Book Review: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

After I saw the trailer for the film based on this novel, I knew I had to read it. I had neither read nor studied anything by Thomas Hardy when I started, so I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a book written in a style somewhere between Henry Fielding, with its third person omniscient (and sometimes blatant) narration, and Charles Dickens, with a provocative plot that moves you from chapter to chapter. The novel was originally published serially a la Dickens. The best part of Hardy’s writing in this novel was his poetic, rich descriptions of pastoral life in England. There were a few excerpts I read aloud to my dad, knowing that they describe perfectly certain aspects of farming life. This picture of harvest is the closest to real life I’ve ever read:

“Another week passed. The oat harvest began, and all the men were a-field under a monochromatic Lammas sky, amid the trembling air and short shadows of noon. Indoors nothing was to be heard save the droning of blue-bottle flies; out-of-doors the whetting of scythes and the hiss of tressy oat-ears rubbing together as their perpendicular stalks of amber-yellow fell heavily to each swath. Every drop of moisture not in the men’s bottles and flagons in the form of cider was raining as perspiration from their foreheads and cheeks. Drought was everywhere else” (206).

Maybe what I love about that description is the way it still, well over 100 years later, describes the conditions for harvest. Of course, one might have to be driving a very old combine to get the full effect. I did run the C2 Gleaner (made in 1967) when I was in high school, and the cooler on the top of the cap didn’t work, so I would open the little windows on the right side or the door on the left side each time I turned, depending on the breeze!

Anyway, this story revolves around a Miss Bathsheba Everdene, who becomes the heiress of her Uncle’s farm and soon becomes a woman farmer, gracing the local marketplace with her “feminine figure” and grain to sell, something unheard of in mid-1800s England. She has three very different suitors over the course of the novel: one she unintentionally seeks out; one who aggressively seeks her out; and another who seeks her with a beautiful steadfastness. I’ll let you guess who, if any, she ends up with, and end this review with a note about how Gabriel Oak, from whose viewpoint the novel is often told, has become one of my favorite characters in all of literature. He’s right up there with Captain Wentworth and Mr. Darcy! Far from the Madding Crowd is a great love story, and I eagerly await watching this film!

You would like this book if you fit into any of these categories:

  • You are looking for a challenging read. Here is short list of a few of Hardy’s not-so-short words: thesmothete, peregrinations, supererogatory. Not a bit pretentious, even for 1874? Really?
  • You like stories about strong women. Despite a few annoying traits that Bathsheba displays, there are moments in this novel where she shows a strength and level of dignity that I can only dream of.
  • You like stories that have a redemptive quality to them. It all works out in the end.
  • You like nature. The descriptions are gorgeous and edifying.
  • You enjoy plot twists and are willing to suspend your disbelief at times. A few of the plot events are maybe a bit unrealistic, but Hardy was writing in a ROmantic style even if his novel classifies as Victorian realism.

Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I have read very few fantasy novels in my life, but each time I read one, I am simply blown away by the skill of the author in getting me to suspend my disbelief. It takes an extraordinary amount of detail, thought, and planning to set up a world of fantasy. I have come to the conclusion that if I am left feeling a bit breathless after some of the descriptions, the author has done his or her job.

This novel, set in a Victorian time period, is about Le Cirque des Rêves (the circus of dreams), a night circus, that “arrives without warning.” How this circus came into existence is a bit of a mystery throughout the beginning of the novel, but we see how the main characters play into the night circus quickly enough to become mesmerized by the story and soon we are taken on a nebulous journey of elaborate spectacle somewhat similar to being at an actual circus, wandering from tent to tent.

Two magicians who are really magicians (not illusionists, they actually perform real magic and just trick the audience into believing it was all illusions) have been rivals for years, competing with each other in various challenges through their pupils. These magicians believe they have created the opportunity for the ultimate challenge. Cecily, the daughter of Prospero the Enchanter and Marcos, an orphan adopted and trained by Alexander (aka “the man in the gray suit” ) become the pawns in this challenge. Their venue of competition? Le Cirque des Rêves. A subplot involving a very important young boy named Bailey, who becomes enchanted with the circus and one of its young workers, weaves its way through the story, ultimately providing the resolution.

Morgenstern tells the story in a postmodern, fractured way, providing short sketches of action and dialogue from different times, switching back and forth from year to year and location to location. This would be horribly confusing for the reader if it were not for Morgenstern’s rich detail and the distinctiveness of each of her characters. I found that if I just kept reading, not worrying about the times and places, that it would soon come together. This was not easy for me, though.

It took me two tries to get through The Night Circus. The first time, I was reading it at night before bed, but by the time I got back to it each night, I would try to place myself in the right time frame in the story, and I couldn’t figure it out. I only got about 75 pages before abandoning it. However, I had promised the student who loaned me the book that I would finish it, so I picked it up and reread from the beginning this summer and found that if I just kept going each time the setting and time was shifted on me, I would soon understand what was going on. In fact, I had abandoned the book just before it started to come together more clearly! Ah, perseverance.

You should read this book if you are looking for a challenge that might sharpen your skills or if you are looking for something different to read. I have never read a book that is anything like this. You will enjoy this novel if you love fantasy, or if you are a fan of the circus and magic, or if you are drawn to rich description and detail. There is also a love story (maybe two) involved in the plot, but to tell you who it involves would be to give away too much. Just go read it!

The release date for the film over this novel has not yet been scheduled, but it is currently in progress. I told my student that we will go see it together, and I cannot wait to see how the events are depicted onscreen!

Oh, hey, blog.

What’s this blog thing I have?

I’ve had many topics to write about in the past few months, but until two weeks ago, no time to write about them, and since then, no motivation. I have been and still am waiting for that urge of inspiration, which forms my best posts.

Something that has been on my mind lately is the wonder and beauty of being 18. I’m just loving my seniors this year (as usual!) because there is just something about being 18. . . I know I don’t want that entire year of my life back (angst to the max!), but I’d love to have some of the amazing moments and feelings and energy of that year back. Good times! And I wish I could sit and observe myself back then, knowing what I know now, and thinking of how that young girl would prepare herself for her future. If I’d told my 18-year-old self where I would be here in 2014, I’m sure I would have a) yelled at myself that I was wrong and b) cried and worried a lot. But, being here where I am now is no crying matter, and it’s JUST RIGHT for me. It is a good thing that we aren’t told our futures, for it would change too much of our pasts. (Sidenote: Think about that in an Interstellar way (oh my, there’s a blog topic! Have you SEEN that movie? AMAZING! One of the few movies I’d like to go see again in the theatre!)

An eighteen year old, according to our society, is entering adulthood. I’m sure 18 year olds today are much less mature and responsible than the 18 year olds of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations; yet, in some ways, today’s 18 year olds are more mature and responsible. They sure have to deal with a lot more. Life isn’t nearly as simple as it used to be, and there is so much more that we know now.

I think the best thing about an 18 year old is the unlimited possibilities that lie ahead for him or her. I am so anxious to see where these students of mine end up. How they grow and change and succeed. And, at the same time, I wish we could just stop time right now and enjoy the wonder of their 18 year old lives right now. There’s just something about being 18.

Book Review: Persuasion by Jane Austen

            Jane Austen’s novels are set in early 19th century England, and the main characters usually belong to a high rank in the “landed gentry,” such as a Baronet, Knight, Esquire, or simply a Gentleman. A woman in this society, regardless of her wealth or rank, had few rights. Women in England could not own land, so in the absence of a male heir, their father’s estate would pass along to the next closest male relative. So, many of Austen’s female characters rely on a good marriage match to be made for them (i.e. a good financially provident marriage match; love was of secondary importance). Women could, however, inherit someone’s fortune, which then sometimes made them an object of prey for some unrespectable men.

            In Persuasion, Anne Elliot is the second daughter of three belonging to Mr. Elliot, a man as obsessed as he can be with his own good looks and rank in society, in that order (he is a Baronet). Anne’s mother died years ago, and she finds little comfort in her father’s presence and that of her older sister, Elizabeth, who is a carbon copy of Mr. Elliot. Anne’s younger sister, Mary is married to a man name Charles Musgrove. So, Anne is left to be the sensible one of the family, often relying on the advice of her mentor and mother’s dear friend, Lady Russell.

Anne is now twenty-seven, an age at which a woman was already considered an old maid. She once had an offer of marriage (eight years ago) from a man named Frederick Wentworth, but her father and Lady Russell both advised against marrying a man who was nothing more than a member of the Navy. Anne truly loved Wentworth, and she still wishes she would have married him. She has followed his career in the Navy and knows that he has made his fortune while rising to the rank of Captain.

            So, when Sir Elliot’s debts force the Elliot family to rent out Kellynch Hall, their estate, they relocate to Bath (the last place that the simple Anne would like to spend her time). And just who is coming to rent and occupy their home? None other than Captain Wentworth’s sister and husband. Anne is both mortified and elated by this news, wondering but almost afraid to find out whether he still thinks of her as she thinks of him.

            As the story progresses, Anne is thrown into the company of Captain Wentworth, but along with other younger eligible ladies in addition to an attitude of disdain from her former lover. Then, Anne meets a young Mr. Elliot, the man who is to inherit the Elliot estate upon the death of Anne’s father, and he shows great interest in her. If she were to marry this Mr. Elliot, she wouldn’t have to leave her beloved Kellynch Hall. The timing of the plot keeps the reader in suspense until the very last page, wondering which way the powers of persuasion will swing. Jane Austen uses plot twists to persuade the reader to keep reading to see which way the powers of persuasion will swing. I think that this novel gives Pride and Prejudice (my all-time favorite) a run for its money. The characters are just as exciting, real, and sometimes ridiculous. The plot moves a bit faster, and once again, Austen showcases not only the human tendency of trying to manipulate others for one’s own good but also the human tendency to achieve peace in life by being humble, loving, and kind.

Sierra Leone 2014–Part One

I went on my fifth mission trip this summer. It was my first (and surely not last) trip to Africa. As usual, I fell in love with the people of Sierra Leone (or Salone in Krio), more specifically, the ones in Kathirie village just outside the city of Makeni near the center of the country. I always struggle with putting my experiences on missions trips into words. The vastness of the difference between what I am used to and what I experience on trips like this always renders me inept to describe what I saw. To use an Jr. English vocabulary word, it is an ineffable experience.

I’ll start with the most vivid images I can remember. The humanity that surrounded me each time we visited Kathirie—that I will never forget. Nine children standing around me, each one grasping one of my hands with his or her hand under the hot sun outside the village. Three children sitting on my lap at the Day Camp we facilitated, until only one two year old boy is left, sleeping on my chest. The ornery little boy whose big, bright, clear eyes crinkled with his huge smile, running from group to group of people, making mischief as he went. The 14-year-old girl unable to stay awake during the school lesson, and sighing in boredom as she waits for the teacher to dismiss them all. That is a familiar look I’ve seen, but I’m sure her reasons for being sleepy and “bored” are quite different from any of the freshman girls I teach. Who knows how far she may have walked to get to school this morning. The strident singing of the young women who led the march into church, dressed in their colorful dresses and head wrappings, moving to the rhythm of the song. And the beauty of the young girls at the school dedication, with their hair freshly coiffed, their deep brown complexions glowing atop the new white shirt of their school dress uniform.
These are just a few images that I will treasure forever.

When asked what we did on our trip, the best word that I can come up with is “represent.” Our church raised enough money during our Christmas offering in 2012 to build a church and a school for the village. Our team’s main purpose in going on this second of three trips was to celebrate with the village and represent our church at both dedications, which was a great honor to be a part of. I am so thankful for the many people from my church who sacrificially and lovingly gave money for the good of this village. I hope that I did a good job representing Grace Point’s love toward  the people of Kathirie village. The villagers had been working hard, in conjunction with the contractors, to finish the school and church before we arrived, and we could see how proud they were to show the buildings to us.

One morning, carrying through on our plan to continue our support of Kathirie, we sat around a table with the Village Development Committee and a representative of World Hope International as the VDC came up with a list of needs they have. Our team represented our Church’s commitment to this village.

And now that I am back, I ask myself, what did I really DO for those people? I mean, I saw the great structures that my money helped pay for. I hugged kids and prayed with people and listened to their needs and handed out some medicine. But did I make any difference in going? Why go on trips like this? It comes back to that word—represent. I now represent Kathirie village in Sierra Leone and the people who work in Sierra Leone for World Hope International. I can share my experiences with other people and let others know about this organization who is doing great work in a country that is trying to climb out of a deep poverty-ridden, post-Civil War hole. I represent the people of Sierra Leone. I represent the work of World Hope International. I’d like to write a few more posts about what they need and how you could help.

To start, check out World Hope International. I’ve sponsored a child in Nepal for years, and I’ve always wondered what else I could help with. Now that I have seen WHI in action, I’m amazed at the work this organization is doing! Maybe you can find a place to share your wealth with others!


Jane Austen and Me

Even though I was an English major as an undergrad, I didn’t read one Jane Austen novel until after I received my degree! I have a picture from my senior year Literary London class trip of myself in front of Austen’s house in England, smiling like I knew what I was standing in front of. Ha. I remember fellow classmates at college talking about her books (and movies), and I knew I was missing out on something. Truly, I almost felt like I had committed an English major sin of omission . . . wait . . . nope, that was when I didn’t finish The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . . . which would be a sin of commission. Anyway, I felt a tinge of English major guilt because of my lack of expertise on Austen novels; yet, I assert that I haven’t always been as strong a reader as I am now. Yes, truly, I struggle (at times) through each of Austen’s books. I’m not afraid to admit that. If I can’t understand how to struggle with reading, how will I be able to help my struggling readers in class?

Anyway, my first Austen reading experience was during my second year as a teacher when I checked out the old blue dusty hardback from our high school’s library. I was determined to comprehend it without resorting to watching the famous “faithful” 1995 film adaptation I’d heard so much about. I had seen portions of director Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice in college, so that was an aid to understanding, but soon it didn’t really matter because Austen carried me away with the suspense of when Elizabeth would see Darcy again and what she would say to him. It became my favorite book, even if I didn’t understand it completely. I loved the caricature of Mrs. Bennet, the sense of Elizabeth, and the mystery of Mr. Darcy. I loved the exquisite English grammar. I loved the opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Oh, the irony! After reading this novel, I decided I would eventually read all of Austen’s novels.

Not too much later, I became an “expert” on Pride and Prejudice. I read The Annotated Pride and Prejudice (the novel on the left page, footnotes on the right page!) for my 19th Century British Women’s Lit. and Film and Lit. classes, and now I have taught the book three times so far. Austen’s wit is the best part of her literature, but to understand some of her best jabs at the English gentry, you almost have to have annotations telling you facts like this: blue was the fashionable color of mens’ coats in 1813. Or this: a ragout (pronounced ragu, like the spaghetti sauce) would have been out of fashion to have for the evening meal among high society. Studying the book more deeply helped me appreciate it even more, and each Austen novel has been easier for me to enjoy because of my knowledge about England in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

This January, I made a New Year’s resolution to read the rest of Austen by the end of the year. I finished (finally; it took me a few restarts) Sense and Sensibility while in Sierra Leone (which was quite a stark contrast), and I’m happy to report that I didn’t have any assistance in understanding the story. My copy of Emma Thompson’s film adaptation stayed in its plastic wrap until I was finished with the novel!

I just finished Persuasion this past week, and I have a lot to say about it. I bought it at a bookstore in 2009 but didn’t read it until this summer, which happens to be the very best time in my life for me to read that book. Don’t you love it when that happens? Look for a book review soon!

So, here’s my progress:

Pride and Prejudice (Fall 2007)

Emma (Spring 2008)

Sense and Sensibility (June 2014)

Persuasion (June 2014)

Mansfield Park (next!)

Northanger Abbey (need to purchase)

Sandition (need to purchase)

To finish my musings on Austen and Me, I want to encourage those of you who haven’t read an Austen novel to give it a shot, especially if you have seen any of the film adaptations. You will find that the characters in these novels are the characters in your very own lives, male or female, rich or poor, old or young. Austen’s insight into human nature and the way society works (fairly or unfairly) is applicable to today’s world, no matter how different it may seem.


Book Review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

This is one of the rare books that I have decided I will read again someday. I rarely read a book twice (unless it’s Jane Austen, Elisabeth Eliot or a book I’m teaching at school), but this one is so interesting and interestingly written that I will have to read it again to fully appreciate its genius. I feel like the first time I read it for plot, but the second time I will read it for appreciation of the writing.

Wein (a pilot herself) researched about female pilots and spies from the UK during WWII to come up with this tale of two dear friends, told in a very creative manner. As I read, I was a bit confused about the different types of planes mentioned, the locations named, and even who was narrating the story, but it is all so well written that I just couldn’t stop reading. The description, voice, and grit of the two women mesmerized me even if I was confused, and before I knew it, I was hooked and couldn’t wait to find out what happened. Only then when I found out what happened, I wished I wouldn’t have.

Maddie Broddat and her dear friend, whose real name I can’t tell you (she goes by Verity) possess talents that get them recruited into an English spy unit. Maddie flies Verity into German-occupied France, but Verity gets captured by the Germans and is being held for interrogation. The first 3/4 of the novel is from the interrogation place where she is supposedly telling all the secrets to the Gestapo in a narrative form, which the evil commander who is torturing her just loves since he is a man of literature. About halfway into the narrative, which is largely about Maddie, we see that Verity is referring to herself in the third person as she tells the story and revealing codes and locations as she goes.

Later, the book cuts to a journal that Maddie is keeping as she and other spies get together to try to go rescue Verity. That is all I can tell you without giving the rest away. Throughout the story, as each girl fiercely wonders what has become of her friend, the reader is held in suspense as well, until the last few pages. You should read this book if you enjoy a good story about friendship, England, Scotland, history, women’s role in history, flying planes, espionage, and good writing.