Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks

Today is Thanksgiving Day here in America.  A day we set aside each year to remember the good things we have in life.  To honor those who risked everything to seek freedom in a new land.  To spend time with family and friends.  To indulge our tastebuds with a large meal.  And to gather around the TV for a parade, football, and classic movies.

Even if you are not an American, I hope you'll take a few moments to remember the things you are thankful for.  I'm thankful for family members who listen to me drone on and on about the book I'm reading, for library cards, for leather bound editions, for old book smells, and for classic stories that change peoples lives.  I'm also thankful for each of you who take the time to read my insignificant thoughts on books.  Happy Thanksgiving! 

…for some of us, books are as important as anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid pieces of paper unfolds world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet you or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of the things that you don’t get in life…wonderful, lyrical language, for instance. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. -Anne Lamott

Friday, November 22, 2013

Books That Surprise Us

A few years ago, I wrote a post about boring books.  Books that you had such high hopes for and then ended up tossing aside for one reason or another.  But lately I've been thinking about the other side of that coin.  Those books that you aren't particularly interested in or excited about, but out of nowhere the story grabs you and ends up becoming one of your favorite reads.  I have had multiple books like that over my reading life.  Here are a few examples:

  • I, Claudius by Robert Graves.  Though I love history, Ancient Rome had never been one of my favorite periods to study.  For some reason back in 2009, I decided to read this classic by British author Robert Graves.  And I was captivated from beginning to end!  The political intrigue, the grappling for power, the family problems...all of it worked together to tell an amazing story.  
  •  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  I first read this book back in early middle school, and I just wasn't very impressed.  Years later, I decided to try again and boy, was I blown away.  Lee's classic story of growing up in the Depression-era South is one that still resonates with readers today.  Her characters are so real, and the message is so poignant.  So glad I decided to give this one another chance.
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker.  I have ever been one for the horror/spooky genre of books or films.  Though of course I was familiar with the modern idea of Dracula, I never considered reading the original.  That is, until The Classic Tales Podcast featured a portion of it for one episode.  My curiosity was piqued and I had to have more.  What I discovered was a well-told story with amazing characters and a fascinating plot.  Nothing like what I had expected.  This was probably the biggest surprise I have had in terms of reading.
  • The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  Like horror, YA lit was never something that I thought I would want to read.  Angsty teens, love triangles, sparkly vampires...these just aren't my things.  I really doubted that these books could live up to the hype surrounding them.  I was wrong.  I read the first book in a day and then devoured the other as well.  Each one was amazing, but Mockingjay absolutely blew me away.  

As readers, it is so easy to write books off without reading them.  We judge them based on what we think they are about, what we think we like, and what we think makes for good reading.  But the truth is, you'll never know what a book is truly like until you actually read it.  It's a cliche, but so true, that you can't judge a book by it's cover.  Except 50 Shades of Grey...pretty sure I've got that one pegged.  What books have you loved despite your previous feelings towards them or a particular genre?  Share them in the comment section.   

Sunday, November 17, 2013


“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” 

Italian/British author Rafael Sabatini did not come by success as a writer easily.  For almost of a quarter of a century he wrote short stories and novels that garnered little fame.  But in 1921, his story of a brash, young man bent on revenge in the stormy period just before the French Revolution catapulted him to instant fame.  He became an international best-seller and would maintain a steady popularity in the decades that followed.

The Plot:

Andre-Louis Moreau is a young man of uncertain origin.  He lives with his godfather, a minor noble, who has had him educated as a lawyer and refuses to reveal his true parentage.  Though Andre-Louis is himself a cynic and not interested in revolutionary politics, he is still friends with many young men who seek to change the world they live in.  When one of them, the idealistic Phillipe de Vilmorin, denounces the Marquis de la Tour d'Azyr for unfair treatment of  peasant, the Marquis draws the young man into a duel and then kills him (knowing all along that Phillipe did not have any sword skills).  Andre-Louis is brokenhearted and swears that he will avenge Phillipe by using his own talents to further the revolutionary cause.

 After whipping up political crowds in two local cities, Andre-Louis finds himself on the wrong side of the law.  He ends up hiding in plain sight, first with a small group of actors (where he takes on the role of the roguish buffoon, Scaramouche) and then as a sword master in Paris.  All the while, he harbors his hatred for the Marquis de la Tour d'Azyr and vows to obtain the ultimate revenge on him.  But when the secret of his life is finally revealed, will Andre-Louis change his mind?

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

Except for maybe Robert Louis Stevenson, there is no one who writes a swashbuckling adventure novel like Rafael Sabatini.  I absolutely loved his novel Captain Blood and was eager to read this earlier novel that is set in the tumultuous period of the French Revolution.

There are quite a few similarities between Scaramouche and Sabatini's later novel.  In Andre-Louis, we have a man who in uniterested in the political turmoil until a grave injustice forces him to take sides.  He is a very talented man who throws himself passionately into whatever he finds himself doing in the moment.  When he joins the acting company, he soon takes charge and takes them to new heights in their profession.  When he becomes apprentice to a sword master, it isn't long until he becomes the teacher's equal in proficiency.  And yet, for all of his passion there is a bitterness and cynicism that continues to lurk deep inside.  This is also another wonderful example of Sabatini's talent in writing historical fiction.  Many real historical people are mentioned or make an appearance and Sabatini expertly crafts a story that falls into directly into place with historical fact.

But as many similarities as there were between Scaramouche and my first Sabatini novel, it didn't fully measure up to Captain Blood.  That novel was one rollicking adventure after another, with many humorous moments and edge of your seat feelings.  This one had a slower pace and did not offer as many unforgettable moments.  I also didn't warm up to Andre-Louis as much as I did Peter Blood.  His sarcasm and wit had a much harsher and more cynical tone, and his romance with Aline didn't seem as developed s that between Peter & Arabella.  Having said that, I might have enjoyed Scaramouche more if I had read it first and was not constantly comparing it to the other story.

No matter my personal preference, Scaramouche proves that Sabatini is a master both of swashbucklers and historical fiction.  If you ever find yourself in need of a story with characters you can root for, plots that will keep you on the edge of your seat, and brushes with some of history's gretest moments, then you could do worse than to pull a Sabatini novel off the shelf.  I will definitely be reading more of his works.

The Movie:

There are two movie versions of this book.  One is a 1923 silent version starring Ramon Novarro.  The other is a 1952 remake starring Stewart Granger, Elanor Parker, Janet Leigh, and Mel Ferrer.  I have not seen this version yet, but it is on my "to-watch" list.                 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lessons to be Learned from Literary Characters

While I was on vacation in Italy, I came across an article from the Huffington Post that created much discussion among the literary minded girls in our group (and was reminded of it again while reading this post by a fellow blogger).  It was titled "11 Lessons That 'Jane Eyre' Can Teach Every 21st Century Woman About How To Live Well".  This intrigued me, being the devoted "Jane Eyre" fan that I am, and I checked it out to see how the list compared with my own impressions of one of literature's most famous heroines.

The article did point out some of the novel's best lessons like "You can overcome your past, no matter how bad it is.", "Be positive.", and "You are stronger than you think."  But these 11 ideas only scratch the surface of what Jane Eyre's story can teach us.  Like the freedom that is found in forgiving those who have wronged us (Jane's forgiveness of her aunt).  Or how important it is to do the right thing, even when it seems no one else will care (Jane's decision to leave Rochester because it is right, not because she does not love him).  Or the idea that you shouldn't let other people's convictions push you into doing something that you feel isn't best (Jane's refusal of St. John, though he insists it is "God's will" for her).  That is why it is so important to read great literature.  Not only does it expand your mind and feed
your imagination, it can also teach you ways to be a better person.

What are some important lessons you have learned from literature?  What other literary characters can serve as great role models?  Tell us who you have learned from.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Book Gifting Recommendations from John Green

In which author (and vlogger, and awesome nerd, and brother to a co-creator of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) John Green recommends some of the best books nerds can gift (or get) for the holiday season.  This is from last year, so please note some information is a little out of date (like Veronica Roth's Divergent series now has an that just about made the internet blow up).  Use it to add books to your reading list, or to get gift ideas for that special nerd in your life.  There are only 44 days until Christmas people!  Start shopping!

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Woman in White

“Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is a match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.” 

In 1859, Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round began publishing a serialized story that would grip the imagination of the country.  Though some critics dismissed it, readers devoured it, and even Prince Albert himself loved it so much that he gave copies out as gifts.  It became an instant hit and would go on to be the first (and most would say, best) of the "sensation fiction" genre.  Even 150 year later, Wilkie Collins captures the imagination with his masterful storytelling.

The Plot:

Walter Hartright is a young art teacher living in London.  While walking out late one night, he meets a mysterious young woman dressed completely in white who seems to be in great distress.  He helps her on her way, but soon afterwards learns that she has escaped from an asylum.  Soon after, he accepts a position as drawing master to one Mr. Fairlie's niece, Laura Fairlie, and her half-sister, Marian Halcombe.  Both Laura and Marian immediately take to Mr. Hartright, and he soon finds himself falling for gentle and beautiful Laura.  Marian eventually learns of this (as well as Laura's growing love for him) and informs him that the whole thing is impossible as Laura is engaged to be married to the man her late father chose for her,  Sir Percival Glyde.  Mr. Hartright leaves and determines to forget her.

Laura also tries to move on and be happy with Sir Percival, but things begin to go horribly wrong.  Sir Percival reveals himself to be far from the kind and decent man he had appeared, and the arrival of his mysterious friend Count Fosco only heightens the tension.  As things come to a head, Marian seeks to protect her sister, but is herself caught up in the mystery that surrounds Sir Percival.  Will they ever discover his secret?  And what does it all have to do with the ghostly woman in white?   

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

Having already read (and loved) Collins' The Moonstone, I was more than ready to tackle his other famous work.  Not to mention, it was also highly recommended by many of my friends.  So did it live up to the hype?  Absolutely.

The wonderful thing about Collins is his ability to tell a story.  Though the novel drags a bit in the beginning, once the mystery gets started you simply can't put it down.  Using multiple narrators, Collins manages to keep the story going without giving anything away.  And though there are plot points that seem very familiar now that we are 150 years away, the overall tone of the book remains very sensational and Gothic.  You can't help but get caught up in the fate of the characters.  So often I would find myself almost having a panic attack as the danger for the hero/heroines increased.  I would almost scream "Look behind you!" or "Don't post that letter!" or "He's watching you!".  It was almost like watching a horror movie at times.  It was all deliciously suspenseful and very well-done by Collins.

What I didn't expect from this novel was how much Collins champions the rights of women.  It almost seems like the greatest Victorian feminist novel was written by a man!  Most of the problems the two heroines face is due to the fact that women have no real legal rights.  Laura's selfish and indolent uncle takes no measure to provide for the security of her fortune.  This leaves her vulnerable to men like Sir Percival and Count Fosco.  Collins also does a fantastic job of creating a real flesh and blood woman in the form of Marian Halcombe.  Though Laura is the traditional Victorian beauty and a catalyst for the story, Marian is the real heroine.  She has confidence in herself, knows how to use her wits, and is willing to do anything to protect those she loves.  It is no wonder that by the end of the novel she has gained the admiration of all those around her, even her enemy.

This is a must read for anyone who loves Victorian novels or a great crime/mystery story.  Collin's storytelling is top notch and his characters are some that you will not soon forget.  Do yourself a favor and add this classic to your "TBR" pile.  You won't regret it!

The Movie:

This story has been adapted into a few films/miniseries.  The first is the 1948 version starring Gig Young, Eleanor Parker, Alexis Smith, and Sydney Greenstreet.  

The other is the 1997 BBC miniseries starring Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead), Tara Fitzgerald, Justine Waddell, and James Wilby.  Unlike most BBC miniseries, this one didn't really do the book justice.   See it if you want, but it is no substitute for the original.                  

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Forgive My Absence

Hello dear readers!  I m so sorry for the long absence in my blogging, but I promise I have a good excuse.  I just finished my first week back home after a two week trip to Italy!  I had a wonderful time in Venice, Florence, Rome, and Sorrento and learned so much about Italian history and culture.

I plan on buckling down to get lots of reading and reviews done, so keep an eye out for more activity here on the blog in the coming weeks.  As always, I thank you for taking the time to read my random thoughts on books.  Hope you are having a wonderful fall!