Snow Day(s) Reading

Blue Whale Books
Tomorrow will be my fourth snow day in a row. I’m sure those of you who live in snowier climes think it’s absurd that five inches of snow or so has ground a city the size of Atlanta to a halt, but the fact is that we so rarely have snow that we don’t have the resources to clear it away when we do. I have read conflicting accounts regarding the number of snow plows the city has. One said eight, the other eleven. In any case, a city the size of Atlanta needs way more than eleven plows after a snow storm. Just in case you think I’m a wimp, I grew up in Denver, and I know from snow.

In my cabin fever, I have been reading, cross-stitching, and watching The Tudors. I’m late to that party—we just got Netflix. Enjoyable, but highly historically inaccurate. I think they missed an opportunity by not continuing the series through Elizabeth. Speaking of which, this new series on Starz looks like a combination of The Tudors and Arthurian legend.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Rg4Tnnjot4

I will probably watch it. James Purefoy is playing King Lot, and I really liked Purefoy in A Knight’s Tale. Of course, he’s playing Edward, the Black Prince, probably one of the coolest dudes ever. Perhaps not as cool as Alfred the Great, who is my new hero after reading more about him in The Story of Britain by Rebecca Fraser, which I am currently enjoying (I’m in the middle of William the Conqueror right now). Aside from Joseph Fiennes as Merlin, I don’t recognize any of the other actors in this new Arthur series. Speaking of James Purefoy, his IMDb profile states he’s Ned Alleyn in A Dead Man in Deptford, which is based on a book of the same name that is on my TBR pile. Plus! He’s a character in one of my current reads, Conceit. I didn’t realize Ned Alleyn had married Constance Donne, daughter of John Donne, but sure enough, he did. I need to move A Dead Man in Deptford up higher so I can finish it before the movie comes out.

Conceit is, so far, much better than The Lady and Poet, which read much more like a romance novel (albeit a pretty decent one). Conceit is much more literary to begin with, and I find the times captured more realistically. If I can be allowed a moment’s indulgence, there is an epidemic in historical fiction. It seems we can’t have a strong female lead who acts according to the historical conventions of her day. No, she must act as we would have her act. She must be headstrong and ahead of her time. I like a strong female protagonist, but I want her to be realistic, too. I am so tired of this modern reinterpretation of the feminine. Conceit is narrated by Pegge Donne, a younger daughter of Donne, and takes places years after the events of The Lady and the Poet. I can’t figure out why it hasn’t been published in the U.S., but thanks to Amazon, you can still order it through third party sellers, which is how I bought it.

I also saw the trailer to the new Jane Eyre movie today. Who is looking forward to this?

I was able to get a movie poster for this film at the recent National Council of Teachers of English conference, and it’s gorgeous. See:

Jane Eyre Movie Poster

photo credit: Funky Tee

Emily’s Ghost

Emily’s Ghost: A Novel of the Brontë SistersDenise Giardina’s novel Emily’s Ghost is the third novel about the lives of the Brontës that I’ve read this year. The other two were Jude Morgan’s Charlotte and Emily and Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë. Perhaps because Wuthering Heights is my favorite novel, I felt Emily’s presence lacking a bit in these other two novels as they were both told from Charlotte’s point of view. Giardina’s novel is told mainly from Emily’s point of view, but also includes the perspectives of the curate William Weightman, supposed by many to have been a love interest of Anne Brontë’s. Giardina chooses instead to depict William Weightman as Emily’s beloved. As no substantiation exists for a definite relationship with Anne, I suppose Giardina can take the license to offer a different portrayal of Weightman’s affections than is traditionally shown.

Emily’s Ghost is not a sweeping saga of the Brontës so much as a collection of important vignettes. Giardina notes that the story we traditionally read of the Brontës has been Charlotte’s, as she was the sister who survived and her biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, naturally had Charlotte’s point of view to work with. Emily’s story, at least as Giardina imagines it, is very different. I found her William Weightman charismatic and her depiction of their relationship plausible. Patrick Brontë is particularly well drawn in this novel, and Branwell is portrayed in a much more sympathetic light than usual, due mainly to his concern over Emily’s reaction to Weightman’s death and his care for Weightman as he died. Charlotte, on the other hand, suffers a great deal from Giardina’s characterization. She comes off as a little bit man-crazy, and certainly whiny, self-absorbed, and vain (about her talent, especially). In the final pages, she’s downright appalling.

I actually think of the three Brontë novels I’ve read, I enjoyed this one the most. I was swept away—it’s easy to tell Giardina is a fan of the Brontës. I also felt somehow that this novel captured something accurate, something very real about the Brontë household. Or perhaps a somewhat romanticized version of it. It’s much more like Wuthering Heights than Jane Eyre, which is to be expected. A couple of favorite lines stand out:

They were sisters. They loved one another. They were also rivals, though they never admitted to it.

I can easily picture the Brontës feeling this way—so much talent in so little space.

And Emily, remarking to her sisters, who do not like Wuthering Heights:

And do you despise Heathcliff? Then despise me! Because I—” She jabbed her finger against her chest as she leaned forward across the table. “I am Heathcliff! I am!”

Be sure to check out the much more comprehensive review at BrontëBlog. If you are a fan of the Brontës, you will enjoy this novel.

Rating: ★★★★★

Happy birthday, Emily Brontë.

Charlotte and Emily

Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the BrontësJude Morgan’s Charlotte and Emily is mistitled. It is actually the story of Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë, as well as their parents. In the UK, the book was titled The Taste of Sorrow, a title much more apt, though one could argue again that the Brontës endured much more than a taste of sorrow. I imagine the reason for the change stems from the notion that Americans will be more interested in Charlotte and Emily, as though we aren’t as likely to buy a book the book with Morgan’s title. I grow tired of this sort of retitling.

Morgan’s novel begins on the deathbed of Maria Branwell Brontë and traces the familiar family story from the coming of Aunt Branwell to help care for the children, to the loss of Maria and Elizabeth, casualties of the harsh conditions at the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan Bridge. Branwell is given the gift of toy soldiers, and he and his sisters create imaginative stories. As they grow, they find it difficult to leave behind their created worlds of Angria and Gondal. As adults, the sisters try their hand at teaching and governessing, but they are ultimately unhappy. Their brother Branwell succumbs to drinking and dissolution; meanwhile, they write.

Morgan’s writing style draws you in. He doesn’t attempt to mimic the style of the Brontës, and some expressions (Tabby’s “What’s up?”, for instance) seem jarring, but the overall effect is an admirable piece of work that brings the Brontë family alive. Patrick Brontë, the family patriarch, suffers a little under Morgan’s characterization, but as I don’t know much about the man, I can’t say that the characterization is unfair. Once again, I walk away from a book about the Brontës with the notion that no matter their unhappiness in life, I would really like to have sat at the table with all of them for tea and conversation. Branwell is the great unrealized genius, fiery and passionate. Anne, the dutiful, honest thinker. Emily, the blunt, private dreamer. Charlotte, much like her heroine Jane Eyre, a person whose passions run deep beneath the surface.

I highly recommend this novel to fans of the Brontës. It’s highly readable historical fiction that brings the reader into the world of the Brontës. Don’t take my word for it, however. The BrontëBlog has a glowing review of the book.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book concludes the All About the Brontës Challenge for me and is my fifth book in the Bibliophilic Books Challenge (one more will bring me to Litlover status). This book is also my sixth selection for the Typically British Reading Challenge, bringing me to the “Bob’s Your Uncle” level. I’ll keep going.

Maria Brontë

Maria Brontë

Maria Brontë
Photo by Gary Myers, via Find a Grave

I’m currently reading Charlotte and Emily by Jude Morgan. I am new to the Brontës, having only read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in the last three years. Upon reading Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë earlier this year, I became much more interested in the Brontës themselves. I highly recommend BrontëBlog if you want to keep up with Brontë references in both pop culture and academia. I haven’t read any Brontë biographies yet. Syrie James’s novel begins just as Charlotte Brontë has returned from Belgium. All of the surviving Brontës are adults, and their sisters Maria and Elizabeth, who died as children, are logically not a part of the story. Jude Morgan begins his novel with the death of Maria Branwell Brontë, wife of Patrick Brontë and mother of the six Brontë children. After a flash forward of a few years, Patrick Brontë seizes an opportunity to educate his daughters inexpensively and sends first Maria and Elizabeth, then later Charlotte and finally Emily to the Clergy Daughters’ School in Cowan Bridge, some forty miles away from Haworth, the Brontës’ home. Because Morgan chose to begin his story of the Brontës at an earlier time, his novel provides a glimpse not only of the Brontës’ mother, but also Maria and Elizabeth.

My first thought upon reading about Maria’s abiding patience and endurance in the face of outright child abuse at the school was that she sounded just like Helen Burns in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. Eager to learn whether or not this was true or conjecture on behalf of Morgan, I searched for references to Maria as the inspiration for Helen, and I discovered some quotes from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë. Indeed, Charlotte did claim, in the face of criticism that Helen was “too good to be true” (and I admit I felt the same way when I read Jane Eyre), that “she was real enough.  I have exaggerated nothing there.” Mrs. Gaskell described an incident that Morgan works into his narrative in which Maria, not well enough to get up, was urged to stay in bed by the other girls, only to be abused by their teacher, Mrs. Andrews. Maria struggled to dress herself, urged the other girls to have patience, and was subsequently punished for being late (presumably to breakfast or class—Gaskell did not say).

After reading about Maria and learning that her story as presented by Jude Morgan was true, the first thing I wanted to do was go back in time and rescue her from that awful place and take care of her, which I’m sure her father and siblings wished they could have done. Her story is heartbreaking, moving, and sad. Given Patrick describes talking with eleven-year-old Maria  “on any of the leading topics of the day with as much freedom and pleasure as with any grown-up person,” one cannot help but wonder what books Maria might have written had she lived.

I learned more about Maria Brontë at these websites:

On an unrelated note, I am appreciating Morgan’s writing style a great deal. His use of stylistic fragments and run-ons to evoke events whirling out of control as well as occasional adjectives shifted out of order popped off the page because I have recently been teaching students these techniques using Image Grammar by Harry Noden. Though Noden gives examples from prominent writers in his book, it’s fascinating as a lover of the craft of writing and and avid reader to catch these interesting techniques in action.

Kindle TBR Pile

Most avid readers I know have a TBR (to be read) pile. I mostly keep my TBR pile on Goodreads. I sometimes remember to put these books on my Amazon Wishlist. I have recently acquired a Kindle, and my department at school gave me an Amazon gift card in honor of my being selected as the Georgia Council of Teachers of English (GCTE) Secondary Teacher of the Year.

Since purchasing my Kindle, I have downloaded several books, all now in my TBR pile.

HornsContested Will

Medieval LivesThe Dream of Perpetual Motion

I really added Horns at Steve’s request, as he has been wanting to read it, but it has received good reviews, and I think I’ll eventually check it out, too.

I think I first heard about Contested Will via Twitter, but I’m not sure if it was @shakespearetav or @madshakespeare. I’m reading A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 by James Shapiro, the author of Contested Will, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I see the anti-Stratfordians have begun panning Contested Will in Amazon reviews.

I have long enjoyed Terry Jones’s take on medieval history. Many people don’t know it, but Jones is a medieval scholar with a degree in English from Oxford. He has a gift for bringing history alive with humor, and I always enjoy whatever he does. Medieval Lives has been on my Amazon Wishlist for ages, so I finally purchased it.

I found out about The Dream of Perpetual Motion via Mad Shakespeare, which is a clever blog that you should be reading if you are a Shakespeare fan. This novel is a steampunk version of Shakespeare’s late romance The Tempest. I have never tried steampunk before, but I have tried books with elements of steampunk, such as Stardust. I was dithering about whether to download this book when @paulwhankins, who created a wonderful introduction to steampunk using LiveBinders, said it was good. That was enough for me.

I also found a good deal on three novels from the Brontë sisters on Kindle for $0.99. I haven’t read anything by Anne Brontë, and this collection affords me the opportunity not only to add an additional Brontë novelist to my TBR pile, but also to have my favorite novel (Wuthering Heights) and Jane Eyre at my fingertips wherever I go. The collection comes with Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Agnes Grey. If I can, as we say down here in the South, “get off the stick” and read it, I might finish it in time to include it as part of the All About the Brontës Challenge.

Living the Literary Life

NovelWhore tweeted a good question: “What book most represents what you want your life to be like?”

This is a tough questions to answer. I would love to be able to go to Hogwarts and do magic like the characters in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but Harry and Company go through some very rough times. They lose their loved ones, they’re tortured and outcast for their beliefs, and they experience a great deal of pain and suffering. Not even magic can eradicate these types of problems.

Una Spenser of Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel Ahab’s Wife is one of the strong female protagonists I most admire. She touches so much history, and she’s truly a remarkable woman. However, she also is forced into cannibalism to survive a shipwreck, an experience that drives her husband insane. I certainly wouldn’t want to have some aspects of Una’s life, but others sound truly amazing.

While I admire the passion and windswept beauty of the landscape in both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, the characters again must live through such ordeals, much of it at the hands of other people who are cruel for reasons that are difficult to fathom. Wuthering Heights, Thrushcross Grange, and Thornfield Manor might be interesting to visit, but I can’t honestly say I’d want to live there.

Manderley seems like a great house to explore. I love Daphne DuMaurier’s descriptions of her unnamed narrator in Rebecca. However, if Mrs. Danvers must come with the house, I have to decline.

No, if I had one choice, one book in which I could live, one book that represents what I wish my life could be like, it would be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Here are my reasons:

  1. Empire waists are flattering. The clothes are simply gorgeous.
  2. Despite the supposed repression of the time, Lizzie manages to express her true thoughts quite well, especially when she’s been insulted. She does not accept Mr. Collins’s proposal: she knows she will be miserable. When Mr. Darcy insults her with his first proposal, she lets him know in no uncertain terms, exactly where he can stick that proposal.
  3. England. You will not meet a bigger Anglophile. If I could live anywhere in the world and money/job were no object, I’d pack my bags for the U.K. this red hot minute.
  4. Austen’s economy of description evokes just enough of the setting to give the reader an idea without becoming bogged down in detail. Even so, I can see all of it, and it’s so beautiful.

In Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, characters are able to jump inside books, and Thursday even lives inside one for a time. If anyone ever works out how to visit books, I want to book a trip inside Pride and Prejudice.

In which book would you like to live? Blog about it and tag others (we can make this a meme) or leave your answer in the comments.

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte BrontëI have just completed Syrie James’s novel The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë. Depending on your knowledge of the Brontës’ biographies, this review may be a bit spoilery. As an English teacher, I knew a fair amount, but I learned a great deal more than I previously knew about the Brontës from this book.

First and foremost, Syrie James has carefully and lovingly researched the Brontës in order to write this book: a fact which shines from every page. I have often said I wished I could sit and eat dinner with the Brontës just once, just to hear what they might talk about. To be around just a great collection of literary genius all gathered in one household would truly be a delight. While that wish can never come true, reading James’s novel is a close approximation. The conversations that James conjures among Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as they write their novels, discussing the merits (and deficiencies) of each other’s work capture what it must have been like to be a writer in that family. Their closeness and love for each other is beautifully rendered. Knowing the pain that Charlotte would endure as her siblings all passed away within a short span of time, I was more or less prepared for it, but I admit I teared up a little with each loss.

Charlotte’s own life story is equal to any of her novels and those of her sisters as well. It was with pleasure that I read of her happiness with her husband, but with sadness, too, especially for him, as I knew she did not live long after her marriage. If you like the Brontës, Victorian literature, or just books about books, my suggestion would be to read this book without delay. I found it a pleasure from start to finish and can hardly wait to read more of Syrie James’s writing.

Brontë Challenge Bibliophilic Books Challenge

This book is my first selection for both the All About the Brontës Challenge and the Bibliophilic Books Challenge, and if you are participating in either challenge, I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

I have a fun poll for Brontë fans:

What is your favorite Brontë novel?

View Results

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Feel free to discuss further in the comments.

Shelfari and Reading Updates

Before I curl up with my books, I wanted to mention two things. First, I joined Shelfari today. I resisted joining another network because I am very happy at Goodreads. I am a member of LibraryThing, but unless you agree to pay for a membership, you are limited to only 200 books, so I am not at all active at LibraryThing. You might not remember this, but back in 2007 a controversy erupted over the fact that Shelfari did not used to allow users to easily uncheck the names of contacts they did not want to invite to use Shelfari. Tim Spalding, CEO of LibraryThing, also caught Shelfari astroturfing. However, I’ve not heard any criticism of Shelfari for two years, now, so I joined up. The interface is beautiful, and the community is more in charge. At Goodreads, you can apply to become a “Librarian” and edit book information, but Shelfari allows all community members to do so, which is both more risky and more open. Goodreads easily allows users to connect their accounts to Twitter, and it also allows me to share blog posts, but that may be because I’m a Goodreads author. As far as I can tell, Shelfari doesn’t allow you to do either of those things. So anyway, I’ve joined up, and we’ll see how it works out. Considering the time investment today, I hope it will be worthwhile. You can see my bookshelf in the sidebar to the right, and feel free to be my friend on Shelfari (and Goodreads, for that matter, but don’t expect too much if you become my friend on LibraryThing).

Second, I have begun two reading challenges: the Bibliophilic Books Challenge and the All About the Brontës Challenge. with my first selection, Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë. It should be obvious how the book meets the Brontë challenge, but in case you were wondering how it meets the Bibliophilic Challenge, it is the fictionalized diary of Charlotte Brontë, and at only about 50 pages in, James has already mentioned Rochester and Jane and discussed the juvenile writing of the Brontës, as well as Branwell Brontë’s poetry, so I decided it met the criteria for the challenge.

I’m also in the midst of re-reading the Outlander series. I have not read the last three books, and it has been so long that I think I had better re-read the first four before I try to pick up the most recent books. I am currently working on the second (and my favorite) book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. I am continuing to read Crime and Punishment through DailyLit, and when I have to turn out the lights, I’m reading Mansfield Park on the iPhone with Stanza.

Bibliophilic Book Challenge

2010 Reading Challenges

I finally had an opportunity to peek at my feed reader and discovered two interesting book challenges for 2010. I plan to participate in both challenges, given I have the time. I have just discovered I will be teaching a fifth class (and yes, five different preps) next semester, and I will be taking a difficult grad school course. I must find time to read, however, even if it’s just listening to audiobooks in the car because I need it to feed my soul.

Bibliophilic Book Challenge

The first book challenge I’ll be participating in is the 2010 Bibliophilic Book Challenge. This challenge involves reading books about reading, and from what I gather, what I call “derivative fiction,” such as Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, can count. I have not decided with certainty what I will read, but I know one book will be Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Novels Like a Professor. I thoroughly enjoyed his other book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I can’t stop recommending it to folks. The challenge consists of three levels:

  • Bookworm: Read three books
  • Litlover: Read six books
  • Bibliomaniac: Read twelve books

I know I can’t complete the Bibliomaniac level, and Litlover is possible, but unlikely, so I will only commit to Bookworm at this point. I just need to choose two more books. I will update once I have figured out what I’ll read.

Brontë ChallengeThe other challenge is the All About the Brontës challenge. In order to complete this challenge, I need to read or watch three to six Brontë-related books or films by the June 30 deadline. The flexibility of the challenge means that I will probably complete it, but aside from reading Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, I’m not sure what I will do. I am thinking at least one audiobook, probably Wuthering Heights, which I’ve already read, but which I will be teaching this year, so it would be worth it to revisit. Again, once I figure out exactly what I plan to do for the challenge, I’ll update, but I will commit to three items at this point.

If you have a reading suggestion that would be appropriate for either challenge, I would surely appreciate it. Just leave a comment.

Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is a parallel novel that explores perhaps one of the most interesting and mysterious characters in literature: Bertha “Antionette” Mason, the mad woman in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Upon first reading Jane Eyre, I found parts of it to be somewhat slow, particularly Jane’s childhood recollections; however, after some months to reflect, I can find little to criticize in the novel, which is perhaps why I didn’t enjoy Wide Sargasso Sea as much as I did Jane Eyre.

It was interesting to learn more of Antoinette’s possible background. I have read that Rochester comes off rather badly in Rhys’s novel, but I didn’t find this to be the case. He doesn’t come off well, but he’s certainly no worse in Wide Sargasso Sea than he is in Jane Eyre. In fact, I sympathized with him, as his account of his marriage in this novel agrees with his account in the other in one important respect: he was tricked, and he was forced. How much of his paranoia about his wife being insane actually drove her to insanity is debatable.

However, Antoinette is certainly a much more sympathetic character, as most characters are when they are able to tell their side of the story. In many ways, her past, filled with rejections from her mother and the society in which she lived, was as sad as Jane’s. She no more deserved what happened to her than Jane did. But Rochester still doesn’t quite come off the villain for me. Who is? I suppose that’s something I’m still trying to figure out for myself, too.

I did feel cheated by not seeing Antoinette’s motivation for some of her actions in Jane Eyre. Only the last twenty pages or so are devoted to events in Jane Eyre. One could argue that as Antoinette was insane at that point, and clearly fuzzy on many details of her life, she didn’t recollect what she was doing in order to tell about it. However, I still wanted to see her light Rochester’s bed on fire, rip up Jane’s veil, and stab Richard Mason. While she is told about Mason, she has no recollection and almost seems to feel she is being lied to.  I wanted to see that moment of madness and rage, rather than read yet another second-hand account.  What drove her?  What motivated her?  That piece of the puzzle was still missing.  I wanted to see whether or not she realized who and what Jane was. This novel didn’t satisfy that desire, but it was a quick read and a good book that I would recommend to anyone who enjoyed Jane Eyre.

My next book is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which I failed to finish in high school and consequently have decided to return to.