Thursday, January 15, 2015


“It felt very good to have him walking beside her. Good like rest and quiet, like something you could live without but you needed anyway. That you had to learn how to miss, and then you'd never stop missing it.”

It isn't often that contemporary literature touches my soul, but Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead" novels (Gilead and Home) have certainly done that.  When I heard that another novel set in the small Iowa town was to be released last October, I knew immediately that I would have to read it.  Not only does it take us back to a world of simple beauty and intense faith, it also provides us with the history of a woman who has lingered on the edge the story and only hinted at her true depth of character.

The Plot:

This is the story of Lila, the wife of Reverand John Ames whose story is told in Gilead.  As a young child, she was taken away from a neglectful home by a drifter named Doll.  Raised on the road, in constant search of work, shelter, and food, Lila's childhood and youth was rough and broken yet there were many good/happy memories as well.

After Lila becomes and adult and she and Doll are separated, she finds herself in even darker circumstances.  Hell bent on escaping it, Lila leaves St. Louis and eventually finds herself on the outskirts of the small Iowa town of Gilead.  It is there that she meets Rev. Ames, who seems to offer her a chance at peace, safety, and love.  But trust has never been a luxury that Lila could afford, and not a day goes by that she doesn't have to choose between staying in the quiet town or searching for freedom out on the road.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

Ever since I read Gilead, I have been dying to know more about Lila.  She played an interesting role in both of Robinson's novels whether it was her quiet devotion to Rev. Ames or the sympathy she seemed to have with Jack Boughton.  I think Robinson satisfied every longing I had with this one.

I have always delighted in how Robinson portrays the beauty of grace and the Christian faith.  As with the other two novels, we get to see grace played out in the life of one of the characters, but in a completely different way.  Rev. Ames is the man who has been secure in his faith for a long time, Jack Boughton is the man who is running from the faith of his father, and Lila discovers grace for the first time and slowly learns to embrace it.  She is someone who has never been offered true rest, quiet, and safety.  Rev. Ames offers it to her, demanding no explanations, no guarantees, and no apologies.  I think it is a beautiful picture of the life that Christ offers us.  He gives us love and grace regardless of our past.

But though Robinson portrays the beauty of God's grace, she doesn't ignore the difficulties we can have with reconciling our faith with our lives.  Though her childhood was by no means easy, it is obvious that Lila has a deep affection for the people she knew in her youth.  As she learns more about Rev. Ames' faith, she learns that her friends may not have been "saved" and this is something she can't bear to think about.  Trying to balance what we believe with what we actually experience in life is quite possibly the hardest part of being a Christian.  Robinson does a wonderful job of showing us that we can allow ourselves to question our faith.  To not shy away from the hard questions but to ask them and wrestle with them.

As always, Robinson's prose is simply stunning.  I will say that the format of this book took some getting used too.  Rather than being a letter or novel by an educated person, it is the disjointed thoughts and feelings of a woman who has not received as much education.  Time skips around and events don't really follow each other like normal.  But it makes sense for the character and becomes easier to follow as you go along.

This is certainly a fitting addition to the "Gilead" series.  Though I think I will always love and identify with Gilead the most, the raw beauty of this one touched me and dealt with a lot of my own thoughts and struggles from the past couple of years.  Do yourself a favor and pick this one up.      

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Happy Birthday To:

Hugh Lofting
January 14, 1886

"That's what you ought to do. Be an animal–doctor. Give the silly people up—if they haven't brains enough to see you're the best doctor in the world."

-from The Story of Doctor Dolittle

Friday, January 2, 2015

Back to the Classics 2015

I had a great time participating in the Back to the Classics challenge in 2014 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.  It was a great way to knock a lot of books off my TBR list.  I also love the sens of community it brings and getting to read the reviews of other bloggers.  I'm signing up for the 2015 challenge, though I will not be reading book from every category like last year.  My goal is to read nine classics (published before 1965), and below are the books I have selected:

20th Century Classic - A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (1924)
19th Century Classic - Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (1876)
Classic by a Woman Author - The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
Classic in Translation - Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957)
A Very Long Classic Novel - Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (800+ pages, 1839)
Classic Novella My Antonia by Willa Cather (230 pages, 1918)
Classic with a Person's Name in the Title - Therese Raquin by Emile Zola (1867)
Classic Nonfiction - A Moveable Feast by Earnest Hemingway (1964)
Classic Children's Book - At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald (1871)

If you are interested in taking part in this challenge, head on over to Books and Chocolate to sign up.  It's a great way to add some classics to your diet!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Welcome 2015

I say it ever year, but I can't believe we are entering a brand new year.  It seems like only yesterday I was making plans for what to read in 2014.  I had an excellent year in reading, though I'm afraid my posting over the last few months may not reflect it.  I read 26 books in all and completed 2 challenges (Back to the Classics 2014 and the 2014 Shakespeare Reading Challenge).  Here is a ranking of my favorite reads for 2014:

Honorable Mention: Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.  This is a story that touches you to your core.  Tess Durbeyfield is probably the most real character in all of the stories I read this year.  She is sad, beautiful, strong, vulnerable, and brave.  She is a victim of her times and yet in the end she manages to rise above it all.  This isn't a story that will leave you smiling, but it also won't leave you the same.

#5: Night by Elie Wiesel.  This is another story that will change you.  Wiesel's account of his family's experience in the Holocaust is painful, horrifying, and raw.  Watching these people be systematically stripped of their humanity is difficult, but it is necessary.  The ultimate tragedy would be for us to turn away from theses victims' stories and to forget what atrocities the human race is capable of.

#4: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.  This was my second Agatha Christie novel and there is no disputing that she is one of the best (if not the best) crime writer ever.  While the stories happen in the most peaceful and idyllic of settings, they are filled with a suspense that is almost palpable.  This particular story is fast paced and intriguing, and the ending (though a little convenient) is one you won't see coming.

#3: The Black Count by Tom Reiss.  This story of Alexandre Dumas' father and the inspiration for characters like the Count of Monte Cristo was spectacular.  I was hooked from the very beginning and I learned so much.  It covers not only the story of General Dumas' life, but also slavery and race relations in 18th century France as well as one of the best overall accounts of the French Revolution that I have ever read.  It's a shame that it took so long for this story to be told.

#2: Richard III by William Shakespeare.  Of all of the Shakespeare plays that I have read, this one stands out as my overall favorite.  It has a gripping story, immortal lines, and one of literature's best non-heroes.  Richard is one of the most intriguing characters I have ever come across and you can certainly see his influence in our own modern storytelling.  If you don't read any other Shakespeare history play, make it this one.

#1: Lila by Marilynne Robinson.  Of all of the modern writers that I have read, none has touched me quite like Marilynne Robinson.  This is the third book in her Gilead series and it was everything that I hoped it would be.  We get a look at the past of the series' most intriguing character, and we see how love and grace given freely can change a person's life forever.

Yes, 2014 was a terrific year in my reading life and I am so excited for what I'm going to read in 2015.  Here is a look at what I have planned for the first part of this year:

- Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
- A Moveable Feast by Earnest Hemingway
- Howard's End is on the Landing by Susan Hill
- Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
- The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell
- Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
- A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
- Stardust by Neil Gaiman
- The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

What was your favorite read of 2014?  What big plans do you have for 2015?  Share with us.  And happy New Year!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Back to the Classics 2014: Round-Up

2014 is drawing to a close and it is time to start looking back over the books I read this year.  The bulk of my reading consisted of classics chosen specifically for the Back to the Classics 2014 challenge hosted by Karen at Books & Chocolate.  I completed all of the categories!  Here is what I read:

Required Categories

20th Century Classic - Joy in the Morning by P. G. Wodehouse
19th Century Classic - Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Classic by a Woman Author - Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Classic in Translation - Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
Classic About Way - Night by Elie Wiesel
Classic by an Author Who Is New to Me - The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Optional Categories

American Classic - Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Classic Mystery, Suspense, or Thriller - And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Historical Fiction Classic - Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott
Classic Adapted to a Movie or TV Series - The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
Movie Review of Film Based on Book in Category #4 - Enchanted April

This was a fantastic challenge and it certainly helped knock a lot of classics off my TBR list!  I don't know if I will read a book in every category again, but I certainly plan on participating in 2015.  Thanks, Karen for hosting!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mary Barton

“There is always a pleasure in unravelling a mystery, in catching at the gossamer clue which will guide to certainty.” 

As most people know, the Victorian era was a time of great change in the Western world.  It was a time of invention, of industry, of power, and of great wealth.  It was also a time of social upheaval, of intense poverty, and of class division.  And while our minds might immediately envision the narrow, dirty streets of Dickens' London, another author asked us to turn our eyes to the north and see the squalor, the heartbreak, and the division that was eating away at the heart of England's manufacturing district.

The Plot:

Mary Barton is the only living child of John Barton, a mill worker in Manchester.  Her mother died when Mary was young and her father blames her death on the sudden disappearance of his sister-in-law, Esther.  John is heavily involved in the trades union in Manchester and has become more and more depressed over time as the industry has hit a rough patch and paying jobs are scarce.  Mary takes a job at a dressmakers and to help support herself and her father.  

Mary's long-time friend, Jem Wilson, has loved her for years but is turned down when he proposes.  Mary has her sights set higher and is enjoying the secret admiration of Harry Carson, the son of a prominent mill owner.  But when Harry is murdered and Jem is arrested for it, Mary realizes where her affections truly lie and she sets out to do everything in her power to save the man she loves.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

The first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I read was North and South, which I absolutely loved.  I was pretty excited to read this novel, which was her first.  Though this one didn't affect me the way that one did, it is still a solid read.

It's neat to see a female Victorian author take on the issues of social justice and economic inequality as passionately as some of the male authors (like Dickens and Trollope).  Gaskell comes out swinging, showing us the abject squalor that was the reality for so many people of that time.  And while she doesn't blame the mill owners and wealthy for the economic situation that is causing it, she does fault them for refusing to see and help the needy people all around them.  John Barton goes to extremes in his retaliation, but one can imagine the desperation one might be driven to if you watch others live in lavish comfort when your own friends and loved ones are dying.  It was also interesting to see the geographical disconnect between London and Manchester.  Even today, it is easy for those who live in the seat of power to simply turn a blind eye to the needs of those who live further away.

While the social aspect of this story is as solid as that of North and South, the narrative is not.  It is harder to connect to these characters the way we do Margaret Hale and John Thornton.  Mary comes off as rather flighty and seems to have less spirit than Margaret.  And while Jem is a sweet guy, he lacks that quality of strength and passion that John Thornton embodies.  As a whole, the narrative seems less tight and comes off as rather heavy handed at times.

This is certainly a solid read and a must for anyone who loves Gaskell or Victorian lit.  If you are new to Gaskell's works, however, I would suggest you start with North and South.  You'll get the same social message with a better story and stronger characters.      

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Phantom of the Opera

“If I am the phantom, it is because man's hatred has made me so. If I am to be saved it is because your love redeems me.” 

In 1910, French writer Gaston Leroux published a novel that drew from his time covering the Paris Opera as a reporter.  Based on actual historical events at the opera, his story would go on to be the basis for many adaptations.  The story was finally immortalized by the 1986 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical which is the longest running musical in Broadway history.

The Plot:

In the light and glitter of 19th century Paris, the Paris Opera has come under new management.  The managers are told of a phantom who haunts the opera and demands payments, a private box, and other things in exchange for keeping the opera safe from himself.  The new managers scoff at such a notion and begin to ignore the Phantom's wishes one by one.  It isn't long before mysterious things begin to happen in the vast opera house.

One of these is the rapid rise to stardom of a chorus girl named Christine Daae.  She is convinced that her dead father has sent the "Angel of Music" to help teach her as he once promised.  She becomes reacquainted with her childhood friend, Raoul, and tells him of her "angel" expressing both intense fear for it as well as passion.  Raoul is convinced that Christine is being held against her will in the power of an all too real man, and he sets out to discover the true identity of his rival.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

Like most people, I first became aware of this story through the famous musical.  I like many aspects of the musical, though there is an element to Erik's obsession with Christine that is a little too creepy for me.  Still, I knew that many fans liked the book so I thought I would give it a try.

My overall opinion?  I wasn't too impressed.  This is a tricky story and I only see a couple of ways to really make it work.  The first is to read it as a sensation story.  Leroux's original readers would have been familiar with the historical context of the novel, and it obvious the Leroux was playing this up for sensation.  The whole story is played out like a mystery, as the identity and methods of the Phantom are slowly revealed.  You can certainly see the elements of Leroux's other writings which included detective fiction and "locked room" mysteries.  This is all well and good if you are new to the story.  Unfortunately, most of today's readers are not.  There is very little room for discovery and surprise since we already know the Phantom's identity, past, motivations, and his fate.  This takes a lot of the "sensation" out of the story.

The other way to make this work is to fill the story with something other than sensation...something like pity.  The reason the musical connects to so many people is that it does a good job of making you feel a strong amount of pity for the Phantom.  He is turned into this romantic anti-hero who needs only the love of a woman to make him a good man.  The book fails to do this.  Because Leroux is setting up an atmosphere of horror and suspense, he tends to play up the dark side of the Phantom.  Though there are small shots of sympathy here and there, we are never allowed to see things from the Phantom's point of view so it is difficult to see beyond his actions and his ugliness.  

If you are a huge fan of the musical, then you will probably want to read this for more background and context.  For everyone else who may be a casual fan (or not one at all).  I'm not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend it.  It just didn't excite me very much.

The Movie:

I have seen two versions of this story.  One is the 2011 live production of the musical at the Royal Albert Hall starring Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess.  I liked this production and it was nice to have the opportunity to see the actual musical.

The other is the 2004 film version starring Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum.  I didn't hate it, but it didn't really become a favorite either.  The one decent aspect was Gerard Butler...didn't mind having him sing to me for a couple of hours!