Saturday, August 29, 2015

"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (again)

I dearly love this book.  Or, more like, I dearly love the characters within this book.  Rereading this is like going to visit friends.  Those tend to be my favorite kinds of books, so it's no wonder this is one of my top ten novels ever.  In fact, this is one of those rare books that, whenever I see a used copy at the thrift store or library book sale, I buy it so that I have a spare to give away to some book-loving friend when the opportunity arises.  I've done that three times, I think.  So far!

This is the first time I've read this since 2012, when I read it twice back-to-back.  This time through, I read it oh-so-slowly, savoring every morsel.  All the historical details, the gentle humor, the slow-simmering romance, the character growth -- I drank it in small sips so it would last as long as possible.

This book is not Great Literature.  It is, however, heartwarming, and sometimes thought-provoking.  The characters love books the way I do.  The details about life during WWII in England, especially Guernsey, fascinate me.  

I suppose I should briefly tell you the plot.  Miss Juliet Ashton, London author, gets a letter from Mr. Dawsey Adams, Guernsey farmer.  Dawsey bought a used copy of essays by Charles Lamb that used to be Juliet's, and her name and address were inside, so he wrote to ask if she knew of Lamb ever wrote more essays, because he loved them.  By exchanging letters with Dawsey, Juliet learns what life was like on the island of Guernsey during WWII, which has only just ended.  The Germans occupied the island, and life was very hard there for years, but Dawsey and his friends kept up their spirits partly by forming a reading club.  Juliet is soon corresponding with lots of people on the island, with the idea of writing a book about their experiences during the occupation.  The book is told almost entirely through letters and telegrams between lots of different characters, though there's a bit at the end that's an entry into a notebook, which I wish was also written as a letter, just for consistency, but oh well.

When I posted a snippet of this earlier this month, I realized I was overdue for a reread and picked it up again.  Also, several people asked about the book's content, as they'd heard various reports about it.  So I'll report on that a bit more than I usually do.  There is more bad language in it than I'd remembered, including a few instances of God's name being taken in vain.  The language level is consistent with what you'd read it a book written in the '40s -- curse words, not scatological language, in other words.  There's also a character who has a child out of wedlock, which is never addressed by the good characters as being wrong.  There's a very minor negative character who disapproves of everything and everybody and considers it "her Christian duty" to reprimand people for things like making friends with Germans, which could be considered a negative portrayal of Christianity, though I consider it a negative portrayal of bad Christianity.  And yes, there are two homosexual characters, one in London and one on Guernsey.  The fact that they are gay is mentioned a few times, primarily to explain why one of them isn't marrying another character.  There's a line about another character inquiring if he has "a touch of the old Oscar Wilde" (p. 19), too.

Particularly Good Bits:

That's what I love about reading:  one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book.  It's geometrically progressive -- all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment (p. 11-12).

I don't believe he is aware of it, but Dawsey has a rare gift for persuasion -- he never asks for anything for himself, so everyone is eager to do what he asks for others (p. 37).

I don't believe that after reading such a fine writer as Emily Bronte, I will be happy to read again Miss Amanda Gillyflower's Ill-Used by Candlelight.  Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books (p. 53).

Sorrow has rushed over the world like the waters of the Deluge, and it will take time to recede.  But already, there are small islands of -- hope?  Happiness?  Something like them, at any rate (p. 104).

Not even the Germans could ruin the sea (p. 105).

I don't know what ails Adelaide Addison.  Isola says she is a blight because she likes being a blight -- it gives her a sense of destiny (p. 113).

...I sometimes think I prefer suitors in books rather than right in front of me.  How awful, backward, cowardly, and mentally warped that will be if it turns out to be true (p. 121).

Isola exaggerates, but only enough to enjoy herself (p. 129).

Sidney, in these past two or three years, I have become better at writing than living -- and think what you do to my writing.  On the page, I'm perfectly charming, but that's just a trick I learned.  It has nothing to do with me (p. 160).

Dawsey is dark and wiry, and his face has a quiet, watchful look about it -- until he smiles (p. 161). 

This obsession with dignity can ruin your life if you let it (p. 274).

If This was a Movie, I would Rate it:  PG-13 for profanity, description of life in a concentration camp, and other war-related themes of violence and loss.  

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Hamlet 101

Today's Top Ten Tuesday topic, as set forth by The Broke and the Bookish, is "Top Ten Books That Would Be On Your Syllabus If You Taught _______ 101."

As I gear up for the Hamlet read-along I'm planning to host beginning Oct. 1, I've been thinking and reading extra much about my beloved play.  I did get to help teach Hamlet for a college course I assisted with while I was doing an internship my senior year, and I wish I had known about some of these back then, because they would have been very helpful.  However, with the exception of the play itself and selections from one book, I encountered all of these after college.

If I was going to actually teach Hamlet 101, here's what the reading list would look like:

1.  Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare.  I don't exactly have a favorite edition, but this version from Barnes and Noble is probably the one I'm going to use during the read-along.  Obviously, we would begin the semester by reading the play itself, and probably watching Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film version too.

2.  John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet by Richard L. Sterne.  This is a little-known masterpiece.  Sir John Gielgud played Hamlet on stage more often than any other actor (I think he still holds the record), and then in the 1960s he directed Richard Burton in the role for Broadway.  One of the minor actors smuggled a tape recorder (it filled a whole suitcase!) into rehearsals and recorded the amazing, invaluable insights that Gielgud passed along.  He then revealed his actions to all involved, and got their blessing to transcribe the tapes and publish a book.  Gielgud's knowledge of this play is staggering, and I cannot do without this book.  For my fictitious class, we would then watch the recording of Burton as Hamlet from this production after reading this book.  Really, we could spend the whole semester on just these two books and films.

3.  Will in the World:  How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt.  Really, this would be required reading for any class involving Shakespeare I would teach.  It's a meticulously researched look at the world Shakespeare grew up in and how it influenced his growth as a person and as a playwright.  The discussions of hidden Catholicism in a militantly Protestant England are especially enlightening when it comes to the treatment and use of religion in Hamlet.

4.  Hamlet in Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt.  This explores in detail the beliefs about purgatory during Shakespeare's time and how he uses them in Hamlet as a plot device and a metaphor.  It does get a trifle deep at times, so not one I'd recommend to someone not avidly studying Hamlet.

5.  Hamlet:  Poem Unlimited by Harold Bloom.  This small volume helped me understand at last that I love the play, but not Hamlet himself.  I do like Hamlet, I'm terribly fond of him, but I actually don't love him, and I'm at last okay with that.

6.  Shakespeare's Restless World by Neil MacGregor.  I would probably only have my students read selections from it, the parts pertaining to Hamlet, though they could read more if they so desired, of course.  (But, being college students, they'd make me happy if they just read the required readings.)

As part of my class, I would require that my students read one retelling of Hamlet and write a report on what they liked about its differences and similarities between the retelling they read and the play itself.  Here are four I would recommend, though of course there are many others:

7.  An Antic Disposition by Alan Gordon.  Based more on the original story of Denmark's Prince Amleth than on Shakespeare's play.

8.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard.  Looks at the play from behind the scenes, as it were.  I'd let students either watch the movie version or read the play.

9.  Shakespeare's Hamlet:  The Manga Edition by Adam Sexton.  A masterful use of anime-style artwork to bring the characters to life.  A lot of it has a film noir feel to it, all stark angles and shadows.

10.  Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike.  This looks at the relationship between Hamlet's mother and uncle from several different angles, using different names from various eras for them as they go through different stages in life.

There you have it!  If you're interested in learning more about my Hamlet read-along, read this post from last week for more info.  I'm sure that during the read-along, I'll be referring to the first six books I listed here, but I promise they won't be required reading!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

"Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck

I hate this book.  It's sad, it's depressing, it's basically pointless.  I read it in high school and hated it, and when I re-read it this week, I hated it even more.  I have come to the conclusion that Steinbeck was an unhappy man, and that he enjoyed being so.  He seems to have delighted in creating miserable characters, sticking them in hopeless situations, and then watching them squirm.  This strikes me as cruel.  He deliberately creates worlds where the only choices are bad ones, where kindness and innocence are stomped upon, where there is no possibility for a change for the better.  That is not good writing -- in fact, it smacks of laziness.  I recently read a wonderful blog post called "Why the Hunger Games Needs Yellow Boots," and I have concluded that John Steinbeck's books needed yellow boots.  This one certainly did.

Of Mice and Men is about two drifting farm hands, George and Lennie, during America's Great Depression.  They get work on a ranch baling alfalfa, and George tries to keep the others there from learning about the trouble Lennie has gotten into in the past.  Lennie is feeble-minded, but a brutishly strong giant.  He loves soft things, like mice and puppies, but has a tendency to accidentally kill them.  Nothing good can possibly happen in this book, there is no uplifting lesson to be learned, and all told, I find it dreadful.

There is only one reason why I re-read this book, and why I read it all the way through to the end instead of chucking it back in the library bag after a few pages.  That reason is named Sawyer.

(Josh Holloway as James "Sawyer" Ford on Lost)

Yes, I re-read a book I hate because of how much I love a fictional character.  I'm a sad, strange little woman, I expect.  But it's the truth.  Sawyer reads the book while in prison during one of Lost's flashback sequences, and the book itself is referenced or discussed several times throughout the show.  One of these years, I'm going to embark on a quest to read all the books that Sawyer reads throughout the series, but I'm not really feeling up to that yet. 

Anyway, at one point in the show, Sawyer said that his favorite author is Steinbeck, and while he may have been lying (Sawyer is a consummate liar, after all), I take that statement at face value because I find it revelatory.  From what I know about Steinbeck's novels, they are about miserable, lonely, dysfunctional people.  What would draw a character I love so much to books like that?  Well, possibly the fact that he himself is miserable, lonely, and dysfunctional, for starters.  

As I read this, I kept trying to imagine Sawyer reading it.  In prison, isolated not by choice this time.  Would he have identified with George, the drifter trying to protect and care for the simpleminded giant, Lennie?  At the time, I think he would have scoffed at George for being soft, for making the mistake of letting himself care about someone who could do nothing for him.  But I like to think that, subconsciously, Sawyer would have understood, maybe even wished for a devoted friend.  

Later, on the island, I see echoes of George and Lennie in the way Sawyer interacts with Hurley.  Hurley, like Lennie, is large physically, but almost childlike in his kindness and innocence.  He is just about the only character who is nice to Sawyer throughout the first season.  Sawyer, like George, repeatedly says hurtful things to his only friend, then feels kinda sorta bad about it.  Sawyer, like George, is a drifter, a dreamer, and a pragmatist.  But unlike George, Sawyer has options.  There are plenty of yellow boots on the island.  Again and again, Sawyer has opportunities to grow, to change, to make good decisions or bad, to learn.

I can see why Sawyer the con artist might have been drawn to Steinbeck's books.  I hope that later in life, though, he saw them for the contrived exercises in misery I find them to be, and found a new favorite author.  Even Dickens would be a more cheerful choice.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for lots of bad language, discussions of whorehouses, and innuendo.

This is my 24th book read and reviewed for the Classics Club.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Hobbits and Hamlet: Coming Soon to a Precipice Near You

I've got two blog events coming up in the next two months, and it's time to start talking about them, I expect.

First up is my third annual Tolkien Blog Party of Special Magnificence, running September 22-28 as usual.  I'm starting to work on lining up prizes and figuring out games and such.  Visit this page to find the buttons and banners you can use on your own blogs.

Second is the read-along of Hamlet:  Prince of Denmark that I'll be hosting beginning on October 1st.  It'll work just like my previous read-alongs, with one post for each scene, every 2 or 3 days.  Whether you're a Shakespeare junkie like me or have never read one of the Bard's plays (or never read Hamlet), you're welcome to join me as we delve into my favorite play and figure out some of what's going on inside it.  I'll be asking for guest posts in another post next month some time -- specifically if anyone has a favorite movie version and would like to post about that, so keep that in mind if you're interested.  Here are a couple more buttons for that read-along if you'd like to help spread the word:

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"Rowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest" by Nancy Springer

I picked this up at the library because, hey, who wouldn't want to read a story about Robin Hood having a daughter?  The back told me that it was a story of a girl named Rosemary whose mother dies, so she cuts off her hair, dresses as a boy, calls herself Rowan, and sets off to find her famous father, whom she's never met.  That sounded really fun, and I couldn't wait for her to have adventures with all the Robin Hood characters I love so well.

And that's sorta what I got, except only Robin Hood is in the story much, and the rest of his merry men only show up in a couple of scenes.  Rowan/Rosemary is smart and courageous, but her mother was a "woodwife," basically a witch, and so is Rowan.  Although there wasn't much "love your mother earth" sort of stuff, it had much more of a fantasy feel than I was expecting.  So while this is an okay book, it wasn't what I was expecting, which left me a little disappointed.  However, it was fast-paced and fun.  And I believe this is the beginning of a series.

But I think I'll stick with the movie Princess of Thieves (2001) when I want stories about Robin Hood and his daughter. 

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for mentioning menstruation, developing breasts, and a girl being uncomfortable when a man urinates nearby (he thinks she's a boy).

Monday, August 17, 2015

On the Train -- Inkling Explorations for August

The theme for Heidi Peterson's Inkling Explorations link-up this month is:  "A scene happening on/at/around a train or train station."  I have decided to share a passage from near the opening of one of my favorite books, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.  It's an epistolary novel set just after WWII has ended, and this is part of a letter from the protagonist, Juliet Ashton, to a friend:

Night-time train travel is wonderful again!  No standing in the corridors for hours, no being shunted off for a troop train to pass, and above all, no black-out curtains.  All the windows we passed were lighted, and I could snoop once more.  I missed it so terribly during the war.  I felt as if we had all turned into moles scuttling along in our separate tunnels.  I don't consider myself a real peeper -- they go in for bedrooms, but it's families in sitting rooms or kitchens that thrill me.  I can imagine their entire lives from a glimpse of bookshelves, or desks, or lit candles, or bright sofa cushions (p. 13-14).

That's the passage that first made me feel like I could be friends with Juliet.  Because I do exactly the same thing when I'm riding in a car past houses at night -- I look in windows and see what the rooms inside are like and imagine what the people inside must be like based on that scrap of their world that I've seen.  Juliet is also a writer, and perhaps that's a writerly proclivity?  I don't know.  But that passage in TGLAPPPS has always stuck in my mind as a perfect description of one of my own habits.

If you want to know more about this book, and why I love it, you can read my full review here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood" by Howard Pyle

Oh, how I wish I'd read this book when I was younger!  Not that I didn't love and appreciate it now, because I did, but because I could have enjoyed it so many times by now.  

It took me rather a long time to read this because it was so delightful, I didn't want it to end.  And, to be truthful, I did not read the epilogue.  When I was young, maybe under ten, I made a vow never to read the end of a Robin Hood story that ended with him dying.  That way I can always think of him still merrily having bold adventures somewhere in the wide world.  And so, I never have.  I only know he dies at the end of many retellings because the one I was reading when I made that vow had a chapter called "The Death of Robin Hood," and I couldn't bear to read it.  

So imagine my joy when the epilogue of this book began with these words:  "And now, dear friend -- you who have journeyed with me in all these merry doings, -- I will not bid you follow me further, but will drop your hand here with a "good den," if you wish it" (p 319).  Pyle himself acknowledged that people like me won't want to read this part, and he readily excuses us from doing so.  What an obliging person!

Okay, but anyway, I loved this book.  Dearly.  It is, at the moment, my favorite retelling -- even surpassing the Henry Gilbert, which I read so often in my youth.  I might even have to rearrange my list of favorite books so this can be probably in the top ten. 

This of course is a pretty basic retelling of Robin Hood's adventures, though I was surprised that Maid Marian is really not in it at all.  Robin mentions her once or twice in a vague way, but she never appears at all.  However, Little John and Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet and Will Stutely and Alan a Dale are all here.  And the Sheriff of Nottingham is the main antagonist.  Guy of Gisborne only shows up at the tail end in one chapter, and is swiftly dispatched.  And Prince John isn't around at all -- for most of the book, King Henry and Queen Eleanor are on the throne, and then at the very end, King Henry dies and King Richard arrives.  It isn't until after the main book ends that Robin goes crusading, unlike many versions that have him coming home from the wars and becoming an outlaw then.

I especially love the characterization of Robin Hood.  As King Henry said toward the beginning, "He is a saucy, rebellious varlet, yet, I am fain to own, a right merry soul withal" (p. 32).  He is a cheerful, happy man, not given to brooding even when he accidentally kills a man and has to go into hiding at the very beginning of the book.  He is repentant of that killing, and mentions several times how it gives him sorrow, but overall, he's happy-go-lucky.  As it says elsewhere, "it took but little to tickle Robin's heart into merriment" (p. 222-23).  Doesn't he sound fun to hang out with?

I have lots of favorite lines, so I'm going to share many of them here to show you the book's delightful, joyous flavor, which is much of what makes me love it.

Particularly Good Bits:

As for mine host, he knew how to keep a still tongue in his head, and to swallow his words before they passed his teeth, for he knew very well which side of his bread was spread with butter, for Robin and his band were the best of customers, and paid their scores without having them chalked up behind the door (p. 26).

"Hold, friend!" cried Robin to the Miller; whereupon he turned slowly, with the weight of the bag upon his shoulder, and looked at each in turn all bewildered, for though a good stout man his wits did not skip like roasting chestnuts (p. 119).

Now happenings so come upon us in this world that the serious things of this world become so mixed up with the merry things that our life is all of a jumble of black and white, as it were, like the boards of checkered black and white upon which country folk play draughts at the inn beside the blazing fire of a winter's night (p. 123).

So passed the seasons then, so pass they now, and so they will pass in time to come, whilst we come and go like leaves of the tree that fall and are soon forgotten (p. 174).

"Gaffer Swanthold speaks truly when he saith, 'Better a crust with content than honey with a sour heart" (p. 208).

If This Was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for mild violence.  

This is my 23rd book read and reviewed for The Classics Club.  I'm almost halfway done with my challenge!

Because I'm spending a year reading about Robin Hood, I treated myself to something special back in May:  a handmade Robin Hood-themed bookmark!  I got it from the Etsy shop BookNiche and I like it a whole lot.  Do check out their shop if you like thong bookmarks!  There are nearly a hundred of them in stock right now, all different and all nifty.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Most-Read Authors

This week's theme from The Broke and the Bookish is "Top Ten Authors I've Read The Most Books From."  I've decided to list only authors I've read primarily as an adult, as otherwise my list would be entirely overrun by the likes of Ann M. Martin, Beverly Cleary, Franklin W. Dixon, Lois Gladys Leppard, and Marguerite Henry.

I'm listing these in alphabetical order by last name because for some of them I don't have an exact count on how many of their books I've read.

Jane Austen

I've read her six major novels, plus some of her juvenilia, Lady Susan and what there is of The Watsons and Sanditon.  My favorites are Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey.  I like Austen for her caustic wit, shrewd observations of human nature, and fully realized characters.

Raymond Chandler

Chandler is my absolute favorite author, so it's no surprise I've read all 7 1/2 of his novels (the 1/2 is cuz he never completed Poodle Springs, but Robert B. Parker did an entertaining job finishing it) and many of his short stories and essays.  I don't exactly have a favorite of his books, though I'm very fond of The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake, and Farewell, My Lovely.  I like Chandler for his surprising descriptions, acerbic dialog, and brisk pacing.

A. Conan Doyle

Of course by now you know I'm a devoted Sherlockian.  I read the entire canon in 12 months not long ago, but I'd read nearly all of it many times before.  I've also read The White Company, which is the only non-Holmes book of Doyle's I've read so far.  My favorite Holmes adventure is The Hound of the Baskervilles, and I also dearly love "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" and "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" and many of the other short stories.  I like Doyle for creating the coolest detective and chronicler ever and for his inscrutable but logical plots.

Ernest Hemingway

I almost didn't put Hemingway on here, but then I counted up how many of his books I've read and realized that I've read 6 1/2 of his books (Garden of Eden is unfinished) and all of his short stories, plus a good many of his essays and articles, so he belongs firmly on this list.  My favorites of his are The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast, and I'm quite fond of his Nick Adams stories too.  I like Hemingway for his terseness, his attention to detail, and his ability to make me understand characters who are very different from me.

Jan Karon

Reading Karon's books about Mitford is a little like making a visit home for me.  Why?  Because she set Mitford in the mountains of North Carolina and patterned parts of it after the town of Blowing Rock.  My family moved to NC's foothills when I was 12, and Blowing Rock quickly became one of our favorite places to visit, so much so that when Cowboy and I got married, we honeymooned there.  I haven't read the last few of her books, though I own all of them and look forward to beginning the series over again one of these days.  I've read the first six or seven, and am very fond of them.  I like Karon for her warm humor, quirky characters, and heartwarming storytelling.  

Laurie R. King

I've read all of King's novels of suspense featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes (my favorite is The Beekeeper's Apprentice), all of her Kate Martinelli mysteries (my favorite is To Play the Fool), several of her stand-alone novels (my favorite is Keeping Watch), and the first of her Stuyvesant & Grey books.  In fact, there are only 2 of her published novels I haven't read yet, and I'm kind of holding off on them so I have something to look forward to, other than her upcoming releases.  I like King for her strong female characters, exciting mysteries, and especially for her excellent characterization of Sherlock Holmes.

L. M. Montgomery

I've read all 8 of her Anne of Green Gables books numerous times, her Emily of New Moon series, and I'm currently reading a bunch of her short stories.  My favorites are Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Windy Poplars.  I like Montgomery for her happy endings, fanciful characters, and beautiful descriptions.

Patrick O'Brian

I have read all 20 of Patrick O'Brian's novels about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin's adventures in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.  I also have his unfinished 21st book in the series, but I'm kind of saving it for when I reread the whole series.  I like O'Brian for the way he immerses me in a world I would otherwise never visit, and for the complex and endearing characters he created.

J.K. Rowling

I have, of course, read all the Harry Potter books.  And the book of stories by Beedle the Bard.  My favorite is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hands-down.  I like Rowling for her deft wordplay, humorous dialog, and ability to communicate hard truths simply and kindly.

Rex Stout

I'm not even sure how many I have read of Stout's mysteries featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.  I know I've read 16 of the books I own, plus probably 6 or 8 more from the library over the years.  I've also read a couple of his non-Nero Wolfe mysteries, which were nice, but it's the characters of Archie and Nero that keep me coming back for more.  I like Stout for his snappy dialog, twisty mysteries, and memorable characters.