Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Gift from Brittany

I was very interested to read this book for several reasons. First of all, I LOVE France. I was a French major in college and still harbor the dream of someday living in a small European village, fully immersing myself in the culture. Until that time comes - I choose to live vicariously through the memoirs of others. Secondly, Marjorie Price is an artist and while I have no artistic talent myself, I truly appreciate the talent in others. I wanted to see how an artist captures life's experiences in the written word, anticipating beautifully vivid, visual descriptions of the common everyday normal occurrences. And lastly, I greatly enjoy travel memoirs in general (my favorites so far include A Year by the Sea by Joan Anderson and Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach). A Gift from Brittany did not disappoint on any account.

Here is the summary of the book, as it appears on GoodReads.com:
The enchanting memoir of an artist’s liberating sojourn in France during the sixties—and the friendship that transformed her life

While in her late twenties, Marjorie Price leaves the comfort of her Chicago suburb to strike out on her own in Paris and hone her artistic talents. Dazzled by everything French, she falls in love with a volatile French painter and they purchase an old farmhouse in the Breton countryside. When Marjorie’s seemingly idyllic marriage begins to unravel, she forms a friendship with an elderly peasant woman, Jeanne, who is illiterate, has three cows to her name, and has never left the village. Their differences are staggering yet they forge a friendship that transforms one another’s life.
While this is certainly an adequate and concise summary, its brevity does not allow a focus on the beauty of Ms. Price's language, nor the true depth of friendship formed between these two unlikely women. Ms. Price was an adventuresome youth, even by today's standards. As a young female graduate in 1960 she decides to head to Paris to spend a few months doing what she loves best: paint. She knows little French and has no contacts, yet she follows her passion to the city that epitomizes art. In 1960 one did not just board a plane and arrive in Europe 8 hours later; at that time the way to travel overseas was ON the sea. Marjorie saved enough money to purchase a ticket on the Queen Elizabeth and after several days of travel arrived at her beloved destination. I LOVE to travel - but I am not sure that I would have the courage to risk sea-sickness to venture to a foreign country in which I could not properly communicate with the natives in order to follow my heart's desire. I have tremendous respect for Ms. Price's focus and dedication to following her dream.

After only a very short time in Paris she meets another artist,Yves, and quickly falls in love. After two dates they are sleeping together and in just 6 months they are married. After about 4 years of marriage the couple decides that they need a summer getaway from the hectic Parisian life. They wish to find a place of peace and tranquility which will inspire their painting, and that will allow their 2 year daughter an opportunity to experience the country. Midge's idea (Yves's nickname for Marjorie) is a small seaside cottage, but Yves discovers half a hamlet with 7 dilapidated houses in varying states of disrepair and "convinces" her that this is what they need. The couple receives, as a belated wedding gift, money from her father to secure the down payment on the property. It is at this early point in the story that the reader discovers marital problems will soon overshadow this amorous relationship:
"Calm down, Cherie. Someday you'll thank me."
"You'll get used to it."
"You have to. You have no choice."
I winced.
At this point, Yves reminded me that we had been married in France, and under Napoleonic Law, the husband is considered the lieu conjugal. "That means," he explained with a roguish grin, "a wife is obliged to follow her spouse - me, in our case - wherever he decides to go, anywhere in the world. Whether she likes it or not."
Midge does follow her husband and makes the best of the situation. Living on dirt floors with no indoor plumbing, she manages to create a lovely home conducive to raising a small child and fostering a serene environment which inspires them both to paint. Again, I could not do what Ms. Price willingly chose to do: I draw the line at no indoor plumbing AND I just don't think I could overlook the macho Napoleonic attitude -- I don't care how sexy the French accent. In fact, the only fault that I found with this narrative was the hasty development of Midge and Yves relationship. She fell in love with him in 2 dates and the next thing the reader knows they are married, with a child, moving to Brittany to live on the half hamlet that they have purchased with her father's money even though she has no desire to live there. I wanted more information; the speed with which it all happened seemed unbelievable to me.

Yet...as I read the rest of the book I realized that this was not the relationship to focus upon. It is the relationship between Jeanne, the 70 year old illiterate peasant woman, and Mitch (her pronunciation of Midge) that is the crux of this story - AND Jeanne and Mitch would never have had a relationship if Yves had not been so insistent on their moving to this village in the first place. We needed to quickly introduce the catalyst in order to focus on the true story.

The saying that we will find love in the most unexpected places is most truthful here. On the surface there should be no reason why these two women would ever speak to one another, much less become close friends: one is a young mother on the verge of divorce, the other is an elderly grandmother still in love with her husband; one is an American from the large city of Chicago, the other was born, lives and dies in the same French provincial country town; one is well-educated who has a passion for the arts, the other never attended school, but has tended a working farm her entire life. When these two women first meet they do not even speak the same language, yet over time they learn to confide in one another their most intimate thoughts. How fortunate Mitch was to find such a confidante in her lifetime. The relationship they share is one that many of us long for, and we are privileged to have the opportunity to witness this friendship grow and develop into full maturity.

The beauty of this narrative is greatly enhanced by the beauty of the author's language. Notice her description of a sunset:
"One evening there was a breathtakingly dramatic sunset. As the sun went down, Danielle played nearby while Yves and I sat side by side on the grass, both of us painting a flaming vermilion and celadon sky suspended over a shimmering meadow reaching all the way to the sea.....Mine was a watercolor that set out to capture a setting sun with a gamut of delicate to brilliant colors, each one laid over another like overlapping plates of glass. Yves had painted with gouache, using hard, jagged edges and clashing colors to achieve a beautiful, dark, and stormy elegy to the last moments of light." (page 48)
Or this description of dawn:
"As the morning light filtered through the night sky, I set out my watercolors and began to paint while the cows grazed nearby, indifferent to my presence. Dawn unfolded with delicate mauves, beiges, and pale yellows, blending actors gliding soundlessly across a stage." (page 117)
Or the comparison of the sky from region to the next:
"I had never seen light in quite the same way before I came to the Morbihan. I had never been as acutely aware of its subtleties until I lived year-round at La Salle. The more I got to know the region, the more it inspired me. Unlike the mistral-swept, sun-dominated, unequivocally cobalt skies of the Midi, where the sky was rarely constant. Shifting clouds mirrored the ever-changing seascape as the moon-driven tide prevailed upon the waters to rise and sink and follow its whim. Morning light especially took me by surprise. Fog ruled the early hours and clung to the coast until - or if- the sun managed to break through. Morning haze hugged the meadows, emitting a fluid, silvery green light that filtered through the lingering fog, transforming moist fields into shimmering, verdant expanses....." (page 192)
I can practically see the canvas painting with the intensity of her words. Absolutely beautiful!

As a final, personal note on this memoir, I loved the way Ms. Price effortlessly wove authentic French expressions through the narrative. This gave the reader the feeling of being in France without the discomfort of not understanding the language. For me, however, a French major of long ago, I was thrilled that I could decipher the language before it was explained. It is nice to know that 4 years of college in a degree that I have never used in the "real" world was not completely wasted.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

TSS - Bookish Thoughts

I wasn't quite sure what to write this Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend. It is the official start to the 2009 summer season, and while that means a much-needed break from the regular routine of life, it also means a change of educational focus for me. From June 16 - July 29 I will not be the teacher, but rather the student, and in preparation for this summer of study I need to pre-read about 10 books (not to mention 4 Shakespearean plays) before I board the plane. I have given much thought as to how I might review the books for the blog and have decided that I will wait to post reviews until I have actually had the class that discusses the book. That way I can post the general class discussion (for those who care to read), rather than just my own thoughts.

So, if I don't post reviews of these books until mid-June at the earliest, what do write about now?! I actually have 3 books that I need to review - and I know I will have at least 1 post about BEA (Book Expo of America), so I will have some material about which to write.....but for today's post I thought I might review my challenge status for 2009, and my blog status to date.

So far this year I have read 30 books and listened to 3 audio books for a total of 10,529 pages (this does not count the books that I re-read each year for the classes I teach). These numbers are by no means stellar in the book blogging world, but they are significant for me. While I would like to complete the 100+ book challenge some year, I am trying to challenge myself to read 52 books this year: a book a week. I seem to be on task, at least for now.

I have not only learned to keep track of books read (and in what genres), I have also started to write book reviews. While I am still learning (and have a long way to go), this has been a wonderful, educational experience. I am finding that I now read more closely - knowing that I must keep track of certain details for the review. I find that I take more time when I complete a book to formulate my thoughts and opinions - and this in turn helps me to appreciate the book and the author even more. I am slowly learning to develop a system for reading and rating books. Using the ideas that I garnered from a previous post, I have now started to use an index card as a bookmark. As a thought occurs to me, I quickly jot it down on the card - along with the page number - and then keep reading. If I am reading a book from my own personal library, I keep track of significant pages on the blank page in the back of the book. This has made writing the reviews much easier, and now I have a written record of my thoughts/feelings, etc for posterity's sake.

I have the goal of doing book reviews on a more regular basis next fall. I should have Tuesdays and Thursdays free - and I would like to use that time to read more books of my own choosing, to hone my book review skills and, in general to create a more professional blog. I am hopeful to gain tips on this process when I attend BEA next week. In some respects I am very excited about going to this event, and in other respects I feel like I am crashing the party. I do not consider myself a book professional (yet) -- but rather a book professional wanna-be. I am anticipating that I will be very overwhelmed, I will do a LOT of observing, and I will learn what I want to accomplish over the next year in order to fully appreciate the BEA 2010 event.

So how about those book challenges? As I have mentioned before.....I had never known reading to be a competitive sport until I discovered the book blog world last fall. The first time I read about a reading challenge I was intrigued; the 2nd time I was mesmerized; and the third time I was hooked! Now, since I tend to have a compulsive personality, I really tried to curtail the number of challenges I signed up for this first year, however, I know that will increase significantly next year :)

In all I would say that I am doing better than I expected, but I certainly have some catching up to do. I keep a detailed list of my challenges - and a running tally of what I have read for each - in a link at the top of my header. Here is a summary of those stats:

Support your Local Library Challenge: read 14 out of 25 books
I don't think I will have a problem finishing this challenge.

Shakespearean Summer Challenge: read 0 out of 4
I know I will finish this challenge, however, since I have to read 4 Shakespearean plays for one of my classes this summer.

The Summer Vacation Reading Challenge: read 0 out of 4
This challenge only started on Friday, so technically I am not behind AND since it is hosted by me, I know I will finish it (if for no other reason than to avoid embarrassment).

18th and 19th Century Women Writers:
read 0 out of 8
I feel horrible about this one. I originally signed up because I thought I would be taking a Jane Austen course this summer. Alas, that course wasn't offered this year. I still want to read all 6 Jane Austen books in a concentrated time period, but I am just not sure that will happen in 2009. I know I will read at least 2 books for this challenge - but I will probably not accomplish the minimum goal of 4 (sorry, Becky!)

Casual Classics Challenge: read 2 out of 4
I have faith that I will complete this one as well.

TBR Lite Challenge: read 3 out of 6
I am hoping that I can complete this one too. I am allowed to change the titles of the books on my original list, and I may need to utilize that option in order to complete the challenge.

Cozy Mystery Challenge: read 2 out of 6
I plan to complete this challenge after my summer school course. I will be ready to read some easy-going cozies at that time, so I am confident that I will be successful with this particular challenge.

Just for the Love of Reading Challenge: COMPLETED!!
I read a total of 12 books from January through April.

So how about you....do you have any reading goals for these summer months?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Blushing blogger

I have been so very fortunate to be the recipient of several blog awards over the past couple of weeks. I have not been very cordial in publicly thanking those who were kind of enough to give me an award, and I apologize. The end of the school year is always more hectic than I ever anticipate, and time just got away from me. Without further ado, however, let me share my heartfelt appreciation to the award givers....and let me pay forward the gift to a few fellow bloggers.

The first award I need to acknowledge is from my dear friend, Susan, at You Can Never Have Enough Books. Susan and I completed a mini challenge together in March and my reading life has been greatly enriched by that experience. This award signifies a blog that cares -- and I truly cherish the fact that Susan senses my caring spirit through the words I write. 'The only requirement for this award is that you shared it with whomever you like, sharing the love is always a good thing. The blog has to show only one characteristic, caring. So, start sharing this enchanted award with five other bloggers. Let your bloggers know they have received this enchanted award. (Remember, fairies are fickle wee things, don't incur their displeasure by ignoring their gift). '

I would like to share this award with the following bloggers because their dedication to the blogging community is clearly evident:
  1. Kittling: Books (love her Scene of the Blog and Weekly Link Round Up posts)
  2. Bookin' with Bingo (her prize giveaways are amazing)
  3. Ms. Bookish (her weekly list of all book giveaways in the blogosphere is amazing)
  4. Semicolon (her weekly Saturday Review post is a goldmine of book possibilities)
  5. Just One More Page (her Musing Monday meme asks such thought-provoking questions)
  6. The Printed Page (I only wish I could participate more often in her Mailbox Monday post)
  7. A Novel Challenge (this is the quintessential blog to find a book reading challenge)
  8. Weekly Geeks (another great thought-provoking question each week)
  9. Maw Books (she faithfully posts the NYT best seller lists every week)
  10. Melissa's Bookshelf (you MUST read her fabulous blogger tips)

The next award that I received was the "You Don't Say" award -- with the most adorable Panda Bear button! This award acknowledges those who frequently comment on the others' blogs. Sheri from A Novel Menagerie and Melissa of Melissa's Bookshelf both bestowed me with this terrific honor. As you all know, we bloggers CRAVE comments as it is our barometer that what we say has meaning to others.

There are few bloggers that I would like to acknowledge as exceptional in this regard. They are as follows:
  1. Kathy of Bermuda Onion's weblog
  2. Beth of Beth Fish Reads
  3. Kaye of Pudgy Penguin Perusals
  4. Bonnie of Red Lady's Reading Room
  5. Anne of Diary of an Eccentric
  6. Margot of Joyfully Retired
  7. Ti of Book Chatter and Other Stuff

Fleur Fisher finds me friendly (how's that for alliteration?) and I am deeply touched. I am a shy person in the real world, and oftentimes viewed as stand-offish rather than friendly - so it is especially nice to know that I can communicate affability in the blogging world.

I can honestly say that every blogger with whom I have come in contact is friendly, so it is very difficult to single out a few to pass along this award. I will, however, take the time to honor a certain few always seem to have a kind word to say or tweet -- or who have been instrumental in helping me with my initial blogging experience:
  1. Sheri of A Novel Menagerie (so helpful when I first started blogging)
  2. Natasha of Classic Vasilly (always has a hello for me on twitter)
  3. Kim of Page after Page (always signs her encouraging comments *smile*)
  4. Marta at Marta's Meanderings (a friendly twitter with a friendly blog to match)
  5. Shannon at Shannon Loves Books (a twitter friend who shares a love of "clean" literature)
  6. Stephanie at Stephanie's Written Word (volunteered to organize all the BEA attendees)
  7. Robin at A Fondness for Reading (volunteered to help me with my first challenge)
  8. JoAnn at Lakeside Musing (we are in similar stages in life and I can relate to her so well)
  9. Jenners at Find Your Next Book Here (I just see her name and a smile comes to my face)
  10. Dawn at She is Too Fond of Books (another twitter friend and BEA organizer)
The Book Resort honored me with her Splash award: What is a Splash Award ? It is an award given to alluring, amusing, bewitching, impressive & inspiring blogs. My family is probably reading this description and asking, "who are they talking about?!" Not sure they would use the words alluring or bewitching to describe me :) --- but I am very grateful for this fantastical award.

The blogs that I think are worthy of this "bewitching" award because of their deep love for the fantasy genre of literature include:
  1. Nymeth of Things Mean a Lot
  2. Chris of Stuff as Dreams are Made on....
  3. DesLily of Here, There and Everywhere
  4. Susan of You Can Never Have Enough Books
The final award that I have been fortunate to receive is the Lovely Blog award from Karen at The Pink Bookmark. I think the button is appropriate to the award -- it is quite lovely. I found Karen's blog during the readathon event and have really enjoyed reading her insightful comments.

I thought I would pass along this award to the few bloggers I know who have recently converted their blog to their own domain. I simply cannot imagine the work and skill necessary to accomplish such a feat - and their new blogs are indeed lovely. For those who have done this and I am unaware, please forgive my oversight and know how much I admire your efforts!
  1. Bethany of Dreadlock Girl
  2. Chris of Stuff as Dreams are Made on

Friday, May 22, 2009

Olive Kitteridge

Elizabeth Strout, the author of this book, is the most recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for "...distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life" I was quickly able to secure a copy from my local library and began reading it almost immediately. This is the first "recent" Pulitzer Prize work I have read, but I will soon be reading several others for my summer school class this year (The Road - 2007 winner and Gilead - 2005 winner).

The summary of the book, as it appears on the Pulitzer Prize website, is as follows:

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town of Crosby, Maine, and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse.

As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires. — from the publisher

I wish I could say that I loved this book. I would definitely feel more scholarly if that were the case. However, I did LIKE the book, and I am finding that I still ponder its themes and characterizations even a week after finishing it. Perhaps that is one criteria for a literary award: not only is the book well written, with an intriguing storyline and developed characters, but the book continues to impact the reader long after it has been re-shelved.

While I think it is important for the reader to begin a work of fiction with some level of expectation and/or prediction (this is one of my definitions of active reading - and it is makes reading interesting for me) -- I am discovering that sometimes my expectations get in the way of my true appreciation for the book. This happened with Godmother (as reviewed earlier this week) - and I think that is also what happened with Olive. I knew that Olive was a retired 7th grade teacher ---- I am a middle/high school teacher. I expected the book to involve certain flashbacks of her teaching career and perhaps give me some inkling as to what I can expect when my teaching days are over. While the reader is given a few short snippets of Olive's days as a math teacher, the book rarely focuses exclusively on Olive's life. Instead each chapter of the book focuses on a different resident of Cosby, Maine and Olive is mentioned (sometimes more prominently than others) only as it pertains to her relationship to their story.

There is a very loose thread of chronological events between each chapter in the story. For example, Chapter 1 focuses on Henry and Olive Kitteridge's lives when they are both fully employed: Henry as a pharmacist and Olive as a school teacher. They have one son, Christopher, who seems to be reared mostly by his rather domineering mother. I was immediately endeared to Henry's character as the kind, caring, relaxed husband who cares as much for his fellow workers and customers as he does for his family. Conversely, I was at first repulsed by Olive's character. She seems far too demanding, self-centered and outspoken for my taste.

Over the course of the novel we discover that while Olive is indeed tactless and opinionated, we also discover that she is compassionate, caring and sentimental. Olive has a true love for her son, and is devastated when his choices take him away from the house they built for him to the sunny beaches of California. Christopher never does return home, and this leaves Olive heart-broken. While Olive may seem to "wear the pants in the family" she is incredibly loyal to her husband despite medical conditions which leave him physically and emotionally absent from her. We also catch glimpses of Olive's compassion for her students - especially those who have come from troubled homes. She doesn't seem to forget a face - nor a hardship. Her bluntness is oftentimes, I think, misunderstood. This is a caring woman who has a lot to give, but sometimes is lacking the ability to show her true feelings in a way that the world around her comprehends.

This is only the 2nd time that I have read a novel in this "collection of short stories" format. The first time was over spring break when I read Christopher Barzak's novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing. It takes some getting used to - at least for me. While I know my preference will always be for the continuous story of the conventional novel, I think I would like to try to read more of this style of writing. While I began each new chapter with the feeling of literary "whiplash" (new characters - new setting - not quite sure how it all ties together) -- I am intrigued how the author fully develops the characters and the plot very quickly, while at the same time providing the necessary tie-in to the novel as a whole. I cannot imagine that this is easy to do, and I admire Strout's ability to accomplish this feat in a flawless manner.

Overall I would say that I enjoyed this book - and will probably come to realize that it is truly a great, enjoyable book as time goes on. I would rate the book 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I have had this book on my TBR shelf for a couple of years now. I started reading it once before, but apparently I was not in the right mood (it is not a fast-paced, action pact thriller). I put it away after the first 25 pages. Two events spurred me to try to re-read this 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning book: Savidge Reads posted an excellent review in which he confessed that it took him about 80 pages to really connect with the book (thereby validating my initial reaction that this is indeed a slow book, and yet making me aware that I did not persevere enough) AND I must read the author's newest novel, Home, for a writing course that I am taking this summer. Since Home is somewhat of a companion novel to this one, I thought I would read them together for a comprehensive view of the author's writing style.

Here is a revised summary of Gilead from GoodReads.com:

The narrator, John Ames, is 76, a preacher who has lived almost all of his life in Gilead, Iowa. He is writing a letter to his almost seven-year-old son, the blessing of his second marriage. It is a summing-up, an apologia, a consideration of his life. Robinson takes the story away from being simply the reminiscences of one man and moves it into the realm of a meditation on fathers and children, particularly sons, on faith, and on the imperfectability of man.

The reason for the letter is Ames's failing health. He wants to leave an account of himself for this son who will never really know him. His greatest regret is that he hasn't much to leave them, in worldly terms. "Your mother told you I'm writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you?" In the course of the narrative, John Ames records himself, inside and out, in a meditative style. Robinson's prose asks the reader to slow down to the pace of an old man in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956. Ames writes of his father and grandfather, estranged over his grandfather's departure for Kansas to march for abolition and his father's lifelong pacifism. The tension between them, their love for each other and their inability to bridge the chasm of their beliefs is a constant source of rumination for John Ames. Fathers and sons.

The other constant in the book is Ames's friendship since childhood with "old Boughton," a Presbyterian minister. Boughton, father of many children, favors his son, named John Ames Boughton, above all others. Ames must constantly monitor his tendency to be envious of Boughton's bounteous family; his first wife died in childbirth and the baby died almost immediately after her. Jack Boughton is a ne'er-do-well, Ames knows it and strives to love him as he knows he should. Jack arrives in Gilead after a long absence, full of charm and mischief, causing Ames to wonder what influence he might have on Ames's young wife and son when Ames dies.

These are the things that Ames tells his son about: his ancestors, the nature of love and friendship, the part that faith and prayer play in every life and an awareness of one's own culpability. There is also reconciliation without resignation, self-awareness without deprecation, abundant good humor, philosophical queries--Jack asks, "'Do you ever wonder why American Christianity seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?'"--and an ongoing sense of childlike wonder at the beauty and variety of God's world.

In Marilynne Robinson's hands, there is a balm in Gilead, as the old spiritual tells us.

--Valerie Ryan

I cannot improve on that concise, comprehensive summary, so I will instead just share my initial thoughts. First of all, Savidge Reads is correct --- it took me 69 pages, to be exact, before I finally connected with the book. But then something happened on page 70: it was as though a light bulb went off and I understood the message of the book for me: it is important to document our lives in order to leave a legacy for our children as to what we value - what we deem important - what is worth cherishing AND in doing so we can come to terms with our own life and find peace, contentment.

This may not be the message that the author had for the book at all - but it is the message that rang loud and clear to me. The father wishes to leave an account of his life in order that his young son may come to know him after he has passed on. The book is written as though it is a personal diary: no chapters, just breaks between entries. The writing is quite personal and at times felt somewhat like a stream of consciousness. Very often he vacillates between his past (detailing events of his childhood) and the present (describing his own son playing outside). While this is somewhat cumbersome at times - especially in the beginning - it soon becomes a comfortable style that leads the reader through the narrative at a tranquil pace. As I read in another review -- the writing style reflects the slow, methodical pace of a 70+ year old man. In this fast paced, plot driven world in which we live, it is a refreshing - although unfamiliar - change.

I truly had a sense of the circle of life while reading this story, and how all of life is interconnected in some way. While the story is about family in general, it truly centers around the father/son relationship. We see the relationship between the author's father and grandfather; between the author and his father; between the author and his son; and the neighbor's relationship with his youngest son (what is characteristically the Prodigal Son story). Again, the inevitable conflicts that occur within families - and that easily tear a family apart - are shown as opportunities for self-discovery, acceptance, and forgiveness.

I think what struck me most is the effect that time has on the perspective of life. What seems to be a major problem at the present, is viewed as nothing more than a slight annoyance after the passing of several years. The wisdom of age - provided we are willing to learn from our past experiences - is priceless and worth passing on to the next generation, if we are willing to take the time to sit down, reflect, and write. While I would not describe the author's life as adventurous (and therefore easy to dismiss as a life worth writing about), he is able to impart valuable life lessons to his son through these personal anecdotes. I also view my life as "boring" - yet I probably have life lessons that are worth passing along to my children in autobiographical sketches that will give them insight to their mother.

I was also profoundly impacted by this writing style. I would normally view this kind of "free writing" as rough draft material -- a way to flesh out ideas for a final writing project. I would not consider this form of writing to be an end-product itself. Yet in this narrative it works, and it has opened my eyes to the value of writing - for writing's sake. Please do not misunderstand my comment, however. I do NOT think Ms. Robinson has turned out a rough draft. Her prose is beautiful and the word pictures she creates are priceless. Her writing style mimics the narrator's life with such skill that the reader is transported into the old man's journal: we feel his pain, joy, anguish, and commitment first hand -- not as an objective outsider. I am just in awe that the free flow of ideas can ultimately create a cohesive whole. Again, this has inspired me to do the same: not with the hope of imitating Ms. Robinson's success, but with the idea of reflecting on the lessons I have learned in my own life.

One final observation about this book. John Ames, the narrator, is a pastor - and he comes from a long line of pastors. His good friend and neighbor, Boughton, is also a pastor. There is a lot of theological knowledge within the pages of this book, and my fear was that it would read more like a preachy sermon rather than literary fiction. Yes, there is quite a bit of Biblical references and the basic Christian themes of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation are permeated throughout the story. BUT....the narrative itself is not preachy; it is, in fact, beautiful. These may be Christian themes - but I also think they are applicable to the human condition as a whole. I try to read a wide variety of literature - but I always read the selections through the lens of my Christian worldview - irregardless of the author's values or belief system. Therefore, I think that anyone could pick up this magnificent story of the celebration of life and read it with their own particular world view lens and enjoy it immensely.

When I first started the book I could not fathom why it won the Pulitzer Prize. After completing the book, and reflecting on its content, I can understand why it was awarded this prestigious prize. The book definitely fits the criteria for being a work of "....distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life" and I would give it a 4.5 out of 5 rating.

Survey Questions: Why Do We Blog?

Over the weekend I was browsing the blogosphere when I was led to Ms. Mazzola's blog. She is a fellow English teacher and is conducting research on why people blog. Since I have a special (and personal) soft-spot in my heart for English teachers, I thought I would try to help her out by answering the questions she poses:

1. How long have you been blogging? I read my first book blog in October, 2008 and finally had the nerve to begin my own book blog on December 9, 2008

2. Why did you start blogging? Last summer I began a Master's Program that lasts for 6 weeks each summer over the course of 5 summers. This was radically different from anything I had ever done in my life. A good friend of mine suggested that I start a blog detailing my experiences, not only for myself, but for family and friends who would like to hear from me. I took her advice and found that I really enjoyed writing down thoughts and feelings for an "audience" When I returned, my brother - who lives about 9 hours away - requested that I keep the blog up to date, as it gave him "insight into his sister" I wasn't opposed to doing that, but I needed a focus. Just about that time I discovered the world of book blogs and well, as they say, the rest is history.

3. What have you found to be the benefits of blogging? WOW -- there are so many benefits I am not sure that I can succinctly list them here.

I would say the first benefit is that I have discovered that I LOVE writing. I have always known that I prefer writing as a form of communication, but I did know that I had a passion for it.

Secondly, I have discovered an entire community of people who love reading as much (and some even more) than I do. I have always thought I was somewhat of an outcast: I prefer solitude to social gatherings and I prefer to read to watching movies (or just about anything else). This blog has allowed me to connect with others (while I prefer solitude, I do enjoy community --- odd, huh?) who think and feel and respond to life in the same way that I do. I guess, in a sense, my blog has allowed me to feel like I have a place where I truly do belong.

Thirdly, there are some voracious readers out there in the blogoshere. They read a LOT of books, they read a wide variety of books, they read quickly and they read constantly. By following their blogs I have been introduced to so many books and literary genres that I would never have found on my own. My TBR pile has grown by leaps and bounds (who am I kidding - I never had a TBR pile until January of this year) and I am constantly stretching myself to read something out of my small and very narrow comfort zone.

Finally (at least for now) I have discovered that reading is truly an ACTivity. I had never heard of a reading challenge before --- now I have to watch myself and monitor the number of challenges in which I choose to participate (the best place to find such book challenges in the website A Novel Challenge). Also, there is the 24 hour readathon in which I participated for the first time in April. This event is held twice a year -- the next one will be in October. Not only is it a fun ACTivity, but it is also an amazing way to bond with fellow bloggers and encourage one another.

4. How many times a week do you post an entry? I strive to post daily - but realistically my goal is 5 days out of 7.

5. How many different blogs do you read on a regular basis? WAY too many to count. On my reader I show that I am following 211 blogs (and that number constantly increases). I probably read on a very regular basis (meaning I anticipate the posts, specifically look for them, and read them as soon as I can) about 50 blogs. Others, I read posts as I have time for and I read the most recent posts first.

6. Do you comment on other people’s blogs? YES -- although I do not comment as much as I would like, nor probably as much as I should. Sometimes I struggle with the right comment to make -- I want it to be heartfelt and meaningful, not just a form letter, so to speak. I would say that I probably post comments on 25% of the blogs I read each day.

7. Do you keep track of how many visitors you have? Is so, are you satisfied with your numbers? Hmmmm......I am a VERY competitive person by nature. While I do not think this is necessarily a bad quality, it can be with me. I can easily follow every stat available, constantly compare my stats to others, and fall short every time. This, in turn, will create feelings of worthlessness and I will give up (can you tell I have had experiences like this in the past?) I want blogging to continue to be a personally enjoyable experience. To that end, I keep track of the number of people who are publicly following my blog, but that is it. Am I happy?! ABSOLUTELY. Currently I have 71 people who are following my humble little blog - and that is about 70 more people than I ever expected.

8. Do you ever regret a post that you wrote? Not really. One of my core values in life is to try to live with no regrets. I read and re-read my entries before actually posting them to the web. I do not want to make any grammatical errors (how embarrassing for an English teacher -although I know that I am not perfect and I often times slip up) -- and I definitely do not want to offend anyone. I HATE controversy (I will run in the opposite direction if I have a choice) - so I doubt I will ever publish anything that will cause a cyber revolution :)

9. Do you think your audience has a true sense of who you are based on your blog? Hmmm...I would hope so. I am an open book, so to speak. I am what you see -- I do not hold anything secret. Having said that, I tend to focus my blog on books, which means I don't publish too much personal information (although the addition of a new puppy -- the end of an academic year, etc - will certainly be mentioned).

10. Do you blog under your real name? Not sure what is meant by this question. I do blog under my real name (that is, readers of my blog know that I am Molly from Kansas), but my blog's name is not my name. I thought My Cozy Book Nook was more descriptive - and enticing - than Molly's Books.

11. Are there topics that you would never blog about? There are probably MANY topics that I would not blog about. As mentioned in question 8, I do not like controversy (so that eliminates many contemporary topics in the world today) AND I want my blog to focus on books that I have read or want to read --- not much else.

12. What is the theme/topic of your blog? I am sure you can all guess by now -- BOOKS

13. Do you have more than one blog? If so, why? Yes, but I really only have one active blog. The blog I began last summer was/is entitled: Molly-Mastering-English. I have been giving thought as to what I will do this summer when I leave for Asheville, NC for 6 weeks. I think I will maintain this blog - but the focus will be on the books I am reading for the Master's program, and the insights that I have gained from the in-class experience. Hopefully this will be of some interest to the readers of my blog.

Well, there you have it. Probably more information than you ever wanted to know about my blogging career -- but hopefully this will be of some assistance to Ms. Mazzola. If you would like to complete this survey to help a fellow English teacher, I am sure that she would welcome your feedback.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bookmarked for Death

I have now completed 2 books (out of 6) for the Cozy Mystery Challenge. The first book was a cozy that focused on the catering business, The Chocolate Chip Cookie Murders by Joanne Fluke, (here is my review) and the second book focuses on the owner of a mystery bookstore, Bookmarked for Death by Lorna Barret. This is the 2nd book in the booktown series. I read and thoroughly enjoyed the first book, Murder is Binding back in February (review found here) and was very anxious to return to Stoneham, NH -- booktown USA.

To be honest, this is the first time in my adulthood that I have read the 2nd in a series of any genre. As a child I loved Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins, and I still have those books somewhere in my attic -- but for some reason I was never interested in serial work as an adult. Surprisingly, I found myself very excited to return to this familiar setting. I was anxious to meet up with these new friends and pick up where we left off. Tricia Miles still owns the Haven't Got a Clue bookstore and Ginny and Mr. Everett still provide her with valuable assistance. Her sister, Angelica, has now purchased the cookbook store next door and their sibling relationship continues to vacillate between love and hate (but mostly love). Tricia is still dating Russ, the hometown reporter, and while they continue to butt heads occasionally, romance is winning out. Angelica is also becoming intimate with Bob Kelly, the President of the Chamber of Commerce, and that also causes a few tense moments among the sisters.

The story opens when the Haven't Got a Clue bookstore is hosting an author signing of its own hometown New York Times bestselling mystery writer, Zoe Carter. Zoe is somewhat ill-at-ease in these social settings and has solicited the aid of her niece, Kimberly Peters- who is definitely more anti-social than her aunt. Toward the end of the event Zoe excuses herself to use the restroom. When she doesn't return after a few minutes Tricia decides to investigate and to her horror finds Zoe murdered. This does not bode well for our protagonist, as this is the 2nd dead body she has discovered in less than a year in the - what was once known as - sleepy town of Stoneham.

Because the bookstore is now considered a crime scene, it must be shut down and Tricia, who lives upstairs with her cat Miss Marple, must move in next door with Angelica for an indefinite period of time. If this weren't bad enough, the town's sheriff, Wendy Adams, is still holding a grudge against Tricia for trying to steal her boyfriend, and decides to keep the store closed for a longer period of time than is truly necessary.

In typical cozy fashion, Tricia manages to do most of the detective work in solving this murder. During the investigation she learns that Zoe is not the true author of the popular mystery series and deduces that it is probably the legitimate author who has killed her as revenge. The final chaotic scene takes place in the bookstore where Tricia plans to identify the murderer in front of the sheriff. It is amateur sleuthing at its finest.

I really enjoy these books and I am very anxious to read the 3rd in series, due to be released sometime in November, 2009. My only complaint about this 2nd book is that the setting remains focused on the sisters' two stores and we see very little of the rest of the town. Part of the charm of this series, for me at least, is the idea that there is a place where small, independent bookshops line main street, USA. Each bookshop has its own specialty and the ambiance of each shop is suited to its offerings, such: History Repeats Itself; Have a Heart; and Armchair Traveller. I so thoroughly enjoyed escaping to this idyllic setting in the first book, and I hope that Ms. Barrett has plans to allow me to escape there again.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Musing Mondays - Love of Reading

Today's Musing Monday meme asks:

Do you remember how you developed a love for reading? Was it from a particular person, or person(s)? Do you remember any books that you read, or were read to you, as a young child? (question courtesy of Diane)

I think it would make an interesting study to see if a love of reading is more a matter of Nature or Nurture. I tend to think, based on my own limited research (3 children) that it is more matter of Nature.

For myself, I am really not sure where I developed my love of reading. I do remember my parents reading to me when I was small - most notably the Little Golden Books (The Poky Little Puppy was among my favorites). As I grew the small books gave way to a large book of Fairy Tales, with few pictures and "lots of words" I remember pretending that I could read those words along with my father - and desperately wanting to be able to pick up a book and read it on my own (I have always been an independent person, and I did not like relying on my parents' free time to enjoy reading a book. Granted, I could look at the pictures and make up the story, but even at the young age of 3 I was developing my black and white world: there is a right way to read the story and I wanted to do it the right way).

I learned to read in Kindergarten, and that skill was continually refined through 1st and 2nd grade as we would "real aloud" in class. I remember reading my first Little Bear chapter book, and feeling quite proud.

I wonder if my love of reading was somehow enhanced by the era in which I grew up. The 1960s was not as media intense when I was little; we only had 4 television stations were ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS. In addition I lived in Houston, TX for the first 11 years of my life and Houston in the summer is not conducive to outside activities. My limited memory recalls that I basically had 3 summer-time options: playing dolls (which I never really enjoyed); building legos with my brother (which did not hold my attention for long as my limited brain could only make square and rectangle shapes out of the blocks) or reading. I chose to immerse myself in the tales of Nancy Drew and her suspenseful "who-done-it" mysteries.

I will admit that while my love of reading never waned, the time spent on recreational reading decreased dramatically from the time I entered college until about the age of 40. I am now making up for that lost time - and consider reading my escape activity.

But back to my nature vs nurture question. I have 3 children: 1 abhors reading; 1 is rather indifferent; and 1 seems to enjoy reading as much as her mother. All 3 children were raised in the same way. I would read them from the time they were 6 weeks old. I would read to them in the morning, afternoon, and evening. A favorite series of all the children was the Berenstain Bears and the lessons taught still ring true today ("some people put others down in order to bring themselves up") Once they became old enough to read themselves, I would take them to the library and/or bookstore and encourage them to select books that would be of interest to them. Every Christmas the final gift of the day would be at least one new book. This gift would be given to the children as I tucked them in at night - in the hopes that the magic of Christmas would be extended AND they would want to stay up late and read.

I used to be sad and discouraged that my two older children did not enjoy reading, but I have come to realize that it is not the end of the earth. They are both well-adjusted children who are successful in their respective career paths. I have also learned to cherish the common bond that I share with my youngest child. We are now at the point where we can read the same book and actually discuss it. We have similar literary tastes (albeit I am not as fond of the Twilight books as she is), and that is a blessing. In fact, she has decided that she needs to accompany me to BEA next year -- and I hope I have the funds to make that wish a reality.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Summer Vacation Reading Challenge - sign up Winner

I have been rather remiss lately. I promised to draw a winner for my Summer Vacation Reading Challenge sign up on Friday - but with end of the school year activities (yes, I am officially on summer vacation) time just got away from me. I do want to thank the 24 who have chosen to participate in this challenge with me. I must confess that when I first had the idea, I was hoping that at least 5 would be interested. You have all blessed me beyond measure.

Now....without further ado.....the winner of the sign up portion of this challenge is: KIM of Page after Page!! I am so excited that Kim won (although I must warn you -- this is not a big gift, but rather a fun gift that plays on the vacation theme of the challenge). Kim and I became blog friends during my early blog stages, and she has remained faithful to encourage me every step of the way. Kim always signs her messages *smiles* and that is a GREAT way to boost anyone's spirits. Kim, the gift will be in the mail soon and you will hopefully receive it by the end of the week.

NOW.....just because I have given away the sign up prize, that does not mean that you have missed the opportunity to take part in this challenge. The link to the sign up is on the left sidebar and the challenge runs from May 22-Sept 7. The grand prize winner will receive a $20 Amazon gift card to help fund those fall reading purchases. While I am thrilled to have 24 join me on this literary adventure, the saying "the more the merrier" always holds true on a vacation. So if this sounds like fun to you --- please don't hesitate to sign up.

TSS - Godmother: The Secret Cinderella story

I knew when I picked up this book that it would be out of my literary "comfort zone" Fantasy fiction and I are just getting to know one another - and this book seemed a bit on the fringe for me. However, Cinderella is one of my all-time favorite fairy tales and since I teach a unit on fractured fairy tales in my 7th grade English class, I thought I would give it a go.

My prediction was that this book would be purely fantasy: Lil has been banished from the fairy world due to her mistake, but is given the opportunity to redeem herself. I expected that Lil would have succeeded in this mission, been reinstated in said fairy world, and "lived happily ever after" --- just as it should be in any fairy tale ending. I mentally prepared for this kind of story (yes - I must mentally prepare to read fantasy since it is so far outside the realm of reality). For the most part I enjoyed the story as I read it: I liked the idea that fairies are not perfect, but are given the opportunity to redeem themselves. When it came to the final scenes, however, I was shocked and perplexed at the nebulous ending and I think I even felt a bit duped at this unconventional ending for what I expected to be a very conventional book.

Now, first of all, I must accept some of this responsibility. I have been in a "fantasy" reading mode lately - and this is NOT my typical genre (I think it must be some kind of exercise that I have given myself: I will read fantasy and I will learn to like it). When I found this new novel that was derived from a great great fairy tale, was fractured from the point of view of the elderly godmother (I am quickly entering that demographic bracket), and took place in a small independent bookstore in New York City, I thought I had found the perfect escape novel for me. I immediately reserved the book at my local library - waiting only 1 week for it to come in - and began reading. I did not read any other summaries of the book, nor any other book reviews. I think if I had done my homework prior to opening its pages, I would have had different expectations and therefore my reaction would have been more favorable.

The story is told in alternating views: some from the past as Lil is reliving her costly mistake, and then from the present as she is living with its consequences. It took me a while to adjust to this pattern. Sometimes I would have to re-read sections to realize which "era" was being referred to. It is not that this is a bad way to tell the story, it is just that, once again, it did not meet my expectations. I assume that fairy tales are full of description - and can be quite complex - but are typically straight forward and easy to understand. I would sometimes wonder "what is wrong with me" that I could not understand what was going on.

The story is also told in first person point of view. While I know this perspective demands that the reader decide on the reliability of the narrator, I think I relied too much on my expectations of the genre and not enough on my own intuition. Lil can either be the famed godmother of the fairy world OR Lil can be a confused old woman in modern day NYC who is on the brink of senility. I never considered the last option as a possibility until the end of the story.

Now that I have voiced my criticism of the book, I will say that I did enjoy parts of it. I thought Lil's character was very well developed and the detail in which the author wrote to describe Lil's undressing at the end of each day - including the removal of the bands that keep her wings "invisible" beneath her clothing - was amazingly credible. The fairy godmother in Cinderella is kind, sweet, gentle and helpful. Lil has not lost those admiring qualities here on earth. She has worked for George, the owner of a small independent bookstore, for years and is not only helpful to the customers who frequent the shop, but she is also a "godsend" to George. Her new mission, to bring Veronica and George together in order for them to find true love, is also a credible storyline. Neither Veronica nor George have had perfect relationships in the past, and the reader is not led to believe that this relationship will be "happily ever after" - but I was certain that Lil's interference would be successful and the couple would have a nice future together. I actually took comfort in this more true-to-life ending for the couple.

I do not want to spoil the ending of the story. I will say that once Lil completes her mission she fully expects to be joined again with her fairy sisters and return to her original home. The reader is left wondering whether that happy ending occurs, or whether this story is not a fairy tale, but rather a contemporary, rather dark, psychological novel that depicts a senile old lady who only thinks she is the fairy godmother.

For my own personal taste, I would give the book 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Library Loot - 5.15.09

Yesterday the Booking Through Thursday prompt asked if we consider ourselves "book gluttons" - that is, constantly adding more and more books to our TBR shelves when we can't possibly read what we own already. I personally think that should be a requirement of a book blogger: you must be willing to bring more books into the house than you can possibly read in a lifetime, and still seem unfilled if you can't buy more on a regular basis.

Here is a case in point: Last night I visited my local library to pick up 5 books that were available from my list of requested books. I still have 9 books on hold. In the month of May (and we are only half way through the month) I have purchased 8 books. I need to read approximately 12 books between and June 15 for my Master's program. I will be attending the Book Expo of America (BEA) May 28-31 in NYC -- and I know I am sure to find new releases that I MUST have now. Can you understand why I titled yesterday's post: Is there a 12 step program for Bibliophiles?!

Now perhaps if I were a speed reader like some of you, this would be no problem. But alas, I am not. I savor every word of the books that I read (at a relatively slow pace) and for those books that I need to study this summer - I will also take notes. I am hoping to balance my reading time between today (my official last day of school for the 2008/2009 year!!) and June 15. I WILL accomplish all required reading, but I also hope to read my first 3 ARCs and post reviews.

In the meantime, the 5 books that I picked up from the library this week fit none of the above requirements. They are strictly for my own personal enjoyment:

Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson. I discovered this new-to-me series while "buying indie" a couple of weeks ago. The setting is NYC at the turn of the century, and the titles are all places that I recognize from having lived there from 1984-1988. This is the first in the series.

Feint of Art by Hailey Lind. This is another series that I discovered on the same indie-shopping day. This series focuses on the art world - something of which I have little knowledge, but great desire to learn.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. This book has been on my TBR list since January when I first read your reviews. However, once it won the Pulitzer for 2009, I bumped it to the top of the list. Surprisingly enough, I only had to wait about 2 weeks to obtain a library copy.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. This book comes highly recommended by Farm Lane Books and since I so enjoy her blog, I figured her recommendations must be good.

Among the Impostors by Margaret Peterson Haddix. I just completed Among the Hidden this past week (review will hopefully happen next week after all final grades have been calculated) and enjoyed it enough to want to read the next book in the series.

Will I will all of these in the allotted time of 3 weeks - along with all my other reading requirements? Probably not. But it will sure be fun trying.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Is there a 12 step program for Bibliophiles?

Today's Booking Through Thursday prompt is quite timely:
Book Gluttony! Are your eyes bigger than your book belly? Do you have a habit of buying up books far quicker than you could possibly read them? Have you had to curb your book buying habits until you can catch up with yourself? Or are you a controlled buyer, only purchasing books when you have run out of things to read?
I was just discussing this very topic with a good friend of mine. While I have always enjoyed reading, I have been able to curb my book buying sprees to perhaps 3-4 times a year. I always had a few books on the shelves that were waiting to be read, but mostly I purchased books that I knew I was going to read immediately.

That was the past. That was before discovering book blogs. Now, I have a voracious appetite to not only read more - and more variety - but I want to own more. I want to have a personal library where I have choices - LOTS of choices.

In the past my book buying decisions were based on one of three possibilities: it was a classic that I wanted/needed to read for school; it was prominently displayed in the bookstore as either an end-cap book or new release; OR it was available on the bargain table (buy one get one half price --- buy 2 get one free etc). NOW I have excel spreadsheet, which currently includes over 100 books and I continue to add to it each and every day. I take it with me everywhere I go (I just never know when I might pass a bookstore and I MUST venture inside). The list is organized by author, title, and genre so I can easily match my wish list to the store's layout. My real weakness is the Clearance section of Half-Price Books. In that small corner of the store my two obsessions are found: books and bargains. If I can find a book that is on my list for under $3.00, I feel as though I have hit the jackpot.

At this point I have far more books on my shelves than I can read in the next 5 years. Does that stop me from buying more? NO!! I figure that I have at least 25 good years left to read (and maybe more than that) -- so by my (rationalizing) calculations I can buy at least 5 times more books and still expect to read them all - eventually :)

And, if I ever want to relieve any guilt I have about buying too many books, I can always visit this video at Barnes and Noble.com and know that as "out of control" I think I might be in this book-buying obsession, I have a long a way to go to catch up with Joe Perlman:

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Bell Jar

I have had this book on my shelf for a number of years. I bought it the first time I heard it mentioned and thought it would be a fascinating read. I knew, however, that this is not the sort of book to pick up and read on the fly. This is a book that I must mentally prepare to read well in advance of actually reading it. I read the book about 3 weeks ago, but apparently it is also a book that I must prepare to write a review.

For those who are unfamiliar with the storyline - this is a semi-autobiographical story of Sylvia Plath's experiences with depression, mental illness and for a period of time, constant thoughts of suicide. This is made even more somber by the fact that Ms. Plath committed suicide in February, 1963, one month after the publication of the book.

The story centers around Esther Greenwood, an intelligent young girl from a small town outside Boston. Esther does not come from money, but she has entered and won many scholarships in the hopes of obtaining a degree from Smith College and eventually becoming a writer. The story opens in New York City where Esther and 11 other scholarship recipients are interning for a major fashion magazine. While Esther seems content with the job and her future career prospects, she somehow never seems to fit in socially. While this creates awkward social settings in New York, Esther is able to weather these situations by focusing on a summer workshop for which she is "certain" to be accepted. When she is denied entrance into this prestigious course, her ability to cope with life slowly deteriorates.

This haunting narrative is made even more disturbing by the fact that it is told in 1st person Point Of View. While the fictional character is Esther, the reader recognizes the autobiographical nature of the story and becomes quite intimate with her experiences. We are brought into the mental institution and see first hand the other "inmates" of this asylum. We are aware that someone with a mental illness is still cognizant of her surroundings. We join Esther as she walks through the corridor to the procedural room where she undergoes electric shock therapy (and we DO feel the pain of the electricity as it pulsates through her body). We experience the feelings of depression when we realize that the pain does not produce desired results.

The story itself, while taking us to the depths of despair, ends on a hopeful note. Esther is released from the institution and appears in good mental and physical health. She returns to Smith College - graduates - and begins a new life as a writer. It appears that recovery has taken place and all is right with the world.

However, the reader knows the true end to this story, and it is not a happy one. While Sylvia Plath became a published author - her poetry receiving great accolades within the literary world - she still seemed to struggle with fitting in. Ms. Plath was a perfectionist and writing, while necessary to her being, was a certainly a mixed blessing(at some point the revisions must stop - but where is that magical point?). She married and had children, and yet happiness in marriage also seemed to elude her. In the end, she apparently thought that her life was not worth living.

I find it hard to separate a review of the book from a review of her life -- and that is not fair to Ms Plath. The book is well-written. It grabs the reader's attention from the start and does not let it go until the last paragraph. The characters are well-defined because they are intimately known by the author. The bird's eye view of mental illness (and the ways in which we treated mental illness in the 1950s) is fascinating. While I have been blessed with good mental health, I would hope that our treatment of these issues have progressed in the past 50+ years. I would hope that our treatment includes compassion, behavior modification skills, appropriate medicinal prescriptions, and plenty of individual/group counseling. The conclusion to the story leaves the reader with a feeling of hope that recovery is possible and lifetime dreams can be achieved.

I think it is my Christian perspective that leaves me anguished by the ending of her true life story. Here is a woman who had so much to offer the world - and she had two children who were totally dependent upon her. Yet, she saw no other way to cope with life than to end it. I believe that no matter how horrible or depressing life is on this Earth, we have a solid Hope in Christ Jesus. I am so very saddened that she was not aware of this kind of hope.

My thoughts turn to her children. I have often wondered how children internalize the suicide of a parent. It would seem to me that the magical thinking of children would question why the parent wanted to leave them? Were they not good enough to entice the parent to stay? Did the parent not love them enough? If they had only done (fill in the blank) then the parent would have decided to live rather than to die. It would seem to me that this could have devastating, rippling effects on her descendants.

Unfortunately, in this case, it did. On March 16, 2009, Sylvia Plath's son, who was only 1 at the time of his mother's death, committed suicide. He had never married, nor had children. He did suffer from depression and apparently could see no other alternative but to end his own life.

Is this book worth reading? YES! If for no other reason than to make us aware of mental illness and give us a heart of compassion toward those who suffer from it. I may not know how to properly help those who are clinically depressed, but I can soften my heart to be more accepting and understanding of those who are afflicted by it. Our love and compassion expressed to others is one way that we can bring Christ to a world which is desperately searching for hope.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mailbox Monday - 5.11.09

I am always so excited when I have the opportunity to participate in Mailbox Monday. It doesn't happen very often, so I truly savor the times that I can. Mailbox Monday is the brainchild of Marcia at the Printed Page. Head on over there to find a link to fellow bloggers' list of books received this week.

Here is what I have found in my mailbox over the last couple of weeks. The only downside is that I simply cannot read all of them right away - as I have about 10 books that I need to read prior to June 15 when I start my summer classes. Oh well, I will attempt to read as many as possible:

I won Admission from S. Krishna's giveaway and I am super excited to begin reading this one! Here is a summar of this book, thanks to Amazon.com: For years, 38-year-old Portia Nathan has avoided the past, hiding behind her busy (and sometimes punishing) career as a PrincetonUniversity admissions officer and her dependable domestic life. Her reluctance to confront the truth is suddenly overwhelmed by the resurfacing of a life-altering decision, and Portia is faced with an extraordinary test. Just as thousands of the nation's brightest students await her decision regarding their academic admission, so too must Portia decide whether to make her own ultimate admission.

My second prize-winning book this week included the much-talked about Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch. I was intrigued by the cover of this book from the first time I saw it: A carefree young woman dressed in a beautiful feminine dress juxtaposed with the almost redneck title that conjures up the image of girls in jean shorts riding in the back of an old pickup truck. Here is a portion of one summary posted on Amazon: Sarah Walters, the narrator of GIRLS IN TRUCKS, is a reluctant Camellia Society debutante. She has always felt ill-fitted to the rococo ways of Southern womanhood and family, and is anxious to shake the bonds of her youth. Still, she follows the traditional path laid out for her. This is Charleston, and in this beautiful, dark, segregated town, established rules and manners mean everything. But as Sarah grows older, she finds that her Camellia lessons fail her, particularly as she goes to college, moves North, and navigates love and life in New York. There, Sarah and her group of displaced deb sisters try to define themselves within the realities of modern life. Heartbreak, addiction, disappointing jobs and death fail to live up to the hazy, happy future promised to them by their Camellia mothers and sisters. Thank you, Dawn of She is Too Fond of Books, for hosting this great giveaway.

A while ago Kaye of Pudgy Penguin Perusals hosted a give away for Laura Child's newest tea shop mystery, Oolong Dead and I happened to be one of the two lucky recipients. My book arrived on Friday - autographed - and sent directly from the author's home address! I have read the first 2 books in this lovely cozy series and will probably try to read all the others in the series, saving this for last.

I also received my first two books this week as a result of requests made through Shelf Awareness. I am very excited to have the opportunity to read a book "hot off the presses". The first book that came in the mail from Bloomsbury Publishing was Valeria's Last Stand by Marc Fitten: Life in an isolated Hungarian village is turned upside down by an unusual love affair in Fitten's promising debut. In the small hamlet of Zivatar, 68-year-old Valeria is known by all as a cantankerous woman, quick to criticize everything from the produce at the market to the mayor's lofty ambitions to lure foreign investors to the town. But a chance encounter one day with the elderly local potter—a man Valeria has known for years but never noticed—changes everything. The widower potter falls just as hard for Valeria, despite his relationship with Ibolya, the owner of the village's only tavern. Unaccustomed to being smitten, Valeria tries to maintain her normal routine, but the village is in an uproar over this unlikely love triangle. The arrival of a traveling chimney sweep intent on bilking the townspeople sends another ripple through what was once a placid village.

The 2nd Shelf Awareness book received by Picador Publishing was Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie. This is another book that I was keenly attracted to its cover (which I know you can't judge a book by its cover - but you can certainly buy a book because of its cover!) Sweeping in scope and mesmerizing in its evocation of time and place, Burnt Shadows is an epic narrative of disasters elided and confronted, loyalties offered and repaid, and loves rewarded and betrayed.

I participated in a survey for Reading Group Guides and as a thank you they offered to send one of 8 different books. I happened to receive A Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have not read any of Berg's works, so I was very pleased with this lovely gift. A Boston widow of several months, 55-year-old Betta Nolan, fulfills her dying husband's dream of moving out to the Midwest and starting a new life. "It will give me peace to know that what you will do is exactly what we talked about," says John commandingly before dying of liver cancer; Betta, an author of children's books, sells their Beacon Hill brownstone and takes off, buying an oversized Victorian in the small town of Stewart, Ill., 49 miles from Chicago. Lonely, she finds herself tracking down three former college roommates from the late 1960s, Lorraine, Maddy and Susanna, whom she ditched once she met John. The women reappear one by one and help give her the courage to open a shop called What a Woman Wants (it'll sell "all different stuff that women loved. Beautiful things, but unusual too. Like antique birdcages with orchids growing in them"). Meanwhile, she begins to make friends in town, notably with attractive young handyman Matthew and natty oldster Tom Bartlett.

Yesterday I treated myself to a Mother's Day gift (I had coupons that were going to expire!) I had reserved The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Hunger Games at my local library on March 21 - thinking I could read them for the 24 hour readathon. WRONG! I am still about 30th in line for both of them. At this rate, it will be the end of the summer before my name is called - and I just don't want to wait that long (and I have a feeling I will to have these in my personal library anyway). So, I purchased both books - along with a CD that I simply could not resist - Beethoven for Book Lovers.

My daughters decided to make dinner for me as a Mother's Day gift (enchiladas, rice and angel food cake --- yummy!) and I was "banished" from the kitchen for the afternoon (oh darn!). It was the perfect opportunity to hide out in my book nook and begin reading Hunger Games. Suffice it to say, the book does live up to the hype: it is suspenseful from the first page! I read the first 200 pages yesterday and I will probably finish the book this evening. Not sure much more reading will be done this week, however (or posting of reviews) as this is finals week and there will be lots of grading.

As a "last hurrah" with two of my high school book club students - we took a trip to Lawrence today after school to visit some of the college town bookstores. Everyone had a great time and found some worthwhile books to purchase. I found two mysteries by Julie Kaewert that I have been wanting to try for quite sometime. The series is entitled, A Booklover's Mystery - so I figure it must be good. I also found an "uncorrected proof" of The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James and was very excited. I thoroughly enjoyed her Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen and expect this one will be just as good. According to Amazon, this book is expected to be released at the end of June, so I will try to read it before I leave for my summer classes and post a review for y'all to read.

I have about 10 final papers to grade (plan to do that tomorrow) - about 25 grammar finals to grade by Friday afternoon (some students will take the final on Wednesday, others will take it on Friday) - and about 10 computer applications finals to grade on Wednesday afternoon. I will attend the graduation ceremony on Friday night and then.....I will be officially on summer break!!! Can you tell I am excited?
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