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!

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.

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.

Book Review: One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp

I’d been wanting to read this little gem for quite some time. I finally bought it at a Christian bookstore before Christmas Break, thinking I’d have plenty of time to devote to it. And, I did have the time, which was a good thing because this book is very dense. Voskamp’s writing style in this, her first novel, is difficult to define–entrancingly poetic, jarringly unconventional, and even a bit pretentious? It was not always an easy read for me because I would have to reread the sentence to figure out which grammar rule she didn’t follow, such as putting an -ly on an adverb or using a noun as a verb (English teacher problems).  This style usually enhanced the writing more than diminishing it. Take this description of a soap bubble as an example: “In the light, the sheerness of bubble shimmers. Bands of garnet, cobalt, flowing luminous.” This unconventional style actually adds to the image. The bubble is the definition of luminous. Luminous is flowing. I enjoyed mulling over sentences and thoughts like that, which is probably exactly what she wanted to accomplish in this book.

The premise of the book is basically a challenge one of her friends gave her: write down 1,000 gifts. As Ann starts to write down these bits of life for which she is grateful, she finds herself living with joy. She explains that she has discovered the meaning of thanksgiving (eucharisteo) and how we as Christians can change our lives by giving thanks in all things. After the thanks comes joy, peace, grace, and blessing. But not until there is thanks! It’s amazing how that works.

Voskamp tells her story of learning to give thanks in a semi-chronological, but more anecdotal way. She tells about the various trials and troubles she has endured in the past (which are thawing and melting away through giving thanks). She shares about the concurrent doubts and crises she faces, including a farm accident involving one of her sons, as she practices eucharisteo, (these crises softly pry her fingers off her life circumstances to truly let go and rely on God). She casts a vision for the rest of her family and friends through this newfound desire to find thanks in all things. I thoroughly enjoyed her descriptions of farm life (she lives on a pig farm in Canada), motherhood (she has six children), and observations of nature.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book (there are many!):

“It’s ridiculous how much joy a moment can hold.”

“It’s this sleuthing for glory that slows a life gloriously.”

“Is it only when our lives are emptied that we’re surprised by how truly full our lives were?”

“Trust is the bridge from yesterday from tomorrow, built with planks of thanks. Remembering frames up gratitude. Gratitude lays out the planks of trust. I can walk the planks–from known to the unknown–and know: He holds.”

“Worry is the facade of taking action when prayer really is.”

“Feel thanks and it’s absolutely impossible to feel angry. We can only experience one emotion at a time. And we get to choose–which emotion do we want to feel?”

Book Review: Wide Open by Larry Bjornson

book cover

What drew me to this book the most was the story behind the author’s family. Bjornson’s bio mentions that his great grandparents emigrated from Iceland after volcanic ash destroyed their farm. That would be an amazing story to write someday! Bjornson’s book, however, covers a geography and history a little closer to home–Abilene, Kansas.

Before reading this book, I knew little about Abilene’s history other than the fact that it was a cowtown. (Somehow, in all my twelve years of field trips back home, my class missed the trips to Abilene, so I’m going to have to visit on my own sometime.) After reading the novel, I now know many interesting facts about late 19th century Abilene: Bill Hickok was the sheriff for a brief time, Hickok killed his own deputy accidentally, and there were big conflicts among the three main groups of people in the Abilene area: the cowboys, the townspeople, and the settlers.

The book centers around Will Merritt, a fifteen year old boy who is coming of age at a unique crossroads for the town of Abilene. Tensions are always high during cattle season, when Texas cowboys bring up cattle to put on the rails at Abilene. But this season, because of an interesting business decision made by Will’s father (one of the most prominent businessmen in the town), Will faces more challenges and tests of loyalty than he ever dreamed he would face. Add to this a little bit of a love story, scenes with Wild Bill Hickok conveniently saving Will from his troubles, and many interesting elements that show the challenges of pioneer life, and you have a book many will love.

I recommend this book to any teacher, particularly middle school teachers who like to read aloud to their classes. The chapters are anecdotal, almost always ending with a cliffhanger. The themes are very applicable to middle schoolers, and the history told is fascinating. I would also recommend this book to all Kansans and anyone who has an interest in frontier history.

My favorite element of the book was the way in which Bjornson brought a family’s story to life. I imagined my own great-grandfather, Jestarus Noble Timothy Fuller, riding in a covered wagon out to north central KS from Iowa to begin farming on his 160 acres and timber claim. He arrived a good twenty years later than Will’s family, but I am sure many of the troubles he faced were similar. Another reason I enjoyed this book was that I would like to write one similar to it myself. 1850s-1890s American life, particularly in Kansas, has always fascinated me.