Friday, December 31, 2010

Sandition and Lady Susan by Jane Austen - Mini-Reviews

Sandition by Jane Austen
Written by Austen in 1817 but never completed

What a shame that Austen passed away before she could complete this book.  Within months of her death, she was still able to bring something new to a story and not lose a bit of her trademark wit.  This is the story of the development of a town by some of it's wealthier inhabitants.  Once again there are the characters and situations fans of Austen are so fond of--the wealthy widow and those that fawn over her, much gossiping, and great fun at the expense of the upper class.  At a mere 58 pages, it was over much too quickly.

Lady Susan by Jane Austen
Published in 1871 but probably written much earlier

Lady Susan is a much different character than any other written by Austen.  A selfish widow who is looking to find both herself and her daughter a husband, Lady Susan is also carrying on an affair with a married man.  Certainly moral character has been an issue with other Austen characters, but Lady Susan is in a class by herself.  She has no redeeming features.  She is a cold mother, greedy, manipulative--in short, she's a fascinating character.  Austen must have felt a little sorry for Lady Susan, though, not being nearly as hard on her in the end as she was with later characters

Whew--in a week of Austen, I have raced to the finish of the Everything Austen Challenge just in time.  And without one single movie this time.  Although I'm disappointed not have have read any more of the novels.  Next year!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford & Pride & Prejudice by Marvel Comics

When I waved the white flag on challenges a couple of weeks ago, I had completely lost track of the fact that the Everything Austen Challenge also ended on December 31.  I may be willing to give up on some challenges but not on this one!  So I've immersed myself this week in racing to complete five more things for the challenge, having already read and reviewed Northanger Abbey.

Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford
Published December 2009 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: I won this book as part of the prize pack for last years' "Everything Austen Challenge"

What if Jane Austen really was dead?  Or, more precisely, what if she were undead?  In Jane Bites Back, 41-year-old Jane Austen traveled for a tryst with Lord Byron only to have him seduce her...and the turn her into a vampire.  She returned home only to fake her own illness and death.  Over 200 years later, she's living in a small town, operating a bookstore, fending off a possible suitor and just about to give up on having her last manuscript published.  Things are complicated enough but they get even more complicated when a publisher buys her book, Lord Byron returns to try to woo her away (and by "woo" I mean threaten to harm those she cares about if she doesn't come with him), and a particularly vocal Charlotte Bronte fan, who is also a well-known blogger, starts causing trouble. 

This book did pose some interesting ideas as Jane contemplated her modern day life as opposed to her known life and what it might be like to actually outlive everyone and everything you ever knew.  But seriously, this book is almost three hundred pages long and in the end almost nothing is tied up.  Byron seems to have become a changed vampire, Jane has decided to take a chance on love but there is still the matter of another vampire, Jane still hasn't told her lover the truth about herself and Byron is prepping to train her more secrets of the vampire world.  Ford appears to have written this book solely to set himself up with the means to write a sequel.

Pride and Prejudice (set of 5 comic books)
Published April 2009 by Marvel Comics
Source: more loot from the Everything Austen prize pack

Exactly what it says it is--the graphic version of my all-time favorite book.  Kudos to Marvel comics for a job well done chopping the book down to the amount of dialogue and narrative that can be squeezed into this format without losing the essence of the book.  This book took me right back to the comic versions of other classic books I read growing up and I have to admit that enjoyed them.  Except for the faces.  Really, I often found them to be more than a little creepy, hard to distinguish the different young female characters and the faces were a bit too modern. Oh, and the ads for other comics and video games were distracting and seemed entirely out of place.  If I'm reading any kind of a version of Pride & Prejudice, am I really likely to be the kind of person who will be interested in picking up the game "Red Faction: Guerilla," rated M for mature audiences?

Sex and the Austen Girl
An internet series written by Laura Viera Rigler (Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict and Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict) seen on

It has been my intention since I first heard of this series to keep up with it as the new episodes came out.  And then I completely forgot about it.  So I watched all 23 (as of now) episodes in one evening.  Which means that I watched the beginning 23 times.  Boy, was I sick of that by the end.  The series consists of two characters, "Jane Mansfield" and "Courtney Stone" having a conversation about different aspects of life.  "Jane" has been dropped from Regency England into modern day Los Angeles and "Courtney" has been dropped from L.A. into Jane Austen's England.  These ladies find a lot they agree on (indoor plumbing is vastly superior to chamber pots) and some things they don't (Jane is appalled that women shave and wax off all of their body hair).  Twenty-three episodes in a row got to be a little much.  But taken individually, these are a lot of fun and make you think about the things we take for granted and things that might be better done the good old-fashioned way.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
Published April 2009 by Simon Schuster Adult
Source: I bought this one to read with the Omaha Bookworms

In 1913 a dockmaster, Hugh, discovers a little girl left on the dock in Australia, entirely alone and with nothing more than a small suitcase and a lovely book of fairy tales.  The man takes the little girl home when no one claims her and he and his wife raise her as their own and call her Nell. All the little girl can tell them is that she was with "The Authoress" and that she has been playing a game of hide-and-seek.

On Nell's twenty-first birthday, her adoptive parents tell her the truth and Nell's life is never the same; she spends the rest of it trying to solve the mystery of her identity.  The journey takes her to Blackhurst Manor and the Cornish coast of England. Nell returns to Australia to wrap up her life there before returning to England permanently, but things take a turn that prevents that from happening.  Nell's estranged daughter drops off her own daughter with Nell then takes off leaving the grandmother to raise a grandchild she barely knows.  Over time the two become close, but Nell never discloses her mysterious past nor the anything about the cottage she has purchased next to Blackhurst Manor.  It is not until Nell's death that all of this comes to light and Cassandra sets off to uncover her grandmother's first life and, perhaps, start a new one herself.

Morton weaves together three narratives to tell the story of Nell, moving between the turn of the 20th-century; 1975, when Nell was finally able to travel to England for the first time; and 2005, when Cassandra takes up her search.  There are a lot of characters to keep track of and with the constantly shifting narrative it was sometimes difficult to keep track of what was going on in the book.  I'm actually a big fan of shifting narratives where mysteries are involved and generally have no trouble with the idea of moving back and forth in time so none of that bothered me much.

What did bother me was the shifting idea of what a four-year-old could remember and how much an adult might remember from when she was that age.  The reader needs to buy into the idea that a four-year-old who has made that long a boat journey not only would not have been found but would never mention her own name or anything that might be a clue as to her identity. Then, when Nell is much older, the reader is expected to believe that a few clues will jar long, detailed memories.  There may be some for whom that is possible; but as someone who only has very fleeting memories of being that age, I just couldn't get past that. There were also some plot points that didn't work for me, I wasn't surprised by the big reveal toward the end of the book, and I felt that a good fifty pages could have been cut from the book. 

Still, despite all of those problems, I liked the book.  The essential mystery interested me and I liked many of the characters, particularly those from the earliest time frame.  As a book club selection, I'm hard pressed to say whether or not it was a good choice.  Only one person who made it to our meeting in the month that we read this had actually finished the book so we couldn't really discuss it.  My opinion is that while this is a pleasant enough book, it's not necessarily book-club worthy.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

War Through The Generations Reading Plan

I'm so excited to start the U.S. Civil War Reading Challenge : War Through The Generations but where to start, where to start?  Here are the rules of the challenge:

War Through the Generation‘s 2011 reading challenge will be the U.S. Civil War.  The challenge will run from January 1, 2011, through December 31, 2011.
This year you have options when reading your fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, etc. with the U.S. Civil War as the primary or secondary theme.
Books can take place before, during, or after the war.  Books from other challenges count so long as they meet the above criteria.
Dip: Read 3-5 books in any genre with the U.S. Civil War as a primary or secondary theme.
Wade: Read 6-10 books in any genre with the U.S. Civil War as a primary or secondary theme.
Swim: Read 11 or more books in any genre with the U.S. Civil War as a primary or secondary theme.
Additionally, we’ve decided that since there are so many great movies out there about U.S. Civil War, that you can substitute or add a movie or two to your list this year and have it count toward your totals.

Since I failed at so many challenges this year, I'm going in at the lowest level at this challenge, planning to read five books.  The books I know for sure that I'll be reading are:

The March by E. L. Doctorow
This Republic of Suffering: Death And The American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust
April 1865: The Month That Saved America by Jay Winik
A Separate Country by Robert Hicks

I'm holding off on my final selection for now.  Perhaps a movie, possibly Hick's The Widow of The South (which I happened to spy on my parents' book shelf this weekend), but probably I'll leave this one up to my dad.  He is the expert, after all!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls

Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls
Published October 2009 by Simon & Schuster
Source: I bought this one to read with the Omaha Bookworms

Lily Casey Smith was Jeanette Walls grandmother and this is her story, largely based on the stories Walls heard from and about her grandmother.  But because her grandmother died when Walls was only seven, much of Walls has also had to fill in many of the details so the subtitle of this book is "A True Life Novel."

Lily is a character in every sense of the word.  We first are introduced to Lily at an age when today's children would be in their first year of education.  Instead Lily is working with her father to break horses on the family's ranch.  Her mother is entirely ill-equipped to deal with life on the frontier in turn-of-the-last century Texas.  She must often be revived with smelling salts due largely to the fact that she insists on lacing herself up so tightly; she also flat refused to do most chores.

Because of one of her father's never ending schemes, Lily's family was only able to send her to school for one semester but it was enough to convince Lily that she wanted to be a school teacher. When she was only fifteen, knowing that her brother would inherit the ranch and having passed a test that enabled her to teach, Lily left the ranch for a teaching job with nothing but her horse and a few provisions.  Twenty eight days later, she finally arrived.
"I became known as Lily Casey, the mustang-breaking, poker-playing, horse-race-winning schoolmarm of Coconimo County and it wasn't half bad to be in a place where no one had a problem with a woman having a moniker like that."
Lily lived the rest of her days with the same spunk and courage.  She learned drive early and fly a plane, she raced horses, peddled bootleg liquor from under her son's crib to make ends meet, and worked harder than most men ever have.  She also brooked no excuses, stood for no prejudice, and expected her own children to work every bit as hard as Lily and their father did.

"The problem with half-broke horses like these was that no one took the time to train them.  Cowboys who could ride anything caught them and ran them on fear, spurring and quirting them too hard, taking pride in staying on no matter how desperately they bucked and fishtailed."

Unfortunately, despite her best efforts, Lily never was able to break Walls' mother, Rosemary.  The result was chronicled in Wall's memoir The Glass Castle.  I haven't read that book but I've heard enough about it to be surprised early on in this one that a woman like Lily could have raised a woman like Rosemary.  But as the book went on, I began to see how it might have happened.  Lily was hard on everyone and thought nothing of doling out a good beating, even with her students.  She once beat Rosemary so severely that even Lily felt she had gone too far.  Once she also involved Rosemary in spying on her own father when Lily was trying to determine if her husband was cheating on her.

This book grabbed my attention from the beginning as Walls explained how Lily and her siblings had survived a flash flood.  But as the book went on, I began to tire of the stories. That was in part because I started to lose some of the admiration I had for Lily as she began to make decisions that I questioned. But mostly it felt like Walls was working too hard to convince me that her grandmother was a tough old bird, capable to adjusting and surviving anything.  Things also began to seem repetitive.  In fact, Walls frequently had her grandmother referring to her first husband, always as "my crumb-bum first husband."

Was it worth reading?  Definitely.  Lily Smith lead an amazing life and the book certainly made for an interesting discussion with the rest of my book club.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Wishing those of you who celebrate it, and your families, a very merry Christmas!
 "And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"
- Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol"

Friday, December 24, 2010

Fairy Tale Fridays - Is The Story of Santa Claus A Fairy Tale?

Could the story of Santa Claus be considered a fairy tale?

Fairy tales, according to Wikipedia, typically feature folkloric creatures such as elves.  Not only that but in many versions of the story, Santa has flying reindeer and he's able to traverse the entire world in only one night. Furthermore, Santa appears to be immortal and can survive living in a climate where no other human being can survive.

As with many fairy tales, the story of Santa Claus has origins in many different countries and regions and is referred to by different names depending on the country of origin.  There are many similarities between Santa Claus and the early Germanic people's god, Odin.  Odin was also said to fly through the sky at Yule and children began filling their boots with goodies for Odin.

The dark aspect of early fairy tales is absent from the story of Santa Claus, however.  Santa is said to bring gifts to children and only naughty children are punished according to most versions of the Santa Claus story. In Alpine regions there are Krampus, said to be the companions of Saint Nicholas, who are even today represented as characters who frighten people with rusty chains and bells.

Perhaps the most telling difference between the story of Santa Claus and fairy tales is that fairy tales generally don't reference religion or actual people or places.  Despite the differing stories of Santa's origin, nearly all find their roots in religion and are based on an actual person.  Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century Greek bishop, is the basis of Christianity's Sinterklaas.  Saint Nicholas was known for his generosity to the poor.

Fairy tale or not, I love to read the stories of Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle or Pere Noel.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

The Christmas Books: Volume 1 by Charles Dickens
    includes A Christmas Carol and The Chimes
The stories were originally published in 1843 and 1844 respectively
Source: this copy was bought by my husband in college

Ebenezer Scrooge is a man who has lost all touch with humanity.  He is a truly awful man who cares for nothing more than his money.  Then one night he is visited by the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley.  Marley is weighed down by all of the evils of his own life and tells Scrooge that he will be cursed in the same way when he dies if he doesn't make changes in his life.
"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faultered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a crop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business."
Scrooge is then visited by three spirits.  The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to various scenes in his childhood and youth, reminding him of the sadness of his early years, the joy of his early adulthood and then again of the sadness of the end of a relationship because of his love of money.  Scrooge's heart begins to melt.

When the Ghost of Christmas Present visits and shows Scrooge all that he is missing and what people think of him, Scrooge becomes convinced that he needs to change his ways. He sees his nephew who says he will always continue to try to make amends with his uncle no matter the response.  He sees the home of his clerk, Bob Cratchit, and is particularly struck by Bob's crippled son, Tiny Tim.  This Ghost also makes Scrooge aware of his greater responsibility to mankind.  Under this Ghost"s robes are two ragged, forlorn children.  The Ghost explains to Scrooge:
"They are Man's."  "This boy is Ignorance.  This girl is Want.  Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."
But when the Ghost of Christmas Future comes to call, Scrooge is horrified to see his own demise and the reaction of those who knew him.  When he awakens after that last visit, he truly is a changed man. 
"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, Present, and the Future, The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.  I will not shut out the lessons that they teach."

Charles Dickens wrote this novella at a time when Britain was experiencing a nostalgia for their Christmas traditions while at the same time beginning to incorporate new ideas such as Christmas trees and holiday cards.  It is said to have been inspired by Dickens' own youth, his sympathy for the poor and Washington Irving's writings.  In nearly 160 years, it has never been out of print and has been adapted for the stage, television, movies and even opera.

The first run of the book was 6000 copies which were first available on December 19 and sold out before December 24.  That may not be many copies by today's standards but I've got to say that I'm pretty impressed that 6000 copies of a book sold out in under five days in a time before there were wide PR campaigns for books, even if it was Charles Dickens who had, by that time, published "The Adventures of Oliver Twist," "The Life And Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby," and "The Old Curiosity Shop," all in serialized publication.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday Salon - December 19

Happy last weekend day before Christmas to all of you who celebrate the day.  By next Sunday, we can all put up our feet, take a deep breath and, hopefully, be reading one of the new books we got for Christmas!

Miss H picked the winner of the set of Blackboard Books this morning and the winner is Sandy Jay.  I'll be contacting you, Sandy, to get your address to send off to the publisher.  Congratulations!

Thanks to all of my book friends and all of you who write such great blogs for your help in my latest article for   It's a book giving guide for everyone on your Christmas list.  Check it out and let me know if there are any others you would recommend for gifts.  What books are you hoping to get this Christmas?

I wish I could say I was off to curl up with a good book on the dreary day.  Alas, I'm instead off to wrap presents, do laundry, and finish my Christmas cards.  Maybe later I can sneak in some reading!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Holiday Tag!

I was tagged for this by Michelle at "red headed book child."  If you don't already know about Michelle, you definitely need to check out her blog--she knows a lot about books having worked in a book store and now as a librarian. 

When do you usually know and feel that it's finally the holidays?
When the decorations are up and the boxes are put away.

What do you want for Christmas this year?

My family to all be able to be together--last year's blizzard kept us away from family.

Do you go all out with decorations?
Yes, but...the older I get the less I'm interested in doing it.  It takes days and a few weeks later you've got to undo all of it which is even less fun.

What are you doing Christmas Eve?
We'll spend the day with my side of the family, opening presents, eating, opening presents,  eating, going to church, opening presents. 

What are you doing Christmas Day?
Spending the day with the in-laws, although it will be a disjointed affair. 

It's Christmas time. What are you reading?
I participated in the Christmas Spirit Challenge and read Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."  Otherwise, I'm treating myself and finally just picking what I want to read.

Favorite movie to watch during the holidays?
It's A Wonderful Life is probably my favorite.  But I love all of the classics--it's one of my fav things about the holidays.

Favorite Christmas song?
O Holy Night hands down.  Well, except for Silent Night as sung by the man at my parents who sings it in German while the congregation is lighting candles.

Favorite holiday drink?
Don't have one.  
How is your Christmas shopping going?
Guys are all done, kids are almost done.  Still need to make some.

If you could spend Christmas Day anywhere else, where would you spend it?
On a beach somewhere! By Christmas Day, I've already had my fill of pine trees, decorations, movies and music.

Any holiday traditions?
Making holiday goodies with my kids, soup dinner at my parents on Christmas Eve followed by the candlelight service at church.

Favorite thing about the Holidays.
Being with my family.

I would love to tag the following three bloggers.
Share with us your holiday fun pass it on to 3 more!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Fairy Tale Fridays - The Mermaid In The Tree

This week at Fairy Tale Fridays, I'm featuring a story by Tim Schaffert from My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me titled "The Mermaid In The Tree."  Each of the stories in this compilation is based to some extent on another fairy tale.  Schaffert's story is based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," a tale that Schaffert says is not only his favorite fairy tale, but also his favorite short story.

Desiree and her sister Miranda live in Rothgutt's Asylum for Misspent Youth where they have spent nearly their entire lives after being arrested for stealing candy from a baby.  The asylum is in the village of Mudpuddle Beach where mermaids regularly wash up and die on the shores.  Parades are held in Mudpuddle Beach featuring the bodies of some of the mermaids, preserved, posed and floating in giant tanks set on platforms pulled by rickshaws peddled by the girls of Rothgutt's.  After one of the parades, Desiree meets Axle, a young man who attends Starkwhip Academy of Breathtakingly Exceptional Young Men and the two are soon sneaking out to meet.  One night the two meet and Axle is in the process of giving Desiree an engagement ring when it slips from his hand and falls into the water below.  At nearly the same time, the two see a carousel figure break loose in a storm, wash out to sea and return to view with a mermaid clinging to it's neck.  Axle rescues the mermaid but Desiree is prevented from going with him to seek care for her and will not see him again for many months.  Axle falls in love with the mermaid and it proves his undoing.

 In the original tale of The Little Mermaid,  it is the mermaid who saves the prince and her love for him that proves to be her undoing.  In Schaffert's hands, there does seem to be more of a mutual affection although the mermaid's addiction to a drug that originally saved her seems to be more important to her than does Axle.

In addition to The Little Mermaid, Schaffert borrows the mermaid's name from a fairy tale (Rapunzel).  The darkness so prominent in early fairy tales is abundant in "The Mermaid In The Tree."  There is no living "happily ever after" for any of the characters.  But while the tale has many of the elements of classic fairy tales, there was nothing that set in a particular time.  In fact, there was something about it the had the feel of a dystopian story to me.  It also reminded me of Lemony Snicket's "A Series Of Unfortunate Events," notched up grown up levels. 

You may recall me saying that Schaffert is the driving force behind Omaha's Lit Fest.  He has also published several books which are part of Unbridled Books' catalog (you all know how much I love Unbridled Books!).  I'm looking forward to reading his "The Coffins of Little Hope" which will be published April 2011.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Originally published in 1817
Source: included in the complete works of Jane Austen book given me by my parents

Catherine Morland is a naive, unaccomplished 17-year-old, prone to let her imagination take flight when she's invited to join some family friends for a few weeks in Bath.  There she meets the Thorpe family, including Isabella who becomes her dearest friend. Catherine's brother, James, arrives in Bath with Isabella's brother, John.  James and Isabella have met before and shortly after James' arrival in Bath, the two become engaged.

Catherine also meets Henry Tilney in Bath who she becomes smitten with and shortly after, the rest of his family including his sister, Eleanor; brother, Frederick; and father, General Tilney.  Not long after Frederick arrives he begins pursuing Isabella. Catherine is so uncomfortable by the whole situation that when Eleanor invites her to come to stay with the Tilney's at Northanger Abbey, Catherine is more than ready to leave Bath.  Once at Northanger Abbey, though, Catherine's imagination really begins to run away with her.

Northanger Abbey was the first book that Austen had ready for publishing, even selling it.  But it was never published until after her death.  It's quite obviously an early work but even an early Austen is a wonderful bit of wit.
"A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number..."
"Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid.  A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can."
Austen creates in Catherine a character who is in most ways a perfectly ordinary young lady.  But Austen mocks society by making it appear that Catherine is deficient because she can't draw a profile or play the piano and because she is absorbed in books. Catherine's childlike, trusting nature makes her a poor judge of character, susceptible to all of Isabella's flattery, John's lies and General Tilney's excessive kindnesses.  Sadly, the only way for things to end happily for Catherine ( and this being Austen, you know things will end happily) is for her to learn a great deal about human nature. 

Something unique to this story is Austen's use of the writer herself as very much a part of the story.  While it was appropriate for this book, before her next novel Austen had developed the ability to insert what where the writer's points in this novel into the narrative and dialogue of the characters.

This was the only Austen novel I had never read more than once.  Now I'm not sure why; I know I will read it again--if for no other reason than the laughs.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My edition: 186 pages, published 1974
Originally published: 1925

Nick Carraway has just settled on a career in New York City following the Great War.  He finds himself living on West Egg (in reality Great Neck) living next to a mysterious man named Gatsby who frequently hosts extravagant parties.

Across the sound lives Nick's cousin, Daisy.  Through Daisy, Nick becomes reacquainted with her husband Tom Buchanan (a brute who is rich enough to do nothing much more than play polo) and their friend Jordan Baker (a golfer who Nick begins dating).  One day Tom and Nick decide to head into New York and stop at a garage, ostensibly to talk to the owner about a car.  But the real reason Tom wants to stop is to have Nick meet his mistress, Myrtle.  When Myrtle joins them, Nick discovers that the pair have an apartment in the city and gets stuck at a party that only ends when Tom breaks Myrtle's nose.

Eventually Nick attends one of Gatsby's parties and finds that even the people that attend the parties regularly know very little about the man.  Some said he had killed a man, some said he had made his fortune as a bootlegger.  At the party, Gatsby pulls Jordan aside and a few days later Jordan tells Nick that Gatsby and Daisy were once in love and that Gatsby would like Nick to reunite the two.  Which he does. Which results in the two of them having an affair.  Which results in very bad things happening.

I bought this book right after I saw the movie (36 years ago), which I loved (mostly because of the aesthetics and, let's be real, Robert Redford).  I didn't love the book then and I didn't love it this time either.  I agree that it's a brilliant examination of what comes of great wealth without responsibility.  I agree that Fitzgerald has crafted a work that paints a great picture of a time and place and that he's worked in a lot of interesting themes.  These are all things that I love to find in one book.  Which is what puzzles me about my reaction to this book.  Maybe it's because I just didn't care what happened to any of the characters. Maybe it's because I was so hoping to find that reading it as an adult would be a transcendent thing.  But it wasn't.  It was just a really good book. Which, in fact, is definitely worth reading.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Giveaway: Boxed Set of Blackboard Books

If you're a school marm, like my mom who often sends me corrections when I forget to run spell check or end a sentence with a dangling participle, you've been salivating over the Blackboard Books ever since they first came out.  Even if you're not an English grammarian, especially if you're not, you're sure to find them an invaluable asset.  Now's your chance to win a boxed set of the books that includes the first three books in the series:

i before e (except after c):
old-school ways to remember stuff In this clever-and often hilarious-collection, you'll find engaging mnemonics, arranged in easy to find categories that include geography, time and the calendar, numbers, and astronomy. Perfect for students of all ages!

My Grammar and I...Or Should That Be Me?: How to Speak and Write It Right
Avoid grammatical minefields with this entertaining refresher course for anyone who has ever been stumped by spelling confusion, dangling modifiers, split infinitives, or for those who have no idea what these things even are.

I Used to Know That: Stuff You Forgot from School 
Take a trip down memory lane with this light-hearted and informative reminder of the many things we learned in school that have been forgotten over time, from Shakespeare and diphthongs to quotients, phalanges, and protons. After all, as Stantayana reminds us, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

I've got one set to giveaway to a U.S. resident only.  To enter, just leave a comment with a way for me to contact you.  I'll announce the winner on December 19th.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Reading for Feeding America - Help Craig Lancaster Help America

Craig Lancaster, author of the widely praised 600 Hours of Edward and the forthcoming novel The Summer Son to be released by AmazonEncore in early 2011) wanted to do something for others this Christmas season, so he wrote a fantastic holiday-themed story, “Comfort and Joy,” to sell on Amazon and Smashwords for $1. 
 However, that he plans to donate 100% of the proceeds to Feeding America, whose 200+ food banks distribute to all fifty states, wasn’t enough for us at Inside the Writers’ Studio. When we learned of his plan to write some short fiction, he hadn’t yet begun “Comfort and Joy,” and we were more than happy to catch him early enough to challenge him to find a way to incorporate a few random words.
The words: snowman, hot chocolate, and jingle balls. 
LANCASTER: I thought my "Jingle Balls" solution might have been a little reach, but I was 12 years old once, and it's something I might have come up with.
He managed to write the (approx.) 5,500-word story in just 24 hours.
LANCASTER: The idea has been bouncing around in my head for a while, and it's easily adaptable to a holiday angle. Short-story productivity, for me, comes and goes, and for whatever reason, I've been in a fertile period. I'll sit down in the next couple of days and knock it out. The funny thing is, I've never really written fiction on a deadline, but I have one now: I've pledged to send this story to the in-boxes of donors by Dec. 15.
He made good on his pledge; “Comfort and Joy” is available at Amazon and Smashwords right now (click a link to buy a copy – you can always come back here when you’re done), and it will stay there indefinitely with the proceeds continuing to benefit Feeding America. And, as promised, it’s only $1. “But why not charge more to give more?” we wondered.
LANCASTER: Two reasons. The first is the greater-volume-at-a-lower-price idea. The second is that I hope this isn't the be-all, end-all of people's giving. A few folks have written to me and said, "I want to give more than a buck," and my response has been this: "Send me a buck. Send your local food bank, or some other charity there at home, as much as you feel like you can give."

INSIDE THE WRITERS’ STUDIO: What made you choose this particular charity?

LANCASTER: I've been reading a lot about how stressed food banks are. Times are hard, and charitable giving is down. And since (I hope) donations will be coming in from all over, it didn't seem quite right to roll whatever money is generated toward the food bank where I live, though it certainly could use the help. So I figured that Feeding America, with its national focus, made sense.

One of the things that put this at the top of my mind was seeing a plea from my friend Carol Buchanan on Facebook that people not buy her books as gifts but instead donate to their local food bank. She said she'd eat whether the books are bought or not. Others -- many, many others -- are not so fortunate.

This effort is nothing like the NPR fundraising drive—there’s no dollar amount in mind, no set goal (“I have no expectation here,” Lancaster says. “If it's five bucks, it's five bucks.”), but he does hope to turn this into an annual effort, one that involves more writers contributing to a holiday-themed anthology.

LANCASTER: Say, 15 or 20 holiday-themed stories, from a wide variety of genres, all with the aim of putting some food on the tables of people who badly need it. Wheels are already turning for next year: an anthology, from writers across the traditional and indie spectrums. Zombie Christmas, romance Christmas, bizarro, whatever. I think if I were to get people on board in, say, July, we'd be able to offer all kinds of options: individual stories, the entire collection, e-book, short POD run.

IWS: Do you think you might choose different charities in the future?

LANCASTER: I haven't even thought about that. I'm pretty passionate about food banks. They're chronically understocked, and it's one form of charity that is completely without political overtones.  

IWS: Have you ever donated to/worked in/needed a food bank?

LANCASTER: I've pulled a few shifts stacking boxes and such, and I'm a reliable bring-a-canned-good-to-whatever-event guy, but I've never done it on a consistent basis. One of the things I hope to do, beyond the holiday season, is become a lot more involved with that sort of thing on a local level.

IWS: That sounds like a perfect New Year’s resolution. Speaking of the new year—your upcoming novel, The Summer Son, will be released in January. Tell us about it.

LANCASTER: It's a multi-decade father-and-son story. Mitch Quillen and his father, Jim, have been largely estranged for nearly 30 years, and the breach stems from a violent summer when Mitch was 11 years old. In the present day, they've been thrown together again and they try to work through the distance between them. All the while, Mitch is reliving that long-ago summer in the form of a note to his wife, whom he's kept away from that part of his life, in an effort to reconcile his own failing relationship with her. It's a story about the things we experience and how those things shape us -- and how those same things get interpreted in different ways by other people who were there.

IWS: Final question. Fruitcake: yay or nay?

LANCASTER: You know, I'd love to say yay, just to be the contrary bastard I tend to be. But I cannot. Fruitcake is a nay. It's a nay to the 100th power. It's a nay that pushes at the outer edges of the space-time continuum. It's the nay that keeps on giving. Let's face it: Fruitcake sucks. 

  Thank you for allowing us to post our interview on your blog site and spread the word about Craig Lancaster's effort.  - Kris & Kel, IWS

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fairy Tale Fridays - In Which I'm Set Straight On What Makes A Fairy Tale A Fairy Tale

Last week in Fairy Tale Fridays, I mentioned that the writers at the Omaha Lit Fest didn't have a specific definition of "fairy tale."  On Sunday I told you that I had heard from Kate Bernheimer, who edited "My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me."  Ms. Bernheimer said that she does have a definition "which is a bit circular; they are works of art that have a fairy tale feel."  Then she directed me to some wonderful essays she's written which can be found on her website.  In her essay titled "A Terrible Twist," originally published in Fences, Bernheimer writes:
"In fairy tales the author (authors) does not strive to represent a more real world that exists beyond its pages, but strives to create new worlds. To create sense. To create logic, as well as illogic.  To create time and space, not to reflect it.  To create possibility.  To create life in its becoming."
In an essay titled "Fairy Tale is Form, " Bernheimer introduces the reader to four formal components of fairy tales: flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic and normalized magic.  You may find some of these components in more recent writings but, says Bernheimer, "the first thing you always know about a fairy tale is that you are in it.  Immediately it announces that it is a form and that you are inside the form."

This week I read two fairy tales from a book we gave our children for Christmas in 1995, "A Child's Book of Stories," illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith.  The first was "Snow White and Rose Red."  This is not the story told in the Disney movie "Snow White."  In this book at least, that story is titled "Snow Drop."  "Snow White and Rose Red" is instead the story of two young girls who live with their frail mother.  These two girls could not be better people and no one every thinks to harm them.  Not even a bear that shows up at their home one cold night.  Their mother allows the bear to sleep on the hearth and soon the girls are treating him as if he were a domesticated pet.  When spring arrives, the bear leaves but tells them he will be back again.  One day shortly after the girls are in the woods when they discover a dwarf who has caught his beard in a log.  The only way the girls can find to save him is to chop off a small bit of his beard.  The dwarf is he is again twice more when the girls have to save him.  The fourth time they come across the dwarf, he is laying out some gem stones when suddenly the bear appears and kills the dwarf.  It seems that the bear is really a prince who had a spell cast on him that could only be broken by killing the dwarf and he is really a prince.  Who conveniently has a brother.  So, of course, the girls both marry one of the princes.

The second story I read was titled "Goldilocks; or The Three Bears" which was the traditional story of Goldilocks with which we are all familiar.  What was most interesting to me was that there was a second story in the book called "The Story of Pretty Goldilocks."  Until I read this book with my children, I'd never heard of this story.  It's the story of a beautiful princess who is the object of a certain king's desire.  When she turns down his first emissary, he sends another named "Charming."  The princess sets many task for Charming but I think you can already guess where this tale is going when it features a princess and a man named Charming!

Next week, Timothy Shaffert's story "The Mermaid In The Tree," which takes as it's inspiration Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid."  Oh, and you all know how much I love Unbridled Books; imagine how excited I was to find Shaffert's books in their catalog.  I'll soon be reading his book "The Coffins of Little Hope."  Also next week, more on fairy tales from Kate Bernheimer.

2011 Reading Challenges

I think...I hope...that I've settled on the reading challenges I'm going to attempt for 2011.  As I said in my Sunday Salon, I'm going to be continuing with the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge.  I will also continue with the Our Mutual Read challenge (although I'm not sure I'm going to master it this year) and will attempt the Michener Challenge again next year.  I'll also do the Everything Austen Challenge in 2011.

This year I'm adding a new-to-me challenge in 2011--War Through The Generations Reading Challenge.  I've always thought this sounded like a great challenge but never was sure I wanted to commit to it.  In 2011, though, the U.S. Civil War is the focus and I can't resist joining.  I think, I know, I've mentioned before that my dad was an American History teacher for almost 40 years with a particular passion for the Civil War.  And by passion, I mean that our three-week-long summer vacations nearly always revolved around finding our way to as many Civil War battlefields as possible.  At the time I wasn't very appreciative. Okay, I wasn't appreciative at all.  I mean, it was not within my capabilities to stand in a green park-like area and imagine the solders coming over a hill top only to be met with bayonets and gunfire.  That passion my dad, and my mom to a lesser extent, have has gradually worn on me and I'm eager to have the excuse to read more about this period in our history.  Plus, I have this amazing library of Civil War books to draw from!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Alice's Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice's Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
First published in 1865
Source: bought for my daughter who loves the Disney movie

When Alice follows a white rabbit with a pocket watch into a hole, she finds herself in Wonderland, a land where she frequently finds herself growing and shrinking and meets one of the strangest assortment of characters ever to grace the pages of literature, including the Cheshire Cat, a hookah-smoking caterpillar, The Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts.

Not long after she arrives in Wonderland, Alice begins to think that she may no longer be who she thinks she is, what with the changing sizes, her memory lapses, and all of the strange things she's seeing.  But she never really does lose herself, always retaining her common sense and feeling of fairness.

Of course the book is full of nonsense, which is much of what makes it so appealing to children.  But it's full of the kinds of humor that equally amusing for adults.  In one chapter, Alice and a group of animals have had to swim and are looking for something to dry themselves.  A mouse ("a person of some authority") began to tell the group the "dryest" thing he knows, which turns out to be a story of early English political history.  The Duchess is constantly trying to make a moral of everything.  Great long passages are plays on how the English language can be misunderstood and misused.
""Then you should say what you mean," the March Hare went on.
"I do," Alice hastily replied: "at least - at least I mean what I say - that's the same thing you know."
"Not the same thing a bit!" said the Hatter. "Why, you might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see!"
"You might just as well say," added the March Hare, "that 'I like what I get' is the same thing as 'I get what I like!""
Alice's Adventures In Wonderland was originally a story told by Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) told to ten-year-old Alice Lidell and her sisters on a boat ride in 1862.  Alice asked Dodgson to write the story down which he finally did three years later, complete with his own drawings.  When the book was published, however, it included the drawing of John Tenniel.

I generally include what I didn't like or didn't think worked in a book when I do a review but I must admit that I can't think of a single thing I didn't enjoy in this story.  I was enchanted by Carroll's clever writing and amusing characters and absolutely adored Tenniel's drawings.  If you have not read this book, it can be had for free in several places on the internet.  But if you have children, I highly recommend picking up a copy to read to them; it will be a book they will want to read again and again.  No wonder my daughter loves this story so much!  I can't wait to read Through The Looking Glass And What Alice Found There, Carroll's follow up to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Officially Admitting Defeat

For no earthly reason, I have failed at this challenge.  Even with almost four weeks left in the year, there is no way that I will be able to read ten books from my shelves that I will be able to pass along.  This should have been so easy.  I have hundreds of books that I need to read and will likely pass along when I'm done.  But my year has almost entirely consisted of reading books that were review books, reading books I loved so much that I didn't want to part with them and re-reading books I already owned.  So...what I thought was the easiest challenge I signed up for, turns out to be one of the hardest.  I'm waving the white flag.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Raven And Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe

The Raven and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe
My copy published 1992
Source: bought it for my son

Everyone knows the poem "The Raven" and probably several of Poe's many stories.  I had never read any of Poe's other poems prior to reading this book.  Not surprisingly, there's not a happy one in the bunch. Poe's life was difficult and filled with the lose of loved ones, many of the deaths being memorialized in his poetry. 

There were only a couple of poems that I liked in this collection; I far prefer Poe's stories to his poetry.  The relentless sadness, the strange cadence of some of the poems, and the similarity between so many of the poems all served to make this slim volume one I had to fight to get through.  This one pretty much sums up so many of them and so much more succintly:

"Deep In Earth"
Deep in earth my love is lying
And I must weep alone.
I read this collection as part of the Gilmore Girls Challenge.  I can't tell you how much I wish Rory would have read "The Tell-Tale Heart" instead of "The Raven!"

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sunday Salon - December 5

Happy December!  Do you all have a good start on the holiday preparations?  My goal is to try to get the house decorated today and start making cookie doughs.  Shopping has already begun and the Christmas cards are started.

I decided this week to continue hosting the Gilmore Girls Reading Challenge for another year.  I have to admit that I've sort of failed at my own challenge: I had a specific list of books that I wanted to read for it, but I've had to resort to reading entirely different books in hopes of reaching my goal of 20 books off the list.  I still want to read all of those books that I didn't get to so this is the best way to encourage myself to do so.  I've made some changes to the challenge this year--instead of 5, 10 and 20 books to read for the different levels, next year the three levels will be 4, 6 and 10 books.  Next year you'll also be able to substitute in some movie adaptations to try to reach that goal as well.

I had a couple of squeal moments Friday thanks to my first Fairy Tale Fridays in which I referenced the Omaha Lit Fest, Tim Schaffert and Kate Bernheimer.  I opened my email Friday evening to discover emails from both Schaffert and Bernheimer!  Schaffert left a comment saying that "The Little Mermaid" is not only his favorite fairy tale but also his favorite short story.  I remember him mentioning that at the Lit Fest; it was also his starting off point for the fairy tale he contributed to "My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me."  You'll be hearing more about that story later.

Bernheimer wrote to say that she does have a definition of fairy tales: "they are works of art with a fairy-tale feel, the "affect" of fairy tales."  She also directed me to some essays that she's written about fairy tales which are fascinating.  I'll be talking about them this week on Friday.

 Finally, happy birthday to my sister tomorrow!  I won't say how old she is, mostly because I'm hoping that she'll keep quiet about how old I am!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Checking off the "You've Got Mail" Challenge

With my recent frenzy of reading children's books, I've reached my goal for the "You've Got Mail" Challenge.  I love that movie so much, though, I was really tempted to keep the picture on my blog just to bring a smile to my face every time I saw it.  I read:

Maurice Sendak: Pierre: A Cautionary Tale Told In Five Chapters And A Prologue
                           Where The Wild Things Are
Ludwig Bemelman: Madline
                              Madeline And The Gypsies
                              Madeline And The Bad Hat
                              Madeline's Rescue
                              Madeline In America
E. B. White: Stuart Little
                   Charlotte's Web
L.M. Montgomery: Anne Of Green Gables
Kay Thompson: Eloise
Lewis Carroll: Alice's Adventures In Wonderland
Roald Dahl: James And The Giant Peach
Shel Silverstein: Where The Sidewalk Ends
Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey

I'd actually only planned on reading 10 books for the challenge but those Madeline books just sucked me in!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Fairy Tale Fridays - Just Exactly What Is A Fairy Tale?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines "fairy tale" as "a fanciful tale of legendary deeds and creatures, usually intended for children."  Wikipedia says that they "typically feature folkloric characters fairies, goblins, elves, trolls, giants or gnomes and usually magic or enchantment.  Often the story will involve a far-fetched sequence of events."

Fairy tales rarely make reference to religion or any actual people, places or events and unlike folklore, they were generally never believed to be based on truth. One site I found says that fairy tales were not originally intended for children due to their bawdy and violent nature.  On the other hand, other sites say they were first intended as stories for children. 

Interestingly, when I was at the Omaha Lit Fest this fall none of the panelists could actually give a concise definition of "fairy tale."  Not Timothy Schaffert who teaches about and writes fairy tales.  Not Keven Brockmeier who writes fairy tales.  Not Kate Bernheimer who compiled the book "My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me," writes fairy tales and is the editor of three fairy tale anthologies.  Schaffert said "I just know one when I read one."  My plan of attack, then, will be to take the guess work out by picking up books that tell me they are fairy tales. Bernheimer did say that fairy tales have everyday magic and an absence of depth in the characters.  She also added that they are tales of survival of the weakest despite great brutality.

The Grimm Brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, are perhaps the most famous tellers of fairy tales.  They first started collecting the tales as a way to preserve their Germanic heritage.  Once they say how popular the tales were with young people, they started to soften them up a bit but never to the point where they completely lost their appeal for adults.  Here's one version of "Little Red Riding Hood" that retains more of its violence.

Are you interested in reading some of those fairy tales you remember from childhood?  Project Gutenberg has an ebook version of "Favorite Fairy Tales."  These are probably the adaptations you remember reading--just enough violence and threat to make them scary but not so graphic.  

I see I'm not the only one who's become infatuated with fairy tales lately.  The New York Symphony recently put on a reading of the new fairy tales in Kate Bernheimer's recent collection "My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me."  Gregory Maguire, author if Wicked, did the introduction.

Which were your favorite fairy tales growing up?