Monday, July 16, 2012


So I read this in high school and I guess I was drunk because I don't really remember.  Ok, I probably wasn't actually drunk, but I still didn't recall the book well enough to felt like I'd read it.  Upon this second reading, I was entranced at first- the language was beautiful, the story captivating, and I enjoyed the connection between the characters.  As it progressed, however, I found my feelings oscillating between love and annoyance.  Why?  SOOOOOOOO much BITCHING.

Yeah, that's right.  Dr. Frankenstein was kind of a whiny little bitch.  Sure, he had a right to some melancholy, but geeeeeeeeeez.  After a while I wanted to choke him myself.  Now, to be fair, Mary Shelley did an incredible job with 7/8ths of the book (and she was only 19 at the time of its writing).  The story truly was lovely and my heart broke for "the fiend" that was so unloved and reviled, by all, and especially, by his creator.  His story, as told to Dr. Frankenstein, was so piteous.  I cried for him and yet, the vengeful evilness that was born from it?  I'm gonna go ahead and go with wowzers.

Was it worth my time?  Sure.  It was very good, but it brought back my remembrances of how I persistently felt about reading for myself (until the last 6 months or so, truly)- I ALMOST loved it, but not really.

Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy

For about $10, you can own some of the greatest words ever written.  You, yes YOU, can own the best of Tolstoy's shorter works.

I have been meaning to write this for a while, but when there is almost too much to say, it is hard to say anything at all.  This collection contains so many diverse and wonderful pieces that I am intimidated at the thought of doing it any sort of justice.  So, maybe I'll just not bother with any attempt to really sum up what is so great about it with any sort of detail...  That I can do!

The first piece I read was The Kreutzer Sonata and I was struck.  There aren't really an admirable characters and the look at humanity is less than positive, but it dripped with insightful truth.  The way men and women see each other, the impact of physical beauty, true love (ba!), insane jealousy, and vengefulness.  Rather than try to explain to you the perfection of Tolstoy's words (which I admit, once again, that I "thought," having loved these short stories so much that I would feel the same about "War and Peace," but no, it felt embarrassingly tedious to me- so don't just NOT read Tolstoy because of "War and Peace" if you tried it and failed, as I did).

On the power of beauty...

"It seemed to me that evening that she understood all that I felt and thought, and that what I felt and thought was very lofty.  In reality it was only that the jersey and the curls were particularly becoming to her and that after a day spent near her I wanted to be still closer.

It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.  A handsome woman talks nonsense, you listen and hear not nonsense but cleverness. She says and does horrid things, and you see only charm.  And if a handsome woman does not say stupid or horrid things, you at once persuade yourself that she is wonderfully clever and moral."

I can't begin to tell you the plot because once I begin, there will be no shutting me up, so I'll stop.

A few others that really impressed were Family Happiness (with some truly good, though flawed people- Tolstoy's characters are never perfect heroes, which I appreciate, since no real person is either), The Cossacks, and The Death of Ivan Ilych.  I read some others and found admiration for them, but not quite at the level as these 4, for me personally.

In all, the lack of a fairy tale ending, the failed realness of the characters, and Tolstoy's masterful command of language that includes deep insights to the nature of human thought and behavior, especially the ugly side, makes this a must read for me.  Truly, if I hadn't read them, I might not have truly ignited the passion for reading that I have now.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Burmese Days

By George Orwell

The last book I read by George Orwell was "Animal Farm" and I enjoyed it, both the content and the commentary on society, but I didn't recall feeling overwhelmed with the desire to read more Orwell.  However, a friend recommended, strongly, that I read "Burmese Days" saying it was one of Orwell's best, though underrated.  Actually, the recommender said it was one of the most underrated novels "period."  Valuing this person's taste in books, I dove in (after abandoning War and Peace out of boredom- that pains me as I love Tolstoy's shorter works and will review them soon).  It truly was a wonderful, even if depressing.  There is a perfection of writing in this novel.  I never found a word or sentence lacking.

Set in Burma during the time of the British Raj, one gets a clear impression of Orwell's distain for despotism, even when disguised as imperialism meant to "benefit" another nation.  It all ends up being a raping of the country taken over regardless of intention (which is stated as one thing, but of course IS another), and this is evident in the main character's opinions of this British invasion, that he happens to be a direct part of.  With nobody to share his bachelor life, Flory does his job, drinks away his life, keeps a Burmese woman, but is empty and disgusted by those life he lives and the people that surround him, except, perhaps, the Burmese themselves.  Viewed by all the other Brits as less-than-thou scum, the Burmese are of interest to read about and the characters painted richly.

Our bachelor is introduced to a visiting niece, Elizabeth, and Flory is ready to change his ways in order to share a life with her.  He shares his love of Burma- the people, the customs, the land, but the problem is that she isn't different than "the others" as he imagines she is.  His desperate loneliness causes him to see in her things that do not exist.  The plot that unfolds is heartbreaking on many levels, but it is a satisfying story.  Nobody escapes the cruelty of fate or humanity.  Perfectly written, almost awe-inspiring.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck

Here Lies the Librarian by Richard Peck

Here Lies the Librarian is the fourth book that we’ve read by Richard Peck, and it’s the only one that I didn’t really care for.  It’s not that I didn’t like the book, but rather that it didn’t meet my high expectations.  And perhaps the subject matter failed to entertain me to the extent that his other work has.

Although the book immediately grabbed our attention with a tornado in a graveyard, it seemed to fizzle for us after that first chapter.  It follows Peewee and her brother Jake during the summer of 1914, in Hendricks County, Indiana, as they try to establish a car repair garage, build their own car and race in the first ever automobile race at the county fair.  There’s a little bit of romance, a little bit of humor, but also a little bit of animal cruelty that I always have trouble getting past.

I think for kids or adults interested in cars, car history or car racing, the book would have been a fun, easy read.    But for three kids and a grown woman that don’t give a flying flip about any of those things, there just wasn’t enough humor or character development of the minor characters to keep us excited about each new chapter. 

Overall, I think Mr. Peck did an amazing job, as usual, representing small town Indiana life at the turn of the century.  It’s well written, well researched.   It’s good historical fiction for kids. But it’s still got a LOT of car stuff in there. 

The Teacher's Funeral by Richard Peck

The Teacher’s Funeral by Richard Peck

As much as I love reading, not many books make it to my list of all-time favorites.  But The Teacher’s Funeral delivered a little something for everybody in the family!  The story, set in a rural Indiana community in the year 1904, follows fifteen year old Russell Culver, his family, his classmates, his community, over the course of a year.

Mr. Peck captured both time period and place perfectly, with humor for both children and adults, and easy to connect to characters.  As I read aloud to my girls, complete with a Hoosier hayseed accent, I couldn’t help picturing my grandfather and my great-grandmother.  I recalled their stories, their memories, the way they spoke, the different words they used, so that each time I picked up the book, it felt like coming home.  Familiar, comfortable, safe.   Although both my papaw and my great-grandmother have been gone several years now, this book, these stories, brought them back for a little while, made me miss them more than I have in years.

My girls, particularly my middle child that struggles with reading and geography, loved hearing the names of local places she’s been to.  And my eldest loved looking each location up on the state map.  But most of all, we enjoyed the family stories that I tried to tie into the conversation when we’d finished reading for the day.  

While I’m sure not all readers will enjoy the setting and time period to the same extent, it’s definitely a worthwhile read, with heart, humor and history to boot!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Lord of the Flies

By William Golding

This could be the simplest review ever.  How did I feel about "The Lord of the Flies?"  Well, one word sums it up...


I felt nothing for this book.  While I appreciate the sentiment that we're all pretty darned closed to barbarianism if it comes to finding a way to forge civilization, I didn't find much interesting in the characters, the plot, and the ending left me annoyed.  Crinkle-nosed annoyed.

I typically am an underliner when I own a book.  I find interesting thoughts, passages, wording that I want to be sure to be able to find later.  I make notes in the margins.  This book has not one mark in it.  I considered underlining one section and then felt I was trying too hard to find something to like.

It sounds interesting enough- A plane crash with young boys stranded on an island without any adult supervision. There is struggle for power and control, with an extreme look at the folly in civilization and leadership.  But again...


In the immortal words of Forrest Gump, "That's all I have to say about that."

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The True Believer

by Eric Hoffer

Somehow, in the business of life (ha!), I got away from reading a while back.  I got caught up in busy and then, in finding my way in the world again, I realized how much I missed books.  I have now been reading again for a while and am so glad. I have a friend that is a gruff, cynical, intelligent soul, with a wisdom about him that makes him utterly unique.  He has been an avid reader for years and recommended that I read Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements" saying that it changed his world view.  Indeed, it did change mine.

A little background on Hoffer.  He was a self-educated longshoreman and wrote this in the 1940's.  President Eisenhower referenced this book in a televised press conference and it became a best seller.  It is an unbelievably insightful look at the nature of fanatical behavior, the causes of susceptibility to be swept up into a "holy cause," and the key components of inspiring a group of people to change, though not delivered with the desire to do so, but to understand the motivation behind it all.

Hoffer looks at the different types of people who are lost and looking for something to belong to, he examines the traits of a charismatic leader, the role of hope, individual accountability and the desire to sacrifice oneself for the good of belonging.  He turns his gaze to not only vilified groups, like the Nazis, but also to Christianity, and any other "group" enticing a mass of people, finding common threads.

His view of the different types of poor, and their common reaction to "holy causes" is nothing short of jaw dropping.  It is as applicable today as it was when it was written.  Consider this, in the wake of the current "Occupy" movements:

"It is usually those whose poverty is relatively recent, the 'new poor,' who throb with the ferment of frustration.  The memory of better things is as fire in their veins.  They are the disinherited and dispossessed who respond to every rising mass movement."

His view of the abjectly poor is just as interesting (they are less likely to be lit with fire for change):

"The poor on the borderline of starvation live purposeful lives.  To be engaged in a desperate struggle for food and shelter is to be wholly free from a sense of futility. The goals are concrete and immediate.  Every meal is a fulfillment; to go to sleep on a full stomach is a triumph; and every windfall a miracle.  What need could they have for 'an inspiring super-individual goal which would give meaning and dignity to their lives?'"

In looking at this, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs came to mind- unless and until those basic needs are met, how can one have the time or energy to care about much else?

In looking at the poor, Hoffer not only looks at monetary considerations, but also the "free poor,"of which I found myself relating to on a personal level: "Freedom aggravates at least as much as it alleviates frustration.  Freedom of choice places the whole blame of failure on the shoulders of the individual.... Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden.  Of what avail is the freedom to choose if the self be ineffectual?"

He examines the "creative poor," the "unified poor" (we're all in the same situation and my poverty isn't my fault- look, everyone else is there too), the "misfits," the "inordinately selfish" and "the ambitious facing unlimited opportunities." All there for different reasons, but all in a weakened state.  "Minorities," the "bored," and the "sinners."  All frustrated.  All ripe for being swept up into a mass movement.  The belief in the cause stirs the need for self-sacrifice.  The desire to identify with the group can call us. The look to change "for the better," with hope... and a degradation of the current time/leadership work together to launch us.  When led by "men of words," we will believe.  To read as Hoffer shows the essence of a mass movement, from start to finish, is truly enlightening.  You can't imagine not seeing any longer.

Not all mass movements are bad, but it is important, as a human, to be aware.  To look, to SEE, to question.

The types of people susceptible and HOW mass movements happen is fascinating to read about.  I found myself only being able to read about 10 pages per day, sometimes only 4.  It is a blessing that the book is organized in such a way that the reader can take little bits to digest at a time, taking a break for a while and coming back to it (you really can read only 4 pages and have read a chapter, sometimes 2).  It is so hard hitting, so stark, so unlike the way most of us examine the world that it felt like I was reading something that everyone SHOULD read.  We should ALL be questioning like that.  Some of it, towards the end, feels a bit repetitive, but I must say, I have never read anything like it.  It made me feel like I was looking at humanity, and myself, through a really clear lens.

This quote hit me personally in a way that stunned me.  It summed up the way I have lived for a long, long time and it is what I will leave you with (not because it is the essence of the book, but yet another example of the way this man piercingly communicates what he sees):

"Those who fail in everyday affairs show a tendency to reach out for the impossible. It is a device to camouflage their shortcomings.  For when we fail in attempting the possible, the blame is solely ours; but when we fail in attempting the impossible, we are justified in attributing it to the magnitude of the task."

Obviously, I give my strongest of recommendations to pick up this 168 page gem, "The True Believer."

Literature Quotes