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.