Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Monday, February 28, 2011

In which I have more to discuss about Narnia

Since we're on the subject, there are Things You Must Know about Narnia and the Chronicles thereof.

In what order should the books be read? 

I grew up reading the books in order of publication (making The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the first book of the series rather than The Magician's Nephew, even though Nephew is first chronologically). Setting aside habit and precedent and all that sort of thing, there's something so wonderful in reading about the very beginning of Narnia (in Nephewafter it has already become a familiar place. I will always want to read Lion first, but I won't harp on anyone reading the books in chronological order. The important thing is to JUST READ THEM!

Which of the seven books is my favorite?

I love each one of the Narnia books, but I don't love them all equally. I have four favorites and three not-so-favorites. The best: Lion, The Horse and His Boy, The Silver Chair, and Nephew. But don't tell the other three I said so.

Would I enjoy the books as much if I hadn't read and loved them as a child? 

My (grown-up) friend BR borrowed the series from me a few years back. She enjoyed them, but I don't think she loved them. She very tactfully said she wished she'd read them as a child. I think that means the books didn't hold the same magic for her as they do for me. But I know there are a few of you who have imminent plans to read these books for the first time, and I'm eager to hear what you think! Only . . . if you don't love them, maybe you shouldn't tell me.

What about The Movies?

After reading the books so many times, I have very vivid pictures in my mind of exactly how everything looks. With each re-read, I go back to the exact same place in my imagination. I was worried that watching the movie adaptations would ruin that for me . . . but I couldn't help but do it anyway. Oh, the BBC editions are a little bit horrible, but the Hollywood versions are so beautiful that I don't mind very much when the movie scenery rousts the familiar old images from my brain. Hollywood has made a *lot* of changes to the stories, but most of them have actually been good and exciting changes that have added to the experience. I HEART THEM AND I HOPE THEY MAKE ALL SEVEN BOOKS INTO MOVIES. I will die a little bit inside if they don't.

Guess what? I just finished writing my 200th blog post.

Illustrations by Pauline Baynes. She's my hero.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" by C. S. Lewis

Cover art on the hardback edition.
Yes, I have two full sets. Is that a problem?
The Chronicles of Narnia have been beloved favorites of mine for so many years. I was first introduced to the series when I received a set for my ninth birthday. (Ah, and this time the books were a gift from my parents, so there are no bad memories of the giver attached.) Since then I have read each of the seven books more times than I can count, and it wasn't long before every re-read became as familiar, delightful and comforting as snuggling under a warm blanket on a rainy day.

There is something so magical about Narnia. Even more than enchantments and talking animals and dragons and adventures, I think what appeals to me most is the idea that a whole new world could be lurking in my closet. (I never had a wardrobe, and oh, I wish I had. It wouldn't even hurt my feelings much if it happened to be full of furs.) But just imagine what it must have been like for the four Pevensie children to discover a doorway into Narnia. I would have given anything to be Lucy! Or Jill. Or Aravis. Or Polly. Heck, I would have even done a stint as Eustace if it had resulted in a voyage on the Dawn Treader.

Now that you know how fond I am of Narnia, I'm sure you can picture my elation when Bookworm Child requested this series for bedtime reading. I would put these books on Bedtime Story Endless Loop if my kids could stand it. I had read the series to them before, but they were much smaller then, and I don't think they really remember it.

My original book. It's been well-loved.
Unfortunately, my elation soon turned to disappointment when Bookworm Child declared the story boring and decided not to listen. Boring! I don't understand. How could she? (I'm beginning to suspect she's a changeling.) The other two did hang around to listen, but I think this was mainly just because the youngest likes to cuddle and the oldest likes any excuse to stay up later.

All I can say about this is: what is wrong with my kids?? (I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.) You shouldn't be surprised, though, to hear I just kept right on reading. I think I was mainly reading for me. If all three kids had wandered off I probably would have continued reading it aloud to myself.

I walk a fine line in introducing all of these marvelous childhood stories to my children (not just the Narnia books, but others as well). On one hand, I want to make sure my kids have a chance to read (or at least hear) all of my old favorites. On the other hand, I wonder if I should allow them to discover these wonderful books on their own. What if Stacia hadn't known anything about Narnia until her ninth birthday, and then had read the stories to herself? If her experience had been more like mine, would she have loved the series like I do? As it is, I'm afraid she never will truly care for Narnia.

(*sheds a tear*)

I don't know if I can convince my kids that we need to read the rest of the series at bedtime. I'm not above bribing them. But I should probably draw the line at breaking out the duct tape.

Monday, February 21, 2011

"Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens

"Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."

This was a re-read for me, but it's been a sufficiently long time (which, with my sieve-like brain, could mean mere weeks, but in this case it's been at least ten years) so that I couldn't remember much about Great Expectations other than the vague notion that I really enjoyed reading it.

I remembered that there was Pip, and there was Estella, and there was Miss Havisham who was a little bit gross and a lot crazy. And there were varying incarnations of unrequited love and impressive coldheartedness. I wasn't sure how many of my shadowy memories of the story came from the modernized 1998 movie and how much I actually remembered from the book.

As it turns out, I didn't remember much. The gist of the book was familiar (Pip, raised in a lowly blacksmith's home, admires the rich and snooty until, unexpectedly, he is given the opportunity to become rich and snooty himself, and he does a bang-up job of it). But so much of it took me by surprise. Which was really kind of nice, because it's much easier for mysterious and suspenseful plot twists to be mysterious and suspenseful if I'm not sure where they're going.

One thing I certainly didn't remember was how funny this book is! Not in the way that Anna Karenina occasionally made me laugh when I wasn't sure I should. No, Dickens's tone is surprisingly (and intentionally) quite droll. And Dickens managed to hit Pip's voice just perfectly. It was not at all pompous, prolix or pontifical, the way Dickens seems in my mind whenever I'm not reading him. Pip is hopeful and optimistic, and even when he was painfully ashamed of his roots (or, more importantly, of the loving people he left behind), I still didn't hate him.

Here's something interesting we discovered at book club: we didn't all interpret the ending in the same way. Even more interesting is a fact I unearthed today: did you know there are TWO DIFFERENT ENDINGS to Great Expectations? (Don't follow that link unless you've already read the book, or if you just happen to love spoilers.) It's like Choose Your Own Adventure! I need to ask Lydia if her book had the original ending, which would make our differing interpretations completely understandable. At any rate, I certainly prefer the ending in my copy of the book.

Another certainty: Great Expectations is SUCH a good story. It was definitely worthy of a re-read. AND I would read it again in the future. Dickens deserves to be named the Supreme Mugwump of Victorian Lit, even if I still love Henry James more.

I've got a couple of surplus tidbits for you. First, historical perspective: Great Expectations was initially published in serial form, with the first installment appearing in December 1860 and the final installment in August 1861. These dates bracket the start of America's Civil War, which officially began in April 1861.

Detail of Goya's The Old Ones: 
Miss Havisham?
Second, don't you think Miss Havisham could have been modeled after this grotesque old woman?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hunting and Gathering

I took a page out of Lesa's book (I'm so corny, how can you stand it?) and went Goodwill hunting today. Wait, I mean yesterday. I didn't fare quite as well as she did (I paid nearly twice as much for the same number of books) but since we're talking $8 for seven books, I'd say I still had a pretty good haul! I might have been able to find free Kindle versions for some of these, but please bear in mind I'm trying to ignore that possibility.

From top to bottom, here are the seven:

1. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I think this is a book that my 8th grade class read without me. (My parents so conveniently managed to ban me from half my life.) It doesn't sound especially fun, but there must be something interesting about it if my parents wouldn't let me read it.

2. The World According to Mister Rogers by Fred Rogers. Because I don't believe all of the awful rumors about him, and I have fond memories of his neighborhood.

3. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This one is kind of like The Jungle (except for the part about my parents): not fun, but good for me.

4. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. One from my wish list! I hadn't realized what a fatty it is . . .

5. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. I watched the first half of this movie at the end of a three-and-a-half-movie airplane flight. (I was on my way home and I'd already used up all of the books I'd brought with me.) The movie looked pretty intriguing. I'm not sure why I've never tried to watch the rest of it.

6. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Some (like Brenna) say this book is amazing, and others (like Leah) say it's a little tedious, but for a dollar I can afford to decide for myself. Not surprisingly, I'm a little bit afraid to read it (what if I agree with Leah?) but when I conquer my fear it will be waiting for me.

7. The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. Another wish-lister! I may read this to my kids, once I finish one or two of the three books we have going currently. The cover of the copy I bought isn't quite as charming as the one pictured here, but I hope the inside is.

If I had to pick my next read from this stack, I would probably start with #5. But between book club books and my mental (in more ways than one) list of "I want to read that next" books, it's just going to have to get in line and wait its turn. If it were British it would know how to queue, but as it is I'll just have to keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.

Which of these have you read? Which did you love? If you feel I should move one of these right up to the teetering tippy-top of my TBR pile, persuade away.

Monday, February 14, 2011

"Daddy-Long-Legs" by Jean Webster

Daddy-Long-Legs, first published in 1912, is the pleasant little story of an orphan named Jerusha Abbott. At the age of seventeen, Jerusha (who later renames herself Judy, since that's the sort of name which belongs to a girl "who romps her way through life without any cares," which she would very much like to pretend she is) is given a rare bit of good fortune when she is informed that a mysterious benefactor has offered to pay her way through college.

The only requirement is that she must write regular letters to the man (to whom she gives the nickname Daddy-Long-Legs), though she is not to know his real name, and he never writes back to her. After a short chapter at the beginning which introduces the situation, the entire book is in the form of Judy's letters to the enigmatic Daddy-Long-Legs (with some crazy drawings thrown in).

Judy has a very engaging personality that shines brilliantly through her correspondence. In fact, her disposition is so bright and charming that she seems less like a college girl and more like a twelve-year-old. She's certainly not an always-optimistic Polyanna, but she really seems quite childish, albeit in a funny and endearing way. Here's a great example:

"Speaking of classics, have you ever read Hamlet? If you haven't, do it right off. It's perfectly corking. I've been hearing about Shakespeare all my life, but I had no idea he really wrote so well; I always suspected him of going largely on his reputation."

Webster should have had Judy going away to boarding school instead of college. Even so, and despite being overly sentimental at times, this is such a nice little story.

The ending was so perfectly, exactly what I wanted that I nearly cried. (Let's be clear, though: notice I said nearly. Which doesn't really count.) It didn't even bother me that I guessed what there was to be guessed long before it was revealed. I was just so happy that that the ending was just right.

There's a sequel! It's called Dear Enemy. And guess what? Amazon has a free kindle version of it. I know better than to think I'll be diving into it right away, but it's nice to have it waiting for me until I'm ready.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Exit the Actress" by Priya Parmar

I've been reading The Plum Bean Project for nearly a year now. If you've ever had the chance to check it out, you know that Priya has a truly lovely writing style. I once compared it to cheesecake (delicious: rich, filling and sweet) but I think that's the wrong type of dessert. I love cheesecake, but it's so heavy. Priya's writing is much more lighthearted. Maybe like a good french silk pie with a wonderfully tender crust.

Of course I have been eager to read her debut novel, Exit the Actress, ever since I first heard about it; it was released last week, so I've finally had that opportunity. Priya has written the story of 17th century English stage actress Nell Gwyn, chronicling her rise from humble beginnings to the bed of King Charles II. The book is written in a familiar, gossipy manner, entirely composed of diary entries and various forms of correspondence.

Despite my anticipation, as I first began to read I found myself thinking that I prefer a book with bigger balls. The most recent historical fiction I read was much more boldly written and I loved it for that. During the first 80 cautious and inoffensive pages of Exit the Actress I was disgruntled and wanted a bit more oomph, but then I settled in and began to really enjoy it. The writing throughout the entire book was just as beautiful as I had come to expect from Priya, and the story gives a charming glimpse into Restoration London. Reading her wikipedia entry gives me the idea that Nell was much more bawdy and indecorous than the delightful and sprightly girl portrayed in Exit the Actress, but Priya's version makes for a much sweeter love story between Nell and the king.

If you are a fan of historical fiction I bet you can't help but love Exit the Actress. Girls only, though, I think. I'm already looking forward to Priya's next book which will take us back to London, this time during World War I.

Monday, February 7, 2011

"The Neverending Story" by Michael Ende

I finally finished reading The Neverending Story to the kids last week. This book is not meant to be read a few pages at a time. When read in such small chunks it does seem endless, and not in a good way.

Although it took us far too long to read, the book has an interesting ingredient which is probably the fond dream of many readers: a boy who is reading a book becomes a part of the story. Bastian Balthazar Bux has hidden himself away from the world with a stolen book whose title is none other than The Neverending Story. As he reads about the hero Atreyu riding the white luckdragon Falkor in a desperate attempt to save Fantastica from The Nothing that is devouring the country, Bastian comes across oblique references to himself that slowly become more direct and more frequent until he suddenly finds he has left our own world and is a part of the story in Fantastica.

I like this description of the story as "Arabian Nights meets Aesop's Fables meets Grimm's Fairy Tales." The Neverending Story has the same feeling of fantasy and wonder threaded through with morality tales that you'd imagine from such a mix. Also, though it is not a series of stories like those three collections, it does seem to lack cohesion, especially in the second half of the book as Bastian rebuilds Fantastica on wishes and whims.

Most people who love this book refer to the nostalgia it evokes, since they read it as a child. I, too, read it when I was a child. My copy was given to me for my 12th birthday. (Of course I never would have remembered that, but I have proof.) Unfortunately, it was given to me by someone I'd rather forget, so I don't have quite the same feeling of sweet reminiscence as you may have when you reread The Neverending Story.

See? Proof.
Notice how He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named wrote that "this story is not just for reading it through, but also for thinking about." I was kind of insulted by that, even at age twelve. Just because I didn't want to tell him my thoughts on books didn't mean I wasn't thinking about the books I read. Of course, I suppose I can understand how he came to that conclusion.

Even worse, Blur called me a rat. Apparently, to Germans, the term "reading rat" is as innocuous as "bookworm" is to us Americans (and really, cultural context aside, I'd say it's a toss-up as to whether I'd rather be called a worm or a rat). I bet if anyone else had dubbed me The Reading Rat I would have worn the badge with pride in the knowledge that it fit me well. Though I might have preferred a nickname like The Reading Mouse, even if that doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

I can't help but wonder how much more I might have liked The Neverending Story if it had been given to me by someone I cared for and remember with affection. It's similar to disliking a name because it reminds you of an awful person: not the name's fault, but undeniable all the same. Do you have any books where your own personal experience, unrelated to the story itself, left you with a less-than-good feeling about it?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"The 39 Steps" by John Buchan

Chalk this up as another one where I've seen the movie but had no idea it started as a book. It's also one whose movie adaptation bears little resemblance to the original story. (Actually, it has several movie adaptations, but the one I've seen is Hitchcock's 1935 version.)

I found myself spending a day away from home with lots of waiting and I FORGOT MY BOOK. I can't stand doing nothing when I could be reading, so I had to feed my addiction and make a quick trip to Books-A-Million. It was a toss-up between looking for something that was already on my TBR and getting something cheap.

Cheap won. B-A-M has a set of Reject Carts out front with books selling (or not) for between $1 and $3. Though there's usually nothing good to be found there, I can't help but look every time. And this time I found a winner! It's a nice slim book--the perfect size to wedge between the others I was already reading but hadn't brought with me. I recognized the title and knew the story (or so I thought) so I was pretty sure the book wouldn't suck. I LOVE the cover. AND it only cost two dollars. I figured I couldn't go wrong.

I haven't read many spy novels, and those I have read were more contemporary, but this was a nice little old-fashioned adventure story. Know what it reminded me of? The Hardy Boys for grownups. (That was not intended as an insult, in case you thought it sounded like one.) Richard Hannay is Frank and Joe rolled into one, with keen skills of observation and a knack for ingenuity, finding himself in the most treacherous scrapes and always narrowly escaping through the use of his sharp intellect.

As the book starts, Hannay is finding life in London dreadfully dull. He's decided to give England one more day to get exciting; if it continues to disappoint him, he'll head back to South Africa where he'd already spent a number of years. Of course that very night the excitement begins. One of his neighbors turns out to be a spy who ends up staying with Hannay for a few days. He's hiding from the evil Germans who are chasing him because he knows about the plot to assassinate the Greek premier, Karolides, which is expected to precipitate a war. (I, in my limited knowledge of history, decided Karolides must have been the literary version of Archduke Ferdinand. The book was first published--and takes place--in 1915, when Franz's death of the previous year was still fresh news.) Needless to say, Hannay decides to stick around a while. He becomes embroiled in the chaos and loves every minute of it.

Differences between the book and the movie are legion. The one that surprised me the most was the absence of any character in the book remotely like Mr. Memory. This, of course, means that the "39 steps" of the title are something entirely different in the original story. The movie also spiced things up a bit by throwing in a couple of major female characters (but don't forget we're talking 1935 here, so it was more like paprika than habanero). I don't think I really had a preference between the two stories; it was actually nice to find they were different. The book was more suspenseful that way, since I was expecting one thing and getting another.

Did you know this was a book? Have you read it, or seen any of the movie adaptations?