Review: Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

Into the Wild

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Henry David Thoreau

My sister gave me a copy of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild for Christmas so many years ago now that I can’t remember, and I’m a little embarrassed that it has taken me so long to finally read it. I think what finally convinced me to read it at last was the recent publication of Carine McCandless’s own memoir, The Wild Truth. I had previously read Jon Krakauer’s article, “How Chris McCandless Died” in The New Yorker.

I am a funny reader. I don’t highlight or underline much in paper books, unless they are professional reading or books I’m teaching in my English classes. I didn’t make any marks in my paper copy of Into the Wild until I was more than a third, perhaps even close to halfway through the book, and I realized I needed to mark it up. I went back and found passages I liked in the parts I read before I had picked up my pencil.

For those (like me) who may not have read the book yet, it is the story of Christopher McCandless, who graduated from Emory University and disappeared on a quest to find himself in the wild. A devotee of Jack London, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau, McCandless was drawn eventually to Alaska, where, it was supposed, he died of starvation. Jon Krakauer was asked to write about the tragedy for Outside magazine. However, Krakauer appears to have been unable to leave the story alone after the article, and this book is the result. In fact, as evidenced by the fact that Krakauer wrote the foreword to Carine McCandless’s book and is still contributing to discussion of Chris McCandless’s death, it seems plausible that he is still unable to let the story go. Once I started reading it, I also had a hard time putting the story down.

I was speaking with colleagues about the importance of narrative non-fiction. One important thing I have come to believe this year is that all of us, each and every one of us, has a story. In fact, many important stories. McCandless didn’t live to tell his story, in a sense, but in another sense, he actually did live to tell his story. Or perhaps, more accurately, he lived his story and Krakauer told it. Who was Chris McCandless, really? Just an arrogant, woefully unprepared, thoughtless slacker, as some people believe? The second coming of Thoreau? On the one hand, I understand those who are frustrated by the veneration of someone they see as foolhardy, and McCandless devotees have caused some real problems when they’ve tried to retrace his steps and find for themselves the old Fairbanks City Transit bus where he died. On the other hand, what I love about this book is that Krakauer elevated McCandless, a man who might otherwise have been forgotten by all but his family and friends, simply by telling his story, and by telling it so well.

I was particularly moved by McCandless’s friendship with and impact on a man Krakauer calls Ron Franz. I almost hesitate to share a quote here because part of me wants anyone reading this review to discover the book as I did, without having read a single line from it anywhere. On the other hand, anyone reading this review is likely not too worried about exposure, or they wouldn’t read a review (I know I avoid reviews of books I haven’t read unless I don’t mind some spoilers). So all that being said, this is the first part of the book that moved me:

“When Alex [McCandless’s pseudonym] left for Alaska,” Franz remembers, “I prayed. I asked God to keep his finger on the shoulder of that one; I told him that boy was special. But he let Alex die. So on December 26, when I learned what happened, I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist. I decided I couldn’t believe in a God who would let something that terrible happen to a boy like Alex.” (60)

Some criticism I’ve read of the book faults Krakauer for inserting himself a bit too much into the narrative, but I actually liked it that he became close to the story. I think sometimes in telling a story about someone else, you need to identify how it’s also about you, and it is clear that Krakauer saw himself in McCandless and even indicates all that really separates the two of them is luck.

Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, in many ways the father of Transcendentalism in America, criticized his friend Thoreau, whom he felt frittered away his life: “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition… Instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.”

Of course Thoreau was more than the captain of a huckleberry party. In fact, I’d argue he actually did engineer for all America. Emerson just didn’t realize it because so much of the change in thinking that Thoreau put in motion didn’t bear fruit until a century and more after Thoreau’s death.

I can easily see how one might criticize McCandless for making the mistakes he did, but as Krakauer points out,

McCandless wasn’t some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair. To the contrary: His life hummed with meaning and purpose. But the meaning he wrested from existence lay beyond the comfortable path: McCandless distrusted the value of things that came easily. He demanded much of himself—more, in the end, than he could deliver. (184)

Am I arguing that Chris McCandless may one day have the impact that Thoreau has had? Maybe. I don’t know. But I do know his story is not only gripping and beautiful, in its way, but it is also important because he was one of us, and that alone makes it worthy to be told.

No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, it is more elastic, more starry, more immortal—that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality… The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as in intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

Henry David Thoreau

Rating: ★★★★★

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2015 Reading Challenges

One of the reasons I keep signing up for reading challenges, even though my completion rate the last few years has not been stellar, is that challenges make me think about reading books I might otherwise not read, and they help me classify my reading. You might be wondering why reading needs to be classified. Well, perhaps it doesn’t, but I like to do it for some reason. It’s like tagging on Goodreads or Shelfari. It gives me something to hang the book onto, and for some reason I like it.

Each year, I think this year is going to be my year. In truth, I do need to make more time for reading, and around December, when I start reflecting on my reading year, I think also about what I want to read the next year. The older I get, the less patience I have for books that don’t grab me, and I haven’t had a really excellent reading year for quite a long time. Sometimes, reading challenges help me focus and select books. I don’t always select books I wind up enjoying, but when I’m on a good book streak, there’s nothing like it.

I am signing up for the following reading challenges in the hopes that they’ll contribute to a great reading year in 2015.

Reading Challenge 2015The Reading England Challenge looks like a great deal of fun. Typically, English and/or British reading challenges have a broader focus on the country as a whole (or even the entire UK). This challenge shakes things up a bit by asking readers to “travel England by reading, and read at least one book per however many counties of England you decide to read.” I already keep track of the settings for each book I read, and this seems like an interesting way to explore the country a little more purposefully and thoughtfully. I’d love to try to do 12+ counties, and in the spirit of going big or going home, I’m going to shoot for that level. I already read so many books set in England—the challenge here will be to try to select books from a variety of places in England.

literary-movement-reading-challenge-buttonThe Literary Movement Reading Challenge speaks to my English teacher side. I don’t always stretch myself to read outside of favorite genres and literary movements, and this challenge could be just the thing to encourage me to try some books I’ve been meaning to read. Weirdly, I am excited about the constraints in this challenge, and I’m looking forward to selecting potential books.

OY2015_bannerThis year, I expect I will probably meet my goal of reading 30 books. Even in my best year, I didn’t make it to 50 books, and I’d really like to do that, just once. It could be this is the year. To that end, I’m signing up for the 2015 Outdo Yourself Reading Challenge with the goal of reading at the I’m on Fire! Level of 16+ books more than I read in 2014.

backtotheclassics2015BUTTONThe English teacher in me is also excited by the Back to the Classics Challenge. I’m going to shoot for completing nine categories in this particular challenge. If I’m able to complete all twelve categories, that’s great, but for this particular challenge, I decided to aim for the middle.

As I have the last few years, I’ll also join the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge once the challenge details are posted, as well as the R.I.P. Challenge once it happens.

4aFinally, I want to do the Where Are You Reading Challenge as I have done the last couple of years. I really enjoy keeping track of the settings for the books I read.

I don’t want to bite off too much more than I can chew, and I left several challenges this year completely untouched because they went perhaps a bit too much out of my usual reading habits, but I do hope to make a dent in these challenges as well as read a lot of young adult fiction next year, mainly so I can talk books with students and not feel out of the loop.

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Jane Austen’s First Love: Review and Giveaway

Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James 2014 x 350In a letter to her sister Cassandra in 1796, Jane Austen wrote, “We went by Bifrons and I contemplated with a melancholy pleasure the abode of Him, on whom I once fondly doated.”

Who was this mysterious man? This question intrigued Syrie James, author of Jane Austen’s First Love. For the first time, thanks to Syrie James’s research, Jane Austen fans are treated to a glimpse of Jane Austen as a teenager experiencing all the pangs of first love.

The novel begins with a family trip to Kent. Jane, Cassandra, and their mother are invited to summer festivities in celebration of Jane’s eldest brother Edward Austen’s engagement to Elizabeth Bridges. The Bridges family is also celebrating their daughter Fanny’s engagement to Lewis Cage. On the way to the Bridges home at Goodnestone Park, Jane and Cassandra’s carriage suffers a mishap, and they are rescued by the Bridgeses’ neighbor Edward Taylor, a distant relation of the Bridges family.

Over the course of the festivities at Goodnestone Park, in which Jane convinces her reluctant mother to allow her to participate, Jane grows closer to Edward Taylor. He brings out her adventurous side, and she is captivated by his interesting life. Jane also decides perhaps mounting a theatrical of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be the perfect way to play matchmaker for the Bridges girls.

Edward Taylor comes alive in the pages of this book—is it possible he inspired some of Jane Austen’s most memorable characters? He reminded me a bit more of George Wickham and John Willoughby than Austen heroes such as Fitzwilliam Darcy and George Knightley. He is not nearly as much of a rake as Wickham and Willoughby, but he flouts convention and is a bit on the reckless side.

Jane Austen fans will enjoy the image of her portraying Puck in the theatrical as well as the casual allusions to Austen’s own works. Certainly aspects of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park can be glimpsed in Jane’s experiences at Goodnestone Park.

Syrie James headshot 2012 x 250About the Author

Syrie James, hailed as “the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings” by Los Angeles Magazine, is the bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed novels that have been translated into 18 languages. Her books have been awarded the Audio Book Association Audie, designated as Editor’s Picks by Library Journal, named a Discover Great New Writer’s Selection by Barnes and Noble, a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association, and Best Book of the Year by The Romance Reviews and Suspense Magazine. Syrie is the author of The Lost Memoirs of Jane AustenThe Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, and Dracula, My Love, among other popular novels Syrie is a member of the WGA and lives in Los Angeles. Please visit her at syriejames.com, Facebook or say hello on Twitter @SyrieJames.

Giveaway Details

JAFL Grand Prize x 420Win One of Five Fabulous Jane Austen-inspired Prize Packages

To celebrate the holidays and the release of Jane Austen’s First Love, Syrie is giving away five prize packages filled with an amazing selection of Jane Austen-inspired gifts and books!

To enter the giveaway contest, simply leave a comment on any of the blog stops on the Jane Austen’s First Love Holiday Blog Tour.

Increase your chances of winning by visiting multiple stops along the tour! Syrie’s unique guest posts will be featured on a variety of subjects, along with fun interviews, spotlights, excerpts, and reviews of the novel. Contest closes at 11:59pm PT, December 21, 2014. Five lucky winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments on the tour, and announced on Syrie’s website on December 22, 2014. The giveaway contest is open to everyone, including international residents. Good luck to all!

Be sure to check out Syrie James’s guest posts and other reviews in the Jane Austen’s First Love Holiday Book Tour.

JAFL Banner v6

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Review: Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell

I just spent a weekend at an English teachers’ conference, and it made me remember how much I love reading YA fiction (which I haven’t done for a while), and also that Eleanor & Park was on my Kindle, and I hadn’t read it yet.

I feel a little inadequate to the task of describing this book because there is a lot that a summary can’t capture. Eleanor & Park is the story of two tenth graders who meet on the school bus on Eleanor’s first day at North High School in Omaha, NE. Slowly, the two start to realize they have some things in common, and by Christmas, they’ve fallen hard for each other. Eleanor has a difficult home life, but she tells no one, not even Park. Her stepfather is an abusive alcoholic, and her father has almost no involvement in her life. Her mother is trapped. When Park asks Eleanor “Why doesn’t she leave?”, Eleanor can only reply “I don’t think she can… I don’t there’s enough of her left” (196). Eleanor had been kicked out of her mother and stepfather’s home for a year previously, and she knows her position in the house is precarious. Honestly, Eleanor will break your heart.

I knew I was going to connect to this book when I opened it and saw it began in August, 1986. I suppose that means this book is historical fiction, but to be honest, I can’t look at it that way, even if its intended audience includes people who were born more than a decade after 1986. August, 1986 was the year I started high school myself—coincidentally at a school named North High School (actually, Parkway North, to be more precise). I had just moved, and I was really nervous about school. I can recall the bus politics of worrying over where to sit quite well. I actually wonder if this book isn’t more appropriate for someone like me than for a teenager. I gulped it down in one evening, only putting it down to make up the dough for our Thanksgiving rolls. It’s a little hard not to fall in love with both Eleanor and Park.

One of the best things about the book is the music references. Rainbow Rowell made playlists, which you can find on her blog. Eleanor and Park connect over comic books and the music mix tapes Park shares with Eleanor. Remember mix tapes? They were magical. They took a long time to make, and there was hardly anything more you that you could give someone than a mix tape. I used to have quite a talent for making them, too. Spotify is awesome in many ways, one of which is that it takes the mix tape to the next level. It’s actually my favorite thing about Spotify. I feel like I make tons of “mix tapes.” But there is something about the dedication it used to take to sit down in front of the stereo, select the songs, and try to get them to fit without too much blank space on either side of the tape.

Actually, I pretty much loved everything about this book, and I can’t really do better than what YA author John Green had to say about the book: “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.”

Updated to add that Forever Young Adult made an excellent mix tape for the book:

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier

My Cousin RachelNear the end of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, the protagonist, Philip Ashley, reflects:

“My tutor at Harrow, when teaching in Fifth Form, told us once that truth was something intangible, unseen, which sometimes we stumbled upon and did not recognise, but was found, and held, and understood only by old people near their death, or sometimes by the very pure, the very young.” (316)

Philip was raised by his cousin, Ambrose, who travels to Italy for his health and meets a mysterious woman named Rachel. Ambrose, a confirmed bachelor, surprises everyone by marrying Rachel. Before Ambrose is able to return to Cornwall with his bride, he falls sick and dies. At first Philip is sure that his new cousin Rachel bears responsibility, but when Rachel appears at his door in Cornwall, he quickly becomes entranced by her. But is she guilty of Ambrose’s death?

I picked up this book because I love, love, love Rebecca. This book is not quite as good as Rebecca, but once again, du Maurier’s gift for rendering the Cornish coast setting and for creating interesting, troubled characters is on display in My Cousin Rachel. Rachel reminded me in many ways of Rebecca, the titular character of du Maurier’s more famous work. Even upon finishing the book, I’m still not sure what to think, and I admire the way du Maurier deftly tied the beginning to the end and brought the story around full circle. I very much enjoyed the minor characters in this book, as well. Seecombe, the butler, was particularly enjoyable. I didn’t have the sense of reading a book so gripping I couldn’t put it down, which did happen with Rebecca, but I certainly found My Cousin Rachel enjoyable. I picked it up to read for the R. I. P. Challenge, but I didn’t finish it in time. I do think that readers who enjoyed Rebecca will like this book, too, but as I said, it’s no Rebecca. Truthfully, though, few books are. I’ve been looking for a gothic read of Rebecca‘s caliber for some time now with no luck.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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Review: Ghostwalk, Rebecca Stott

I have to admit that the back of the jacket book blurb convinced me to read this book:

Did Sir Isaac Newton’s ambition drive him to murder? A haunting literary thriller in which a contemporary Cambridge murder story becomes entangled with a true-life historical mystery involving Isaac Newton’s alchemy.

A Cambridge historian is found drowned, leaving her study of Isaac Newton’s rise in fame unsolved. Her fellow writer, Lydia Brooke, agrees to finish the book as a favor to the historian’s son, a neuroscientist with whom she had a long affair. But her attempt to complete the book’s final chapter, and her return to her former lover’s orbit, put her in mortal danger as she uncovers troubling evidence surrounding Newton. As Lydia becomes ensnared in a conspiracy that reawakens ghosts of the past, the seventeenth century slowly seeps into the twenty-first, with the city of Cambridge the bridge between them.

In the end, I’m not sure the book delivers on this promise. Rebecca Stott has clearly done a huge amount of research for Ghostwalk, and I found the format of the book interesting as well. At times, we glimpse chapters from the fictional historian Elizabeth Vogelsang’s unfinished book and the novel paints a vivid picture of Cambridge, both in the seventeenth century and modern age. But in the end, I feel like it doesn’t quite cohere. Maybe it isn’t meant to because it is based on so much speculation, and as a result, the threads remain elusive and don’t quite join together. One clear thread woven throughout the book, from present to past and back again, is the dangers of obsession, whether in the name of science or rooting out the truth. Stott quotes a line from Swift in response to an excuse having “more plausibility than truth” (263). In its way, the book is an interesting comment on the fictions we tell ourselves or the stories we’re told that in many ways are much more believable than the truth.

The book was a true page-turner, and it’s the first book I’ve read in a while that I didn’t want to put aside and that I actively looked forward to picking back up again. I don’t know what is up with my luck lately, but I haven’t been picking books that are grabbing me. I really liked the references to Macbeth sprinkled throughout the text, and I find literary thrillers a lot more fun, when they’re well done, than your average thriller. Still, I wish that the various strands of the story had come together a little more elegantly.

Rating: ★★★½☆

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Review: Drums of Autumn, Diana Gabaldon, narrated by Davina Porter

Drums of AutumnAs I make soap, I’ve been listening to audio books, and I just finished a really long one—Drums of Autumn, the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Like the other books in this series, Drums of Autumn is narrated by Davina Porter.

This book picks up the story of Jamie and Claire as they settle in North Carolina on Fraser’s Ridge. Their daughter, Brianna, who lives about 200 years in the future in the late 1960’s, discovers disturbing news about her parents and decides to go through the stones at Craigh na Dun and help Jamie and Claire. Roger Wakefield, sometimes known by his birth name of Roger MacKenzie, discovers what Brianna has done and follows her through the stones.

I have read this book once before. I will just lay this on the table: I am not a fan of Brianna’s. I don’t like her personality much, and I can’t put my finger on why. Claire, to me, is interesting because she’s so knowledgeable about medicine, and I found her understanding of herbal healing particularly fascinating. I’m not into herbalism per se, but as a soap maker, I do find it interesting. Claire is no-nonsense, passionate, intelligent, and above everything else, interesting.

Because this book focuses so much on Brianna’s trials and tribulations, I find I don’t like it as much as the other books. I like the parts that dwell on Claire, Jamie, and even Young Ian, however. I didn’t realize until I read it again this time, but I also don’t care much for Roger. I don’t know if it’s because the pair of them seem indecisive and dispassionate compared to Claire and Jamie. I do feel that Gabaldon tries to impart some passion in their relationship, but I don’t buy it as a reader. It doesn’t feel the same. I wonder if it has something to do with this interesting comment Gabaldon made in her book The Outlandish Companion:

These [hard nuts] are the most difficult characters for me to animate; the characters whose function in the story is structural—they’re important not because of personality or action, but because of the role they play.

One example of a hard nut is Brianna, Jamie and Claire’s daughter. She existed in the first place only because I had to have a child. The fact of her conception provides the motive for one of the major dramatic scenes in Dragonfly, but it didn’t matter at all at that point who this kid was or what she would be like…

But who the heck was this character? And having created her purely for plot purposes, how was I to give her a personality? (130-131)

Perhaps it’s just my opinion, and others might disagree, but I would argue that Gabaldon doesn’t succeed fully in making either Brianna or Roger as real or as interesting as Jamie and Claire, or even as real and interesting as other minor characters who pop off the page.

Davina Porter is a heck of a good narrator, especially deft with handling all the voices of the characters. I would definitely seek out other books she has narrated just to hear her read.

In case you are wondering at this point, I have been enjoying the new Outlander series on Starz quite a bit. It is very true to the book, and the casting is excellent. I haven’t missed an episode yet. Even my husband is watching with me, insisting, “I don’t get how this is considered a woman’s story. I mean, I guess the books are romances…” Not exactly. Sort of difficult to classify. At any rate, the series is beautifully shot with great music and some fine acting. Check it out, if you haven’t.

Book Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Reading Updates and Other News

I have been busy, busy. I am making soap to gear up for fall. When you’re a soapmaker, you have to make the soap about four-six weeks in advance of the selling season because it needs that long to cure. I am doing a big arts and crafts fair on September 21, and I want have a good amount of stock.

School has started, at least for me. My students don’t return until September 8. We have pre-planning, though, and I have taken on a new role as English department chair. The start of the year has already been great.

I have been re-reading the Harry Potter series with Maggie. I have read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows much less often than the other books in the series. Re-reading Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix this last time made me think two things:

  1. A lot folks don’t like this one because Harry is so angry. Well, he was dealing with Voldemort’s emotions influencing his own, and even if that were not the case, he has a right, after everything that’s happened to him, to a bit of righteous anger. And he struggles through so much of that book.
  2. Every teacher and administrator working in schools should read this book. It has interesting things to say about teaching, especially about what happens when the government, and especially government officials who know nothing about education, interfere in schools.

I’m really enjoying reading these books with Maggie. I think she’s liking them as well.

I don’t have a lot of extra time with all this craziness, but my wardrobe is really frightening. I mean, I never shop for myself because I hate, hate, hate shopping. I absolutely loathe it. I hate hunting for something I like, I hate continually taking off my clothes and trying on outfits only to find they fit weird or I don’t like them, and I hate being in the store around people I don’t know well and with whom I have to have conversations. I also hate having to decline offers of a store credit card, along with the attempts to convince me that I could be saving so much money if only I had one. As a result, my clothing situation was getting close to desperate. One of my friends posted a link to this personal shopping service called Stitch Fix, and I thought, “yeah right, like I can afford a personal shopping service.”

Nevertheless, I visited the site, and I discovered that it was fairly reasonable. The styling fee is just $20, and the fee is applied to anything you buy. The personal stylist picks five items and sends them to you. You can set how often you receive packages. You fill out a comprehensive styling profile. I was impressed that Stitch Fix asked me for links to a Pinterest board where I pin clothes I like and my LinkedIn profile. I wouldn’t have thought to do either one, but it looks like it was helpful because I received my first shipment, and I liked everything so much that I kept it.

I am posting pictures of myself without makeup and with messy hair, so don’t look at my face, but check out what I received.

Plum Dress and White CardiganFirst, this plum wrap dress. I would have walked right by it if I had seen it in the store because I would never, ever have thought it would look good on me. The waist, however, is a little higher, so it actually covers up areas I might not want to show. It has capped sleeves, so I can easily add a long-sleeve sweater, tights, and boots, and I have a good winter/fall outfit, too. No, I do not have on tights; those are my really white legs.

Jeans, Cardigan, Dotted Print ShirtNext up, skinny jeans. Another item I’d have walked right by if I had seen them in the store. Truly. And they fit me really well. They are actually comfortable. I really liked the print on this shirt. It has no sleeves, so I have to wear the little short-sleeved cardigan they sent, which, incidentally, I also probably wouldn’t have picked out for myself. I have to admit it’s perfect for pairing with all sorts of outfits, thought.

Green ShirtI really liked this green shirt. It fit me well, and it’s versatile enough for work or casual dress. And it’s not too tight around my hips.

I was really pleased and surprised at how much I liked everything once I tried it on, with the prices (I got everything for less than $200), and with the convenience. I really think this is going to solve some of my issues with my wardrobe. I am trying out clothes I might not have tried, and I don’t have to go anywhere. And it costs about the same as I’d spend if I hauled my tuchus to the store. So I’m pretty happy. If you want to try it out, I have a referral code, and it would be awesome if you would use it when you sign up.

Stitch Fix

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R. I. P. Challenge 2014

R. I. P. ChallengeIt’s time again for my favorite reading challenge, the R. I. P. Challenge. It’s hard to believe this is the ninth year. I don’t think I participated until the third one. I absolutely love this time of year for reading creepy stories.

I like to do Peril the First, which is to “read four books, any length, that you feel fit (the very broad definitions) of R. I. P. literature.” I have been gathering together my list of potentials, and I plan to select my reads from the following list of books:

Aside from More Than This, I’m not sure which of these books I’ll choose. They look like a good list.

   

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Summer Reading: Greek and Roman Myth

ancient greece photo

I have been taking an online course in Greek and Roman Mythology offered by Penn State through Coursera. I have just two weeks left, and most of my reading this summer has been for this course. I have fallen a bit behind in documenting my reading as well, which is something I hope to fix. I thought, however, that I would share the texts we have read, along with my brief reviews.

First, we read Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey. As I had so recently listened to Ian McKellen read Fagles’ translation, I opted not to re-read it, and I seemed to do just fine with the coursework.

The next text was Hesiod’s Theogony. I had never read the Theogony before, and I admit I found parts of it quite interesting, at least in terms of origins for some of the popular myths with which I was familiar, including the displacement of Cronus by Zeus. This particular translation renders Uranus and Gaia as Heaven and Earth, respectively, and I admit because of unfamiliarity with the myths, I had to look that up. I think I would have liked it had their names not been translated. I found it interesting to learn, through the lectures, that the translation of “Chaos,” rendered in this translation “Chasm,” is not disorder so much as a void, which seems much more in line with the concept of the Big Bang and a move increasing toward entropy rather than away from it. In all, however, Theogony reads a little more like the “begats” in the Bible, and is not nearly as interesting as the other texts we read, though I can see why we read it.

Next we read two Homeric Hymns: the Hymn to Demeter and the Hymn to Apollo. The Hymn to Demeter recounts the story of Hades and Persephone, and the Hymn to Apollo recounts both Apollo’s birth and establishment of his Oracle at Delphi. For some reason, I didn’t get the requested translation, and I think the translations I used were a bit flowery and probably not as good. I don’t remember finding them to be all that gripping. To be honest, I can’t remember what I read much at all, which is probably not a good sign.

Afterward, we moved into Greek tragedy and read Aeschylus’s Agamemnon and Eumenides. When I was in high school, I got my hands on a list—I think I found it in a book—of texts all high school students should read in order to prepare for college. I knew my high school reading was sorely lacking, partly because I had moved so much that I went to three different high schools, and partly because we just didn’t read much. I read a lot of the books you probably remember reading in high school on my own. At any rate, Agamemnon was on that list, and I tried to read it back then and gave up. Reading it now, I think I can see why. For a play in which some interesting stuff happens, we sure don’t get to see any of it. It’s mostly some back-and-forth between Clytemnestra and the Chorus. I liked Eumenides better, mainly because it was an interesting look at jurisprudence, which was also how the course’s professor approached the play in his lectures. Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don’t! Orestes must avenge his father’s murder, but in so doing, he must kill his mother, invoking the wrath of the Furies.

After this point in the course, I fell behind. I was supposed to read Oedipus Rex (which I have actually already read and taught before) and The Bacchae, but I haven’t finished either one yet. Reviews to come once I do. I has been a long time since I read Oedipus Rex, but I am enjoying it great deal more than I liked either of the Aeschylus plays. However, I have had to put these readings aside in order to try, as much as possible, to catch up because this week, I was supposed to have read Books 1-5 of The Aeneid translated by Robert Fitzgerald, and I have to read Book 6 for next week as well as Books 3, 12, and 13 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

I think the texts were well chosen in terms of a good introduction to Greek and Roman myth, and I have to say I have learned a great deal from the lectures. I do happen to think that the pace of the course is too fast and the demands are too high for a Coursera course. I think a lot of people take Coursera courses to dip in a learn a little bit, and honestly, this one is as demanding as a normal college course in terms of time. However, it is a great course, and no one is twisting your arm making you take the quizzes or write the essays—you only do that if you want a certificate. But you know me. I have to be Hermione Granger about it. As a result, I don’t think I’ve had a chance to really savor what I’m learning. In fact, I can’t keep up.

Photo by uzi yachin

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