Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book 19- "The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses" by Robert Louis Stevenson

I hated "Treasure Island."

It's one of those books they make you read in school, simply because they've been making kids read it in school for so many years they've forgotten other books exist. Or at least that's my theory. Not all of us like pirate stories. I'm interested in pirates in the historical aspect; I like reading about actual pirates, but when it comes to pirate fiction, my interest begins and ends with Jack Sparrow. Eccentric, always tipsy, played by one of my favorite actors of all time... he's a pirate I can get interested in.

That said, Robert Louis Stevenson is one of those classic writers whose name is too well known to ignore. Which is how I ended up choosing another of his books, "The Black Arrow," to read. (I also chose "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", which I have not gotten to yet.)

"The Black Arrow" takes place during the War of the Roses (google it) in England. The atmosphere is tense and militant, and the call goes out for all able-bodied men to gather to join the fight. In the midst of all of this, a letter signed "John Amend-All" declares that four men will be killed with four black arrows, payment for crimes they committed and covered up. The letter specifically mentions the murder of Sir Harry Shelton, which is critical because Shelton's son Dick is a ward of Sir Daniel Brackley, one of the men accused in the letter of Shelton's murder. Though at first Dick refuses to believe that Brackley and the other 3 men are involved in his father's death, the letter awakens an interest in discovering what really DID happen to his dad.

On the way back from delivering a message for Brackley, Dick stumbles upon a boy who introduces himself as John Matcham, who had been kidnapped by Brackley and is now fleeing in search of safety. Dick agrees to help the boy get to his destination, and along the way John tries to convince Dick that Sir Daniel Brackley is not a good person and that Dick should turn against him. John also tries to talk Dick into pursuing the truth about Brackley's role in his father's murder. Dick is resistant, but when the two are eventually captured by Brackley and returned to his home, Sir Daniel's behavior combined with his evasion of questions regarding the murder convince Dick that Brackley was involved after all.

At this point, Dick realizes that his life is in danger and that he needs to escape; he also finds out that "John" is actually Joanna Sedley, an orphaned heiress from a neighboring estate. He falls in love with Joanna, and together they try to escape; Dick succeeds, but Joanna is caught and remains Sir Daniel's captive.

Dick ends up fighting with "John Amend-All", who is actually a group of outlaws lead by Ellis Duckworth. Duckworth had become an outlaw when he was accused of murdering Sir Harry Shelton, and it is for that reason that he is seeking revenge. Another of the outlaws, Will Lawless, befriends Dick and joins him on his mission to rescue Joanna from Brackley.

There is a lot of action from this point to the end, but I won't spoil all the fun-- suffice it to say that this book is never boring, the life of Dick Shelton is lively but fraught with danger, and the Black Arrow outlaws keep things interesting.

I suspected early on that "John Matcham" was actually a girl; the boy-meets-boy-who-is-actually-a-girl-and-they-fall-in-love has been done so many times at this point that it wasn't a shock to me, although I'm not sure how surprising a plot twist it would have been in the late 19th century when it was written. The primary appeal of the book was all of the dangerous twists and turns that the plot takes; it's hard not to root for Dick Shelton, the troubled protagonist who is loyal to a fault and has a heart of gold.

Hard to say whether I'd recommend it or not; the language and sentence structure of the 19th century can be a bit difficult to muddle through, but the story leaves nothing to be desired; it's an exciting and enjoyable story. MUCH better, in my humble opinion, than Stevenson's much more renown "Treasure Island." Jim Hawkins' got nothing on Dick Shelton.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

JC and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

So does anyone remember the book this blog title is referencing? Good ol' Alexander? "I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there's gum in my hair when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day."*

Oh Alexander. It only gets worse.

I've been thinking of today as my busy day for about a week now. Had to drop the dog off to get spayed, take Addison to school, do a little house-sitting check, pick Addison up from school, run home, change Addison into her ballet clothes, drop Addison off at ballet, pick her up from ballet 45 minutes later, try to squeeze in lunch, and pick the dog up from the vet. All while juggling not just Addison, but a rather crabby Owen as well. The mere thought of today started giving me nightmares on Friday. I hate busy days. Sure, I don't want to be stuck with nothing to do all day, but I hate not having a moment to think.

SO what else would make things more exciting? How about a car accident? Yep... that'll do.

Let me start from the beginning.

I got up this morning a little after 7:00, because my Grandma was scheduled to arrive at 7:30 (she was going to sit at the house while I took Zoey to the vet, so that I didn't have to get the kids up any earlier than usual.) Zoey had apparently figured out something was up, because she was all trembly at the vet (she's usually fine) and it broke my heart to let them walk away with her. I drove back home, thanked my Grandma, and got the kids up and ready, leaving at 8:45 to take Addison to school.

At about 8:58, driving down the street Addison's school is on, roughly two blocks up from the building, a girl on my left pulled out from a stop sign; apparently unaware that I was coming down the road, and despite my horn blaring, swerving, and general bitch-panic, there was no way to prevent hitting her.

I was instantly pissed and defensive. Partially because I think these days, being defensive is a natural reaction in these situations, and partially because being ticked off allows us to ignore the fact that we are, as adults, scared shitless. No one likes that feeling-- it's too vulnerable, a little embarrassing, and we tend to cover it up by being defensive and angry. Even to the most mild-mannered person, I think it's easier to be confrontational with a stranger we feel has wronged us than to be vulnerable and say "hey! You scared the crap out of me! I might cry soon!"

I checked on my kids, verified that everyone was okay, and pulled the van off to the side of the road. I grabbed my insurance card out of the glove compartment and opened the door. My defenses melted away when I got out of the car. The girl who caused the accident was already near tears, looked only about 18 or 19, and was already profusely apologetic. My maternal instincts kicked in and I felt like hugging her (I refrained.) We exchanged insurance information, but I called my insurance company to find out whether or not I had to call the police-- my instinct said yes, since there were no witnesses to the accident and I wanted someone to document that this accident wasn't my fault, but I think I just felt guilty calling the cops on this poor girl and wanted to be able to say "but Ron told me to!" Which is more or less what I did.

While I waited for the policeman to arrive, I texted my mom and my mother-in-law, informing them of the basic details ("was in accident, everyone ok, not my fault, police coming, will call later"). I called my husband and broke the news to him, letting him know I'd call after I had more information. I called Addison's school and let them know that she'd be late and why. I couldn't stand just sitting along the side of the road, idle... I even updated my facebook status.

Mr. Police came, took both of our statements, and started filling out his report. He took one look at the other driver's car and stated that it was good we had called, because her car could not be legally driven and had to be towed (Kia owners-- beware of Honda Odyssey's. Apparently minivans are the new schoolyard bullies. A sleeper cell of brutes.) After filling out his paperwork, he came and explained to me that although he doesn't determine fault, technically I had the right-of-way and the other driver could legally be cited for failing to remain at a stop until all traffic had passed. He told me he didn't HAVE to ticket her, but then said, in these words, "do you need to see me citing her for her traffic violation?"

What an odd question! I suppose if she had come out of her car, hurling insults, trying to throw blame on me and being generally belligerent, I could see maybe wanting to see her get a ticket. But under these circumstances? My answer was "if you don't HAVE to cite her, please don't. I don't want to make anything more difficult." He was satisfied with this, let me know that her violation would still be in the report, regardless, but said he wouldn't issue a ticket. He took some pictures of both cars, gave us copies of the information he had collected from both of us, and gave us instructions to call our insurance companies right away. The other driver took one last opportunity to apologize to me... what came out of my mouth (and I couldn't believe, considering it sounded very cliche, but it fit the moment) was "hey, it's ok... accidents happen."

Addison was 45 minutes late for school, but since I had called the school to let them know what happened, I fortunately didn't have to explain to the teachers, in front of 15 other 4 year olds, that we had just been in an accident. They were both very sweet, helped me get Addison quietly settled into the craft they were working on, and I left. I went to the mall and got a coffee, found an empty table in the food court (pretty easy right at 10 a.m.), busied Owen with a donut, and called my insurance company. Ron was very helpful and I got all of that stuff squared away pretty quickly. I called my husband, told him everything that had transpired, and then had a brief period of about 15 minutes of peace in which to drink my coffee and force the stress and emotions of the morning into the back of my psyche, to be dealt with later.

As I arrived back at the school, I got a call from the vet saying that Zoey's surgery "went well" but that she had a minor complication; apparently, a blood vessel had gotten nicked or somehow ended up bleeding, and the vet had to extend the incision in order to repair it. He assured me that the incision was still pretty small and should heal just as well, told me she was already standing up and wagging her tail, and that I could come get her between 4 and 6:30. So at least THAT was relatively uncomplicated.

I picked up Addison and was told that she had a "minor weeping period" but "came out of it ok" and that they chalked it up to stress from the morning. She was fine when I got her, though, and was excited to go to ballet-- we went home, got her dressed, and I dropped her off. While she was there, I did my house-sitting duties to kill time; again, being idle gives me too much time to think and too much time to let the stress sink in. I picked her up, listened to her stories of what they did, and took her home. We got home, ate lunch, and I sent both kids to their respective rooms for nap time. I went about cleaning everything up from the morning and kept myself busy until my mother-in-law (who had volunteered to sit with the kids while I picked up the dog) arrived-- I talked to her for awhile about the day's events and went to get my poor puppy.

When my husband got home, he made grumpy faces at the van's front bumper for a few minutes and then came in to change. The plan had been for all of us to drive to Carlisle for dinner, where my father-in-law was "working" at Bruster's as a fundraiser for the middle school he works at. After much deliberating, I opted to stay home to keep an eye on Zoey-- although mostly well, she was still groggy and sore and I didn't feel right throwing her in her crate and ditching her. I spent much of the time everyone was gone reading, cleaning up, and wishing I was getting ice cream.

It wasn't until very late this evening that I finally let everything soak in. I still don't 100% feel like I'm grasping all of what happened today; I tend to compartmentalize things, assuming that either they will take care of themselves, or I will tend to them later. I'm hoping this car situation is a little of column A, a little of column B... I've done all that I can, and now it's in the insurance companies' hands. All I can do is be thankful this day is over, grateful that no one was hurt, and hopeful that tomorrow will go a LOT more smoothly.

(*excerpt from "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" by Judith Viorst. Reference just in case someone decides to randomly sue me.)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Addison's First Sales Pitch

Hello there, good to see you again! Addison Church here, and have I got a product for you!

I just started my 4-year-old year at nursery school, and we are selling the super-awesome "KidStuff Coupon Savings Book." It's only $25, and HALF of that money goes directly to our school! The proceeds from this coupon book will go toward the cost of supplies, activities, and other fun stuff for me and my classmates! The first time I looked through this amazing coupon book, I couldn't believe all of the incredible deals!

And it's not just kid stuff-- there are deals in this book for every member of the family, right down to your pets! Groceries, clothing, sports gear, activities, attractions... you name it, it's in this book! In today's tough economy, everyone can use coupons, am I right? Of course I am! Almost all of the coupons don't expire until December 2012... just THINK of all the money you can save between now and then!
Orders and money are due by October 10, so if you want to take advantage of this incredible offer (and you might just be crazy if you don't!) contact my Mommy at, or talk to the sales representative (aka friend or family member of mine) who forwarded this link to you. Act fast-- this is a deal you don't want to miss!

Here are just a few examples of some of the great deals offered in this coupon book:

Weis Markets- $5 off a $50 purchase (there are 4 of these!!)
Kohls- $10 off a $50 purchase
Rite Aid- $5 off a $25 purchase
Bon-Ton- $20 off a $75 purchase
Sears- $10 off a $50 purchase
Dicks Sporting Goods- $10 off a $50 purchase
Payless Shoes- 10% off your purchase
Childrens Place- 20% off a $50 or more purchase
Bed Bath and Beyond- 20% off a single item
Michaels- 40% off a single item (there are 2!)
Gymboree- 15% off of your purchase
Claires- $5 off a $20 purchase
Barnes & Noble- 15% off a single item
New York & Co.- $25 off a $75 purchase
FYE- 20% off 1 CD or DVD
Carters- 20% off a $40 or more purchase
Oshkosh- same as Carters
Build-a-Bear- $5 off a $25 purchase
LL Bean- $10 off a $50 purchase
Irvings Shoes- $5 off a $25 purchase
Regal Cinemas- $2 off Adult admission
Hershey Park- $8 off regular admission (up to 4 people)
Dutch Wonderland- $2 off regular admission
Baltimore Aquarium- $3 off admission, OR free kids admission with purchase of adult admission
Friendly's- Free Kids meal; $5 off $25 purchase
Sonic- Buy 1 Sonic Burger, get 1 free; $.99 Cherry Limeade
Hosses- $2 off Kids Meal
YP- 50% off Stromboli; 50% off large cheese pizza
Auntie Anne's- free pretzel with pretzel and drink purchase; free pretzel with purchase of 2 pretzels
Isaacs- Free kids meal with adult sandwich/large salad purchase
Ritas Italian Ice- Buy one get one Italian Ice or Gelati
TGI Fridays- $5 off a $20 purchase; Free appetizer with $20 food purchase; free kids meal with adult entree purchase

If you would like to view a coupon book, we would be happy to get one to you to look at-- just please don't wait until the last minute! Thank you so much!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Slightly discouraging change of plans

So I started off the year with a list of 52 classic novels I wanted to read, one for each week. I did pretty well for awhile, then got a little behind, and now have more than half the list left and only about 4 months to complete it. So despite my stubbornness and unwillingness to accept defeat in anything, I've decided that I need to extend my deadline. It's not the books that defeated me-- it's my life!

The first hitch in the plan occurred in February, where Owen's constant ear infections lead to a bout of C. Diff, and when we finally got that cleared up, the ear infections were back. So in early April, he had tubes put in his ears. Life got pretty much back to normal, but I was about 2 months behind on my book list at this point.

Still, I thought maybe if I devoted ALL of my minimal free time to reading, I could get caught up. I made some progress, but in about mid-June, my recurrent insomnia reappeared. So now although I have tons of free time, most of it occurs between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m., and my comprehension of what I'm reading would be severely impaired.

If I didn't have two kids, I'd have probably gotten through that list by now. As it stands, I have unread Stephen King, Jen Lancaster, and Laurie Notaro books because when I DO have time to read, I focus on my list of classics. Putting off things that give you pleasure because you are too stubborn to let go of an unimportant deadline seems a little ridiculous, right? (and downright insulting to Jen-- I've had her book since May!)

So that's that. Keep checking back for my classics summaries, but my new "deadline" for my list is mid-2012. Mostly so that I can stay sane.

A little bit about the rest of it... the insomnia, which I've struggled with off and on since late high school, is the worst it's ever been. I have sleep onset insomnia, which means that I have difficulty falling asleep. Not just difficulty-- I'm wide awake some days at 4 a.m. It stinks. Fortunately, I have children that sleep in, so I don't have to get up most days until after 10, but it's still wreaking havoc on the rest of my life. Play dates are fewer and further between because I have no energy, I've grown pretty dependent on my morning cup(s) of coffee to get me going, and I haven't been to church for most of the summer. I'm not missing out on time with my kids, but I'm missing out on everything else, which is tough.

I've tried "forcing" myself to go to bed earlier, and for an entire week at the beach I was in bed by 1 a.m. most nights... the problem with this is that even if I CAN successfully fall asleep, I wake up every hour. I never quite get the deep sleep that I'm desperately in need of. So staying up until 3 or 4, though it seems self-defeating, is actually better for me right now because at least then I sleep deeply. I don't wake up entirely refreshed, but it's better than the alternative.

When I was pregnant with Owen, the doctor prescribed Ambien to help me sleep; it worked. Knocked me out cold in about half an hour. But what I didn't like is that if I needed to get up in the middle of the night, the room would be spinning and my thoughts would be completely incoherent, even to myself. I'd often have "blackout" periods in my memory from the time the medicine started kicking in. It's not a feeling I'm comfortable with at this point, having two kids that periodically need me in the middle of the night. Even with Dan at home, I need to be able to take care of my kids.

So my plan is to try taking melatonin supplements-- melatonin is the hormone released by your body to help you fall asleep. If taken at the same time each evening, it should help regulate my sleeping/waking cycles and hopefully get me back on track. It might also make me groggy in the morning, but I'm already going through that so I'm not too concerned about that side effect :) With Addison going back to school and me needing to get up at 8 a.m. 4 days a week, ignoring my insomnia and wishing it away isn't an option anymore. Despite my reluctance to take anything for it, now is the time to try. And if it doesn't work, I may need to do something stronger, like taking the Ambien again. But I'm trying to start slowly.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Book 18- "Gone With the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell

After listening to my friend Beth rave about how much she enjoyed reading "Gone With the Wind," I thought I'd give it a whirl... it's one of the longest books on my list, and I figured there was no time like the present to get through one of the longer ones.

It. Was. AMAZING. And this from a girl who tries to avoid reading anything in which war is a central theme, because I somehow manage to find the theme of "life during a time of war" both boring AND upsetting. I averaged about 250 pages per night (a feat I am proud of, although struggling with insomnia gave me plenty of time to read...) but only read it about every 3rd night, despite my best intentions. So it took me almost two weeks to finish.

"Gone With the Wind" focuses on the life of Scarlett O'Hara, a girl born in Georgia to an Irishman and a true Southern gentlewoman. Scarlett takes more after her father than her mother-- she is headstrong, driven, and bossy, speaking her mind and doing more or less whatever she wants. She has all of the marriage-aged men in the county at her fingertips and leads all of them on, but the only one she has any real feelings for is a man named Ashley Wilkes. The story begins with a barbecue and ball at Ashley's family home, and when Scarlett discovers that it is also to celebrate Ashley's engagement to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton, Scarlett devises a plan to convince Ashley to run away with her and elope. Which doesn't go as planned, despite Ashley's declaration of love to her. To make Ashley jealous, Scarlett accepts a marriage proposal from Melanie's brother, Charles. The only one besides Scarlett and Ashley who knows the truth of the encounter is Rhett Butler, a man who was visiting and has a tarnished reputation.

After marrying Charles, Scarlett becomes pregnant but is quickly widowed-- the war has begun, and Charles died in camp of pneumonia before seeing any actual "action." Never having loved him in the first place, Scarlett is more upset about the fact that she has to wear mourning clothes, stay inside, skip parties, and worst of all must ignore the attention of all other men, despite being only seventeen. This last proves to be the hardest "rule" to follow; Scarlett moves to Atlanta to live with Melanie (who is alone, since Ashley has gone off to war) and the Hamilton's Aunt Pittypat. In Atlanta, Scarlett is pushed by social duty to become a nurse to wounded soldiers, and being surrounded by men finally becomes too difficult; at a rally to raise money for the hospital, Rhett Butler appears, and knowing the true nature of Scarlett's heart, he forces her out into the public's eye and starts the rumor mill going. Once everyone already thinks Scarlett has broken the proper mourning decorum, she feels freed and begins regularly attending social functions and flirting with men. This lifestyle doesn't last long, however, as Atlanta is taken by the Yankee army and Scarlett is sent back, driven by fear and poverty, to the plantation home in which she grew up. Ashley had made Scarlett promise she would take care of Melanie and his soon-to-be-born son, and she kept her promise, taking Melanie with her out of Atlanta immediately after she gave birth, though childbirth had put her near death and slowed Scarlett's trip considerably. Rhett had helped Scarlett by stealing a near-dead horse and a cart, but abandoned them as soon as he was sure Scarlett would find her way so that he could join the Confederate forces for a last stand.

It is here that Scarlett changes; with the slaves freed, there is no one to work the fields, with no cotton, there is no money, and everyone in the county is starving. Scarlett works the fields herself while also managing the household, scavenging for food, and attending to Melanie and her newborn son; it is here that she loses sight of what she thinks of as being proper and ladylike, and she swears to do whatever it takes to never go hungry again.

Time passes, the war is lost, and taxes are due on the house which Scarlett cannot afford to pay. She hears that Rhett is somehow wealthy and living in Atlanta, so she goes to find him, hoping he will loan her the tax money; she finds him in jail, suspected of stealing money from the government. He tells her he cannot give her any money, for fear that the new Yankee government will find where he has stashed his cash and take it all, and tells her that he fears he will be put to death as an example. Panicked, Scarlett runs into her sister's beau, Frank Kennedy, and puts a plan into action-- she lies to him, telling him that her sister is marrying someone else, and quickly begins flirting with him, trying to get him to turn his attentions to her. Her plan works and she is very quickly married; Rhett is released from prison and seems amused to find that she married yet another man that she doesn't love.

Scarlett strong-arms Frank in his business dealings, insisting that the customers at his store that owe credit must settle their balances; she also borrows money from Rhett to purchase a lumber mill and to everyone's horror, insists on running the mill herself. She is so cutthroat and successful that she pays the loan back to Rhett in full and also buys another mill and builds a saloon, all things that are "unseemly" and do much to turn the women in town against her. Later, after finding that Melanie and Ashley intend to move north to start over, Scarlett manipulates Melanie into convincing Ashley to move back to Atlanta and take over half of one of Scarlett's mills; he doesn't want to, but caves to the will of the two women. Thus, Scarlett has everything she thinks she wants; close proximity to Ashley and lots of available money.

Scarlett continues running the mills herself, despite having to drive through a bad section of town every day; despite everyone's protests, she continues doing this even when she is pregnant with Frank's daughter, and even after their daughter is born. Things take a turn when Scarlett is attacked by one of the men in the bad part of town; it is here that it is discovered that Frank and Ashley are part of the local Ku Klux Klan, and Scarlett only finds out because the men have gone out and killed the men responsible for her attack. Frank is shot and killed, leaving Scarlett once again a widow, and Ashley is shot but survives. Rhett saves the day; though everyone had looked down upon him for his dealings with the Yankee government, it is these connections that help keep everyone out of jail and safe from execution. Upon finding Scarlett a widow again, he proposes marriage, and despite her determination never to marry again, she accepts. This seals her reputation with the other women in town-- they all think that she has no morals, no sense of loyalty, and no one will befriend her, with the exception of Melanie.

Her marriage to Rhett and what happens thereafter makes up the last 200 or so pages of the book, and I will leave the ending alone-- I'm still struggling a little with how I feel about the book's ending, so I won't unravel it and spoil it here. But rest assured, the ending was well worth all the pages leading up to it.

Scarlett is such an interesting character-- it's hard to like her, knowing how little she cares about everyone but herself (her children included), but it's hard not to like her considering what she went through and how she pulled herself out of it. In our time, Scarlett would easily have been a ruthless CEO of a multi-billion dollar company; in her time her work ethic and determination made her an outcast. Despite her deplorable motivations behind her first two marriages (and even her third, really... she basically marries Rhett because he's rich and he likes her), it's hard to read how the other women tore her down for remarrying after being widowed, because in our time no one would give a widowed seventeen year old any grief for remarrying (although might raise an eyebrow for being married at seventeen in the first place.) I'm still not 100% sure, 1000+ pages later, whether I like Scarlett or hate her, but she was certainly an interesting character to follow.

I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who likes to read for pleasure; be warned, however, that it's length combined with the language of the time (and whole pages of spelled-out hard-to-understand talk from the slaves) make it a little bit of a labor of love to get through. But it is wholly worth the fight.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Book 17- "Dracula" by Bram Stoker

I’m a vampire book fan. One of my favorite Stephen King books is “Salem’s Lot,” I’ve read all of the Sookie Stackhouse books (the series “True Blood” on HBO is based on) and I even own and have read the “Twilight” series (which was ok. Not great, but ok.) So it made sense to me that in my desire to read classic novels, “Dracula” should be somewhere on that list.

And then I started to read it. About 35 pages in, I had to put it down and walk away… for 2 weeks. It wasn’t until I borrowed “Gone with the Wind” from my friend Beth that I firmly decided that before I could open the cover on that book, I had to finish “Dracula.”

Picking up where I left off was hard, but it turns out that if I had only read about 20 more pages initially, it would have drawn me in and taken hold. I finished the rest of the book in 2 days, to the sad neglect of my housework (but not my children. Let’s get that straight. They were both fed, dressed, and played with, despite my reading.)

“Dracula” is basically a story of assembled journals, letters, and telegrams—the whole story is told by several different people from different perspectives, but it’s not confusing to follow (as long as you take note to the name at the beginning of the chapter, so you know who is currently “speaking.”) It begins with the journal of Jonathan Harker, a solicitor (lawyer) from England who has traveled to the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania to conduct business with Count Dracula, who is purchasing a home in an area of England called Carfax. Upon arriving, Jonathan is slightly spooked by the behavior of the locals, all of whom act terrified when he mentions the man he has come to see, but he puts it out of his mind and actually enjoys Dracula’s company. It’s only when he realizes that he has no way of getting out of the castle and has become a prisoner that he gets annoyed, and only after being confronted with female vampires and the sight of Dracula crawling head-first down the side of the castle that he gets scared. Dracula has made it clear, without saying anything, that he intends to kill Jonathan, but fortunately Jonathan escapes, disappearing from the story for a few chapters.

Next, the story is picked up by Mina Murray’s journals and Lucy Westenra’s letters. Mina is Jonathan’s fiancĂ©, and Lucy is Mina’s best friend—Mina is concerned about not hearing from Jonathan for so long, comforting herself by spending time with her friend Lucy. They are in Whitby, a town near the ocean, and are present when a ship wrecks, the only person on board being the deceased captain. Shortly after this, Lucy sleepwalks out to the cemetery, and when Mina finds her, she has no memory of what happened, and only has two small wounds on her neck as an indication that anything happened at all. Lucy seems no worse for all of her night walking, and when word is sent that Jonathan has turned up at a sanitarium/hospital with brain fever, Mina leaves Lucy to be at her fiance’s side.

Lucy gets slowly worse; Dr. John Seward is called by her fiancĂ©, Arthur (Seward had also previously proposed to Lucy, and was heartbroken at her rejection) to figure out what is wrong with her. Discovering her unwell but with no known cause, he calls on his mentor, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, who comes to see her and seems immediately to be suspicious of a cause. He makes no mention of his suspicions to Dr. Seward, but after receiving blood transfusions from Van Helsing, Dr. Seward, Arthur, and Quincey Morris (a friend of Arthur and Seward’s, and yet another man who once proposed to Lucy) she continues getting sicker and eventually dies. Van Helsing finally confides in Seward about his belief that she was killed by a vampire; he proves this theory by taking all 3 of the other men to the cemetery, where they see Lucy the Vampire in action. Arthur drives a stake through her heart, killing the vampire, and Dr. Seward and Dr. Van Helsing cut off her head and stuff her mouth with garlic. Van Helsing then travels to meet Mina, to find out more about the sleepwalking incident he read about in Lucy’s diary; in meeting her, and reading her diary and Jonathan’s (from his time in Transylvania), Van Helsing makes the connection and all of the people involved pledge to find Dracula and kill him.

Throughout all of this time, Dr. Seward’s diary periodically mentions a patient, Mr. Renfield, who believes that by consuming life, he prolongs his own life. He eats a lot of flies and spiders, and at one point consumes several birds… raw. (Ew.) When Mina and Jonathan assemble all of the diaries, letters, and telegrams and put them all in order, they realize there is a connection between Renfield’s fits and moods and the movements of Dracula. Therefore, he becomes kind of a “weathervane,” if you will, of what Dracula is up to.

They begin carefully planning, determining where Dracula has made “homes” in the London area and destroying them. The men have decided at this point that Mina is to be kept out of it, for the sake of her safety; a disastrous plan, as she is currently keeping residence at Dr. Seward’s home, which is also the insane asylum where he works. As such, Dracula gains access to Mina by being invited into the building by Renfield, and manages to not only take blood from Mina, but also forces her to drink some of his blood, thereby connecting the two of them. Renfield, having served his purpose, had been killed by Dracula, but now Dracula can use his connection with Mina to keep tabs on his enemies. Problem (for him) is that the connection can also work in reverse; Dr. Van Helsing hypnotizes Mina just before sunrise and sunset every day to keep tabs on where Dracula is. And the hunt is on.

I thought a lot of the charm in this book came from the fact that it was told from all angles; I think it would have lost quite a bit in the telling if it only came from one person’s perspective, and would have lost the sense of being present with the characters had Stoker taken on the omnipresent-narrator perspective. It was all pretty easy to read; the only time I had trouble was when they were writing about conversations with people phonetically, because a really thick “peasant” English accent is difficult for me to understand when I hear it; to understand it written phonetically was almost impossible.

It was also fun to see all of the nuances from “modern” vampire books reflected in this early, and arguably primary, “invention” of vampire mythology. For example, the scene where Mina is forced to consume some of Dracula’s blood is directly reflected in “Salem’s Lot” by Stephen King, when Father Callahan is forced by Barlow (the vampire) to do the same. The bond shared between Mina and Dracula as a result is reflected by Sookie and Eric’s bond in the Charlaine Harris book series. Both “Salem’s Lot” and the Sookie Stackhouse books require that a vampire be invited into a residence before he/she can physically enter, and without such invitation going in would be impossible. Sadly (but not unexpectedly), I didn’t really see an inkling of “Twilight” reflected in “Dracula”… but really, who would expect to? Edward Cullen attends high school and glitters if he is caught in the sunlight… not exactly Dracula-esque.

So, though I’m still glad to be through it so that I can move onto “Gone with the Wind,” I am very glad that I finally read this book, and think that I will definitely read it again in the future.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Book 16- "Anne of Green Gables" by Lucy Maud Montgomery

This blog entry has been a long time coming-- I read this book almost a month ago, but time constraints have rendered me unable to post a blog entry about it until now. Luckily I take notes as I read (yeah, I know... nerdy) so all the details are still pretty fresh in my mind.

"Anne of Green Gables" starts out with an older-but-not-really-old brother and sister living on a farm who decide to adopt an orphaned boy to help out with the chores. When the brother, Matthew, goes to pick up the boy they "ordered" from the train station, he is confronted by a super talkative, imaginative young redheaded girl named Anne. Unsure of what to do, he decides to bring her home and let his sister, Marilla, break the news that there's been a mistake and they need to send Anne back to the orphanage.

Anne is crushed when she receives the news, because she instantly fell in love with Green Gables and the surrounding town of Avonlea. Marilla's heart slowly warms toward Anne, however, and they decide to keep her after all. Anne is a slow learner when it comes to manners and housework, as her imagination makes her very easily distracted, but she becomes a help and a companion to both Matthew and Marilla. She becomes best friends with the nearest girl to her home, Diana Barry, and begins school in the fall.

"Anne of Green Gables" follows Anne through childhood into early adulthood, focusing on her relationships with her adoptive "parents", her friendships with other children, and her slow "coming of age" despite her reluctance to grow up. The story is easy to read (although sometimes reading Anne's rambling dialogue gave me a headache, because I "heard" it in the voice of my equally loquacious 4 year old daughter...) and I finished it pretty quickly. I then mourned the fact that if I ever want to get through this reading list, I couldn't immediately purchase and read all of the sequels to "Anne of Green Gables"-- I took the edge off of my anguish by looking them up on Wikipedia and reading summaries, so that I can take some comfort in knowing what happens to Anne until I have the time to sit down and read all the stories from front to back.

Though "Anne of Green Gables" is largely considered a children's book, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read for all ages (in my opinion) and is a book that I can't wait to share with my daughter. I think when all is said and done, it will end up toward the top of my "favorite classics" list.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Book 15- "The Time Machine" by H. G. Wells

I've been kind of skirting around this one... part of my process of mixing books I've read as a child/teenager in evenly with books I've never read, to keep things interesting. "The Time Machine" is one that I read in middle school, and was eager to revisit... mid-June with 100,000 things going on seemed like a good time to read this short book.

"The Time Machine" begins with a group of men and an inventor/scientist discussing the possibility of time travel. The inventor, as it turns out, has been at work on building a time machine, and shows a model of his invention "disappearing" from the room, as proof that it has actually traveled through time. His guests basically think he's a nut, as he kind of anticipates, but he tells them that he will be travelling through time soon.

The following week, 2 of the same guests present the previous week return with a few others that did not see the model demonstration, and are surprised to discover that the inventor is not yet home. They have been instructed to begin eating, etc. without him, which they do. When he finally arrives, he is dirty, injured, wearing torn clothing, and famished-- he eats, cleans himself up, and then they all settle in to hear his story.

He has, as he explains, travelled roughly 800,000 years into the future, where he was stranded for several days. Upon his arrival, he was distracted by the native (though seemingly unintelligent) humans, and did not notice until it was too late that someone had hidden his machine in the base of a large statue. He frantically tries to retrieve it until he basically passes out-- when he wakes up/comes to, he decides to make the most of his situation and try to get to know the people and the customs of the future.

Over the next several days he discovers that the human species has separated into two new groups; the Eloi, who live above ground in blissful ignorance of any responsibility or danger, and the Morlocks, who live underground and produce basically everything for the Eloi, right down to the clothing they wear. The Eloi, however, are afraid of the Morlocks (who only come out at night), and are right to be afraid, as the time traveler finds out. After nearly dying several times, he manages to get into his time machine and escapes back to his own time.

The story is a simple one, easy to read and pretty short. I remembered most of the plot and characters from the first time I read it, which was years ago. What I don't remember is being horrified when I read it previously; not just at the prospect of what the human race had become in the future, but in imagining what I would do if I were the time traveler, knowing what the destiny of man was to be and powerless to change the future. It would be beyond depressing; the sense of helplessness and hopelessness would overwhelm me for sure, if I was ever in his (fictional) shoes.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Book 14- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." The opening line to this novel, "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens, is arguably one of the best known lines in all of literature, ever. It is also a pretty accurate way to describe the way I felt about reading it. Some days were good, some days were rough... it took me nearly two weeks to complete, not out of difficulty with the actual reading, but due to frustration with my inability to get engaged. Once I did, however, the rest of the book went quickly, much to my enjoyment.

"A Tale of Two Cities" is set during the French Revolution, a period in history I (and probably most of the people I know) know little about. The "Two Cities" referenced in the title are London and Paris, and the story constantly shifts back and forth between the two. The entire novel is separated into three parts, and it took the entire first part (admittedly the shortest section) and probably about 1/4 of the second part until I finally stopped dreading picking it up every day.

In the beginning, we are introduced to Mr. Lorry, a man who works at a famous bank in London, who has been sent to meet a woman and take her with him to "retrieve" her father, a French doctor recently released from prison. Dr. Manette, the prisoner, had been incarcerated without charge or trial for about 18 years, and has never met his daughter, Lucie; she had been brought up believing he was dead, and upon meeting him, devotes herself completely to taking care of him. He's a bit insane at this point, but Lucie slowly brings him to his right mind, and they find refuge back in London.

Later, we are introduced to Charles Darnay, another Frenchman-in-London, accused of being a spy. At his trial, Lucie Manette (who had met him briefly on her return trip to London with her father) is called as a witness to supposedly uphold the charges that he is a spy; she tells her story quite unwillingly. Finally, a man who looks nearly identical to Mr. Darnay, a lawyer by the name of Sydney Carton, convinces the jury that there is no solid evidence that Mr. Darnay is involved in anything, and that his own similarity to Mr. Darnay is proof that there is no way to be 100% sure Mr. Darnay was ever involved in anything. The jury buys it and Darnay is released. He later marries Lucie Manette, and they continue to live in London with her father.

While this is all going on, the French Revolution is beginning, and the story bounces back and forth between the Manette/Darnay's in London and the Defarge family and their townspeople in France. A selfish, oppressive ruler, Marquis St. Evremonde, is murdered in the name of the Revolution, and the town of Saint Antoine becomes a kind of epicenter for the Revolution, with the Defarge's at the helm. Eventually, word reaches Charles Darnay that an old, loyal associate of his has been imprisoned wrongfully in Paris and begs that he return to France to clear his name; it comes out, then, that Darnay is actually the nephew of the murdered Marquis and the rightful new Marquis St. Evremonde; with the political climate the way that it is, he is imprisoned as soon as he returns to Paris, and the fight for his own life begins.

The book didn't get as interesting to me until the storylines in France and in London finally began interweaving... it was frustrating to flip and flop between cities each chapter and keep track of two story lines and tons of characters without any association between them. The number of characters in this book was difficult for me as well; keeping track of everybody was hard, and if I had known how it would be from the beginning, I'd have taken notes. However, once the storylines finally started coming together, everything got easier to follow, characters included, and I finished the last 300 or so pages (of 434 total) in about 3 days. The first 100 or so pages took almost two weeks.

I wouldn't say that I "love" this book, but it's one that I'm really, really glad I read... the story ended up being a really good one, once I got more engaged with it, and the ending was amazing. The last line of the book, not as popular as the first, but still famous, now gives me goosebumps because I understand the context: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known." If you want to know what it really means, you should read the book ;)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Book 13- "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This is the second Nathaniel Hawthorne book on my list, and the second time I've read this particular book-- the first, not unexpectedly, was in high school. I really didn't enjoy it in high school and I thought that if I reread it as an adult, I would enjoy it more and gain more from reading it than I did the first time. I'm disappointed to admit that I have not found that to be the case.

My dislike of the book, however, has very little to do with the story itself-- the plot is engaging, it's very easy to be sympathetic to the protagonist, and I think the overall story teaches a good lesson (more related to the baby-daddy and to the husband's behaviors, not the main character, but more on that later); my problem with it lies in the fact that the Puritan religious structure, laws, and beliefs, which are an enormous part of the story, bother me to no end. It's like trying to watch a really good movie in a room where the light bulb is constantly buzzing and flickering-- something that can't be ignored and ultimately ruins a lot of the enjoyment that might have been.

"The Scarlet Letter" is introduced with a rather lengthy essay, "The Custom-House." It is in this essay that the narrator talks about his life, his work as a custom house surveyor, and his discovery of a historical account of a woman named Hester Prynne, who was the wearer of a distinctly embroidered scarlet letter "A". Though the essay provides a solid, more "believable" base for the story, it also is much longer than I feel an introduction needs to be, and is a little boring to plod through.

The story itself begins with Hester Prynne, clutching a newborn to her chest, leaving prison. Prynne, a married woman whose husband did not yet accompany her to the colony, has been charged and convicted of adultery. The leaders decided that she would have to wear a bright red letter "A" on her chest, as a sign to everyone, the rest of her life, that she is an adulterer. She quietly endures hours of public scrutiny, criticism, and calls to repent; she is also repeatedly implored to reveal the name of the man with whom she sinned-- she refuses. Present in the audience, unbeknownst to the townspeople, is her newly-arrived husband; instead of acknowledging his wife publicly, he pretends to be a stranger seeking a new home. When Hester returns to the prison, he claims to be a doctor and asks to see her, at which point he tells her she must promise to never reveal his identity or her connection to him. Having never loved him in the first place, she agrees, though she does not really want to be pulled in to the lie. She and her baby move into a cottage on the outskirts of the town, shunned by the town's inhabitants.

As years pass, Hester makes a living for herself doing delicate and intricate embroidery for the wealthier and more distinguished townspeople; she uses as little of the money she makes and uses the rest for charity. She dresses her daughter, Pearl, in bright colors; thus, Pearl becomes the physical embodiment of the scarlet letter and the sin that resulted in her birth. Hester's husband, meanwhile, has sworn to uncover the secret of Pearl's father and indeed has, and resolves to make life miserable for the man, though without ever revealing who he is or why he's doing it. The husband's revenge-seeking turns him into a really ugly, unlikeable person, and Pearl's father is left as a shell of a man, due to his inability/unwillingness to confess his sin and ask forgiveness. Over the course of many years, Hester seems to redeem herself in the eyes of the townspeople, and there is even talk of allowing her to remove the letter "A"; Hester, however, has never forgiven herself and never will. The book doesn't end happily, but doesn't end unhappily either; the ending is appropriate to the story and its characters.

Because my own religious beliefs contrast so heavily with the Puritan beliefs of the time, it's very difficult for me to endure this story. I am a firm believer that if a person truly repents and asks forgiveness for their sins, their sins will be forgiven; Hester is a prime example of a woman who fully repents from what she has done and desires the forgiveness of the Lord, but kind of refuses to accept the forgiveness she seeks. Then there's the fact that the religious leaders have judged her and punished her by forcing her to wear the scarlet letter for the rest of her life, constantly stopping in the street when she is near to make her an example of evil to the townspeople, and shunning both her and her daughter (arguably an innocent victim) from the town. Instead of accepting her in the church, when she goes, they persecute her again and again with their sermons, making her the symbol not only of adultery, but of all sin in general. I realize that this is a historical fiction, and that Hawthorne (not a Puritan supporter himself) was just trying to base his story on the reality of Puritan society and make it believable, but it makes it a really distasteful bite to swallow. How can someone proclaiming to be a man of God insist on judging anyone, rather than leaving judgement to God? It would actually be easier for me to read the story if Hester never repents of her sin than it is for me to read about her punishing herself, and allowing herself to be punished, for the rest of her life. At least that would give me a reason to dislike her a little bit. Instead, I think Hester needs a hug, and perhaps a Gibbs-like slap on the back of the head (NCIS reference anyone?......anyone?... ok.)

I know a lot of people would disagree with my opinion of this book; it wouldn't be taught in schools and hailed as Hawthorne's greatest work if everyone thought the way that I do. But I think that's a part of this exercise for me; discovering what I like and what I don't like, giving my opinion as fairly but as honestly as possible, and letting everyone make of it what they will. I don't endeavor to speak for everyone; just myself.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book 12- "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" by Anne Bronte

So I have accomplished my goal of reading at least one book by each of the Bronte sisters, and am thoroughly impressed with all of them. "Jane Eyre" was the subject of my last blog, "Wuthering Heights" was discussed earlier in the year, and now I bring you "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" by Anne Bronte.

This book is basically presented in three unofficial "parts"-- the first third of the book is written as a letter from Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law, the second third is the diary of a woman introduced in the first part, and the third third (hehe) is back to the letter by Markham. I thought it was a clever way to present the story, but have to admit that I thought the middle part was the easiest to read; perhaps because, presented in the voice of a woman, it was the most naturally written by Bronte.

The story is yet another love story (I apparently chose several 19th century English love stories... and I'm not hating it.) It begins with Mr. Markham's acquaintance with Mrs. Graham, the tenant of the abandoned Wildfell Hall. No one knows anything about her, and she is largely desirous to leave it that way; she does eventually open up to Markham as their relationship develops. The story that everyone believes when she moves to town is that she is a widow; you early on discover that this is not the case-- her husband is very much alive, and she has left him, taking their young son Arthur with her. Her real name is Helen Huntington, and she has assumed her mother's maiden name and kept her whereabouts secret in order to remain out of her husband's sight.

Eventually, a jealous former love interest of Markham's starts a rumor that Mrs. Graham's landlord is in fact the father of her child (when he is actually her brother, but no one knows that) and the increasing gossip forces Mrs. Graham (Huntington) to decide to leave. She gives Markham her diary in an effort to explain everything to him, imploring him to come back the next day.

The diary (the second third of the book) explains how she came to be Mrs. Huntington, despite the warnings of a few friends and her aunt who suggest that Mr. Huntington has a reputation for being a bit of a scoundrel. A year into their marriage, son Arthur has been born and Helen is realizing that people may have been right about her husband. He leaves for months at a time, comes home in bad shape physically and mentally, and has a tendency to be emotionally abusive toward his wife. Over several years, he develops a serious problem with alcohol and begins an affair with the wife of a close friend; when the affair is discovered by Helen, she does almost nothing, only declaring to her husband that he is free to do as he wishes, she doesn't love him anymore, she is only staying in his home for the sake of their son. However, when the husband of his mistress finds out about the affair two years later, the affair is ended, and Mr. Huntington leaves to spend several months in London. When he returns, he informs his wife that he has hired a governess for their son-- it is, in fact, his new mistress. This is the final straw for Helen, and with the help of her servant Rachel, she flees the home with Rachel and Arthur, moving in to the empty home formerly owned by her estranged and now deceased father, now owned by her brother, Frederick Lawrence.

The last third of the book returns to the present-- Markham has finished with the diary and returns it to Helen. He now realizes why she has refused his romantic advances, despite her love for him, and sees why she says she cannot marry anyone. She promises to send him a letter in six months, but tells him not to contact her until that time, and after a few weeks pass she leaves.

I won't give away the ending, but I was satisfied with the turn-out, I will give you that much. Another really good story by another Bronte sister.

I found her writing style to be slightly drier than that of her sisters, and a little more rambling in her descriptions; however, this being a pretty common writing "style" of the time, I don't hold it against her.

It's funny to me, however, that the book starts with an introduction by Bronte, in answer to the critics of the first edition of "Tenant"... apparently it was considered a pretty scandalous book at the time. Writing about drinking, affairs, and a wife leaving her husband was considered pretty incendiary, I suppose. It's just strange to think of now, when if a woman was subjected to the things Helen Huntington was subjected to by her husband, the general public would think her an idiot NOT to leave and take her son with her, and the law would very likely be on her side. I'm not generally very feministic in my views, but the difference between a woman's rights in the 19th century and now makes me want to high five all the key players in the Women's Rights movement (of which I wrote a lengthy research paper in 11th grade.)

And because this nice weather lends itself beautifully to sitting on my deck while my kids nap, reading and ignoring my housework, I will be writing a blog very shortly on my next book, "The Scarlet Letter." Likely in owl-print fleece pajama capris and a dirty t-shirt, since I'm actively avoiding doing the laundry.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Book 11- "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte

So I have to admit that the reason I jumped from "The Jungle Book" to "Jane Eyre" was twofold-- I felt like I didn't want to cop-out and read another short book to get "caught up" on my list, and I am interested in seeing the new movie adaptation of "Jane Eyre" starring Mia Wasikowska (who played Alice in the live action adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland.") I generally like to read a book before I see a movie based on the book (yeah, I'm one of those) so I chose this one next.

What I didn't expect was to finish this 593 page book in 2 1/2 days, staying up until at least 2 a.m. both nights. I shouldn't keep being surprised by how good some of these books are (they are, after all, classics) but this one drew me in from the beginning, and I enjoyed it immensely.

It reminded me a bit of "Rebecca" in certain ways-- mousy young girl falls in love with older man in a higher class than herself, only to discover he has a mysterious past. The only way I can think to describe the difference in the two books, though, is to say that in my opinion, "Rebecca" revolves more around the romantic relationship, whereas "Jane Eyre" revolves chiefly around Jane herself. The romance doesn't even surface until close to halfway through the book.

Jane Eyre was orphaned almost at birth and taken in by her mother's brother. Her mother's family had opposed her marriage to Jane's father due to the fact that he was of a lower class, so when Jane's uncle takes her in, his wife is none to pleased. The uncle then dies, after making his wife promise to raise Jane as her own child.

Jane spends 10 years in the care of her aunt, who does not, in fact, treat her as her own child, but instead treats her the same as she would a servant, without actually making her do work. She lets her own three children abuse Jane, and abuses her herself, until Jane finally fights back one day and is then locked in a dark, "haunted" room for hours. She has a panic attack and is ill for days, and the doctor suggests to Jane's aunt that she be sent away to school.

Jane is then transferred to the Lowood Institution, which is basically a boarding school/home for orphaned or abandoned girls. She lives there until she is 18, and after a rough start, learns to love the school, even teaching there for 2 years. When she is 18, though, she realizes that she wants to explore more of the outside world, and advertises for a position as a teacher. Her advertisement is answered by a woman looking for a governess for a 10 year old girl, and Jane is hired.

The girl is the ward of a rich man (he is supposedly the father, but doesn't really believe he is... the mother was a bit of a floozy. But she abandoned the girl in his care, and he took pity.) Jane loves her new home and her job, and eventually falls in love with the master/owner of the home, Mr. Rochester. He, too, falls in love with her (despite their 20 year age difference) and they decide to marry... which is where things go a bit awry.

Though there are about 200 pages of story left at this point, I'll end my summary there... I always have a hard time determining which bits of information are OK to share and which cross the line into "spoiler" territory. What I will say is that it is very worth reading the book, as it is pretty easy to read and is endlessly entertaining.

And if I do get the opportunity to see the latest adaptation of the book, I will try to remember to post a blog on that as well... if it follows closely enough to the book, you non-readers might save yourself hours of reading. (Bonus--the movie includes an actress named "Imogen Poots." Which is a giggle-fest.) But if you're a reader, I'd highly recommend "Jane Eyre." It drew me in and kept me interested, did not disappoint with the ending, and cemented my loyal adoration of the Bronte sisters (though I have yet to read a book by Anne-- perhaps that's next!)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Book 10- "The Jungle Book" by Rudyard Kipling

Apologies for my absence to my loyal readers-- Owen's illness has (*hopefully*) been resolved by having tubes put in his ears, but immediately after that I had to prepare for a trip to VA and Addison's 4th birthday party, so though I started reading this weeks ago, I only finished it yesterday.

Because I grew up with Disney, I assumed "The Jungle Book" was a story about a boy who grew up in the jungle, raised by singing animals. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Mowgli is only the main character in half of the short stories in this book (I didn't even know it was a book of short stories!!). Of the other stories, only one of them was familiar to me-- "Rikki-tikki-tavi."

The first three stories in the book, "Mowgli's Brothers," "Kaa's Hunting," and "Tiger! Tiger!" revolve around Mowgli. Mowgli is found wandering the jungle by a pack of wolves, who adopt him as one of their own cubs. Shere Khan, local lazy tiger, considered the boy his dinner and demanded his return; the wolves left the matter up to the wolf pack, who decide that the boy can be raised as a wolf. Shere Khan vows to kill Mowgli someday, and Mowgli's new wolf-mom vows that someday Mowgli will kill Khan (Seriously? Disney definitely left all the murder-y subtext out of the movie.) Throughout the three stories, Mowgli learns the laws of the jungle from Baloo the bear (although with significantly less "bear necessities" singing) and Bagheera the panther, is saved from monkeys by Kaa the snake, and is sent to live with humans. He is sent to live with humans because the new generation of the wolf pack have decided to reject the teenaged Mowgli, and the humans, though they accept him for awhile, eventually kick him out because they believe he is evil. He still manages to kill Shere Khan at long last, and returns to live in the jungle, although still as an outcast from the wolf pack.

After these 3 stories is "The White Seal," a story about a (you guessed it) white seal who is not content with his ancestral practice of beating the snot out of each other for beach "space" while a whole bunch of the young seals are herded off and slaughtered by men. The men are afraid of the white seal (Kotick) and do not want to kill him; however, he follows them and witnesses the slaughter and skinning of his friends, and vows to find a place without men where the seals can live peacefully. He embarks on his journey and eventually finds a place, but then has to convince all of the stubborn seals who actually like fighting over beach space and don't care about the massacres to follow him to the new beach. How does he do this? By beating the snot out of each and every one of the adult seals until they agree to follow him. Not sure why Disney didn't jump at this story.

Next is "Rikki Tikki Tavi," about a mongoose who takes up living with a colonial English family in the middle of nowhere. He saves the young boy in the family from a snake, which angers the cobras that live outside the house... they decide to kill the family to drive Rikki-Tikki away (seems like kind of a drastic measure to me.) Rikki fights the male cobra in the middle of the night, keeping him at bay until the man of the house gets his gun and shoots the cobra. This (obviously) angers the cobra's widow, who is then determined to kill everyone. Rikki smashes all of her eggs but one, and uses the one remaining egg as leverage to get her away from the family... his diversion works, but she escapes with the egg down into her hole. Rikki goes right down with her and after a few minutes, emerges and declares that she is gone and won't be coming back. No details are given as to what happened in the snake hole, but my guess isn't that he reasoned with her and convinced her to find a new place to live.

So far we've had a man raised by wolves, a bear, a panther, monkeys, several snakes, seals, and a mongoose... next we finally have elephants! "Toomai of the Elephants" is about a boy whose father is an elephant handler of sorts. Toomai wants to be an elephant handler/hunter himself, but is told that he can't be an elephant handler until he sees the elephants dance (which is the sarcastic-jerkface way of telling him "never".) One night, Toomai's elephant escapes from his pen, and allows Toomai to ride on his back as he goes miles and miles out into the jungle. Toomai realizes after awhile that hundreds of elephants have all gathered and are stomping around, "dancing." Toomai is basically too terrified for his life to pay much attention, but when he returns home and tells his story to all the adults, a ceremony is held in his honor and he is called "Toomai of the Elephants," and is told that he will have control/brotherhood with all the elephants in the jungle from that day on.

The last story is called "Her Majesty's Servants." Bored me to tears, so not much to report. Basically, a soldier overhears a conversation between a whole bunch of animals.

Overall, I thought the book was interesting. I was glad that it was broken into short stories, because I'm not sure how I'd have stayed as interested in novel-length versions of any of these stories by themselves. I can see why the children's versions of these stories are so different from this book-- almost every single story has some kind of murder/slaughter, which isn't exactly kid-friendly. My only complaint is that a lot of the stories lacked a little depth-- particularly the "White Seal" story. It just felt a little too narrative to me... I'm not sure how to describe it. I liked the stories about Mowgli the best, and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi... the others were just kind of "OK."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Book 9- "Phantom of the Opera" by Gaston Leroux

When I was talking to my Grandma about this book list the other day, I happened to mention that since I have thus far really enjoyed most of the books I've read, I'm becoming a little afraid that I'm inadvertently front-loading my reading choices, leaving myself to a very dreary, dry, slow-moving fall and winter. When I finished "Sleepy Hollow," I decided I would choose one of the books on my list that I had been kind of avoiding, due to my assumption that they wouldn't be as enjoyable as others might be. Which is how I ended up reading "Phantom of the Opera." Which just goes to show how little I know.

I chose "Phantom" because I assumed it would be long winded and dry. I
mean, with an author named "Gaston Leroux" I knew it was French, and I've never been interested in or impressed by anything French (sorry, France lovers.) I mean, sure, I realize it's a huge success and a very, VERY famous book / musical / movie / Halloween costume, but I still figured I'd be biting a bullet and getting a crappy book out of my way.


I felt justified in my decision through the prologue and the first few pages, which were pretty long winded and boring... but that was about it. I read the whole book in less than 24 hours, unable to put it down for more than an hour or two at a time before I'd pick it back up again. I read it the whole way through my kid's naps and well after everyone had gone to bed. When the battery on my Nook finally gave out two pages from the end of the story, I thought I was going to die (which, in my opinion, is the ONLY drawback to e-readers.)

"Phantom of the Opera" starts out in the Paris Opera House, which is supposedly haunted by the "Opera Ghost." All kinds of strange happenings are blamed on the Opera Ghost, and although everyone jokes about it, everyone kind of takes it seriously too. The managers of the Opera House are retiring and being replaced by two other managers, and during the farewell celebration for the departing managers, an employee is found hanging in one of the cellars. It is immediately blamed on the Opera Ghost, and the departing managers confide in the new managers that the Opera Ghost, or O.G., has left them notes in the past and that they actually abide by a list of rules he left for them. Most importantly, O.G. demands a monthly sum of money and insists that Box Five never be sold, so that he can use it at his discretion to watch the shows whenever he feels like it. The new managers disregard the list as a joke, determined to prove that O.G. does not exist.

The parallel plot line involves Christine Daae, an up-and-coming opera singer, and Vicomte Raoul de Chagny, childhood companion of Christine. Raoul is so far above Christine socially that a romantic relationship is considered an impossibility for them, but that does not change the fact that they are in love with one another, although neither one has yet admitted it. When Raoul goes to Christine's dressing room to confront her with his feelings, he is pulled into a whirlwind of strange events going on in her life. The most dramatic event is her interactions with "the Angel of Music," a being who sounds suspiciously similar to the Opera Ghost. Christine believes that her late father sent the Angel to her to teach her to sing better and help her succeed, and only too late realizes that she is in real danger, and that things are not as they seem.

The two plot lines come together pretty explosively during a performance in which the star of the show, a woman for whom Christine is the understudy, begins inexplicably croaking like a toad. During the commotion that ensues, a chandelier comes crashing down from the ceiling, killing a woman who was a guest of one of the new managers. The new managers, for their part, had defied O.G.'s demand to put Christine in as star that night, and had further aggravated him by watching the show from his "private" seats in Box Five. After this performance, the managers disbelief in the Opera Ghost is shaken, and Christine disappears for two weeks.

I think I'm going to end my summary there, about two-thirds of the way through the story... there's just too much to the ending that could be given away by going further. I'll just say that although there was a lot of things happening that I predicted/assumed, there were a lot of twists that I didn't expect, and by the end of the story I couldn't believe I had ever thought that it would be stuffy and uninteresting.

I would recommend this book to anyone, almost as much as I recommended "Rebecca"... I think it could appeal to almost any kind of reader, although I would probably classify it as a romance. Or maybe "romantic suspense." Whatever the genre, it's a book that I know I will read again, and is the first that makes me want to track down one of the movie versions. I'm kind of dying to see how well it does or doesn't translate to screenplay... it better be as awesome as the book, that's all I'm saying.

(And I'm really confused as to why the movie stills I've seen portray the "Phantom" with a mask that covers about 1/3 of his face... in the book, that would definitely not be enough. I guess the movies have to make him a heartthrob. Shame. Confused? Maybe you should read it......)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Book 8- "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving

So this is the second time I'm going to be struggling to put my thoughts into words. And it makes sense, really... this "book" was even shorter than Alice in Wonderland, at 27 pages (on my Nook). I'm not ashamed to admit I picked "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" this time because I am getting way behind on my reading, due to my son's illness, and thought I could squeeze this one in during nap time with no problem.

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," as most people know, is about Ichabod Crane, a school teacher living in a small, "haunted" town called Sleepy Hollow. The most famous ghost story told amongst the townspeople is of the Headless Horseman who supposedly rides around throughout the night and returns to the church cemetary in the morning. Most of the story is about Crane trying to woo local heiress Katrina Van Tassel, in competition with local eligible bachelor Brom Van Brunt. Eventually, Crane is rejected by Katrina, and on his way home from her house, he is scared by what he believes to be the Headless Horseman. It is later eluded to that the figure Crane saw was actually Van Brunt in disguise, but he is successful in scaring Crane away, as Crane is never seen in Sleepy Hollow again. It is later reported that he moved to New York and became a lawyer, but the townspeople insist on believing instead that he also haunts the town, a victim of the Headless Horseman.

I don't feel bad about "spoiling" the ending of this, as it is a very commonly known story... there are several children's book adaptations and movies of this book, and being that it's so short, it would be hard for me to summarize it without giving the ending away. I will say that, being so familiar with the tale through children's books and movies, the most surprising thing to me was that in my opinion, Ichabod Crane is a pretty unlikeable character; his interest in Katrina Van Tassel is purely financial, as he spends a lot of time fantasizing about all the food he'll eat and people he'll snub when he marries her and gains her riches, even though people treat him kindly and he has no reason to treat them so pompously. His thoughts and fantasies kind of take away some of his "underdog" likability and make him a completely different character, at least to me.

I did like Irving's descriptions of the town and its people... for instance, the description of Crane is as follows:

"He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield."

Some of Irving's descriptions were a bit too drawn out for my liking, but I did enjoy his word play and general language-- it made the book easy to read without dumbing it down too much.

Overall, it was worth reading, but if you've ever heard the story before, reading the book doesn't really give you any new information or different perspective. It's just a good story.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Pickles on a River

Ok, one more blurb and then I seriously am going to bed.

Addison is getting better at figuring things out in context. She can figure out the meaning of a word by listening to the rest of a sentence, and figure out what an item is by using clues on the wrapper/packaging/etc. She's usually pretty right, but the other day, she was WAY off...

We were at Bath and Body Works, getting a strong air freshener for Owen's room. I had to run to the food court bathroom to change Owen's diaper (for the 2nd time in 15 minutes) and while I was gone, Addison happened upon this candle:
(Sorry about all the white space-- I stole it from Google image search and am too tired / don't care enough to crop it.)

After looking at the picture, Addison sniffed the candle deeply, looked at her Daddy, and said,

"Mmmmmm. Smells like pickles on a river!"

Ahh. So proud.

The Story of Boon

Let me begin by apologizing once again that I am falling behind in my classics-reading quest. I have not forgotten; Owen has been sick since December and I am struggling to find free time. It was easier when he merely had bilateral ear infections-- that didn't affect our daily routine much. But now that he has a rash on his rear end that the doctor has us treating with both antifungal AND antibiotic ointments, as well as fluid behind his ear drums and a serious bacterial infection of his colon, it's safe to say that free time arrives sparingly, and is usually used to tend to the slightly more important matters of laundry, dishes, and feeding my children.

So today, instead of relating to my readers a synopsis / review of a book I have read, I am instead going to TELL a story.


**The Story of Boon**

Once upon a time, a boy named Owen was growing up in a relatively small, quiet town in Pennsylvania. He was a happy child (once his first 4 or so months had passed) and needed little more than his parents and his sister to keep him entertained. He was, however, stricken with a paralyzing fear of balloons. On strings, off strings, floating in the air, being tossed around from person to person-- all balloons caused Owen to scream and cower in terror. His parents had to be careful about where they were seated in restaurants, because if they ended up in a booth by balloons, there would be trouble.

Then, one day, Owen went to visit his friends Matthew and Andrew. While army-crawling around on the carpet, Owen happened upon a really exciting looking string. He chewed the string for awhile, then started to pull on it, wondering what was attached.

Lo and behold! It was a balloon! Owen tentatively jerked on the string, first just once, then repeatedly, excited at the bobbing and jumping of the not-so-scary-after-all balloon. He spent the rest of his visit solely with the balloon (Matthew and Andrew had to entertain themselves with Owen's big sister, Addison), and a new love was born.

When Owen arrived home, he discovered that the gold Green Bay Packers balloon, only a few days ago so terrifying, was still in the house (stowed away in the office.) He began to bring it everywhere. What a friend! What a toy! It cured every boo-boo and righted every wrong! Even made it acceptable to let your sissy dress you up!

Owen's family, tired of addressing the new friends as "Owen and his balloon", shortened it to "Owen-and-Boon", and Boon followed him everywhere. Boon was there when Owen laughed, and there when he cried...

...until one day, when Owen realized that Boon could be temporary. During a particularly vigorous moment of play, Owen popped Boon.

(*not pictured-- a completely baffled, sad looking Owen with a piece of shiny gold balloon still stuck to his lower lip, trying persistently to toss Boon back up into the air. Could not get to the camera fast enough.)

Realizing what a devastating loss this was, Mommy went out to the store the same night and brought home a new Boon for Owen.

Excited, Owen was determined not to waste a moment with this new Boon. He played with it in his exersaucer. He played with it while Mommy changed his diaper. He even leaned on Boon's cheerful companionship to help him endure his sissy's "crawling lessons."

With Boon's loving assistance, Owen even began to ENJOY crawling around upstairs!

Alas, Owen had overcome his crippling fear of balloons and realized that sometimes, friends can be found in the most unlikely of places. He also learned to keep his friends close by his side, and that there are better things to put in your mouth than balloons. Like bottles.

** THE END**