Reading Challenge Update

I have participated in six reading challenges this year. This late in the game, I probably won’t be adding more unless they run over in to 2011.

Crossed out challenges and books have been completed.

You know, I would really like to host a reading challenge next year, so I need to think of an idea for one.

* Technically finished at the level I committed, but if I read one more book, I can move up a level in the challenge.

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.

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?James Shapiro’s latest book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? examines the Shakespeare authorship question in a way that it traditionally hasn’t been examined by academics: seriously. An interesting problem has arisen in the age of the Internet: the conspiracy theorists have been able to be heard in ways that were impossible 20 or 30 years ago, and their claims have been taken much more seriously as a result. We live in an era that thrives on conspiracy and hidden history. Shapiro, rightfully I think, recognized that it was time for a serious Shakespeare scholar to examine and present the case for Shakespeare as the writer of his plays—which he has managed to do brilliantly and without resorting to attacking the intellect of the anti-Stratfordians.

Shapiro begins by examining the origin of the anti-Stratfordian movements in an unlikely place—the early biographies of Shakespeare, which sought to correlate Shakespeare’s life to his plays and sonnets. It’s a slippery slope, Shapiro warns, because it ultimately deprives Shakespeare of an imagination. Shapiro also examines the rise and fall of the Baconians. The history of the Oxfordian movement was particularly interesting in light of the fact that many famous actors and even Supreme Court justices have decided in favor of Oxford over Shakespeare. And Shapiro does not flinch from describing the uncanny resemblances some parts of Oxford’s life have to the plays; however, he also presents solid evidence in favor of Shakespeare that should put to rest any doubts. It should, but it won’t precisely because people seem compelled to believe in their favorite candidates with the zeal almost of adherents to a religion. Terms like “heretic” and even “blasphemy” are thrown around. And in such a tightly contested matter, even if the preponderance of the historical evidence is in favor of Shakespeare, minds are not going to be changed. However, what Shapiro’s book likely will do is offer those skeptical but not entrenched a solid argument for Shakespeare. This book is a must read for Shakespeare lovers and teachers of Shakespeare. Every year my students ask me about authorship. I feel much more informed now than I have felt in the past.

Rating: ★★★★★

I don’t know that I can attain Litlover status in the Bibliophilic Books Challenge, but this book would make a fourth book toward the six required to meet that challenge level. I committed to reading three: the Bookworm level.

As a postscript, I enjoyed reading this book on my Kindle very much. I was much more absorbed into the book than usual, interestingly enough, and I forgot these books usually have a lot of notes and a large index, so I reached the “end” well before I realized it.

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (P.S.)James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 describes the events surrounding one of Shakespeare’s most prolific years, beginning with his finishing Henry V, through the composition of Julius Caesar and As You Like It, ending with the composition (and revision) of Hamlet. I had not read much before wishing we had a book like this for each of the years of Shakespeare’s career. Shapiro deftly connects historical events such as the threat of Spanish invasion, a botched campaign in Ireland led by the Earl of Essex, and fears regarding Elizabeth’s succession to characters and events in these four plays. Starting with winter 1598-1599, Shapiro sets each play’s composition in a different season and describes the historical events during that time period. One of my students once noted that I always say “No one writes in a vacuum.” I didn’t know I said it that much, but it’s true, and Shapiro’s book is a testament to the influences upon Shakespeare’s writing.

I found it intriguing to discover the types of historical evidence for Shakespeare, especially in light of the fact that so many people claim he didn’t exist or didn’t write his plays. I am looking forward to reading Contested Will, in which Shapiro examines the anti-Stratfordian theories for authorship.

This book abounds with descriptions and side notes that lend an extra layer of understanding. It was this year that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men fired their clown, Will Kemp, and hired a couple of excellent boy actors capable of playing strong female roles. It was this year that the Globe was constructed when the lease on the land housing the Theatre could not be renewed. In addition, Shapiro shares the in-jokes most modern readers would likely miss:

The cross-pollination of the plays reaches another level when Polonius unexpectedly tells Hamlet, “I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed i’ th’ Capitol; Brutus killed me” (3.2.99). John Heminges, who played older men, probably spoke these lines and also played Caesar. The in-joke, which audiences at the Globe would have shared, is that Richard Burbage, who was playing Hamlet and had played Brutus, was about to stab Heminges again. (328).

Of course, this example is only one among many. This book will have a treasured place on my shelf and will be at hand when I teach Shakespeare again. If you enjoy Shakespeare, Tudor history, the Renaissance, or just a good book about books, read A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book is my third selection for the Bibliophilic Book Challenge. I committed to the Bookworm level of the challenge, which means completion of three books, so the great news is that I have completed this challenge. I may continue to read more books suited to the challenge.

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels

Thursday Next: First Among SequelsThe fifth book in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, Thursday Next: First Among Sequels, begins more than a decade after its predecessor, Something Rotten. Thursday’s son Friday is now a teenager whose thoughts seem to revolve more around his favorite group Strontium Goat than on joining the ChronoGuard—something he must do, and soon, or the world might end. And that’s the least of Thursday’s problems. She also has to deal with the two book versions of Thursday Next, a reappearance of old nemeses Aornis Hades and Felix8, and Goliath Corporation’s machinations. Worst of all, the stupidity surplus is at an all-time high, and in order to get rid of it, the government has decided to turn Pride and Prejudice into a reality show called The Bennets. It’s up to Thursday to put all things to rights.

I think this book is one of the stronger in the series. As full of literature jokes as the others, it’s also folded upon itself as Thursday has by this time had books written about her, which have spawned BookWorld Thursdays that don’t resemble herself at all—or do they? My favorite parts were some speculation that Harry Potter himself might turn up for a meeting (I won’t give it away), and a passage in which Fforde shares his own feelings about literature (I know this because he shared them at his book signing, too):

I’d been trying to explain to them just what form the BookWorld takes, which was a bit odd, as it was really only my interpretation of it, and I had a feeling that if they actually accepted my way, it would become the way, so I was careful not to describe anything that might be problematical later.

I found that passage to be a beautiful metaphor for the interpretation of literature, and it made me wonder what I might see if I traveled to the BookWorld. I am thinking a lot of squashy places to curl up and read, rain-spattered windows, and books, books, books.

I highly recommend this entire series to book lovers. The jacket blurbs recommend it to fans of Harry Potter, and it has a bit of that charm, but really it’s not like that series. It’s silly, bookish, and full of in-jokes for the well-read. You won’t be able to put them down. I can’t wait for the next Thursday Next.

So… what do you think the BookWorld looks like?

Bibliophilic Books Challenge Typically British Book Challenge

This novel is the second selection for the Bibliophilic Books Challenge and the third for the Typically British Reading Challenge. My next excursion is a trip back to Meryton to visit the Bennets of Longbourn. I haven’t been back for some time.

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.