Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Tolkien Blog Party is ON!

Encouraged by so many of you, I am pleased to announce that, despite my super busy September schedule, I AM going to host a Tolkien blog party after all!  I've got ideas for the blog tag and one game, and a handful of fun prizes that I'm making myself.

And so, I've made some new buttons that y'all can add to your own blogs if you so desire.  Things will kick off on Sunday, September 18, and wrap up on Saturday.

I'm looking forward to sharing all the Tolkien love!

Monday, August 29, 2016

"The Witch of Blackbird Pond" by Elizabeth George Speare

It's been many years since I last read this.  At least two decades, I think.  I thought I remembered what it was about really well, but it turns out I only remembered that the heroine liked to hang out in a meadow and with a lonely old woman who was accused of being a witch.  The rest, I'd forgotten, like that the heroine is an orphan who moved to New England to live with relatives she'd never met, and who is desperately homesick for her old life in Barbados.

I had also forgotten that the novel is set against the backdrop of the Connecticut colonial charter being endangered by a new Royal Governor and getting hidden in the so-called Charter Oak.  I've studied American history a lot since reading this last, and found the addition of those historical events to be especially interesting.

I also couldn't quite remember if there was an actual witch in this book, or only some people accused of witchcraft.  I'm happy to report that there are no actual witches in this, nor any use of witchcraft.  Instead, there are an elderly Quaker woman and a teen girl who are accused of doing things like causing illness, turning themselves into animals, bewitching cattle so they can't be milked, and other such things reminiscent of the Salem witch trials, which do get mentioned here as well.  I've been to Salem, and although much of the town has been turned into a common tourist trap, the history of the trials that took place there is a sobering example of how sinful our world is.  You have people searching for someone to blame for their problems, seeking notoriety at the expense of others, and venting their envy and anger by making all manner of accusations that today we call far-fetched, but which were seen as very serious and real at that time.  Today, people worry that someone is spying on them with their laptop's webcam, or using their cell phone to track their movement -- those would seem far-fetched to the Puritans of this book's time, wouldn't they?  And yet, many consider them real today.

Anyway, this time through, I was really struck by how naive and uncooperative Kit Tyler is through much of the story.  She thinks she can do just about whatever she wants without any consequences, and then is startled to discover consequences do exist, and that they sometimes affect people besides herself.  In other words, she's a very believable representation of a spoiled teenager.  Raised by a doting grandfather in Barbados, she thinks that anything her Connecticut relatives and acquaintances do that is different from what she is used to or wants must be bad, or wrong, and can simply be ignored.  At first, I had a very hard time liking Kit, but by the end, she had grown and matured so much that I liked her a great deal indeed.  She's got an excellent character arc, going from selfish and whiny to being willing to sacrifice everything to save people she cares about.  Like all the best books, it made me think about how I would behave in similar situations and learn something about myself in the process.

You're going to see quite a few YA books crop up on here for the next nine months or so.  I'm tutoring our ninth grade niece in literature and composition, and I plan to review most of the books we read together here.

Particularly Good Bits:

"I know you mean to be kind," insisted Rachel.  "But you are very young, child.  You don't understand how sometimes evil can seem innocent and harmless.  'Tis dangerous for you to see that woman.  You must believe me" (p. 100).

Every morning she woke with a new confidence and buoyancy she could not explain.  In October any wonderful unexpected thing might be possible (p. 147).

Fear seeped in at the corners of the room (p. 180).

If This Was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for one use of the word "damn," a frightening sequence involving a chase and a burning building, and a tense witch trail.  

This is my 45th book read and reviewed for the Classics Club, and my 14th for the Women's Classic Literature Event.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Tolkien Party Idea

Lovely friends, I have a problem.  I'm horrifyingly busy right now.  And have been all summer.  And will be through the end of September.  (Possibly forever, but I'm trying to be optimistic right now, 'kay?)

And I had been thinking that I might have to skip hosting my annual Tolkien Blog Party of Special Magnificence.  Because Tolkien Week is less than a month away, and I have had zero time to prep for it.  By now, I've usually got giveaway donations lined up and am working on the games.  And I haven't had time to do anything at all for it this year.  Let's face it:  I'm having a really hard time keeping up with my own Jane Eyre read-along right now.

But I don't want to skip the party entirely.

So I'd like to know what you think of this idea:  What if I did a stripped-down version of the party this year?  Still have a Tolkien tag for everyone to fill out, still have a few prizes that I've found on my own.  Maybe have one game if I can put one together between now and then.

It would be a Tolkien Blog Party, just not one of Special Magnificence.

What do you think?

Jane Eyre Read-Along: Chapter 23

What I want to know is, how does Charlotte Bronte keep lines like "Oh, Jane, you torture me!" (p. 298) and "Make my happiness -- I will make yours" (p. 299) from sounding like sentimental, hackneyed claptrap?  Why do I thrill over this chapter (it miiiiiiiiight be my favorite) and find it not merely believable, but wholly delicious?  It amazes me, I tell you.  It's her first published novel, but it is almost startlingly good.  In my humble opinion, anyway.

So anyway, my margins for this chapter literally have the word "swooooon" written in them.  And also thirteen hearts marking favorite lines and phrases.  Ahem.  I'm not usually so full of girlish swooniness, but in this case, I just can't help myself.

Bronte switches to the present tense again, like she did in the last chapter.  It's almost a little stream-of-consciousness there too, letting us feel Jane's apprehension about encountering Mr. Rochester.

Really, I could just gush and gush about this chapter.  Jane not letting Mr. Rochester's pronouncement that she must leave Thornfield knock her down, being her usual sturdy self.  Rochester almost calling her a term of endearment, then mocking Blanche for being "an extensive armful" (p. 293).  Jane's voice being "not quite under command" (p. 294).  And then... well, I marked "here it comes :-)" in the margin.

Jane is usually very in control of her emotions, but here, "[t]he vehemence of emotion, stirred by grief and love within me, was claiming mastery" (p. 295).  And since we know she's not given to emotional outbursts, we thus know just how strong her feelings for Mr. Rochester are.  And, before long, how very powerful her inner will is, that she can overcome those masterful emotions.

And here comes the foreshadowing again, huh?  Jane says, "I see the necessity of departure; and it is like looking on the necessity of death" (p. 296).  Oh, Jane.

And doesn't Jane's whole speech about not being a machine without feelings remind you of Shylock's speech in The Merchant of Venice where he tells everyone that just because he's a Jew doesn't mean he's not human?  Jane tells Rochester that just because she is "poor, obscure, plain, and little," that doesn't mean she is "soulless and heartless" (p. 296).  And so, he proposes deliciously, and yeah... I probably should stop before this overdue post gets even longer.

But before I go, let's just point out that Rochester very carefully words one question he puts to Jane.  He asks her, "Am I a liar in your eyes?" (emphasis mine)(p. 298).  He doesn't say he's not a liar, he just asks her if she sees him as a liar.  

Sometimes I love Mr. Rochester so deliriously much, but sometimes I suspect he's a master manipulator who has not only messed with Jane Eyre's mind and emotions, but mine too.

And then there's a big storm, and the next morning, they awaken to discover that "the great horse-chestnut at the bottom of the orchard had been struck by lightning in the night, and half of it split away" (p. 300).  I wrote a paper back in college on how that tree symbolizes Mr. Rochester.  We'll come back to it in later chapters.

Favorite Lines:

"Are you anything akin to me, do you think, Jane?" (p. 295)

"I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you, especially when you are near me, as now; it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame.  And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land, come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapped; an then I've a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly" (p. 295).

"I have known you, Mr. Rochester; and it strikes me with terror and anguish to feel I absolutely must be torn from you forever.  I see the necessity of departure; and it is like looking on the necessity of death" (p. 296).

"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will" (p. 297).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Mr. Rochester says Jane has "an eye for natural beauties, and a good deal of the organ of adhesiveness" (p. 292).  Have you ever heard/read of such a thing as an organ of adhesiveness?  I admit I'm imagining a bottle of glue somewhere inside Jane's stomach.

Friday, August 19, 2016

"Rainbow Valley" by L. M. Montgomery

Sigh.  I remember now why I didn't like this book much as a teen.  It's the same reason I still don't like it much now.

You'd think it's because, while the Meredith and Blythe children are fun and charming, after a while, it's just more of the same.  The Merediths get into trouble, the Blythes are their loyal chums, and Mary Vance yells at them over it.  But that's not what keeps me from liking Rainbow Valley.  The blame for that lies solely on the story of Rev. Meredith and Rosemary West's romance, and Rosemary's sister horridly insisting she can't marry him and has to abide by a promise she made years ago.  I can't stand it when people deliberately thwart other people's happiness, and Montgomery drags out that misery f-o-r-e-v-e-r.  I read the last seventeen chapters all today, just to get them over with so I didn't have to suffer through that dragged out nonsense for days and days.  It took me six weeks to get through the first half of the book because as soon as Rosemary West and Rev. John Meredith met up in Rainbow Valley, I remembered how their story went and didn't want to read the rest of the book.

Oh well.  I can't love every book.

Particularly Good Bits:

It is never quite safe to think we have done with life.  When we imagine we have finished our story fate has a trick of turning the page and showing us yet another chapter (p. 89).

"Anything I can't analyse in the eating line I call macanaccady and anything wet that puzzles me I call shallamagouslem (p. 116).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  G.  It's clean and nice, if not wonderful.

This is my 44th book read and reviewed for The Classics Club, and my 13th for the Women's Classic Literature Event.

Now it's time for Elyssa's questions for Rainbow Valley:

Q:  This book was totally centered around the Blythe small fry and their friends. Reading about their adventures in Rainbow Valley made me think of Anne’s days with the the Echo Lodge crew in Anne of Avonlea. It also made me think of Camp Laurence from Little Women, as well as sweet Betsy-Tacy moments. The innocence of childhood play is so lovely to read. Do you have any favorite Rainbow Valley moments? Did they remind you of other childhood moments from any other books?

A:  Well, whenever I think of this book, I think of the Meredith kids playing in the graveyard.  I quite like graveyards myself.  I took my own kids to play in a graveyard when we lived in Connecticut simply because it was the only place with lots of green grass and trees that was within walking distance of our apartment.

But no, nothing from this reminds me of other books.  At least, not at the moment.

Q:  Montgomery likes writing about romance lost (Captain Jim and Lost Margaret) or almost lost forever (Mr. Irving and Miss Lavender). What would you have done in Rosemary’s place? Would you have kept your promise to your sister and refused John Merideth despite loving him?

A:  Rather obviously, considering all the ranting I did in my review above, I think that whole thing with the promise to the sister was foolish.  I would not have done as she did.

Q:  We’ve said goodbye to Anne’s childhood long ago. This book is a farewell to the sweet childhood of the Blythe clan. This always makes me sad. While being an adult is a wonderful thing in so many ways, childhood always calls to us in one way or another. What do you miss about childhood?

A:  I hate saying goodbye to childhood, which is another reason this book makes me grumpy.  I miss very many things about childhood, especially the freedom to not cram every waking moment with some kind of activity and purpose.  I have had to learn to daydream while doing other things at the same time, and it's just not the same.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Jane Eyre Read-Along: Chapter 22

One of the things I've always liked best about Jane Eyre is how non-compliant she is.  That may be a horrible thing, but I myself am not at all a compliant person, and so from the first time I read this book, I identified with that aspect of Jane's personality very strongly.

The whole part where Jane returns to Thornfield really hit my emotions this time, especially when she said that she "had never experienced the sensation" of returning home before (p. 283).

Does it ever bug you when old books like this don't give names for towns or even counties?  Like here, where Bronte rights, "The evening arrival at the great town of ---------------- scattered these thoughts" (p. 284).  For some reason, that always annoys me.  I want to know WHAT town they're talking about, even if it's a made-up place.  

I really love how Jane thought for a moment that Mr. Rochester was a ghost, and felt "every nerve I have is unstrung" (p. 285) because it so clearly echoes their first meeting, when he accused her of bewitching his horse.

Also, I love that he here nicknames her Janet.  It's so  small a thing, but so sweet, and I like how it shows his regard for her without an outright declaration.

Favorite Lines:

But what is so headstrong as youth -- what so blind as inexperience? (p. 285)

His last words were balm.  They seemed to imply that it imported something to him whether I forgot him or not (p. 287).

"Pass, Janet," said he, making room for me to cross the stile; "go up home, and stay your weary little wandering feet at a friend's threshold" (p. 287).

...there is no happiness like that of being loved by our fellow-creatures, and feeling that your presence is an addition to their comfort (p. 288).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Why do you suppose Bronte switches to the present tense for a few paragraphs when Jane first sees Mr. Rochester again?

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Jane Eyre Read-Along: Chapter 21

My goodness, this chapter has a lot going on, huh?  First off, it sets up Jane's ability to Hear Things.  She says, "Sympathies, I believe, exist (for instance, between far-distant, long-absent, wholly estranged relatives; asserting, notwithstanding their alienation, the unity of the source to which each traces his origin), whose workings baffle mortal comprehension" (p. 259).  This will come up again very late in the book, and I like that Bronte sets up that ability here so that it's not quiiiiiiiiite so far-fetched and out-of-the-blue later on.  Here, Jane knows somehow that her Aunt Reed is ill even before Bessie's husband Robert comes to fetch her.

And lots has happened at Gateshead, huh?  John Reed committed suicide over all his debts, and Aunt Reed is dying.  Not just dying, but actually wants to see Jane!  Shocking.

The scene where Jane gets money from Mr. Rochester is one of my most favorite scenes.  It's right up there with the Gypsy Scene for m.  Though it begins seriously enough, with Rochester seeming to be suspicious of Jane's heretofore unmentioned relatives (does he think she's heard The Truth and is running away from him?), they are soon sparring verbally in a friendly, cute manner.  Rochester clearly wants her to be safe on her journey, inquiring about the trustability of Robert and how she will travel.  Their bickering over the money, his growling -- it's all adorable.  Jane's "No, sir; you are not to be trusted" (p. 264) is one of my favorite lines.

But you'll notice that, all through that scene, Mr. Rochester has his back against the door, shutting Jane in.  Once again, she's imprisoned by someone with power over her.  He lets her go at last, but for a few minutes, she is caged.  At the same time, she has him backed into a corner, in a way, since they both know he owes her money, and he knows he will do almost anything for her.  It's an interesting give-and-take of power, I think.

So off Jane goes to Gateshead, where her cousins turn out to be harmless and her aunt is indeed dying.  And at the end of the chapter, we get that shocking news that Jane is not so alone in the world as she had thought, nor need she work for her money if her uncle, John Eyre, does adopt her.  Then Aunt Reed dies, and that's the end of that.

Favorite Lines:

I still felt as a wanderer on the face of the earth; but I experienced firmer trust in myself and my own powers, and less withering dread of oppression.  The gaping wound of my wrongs, too, was now quite healed, and the flame of resentment extinguished (p. 267).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Jane has recurring dreams of a baby at the beginning of this chapter.  Do your dreams ever have recurring themes or images or patterns?

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

"Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western" by Will Wright

Once in a while a book opens your eyes and makes you look in whole new ways at something you thought you knew and understood.  This is such a book, for me.  I have loved western movies since I was about 2, and I have watched hundreds of them over the past thirty-some years.  I've read western novels and nonfiction books, I've written westerns, I've played cowboys for countless hours.  I thought I pretty much understood what westerns were about.

And then I read this book.

Will Wright posits that westerns are America's version of great myths and legends (which I'd heard/read before), and that America's taste in western storytelling changed because American society changed.  It's a cool theory, and he's pretty well convinced me.  But the sociological implications aren't what interested me the most.  

What interested me were the story structure similarities that he pointed out.  I'm not going to delve too deeply into everything he said, simply because there was so much -- I was underlining and making notes like crazy.   Basically, Wright studied the top-grossing western films from every year beginning in 1930 and running through 1972, when he did his study.  That gave him more than 60 films to study, and while he didn't delve into every single one, he did study them all and looked for patterns in the stories they told.

Wright found that the films fell into four plot categories, which he termed Classical, Vengeance Variation, Transition, and Professional.  And I discovered that nearly all my favorite westerns have the Classical or Professional plots.  There are a few that are Vengeance, but most of my favorites are either Classical or Professional.  And not only that, but my own stories tend to be pretty straight-forwardly Classical.  And I realized that I am not really a fan of Vengeance westerns, for the most part.  There were only a few of the Transition westerns that he discussed, and I hadn't seen most of them, so I can't say much one way or the other on that one.

What does that all mean?  Well, I'll share his breakdown for Classical Plots with you to give an idea, and then I'll give you examples of various famous westerns that typify each of those plot categories.

The Classical Plot goes like this:
1.  The hero enters a social group.
2.  The hero is unknown to the society.
3.  The hero is revealed to have an exceptional ability.
4.  The society recognizes a difference between themselves and the hero; the hero is given a special status.
5.  The society does not completely accept the hero.
6.  There is a conflict of interests between the villains and the society.
7.  The villains are stronger than the society; the society is weak.
8.  There is a strong friendship or respect between the hero and a villain.
9.  The villains threaten the society.
10.  The hero avoids involvement in the conflict.
11.  The villains endanger a friend of the hero.
12.  The hero fights the villains.
13.  The hero defeats the villains.
14.  The society is safe.
15.  The society accepts the hero.
16.  The hero loses or gives up his special status.
So, I don't know -- some of you might read that and go, "Okay, that's nice -- who cares?"  But to me, this was giant lightbulbs going off, flashing lights, sirens, choirs singing the "Hallelujah Chorus," and so on.  Because this kind of story breakdown, and all the great explorations Wright goes into in his book, are exactly what my writing brain needs.  I look at this and go, "Oh my goodness!  Now I can see what my stories have, what they're missing, what beats I've got in the wrong spot, and on and on and on!"  That's what I liked best about this book, how it let me sort of tip movies I know soooo well on their side and peek inside them to see what makes them work.

The other three plot variations have breakdowns like that too, but I can't just share the whole book with you here, though I'd like to.  But in case you're interested, here are some of the more famous films he discussed, based on their plots:

Classical:  Destry Rides Again (1940), Whispering Smith (1949), Shane (1953), Cat Ballou (1965), Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)

Vengeance:  Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1949), Winchester '73 (1950), The Naked Spur (1952), The Searchers (1956)

Transition:  Broken Arrow (1950), High Noon (1952)

Professional:  Rio Bravo (1959), The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), The Professionals (1966), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1970)

(EDIT:  I've linked the titles of some of those to my reviews of those films over on my blogs.)

If you write westerns, study films for fun, or just love lots and lots of westerns, you will probably find this book fascinating.  But if you were bored reading this review, then you're not going to care much for the book either.

I wrote this review especially for Legends of Western Cinema Week, which is a shindig hosted all week long by Emma at A Lantern in Her Hand and Olivia at Meanwhile, in Rivendell....  Please visit their blogs for lots of western fun.  And I'm hosting a giveaway on Hamlette's Soliloquy all week for this event, giving away five great western TV shows on DVD, so check that out if you haven't already.

Particularly Good Bits:  

Violence in a myth is generally concerned with opposing or reconciling principles, while in literature violence truly exists between people and is consequently more convincing and more deeply felt (p. 149).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for non-graphic mentions of violence, rape, and other non-child-friendly themes.