Tag Archives: literature

Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven: Just what is the meaning of life?

When I first grabbed this book, I had no idea that I’d soon be living in Missouri, the same state it’s set in. Maybe I’m weird in this way, but I like reading books set in places where I live.

Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is a lighthearted book by Fannie Flagg that focuses on Elner Shimfissle, an old woman living in Elm Springs, Missouri. When Elner goes out one morning to pick some figs and falls from the tree, the whole town gets caught up in the drama. Everyone is weeping and worrying, but Elner is having the time of her life–or death, as the case may be. Only Elner can answer the questions everyone seems to be asking: what’s the meaning of life and where do you go when you die?

This book was a quick read that looks at the affects one person can have on all the people around them, even when it doesn’t look impressive on the surface. Elner was a kind old woman, and when she was gone everyone started remembering her goodness. But Elner also believes everything happens for a reason, and her accident brings about a whole lot of good that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Though certainly not theologically sound from a Christian perspective, Flagg leads her characters and readers to the conclusion that life is what you make it. Do the things you enjoy, be kind to those around you, and it’ll all work out in the end. Her characters grow and mature throughout the story, realizing that a change in mindset can bring about a change in life.

All in all, it was a fun read that kept me engaged and entertained. As always, Fannie Flagg provides a slice-of-life kind of book that’s just enjoyable to read.

Bel Canto

Sometimes when I’m at book sales I buy books that I know are always on displays at bookstores, but I’ve never paid much attention to what the book is about. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is one of those books. I grabbed it without even reading the synopsis, just because I know it’s popular. Then I read the synopsis and thought it sounded good. Unfortunately, I don’t really think it delivered.

The story opens at the birthday party of an international businessman. A poor South American country has coaxed Mr. Hosokawa to his own birthday party with the promise of a performance by his favorite soprano, Roxane Coss. They hope to get Hosokawa to build a factory in their country, and though he has no intention of doing that, Hosokawa is willing to let them hope in order to enjoy Roxane Coss’ singing.

Things quickly fall to pieces when a group of terrorists take the whole party hostage. Though their primary target turns out to be absent from the party, the terrorists try to make the best of the situation. As a stalemate ensues, the terror begins to subside and something akin to friendship begins to replace it. But in the end, it’s still hostages and terrorists, and all things must come to an end.

The first thing I have to say, in complete honesty, is that this book was so very slow. Almost boring, even. Perhaps it is more enjoyable if one is an opera fan, though even that, though a prominent plot key, doesn’t move the story forward in a specific way. The story included a lot of internal thoughts and a lot of descriptions of waiting. I just found it challenging to really get drawn in. And, I guess the significant Stockholm Syndrome the hostages ended up with. I guess it would be natural to start seeing the humanity of people you’re stuck with for long periods of time, but it still just doesn’t sit well for anyone on the outside, I think.

That said, Patchett’s writing style is good. She knows how to tell a story, so I in no way would be turned off from trying another of her books. She cycles between characters smoothly, giving us insight into their minds and actions and giving us an image of who they are without telling us. She’s got show not tell down really well.

It’s the kind of book I might recommend to someone who likes high-brow literature and don’t mind a slower story if the character development is good. But for those who like fast-paced thrillers and action books, despite the premise this would not be the book to turn to.

Jamaica Inn

Ever since I read Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, I’ve been wanting to read more by her. The depth of story and characters is excellent, and the gothic feel of her stories is reminiscent of other classics, but Du Maurier’s books tend to be a little easier to get through.

DSC00591Jamaica Inn starts with the death of Mary Yellan’s mother and Mary’s subsequent journey to live with her Aunt Patience at the remote Jamaica Inn, run by her uncle Joss Merlyn. Mary’s memory of her vibrant, enthusiastic aunt come crashing down when Mary arrives at the inn–despite being warned off– and finds a nervous shell of the woman she knew. Joss Merlyn is a hard man, and Mary soon realizes that she would have been better off heeding the warnings and staying away from Jamaica Inn. Though she doesn’t know what it is, exactly, there is darkness that makes itself at home there, and soon Mary is caught up in the middle of it.

A strong woman in her own right, Mary clings to her moral high ground as best as she can, but finds herself uncharacteristically tempted by a dark and handsome stranger she knows she cannot trust. Somehow, Mary finds herself quite in love and unsure of how to proceed.

Du Maurier is definitely a must-read author for fans of Jane Eyre, Northanger Abbey, and other classic stories. I’d say even fans of Wilkie Collins would find Du Maurier enjoyable. Her characters are real–they aren’t perfect, nor are the villains purely evil. Du Maurier writes her characters with soft spots and rough edges and the reader may find themselves understanding even the character they hate, or raging against the character they love.

The descriptions Du Maurier writes add greatly to the story, as well. Both scene-setting descriptions, as well as inner thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. As a writer myself, I know the pressure one can feel to make sure chunks of text are broken up by dialogue, and I’ll admit I have to be quite conscious about it, or else I’ll boogie write (right, sorry) along with description and inner monologues and scene setting, and then remember my characters have to speak, too. So I appreciate authors who show skill at using descriptions etc., to move the story along and avoid leaving the reader feeling bogged down.

I’m very excited to know that I have many more books to go before exhausting her writings, including some autobiographical work, which I’m really interested in. Now if I  could just get to the library…

The Night Circus

I was excited to get to read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. After reading her new book, The Starless Sea, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this.

The story revolves, naturally, around a circus that only opens at night. What most people don’t know is the circus is an arena for an elaborate duel of magic and imagination between two young proteges. But the young magicians don’t really know the rules surrounding the duel, which leaves open the door for many possibilities. Slowly, they begin to fall in love from witnessing each other’s magic and creativity. But when they find out one only wins when the other is extinguished, they start searching for a way to escape with their lives–and the circus– in tact.

The Night Circus is a fantastic story, full of imagery, imagination, and emotion. Morgenstern’s writing style gives you the information you need to know, and leaves you pleasantly anticipating the next chapter, ready to see what happens. Not quite suspenseful, but not quite predictable, Morgenstern creates a story that you simply want to experience and enjoy slowly, but all at once.

Though you get to read both sides of the story, you find it doesn’t give you that much more information than the magicians themselves have, allowing you to learn with the characters the rules and parameters of the duel.

One thing I do enjoy about Morgenstern’s writing is how she doesn’t necessarily give a complete recap at the end. While she wraps things up, the reader must be doing their due diligence to make sure they’ve collected all the strands of the story and followed them to conclusion. This also makes me interested in reading her books again, to see if there were bits I missed the first go around. With so much allegory and imagery, I’m sure there is. And I’m OK with that, since it makes it the kind of book that’s enjoyable to read several times, as you get something new from it every time (not that I don’t reread books, to me, books are like old friends).

Erin Morgenstern is one author I’m going to be following, snatching up books as quick as she can put them out. If you’re looking for something both literary and fantasy, she’s your author.

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Khaled Hosseini is a popular author whose books are used often for required reading in schools. One of my goals this summer is to read some of these required books that I avoided by being homeschooled. What better way than to start with a book I nabbed for 10 cents?

A Thousand Splendid Suns starts with Mariam, a young Afghani girl looking for her place in the world. She lives in a isolated home with her mother, and Mariam lives for the weekly visits of her father, Jalil, a wealthy businessman with three wives who can’t let go of his illegitimate daughter and her mother. Mariam doesn’t understand her mother’s bitterness, until she experiences the disappointment firsthand. One simple choice sends Mariam’s life down a road she could never have imagined.

Ten years later, Laila is a young girl living in Kabul, the same town Mariam now lives in. Laila’s life seems to be blossoming, everything going so well, until the turmoil of the country at large finally strikes home. Suddenly Laila’s life is unrecognizable and she’s forced to make drastic choices to look after her future.

Mariam and Laila, despite their age gap of 15 or more years, find themselves thrown together living the same life–both are the wife of the same man. While adversaries at first, they learn to be friends, opening up with each other and finding common ground amid their trauma. Together, they begin to consider how to take charge of their futures and find the strength to take action.

I really enjoyed this book, as it laid out the culture and history of Afghanistan, which seems relevant today. But it was a challenging read, the further I got along. The story was heavy, the kind of story that makes you frustrated or angry about how the characters are treated. It’s worse knowing that it’s not entirely fiction.

But Hosseini writes about difficult topics sensitively. His characters feel real, you can sympathize with their fears, their hopeless moments, and their triumphs.

Jane Eyre

I don’t remember how old I was when I got Jane Eyre as a birthday present. I think maybe 12. I remember it was a birthday party at a park, and my aunt had put it in a bag that said “Have a phat birthday” or something like that. And I remember thinking it was weird, but cool.

Fast forward several years and I’m somewhere in my teens reading it for the first time, probably 15 or 16, when I got on my classic literature kick. And I still think the illustrations are weird and cool.

Fast forward another 10 years, and it’s mid-October (yes, these blog posts are written in advance. Sometimes even more than a month in advance), and I’m scrounging through my books looking for anything remotely creepy to read in an effort to be festive. I know Jane Eyre isn’t really creepy (though, secreted lunatics always make stories a little bit creepy), but the illustrations have always stuck with me, and so, Jane Eyre made the cut. Plus, I had very limited options.

I remembered most of the general plot of Charlotte Brontë’s work, but I had events out of order in my mind, so I was glad to read it again.

Jane is an orphan, and we meet her living with an aunt and cousins who dislike her, simply because she is poor, orphaned, and not one of them. It’s not long before Jane is sent off to boarding school, where she is much better off. Upon completion of her schooling, Jane advertises for and accepts a position as a governess, and flourishes in the position, teaching a young French orphan in a large mansion.

But Jane finds herself falling for her usually-absent employer, who, upon meeting Jane, seems to take up residence in Thornfield Hall. But not everything is as it seems, and just when Jane is in the cusp of achieving happiness, everything falls to pieces, and she steals away in the wee hours of the morning, looking to put herself back together. Alone, penniless, and without friends or family, all seems hopeless for Jane, until the kindness of a stranger sets in motion a second rise to happiness Jane never dreamed would be hers.

The first thing to note about this book is that it is a classic, which means, it can be a slog to get through. Modern novels don’t contain nearly as much soliloquizing as the classics. And yet, this very thing is often what gives classic novels their unique voice.

With everything that happens to poor Jane, it seems like Brontë took to heart the suggestion to constantly make things worse for the character. And yet, it moves the story along, and shows the character of Jane in a way that is more believable than a character description.

What makes this such a good story, I think, is that Jane suffers abuse upon abuse, and yet still holds herself to such standards that she will not take happiness where it isn’t moral to do so, perhaps because she is so used to having little to no happiness at all. Jane’s character is an interesting case study of how seeking approval can become an obsession when approval is rarely given.

The Book Thief

I’ll just come right out and say it, The Book Thief is a classic of our era. I don’t know how often I get kids coming in for it as part of their required reading for school.

Having now read it, I understand why. Not only is it an excellent story for exploring Workd War II history, but the writing style gives plenty of content for literary study.

The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak, is the story of a young girl, Liesel Memminger, and her new life with her foster parents on Himmel Street. Though Germans, Liesel and her family don’t fit the standard mold. With her loyal friend by her side, Liesel finds herself addicted to a thievery, especially of books. Her story is narrated by Death, a mixture of observations from Death and knowledge gathered from Liesel’s own autobiography, which Death managed to obtain.

Liesel’s story revolves around books– the ones she’s given and the ones she takes. Each book is related to a scene or time of her life: her family harboring a Jew in the basement, war-time hardships making themselves known in Liesel’s house, Liesel growing up and forming her own opinions about the Fuhrer’s ideals.

Mixed in with the defining moments are the everyday habits of Liesel’s life, her adventures with Rudy, school, and growing up in general. Together, these form a powerful and heartbreaking narrative.

Zusak uses a unique style to tell Liesel’s story. Death, as could reasonably be expected, idea not always use the English language as humans are accustomed to. This allows for some interesting descriptions that provide a new way at looking at things, from the sunset to a feeling. But for this story, it works, creating a unique and memorable style that would be hard to match.

All in all, the book is worth the read, even if it makes you cry.

A Christmas Carol

Though I’ve always been familiar with the story, this year was the first time I actually read “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.

The story is, unsurprisingly, just like any of the films (even the Muppet one), with only minor changes to relatively insignificant details.

Scrooge, of course, is the stingy old man whom everyone hates. When he is visited by a ghost and three spirits, he is presented with the opportunity to have a second chance at life, and become a different man.

On the whole, it’s a more cheerful read than my annual Christmas book, “The Christmas Shoes.” And even though I had watched the Muppet Christmas Carol just a few days before, it wasn’t tedious reading the story too.

It’s easy to see why this has become a Christmas classic and tradition. It’s short and sweet, and carries a good message.

If you’ve never taken the time to read the story, it’s worth doing, at least once. It’s the same characters you already love, and probably takes the same amount of time to read as it does to watch. I’m very glad I took the time this year to add it to my list.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

I have to stop starting my reviews with “I finally read…” or “At long last I got around to…” because that could literally describe the majority of books I read and write reviews on. However, it’s true that I finally got around to reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

I was only vaguely familiar with the story. I was pretty sure Jekyll and Hyde were the same person, but I was foggy on the details and the mystery surrounding it, so now that I’ve ruined it for anyone who didn’t already know that, let me say you can still enjoy the book (it’s short anyway).

One thing I enjoy about some of the classics is that you don’t have to be so abstract to understand the underlying theme of the book. It’s obviously a look at the good and evil natures inside each person. Stevenson’s opinion is that the more one indulges evil, the more evil becomes uncontrollable.

Dr. Jekyll finds this out the hard way, and it becomes harder and harder for him to keep his literal double personality hidden from his closest friends, provoking the question, if he didn’t think it was wrong, why hide it? And if he did, why indulge? Of course, that is the question we all face at one time or another, in more or less dramatic situations, as it may be.

It’s a quick little read, and one easily falls in with Mr. Utterson, whose viewpoint we watch from, trying to sort out the mystery behind Jekyll and Hyde. And though I remembered they were the same, there was still the intrigue of trying to figure out how he was doing it.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a great way to dip your toe in the waters of the classics, getting a feel for the writing style without getting overwhelmed by it.