Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Happy Birthday To:

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
January 29, 1860
“You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty. You would marvel if, owing to strange events of some sorts, frogs and lizards suddenly grew on apple and orange trees instead of fruit, or if roses began to smell like a sweating horse; so I marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don't want to understand you.” 
-from "The Bet"

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Scotland: The Story of a Nation

To the rest of the world, the United Kingdom is just that.  We tend to lump everything from that "sceptered isle" as being "British" and forget that a fully united Britain has only existed for 300 years.  Before that, Scotland was its own separate nation with its own culture, its own traditions, and its own turbulent history.  In his work published in 2000, Scotland: The Story of a Nation, historian Magnus Magnusson seeks to relate the story of how this rugged corner of Britain struggled to unite warring tribes and become a nation that would radically change the historical course of its southern neighbor and in many ways the world.

This was a great read and a wonderful glimpse into Scottish history.  In this particular work, Magnusson is focuses not on the particulars of Scottish life (like everyday living, fashion, basic economy, etc.) but rather on its transformation as a nation and its role on the world stage.  Thus, we spend our time focused mainly on the upper classes and the ruling factions.  Almost every chapter is devoted to the reign of  a specific Scottish monarch and we see how their rule helped move the Scottish nation forward (or backwards as the case may be).  We see how the relationships with the ruling barons and the Kirk often determined the success of their reign.  And we saw as time and again the question of unification with England divided the Scottish people.

But while Magnusson is most definitely pro-Scotland, he doesn't allow his personal feelings to blind him to Scotland's failings.  He sweeps away many of the romantic myths that permeate its history and brings legends like Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, and Bonnie Prince Charlie into the harsher light of truth.  He gives credit where credit is due, and reveals that many of the "villains" of Scottish history were often not really bad people, just unpopular and unlucky ones.

I especially enjoyed the chapters on the ancient Scottish peoples and learned so many interesting things.  Like how the people we now think of as "Scottish" actually come over from Ireland.  How the northern Shetland islands were ruled by Norway for hundreds of years.  How Columba brought Christianity first to the tiny island of Iona and then to the rest of the Pictish peoples. And how the Lord of the Isles held almost independent power from the king up through the 15th century.

This is a terrific read for anyone interested in Scottish history.  There is a lot of information in here so it is not really for casual reading.  And it helps to have a map of Scotland handy as Magnusson throws around place names quite a bit and knowing whether a place is in the Highlands or the Lowlands will make quite a difference in your understanding of a particular situation.  But his writing is very readable and it was so wonderful to gain a fuller understanding of a part of history that has captivated me for many years.  A good companion to this book is the BBC History of Scotland series hosted by Niell Oliver.   

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Page to Screen: Saving Mr. Banks

The story of Mary Poppins holds a special place in the hearts of people all over the world.  For some, it is in the form of the original books written by P. L. Travers.  For others it is the magic of the 1964 film created by Walt Disney.  In his new film Saving Mr. Banks, director John Lee Hancock brings to life the events that lead to the creation of this iconic story, both on the page and on the screen.

The film opens in London in 1961.  Sales of the Mary Poppins books have declined significantly and author P. L. Travers is forced to consider selling the film rights, a move she has refused for decades.  She flies out to California to meet with Walt Disney who has been pursuing the rights to the books to fulfill a promise to his daughters.  She wastes no time in ripping the production teams' ideas to shreds.  She insists that everything line up with her original creation, driving everyone else insane.  What they don't know is that the Mary Poppins stories are not important to Mrs. Travers just because she wrote them, but also because they are drawn from her own experiences.  In flashback scenes, we see her childhood in Australia at the turn of the century.  She idolizes her father, but he is fighting a losing battle with alcoholism that is hurting his family in many ways.  These feelings cause her to lash out at the Disney staff, insisting that their interpretation of Mr. Banks is cruel and unjust.  As the secret of Mrs. Travers' relationship with these characters comes to light, the screenplay begins to evolve and Mr. Banks begins to catch a glimpse of redemption.

I have loved the Mary Poppins film for as long as I can remember and have watched it more times than I can count.  My mom also read the original books to us and my sisters and I loved them as well.  I had very high expectations for this film and it met every single one of them.  It is beautifully shot with a very nostalgic feeling about it.  The acting is top notch as well with Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks giving excellent performances as Travers and Disney, respectively.  It is also chock full of lots of "trivia" moments that will delight fans of both the film and the book.

But above all of this, there are many amazing aspects that raise this movie above a typical nostalgic/fan film.  First, you have the story of Travers' childhood which is a heartbreaking contrast to the fun and magic of the Disney studio lot.  You can't help but feel for young Helen Goff (Travers) as she is forced to watch the father she adores crumble before her very eyes.  Knowing that Travers was not able to see her own father be rescued from himself makes the ultimate redemption of Mr. Banks all the more sweet.  Another thing that was interesting was the idea of stories belonging to the audience.  Travers is reluctant to sell the film rights because she was afraid that Disney would change everything that made the story so personal to her.  What she didn't realize was that this had already happened.  Her interpretation of Mr. Banks was completely different from Disney's because they were seeing two different men; Travers saw her father an Disney saw his.  This shows how a story never completely belongs to an author, but rather the story becomes our own as we bring pieces of ourselves to it.

I enjoyed this film immensely.  Is it on the sweet and nostalgic side, which is perfect for people like me who adore all things Disney.  If you prefer cynical type films, this probably won't be the most satisfying one for you.  But if you are a fan of the story, this is a must see.  It has funny moments and heart wrenching ones.  It is full of nostalgic moments and moments that make you think.  I definitely encourage you to see it.

Friday, January 10, 2014

2014 Shakespeare Reading Challenge

This year marks the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare.  To celebrate, I had already planned on reading his plays as my summer challenge, and the 2014 Shakespeare Reading Challenge hosted by fit in perfectly with my plans.  I'm going for the "Frequent Theater-Goer" level by reading 9 plays over the summer.  Here are the ones I have chosen:

  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • The Tempest
  • Twelfth Night

  • Henry IV, Part 1
  • Henry IV, Part 2
  • Richard III

  • Hamlet
  • Macbeth
  • Anthony & Cleopatra

Looking forward into delving into the works of the Bard!  You can join this challenge at anytime during 2014.  If you are signed up for any other challenges, share with us below! 

Back to the Classics 2014

Though I've watched many other book bloggers take part in various reading challenges, I've never stepped up to the plate and participated in one myself.  But this year, I decided I'd try something new.  I found a couple of challenges that would not only line up with my own plans for the year, but would also help my knock quite a few items off my "to read" list.  The first is the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate.  Since I read so many classics, I figured that I should be able to read the 6 required categories and at least a few of the optional.  Here's what I have decided on:


  • 20th Century Classic - Joy in the Morning by P. G. Wodehouse (1946)
  • 19th Century Classic - Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891)
  • A Classic by a Woman Author - Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell (1848)
  • A Classic in Translation - Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (Russian 1837)
  • A Classic About War -Night by Elie Wiesel (1960)
  • A Classic by an Author Who is New to Me - The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1910)

  • American Classic - Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
  • A Classic Mystery, Suspense, or Thriller - And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939)
  •  Historical Fiction Classic - Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott (Set in 1715, published in 1817)
  • A Classic That's Been Adapted Into a Movie or TV Series - The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
  • Movie Review of Film Based on Book in Category #4 - Enchanted April (1992)

If you are interested in joining this challenge, be sure to sign up by March 1.  Let us know what challenges you will be participating in this year!   

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Poem For This Winter's Night

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.
-"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

“You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world...but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices.”

The Fault in Our Stars is the fifth novel by YA author John Green.  Released in 2012, it was widely anticipated and soon landed on the NY Times Bestseller List.  Drawing on his experience as a chaplain at a children's hospital and his friendship with a young woman dying of cancer, Green uses this seemingly stark and simple story to ask big questions about life, death, and all of the moments in between.

The Plot:

Sixteen year old Hazel Grace Lancaster is dying.  Her Stage 4 thyroid cancer is only held in check by an experimental drug.  Since the condition of her lungs means she can't go to school, her parents force her to go to a local support group for children living with cancer.  She resents the meetings at first, but then she meets Augustus "Gus" Waters whose cancer is in remission.

There is an almost instant attraction between the two.  They begin spending more and more time together discussing movies, life, and books.  They especially bond over Hazel's favorite book (about a young girl also dying of cancer) and spend time discussing what might have happened after the book ended.  But even as their relationship deepens, Hazel feels that she must pull away.  She is still dying and the last thing she wants to do is to cause Gus pain.  As circumstances change, both Gus and Hazel must decide if their love is worth the pain that will inevitably come.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

John Green's name has been on the edges of my reading radar for awhile.  It is no secret that he is a bit of a god to the nerds of the world (whom he calls "nerdfighters").  I've enjoyed hearing his views on literature, and watching the "Crash Course" videos he created with his brother, Hank.  But until now, I had never read any of his works.

I feel like one of the hallmarks of a good book is that you are still thinking about it days, even weeks after you finish reading it.  And that certainly happened to me with this one.  This is not just a teen romance story, or even just a story about kids with cancer.  This book tackles really big philosophical subjects.  One of the ones that stuck out to me was the idea of life after death, and not just in the spiritual heaven/hell sense.  Hazel claims that she does not believe in any kind of afterlife, and yet she is obsessed with knowing what happens to the characters in her her favorite book after the protagonist dies.  She is certain that things continued to happen to them and that there was some kind of closure, even though the author insists there isn't.  And Gus is obsessed with being a hero, with leaving some kind of mark on the world.  To me, this exemplifies an inherent need we humans have to still matter after we are gone.  We need to feel as if life won't stop, as if people won't forget us.  Even those who claim to not believe in life after death still feel a need to be connected to this world even after we have left it.

The flip side of this is that if life doesn't stop and people don't forget us, the pain doesn't stop either.  At first, Hazel is afraid to allow herself to fall in love with Gus.  She knows that she is terminal.  She knows that her death will hurt the people she leaves behind.  The last thing she wants to do is to get so close to Gus that his life is shattered by her death.  But Gus convinces her to let that go.  He lets her know that his love for her is bigger than the pain he would feel at her death.  Even if we don't die young, or die under tragic circumstances, the people we leave behind will still feel pain.  We are each a "grenade" as Hazel terms it, and we will inevitably shatter the lives of those around us and in turn be shattered by them.  But isn't the time we get with those we love more precious than any pain that might come after?  Isn't it better to have experienced love and friendship, even if it means the loss of it will hurt?  Again, Green asks a lot of big questions and leaves us to answer them for ourselves.

I know that all of this makes it sound like this is a heavy, philosophical, slow-moving story.  It isn't.  Green injects a lot of humor into the story and tells it in an almost laid back attitude.  While his teenage characters are very intelligent (refreshing, no?), they are also typical teens in many ways.  They argue with their parents, they play video games, they watch America's Top Model, they read graphic novels.  None of this philosophizing comes while they sit around the fire drinking brandy and smoking cigars.  It comes in an easy, casual manner that makes all of it much more approachable.

If you have been looking for a place to start in John Green novels, or YA lit in general, this is a good one.  It is smart, witty, and approachable.  It will certainly leave you with all kinds of questions, and feelings.  I have no trouble recommending it, and look forward to reading it again.

The Movie:

A film adaptation is set to be released in June of this year.  It will star Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, and Willem Dafoe.               

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Turning the Page

Can you believe that it is already a new year?  It seems like only yesterday we were welcoming in 2013 and already it is time to say goodbye.  Once again, I had a year filled with wonderful books.  I revisited old favorites and discovered some new ones.  I read some authors for the very first time, and I finished the works of others.  Here is a look back at my favorite books of 2013:

Honorable Mention: The Professor by Charlotte Bronte.  Reading this was bittersweet as it was the last Bronte novel that I had left to read.  In many ways, it epitomized all of the aspects that I loved about the other works.  It was a wonderful opportunity to see an author work out the themes and plots that would become her later novels.  An excellent way to finish reading the works of this amazing sisterhood.

#5: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Though I wouldn't say that I "connected" with this story or the characters, it is indisputably a fine work of American literature.  Fitzgerald's gorgeous writing and heavy symbolism are the stuff that readers' dreams are made of.  It speaks not only to a specific generation, but also to the idea of the American dream as a whole.  There is a reason they force you to read this in school.

#4: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.  This story is fantastical, magical, and fascinating.  It is not entirely a novel nor a picture book, but rather combines the great aspects of both as well as those of other mediums.  It is great family reading and is a must for anyone who loves film history, or loved the film Hugo.

#3: The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel.  This book tells the remarkable true story of a small group of men whose responsibility it was to protect the great art and architecture of Western civilization.  They worked in the worst conditions, were hampered by members of their own military, and put into harm's way time and time again.  All in an effort to save European culture from utter destruction.  If you have ever been to the great cathedrals or museums of Europe, you owe it to these men to learn their stories.  

#2: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  Any book that leaves you asking questions and thinking about it weeks after you have closed it has got to be good.  And this novel certainly did that for me.  It left me thinking about life and death, about love, about the way we treat the dying, and about our desire for life after death in some form or fashion.  And all the while, Green tackles these big questions within the lives of two ordinary teenagers.  This was one that really surprised me.

#1: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.  If there was one thing that Wilkie Collins could do, it was tell a story.  Once you get caught up in the mystery of the story, you won't be able to put the book down.  It was so easy to get caught up in the suspense and the fate of the characters.  It was also interesting to see a novel that championed the rights of women coming from a man in the mid-nineteenth century.  Rarely does a novel of the Victorian era truly capture the true spirit of womanhood as Collins does with Marian Halcombe.  This is a classic that deserves to still be read 150 years later.

This year promises to hold some wonderful discoveries as well.  I have the books for the first third of the year lined up and can't wait to experience them.  I am currently reading Our Mutual Friend, the next novel in my quest to read all of Charles Dickens' works.  I'll be reading Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, a modern favorite that will soon be hitting the big screen.  Elie Wiesel's Night will serve as my first foray into Holocaust literature.  I'll prep for my upcoming trip to Scotland with Sir Walter Scott's Rob Roy.  And I'll finally get around to a classic that I have been meaning to read for a long time, Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.  If you have read any of the above books, please share your thoughts on them below.  And don't forget to tell me about your favorite books of 2013 and what you are looking forward to in 2014.  Happy New Year!