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.”

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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Summer Reading

Photo by Vassil Tsvetanov Ah, summer. That glorious time of year when it seems like all the time in the world to read is within our grasp. It seems like my TBR pile is getting larger and larger. The good news is that I have managed to find myself a book club, which I’ve been trying to do for some time. The book club is reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I have been wanting to read Adichie for some time, and without the impetus of the book club, I’m not sure when I would have gotten around to it.

I’m finally reading The Age of Innocence. I’ve seen the movie with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder many times, but I haven’t actually read the book, and it’s long overdue. I’m enjoying it a great deal so far. Beyond these two books, I’m still trying to figure out what I want to read. I signed up for a course in Greek and Roman Mythology through Coursera, and it has some required reading. Luckily, we start with The Odyssey, and I read it so recently (plus I’ve taught it a bunch of times), that I don’t feel tasked to re-read it for the class. I’m trying to figure out what’s been on my list for a long time that I really want to try to read.

However, it’s shaping up to be the summer of catching up on things I’ve meant to read for a long time. Case in point? I really would like to get to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, both of which I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I keep picking up The Pillars of the Earth and putting it back down again. I didn’t used to be so squeamish about really long books with tiny print, but in the last few years or so, I don’t know… I really have to want to read it if it’s that long. I’m not as bothered by listening to them as audiobooks, curiously. Perhaps it’s that my eyes are starting to bother me now when I try to read really tiny print. As I said, I wasn’t bothered by big books with tiny print so much in the past.

I have a lot of books on my Kindle that I want to get to, as well: Eleanor & ParkLongbournThe Dressmaker, and many others besides.

I also need to read More Than This by Patrick Ness, as it’s my school’s Upper School summer read. What are you reading this summer?

Photo by Vassil Tsvetanov

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Review: The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Patrick Stewart

The Last Battle is the final book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series. It begins with an evil ape named Shift, who bosses around a donkey named Puzzle under the pretense of being the donkey’s friend. The two find a lion skin, and Shift gets the bright idea of having Puzzle wear it so they can fool everyone into thinking Puzzle is Aslan. A bunch of people believe it. There is a bit with some dwarfs. There is a centaur and a unicorn. The Pevensies, minus Susan, and Eustace, Jill, Digory, and Polly, are all pulled back to Narnia after a mysterious bit with a train. A bunch of people worship the evil god Tash and want him to come but aren’t very happy when he shows up.

I don’t know what heck I read.

Listen, I have no problem with Christian allegory. Despite what J. R. R. Tolkien thinks, a good case can be made for The Lord of the Rings as Christian allegory, especially if you put it with The Silmarillion. I also happen to be a Christian. However, in this novel, Lewis sacrificed the plot in favor of ham-handed allegory. And it’s not even good.

I was already prepared for the “problem of Susan,” as I had run into commentary on the subject prior to reading the book, but it bears mentioning that leaving Susan completely bereft of family because she’s a normal teenager is truly heinous. What, girls should not grow up and become women? That’s not pure enough?

But what really bothers me is that it’s supposed to be Christian allegory, and everyone’s killing people right and left. What the heck? I mean, I gather it’s more Revelations than Book of John, but still…

My advice to anyone who, like me, didn’t read these as a child and decides to read them as an adult is to read The Magician’s Nephew, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and leave it at that. Maybe The Horse and His Boy if you want to learn more about those characters, who only get a few mentions in the last couple of books and otherwise don’t figure much into the grand narrative. Stay far, far away from the final two books.

Racist, sexist, sloppily written, muddled, pile of crap. I don’t understand why a writer would desecrate his own writing like that. Patrick Stewart couldn’t save it, though his narration was brilliant. WORST. ENDING. EVER.

I so hate C. S. Lewis.

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

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Review: The Widow’s War, Sally Gunning

The Widow’s War: A NovelSally Gunning’s novel The Widow’s War is the story of Lyddie Berry who lives with her husband Edward in 1761 Satucket (Brewster), Massachusetts on Cape Cod. When Edward dies in a whaling accident, Lyddie finds herself not only bereft of his companionship but also of the life they shared: as a widow, most of her property—including her house, cow, and furniture—is now owned by her son-in-law, Nathan Clarke, who also happens to be a jerk and a pig. As the novel unfolds, Lyddie, determined to maintain her independence and continue living the life she led before Edward’s death, challenges Nathan and attempts to hold on to her freedom.

This novel is an enlightening peek into what women’s lives in the eighteenth century might have been like. Gunning’s research is meticulous, and her characters leap off the page in full relief. All the historical details ring true. One thing I think Gunning gets right in her historical novels is she is able to produce strong heroines who live within but also challenge the strictures of their time periods in ways that are believable. Lyddie’s struggle for independence was heartbreaking, realistic, and intriguing. I know that some reviewers have challenged whether or not the book realistically depicts Lyddie’s relationship with her Native American neighbor Sam Cowett, but I didn’t find it difficult to believe. I also liked that the author did not choose to have Lyddie be “rescued” through a second marriage or a sudden change of heart on her son-in-law’s part. I could have put a spoiler alert before that last sentence I suppose, but I liked the ending enough (and for a stretch of the book didn’t think it was going to happen that way) that I went ahead and spoiled it anyway. Lyddie is a likable character. She could be called stubborn, but no one would say she was stubborn if she were a man. She is independent in a time when it’s just about criminal or at least unheard of for a woman to be so, and I found myself rooting for her to be successful. She’s made of some pretty strong stuff.

The Widow’s War is the first in what she calls her Satucket trilogy. I previously read the third book, The Rebellion of Jane Clarke.

Rating: ★★★★½

I read this novel as part of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

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