Friday, June 15, 2018

Little Town on the Prairie

I've been sporadically rereading my favorite Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder over the past several years, and just finished Little Town on the Prairie.

It's one of my favorites because Wilder does a such a fabulous job of documenting life on the many little towns that sprang up in the 19th century along railroad lines. I loved reading about how the town went from an idea to stores, homes, schoolhouse, church almost overnight. And Laura is fully engaged with the town--at first dreading the strangers who come to her prairie but then embracing them and the social life they make possible.

I paid close attention, this reading, to the things the Ingalls family ate--ground cherries and husk tomatoes (both of which are sort of like tomatillos), not to mention blackbird pie, tomatoes with cream, and lettuce with sugar.

I also paid attention to the flora and fauna Laura describes--meadowlarks (which I love during the summer in Colorado), redwing blackbirds, and thunder pumps (the colloquial name for the American bittern), and that awful needle grass that sews its way into Mary's shoes.

Reading LH books is always nostalgic for me--this time I remembered how much Laura's diligence at studying inspired me to work hard in school. Speaking of school, I've always wondered what Wilder's sister-in-law, Eliza Jane Wilder, thought of this particular book!

And then, of course, I will always love Garth Williams's warm and lovely illustrations. They are as much a part of the book as the text.

This book is part of the 2018 Back to the Classics challenge, in the children's category.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Big Book Summer Challenge

Sue over at Book by Book is hosting her 7th annual Big Book Summer challenge, and since I have a few big books on my reading list for this year, I decided to join in again.

The Details
  • Anything over 400 pages qualifies as a big book.
  • The challenge runs from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.
  • Choose one or two or however many big books you want as your goal.

Potential Reading List
  • The Masterpiece, by Emile Zola
  • Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
  • Can You Forgive Her, by Anthony Trollope
  • World Without End, by Kenneth Follett
  • Drums of Autumn, by Diana Gabaldon (just need to reread before November and season 4 of Outlander!)
That's a pretty aggressive list, considering I have a two-week vacation planned mid-summer, plus I tend to read less in the summer because I also like to garden, and I have other reading commitments (Persuasion for JASNA August meeting) and Fahrenheit 451 and To Kill a Mockingbird for Tuesday BookTalkRead-Along, but we have to have goals, right?

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Gunners

The Gunners, by Rebecca Kauffman, came highly recommended by Joann at Lakeside Musing. I take her recommendations seriously as our tastes align quite well. I also liked the fact that it is is a new book, published in March of this year. I always try to read at least a few brand new books each year, and this one was definitely a winner.

The novel's central character is [this next part is the Amazon blurb] "Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections―even his emotional life is a blur. As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with “The Gunners,” his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally’s death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness."

I really liked how Kauffman constructed the story--the five remaining friends met together over the course of about 6 months and reminisce about their shared childhoods, and those reminisces give us not only the backstory but put the current interactions between the friends into context and moved the plot forward.

It seems like so many books these days use the parallel narrative style (past and present), but this one was different in that the reader was never really in the past but was catching glimpses of it as the story emerged. 

I don't have a lot to say about this book other than it had a compelling set of characters and I felt an overwhelming sense of nostalgia as I learned about their lives and what they meant to each other, growing up in such a tight knit circle in a small town.

My one frustration is that Kauffman never told Sally's story--she remained an enigma. None of her friends could understand why she broke away, why she committed suicide, why she left them. Perhaps that is the point of the story--when a tragedy like that happens, when someone disconnects so completely, it can be unfathomable and all you can do is hang on to those left behind.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Chilbury Ladies Choir

I absolutely loved The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan. I listened to an audio version, and really enjoyed the different voices of the various characters--all were excellently done.

The setting is a small village in Kent in the opening year of WWII--the men have gone off to war, leaving the vicar to disband the church choir because apparently in England the notion of a women's choir was unthinkable. I thought that a bit of a stretch, but nonetheless, the women, lead by the indomitable Prim, reform the choir, and use the music as a way of bonding with each other, grieving, celebrating, hoping, and surviving through the dark days and grim nights.

I really liked the variety of the main characters--my favorites were the two upper-crust sisters, Kitty and Venetia, the mousy Mrs. Tilling who learns to roar, and the devious Edwina Paltry. I thought the plot line interesting and poignant, and I really hated saying goodbye to the villagers at the end of the book.

I loved reading about life on the homefront during the war, and felt a surge of pride as the women stepped up and did things they never thought they could do...because they had to.

It's a story of resiliency, fortitude, and sisterhood.

Definitely a book I would recommend.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman is a YA novel about the famous post-Impressionist painter, Vincent Van Gogh, and his younger brother Theo, who supported Vincent monetarily and emotionally throughout his life and enabled him to have the time and resources to paint.

It was easy to read with very short, easily digestible chapters and sections, and was beautifully structured, creating strong themes of brotherhood, sacrifice, and family to put Vincent and Theo's lives and relationship into context.

Bios can be very dry and so crammed with incidents that it can difficult to seeithe larger picture. Not so with this bio. While Heiligman based her narrative on the hundreds of letters between the brothers as well as between themselves and the rest of their larger family, I never felt overwhelmed with minutiae. The author carefully picked what she wanted to feature: the struggles Vincent had in deciding on a fulfilling career (he trained to be a preacher before devoting himself to art), the struggles each brother had romantically, and finally and sadly, their struggles with depression and mental illness.

I was absolutely fascinated to learn how Vincent taught himself to draw and paint, repeatedly doing the exercises in drafting manuals, and then graduating to the human form. I was also surprised to learn that Vincent was adept at languages--speaking English, French, and (I think) German, as well as his native Dutch.

And, I was surprised to learn of the depth of Theo's support of Vincent. There is really no way that the world would have Vincent had Theo not sent him money to live on, sent him art supplies, promoted his work, and married the woman who continued that promotion after both brothers died. Theo was an art dealer for his entire working life, and represented many of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists in real time, and promoted their work and efforts to transform the art world.

 I instinctively liked the cover of the book, but came to love it after reading this tidbit about the hats.

I've always liked Van Gogh's paintings--my parents had two framed prints that graced our living room while I was growing up--but reading about his life and his relationship with Theo gave me a much deeper appreciation for his genius and the gift he gave us through his art.

And yes, I am planning on seeing a lot of Van Gogh paintings as well as the other Impressionist and post-Impressionists painters' works this summer in Paris and Normandy.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Murder on the Orient Express

Finally, I got around to reading Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie. It was a treat to read a genre classic by the genre leading lady.

My first thought, as the plot unfolded was, this sounds like the Lindberg baby kidnapping. I searched and lo, I was right. Dame Christie said she was inspired by that horrible crime. I thought she did a magnificent job in assembling a cast of characters, none of whom seemed to have a motive or opportunity and all who ended up having both.

The mystery is a claustrophobic variation on the isolated country manor, in which a train from Istanbul to Paris is stalled in a snowstorm. No one can leave, no one can communicate with the outside world. The murder happens in a locked room.

I watched the latest movie version after finishing the book--the one with Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot, Judy Dench as Princess Drogomiroff, Michelle Pfeiffer as Mrs. Hubbard, and Johnny Depp as Ratchett. I liked it. I know it's gotten some mixed reviews but it was dazzling. One huge difference between the movie and the book was all the time the characters spent outside the train car. Branagh, who was also the director, chose to make an avalanche stop the train in its tracks rather than a snowstorm. That meant that once the train was stopped, the characters could get out and walk around a bit. It would have been a less visually impressive film had all the shots been confined to a train car's interior. Very cramped, dark versus brilliant.

See what I mean? 

I thought the book was first rate, Christie at the top of her game. I thought the film was a fine adaptation--true to the book, with some modern issues thrown in to make it feel less dated. 

This book is part of my 2018 Back to the Classics challenge, classic crime story category.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Paradise (aka The Ladies Paradise) - Emile Zola

After reading and loving Germinal a few years ago, I decided that The Ladies Paradise would be the next novel by Emile Zola that I would read. I was told by other bloggers that it was excellent but very different from Germinal.

On the surface, these two books couldn't be more different--Germinal is set in a company mining town and involves the lives and struggles of the miners, and The Ladies Paradise is about a department store in Paris. Both set in the late 19th century.

However, I was constantly reminded of Germinal as I was reading The Ladies Paradise. Zola depicts both the mine in Germinal and the department store (which is called The Ladies Paradise) in Paris as monsters and machines, consuming the traditional way of life of the countryside and city, feeding on the energy of the workers, exploiting their dreams, and crushing their lives. A few survive and thrive, a few survive and limp along, but most are swept away by the inhuman ferocity of the machine.

The version I read was renamed The Paradise, and is a tie-in to the mini-series, which was set in England rather than France, and it shows on the cover the actress who plays Denise, the main character, a girl from a town in Normandy who comes to Paris with her two younger brothers after their parents die. She is hoping to work in her uncle's shop, which is across from The Ladies Paradise, but business is so bad that he cannot take her on. She finds a position in The Ladies Paradise, suffers much, perseveres, and earns her reward, although you can't help but wonder how happy she will be with that reward!

Denise's story is very much like that of Christian in A Pilgrim's Progress, constantly struggling and beset with trials and tribulations, temptations and false friends, but she stays true to her internal guiding spirit and prevails.

I also couldn't help thinking about the movie You've Got Mail while I read this book. Octave Mouret, the owner of The Ladies Paradise, and Joe Fox, owner of  Fox & Sons Books are definitely cut from the same cloth--they orchestrate the ruin of the little shops that constitute their main competition for customers and charmingly defend their ruthlessness by insisting that the demise of the little shops was inevitable and they are not to blame for the fate of others. I kept on waiting for M. Moret to insist that "it isn't personal."

I felt a certain amount of frustration with the little shop owners, who fought back by trying to beat Mouret at his own game instead of trying to figure out a new game for themselves...but then, maybe that was Zola's point. The small shop owners who had mostly inherited their businesses from their fathers and grandfathers weren't able to change. Progress was flattening them and they couldn't deal with the new reality--they didn't have the skills, the mindset, the energy, or the resources that the modern world demanded.

As we deal with our own constantly changing world in which no one really knows what the next big thing will be that will sweep through the market, The Paradise was a sobering book to read.

This is my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge, 2018, and my fourth classic this year. It's also part of my reading about France for my summer trip to Paris and Normandy. I've been reading a lot lately about the Impressionist painters and how they depict a Paris that was undergoing tremendous physical change, and so it was interesting to read a novel by a Parisian of their generation writing about the tearing down of buildings and age-old traditions as Paris transformed from a meandering medieval city to one of boulevards and lights.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

David Macaulay's Castle and Cathedral Books

Last year my vacation plans involved visiting castles. This year I'm anticipating visiting lots of cathedrals.

Last year I read David Macaulay's Castle - a marvelous, short (80 pages) picture laden book on castle fundamentals, geared for the grade 5-7 reader. I loved it. It was informative, easy to read and understand, and just what I needed to better appreciate visiting castles in general. Macaulay's castle was fictitious but representative.

Last month, I read Macaulay's Cathedral. It was sort of a companion book to Pillars of the Earth, which I read at the same time, and I loved examining the pictures showing how flying buttresses work, how to build a vaulted ceiling, how to support a wall that is mostly stained glass, etc. Again, the cathedral is fictitious but representative and remarkably similar to the Kingsbridge Cathedral from Pillars of the Earth.

Macaulay also has books on City, Pyramid, Underground, Toilet, Mill, and, of course, the How Things Work series. He just might be my new favorite author!

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

French Movies and Movies Set in France

Not only am I reading in prep for my trip to France this summer, but I'm also watching movies in French or set in France.

Here's what I've watched so far:

Amelie - in French, absolutely charming--visiting Les Duex Magots in Montmatre is now a must-do.

Midnight in Paris - a Woody Allen movie, starring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams--pretty trite and lightweight and predictable--fun to see Paris but not much to offer beyond that.

La Vie en Rose - in French, movie bio about Edith Piaf--incredible acting by Marion Cotillard as Piaf. I downloaded her greatest hits after watching. What a voice! What a sad life, though, despite her stardom.

10 Jour en or (10 Golden Days) - in French, another charming movie, this time about a bachelor who gets saddled with an immigrant refugee boy.

The Intouchables - in French, an unlikely friendship develops between a wealthy quadriplegic (François Cluzet) and his caretaker (Omar Sy), just released from prison. Loved this movie!!!

Saving Private Ryan - my first time watching this, incredibly powerful. After a week in Paris, we are spending our second week in Normandy, and I've already booked a full-day tour of the British and American beaches used in D-Day.

Les Choristes (The Chorus) - in French, another amazingly good movie, set in a home for troubled boys in 1949, the new teacher is a musician who brings discipline to the classroom and structure and purpose to his pupils when he forms them into a choir.

Having a great time discovering some new movies, listening to French, and seeing the city and the countryside. Vive la France!

Any other recommendations for me?

Monday, March 26, 2018

It's Monday, What Are You Reading?

First time doing this meme but I read others' posts pretty faithfully and like the format.

Finished this week
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atchison - I loved A God in Ruins, and was impressed by Time After Time. This is her first novel and spans the twentieth century, chronicling a family in York. Interesting, occasionally funny, often heartbreaking.

Currently reading
Just now starting The Paradise by Emile Zola - another book set in France, another classic, very excited to read it.

Next up for GoodReads Tuesday Read-A-Long group is Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. I don't think I've read--if so, it's so long ago that it doesn't count. Very excited to dive into a great mystery.

Listening to
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett - all about building a cathedral in England in the 12th century during the civil war caused by Stephen and Matilda (daughter of Henry I and mother of Henry II). Absolutely loving it and eager to finish it so that I can watch the mini-series.

Also listening to Edith Piaf after watching La Vie en Rose a few weeks ago as well as Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and Danzon No. 2 by Arturo Marquez, both inspired by Mozart in the Jungle (see below).

Rewatching Mozart in the Jungle, from the beginning in order to fully appreciate season 4. 

Watched Saving Private Ryan for the first time over the weekend--what an intense, powerful movie..

Two more episodes to watch in the upteenth rewatching of A Year in Provence.

In the kitchen, the garden, etc.
Dug sheep and peat into the raised beds, and planted spinach, lettuce, garlic, leeks, and onions. Trimmed the out-of-control thorny yellow rose bush. Resumed work on my son's quilt after letting it lie dormant since November.

The week ahead
Easter Brunch at my niece's house! 

This post will link to It's Monday, What Are You Reading? hosted by Kathryn at Book Date.