Friday, January 29, 2010

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

I'm a little surprised that I never read anything by Gene Stratton-Porter since her writing seems like just the type of historical fiction I would have enjoyed as a teenager. But better late than never, I suppose, and I'm glad to find it now.

My book club is reading a series of Indiana authors, and Freckles is our current selection. It is not so well know as Stratton-Porter's A Girl of the Limberlost, which is actually the sequel to Freckles, and next on my library stack. In a few words, Freckles is quaint, endearing, beautiful, and simple - quite different from The Woman in White, but charming nonetheless.

The title character of this first novel is an orphan who has come of age and is trying to find his place in a world that despises him because he lacks one hand. He hides his maimed arm with bitterness, imagining that his parents abused him and left him to die at an orphanage where he endured a loveless childhood filled with rejection. When he happens into a lumbering camp, he convinces the Boss that he will be a strong and reliable guard for the timber of the Limberlost, an untouched tract of swampy land that has plenty of dangers of both the natural and criminal variety. In spite of his loneliness and fears of the wildness of the swamp, Freckles is a man of his word and valiantly conquers his fears, resolutely stands up to the thieves who would steal the valuable trees, and quickly wins the hearts of all those with whom he associates.

Freckles' noble character earns him the respect not only of the Boss, who loves him like a son, but also of a wealthy girl from a nearby town, whom Freckles dubs his Swamp Angel. He is quite aware of the social differences between them, but his adoration soon becomes a mutual friendship as they work with the Bird Woman to photograph and document the rare and multitudinous birds and butterflies of the Limberlost. A sudden accident leads to many revelations, not only of love, but of Freckles' early history and identity.

One's first impression might be that this is an environmentalist statement from the turn of the 20th century, for the descriptions of the untouched beauty of the flowers, birds, and creatures of the Limberlost stand in stark contrast to the blunt reality of a timber camp. But even as the author exults in the beauty of the Limberlost, she does not idolize it. The author and characters assume that taking the timber is an inevitable part of man mastering the land. While some creatures are loved and admired, snakes are a danger that must be killed, and Freckles does not hesitate to kill an otter for a pelt to make a fine muff for his Angel. Thus, while Stratton-Porter was a naturalist, she was not an environmentalist in the modern sense of the word. In fact, I would say from the ideas expressed in this novel (albeit a limited scope of her work) that she had a fairly biblical view of subduing the earth, namely that man is both master and steward of the earth which God has given for his sustenance and benefit.

This will be an excellent book to read aloud to my children when they are older - maybe in the 8 - 15 range - and one that I hope they will enjoy reading on their own, too. It has enough adventure to interest a boy and enough beauty and friendship to captivate a girl. Since we only live a few hours from the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historical Site, where her home along the Limberlost has been restored, her books could provide the basis for a nice unity study on Indiana history along with a fun field-trip and nature study.

I'm looking forward to reading A Girl of the Limberlost as well as other titles from the Library of Indiana Classics series. Does your state or country have any distinctive literature that relates its history or uniqueness?

Favorite passage from Freckles: "Of course, you're not lazy! No one would ever think that from your appearance. It's this I mean: there is something fine, strong, and full of power in your face. There is something you are to do in this world, and no matter how you work at all these other things, or how successfully you do them, it is all wasted until you find the one thing that you can do best." (120)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White has been on my to-be-read list for well over a year, and it will now be near the top of my list of recommended classics for years to come. I suppose this is not a surprise since Dorothy Sayers reawakened my love of mysteries, and Wilkie Collins was one of the pioneers of that genre.

I must refrain from providing a summary of the novel, for it would be too easy to reveal key points of the mystery and spoil the fun of unravelling it oneself for future readers. I will say that I had figured out many of the key points about half way through the narrative, but I was still surprised with several plot twists. Collins masterfully crafted the way in which the pieces of the puzzle were searched for and found by the protagonist and gave us a happy ending, too! I have a great admiration for an author who can envision such a complex story, such a number of vivid and varied characters, and follow a number of different threads to bring the narrative to a consistent and satisfying conclusion. (The Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries are fine examples of this, as are, I might venture to add, the Harry Potter series.) I can only imagine how suspenseful it must have been to read this in its original serial form. I know I would have rushed to get my copy of All the Year Round or Harper's Weekly as soon as it came off the press from November 1859-July 1860! If one wanted to put oneself through such torture (and I will tell you that many chapters end with such suspense that I just had to keep reading) there is a fascinating project commemorating the 150th anniversary of The Woman in White by making the original publications available on a weekly basis via the web or e-mail. Check it out here. They are only on the 9th installment as of this writing, so it would be fairly easy to catch up and read it in its original form, although I'm sure I would not have the forbearance to wait a whole week to find out what happened next.

I am sorry that I couldn't make the 6 hour drive to discuss this book with Captive Thoughts Book Club this week. It sounds like they spent some time discussing the way women were depicted in this novel*, and I must say that that issue did not even cross my mind as I was reading. Collins' portrayal of women seems fairly diverse and accurate for the time period, actually - not so satirical as Jane Austen's subtle critiques of society, nor so jaded with fatalism as Thackery or Hardy. We have the beautiful and innocent Laura Fairlie; the insightful, logical, and practical Marian Halcombe; the sad and mysterious Anne Catherick and her fallen but proud mother; the spiteful and opportunist aging aunt; and the trusting and faithful housekeeper, among others. Marian, in fact, seems to defy the stereotypes of a 19th century spinster (especially those presented in Cranford), for she is very firm in her thinking and actions and quite capable of taking matters into her own hands when the circumstances demand it. Those are simply my initial reflections, but I must admit that I tend to get caught up in the unfolding story of a mystery and sometimes lose sight of more overarching issues.

With that said, however, I would be interested to know if anyone who has read The Man Who Was Thursday and The Woman in White observed any similarities. I wonder if Chesterton crafted Sunday (who was portrayed as a villain, only to be shown otherwise) somewhat after Collins' villain here?

I will definitely be adding several more of Collins' works to my to-be-read list, including The Moonstone and the short story A House to Let, which he co-authored with Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Adelaide Proctor.

*Further conversation clarified that they were talking about weakness of constitution, that is, easily succumbing to illness or emotional trauma, not weakness of character. My misunderstanding shaped the comments above, though they still reflect my assessment of the women characters.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel

I first read A Girl Named Zippy a couple of years ago when I was browsing the biography section of the library and was captured by the baby picture and sub-title: "Growing up Small in Moreland, Indiana." Within a few chapters, I was hooked and finished the book in just a few days. The same happened when I read the sequel She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana. And the same thing happened again when I reread Zippy this week. They are both funny, poignant, and painfully honest accounts of one family's joys and trials from a remarkably well-written child's perspective.

In reviewing She Got Up Off the Couch for my bookclub where I used to live, I wrote of Zippy:
Since I love subtle word-plays like Mary Engelbreit's "Life is just a chair of bowlies," anyone who spoke of "Growing up Small" must have a unique perspective on the world. I certainly wasn't disappointed, as this childhood memoir delivers Midwestern charm and humor by a pint-size agnostic with a knack for trouble and accidents. It had me laughing to the point of tears on several occasions. Being a country girl from the Midwest myself, I could certainly identify with elements of her story.

I must clarify that my childhood was not nearly so adventurous as Zippys's, but I never would have imagined two years ago that I would be living in Indiana myself! I'm not sure there is anything specifically Indianian (or Hoosier, to be more correct) about Haven Kimmel's childhood. It is probably pretty typical for any small American town in the 70's. Even though there are a few hints of darker fears and dangers, it was a pretty innocent childhood full of dirt and friends and scrapes and animals. I wouldn't, couldn't raise my children in the laissez faire manner her parents seemed to adopt, but I do wonder if parents inherently worried less about their children 40 years ago. Was there that much less to be concerned about, or was it simply less public and prominent than today?

At any rate, A Girl Named Zippy is a quick, fun read that I highly recommend for responsible teens and adults (I wouldn't want my kids to get any ideas or attitudes until they were discerning enough to sift the funny from the rebellious).

Unfortunately, I'm unable to provide you with a sample of the humor and wit as I had to return the book to the library (probably for another bookclub member who had placed a hold). I'm looking forward to discussing this with my new bookclub in Indiana (but not Mooreland, IN).

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

For some reason, I had the idea that Cranford was a long novel. I must have assumed that from a review or two that I read whose writers thought it lacked plot and dragged on and on. I was mistaken on both counts since it's actually quite short (138 pages in the edition I read), and I, for one, did not think it moved too slowly. Granted, there was not a lot of action, but it was still a charming story - a slice of life narrative in which the characters did mature, deal with adverse circumstances and unexpected joys, and moved beyond their comfort zones, if only just a little bit.

Cranford is a small English village that has remained untouched by the industrial revolution. There is no landed aristocracy in the vicinity, and at the time of this narrative the principal residents of the town consist of aging spinsters and widows who occupy themselves with keeping up their forms of society, in spite of their limited incomes. "There, economy was always 'elegant,' and money-spending always 'vulgar and ostentatious'; a sort of sour-grapeism which made us very peaceful and satisfied." (3) The ladies spend their days observing their self-imposed rules of etiquette by receiving and returning calls in 15 minute intervals between the hours of twelve and three. Their sense of gentility and propriety lend a great deal of superficiality to their friendships, and as a consequence their conversations were usually very trivial as they kept up their appearances and reputation and patronized the working class beneath them. It is not until one of their number is reduced in means that they rally to support her, even in her business of selling tea to make ends meet. Additionally, when a relative newcomer to their society marries "beneath" her and an unexpected family member returns, they learn to value friendship over matters of convention.

Overall, I thought this was a charming story. It was funny, in the sense that I first envisioned it something like a whole town of Mrs. Olson's (from the Little House on the Prairie TV show), ladies who are slightly pretentious and pompous and overly concerned to keep up appearances. But really the little old ladies of Cranford are very sweet and good natured, and it was satisfying to see their characters develop and grow with change, both for good and ill, as the story progressed.

The "Mrs. Olson" factor did give it the flavor of a chronicle of town gossip, and it seemed that the narrative wandered a bit both in characters and time frame. In retrospect, this was actually giving necessary background information, but the narrative did seem to lack direction until it settled on one character, Miss Matty, and seemed less gossipy. I do not like anonymous narrators (as in Rebecca), so I was glad that the younger visitor who relates the story was finally called by name near the end. It would have been nice to hear more of her story, but I'm not sure if Ms. Gaskell wrote more about Mary Smith.

I was wondering how such a small book could be made into almost 5 hours of a BBC miniseries called Cranford, but from what I've gathered that series draws upon two of Gaskell's other short novels in addition to Cranford (all published together in The Cranford Chronicles). I'm not sure if I have the patience to sit through five hours of bustling busybodies, but we'll see.

I did find it interesting to read that Gaskell's style is likened to the American author Sarah Orne Jewett, whose The Country of the Pointed Firs I just picked up because it was about Maine. I will be interested in reading it to compare with Cranford.

Friday, January 8, 2010

New Year's Goals: Classics Bookclub, etc.

So, I'm a little behind with posting my New Year's goals on January 8th, but at least it's still January!

Classics Bookclub

I have long admired the Classics bookclub at 5 Minutes for Books, but I hadn't participated because it didn't fit with what I was currently reading and I didn't have (or take) the time to go back and revisit my thoughts on their book selection if I had read it months before. BUT they've changed the format for this year, and I like it! More flexibility, more options, more book reviews - I'm in! (Check out this post for all the details.)

Classics are very high on my reading priority list and are usually my book of choice in between bookclub selections. I'm going to continue working on the titles from my 2009 TBR Challenge, with Cranford, The Woman in White, and Great Expectations being my first options. I would love to read one or two more titles by Daphne du Maurier. I'd aslo like to read more from Dorothy Sayers, both fiction and non-fiction, and also in the mystery genre try some Agatha Christie (maybe choosing one based on reviews at A Library is a Hospital for the Mind) and G. K. Chesterton.

In reading aloud to my children, I hope to get to classics such as Little House on the Prairie, The Boxcar Children Books, and The Borrowers. I'll try to read Anne of Green Gables and maybe Anne of Avonlea with my daughter, too. It is such fun to share books that I enjoy(ed) with my children!

Beyond that, I am slowly building a collection of classics to add to my personal library, and I look forward to finding more titles to read and own as I read reviews from other bloggers.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Books Read in 2010

This includes books that I read myself as well as the chapter books I read aloud to my children. The link is to my review where you will find each title linked to Amazon (from which I receive a very small percentage of purchases made from those links - I have yet to earn enough to even request the minimum amount, so I'm certainly not in this for the money!)
  1. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
  2. A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel (re-read)
  3. Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace
  4. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  5. Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter
  6. A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter
  7. Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers
  8. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
  9. Betsy-Tacy and Tib by Maud Hart Lovelace
  10. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
  11. Against the Odds: Tales of Acheivement by L. M. Montgomery
  12. The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
  13. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
  14. An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor
  15. The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley
  16. Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss
  17. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  18. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
  19. A Nest for Celeste by Henry Cole
  20. Laddie: A True Blue Story by Gene Stratton-Porter
  21. The Old Man and the Sea by Earnest Hemingway
  22. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  23. Fairy Doll by Rumer Godden
  24. The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-six by Jonathon Keats
  25. Mystery Ranch (The Boxcar Children Mysteries #4) by Gertrude Chandler Warner
  26. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  27. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
  28. Mike's Mystery (The Boxcar Children Mysteries #5) by Gertrude Chandler Warner
  29. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  30. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan
  31. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan
  32. A Morbid Taste for Bones: The First Chronicle of Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters
  33. One Corpse Too Many: The Second Chronicle of Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters
  34. Blue Bay Mystery (The Boxcar Children Mysteries #6) by Gertrude Chandler Warner
  35. Monk's Hood: The Third Chronicle of Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters
  36. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Unabridged Audiobook) by C. S. Lewis
  37. The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz
  38. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan
  39. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan
  40. Great Irish Short Stories, edited by Evan Bates
  41. Stuart Little by E. B. White
  42. The Warden by Anthony Trollope
  43. A Vintage Affair: A Novel by Isabel Wolff
  44. Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland
  45. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  46. Undaunted Courage: Meriweather Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose
  47. Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
  48. Tumtum & Nutmeg: Adventures Beyond Nutmouse Hall by Emily Bearn
  49. The Yellow House by Patricia Falvey
  50. An Irish Country Village by Patrick Taylor
  51. Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
  52. An Irish Country Christmas by Patrick Taylor
  53. Fannie's Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook by Christopher Kimball