Saturday, December 31, 2011

December 2011 Books

December has been a productive and thought-provoking reading month which is setting me up for the New Year.  I plan to continue with the monthly posts but will make a slight change - I will publish as soon as the first mini review is written and will update as I go along.

Anne of Avonlea (#2) by L.M. Montgomery
Published: 1909
Rating: 5
Goodreads review
In order to continue the series, I bought the ibook, The Essential Works of L.M. Montgomery for $5.98.  In this book, Anne is working as a schoolteacher at her old school and living at Green Gables with newly widowed Marilla Cuthbert.  New characters are introduced and in Anne's interactions with them, we see a more mature, but still highly likable Anne.

Anne of the Island (#3) by L.M. Montgomery
Published: 1915
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
Anne takes the opportunity to go to Redmond College.  The book spans the four years that she is there in which new friends are made, marriage proposals are rejected, the "tall, dark and handsome" man of her dreams appears and at the end, Anne finally realizes who she really loves.  So far, my second favorite book in the series.

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt
Published: 1990
Rating: 5
List: 1990 Man Booker winner
Goodreads review
Awesome - I loved it!  A challenging book to read which I tackled by taking notes on each chapter (setting, character, technique, etc).  By technique, I mean them all.  Byatt uses the 3rd POV limited, 1st POV and at times, the narrator's own voice is prominent.  She also uses letters, journal entries, poems and short stories to tell this literary mystery.  The story moves between two different time periods and is described as a Romance by the protagonist Roland Mitchell - first a Quest, then a Chase and finally, a Race.

In this masterpiece, Byatt is both a novelist and a poet.  I love what her character, Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash says about the two forms:
What makes me  Poet and not a novelist - is to do with the singing of the language itself.  For the difference between poets and novelists is this - that the former write for the life of the language - and the latter write for the betterment of the world.
There is another passage in which the narrator speaks of the various kinds of readings.  I LOVE this quote and have put it on my list of bookish quotes.
Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark -  readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how.  In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known, it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognizant of, our knowledge.  
This is a perfect description of when writing illuminates the truth, and of the experience when the reader stumbles upon this truth.   It is THE reason why I read.  Now, after Josh's death, after my life has changed irreversibly and irrevocably, I read to understand, comprehend and discover - what do I feel about death?  About what happens after?  About grief, pain, suffering, loss and guilt?  About losing a child?  About suicide?  About surviving?

I couldn't turn the pages fast enough at the end.  The surprise ending was immensely satisfying as poetic justice prevailed.  I have to admit to skimming some of the longer poems which I must make myself tackle upon a re-read.  I highly recommend.  I watched the 2002 movie version with Aaron Eckart and Gwyneth Paltrow and would also recommend but would suggest reading the book first.

Anne's House of Dreams (#5) by L.M. Montgomery
Published: 1917
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
This is the fourth book that Montgomery wrote but is the fifth in the events chronicled.  Our heroine is now Anne Blythe, happily married to her childhood rival, Gilbert who is now a doctor.  They move away from quiet Green Gables to Four Winds Harbor, a busy port town where Montgomery introduces us to another group of interesting characters.  I miss the Anne of the previous books, where her stream of consciousness chattiness revealed inner thoughts, making her so endearing.  For example, I would like to know how she felt about her marriage, the birth of her children and some of her losses.

Anne of Windy Poplars (#4) by L. M. Montgomery
Published: 1936
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
Interestingly, this book is the 4th in the series chronologically but was published 21 years after the third book.  The story is told primarily through Anne's letters to Gilbert so we once again are seeing life, people and events through Anne's eyes.

The Shack by Wm. Paul Young
Published: 2007
Rating: 3
Goodreads review
A friend gave this book to me after Josh's death but I did not feel ready to read it until now.  It is the story of a father's struggle with faith after the abduction and brutal murder of his young daughter, Missy.   The narrator calls the father's grief, The Great Sadness, which "draped itself around Mack's shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt.  The weight of its presence dulled his eyes and stooped his shoulders.  Even his efforts to shake it off were exhausting, as if his arms were sewn into its bleak folds of despair and he had somehow become part of it."  It is an accurate description of my grief - especially in the first months.

The author attempts to answer age-old, difficult questions such as why do bad things happen to good people, why doesn't God intervene, how can we trust God when bad things happen, etc.  The book has made me think about my own faith in the aftermath of our tragedy.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Published: 1843
Rating: 4
Goodreads review
I confess to having a "Dickens aversion" based on a thoroughly unenjoyable Great Expectations assignment in high school.  These days, I much prefer seeing the made-for-TV versions of his novels such as Bleak House (2005), David Copperfield (1999) and Little Dorrit (2008).  But after listening to Dickens scholar Prof. Tim Spurgeon's two audio courses, The Art of Reading and The English Novel, I feel sufficiently motivated to try one or two Dickens novels in 2012.  This short story was a good starter.  Already I can see that Dickens is a master of description.  I love this passage about Scrooge:
"Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas."     
Shakespeare: The Seven Major Tragedies audio course by Prof. Harold Bloom
Rating: 2 upgraded to 4
This low rating is more a reflection of me than of the material or the professor's delivery - I understood about 50% of the content.  One thing I will say, these tragedies are truly tragic - full of murders and suicides.  I know Shakespeare's command of the English language has set a standard so high, few can reach it.  In fact, I wrote a post on a simple quote that really spoke to me: Give sorrow words.

Therefore I feel as though I could gain a tremendous amount upon reading the plays myself, so will plan to tackle at least one in 2012.

Feb 2012 update:  I need to update the rating from 2 to 4 as in retrospect, especially having read two plays so far, his knowledge and delivery of the material was very good.  I plan to eventually read all 7 tragedies discussed in this audio course after which I will probably re-listen to the lectures.

Day After Night by Anita Diamant
Published: 2009
Rating: 2
Goodreads review
I enjoy historical fiction, especially when about courageous women and so was disappointed when this did not live up to my expectations, especially when I liked Diamant's The Red Tent.  Upon reflection, I think it was hard to tell this particular story from the viewpoint of four women who came from very different backgrounds and whose experience of the Holocaust was so varied.  I felt the author just scratched the surface of their stories and as a reader I wanted more.  When I read their names on the page, I couldn't "see" them with my reader's eye.  The women were not distinct enough and I had a hard time keeping them straight. Others may have better luck.

Anne of Ingleside (#6) by L.M. Montgomery
Published: 1939
Rating: 3
Goodreads review
Anne has faded to the background, becoming "Mother, Mummy or Mrs. Dr." The stories now center around the adventures of her six children.   I miss Anne's point of view and wish Montgomery had continued to show life through her eyes, perhaps via letters or a diary.  This is why the rating has dropped to a 3.  That said, this was a nice series to read at the end of the year.

Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank
Published: 1947 (posthumously by her father, Otto Frank)
Rating: 5
Goodreads review
Wow.  That is all I can say about this incredibly moving diary from a precocious, highly intelligent, adolescent girl written from June 1942 - August 1945, during the German occupation of Holland in which she and seven other family members and friends hid from the Nazis in what she called Her Achterhuis or The Secret Annexe.  Her writing is so descriptive; one can see and smell her small world.  She is reflective and introspective - well beyond her years.  My favorite examples are in the following two passages:
I have one outstanding trait in my character, which must strike anyone who knows me for any length of time, and that is my knowledge of myself.  I can watch myself and my actions, just like an outsider.  The Anne of every day I can face entirely without prejudice, without making excuses for her, and watch what's good and what's bad about her.  This "self-consciousness" haunts me.... July 15, 1944 
I am guided by the pure Anne within, but outside I'm nothing but a frolicsome little goat who's broken loose.  August 1, 1944.  This was the last entry before they were turned into the Gestapo 3 days later and a mere 9 months before the end of the war.  
In an entry dated April 4, 1944 she writes about her love of writing and prophetically says that it will keep her alive after her death.
I am the best and sharpest critic of my own work.  I know myself what is and what is not well written.  Anyone who doesn't write doesn't know how wonderful it is.  I used to bemoan the fact that I couldn't draw at all, but now I am more than happy that I can at least write.  And if I haven't any talent for writing books or newspaper articles well, then I can always write for myself.......I want to go on living even after my death!  And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me.
The group of eight were one of the last Jews sent to Auschwitz and all perished except for Anne's father, Otto.  Anne's mother died in January 1945 while Anne and her sister, Margot died a couple of months later in another camp, Bergen-Belsen.  Anne was fifteen years old.

She should have survived - to fulfill her dreams of going back to school and becoming a famous journalist or writer.  She should've been allowed to grow up, fall in love, get married and have children.  She should've been able to revise and edit her diary, be involved in its publication and witness the worldwide impact of her story.  She should've been able to see the plays and movies spawned from the book.

I live in the Washington DC area and have never visited the Holocaust Museum.  I need to go.  I have avoided books/movies like Sophie's Choice or Schindler's List because the horror was too much; I did not want to read or see such disturbing images.  But now I am intimately familiar with death, grief, sorrow and pain, and therefore do not shun such topics.

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