Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cranford Part Two

It's time for part two of the Cranford read-a-hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey. I loved this book! I think this is a great book to start with if you're not sure if you like reading classics in general or the Victorians specifically. It really was easy to read and entertaining.

I found it interesting to blog about this in two posts. In doing so, I realized the first half of the book was mostly funny, with lots of events to make you like the characters and laugh out loud. The second half focused on Miss Matty losing most of her money from a bad investment in a bank that goes under. It focuses on how the people of Cranford band together to help Miss Matty, even though many of them don't have much either. It was very sweet and touching. I also thought the solutions to her money problems were interesting, since most Victorian books that handle that issue focus on the young woman, and how she must marry or become a governess. That's about it. I like how she becomes a little entrepreneur for a while, even though it's not very genteel.

Overall, I felt that Cranford was really about community. All of these different people come together. I wonder if Gaskell was worried about losing that feeling of community as people began flocking to cities during the Industrial Revolution. It also made me thankful for the community my Grandma has in her neighborhood, which I compared to Cranford in my first post. They all keep an eye on each other and help each other out, and I know if something happened to her they would take care of her until my family got there. It's interesting though that at the same time, I have zero desire to get to know my neighbors and if it wasn't for the expense and yard work, I'd prefer to live where I don't have neighbors too close. I still enjoy reading about tight-knit communities though, and I am grateful to live in a city where I know we band together when it counts, such as after the Murrah Building bombing and the May 3, 1999 tornado. Just as the women in Cranford are happy to live there, I'm happy to be an Okie!

Gulliver's Travels Part Four

We're at the end of our Gulliver's Travels read-a-long hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey. If you missed out of the rest of the discussion, you can read about part one, part two, and part three before checking out part four below.

In part four, Gulliver travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms, who rational, talking horses. There is a mutiny on Gulliver's boat and the men decide to become pirates, but first they must get rid of Gulliver. When he first arrives on land, he meets the Yahoos, who are barbaric humans. He recognizes that they are human-like, but doesn't see himself as of the same species as them. When he meets the Houyhnhms, he imagines that the people who domesticated and trained these creatures must be infinitely rational and wise and can't wait to meet them. He soon discovers that there are no such humans, and the Houyhnhnms are the rulers here.

Here again Gulliver trades stories with the creatures he meets, telling them about England and they sharing their culture with him. The Houyhnhnms can't believe he's actually a rational creature capable of learning, much in the way that we would be shocked to discover a talking, rational horse. The Houynhnms are purely rational - no emotions rule their lands. They have no wars, no real problems except for the a occasional Yahoo, and they live to think. At first, this land seems wonderful, I always start wanting to live in such a place, a place without drama and stress. But as Gulliver continues living there, we discover there's also no love and true joy either. Gulliver doesn't see that and continues wanting to be a Houyhnhnm, but as a reader, we see that Swift isn't advocating for a strictly rational society. Would we really want to live in a world with arranged marriages made solely for the purpose of breeding the best children? To have strictly two children, and if another couple loses one of there kids and aren't able to conceive, to give your child to them and then have another for yourself? To have no real emotional attachment to anyone? Sometimes, such as after losing a loved one, we may be tempted to think that life would be better that way, but do I really wish I had never loved so that I might never feel pain?

Although most readers probably come to see that they wouldn't really want that kind of life, Gulliver does, and goes a little crazy upon finally returning home. He converses with his horses for at least four hours a day and can't stand to be too close to other humans, even his family. Clearly Swift isn't promoting that! Again, I think he's promoting moderation. Society needs a lot more rational thought, but at the same time you can't swing to far and remove common human decency and love from the equation. A purely rational focus can lead to things such as believing it's okay to kill people who are physically or mentally handicapped or simply people who aren't contributing enough to society.

Lest you think that part four is entirely heavy, there were a few quite funny bits. Swift really rails against lawyers and doctors in this section. About lawyers, he says their job is to argue that white is black and black is white. He provides an example of a neighbor who tries to lay claim to one of his cows. Gulliver says he can't argue that the cow is rightfully is and that the neighbor has no claim because the lawyers and judges would never go for that, so he must either pay the neighbor's lawyer to lose the case or argue that the cow actually belongs to the neighbor and that Gulliver wants to take it from him! He also says that once they've twisted something once, it's a precedent and is therefore easy to do in the future.

One last thing I found interesting about the Houyhnhnms is that they educate their males and females the same, and could not understand why we would not do so. "And my Master thought it monstrous in us to give the Females a difference Kind of Education from the Males, except in some Articles of D
Domestic Management; whereby, as he truly observed, one Half of our Natives were good for nothing but bringing Children into the World: And to trust the Care of their Children to such useless Animals, he said was yet a greater Instance of Brutality." Well said.

I hope you enjoyed reading along. I may have to start doing multiple posts for larger books. It made it easier to delve into everything I wanted to discuss instead of leaving half of the things out so as to not have never-ending posts. Of course, that would require more time, so that may not happen. We'll see!

P.S. If you subscribe to this blog in a RSS feed, I'm sorry if you got a nearly blank post earlier today. I was creating a few templates for upcoming posts and accidentally hit "publish post" instead of "save now." Look for the actual post on the Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence soon! Thank you!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ethan Frome

I've owned Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton since college but hadn't read it, despite loving The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. When I read Summer recently for the Classics Circuit, I remembered Ethan Frome and figured it was about time to read it. It's really short and I read it in one day, so I'm not sure why I waited so long to give it a try.

However, it's definitely not up to Wharton's usual par in my opinion. I noticed several people seemed to share that opinion during the Circuit. A lot of them attributed that to the book not being set in NYC like most of Wharton's books. Since I enjoyed Summer, which was also not set in NYC, I thought perhaps I would enjoy Ethan Frome as well. But, it just didn't have anything that grabbed me. I'm usually much more attached to Wharton's characters than I was here. I finished this a week ago, and now I can't remember anyone's name except Ethan's. I still remember Lily Bart and Newland Archer even though it's been years since I've read The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, whereas I doubt I'd remember Ethan's name if it wasn't the title!

Also, the book was depressing. Now, I think all of her other books are fairly depressing too, so that's not a deterrent, but since I didn't care about the characters, it was just depressing and boring instead of depressing and moving. I didn't hate or anything, I don't want to make you think that, it just wasn't Wharton's usual quality.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Three Musketeers vs. The Three Musketeers

Since I read The Three Musketeers for the Classics Circuit a few months ago, I decided to try out one of the movie versions. I knew going in the Disney version probably wasn't going to be the best. But with Keifer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, Tim Curry, Oliver Platt, and Chris O'Donnell, how could it not be awesome. :) Well, it was definitely entertaining. Especially Chris O'Donnell's hair. That hair sort of stole the show. And then Keifer and Charlie had '80s hockey hair. And of course the whole book was compressed into not even two hours of action. Milady ended up being saved and a lot of other things were changed from the book as well. It's definitely not the movie version to see to get the whole story or to try to pass an English test without reading the book. But for some reason, I still sort of enjoyed it. I realize that probably means there's something wrong with me, but it was fun as long as you didn't focus on the fact that it should be good. And there's the awesome song performed by Bryan Adams, Sting, and Rod Stewart, forming their own set of three musketeers to perform the awesomeness that is "All for Love". It's totally not my normal musical fare, but it's cheesiness cracks me up and again, I some how enjoy it.

This is book/movie number one for the Read the Book, See the Movie challenge hosted by C.B. at Ready When You Are, C.B. I'm participating in.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Too Much Happiness

Do you ever read a book and watch a movie, and then think, "Wow. I can never get those two hours back."? Um, yeah. That's how I felt after finishing Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. I've really tried to stop reading books I'm not enjoying, but for some reason I stuck with Too Much Happiness. Maybe it was because it was a collection of short stories, so each story was a small commitment and a new chance for enjoyment. But no. I didn't like any of them. And I don't really have anything to say about the collection. I didn't like the characters, the stories seemed very flat, I took a nap almost every time I picked it up. It won the Booker prize in 2009, so clearly others enjoyed it, but it just wasn't for me, and I didn't really see what was award winning about it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Autobiography/Memoir Challenge

I decided to enjoy another challenge! Bobbie at Til We Read Again is hosting an autobiography/memoir challenge. You have to read four biographies or memoirs from June 20 to September 20. I have several biographies on my TBR list, so I'm hoping to get those knocked out for this challenge. I tend to pass them over for fiction, so hopefully this will inspire me to actually read them.

Gulliver's Travels Part Three

Okay, I'm just a day late this time for part three of the Gulliver's Travels read-a-long hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey. I'm slowly catching up, but I've been bombarded with e-mails from former co-workers and friends about my job change and have had lots of fun things to do like take a drug test and preparing for the new job. But it was quite nice to take a break a rejoin Gulliver on his travels.

A lot of critics talk about about how part three doesn't fit with the rest of the book and is sort of seen as a problem section. It is different from the others, but I love this part. All of the other three sections focus on a specific group of people. In part three, Gulliver travels to several different places and meets a variety of different people groups. I remember being enthralled with this section the first time I read because I had no idea what would happen next. I also feel like some of the things in this chapter are really creative. Flying islands, people trying to turn excrement into food (again with the crudeness!), immortals, visits to the dead, there's a little something for everyone.

Everything about the island of Laputa vividly stuck in my mind from the first time I read it. I think that's partly because I could identify with the people there while at the same time identifying with Swift's satire of them. The people there are highly intelligent and focused. They prefer to spend their time in thought, to the point that they forget about more practical matters. They have to have flappers to hit their ears when they need to listen and their mouths when they need to speak. They get so focused on their thoughts that they forget to interact with people. As someone who sometimes does that, I thought that section was hilarious because it was so familiar! But at the same time, I realize that's really sad, and quickly grew frustrated with them as they can't focus on anything practical. I hate it when people can't bring things back to practical matters at some point, and they were actually rather irrational. Their houses were falling apart and they couldn't grow food. I think Swift is partly saying here that everything needs to be done in moderation. Anything pursued to the point of everything else falling apart can't be good.

Also, the image of the flying island being able to crash down on the lands below to end any rebellions the people were plotting was quite striking. As I mentioned in the discussion on part one, this signified Swift's views on how England treated Ireland at the time.

I also like reading about the crazy experiments the Royal Academy was doing in Lagado. I thought all of the experiments were funny, like the one I mentioned earlier about attempting to turn excrement back into food, trying to turn ice into gunpowder, and building houses from the roof down. The absurdity of it all was amusing. But then I read that the Royal Society in Britain was doing similar types of research! Swift was mocking this reliance on experiments that clearly don't make any sense.

Finally, I enjoyed reading about the Struldbrugs and Gulliver's reaction to them. I've never wanted to have immortal life, and have never understood the desire in others. It was interesting to watch Gulliver go from excitement at the thought of meeting such educated and wise people to seeing the tragedy that is their lives. By the end, he actually wants to take a few back to England to use a reason for why we should not fear death.

I'll leave it at that and hope that some of these stories have inspired you to give Gulliver's Travels a try if you haven't read it before.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Gulliver's Travels Part Two

Well, it's almost time for part 3 of theGulliver's Travels read-a-long hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey and I'm just now writing about part one. I've had a crazy time personally, with both my husband and I looking for and accepting new jobs. I just turned in my resignation today and ugh, is that not a fun thing to do. I'm very excited about my new job though. However, all of the job searching, applying, interviewing, portfolio preparing, and stress has put a big dent into both my reading and blogging time. I hope to be a little more consistent soon, although settling into a new job will probably eat into some of that time too, especially since I will now have a longer commute. I'll be working downtown though, so I'm actually excited about that transition.

Anyway, on to Gulliver's Travels. Part two has Gulliver travelling to Brobdingnang, the land of the giants. It's a foil to the first part, so Gulliver goes from feeling like a giant to feeling like a Honey I Shrunk the Kids tiny person. It's interesting because he never changes, but others' perspective of him changes, which leads to a change in his own perspective.

The scene that always sticks with me from this section is rather crude. Gulliver is describing on of the giant women. He describes seeing a woman breast feeding with her six foot breast. Seeing the breast was so disgusting to him because he could see all of the imperfections and it just looked monstrous. I think it sticks with you because it's such a vivid image, and it's unexpected. Gulliver then goes on to say that it makes him think about his normal English ladies, and how they appeal beautiful because they are proportionate to him and therefore he can't spot all the tiny flaws in their skin for example, whereas the giants skin looks completely uneven, spotted with holes, and they smell gross. He then reflects on the fact that he found the Lillputians to be infinitely beautiful, probably because they were so small compared to him he couldn't see any flaws clearly. It's all about perspective. That also applies to how people treat him, with the Lilliputians viewing him as a weapon and the Brobdingnagians thinking he's a circus sideshow.

My favorite part of this section, however, is more political. Gulliver describes the politics and history of England, proud and boastful of his magnificent empire. The king of Brobdingnag thinks is laughable, at first because of his size and then because of his descriptions. After describing everything, Gulliver expects the king to be impressed, but instead he has several great quotes, including this one: "You have clearly proved that Ignorance, Idleness, and Vice are the proper Ingredients for qualifying a Legislator. That Laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied by those whose Interest and Abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them."

Um, how perfectly does that describe modern day America? America was still a colony at the time Swift wrote, and yet he nails it right on the head. Those are statements that are unfortunately true throughout history, through (probably) every country. Even those this is a negative example, this is one of the things I love most about reading. It's seeing how similar we are all, regardless of time and place. I also love reading about our differences, but the examples of sameness reminds me that we're all people. The Irish and English, the Protestants and the Catholics, the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians, they're all people.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cranford Part One

It's time for part one of the Cranford read-a-hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey. I've heard lots of things about Cranford and Elizabeth Gaskell's other works, but have never actually read anything by her. Ryan took one look at the cover of my copy and said, "What is that? Why are you reading something so boring?" I said, "It's Judi Dench! DAME Judi Dench! It's clearly going to be awesome." But I have to admit, I was a little nervous. A book about bunch of old ladies in a little bitty town gossiping? I'm wasn't sure how exciting this book would be.
The good news is that I love it! It's hilarious. The narrator cracks me up, as do all the ladies. They're quite entertaining. And Gaskell's writing style feels modern, more like you're reading a historical fiction novel than an actual novel from history if you know what I mean. The one time she used a term I wasn't familiar with, she defined it! It certainly wasn't what I was expecting from a Victorian novel, especially since she worked for Dickens and praises him in the opening chapter. That's actually a pretty funny scene, with two characters duking it out over Dickens vs. Samuel Johnson.

The book also starts out with an image of a cow dressed in grey flannel. It was trapped and removed most of it's hair and couldn't keep warm, so they dressed it in grey flannel. I keep picturing that and cracking up. My parents went a little crazy a few years ago and bought some land and some animals and have a few cows, so I keep thinking about driving up to their house and seeing a cow just standing there eating grass, wearing her flannel. And trying to imagine getting the cow to get into the flannel? Pretty funny.

I also liked it when the book talked about the ladies' views on eating oranges. They love them, but don't feel like they should eat them in front of others because the best way to eat them is basically just to suck on them, which is horribly messy and unladylike. I do the same thing! And I hate eating them for that reason. It was interesting to think about people thinking the same thing back in the 1840s.

Finally, I'm getting an extra kick out of this book because my Grandma totally lives in Cranford. She may live in a suburban neighborhood and not a tiny English village, but it's totally like Cranford. There's a bunch of older ladies (and a few men) who sit around and gossip and are all up in each other's business and know everything about what's going on. My Grandma had to get a new roof recently, and all the neighbors kept coming and spying on the workers and letting them know they were watching, like some sort of septuagenarian mafia. And my Grandma's a little bit particular, just like Miss Jenkyns, although not nearly so uptight! So, the book makes me think of her and that makes it a little bit more fun. If you're participating in the read-a-long, I hope you're enjoying it as much as I am!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gulliver's Travels Part 1

I'm very excited about part one of the Gulliver's Travels read-a-long hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey. Gulliver's Travels is one of my all-time favorite books. I first read it in college, then again while working on my Master's. At that time, I actually decided to focus on it and some of Swift's political writings for my thesis and did a done of research, but then decided to just do the test option instead of a thesis since I'd already written an undergrad thesis. I haven't read it since then, so I thought it would be nice to reread it while not in research mode.

If you haven't read it before, part 1 is the part you're probably familiar with anyway. It features Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians, the little people who think he's a giant. What surprised me so much the first time I read this is that it's not a kid's book at all, so it's weird to me that the story somehow has been turned in that. If that's your perception of Gulliver's Travels, you need to read the actual book. It's a satire about politics and while their are many references to early eighteenth century politics and relations between Ireland and England, many of the overall comments are relevant today.

As Gulliver watches these tiny people fight over things such as the proper way to break an egg or the height of their shoe, he laughs at them and their wars and power struggles and basks in his own superiority. But Swift wants us to think about how we're like the little people. I'm sure God sometimes can't believe the stupid things we humans fight about and laughs at our power struggles when He is clearly so much more powerful than we could ever hope to be.

He also notes that essentially the Lilliputians and Blefuscans are the same, and it's silly that they're fighting each other and trying to take over the other. The same thing was happening with Ireland and England at the time. Swift was born to English parents but was raised in Ireland, so he was right in the middle of the fighting and was a case in point that the English had no right to try to take over the Irish or feel superior to them in anyway. Then of course even within Ireland you had religious fighting between the Catholics and the Protestants, causing yet more problems.

And yet Swift didn't just sit by and suggest everyone sing kumbaya. He wrote highly satirical and offensive pamphlets, letters, and essays to stir up the Irish to throw off the shackles of the English and for the English to realize they should leave the Irish alone. He wanted to get people to the point where they could all leave each other alone. I think this is something a lot of pacifists miss. They tend to think that if they stop fighting, others will stop too. And while that may work in some instances, in many, it doesn't. Trying to get terrorists to stop fighting by leaving them alone doesn't work. Both parties have to be willing to stop before this works. I think that's what Swift was trying to do with this section. I think he demonstrated this when he had Gulliver lift all of the enemy ships of Blefuscu out of the water, showing them they didn't have the power to overtake Lilliput. Then when the emperor of Lilliput wanted to take that opportunity to turn Blefuscu into basically a province of Lilliput, Gulliver convinces him otherwise and helps orchestrate a peace agreement between the two.

I'm probably making this sound rather boring, aren't I? Well, Gulliver's Travels is quite funny. Even when you miss some of the references to things of the time period, there are plenty of things you will get. And Gulliver pees on her Imperial Majesty's palace to put out a fire. That's pretty funny. And gross and crude. Apparently dirty and body fluid related humor just never go out of style. There's also the part made famous in the kid's version, with the tiny people tying the giant Gulliver down, which is pretty funny. And parts 2, 3, and 4 all see Gulliver traveling to new and exciting places, so make sure to follow along for the rest of the read-a-long or check out the book for yourself. For more thoughts on part 1, remember to go to A Literary Odyssey.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Hand That First Held Mine

I loved The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, so I was quite excited to hear about Maggie O'Farrell's newest book, The Hand That First Held Mine. In both of these two books I feel like O'Farrell does a great job of developing characters while still having a great plot. The book flap hints at a mystery that will be unfolded, but the main focus is on the characters. Even once the mystery is revealed, it's more about how it impacts the characters than the mystery itself.
In The Hand That First Held Mine, the story goes back and forth between Lexie's story in the 1950s and Elina and Ted's story in modern day London. Inevitably, the stories end up colliding, but she crafts both of them beautifully separately. What fascinated me most was how Lexie was so independent and free and much of her story focused on her dating and her career, while Elina is trapped at home with a baby. It turned the stereotype of the 50s on its head, and I enjoyed that. Elina also reinforced my desire to not have kids, although I don't think that was O'Farrell's point. She describes the never ending cycle of cleaning, laundry, and feeding in vivid detail though, not shying away from stories about exploding baby poop that somehow ends up all over the walls. I know from some of my friends with kids that this actually happens.
There is a lot of build up before we even know there is a mystery to unravel, but O'Farrell's storytelling is enrapturing even when she's describing everyday life. Or maybe that's why she is enrapturing, because she captures everyday life so well. I could clearly picture the characters and rooted for some and hated others, so by the end I really cared how they would react to everything they've learned.
O'Farrell has a few earlier books as well, and I can't wait to read those too.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Last Song

I know that Nicholas Sparks' books have become predictable and are overly saccharine. But the guy still knows how to write a love story, and I still enjoy his books. Although I felt a little silly reading the mass market paperback version of The Last Song with Miley Cyrus on the cover. And the fact that it seems like the movie was lined up before the book even came out. But inspite of that, I did enjoy the book. It made for a good, lazy Memorial Day read.

The Last Song is about a 17-year-old girl falling in love and dealing with her relationship with her dad, who left the family three years ago and whom she now has to spend her summer with. It's funny to me that when I was in junior high and high school and read about teenagers falling in love, even if they had just graduated high school, silly. Who actually falls in love at that age, I remember wondering, despite the fact that my still very happily married parents met and started dating in high school. But I just assumed that wasn't realistic anymore. I fully expected to go to college, have some fun, and then maybe during my junior year fall in love. Instead I met my husband on the second day of school, when we were both just 18. And now we've been together for nearly 10 years, and married for nearly 6. So now when I read a story of two teenagers who just graduated from high school falling in love, I don't scoff anymore, and instead I remember falling in love with my husband. And that's why I enjoyed The Last Song.