Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Anne of Ingleside by by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Anne of Ingleside (Anne of Green Gables #6) by Lucy Maud Montgomery manages to return to the charm of some of the earlier books while still feeling more like a collection of short stories which works more effectively here than in some of the previous books.

The focus is on Anne and her children, of which there are quite a few.  Six total.  There is none of the tedious matchmaking romance.  Instead, the foibles of family life take front stage, each of the children given a chance to shine in some way.  Well, almost all of them, anyway.  And I don’t want to spoil too much but I will say that the blurb on the back of my edition was ridiculous, alluding to the content of only the last few chapters.  In fact, I would suggest everyone avoid the Bantam Classic from 1992 altogether because it is so poorly edited, with names changing (Lina becomes Linda and one time Susan becomes Susand).

Now some side notes.  At one point Anne is walking with her still-bosom-buddy.  Anyone who is fond of the Anne books knows that Diana is always described as plump, being less sylphlike than Anne herself.  At the beginning you learn that Diana, now a mother and with the matronly figure to prove it, is said to weigh 155.  And the idea is that she is even more heavy now, due to childbirth and age.  If not downright fat, she is nonetheless the contrast to Anne’s delicate figure and I found myself disappointed to discover she was a mere 155.  That hardly seems so remarkably heavy.

Later in the novel, Anne feels a tingling in her lip (263).  Apparently she gets cold sores; I smiled.  Given what we know about these things and how few men Anne would have actually kissed, it is nice to see that even one who is so idealized is also so very human.

But, ultimately, except for the last few chapters, this book shines most when the focus is on the children.  Most of the book is dominated by their stories and it really is better than either of the previous two in the series.  There are only two more books in the series and the focus seems to more fully shift towards the children, especially the eighth book.  I am not complaining.  Anne as a child is charming and as an adult she is a lovely mother.  However, there’s only so much of her matchmaking and romantic intentions I could tolerate.  I’d already had my fill and this book was a nice respite.  

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Books I Should Have Read by Now Challenge

I found out about this on the Novel Nymph blog who, in turn, found it on Gabriel Reads.

Go to Gabriel Reads to find out the specifics of what qualifies as a book you should have read.  There are three levels to this challenge:
Casual Reader: At least 1 book a month
Avid Reader: At least 2 books a month
Voracious Reader: At least 3 books a month
I've signed up for Voracious Reader for obvious reasons.  Given my "Fifteen in 2011" plus my desire to read all of Jane Austen, it seemed a logical commitment to this challenge.

I'm share this here for all of you to ponder and decided for yourselves if you want to commit to reading books you should have read.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch is another look at grief and loss, as the titular allusion to Joan Didion’s own memoir suggests.  When Nina’s beloved older sister dies, her initial response is to live life to the fullest which, for her means filling her life with as much activity as possible.  As she herself explains, she is trying to live the life of two people now that her sister is gone.  But one day she decides to stop and, with the loving support of her husband and children, she begins a year long journey of reading a book a day.

Throughout the book, Sankovitch shares her relationship with her family and with books, often connecting the ones she reads during her “year of magical reading” with her life, whether it is a connection made to her parents’ experiences before she was born or to her own immediate day-to-day experience while she continues reaching for the next day’s book.

Sometimes the connections she makes seem more contrived than genuine.  She does not bog the book down with full reviews because she already reviewed every book in her website.  Wisely, she also doesn’t try to share her thoughts on each and every book she read.  Rather, she hits the high notes and moves on.

Perhaps I’ve over-saturated myself with books on grief and loss because I didn’t find this memoir as compelling as others.  I don’t know that Sankovitch was hoping to write a deeply personal memoir about death and bereavement.  Instead, her purpose seems to mostly be her desire to share a deep love and appreciation of and for books.  In this she succeeds and I found myself adding a few of her choices to my own “neverending-to-be-read-reading-list” in spite of the fact that she seemed to enjoy a book or two that I know I disliked.

I suppose that this ultimately proves to be a summer reading memoir, not despairing enough to really share the rawness of grief.  Then again, it is about a sister’s loss so there are probably some people who would prefer something far more escapist than real.  This is a nice enough book and I didn’t dislike it.  I simply didn’t fall in love with it.  But I do love books and might have considered giving this 4 stars on that basis alone had the author bothered to cite the many quotes she weaves throughout and uses as epitaphs to the chapters.  Unfortunately, she chooses not to do this and I continue to find this a frustration in so many books.  So, since I am on the fence between 3 or 4 stars, I’m falling onto 3 stars.

I recently finished a book with many quotes and every single one was cited.  I know these things are possible.  What I don’t know is why writers are no longer making the effort to do it in their own writing.  I hope this is just a momentary trend that will fade into disrespect and disuse where it belongs.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is a banned book group selection which I frankly didn’t want to read.  I mean, were we really going to suggest that Mitchell’s portrayal of slavery was accurate or would we agree with those who contested the book’s being on a school’s curriculum, declaring the novel racist?

I think the answer was pretty obvious and yet I was along for the ride so I read the novel.  Again.  Yes, again.  I had read it as a teenager and liked it.  A lot.  But mostly I loved the movie and because I loved the movie and this was before such things were available on video, let alone dvd, I read the novel the way some people watch a movie they like over and over again, even replaying their favorite scenes repeatedly.

And it’s important to me that, in this book review, I try to address a variety of things including my relationship with this book, such as it is.  Before I say anything further, I think it is outrageous that parents ever have to object to this novel being included in a curriculum for students because it is so obviously inappropriate that it is an insult to anyone’s intelligence that this novel should ever find space even in a summer reading list.

With that said, I cannot deny that this novel is well written.  The characters are wonderfully defined, multifaceted and complex.  Scarlett O’Hara, born in more contemporary times, would be a celebrity, a woman other women would admire for her business sense, her beauty, and her tiny waist.  But because she was raised in the South at a time when being educated was more a hindrance than a help, she seems silly, even foolish, all evidence to her intelligence and brutal common sense to the contrary.  Even Melanie Hamilton is a surprise as she unfolds on the page.  Not quite as daring or bold as Scarlett, she is a far stronger character than one would expect based on what the film shows.  The same can’t be said for Ashley Wilkes whose love and lust are constantly in conflict, adoring his Madonna wife while lusting after the “whore” Scarlett.

There are moments in the film which are weak and it is good to see that Mitchell’s writing was stronger than what finally made it to the screen.  Obviously there had to be some editing, some minor characters deleted and even whole scenes removed.  For instance, the fact that Scarlett has three children in the novel gives more fuel to her insisting that Rhett no longer come to her bed because she doesn’t want to have any more children.  While I can understand why the screenwriters chose to remove the son from her first marriage and the daughter from her second, when she confronts Rhett with her intentions, the foundation for her argument is weakened because she’s only had the one child.

Of course, other changes that are made are less obvious and far more interesting.  That Frank Kenneday, Ashley Wilkes, and the rest of the post-Civil War Confederates belong to the Ku Klux Klan is not quiet so obvious in the movie and one has to laugh when Rhett starts explaining to Scarlett that the KKK is disbanded.  History shows this to be false and given the fact that during the time between the two world wars, the same time during which Mitchell wrote and published this novel, the klan was, in fact, growing stronger and making inroads in politics as never before.

It is possible to dismiss how Scarlett and some of the other characters talking about “darkies” but it is the exposition where Mitchell’s racism shines through for she repeatedly links slaves with children and animals in a peculiar triumvirate, typically in the speech of someone else but often, if not more often, in the text itself.  Anyone who has seen the movie would naturally squirm with discomfort at how these characters are more caricature than honest, although there is a brief moment when Prissy makes a face at Scarlett’s back, a moment of clear disrespect that is not evident elsewhere on the screen and nowhere in the book.

The question is, do I feel this novel is racist?   To put it bluntly, hell yes.  And I found it most alarming when I read Rhett’s confession to Scarlett that his reason for being in jail is that he killed an “uppity nigger.”  This is changed, in the film, to his being in jail on trumped up charges.  In fact, far from coming across as a romantic hero, Rhett Butler’s estimation dropped significantly in my eyes.  He comes of as a bit of a bully, manipulative and controlling, with many of the earmarks of an abusive husband.  He threatens Scarlett by suggesting she should be horsewhipped, kicks down her door, even holds her had between his hands and says he could crush her skull.  Before coming to his defense, ask yourself if you would encourage your daughter or your best friend to marry a man who did any one of these things while dating.  If you had any sense, you wouldn’t.  And there is no justification for it.  The fact is, Rhett Butler is a racist, a pimp, a thief, and, when you really think about it, a total hypocrite.  He has no problem denigrating the Old South society until he realizes that, by doing so, he compromises his daughter’s future at which point he immediately changes his behavior.  Why would he even want his daughter to be a part of this society for which he had no fondness?  It doesn’t make sense but it is, somehow, still in keeping with his character.

The relationship with his daughter is also something I hadn’t considered with any depth because, without a doubt, there is a sort of emotional incest happening.  He says that his reason for pampering Bonnie is that she allows him to do all the things he wishes he could do for Scarlett, his wife.  That unlike his wife, Bonnie takes his gifts and his love with eager acceptance.  I am not suggesting that there was a physically sexual relationship between the two.  However, the way he treats the child, having her small bed placed beside his own in a bedroom separate from his wife’s, is indicative of a subtle incestuous quality to their relationship.

And all of this, I can understand my overlooking or not seeing clearly when I was first reading this novel at the age of thirteen.  However, I cannot understand how, even then, I could have overlooked the racism.  And it is this with which I am struggling.  Why did I ever love this book?  If I can understand how I could romanticize Rhett Butler, how could I overlook his saying he murdered an “uppity nigger”?  And if I could argue that at one time this book might have deserved to be on a school’s summer reading list, would I not protest loudly to find it still there today?  After all, we have many other novels about the Civil War that have since been written.  Surely, one of those could be used in place of this one.

When you get right down to it, if you remove the racism and the historical context, this novel is nothing more than a romance and I loathe romance novels, especially when the man is everything Mitchell makes Rhett to be.  I have vilified other romance novels that allow the young woman to fall in love with the bad boy and even though Scarlett is far from sweet and innocent, she deserves better than a man like Rhett Butler.  We all deserve someone better than a man like Rhett Butler.

And still, I can’t wrap my mind around how I could so casually ignore the racism that is practically on every page of this book.  It’s vulgar and disgusting.  In a few weeks, the summer reading lists will determine what books our local bookstore (yes, that is intentionally singular, sad to say) will put out on tables around the young adult reading section.  I know I will search to see if this book is still being included.  I can understand a higher tolerance for leaving it on the list, what with my living in Georgia.  I admit that there was some fun in reading the names of places and knowing what they are like now compared with what they were like then.  Still . . . I would hope not to see this book on those tables.  And I have to agree with those critics at the time who criticized the book, saying it was nothing more than a pot-boiler.  Frankly, my dear, I don’t think it deserved a Pulitzer Prize.

Of course, one must allow for the fact that I am nothing more than a damn Yankee so what do I know, really?

One of the controversies, and there are so many, regarding this novel is the scene in which Rhett Butler carries his wife, Scarlett, up the stairs.  In the novel, she is running from him, desperate to get to her room and lock the door but he catches up with her and grabs her.

Note to readers: When a woman is running away from you, wife or not, she is saying NO.

He grabs her and kisses her.  She resists.

Note to readers: When a woman resists your kiss, she is saying NO.

He lifts her up and carries her up the stairs, her face buried in his chest.  She screams.

Note to readers: When a woman screams, whether the scream is muffled or not, she is saying NO.

It is at this point the movie and the novel depart vaguely from one another because the movie, in typical Hollywood fashion, “fades to black” or, as in this case, Rhett carries her up into the darkness at the top of the stairs.  In truth, this is very much like the novel but since the movie then shifts to the afterglow of the morning after, we never have to suffer through the rhetoric of Margaret Mitchell as she changes the emotional dynamic and allows Scarlett to surrender to Rhett’s passion.

Note to women: When a man threatens to crush your skull with his bare hands and then carries you off to ravish you, just keep saying NO!

Seriously.  NO!!!

Is this scene in Gone With the Wind an example of marital rape?  Let us ignore the obvious arguments that legally there was no such thing as marital rape and a man would never have been convicted of such a crime no matter how many women dared to suggest it is possible.  The simple question is this: Does Rhett Butler rape Scarlett O’Hara?

I am loath to say that the argument for or against rape is blurry in the novel.  Mitchell beautifully betrays her sex by writing how Scarlett is simply swept away by Rhett’s masculine dominance.  Which explains her perky, giggly afterglow the following morning.

In the movie, however, the answer is yes.  Yes, he rapes her because all we see on the screen is her resisting, her struggling, her not wanting her husband to have sex with her.  But he does and then we see her perky and giggling in that same damn afterglow.  It is vulgar and as offensive as the racist rhetoric throughout the novel and the movie.

And rape should never be romanticized. Ever.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Operation Beautiful by Caitlin Boyle

Operation Beautiful: Transforming the Way You See Yourself One Post-It Note at a Time by Caitlin Boyle is a seemingly silly idea that has powerful repercussions.  One day when the author was having a bad day, she left a note on a public bathroom that read “You Are Beautiful.”  She took a picture of the note and posted it on her blog.  Thus a movement was born.  Readers began leaving notes in public places and taking photographs which they shared with on the blog.  Eventually, other messages from people who found the notes start arriving.

The message of this book starts off very powerfully, reminding the reader that we are beautiful no matter what, that our imperfections make us unique, that we are more than what we see in a mirror.  A powerful message that in small doses goes a long way.  But after pages of reading the same messages told in different ways, I couldn’t help feeling that there is so much more to being and feeling beauty than this endless barrage of messages that focus on appearance.  After about two chapters I was ready for Boyle and her contributors to move on, to discuss how intellectual pursuits, how compassion and altruism, how learning new skills for self-empowerment can all help fuel a sense of purpose.  However, the book never addresses the myriad ways that beauty manifests itself.  It alludes to it, occasionally, rarely.  Mostly the book is all about body-image, appearances, eating disorders, etc.

Perhaps this book will be the first in a series and Boyle will gather together a collection of notes her readers have shared that are more inclusive in how beauty is defined.  In an odd way, the book seems to be addressing the constant messages women receive about how we should look by focusing on precisely that—how we look.  Or how we think we look, anyway.  But it is rather like telling a junky not to use drugs and then showing them a pile of whatever substance was the drug of choice and saying, “Now remember, you are better than this.” Or like poking a person’s bruise and saying, “Does this hurt?” and then poking it again after they say yes, yes it does.

Perhaps the book in smaller doses would be better.  Oh wait.  It is.  It’s better in these little notes that different people leave around and are discovered by other people who occasionally smile.  I do like the idea of it.  I would imagine younger readers will love it.  I hope that Boyle will choose to move beyond the idea that beauty is only about diet, body-image, exercise, etc.  It is so much more.  But you know, if younger readers start to rethink how they see themselves on a purely physical better, it will open doors to appreciating beauty in the myriad ways it manifests itself within a single individual.  We are so much more than our bodies.  I wish this book had emphasized this more.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson

Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson is a discussion of ancient texts, beginning with a fragment from Sappho’s writings in which she equates eros with bittersweetness, although the neologism used by Sappho is actually sweetbitter.  And from the very start of this highly intellectual book we know that Carson is not merely looking at love, at eros, but at how language is used to describe and define love.

Although not a very long book, the text is quite dense and demands the readers attention.  Carson never comes off as a purely dry academic but more as an insatiably curious scholar.  Eros informed and even defined by yearning, the idea of triangulation–of the lover, the beloved, and the distance–are all implied in “I love you” and from this Carson continues to discuss how words do not create intimacy so much as reinforce the distance for when one writes to another, the words themselves are written in a moment which no longer exists.

It is this lexo-philosophic approach to the classic poets that makes this book a pleasure to read for anyone who loves words and language.  Reading Carson’s exploration is stimulating and fascinating and my only complaint is that the book ends so abruptly.  I wanted to read more, to learn more, to just revel in the way Carson weaves a spell with her ideas and how she connects the poetry and philosophy and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome.  I enjoyed this book very much the first time I read it but I adored it the second time.  A book well worth reading.  And reading again.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Younger by the Day by Victoria Moran

Younger by the Day: 365 Ways to Rejuvenate Your Body and Revitalize Your Spirit by Victoria Moran is a wonderful collection of daily readings that approaches the idea of health and well-being from a holistic perspective.  Written for women “of a certain age,” the recommendations include everything from diet and exercise to meditation and journaling practices to enhance the quality of life without making impossible promises like “do this and you’ll feel and look 10 years younger.”  Rather, Moran cleverly frames her suggestions in a delicate manner, realizing that nobody reading the book could possibly put each day’s suggestion into immediate practice.

In fact, this book is meant to be read and re-read.  I obtained a copy in May so I began reading the daily dose of wisdom at that time.  When I reached the last days’ entry (for me) on April 29th, I felt a bit of sadness.  I am going to miss my morning dose of Moran.  Each entry ends with a suggestion or an affirmation.  In January she encourages the reader to make the time to write out the affirmations that are most personally relevant.  This is just one of the many wonderful ideas she makes.  Drawing on research from traditional and complementary medicine, she covers the gamut of what the more mature woman can do to feel healthier, stronger, and just better about life.  Whether it is doing yoga or getting a massage, having a bone density test or a reminder to have those annual mammograms, Moran definitely covers it all.  Even hair and makeup.  But unlike glossy magazines that make a woman feel guilty for the cellulite or thinning hair, these suggestions are about doing what feels right to feel better, not shame or blame the reader into trying to look, let alone act, like what she isn’t—a 20 or even 30 year old woman.

But once again, my pet peeve rears its ubiquitous head and there are wonderful quotes from a variety of resources.  I wish I could look them up but there are no page citations.  I’ll have to read every book and/or writer quoted to find the original and read it in context.  Who has time for this?  I certainly don’t.  I wish writers would take time to properly cite their quotations.  It would make this reader endlessly happy.

Even with that said, I bought copies of this book for every woman I know who is perimenopausal or in the early stages of menopause because it is simply that good a book and I would recommend it to any woman "of a certain age" who is tired of empty promises or unrealistic goals.

I'll be rereading this one beginning in January.  Feel free to tell me if you plan to read along with me.
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