children's books, fiction, homeschool, novels

The Phantom Tollbooth

phantom tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, originally published in 1961. 272 pages.

We read The Phantom Tollbooth this semester as part of a middle school writing and literature class I taught. It’s an interesting, fantastical book and initially, I wasn’t sure how the kids would react to it. Throughout the school year, there have been differing verdicts offered by the kids on various books and rarely a consensus. However, this book drew unanimous approval from each of the students. The sample size is pretty small, but since I agreed with their opinion, it’s safe to say it’s a great middle grade book.

The opening chapter offers a description of Milo, the reluctant hero of our story:

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.

The link above leads to the entire first chapter as reprinted on NPR. It’s an excellent chance to get a fuller picture of Milo, as his ennui sets the stage for his adventure into the world opened up to him through the mysterious gift of a phantom tollbooth which appeared in his room.

In this alternate reality, Milo encounters a wholly different world from anything he has ever known. One where things and people make little sense even though they fascinate him in ways he has never imagined.

The thing that my students enjoyed most about this book was the combination of literal and metaphorical elements. For instance, one of the first groups of people Milo meets on his journey is a strange set of creatures known as “The Lethargarians”. They are weird, slug-like, live in a place known as “The Doldrums”, and their lives are lived as their name suggests. After outlining for Milo their detailed schedule of daily events which consist of little more than various forms of dawdling and daydreaming, they explain to him why the itinerary is so strict:

“As you can see, that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding, or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laugh, we’d never get nothing done.”

“You mean you’d never get anything done,” corrected Milo.

“We don’t want to get anything done,” snapped another angrily; “we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help.”

“You see,” continued another in a more conciliatory tone, “it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along. Would you care to join us?”

“I might as well,” thought Milo; “that’s where I seem to be going anyway.”

“Tell me,” he yawned, for he felt ready for a nap now himself, “does everyone here do nothing?”

“Everyone but the terrible watchdog,” said two of them, shuddering in chorus. “He’s always sniffing around to see that nobody wastes time. A most unpleasant character.”

Tock, the literal watchdog is just one of the many intriguing and bizarre characters Milo encounters on his trip to Dictionopolis and on to a quest to be the hero of this strange world he has encountered as a result of his trip through the mysterious tollbooth.

Each character he encounters on his journey, from Tock to the Humbug to the Mathemagician and the Princesses Rhyme and Reason, adds a new layer of understanding and adventure to Milo’s journey. As a result, he ultimately learns that time is precious and his own world is full of fascinating things to learn and do.

4 out of 5 stars

No content advisory necessary.

Reading level: late elementary to early middle school. Younger students who are strong readers would have not trouble decoding, some of the allegorical notes may require explanation.

 

 

 

 

 

Classics, fiction, novels

A Girl of the Limberlost

girl of the limberlost

A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton Porter, Kindle edition. Originally published in 1909. 306 print pages.

I was not very familiar with the work of Gene Stratton-Porter before reading this classic novel. She was just one name among many authors bibliophiles encounter along our trail of books. Some authors we read, others we tuck into our mental Rolodex for a later date. Stratton-Porter was one I’d tucked away for a later date.  I am grateful to say that I was induced to pull her from the recesses of my mind, out from among the heaps of jumbled authors and genres I hoped to some day read.

The Practical Conservative’s  posted review of her work was the impetus, and after some reconnaissance I learned that Stratton-Porter is one of my favorite kinds of writers: the regional sort, highlighting the beauty and culture of a particular time and place. In this case, the place and time are the swamps and forests of northeastern Indiana around the turn of the century. It is in this context that we are introduced to Elnora Comstock, the young heroine of A Girl of the Limberlost.

The Limberlost swamp  borders the land Elnora lives on with her widowed mother, Kate. As the story begins, she is a young teen who never knew the father who died while her mother was giving birth to her. Somehow, Elnora’s mother transferred all of her grief and bitterness over the death of her young husband onto the young girl. She was convinced that had she not been in labor with Elnora, she might have saved her husband from the tragic end which befell him when he sank into the quicksand of the Limberlost.

As we follow Elnora through her tumultuous terrain of life, her determination, kindness and virtue keeps readers at the edge of hope that the girl’s extraordinary character and work ethic will one day be fully rewarded:

It was a compound of self-reliance, hard knocks, heart hunger, unceasing work, and generosity. There was no form of suffering with which the girl could not sympathize, no work she was afraid to attempt, no subject she had investigated she did not understand. These things combined to produce a breadth and depth of character altogether unusual.

In the end, Elnora does reap the harvest she has so diligently worked for, yet without the fantastical sort of whirlwind that one often finds in these sorts of novels. One of the wonderful things about old stories is that they don’t often find the need to inject its hero or heroine with a fatal flaw. The postmodern tendency to denouce the notion of a character worth aspiring to gets tiring, which is I rarely read any modern fiction.

Stratton-Porter’s vivid portrayals of natural elements in the swamps along with the detailed descriptive categorizations of the moths and other creatures which Elnora was able to use to earn the money she needed to go to school were very beautifully executed. It was easy to imagine oneself standing at the edge of the Limberlost, taking in all the beauty, mystery, and danger one might find in a swamp.

I’ll end this review with one of my favorite lines from within it. Such wisdom could only have come from Elnora herself:

“I do not know why it is the fate of the world always to want something different from what life gives them.”

Heart wrenching and beautiful with a satisfying ending is my description of this classic book by Gene Stratton Porter. It would make an excellent summer read.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

children's books, Classics, educational, novels

Anne of Green Gables: Reviews of two versions

anne of green gables

Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Originally published in 1908.

As I re-read this book along with the kids in my writing and literature class, I was almost instantly reminded, as I often am , of this saying from the late C. S. Lewis:

“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

Because Anne of Green Gables is such a widely read and well-known story, I’ll offer the Goodreads synopsis for the sake of time. There are several angles concerning the story and its recent modern adaptation that I wish to explore in this post. From Goodreads:

As soon as Anne Shirley arrives at the snug white farmhouse called Green Gables, she is sure she wants to stay forever . . . but will the Cuthberts send her back to to the orphanage? Anne knows she’s not what they expected—a skinny girl with fiery red hair and a temper to match. If only she can convince them to let her stay, she’ll try very hard not to keep rushing headlong into scrapes and blurting out the first thing that comes to her mind. Anne is not like anyone else, the Cuthberts agree; she is special—a girl with an enormous imagination. This orphan girl dreams of the day when she can call herself Anne of Green Gables.

The Cuthberts do keep Anne, of course, else this delightful story full of adventure and learning wouldn’t be the beloved story it has become for over 100 years.

One of the most wonderful, and for me equally taxing aspects of Anne’s character, is her persistent insistence that everything must be expressed or executed in the most romantic and poetical way possible. There are times when I find her expressions utterly delightful. I laughed out loud this:

“People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?”

And conversely rolled my eyes at this, despite my sympathy with Anne’s drab dress as insisted on by Marilla:

“It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable.”

It was such fun to revisit the characters of Green Gables and Avonlea. As before, Matthew Cuthbert and Gilbert Blythe were my favorites (besides Anne of course). A good story, including those written for children, never goes out of style.

Book: 5 out of 5 stars

As it happens, I learned that there is a new adaptation of this beloved story recently released on Netflix. I made a point of refusing to watch or allowing my kids to watch it until we had finished reading the book in class. We are not quite finished as an entire class (this week we’ll wrap it up), but I and my daughter have finished reading it, so I decided we could safely take a peek at how these producers adapted the story.

The first season, despite artistic licenses and addition of melodrama for viewers, wasn’t horrible. Because I love the original story, I was a little perturbed at the ways they changed the story to create a more dramatic effect. I didn’t feel such changes were warranted.

I appreciated most of the castings, including the casting of Anne. The actress beautifully captures the spirit of the character as Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote her over 100 years ago. I felt a similar satisfaction with the casting of Marilla Cuthbert, Mrs. Rachel Lynde and Gilbert Blythe.

They did a less than stellar job with Josie Pye. Further, I detested the fact that made Miss Josephine Barry a spinster due to the fact that she was a lesbian who lived for many years with her “partner” Gertrude, recently deceased.

They licenses they took with some story lines were understandable in some ways, and in other ways unnecessary.

Overall, I was so turned off by the development of Miss Barry’s character that I was thankful for having done the research ahead of time -actually my daughter did it- which clued me in on what to expect in the episodes. It spared me from being blindsided by the “inclusive” propaganda.

As it turns out, not having seen those episodes left a better impression of the show on me than would have remained otherwise. As it stands, I definitely won’t finish it, and the kids and I are looking forward to enjoying the PBS adaptation sometimes later in the spring, after the hustle and bustle of the second semester is over.

Netflix adaptation: 3 out of 5 stars

 

Classics, fiction, iconic characters, novels

The Sun also Rises

the sun also rises

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. Originally published in 1926. 251 pages.

I don’t often re-read books, and the few that I have re-read are ones that have spiritual implications. C. S. Lewis, Bonhoeffer, and similar authors can draw me back in for a second read. I rarely give fiction books other than Jane Austen a second look.

Since beginning this book blogging experiment, I re-discovered something quite obvious: that reading a book during different seasons of life changes the way you react to that book. This is true for novels as much as any other books. It was true for Their Eyes Were Watching God, and If Beale Street Could Talk, so I have begun revisiting many of the novels that I would have listed as among my favorites a decade ago or more. One of those is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which I read when I was much less wise, worldly, relationally, or spiritually, than I am now. I still appreciate Hemingway’s prowess with words, but the characters annoyed me this time in ways that they didn’t 20 years ago.

Jake Barnes is an injured war veteran whose injury left him impotent. The ultimate irony is when he falls in love with Brett, the nurse who cared for him as he recovered from his injuries. She is also a woman who very much in touch with her sensual nature. She loves him she declares, but not enough to resign herself to a sexless existence. The rest of the novel is a torturous journey with Jake through his adventures and friendships drinking and pining away after Brett throughout Spain.

Meanwhile, Brett drifts from lover to lover, breaking hearts and taking names then returning to Jake to pick up the pieces of the messes she leaves in her wake. At the end of the novel, her startling lack of self-awareness dawns on Jake:

“Oh Jake,” Brett said, “We could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me.
Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Brett, after all that they have experienced, seems to believe that but for Jake’s injury, they would have had a wonderful life together. It strikes Jake as absurd as any of the things that had happened to that point.

Reliving the narrative of strong, gallant male characters employing strength and competence in every arena from the battlefield to the bull-fighting ring only to be felled by one little woman was a different experience than years prior. I don’t know that my understanding or opinions of the characters is different, just better perceived than before.

This is still one of my favorite novels, precisely because of the raw honesty Hemingway displays with the faults and virtues, such as they were, in his characters.

 

4 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

 

fiction, novels

Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion

wentworth's persuasionCaptain Wentworth’s Persuasion: Jane Austen’s Classic Retold through His Eyes, by Regina Jeffers. Published in 2010. Kindle edition.

A few years ago a bibliophile blog friend recommended that I check out this book, but I forgot about it until recently when I had occasion to re-read the post where she made the recommendation. As I was on the lookout for a light summer read, I decided to give it a look.

Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion is exactly as its title describes: a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion from the perspective of the Captain Frederick Wentworth, the man whom Austen’s heroine Ann Elliot eventually weds eight years after they first fell in love and were separated by Anne’s family.

I went into this book with measured, but hopeful expectations. Captain Wentworth is, after all, one of my favorite of Austen’s lead male characters and I was curious to see what this shift of focus from Anne to the captain might look like.

There were parts of the book that were very believable and engaging, though I suspect the best parts were those the author lifted out of Persuasion for the purpose of keeping the stories parallel. The tone, timing, and value systems of the two books simply didn’t line up at other points. As I considered the reasons for that, I concluded that Jeffers simply couldn’t resist imputing postmodern values and sensibilities onto Austen’s characters.

While Jane Austen was certainly sometimes romantic in her delivery, her male characters were rarely as openly rapturous as Jeffers paints them. Austen also had a hearty respect for English social stations and respectability. Her characters did as well, as even her books’ most mismatched pairings were presented as reasonable concessions due to extreme circumstances. The only notable detour that Austen took from this principle was in the case of Lizzy Bennett and Mr. Darcy. It is also the most unrealistic pairings of all Austen’s books, in my opinion.

In this retelling, the author seemed to trounce all over these social status realities by having Frederick and Anne disdain these traditions in a way that Austen never would have had them do. She respected the limitations and boundaries of English society even when they seemed in some way oppressive to her characters.

I was pleasantly surprised that this author refrained from graphic sexuality in the book. Since Anne and Frederick were married, I expected her to take licenses that were unwarranted. She didn’t go quite that far, but the book was still far more sensual than anything Jane Austen would have written. This is not Austen’s book of course, but these are Austen’s characters, and given the author’s clear efforts to make the language somewhat similar -with mixed success- I thought she should have also done the same with regard to the sensuality.

The next fiction book in my queue is in fact, Persuasion. I haven’t read it in a few years and an honest comparison demands that I refresh my memory of it mainly because of the way Wentworth is presented here. He is sentimental, sappy and not a little bit petty. None of these traits are present in our original introduction to Captain Wentworth. Granted, given that this story is told from his perspective and in the aftermath of the deep pain Anne caused him in Persuasion, it possible that I am miffed at having my image of him shattered by Jeffers’ attempt to lay bare the  depth of his love for Anne and extent of his pain at being kept from marrying her and the 8 years they were separated.

The ending chapters were quite bizarre and unnecessary. It was almost as if Jeffers suddenly decided to start writing another book: Frederick the Spy. I am still not quite sure what to make of it. Nevertheless, I wasn’t bored, and it was an easy read. Not high praise, but enough to keep it out my “below average” grading.

3 out of 5 stars.

 

fiction, iconic characters, joy of reading, novels, Uncategorized

Engrossing Governesses.

Image result for emma movie images
Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma

A few days ago, I got a sudden desire to watch the 1996 Hollywood adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. As I watched it, the trajectory of Mrs. Weston, the titular character’s former governess, had me musing about the governesses I’ve encountered in my literary travels. Specifically, I wondered what would be the modern day equivalent of the young to not so young governess who, whether by stroke of luck, true love, or mercenary social climbing, finds herself the unlikely mistress of a house.

In addition to Mrs. Weston, I was reminded of Jane Eyre, the heroine of one of my favorite books. Despite the rather dismal plight that Jane suffers from one season of life to the next, she still manages to hold her character and convictions in the highest state, and at the end of it all, marries the man she loves and even has a son.

The last governess turned mistress I thought of was the mercenary Becky Sharp, from the novel Vanity Fair. A beautiful yet vicious social climber who can both blush and cry at will, the only bit of raw emotion we ever get from her is when she realizes her folly in marrying one wealthy man when she actually could have married his even more wealthy (and definitely more powerful) father. She is without question, of a different mold than the governesses mentioned above.

I’m interested in whether or not anyone reading here has a favorite or memorable literary governess I should investigate along my literary journey.

Related- Iconic Characters: Mr. Knightley

*I was torn between watching the PBS adaptation of Emma or the big budget adaptation. The quandary was based on the fact that although I preferred Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance in the title role of the feature film, I preferred Johnnie Lee Miler’s  PBS interpretation of Mr. Knightley light year’s more than the actor who portrayed Knightley in the feature film. I feel strongly about Mr. Knightley, as you may remember from the post linked above. You may not also notice that I never had much use for Mr. Darcy.

 

joys of reading, nonfiction, novels

Celebrate the Classics!

Celebrate the Classics: Why You Can and Should Read the Great Books (Xist Classics) by [Lee, Calee M.]

Celebrate the Classics: Why You Can and Should Read the Great Books, by Calee M. Lee. Free on Kindle.

I realize this isn’t on my list of books in the queue. What can I say? Old habits die hard. In any event, it isn’t really a book. It’s more accurately categorized as an essay, as I was able to read the whole thing in about 45 minutes last night. The lion’s share of its remaining pages are composed of book lists and potential book club discussion pages, most of which I skipped. The author begins with a funny quote attributed to Mark Twain:

“Classic” is a book which people praise but don’t read.

With that in mind, Calee Lee sets out to make the case that the praise of  certain books, which has lasted for generations, is exactly the reason why we need to consider picking one up. The essay lists several reasons why we should read (or in many cases re-read) classic books. Among them:

Classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.

Anyone who has re-read a classic and loved it despite having found it a drudgery and a torture in high school can attest to the validiy of this.

Classic books give the sense of re-reading something we have read before even if we are reading it for the first time.

This was my experience when I recently read the excellent J.M. Barrie classic, Peter Pan. This happens of course because one of the marks of a classic is that it’s imprinted indelibly in the narrative of a people and culture, being remade and referenced so often that we already know the story. Or at least, we think we do.

Classic books never exahust all that they has to say to their readers.

The Bible, of course, is the ultimate illustration of this truism. It is also true of classic novels as well, albeit to a lesser degree. The nuances, quirks, and familiar foibles of human nature spring anew from the pages of Persuasion or Sense and Sensibility every time I read them.

Those are just a few of the points made in the e-book, Celebrate the Classics. I also think it’s wonderful that the author’s independent publishing company has an entire promotional push to encourage and invite readers to recapture, or in some cases discover, the beauty of classic literature.

I appreciate the fact that she kept it succinct and to the point rather than filling hundreded of pages with exemporaneous words when a short exposition would do.

Grade: B+