Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Little Women Read-Along: A Telegram (Ch. 15)

Oh boy.  When things get serious, they get really serious.  We go from "Yay!  Jo's published!" to "ACK!  Father's grievously wounded!" in a couple of pages.  A matter of minutes, if you don't pause between chapters.  Marmee goes quite helpless for a few minutes, giving us some new insight into her -- she's becoming more and more human as the book goes on, I think.

Laurie and Mr. Laurence are awesome here, stepping up to the plate as true friends and helping in any way they can.  Mr. Laurence offers every help he can dream up, "from his own dressing gown to himself as an escort" (p. 144).  What a sweet guy he's turned out to be.

And then Jo cuts off her hair.  Selfless, impetuous Jo.  I think I like her better for that than I have in the whole book so far.

Favorite Lines:

Jo assumed an indifferent air, which did not deceive anyone a particle... (p. 145).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Do you find Jo more sympathetic or less after she confesses she's crying in the night over losing her hair, not over her father's peril?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

"The March Family Letters" -- a Guest Review by Birdie

The March Family Letters
by Birdie

With the huge popularity of 'vlog'-style adaptations of classic works of literature, it was only a matter of time before someone would adapt Little Women in this way. And lo and behold, since Christmas last year, The March Family Letters have started on YouTube. The modern day adaptation of Little Women is the first webseries by the Canadian Cherrydale Productions, but is broadcast on the Pemberley Digital channel, well-known for The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved.

In the adaptation, the four March sisters, led (or should I say coerced?) by Jo, are filming updates for their mother 'Marmee,' who is deployed. The updates vary from snippets of everyday life to Meg's 'How to' videos, Amy trying to follow current YouTube memes, and Beth performing her self-written songs. Soon, we meet some friends of the sisters, their neighbor Laurie and his tutor Joan Brooks.

Before I give my opinion about this webseries, I must say I 'binge' watched it over the last week. I never know whether this is a good idea with webseries, or whether you lose something by not following the story in small chunks over time.

With that out of the way:  I'm not a big fan of The March Family Letters. I definitely think the idea behind the vlogs is a good one. It feels natural for a family to want to update a relative, and this technique is also used in From Mansfield with Love, a webseries based on Mansfield Park which I absolutely love. No, it's the characters which trouble me. I just can't connect the loud, pushy and weird-lipstick-wearing Jo of this adaptation with Alcott's beloved Jo. Nor does Meg feel quite right; she seems cold and almost arrogant. I read a comment beneath one of the videos about Amy, how she 'made Lydia Bennet look like a responsible adult.' So yes, I can see the characters resemble those that Alcott created, but they all seem inflated, larger-than-life and somewhat unrealistic. You might notice I didn't mention Beth. That's because I like her portrayal best of the four sisters so far. She's quiet, shy, but clearly talented, and loves her sisters and home-life very much. As to Laurie, I reserve my judgement, because I feel we haven't gotten to know him well enough. Which is in itself a little point of criticism, I feel like his closeness with the March sisters came out of nowhere.

So far, in the story line, I have not seen a lot of big changes from the novel. Of course there are the necessary changes to adapt a 19th century story to the modern-day, but they are done quite cleverly, I think. One example is how Amy's revenge against Jo is portrayed -- really quite shocking! The main changes are in the characters' everyday life. Instead of dreaming of becoming a writer, Jo is now in film-school and dreams of directing her own movies. This annoys me for some reason: Jo should just be a writer. Meg does a program in business engineering and Beth plays the guitar instead of the piano. And, maybe you understood from my short synopsis above: John Brooke has been changed into a woman, which might lead to a pretty big change later in the story.

What I also really miss in this series is the presence of Marmee. She doesn't necessarily need to be present in the videos herself, but her presence in the lives of her daughters is very much missed. In the novel she is such an important example and teacher for the girls, and here they have to discover and learn everything by themselves. There have not yet been a lot of learning moments by the characters, though there were a few poignant moments in the last episodes, so I have hope the series is finding its pace and its heart.

If you are a big fan of Little Women and the characters of Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy you might want to content yourself with the novel and the excellent adaptations already out there. But, if you're curious what these four sisters would be like in our 21th century, you could give The March Family Letters a try. I think I'll keep following it for a while and give the characters some time to develop and grow. Maybe they will grow on me!

(Note from Hamlette:  Thanks for this enlightening review, Birdie!  I'm hoping to find a bit of time to try this series for myself.)

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Little Women Read-Along: Secrets (Ch. 14)

In which Jo secretly submits two of her stories for publication.  I so identify with that desire for secrecy -- what if the stories aren't accepted?  Better to keep the whole thing to yourself until you know you've succeeded.  Then no one can laugh or commiserate with you if you fail.

But anyway, I love Jo and Laurie's discussion as they walk home.  Such great pals!  Of course, you know I loved the part where Jo wants Laurie to teach her to fence so they can play Hamlet and Laertes :-)  I'm really struck by that comparison for the two of them.  Hamlet and Laertes grew up together in Elsinore, and presumably they palled around together as youngsters.  But then Hamlet went to Wittenburg University, and Laertes went to France, much like Jo goes to New York while Laurie goes to Europe.  Hamlet fell in love with Laertes' sister, much like Laurie marries Jo's sister.  Hamlet and Laertes fought each other, but made peace eventually, and Jo and Laurie of course have their falling out later on, but also make up.  So this comparison is a nifty little bit of foreshadowing, I think.  Though I rather think Jo switched who was who -- Laurie has much more of Hamlet's moodiness, and no sisters.

And then Laurie tells Jo his secret, which really isn't exactly his to tell:  Mr. Brooke has kept Meg's glove.  Jo is upset because she hates change and can see that Meg will be leaving the nest before long.  I hate change too, so I identify really strongly with Jo through the whole chapter.

Finally, hurrah for Jo!  Her stories get published!  She doesn't get paid for them, but it's a start :-)  Much like the for-the-love markets today, eh?

Favorite Lines:

Lying back on the sofa, she read the manuscript carefully through, making dashes here and there, and putting in many exclamation points, which looked like little balloons (p. 132).

Jo's eyes sparkled, for it is always pleasant to be believed in, and a friend's praise is always sweeter than a dozen newspaper puffs (p. 136).

"Don't try to make me grow up before my time, Meg.,,. Let me be a little girl as long as I can" (p. 137).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Do you think Laurie really expected Jo to be pleased by Mr. Brooke's interest in Meg?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Little Women Read-Along: Castles in the Air (Ch. 13)

I don't usually do GIFs, but this is my favorite Laurie moment in the 1994,
and he's so mischievous here that I had to include it.

The beginning of this chapter was supposed to make me think frowningly about how badly behaved Laurie had been, but I have to admit it made me laugh instead, when I got to the part where he had "frightened the maidservants half out of their wits by mischievously hinting that one of his dogs was going mad" (p. 124).  That just brings all sorts of hilarious images to my mind.

But anyway, he discovers the March girls have a Busy Bee Society he hasn't been invited to, and they say they've been doing this for quite a while... so why is this day the first time he's noticed them going off in their old hats to play pilgrims?  Hmmmmmm.

I find it interesting that of all the castles they've built in the air, the only one who gets what she wants is Beth.  And what she wants is what she already has -- she is "perfectly satisfied" (p. 128) with her life.  

By the end of the chapter, Laurie has been soothed out of his "mood" and resolves secretly to "let my castle go, and stay with the dear old gentleman while he needs me, for I am all he has" (p. 131).  And that makes me love Laurie all the more -- much more than his mischievousness or his high spirits or his eagerness to please the girls earlier.

Favorite Lines:

"You'd have nothing but horses, inkstands, and novels in yours," answered Meg petulantly.

Possible Discussion Questions:

If they'd achieved their castles in the air, which of them (not including Beth) do you think would be the happiest?  Would any of them be happy?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Beth March: A Guest Post by Olivia

Beth March
by Olivia (Arwen)

Hello, people! 

I'd like to talk about my favorite character from Little Women:  Beth.  (Of course, her full name is Elizabeth, but why would we ever call little Bethie by her full name?)  Oh, and this is my first attempt at a character sketch, so… please be patient ;-)

(If this is your first reading of LW -- gasp! -- then you should be aware that there will be spoilers in this post.)

At the start of Little Women, Beth is described thus: 

"A rosy, smooth-haired, bright-eyed girl of thirteen, with a shy manner, a timid voice, and a peaceful expression, which was seldom disturbed.  Her father called her "Little Tranquility," and the name suited her excellently; for she seemed to live in a happy world of her own, only venturing out to meet the few whom she trusted and loved." (Chapter 1 of Book I,  "Playing Pilgrims") 

The reason Beth is my favorite is that she's so thoughtful and considerate and selfless.  Take, for example, when she visits the Hummels even when she's not feeling well, and in so doing, she contracts a fever that permanently robs her of health, and eventually takes her life.

She works quietly for her family's benefit, helping Hannah, making the house bright with little "Beth touches," caring for the kittens, etc.  I love this quote that Alcott used to describe her:  "There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully, that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind."  (Chapter 4 of Book I, "Burdens")

At one point, Jo refers to Beth as her conscience, but honestly, I think she's the conscience of all three of her sisters.  She's the peacemaker, as Alcott says.  She's the constant -- always there for her sisters when they return from whatever flights of fancy or derring-do they've last completed.  During Beth's first bout of sickness, I'm especially struck by how Amy suddenly realizes how much Beth means to her.  "[Amy] went to her little chapel, and, sitting in the twilight, prayed for Beth with streaming tears and an aching heart, feeling that a million turquoise rings would not console her for the loss of her gentle little sister."  (Chapter 19 of Book I, "Amy's Will") 

Speaking of her sickness…

Another thing I admire about Beth is her childlike faith in God, especially when she realizes that she will never fully recover.  "She could not say, 'I’m glad to go,' for life was very sweet to her; she could only sob out, 'I’ll try to be willing.'" (Chapter 13 of Book II, "Beth’s Secret")  She just resigns herself, not in a trite, self-martyring way, but in the sweetest, simplest act of letting go, the beauty of which occasionally takes my breath away. 

What remarkable trust resides in that small, frail body!  What a capacious heart, what a pure religion, what patience, what peace.  In the fullest sense of the word, I think I can honestly say that Beth inspires me.  I want to be like her -- sunshine in my home, gentleness embodied, willing to take the Lord's hand and follow Him wherever He might lead, saying merely, "Yes, Lord."  (I've got a long way to go.)

"Seeing [Beth "weaning herself from life"] did more for Jo than the wisest sermons, the saintliest hymns, the most fervent prayers that any voice could utter; for… she recognized the beauty of her sister's life -- uneventful, unambitious, yet full of the genuine virtues which 'smell sweet, and blossom in the dust;' the self-forgetfulness that makes the humblest on earth remembered soonest in heaven, the true success which is possible to all." (Chapter 17 of Book II, "The Valley of the Shadow")

(Hamlette's Note:  Thanks so much for writing this guest post, Olivia/Arwen!  You've highlighted Beth's sweetness and light so well.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Little Women Read-Along: Camp Laurence (Ch. 12)

What a jolly chapter!  A little romantic intrigue, some encouragement for Jo from Marmee, and then a fun picnic outing with Laurie and his friends.  I especially like the game of "Rig-marole," as we used to play something like that when I was a kid, only we called it Silly Stories.

Got to admit I don't have much else to say today.  We've got a hint of romance, with Meg's missing glove and Mr. Brooke being so attentive of her at the picnic, but she's pretty unaware so far... or so Alcott says, anyway!  But not a particularly meaty chapter.

Favorite Lines:

"Snuffbox," said Jo, in a sepulchral tone, which convulsed the audience (p. 116).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Do you think it's realistic for Meg to be so unaware of Mr. Brooke's interest?

When was the last time you went on a picnic?  Do you enjoy picnics?  Have any favorite picnic recipes or traditions?  Please share!

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Bookshelf Tag

Natalie at Raindrops on Roses & Whiskers on Kittens started this tag a few days ago, and it's such fun I totally wanted to play.  There are zero rules about tagging -- if anyone wants to do this, then do it!  It would be nice of you to link back to Natalie's blog, though, if you decide to do the tag.

Some "rules":

The book(s) you answer with must be from your bookshelf.

And include a picture of your bookshelf if you'd like to and if possible (if not, no big deal. Include pictures of your dream bookshelf, if you wish!)

Describe your bookshelf (or wherever it is you keep your books-it doesn't actually have to be a shelf!) and where you got it from:

We bought these three bookcases the first year we were married.  They're just cheapy $20 cases from Walmart, but they've lasted us 13 years and 4 major moves, so hooray for them!  This is where I have all my fiction and history books.

This pale shelf we bought after we moved here.  It has my Shakespeare stuff, books about writing, poetry, sheet music, and books about pop culture.

The shorter shelf holds all kinds of old Readers Digests from the '50s and '60s -- my husband got them the first year we were married, when he was working for our college.  He helped clean the library, and they were going to throw out all of these!  He asked if he could take them to our apartment instead of the dumpster, and then we randomly found the little shelf thingie by the dumpster that same week.  Serendipity at its finest!

And these two almost-black shelves have my homeschooling stuff, Cowboy's text books that he thinks he'll reference some time, all our books about religion and parenting, and his collection of comic strip books.

(Note:  I didn't take pictures of my children's books or most of my junior fiction and YA novels.  Those are in the living room, kitchen, and basement, and I'm not going to focus on them in this tag.)

Do you have any special or different way of organizing your books?

I have all my fiction shelved alphabetically by author's last name, and multiple books by the same author are either in alphabetical order by title or in series order if it's a series.  My poetry, books on writing, Shakespeare and books involving Shakespeare, books about movies and TV shows, and music books are all grouped together.  History books are grouped by era -- WWII together, Civil War together, etc.  My teaching books are together, and one of these days I'll put all the nonfiction-but-written-like-a-novel books together (i.e. Laura Ingalls Wilder, James Herriot, and probably Thor Heyerdahl).  There are three shelves full of TBRs.

Sherlock Holmes gets his own shelf, for all my pastiches, literary analyses, etc.

What's the thickest (most amount of pages) book on your shelf?

The Unabridged William Shakespeare is 1421 pages counting notes and glossary and index, 1318 of actual text.

What's the thinnest (least amount of pages) book on your shelf?

Not counting children's books on their shelves, but books on mine, it's The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, at a whopping 54 pages.

Is there a book you received as a birthday gift?

SO MANY!  I often write in them if they're gifts, when I got them and from whom.  For instance, my copy of A Room with a View by E. M. Forster says, "from Mom, birthday 2013" inside the front cover.

What's the smallest (height- and width-wise) book on your shelf?

I have three teeeeeeeeeeeny books that are all the same size!  Jane Austen:  Her Complete Novels in One Sitting, William Shakespeare:  The Complete Plays in One Sitting, and Sherlock Holmes:  The Essential Mysteries in One Sitting.  These are each 2 3/4 inches wide, 3 1/4 inches tall, and the Austen and Holmes are each 19/20th of an inch thick, but Shakespeare is 1 and 1/20th of an inch thick.

Here they are, on top of my massive Unabridged Shakespeare to compare:

What's the biggest (height- and width- wise) book on your shelf?

For height, it's D-DAY:  Operation Overlord:  From the Landing at Normandy to the Liberation of Paris, edited by Bernard C. Nalty, which is 13 1/2 inches tall and 10 1/4 wide.  Thickest, inch-wise, is The Complete History of World War II by Francis Trevelyan Miller, Litt.D., LL.D., which is 3 inches thick and superbly heavy.  It was copyrighted in 1945 and I love how first-hand an account it is.

Is there a book from a friend on your shelf?

Again, so very many.  I have great friends :-)  My sister-in-law and friend gave me Peace Like a River by Leif Enger last fall, not for a birthday or Christmas, but just because.

Most expensive book?

As in, one I personally paid the most for?  Hmm.  I bought my copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows brand-new when they first came out, and they say "$29.99" inside their covers, so that's probably about what I paid for them.  I buy most of my books used or find them as cheap as I can because if I didn't... egad.  I'd either be deeply in debt or not have very many books.

The last book you read on your shelf?

Persuasion by Jane Austen.  Everything else I've finished lately has been from the library.

Of all the books on your shelf, which was the first you read?

By myself?  On those shelves?  Those exact copies?  Probably Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery.

Do you have more than one copy of a book?

No.  What kind of weirdo would have more than one copy of a book?

Okay, you're right, I'm that kind of weirdo.  I have 5 copies of Jane Eyre, two of PersuasionNorthanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice, and more copies of Hamlet than  I care to admit to.  Also, I just bought a second copy of The Lord of the Rings exactly like the copy I already have so that, when they get old enough, my kids can read a copy that doesn't have all my notes in the margins.

Do you have the complete series of any book series?


You'd like me to elaborate?  I have all the Harry Potter books, all the Anne of Green Gables books, all of Patrick O'Brian's naval novels, all the Narnia books, all the Eragon books, all the original Sherlock Holmes stories, all of Jan Karon's Mitford books except the newest one, and let's not get started on all the junior fiction series I have all of....

What's the newest addition to your shelf?

I bought a whole bunch of books at the thrift store yesterday, so my newest additions are:

  • Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini
  • Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre
  • Kate's Choice by Louisa May Alcott
  • Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart
  • Night Without End by Alistair MacLean

What book has been on your shelf FOREVER?

Not counting children's books and junior fiction... probably my Anne of Green Gables set, which my parents gave me when I was about ten.

What's the most recently published book on your shelf?

Very likely John Wayne:  The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman, which was published in 2014.  I got it for Christmas from Dad and haven't started it yet.

The oldest book on your shelf (as in, the actual copy is old)?

Hmm.  I have a copy of Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore that's copyrighted 1909.  I also have a copy of Jane Eyre that I suspect is older, but it doesn't bear a copyright date.

A book you won?

I've won several, but the first one I ever won in a blog giveaway was Jane Austen Made Me Do It edited by Laurel Ann Nattress.

A book you'd hate to let out of your sight (aka a book you never let someone borrow)?

My first copy of Jane Eyre, which my friend Julie gave me long ago.

Most beat up book?

That really old copy of Lorna Doone I mentioned.  The front cover comes off, as do the first few pages.  In my defense, that book came to me in that condition.

Most pristine book?

Um, any one of several brand-new books I haven't read yet?

A book from your childhood?

A book?  A book?  I have boxes and boxes of books from my childhood.  My kids read them now, more and more all the time as they age.  I didn't take pictures of them for this, but we have two half-sized book cases full of books for them.

EDIT:  I just realized I do have a book from my childhood on "my" shelves.  It's my copy of A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, which is with my poetry books.

A book that's not actually your book?

There are quite a few of my husband's books on our non-fiction shelves, though only a few on the fiction shelves. Those are Roots by Alex Haley and a couple books by Larry Niven.

A book with a special/different cover (e.g. leather bound, soft fuzzy cover etc.)?

The Love Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning has a fabric cover with gold embellishments, and the edges of the pages are tinted purple.

A book that is your favorite color?

This is part of my favorite Christian historical fiction series, and my favorite book of the six.  I swear the fact that it's purple had no influence on my love it, though -- I read a totally different edition when I first read these.

(It looks much more purple in person.)

Book that's been on your shelf the longest that you STILL haven't read?

I bought The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower by C. Northcote Parkinson when I was in college and still haven't read it.  Sigh.  One of these days!  It's only been about 15 years....

Any signed books?

A couple.  I got my copy of Fahrenheit 451 signed by Ray Bradbury when I was in college, and I got my copy of The Beekeeper's Apprentice signed by Laurie R. King when I lived in Connecticut.  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Little Women Read-Along: Experiments (Ch. 11)

Is it me, or was this a really long chapter?  Maybe it just felt that way because it's not as fun as the last one, but it took me several days to get through it, whereas usually I read through these in a matter of minutes.  Huh.

Basically, this is a whole chapter devoted to refuting the old saying, "There is no pleasure in having nothing to do; the fun is in having lots to do and not doing it."  (The internet says Mary Wilson Little coined that phrase, but I couldn't find anything else about her other than some other things she said and a book she had published in 1904.)  I get a kick out of Marmee especially -- Alcott says she "had a good deal of humor" (p. 100), and you can really see it here, can't you?  Squirreling away tasty food for herself so she doesn't have to have the bitter tea and scorched omelet.

But poor Beth, losing her pet bird by neglecting it :-(

Favorite Lines:  

Laure took Amy to drive, which was a deed of charity, for the sour cream seemed to have had a bad effect upon her temper (p. 104).

"Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for everyone" (p. 105).

Possible Discussion Questions:  

Where do you think Marmee went on her "day off?"  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Little Women Read-Along: The P.C. and P.O. (Ch. 10)

This is a whimsical and fun chapter, isn't it?  Kind of a refreshing change after all the earnestness and serious contemplations of the last few chapters.  I don't know about you, but I've always wanted to write up a humorous newspaper like theirs.  I wrote a very serious family newspaper when I was like ten, and kept it up for several years, but it was me on my own and not nearly as fun as if I had had literary-minded siblings.  And yes, I totally got the idea for that from this book :-)

My copy says that Alcott and her sisters really held a Pickwick Club and wrote up funny newspapers exactly like this.  I love that, don't you?

Favorite Lines:

"Hear!  Hear!" cried Jo, clashing the lid of the warming pan like a cymbal (p. 96).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Do you think the girls ever let Marmee read their paper?

Did you ever take up an activity inspired by a book you read?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"West of Sunset" by Stewart O'Nan

I didn't think it was possible for me to feel sorrier for F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I was wrong.  This jewel of a novel depicts his last few years, as he struggles toward oblivion in Hollywood, working on a string of mediocre scripts for unappreciative filmmakers.  I've never read a lengthy biography of Fitzgerald, so I don't know how many details here are pulled from life and how many are added by O'Nan -- this is a novel, after all, not a strict biography.  I would assume that the bones are real, and O'Nan has simply given them flesh and motion.

The bones, then, are these:  The Great Depression is on, and Scott's beloved wife, Zelda, is descending into hereditary madness.  She's living at a mental hospital near Asheville, NC (not far from the Biltmore, if you've heard of that).  Their daughter, Scottie, is off at prep school.  Scott himself moves to Hollywood to earn money by writing screenplays.  He's trying to pay for Zelda's care and Scottie's schooling, plus pay off debts he incurred with the Roaring Twenties lifestyle he and Zelda were famous for.  In Hollywood, he meets a younger woman, a society columnist, and has a tempestuous affair with her.  He lives next to Humphrey Bogart for a while, and I think the scenes with Bogie were my favorites, as O'Nan captured his speech rhythms beautifully.  Anyway, Scott works on his last novel and tries to make a go of screenwriting, and eventually dies a dissipated, middle-aged shadow of his youthful self.

O'Nan takes this bleak story and crafts it into a cautionary tale of what happens when talent gets wasted and opportunities get squandered.  But more than that, he makes all the major characters heartbreakingly sympathetic.  Scott, Zelda, Scottie, even the new girlfriend Sheila -- I cared about all of them by the end, and didn't want the looming tragedy of Scott's death to befall them.

But then, when Scott did die, it wasn't depressing at all.  His death felt inevitable, but not tragic.  Not quite the emotional outcome I was expecting.  Huh.

Obviously, there's a lot of unsavory stuff going on in this novel.  Marital infidelity and alcoholism are the biggies, and the story as a whole is not what I'd term "nice."  There's very little bad language, which surprised me.  Oh, and of course Ernest Hemingway is here, angry and bitter and sometimes downright mean.  Nothing unexpected, I must admit.  I love the way both Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote, but they themselves were less than admirable people.

Particularly Good Bits:

There were years like phantoms, like fog.  Often he wondered if certain memories of his had really taken place (p. 28).

He was a writer -- all he wanted from this world were the makings of another truer to his heart (p. 53).

He was over at Universal, adapting his last play, a task Scott imagined was like slowly poisoning your own child (p. 74).

If he'd ever belonged anywhere, those places were long gone, the happiness he recalled there as fleeting as the seasons (p. 208).

For years her dabbling had struck him as slapdash and glib, lacking the discipline of the professional.  Now he envied her simple love of creation.  He'd written too much for money (p. 247).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  R for adult dialog and sexual situations.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Little Women Read-Along: Meg Goes to Vanity Fair (Ch. 9)

I'm wondering if I took this chapter very much to heart as a young girl, and that's part of why I have never tried to dress fashionably?  That would be nice, though I think the truth is probably that I simply wasn't born with the "wear what's cool" gene or something.  But anyway, poor Meg.  She tries to fit in, and succeeds, but then discovers that everything has its price, even beauty and popularity.

Here we have another example of Marmee admitting she's also not perfect.  She says, "I was very unwise to let you go among people of whom I knew so little (p. 87).  Another difference between Alcott and other writers of children's fiction in the 1800s (that I've read, anyway):  the adults aren't perfect and all-wise and ever-patient in her books.  

That being said, Marmee is very wise, isn't she?  I love her whole speech at the end of the chapter about what she wants for her girls as they grow up.  Heart-warming for sure.

Random thing I realized:  the Moffats call Meg "Daisy" while she's with them, and later on, that's what she names (or nicknames?) her daughter.  Perhaps she was happier with them than she'd realized at the time?  Or does Meg keep that nickname, and I've forgotten?

There's also a mention of the family having been poor for a while now.  Jo told Laurie they hadn't lived there for very long, so perhaps they moved into this house when their father went into the army?  But they had been poor for some time before that, it would seem.

Possible Discussion Questions:  After Meg overhears people speculating about her and Laurie, Alcott says, "She was proud, and her pride was useful just then, for it helped her hide her mortification, anger, and disgust at what she had just heard" (p. 79).  Can faults sometimes be useful?  Should we still try to conquer them if they are?  What do you think Alcott's response to those questions would be?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Little Women Read-Along: Jo Meets Apollyon (Ch. 8)

Ouch.  This is a painful chapter for me.  A really good one, but painful.  First, I feel Jo's horror over losing her book so keenly, because I have lost writing before, thanks to computer glitches or whatever, and oh, that's awful.  And second, I have a temper, just like Jo.  I have spent my life trying to control it, like she does, and I'm afraid I'm not nearly as good as Marmee at keeping a lid on my anger.  So I get convicted by this chapter, reminded that I need to pray for help more often and work harder at not losing my temper.

Actually, that whole part at the end, where Jo is astonished to learn Marmee also has a temper -- that scene played out in my house last week.  My son Sam is seven and also has a pretty fierce temper, and as I was putting him to bed after a particularly difficult day, his request for what to pray about was learning to control his temper.  So we prayed about that, and I prayed about help with my temper too.  Afterward, he said, "Mommy, do you have a bad temper?"  And I explained that yes, I've been working to control it all my life, just like him.  And then this afternoon I was reading this chapter and going, "Whoa!  It's exactly me and Sam!"  

Favorite Lines:

It seemed a small loss to others, but to Jo it was a dreadful calamity, and she felt it never could be made up to her.  Beth mourned as for a departed kitten, and Meg refused to defend her pet (p. 68).

The knowledge that her mother had a fault like hers, and tried to mend it, made her own easier to bear and strengthened her resolution to cure it (p. 72).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Marmee said it was easier for her to control her temper for her daughters' sakes than for her own.  Do you find it easier to overcome a fault if it helps someone other than yourself?

Friday, March 13, 2015

An Authorial Interview with.. Me!

(If you follow both of my blogs, sorry for the double posting.)

My sweet blogging friend Heidi Peterson has a new author blog, as you may recall.  She's just posted an interview with... me!  :-D  Please do go read it here, and follow her blog if you're interested in writerly things.  She posts an inspirational or thought-provoking writing quote every month, reviews books about writing, and interviews writers -- great fun!

(Um, because I'm supposed to be making breakfast for my kids?)

Little Women Read-Along: Amy's Valley of Humiliation (Ch. 7)

Not a favorite chapter for me.  Amy's my least-favorite of the March sisters, and I get annoyed with her wanting so much to "fit in" that she spends money her family can ill afford on something that sounds so gross as pickled limes.  Now, fresh limes -- those are awesome.  But pickled... hmm.  Must be an acquired taste.

And yes, I know we all desire to fit in at some point.  And we all do some dumb things to fit in.  But when she was fussing about not being able to pay back the ones she'd had from her friends, Miss Amy conveniently forgot to mention that limes had been forbidden by her teacher.  So I really don't feel sorry for her for getting into trouble.  

Anyway, I love that they hold "an indignation meeting" (p. 63) when she gets home.  Love the idea of an Indignation Meeting, don't you?

Favorite Lines:

Just before school closed, Jo appeared, wearing a grim expression as she stalked up to the desk, and delivered a letter from her mother, then collected Amy's property, and departed, carefully scraping the mud from her boots on the door mat, as if she shook the dust of the place off her feet (p. 63).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Do you have a least-favorite March sister?  If so, who is it?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

"The Black Shrike" by Alistair MacLean

It's been a few years since I read a new-to-me Alistair MacLean book.  I really enjoy his writing -- it's streamlined and fast-paced, and I never figure out his plot twists ahead of time.  Exactly what I like in a spy novel!

In The Black Shrike, Agents Bentall and Hopeman get sent to Australia to find a bunch of very important scientists and their wives who have gone missing.  Bentall and Hopeman never reach Australia, and they spend the rest of the book pretending they're married and trying to figure out what's really happening on a mysterious island.

As MacLean books go, this was not in my top five, but I liked it quite well.  Bentall had a self-deprecating sense of humor that amused me -- he was always berating himself for screwing things up that he didn't really, and so on.  The suspense was top-notch, the heroics were appropriately thrilling, and the plot twists caught me off-guard as they should.  

Particularly Good Bits:

I tried out my carefree laugh to see how it went, but it didn't, it sounded so hollow and unconvincing that it lowered even my morale (p. 27).

I was still giving my impression of one of the statues on Easter Island, carved from stone and badly battered (p. 158).

If This Was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for violence and suspense.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Little Women Read-Along: Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful (Ch. 6)

Awww.  This chapter made me tear up a couple times.  Beth is so sweet!  And so is Mr. Laurence, once you get past his crusty exterior.  I absolutely love that he listens to her play his piano, but secretly.  And Laurie stands guard in the hallway so she won't even be bothered by servants -- so completely wonderful!  My margins are full of little hearts and smiley faces there.

Not much else to say, actually.  We're continuing the whole Pilgrim's Progress theme, each girl getting their turn, which is a fun way to structure this early part of the novel.  I think one of the reasons I was disappointed with Pilgrim's Progress when I read it was that this book made it sound way more interesting than I found it to be.

Favorite Lines:

How blithely she sang that evening, and how they all laughed at her because she woke Amy in the night by playing the piano on her face in her sleep (p. 54).

...love casts out fear, and gratitude can conquer pride (p. 57).

Possible Discussion Question:  It says that at first Mr. Laurence was too gruff and loud around Beth and scared her away because he was not "aware of her infirmity" (p. 53).  What do you think Alcott means by "infirmity" here?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Heads Up on a Book Giveaway

Just a quick note to let you know that Reading in the Dark is giving away four books right now.  Go here to learn more!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Little Women Read-Along: Being Neighborly (Ch. 5)

Ahh, intrepid Jo, bearding the lion in his den, as it were.  I love that she likes to do "daring things" and decides actually visiting one of their neighbors is one of them.  Off she goes to comfort a sick and bored Laurie, and winds up making friends with his grandfather too.  

I didn't realize that the Marches must have moved into their house not awfully long ago.  But Jo tells Laurie, "We haven't been here a great while, you know, but we have got acquainted with all our neighbors but you" (p. 45).  Do you suppose they moved in when their father went to war?  Or when he loaned money to a friend, who lost it?  I kind of always assumed they'd lived there for always, but not so!

And so cool that Grandfather Laurence was once friends with Jo's grandfather.

Oh, if you were wondering, like I was, what a "blanc mange" is, it seems to be a kind of cross between Jell-o and vanilla pudding.  Also, a "Sleepy Hollow chair" seems to be a really deep easy chair with a back that slants, like this.

Favorite Lines:

"I like adventures, and I'm going to find some" (p. 41).

"It's dull as tombs up here" (p. 42).

"...children should be children as long as they can" (p. 51).

Possible Discussion Question:  At first, Laurie and Jo "got to talking about books, and to Jo's delight, she found that Laurie loved them as well as she did, and had read even more than herself," but a bit later, when Jo goes into raptures about his grandfather's library, Laurie says, "A fellow can't live on books" (p. 46).  What do you think this says about their similarities and differences?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Little Women Read-Along: Burdens (Ch. 4)

A bit of a grim title for this one, huh?  And not at all subtle about what a big theme of the book is, either!  Burdens, and how we bear them, is obviously a major focus of this book.

Speaking of lack of subtlety... Alcott is not afraid to impart lessons to her audience in obvious ways, is she?  Like Jo, I enjoy stories that have a morals, "if they are real and not too preachy" (p. 40).  What do you think of Alcott's lessons and morals in this book?  Do you find them too preachy?  That's our Discussion Question for the day.

In the introduction to my copy, there's a mention of the fact that while Alcott does dispense a lot of advice and wisdom, that was pretty usual for children's books in her day.  What set Little Women apart from its counterparts was the fact that these girls are not perfect, but struggle to become better people.  A lot more realistic (and, to my mind, inspiring) than an already-perfect person like, say, Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Meanwhile, the girls have all gone off to do their daily duties.  I feel sorriest for Meg, having to deal with a house full of spoiled brats all day.  Amy has to go to school with people who look down on her, which is not pleasant either.  I think I'd like to have Jo or Beth's places best -- either read someone to sleep and then curl up in their library, or just stay home and be useful.  I think Jo and Aunt March are actually a lot alike, don't you?  Both obstinate and peppery and fond of adventure stories.

The whole "works righteousness" thing gets emphasized again here too.  First Beth tells herself, "I know I'll get my music some time, if I'm good" (p. 37), and at the end of the chapter, the girls discuss their blessings and "try to deserve them, lest they should be taken away entirely, instead of increased" (p. 40).

Favorite Lines:

"I like good strong words that mean something" (p. 33).

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Little Women Read-Along: The Laurence Boy (Ch. 3)

Hurrah!  Laurie's here at last!  I'm very fond of Laurie, though I have to admit I'm not entirely sure why.  Hmm.  Maybe because when I was very young, my best friend was a boy, and we had lots of capital adventures together until I was 8 and he was 10 and he decided girls were icky.  Laurie never goes through that stage, so I suppose I like him especially much because he remains friends with the March girls.

One of the themes I've noticed in the book so far is what happens when you pretend to be someone or something you aren't.  In this chapter, Jo burns Meg's hair while trying to curl it for the holiday party, and Meg says, "Serves me right for trying to be fine."  A couple of paragraphs later, Alcott wryly observes, "dear me, let us be elegant or die" (p. 24).  Jo had earlier promised Meg, "I'll be as prim as I can and not get into any scrapes if I can help it" (p. 23) at the party, but when she meets Laurie, it's Jo being her usual self that overcomes his shyness, "for Jo's gentlemanly demeanor amused and set him at his ease, and Jo was her merry self again" (p. 27).

Favorite Lines:

Jo, who didn't care much for girls or girlish gossip, stood about, with her back carefully against the wall, and felt as much out of place as a colt in a flower garden (p. 25).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Have you noticed any other themes so far in these early chapters?

"My Hands Came Away Red" by Lisa McKay

A teen named Cori goes on a mission trip to Indonesia with a bunch of other teens.  She goes mostly because she broke up with her boyfriend and wants to get away for a while, not because she's committed to spreading the Gospel.  The mission team builds a church, puts on puppet shows for local children, and bonds with their host family.  And I spent the first 80 pages kind of bored.  I kept reading because Kara had written a glowing review of it, and I figured it had to get more interesting.  But it took me a week to get through those first 80 pages.  And then three days to get through the next 300.

Suddenly, the book kicked into high gear.  All the bad things that Cori had kept assuring us were going to happen finally happened.  By now you probably know that I am not a big fan of foreshadowing, and one of the reasons I had a hard time getting myself to read this book for the first 80 pages was that so much time got spent warning readers that Something Bad Is Going to Happen.  I don't want you to tell me that, I want you to show me the bad thing happening.  I had a similar issue with Peace Like a River, which also got really good once it dispensed with all the throat-clearing.

While I didn't love this book, I did like it.  I'm drawn to survival stories where people have to make do with what they can find -- it's why I love stranded-on-a-deserted-island stories like Robinson Crusoe and The Black Stallion and Lost.  So I very much enjoyed the bulk of this book, and I'm glad I stuck with it.

Particularly Good Bits:  

No matter which way I looked, all I saw were pale trunks poking up like giant exclamation marks, forcefully punctuating the end of every thought.  You are lost!  It's just you and the trees!  You'll never make it out!  (p. 154).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  A hard PG-13 for some graphic violence and bloodshed, life-threatening situations, and mild romantic content.