me, I am able to privately pray into that specific situation, usually without the person ever realizing I know, in a way that not everyone can. Hester's "ability", as well as the way she was treated because of it, seems perfectly plausible to me as I have operated in this fashion to varying extents for years.

Now for all the stuff I didn't like...

Hester's deep and regular involvement in aiding Cromwell seems *a bit* contrived and overdone. Her discernment of peoples' motives and private sins was an interesting twist at first, but the author turned it into something seemingly unbelievable when she made Hester, a commoner and a woman without a male head, a most trusted aid to Cromwell. This is the 17th century we're talking about. At best, she would have been thrown out of the Wright's home to avoid scandal on their good name. At worst, she would have been condemned as a witch. Never would she have been, one day and seemingly without much thought, private confidant, and later conscience, (what????) of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

I was also really annoyed with her free and easy sexual nature. The author wanted the opportunity to bring in a Libertine character since that was a big Charles II "thing", but the derogatory sexual escapades and language that Hester uses change her from a woman with passions who had already learned to bridle them to something cheap and nasty. The author seemed to think Hester had to have some kind of "release" and thus took up with the character of John. But seriously, if she was so desperate for more illicit sex, wouldn't we have seen that crop up in The Scarlet Letter, where she lived alone and shunned, rather than later on when she had friends and the respect of those around her?

It would have been nice to see Pearl learn from her mother's mistakes, but instead we have to follow the predictable "sins of the fathers" trope and watch her fall into the lust trap---only to be rescued in probably the most ridiculously contrived part of the story. (Except for maybe the part about Charles II and his entourage taking regular dinners with Hester and Pearl in their little townhouse in Buges.)

Speaking of tropes, I get so tired of the "every man will betray you" garbage. Hester lectures Pearl about her ignorance toward men and assures her that even her beloved new beau will betray her before long. Men just can't. be. trusted. Sure, that might be true---but no one bothers to point out that women betray their men in the same ways. It's called being human. You stay with someone long enough and they will hurt you at some point. No matter how true in spirit they are. Can we get off the man-hater wagon...or, at the least, acknowledge we women are no better when it comes to disappointing the ones we love?

Anyone who is a fan of Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter will probably want to read this one---regardless of how lousy the reviews are. If you go into it ready to chuck plausibility, historical accuracy, and depth of character growth out the window, you'll surely find something redeemable about the story.

Linking with:
Booknificent Thursday

Monday, February 6, 2017

January's New to Me Books

Between gifts from friends and a couple days of thrift shopping, I added a lot of books to my collection in January. Here is the stack I came away with when my daughter and I took a shopping day on the last Saturday of January. It was her birthday weekend and she was looking for some Ursula Blake costumes to launch her new Doctor Who fandom blog. Me? I was just looking for books.

Who can get enough of the Titanic? Not me. I've mentioned before how much I love reading about the Gilded Age of America and Britain and I think I'll really enjoy this one. Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage (2012) tells the stories of several of the Titanic's First-Class passengers and the lives they led prior to the sinking (and after, if they made it!) Author Hugh Brewster has been writing stories about the Titanic for over 25 years. I think this one will be next up to be read.

I debated on this one but finally decided to go with it. While I've been in Arkansas only three years, the whole Southern woman thing has begun to rub off a little. I also think I'll really enjoy imagining what life was like for my grandma and great grandma who were born and raised out here. Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South by Shirley Abbott (1983) is sure to be a great read.

I visited Byron's home in Nottinghamshire in September and developed a greater curiosity about him and what fueled his poetry. Weirdly, it's been hard to find anything on him around here---even at Barnes and Noble, if you can believe it. When I stumbled on this part study/part biography, I quickly snatched it up. Byron: A Survey (1975) by Bernard Blackstone is sure to be a great continuation as I learn more about this mad, bad, and dangerous Regency era figure.

When I was a teenager, my great grandma Annabelle would send me a Grace Livingston Hill book at least once a month. When I'd come to visit her, she'd give me bags of books with several inside. Ignorant teen that I was, I didn't appreciate a wholesome story like this so I never opened even one of them. Now I'm collecting them like mad so I was super happy to find The Girl of the Woods (1942) at Trolley Line Books in Rogers. I love books that are well-loved like this one---it just adds to the history of the story.

Some of my England friends have been singing the praises of Georgette Heyer's Regency era stories so I was happy to find The Convenient Marriage (1934) at the Salvation Army thrift store in Rogers. I'm not usually one for romance novels so we'll see how it goes.

This is a fun gift book from the 1950s: Great Short Stories by O. Henry. It's volume 10 of a series called Family Classics published by Award Books. I read The Gift of the Magi to my family at Christmas time. I was the only one who was familiar with it and everyone else loved it. I'm sure I'll enjoy the other stories, as well.

I've had Thomas Hardy's works on my wishlist for ages but have so far only found one antique copy of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. I found these two paperbacks: Jude the Obscure (1895) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). I'm still on the hunt for vintage hardbacks but these will at least allow me to read the stories soon.

Another elusive author is Elizabeth Goudge. Funnily, I recently talked about how hard it was to come by her books second hand---and then organized a bookshelf the other day and discovered I have more of hers than I thought I did! I found The Child From the Sea (1971) at Trolley Line Books---but was disappointed to realize I already have a copy! I'm thinking of saving it aside for a friend. Leah---do you have this?

I'm excited to share a few other recent gifts and finds with you all. But I think I'll stop here and actually read! I'm currently on Hester by Paula Reed. It's a continuation of The Scarlet Letter, picking up at Dimmesdale's death and the subsequent leaving of Hester and Pearl. I'm enjoying it so far so be watching for a review!