Book Review: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

maddingcrowdmovie.com

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.
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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: 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: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

If you’ve never read Kingsolver’s writing, you are missing out on brilliance. The only other book I’ve read by her is Animal Dreams, but The Poisonwood Bible is waiting on my shelf. Those two are fictional (and full of symbols and epic family story lines), but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a non-fiction work about Kingsolver’s journey, along with her biology professor spouse and two daughters, to live off the land for a year–to be a locavore. They vowed to only purchase foods grown within a 120-mile radius and from people they knew; in turn, they ended up growing most of their own food.

The thought of no Coca-Cola for a year is not appealing to me, and if my little sister had to go without a bag a Lay’s for a year, she might die. However, the way Kingsolver describes this journey, with its emphasis on getting satisfaction out of manual labor on your own soil, reaping surprise after surprise from your garden, and taking care to plant and grow completely natural plants and animals really spoke to this farm girl’s heart. It also deepened my commitment to learning how to cook with less processed foods, more diverse vegetables and in a way that is friendly to the earth. (One example: the carbon footprint of bananas is ridiculous. Why let the great fruits that are local and in season go to waste while you eat bananas from another continent?) Finding local, farm-fresh meat and dairy is something I hope to accomplish this year. My good friend from too far away, Andi has a farm that sells grass-finished beef, poultry, and pork, among other things, and I truly miss being close enough to support their farm regularly. But, why can’t I find something around here?

As for the style of the writing, I found myself stopping often to sit and digest the metaphorically dripping sentence I’d just read. Sometimes, my reflection ended with a chuckle or a smile. A few parts I had to read aloud to my family, underline for myself, or dogear to copy later for composition class as an example of good essay writing. Kingsolver can make the most simple vegetable sound like an epic hero. Her blend of literary allusion with pop culture references made my mind reel at her talent with the pen. She spoke of food, cooking, home, and family with passion. (That is certainly something that is missing from all the adolescent literature I read!). Here’s just one excerpt for you:

“Some of my neighbors grumble about the trouble of growing potatoes when a giant bag at the store costs less than a Sunday newspaper. And still, every spring, we are all out there fighting with the cold, mucky late-winter soil, trying to get our potatoes on schedule. We’re not doing it for the dimes we’ll save. We know the fifty-pound bag from the store tastes about like a Sunday newspaper, compared with what we can grow. A batch of tender new Carolas or Red Golds freshly dug in early summer is its own vegetable: waxy, nutty, and sweet. Peruvian Blues, Russian Banana fingerlings, Yukon Golds: the waxy ones hold together when boiled and cut up for potato salad; others get fluffy and butter-colored when baked; still others are ideal for over-roasting. A potatophile needs them all.”

Articles from her husband, dealing with each of the abounding political issues Kingsolver’s chapters brought to light encourage the reader to stop for a moment to evaluate how an individual’s food choices can affect the global economy. This format makes the book best read a chapter at a time. So many issues to think about, research further, and discuss with your friends and family! Along with the short essays, Kingsolver’s daughter Camille writes at the end of each chapter from the perspective of a teenager preparing to head to college. She provides recipes and meal planning, based on what is in season in that chapter.

Some would call Kingsolver idealistic. The thought that everyone could live off the land and eat locally is just ludicrous in our fast-paced, global, corporate-driven economy, right? I was a bit skeptical, too. It certainly is a stretch of the mind for people from my area of the state. But, I came away from the book feeling even more strongly that small farms are better than huge farms; local is better than distant; do-it-yourself is better than processed by someone else; and family is something that needs to be nurtured in the best way possible. I think my grandparents and my great-grandparents had the system working quite well. Isn’t that the way America should be? There is a local food movement that is growing, and I hope it will continue to grow. Farmers today would be wise to start planning to cater to those who have the foresight, hindsight, wisdom, and knowledge to see that our food system needs to be changed.

You should read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for any one of these reasons:
1. You grew up on or currently live on a farm.
2. You like to garden.
3. You care about where your food comes from.
4. You appreciate good writing.
5. You care about the sustainability of the earth as we use it today.
6. You think you might like to garden.
7. You appreciate the simple life (but are willing to work hard!).

Of Hope Chests, English Class, and Socrates

So, my brother’s getting married in August. Therefore, the rest of the family has to clear out their “Hey Mom, I won’t have room for this at my house, can I leave it here?” stuff so he can transform the house from bachelor pad to a home of matrimonial bliss. (I won’t comment on how daunting a task that is, but, Jon, I’m totally here for you! I love to paint and, as you know, clean your house.)

So, I picked up my random assortment of sleeping bags, boxes of old toys, and a large trunk that contains all the things I stuffed in there when I moved away from home for my first job. That trunk contained one precious item I’d nearly forgotten about. The set of tea towels Grandma Fuller embroidered for me and gave to me on my 10th birthday. I still have the handwritten note that says, “Put these in your hope chest and they will keep.” I promptly washed them and stuck them in my kitchen drawer. Can’t wait for Ironing Day!

Also in the “Hope Chest” was a collection of notebooks I used as Journals from 5th grade to my senior year. As I read through parts of them, I ran along a gamut of emotions. I found myself laughing hysterically at something I’d completely forgotten about. I awwww’ed about a cute little passage I’d written about Emily’s latest developments (We would ask her, “Where’s the baby?” and then she would break into an adorable little smile when we pointed to her 6 month picture and say, “There she is!”). I even cried over passages I’m very glad I recorded, though I’d be mortified if anybody else found them. They’re the kinds of moments you say you’ll never want to forget and when you look back at them, you wish you’d forgotten!

All of this led me to wonder, why do we keep journals? Why keep a record of all the horrible things that happened to us in middle school? Why write down all the details of our friends’ high school lives? Hindsight makes it seem so pointless. Isn’t it better to forget those details and live in our current clouded remembrances of the way things were? Because sometimes they were much worse than we remember!

But then I found a passage about school that justified all the ridiculousness I’d read up to that point. I believe it was my Junior year, and I was complaining about how Mr. Phillips, my English teacher, was “mad” at me for not getting my draft turned in to him on time (as I read it, of course, I felt a bit bad for so self-righteously reprimanding my own students for such offenses). The next thing I wrote was something to the effect of, “He’s so confusing. He wants me to take all his classes next year.”

My 11th grade self did not understand, could not understand, that the more a teacher hounds you about something, the more they believe in you. I look at how far I have come (especially along the lines of being more punctual) and it makes me so full of hope for my own students. It also helps me understand their perspective a little better. When I’m too snippy, sarcastic, or even demanding, they sometimes interpret that in the wrong way, thinking I don’t care or I don’t like them. It is exactly the opposite. I’ve got to remember to tell them that!

So, thanks, old self, for having the perseverance to write down events the way you saw them so long ago. I am grateful for the perspective.

Journaling has always been a very helpful hobby of mine. Here is a list of reasons why it is beneficial:

1. Perspective.

2. Writing Skills I am sure that I would be a poorer writer had I not practiced as much as I have throughout these various journals.

3. Understanding Human Nature. I recorded some of our worst decisions as high schoolers, but as I look at the names mentioned in that journal now, what flashes into my mind are people who have grown into better human beings because of those experiences. I am now able to give more grace to each of us because, throughout life, one learns that sometimes people make poor choices, and, even if they do cause huge waves in others’ lives, usually everybody comes out stronger in the end. It is just so hard to see that while all the trouble is occurring.

4. Regret and Remembering. To contradict #3 just a little, it is good to regret something all over again. It helps you avoid mistakes in the future and take more precaution when making decisions. After all, Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” After reading these journals, I’ve decided that reflection and remembering helps mold you into a better version of who you are.

5. Solace. There is just something comforting and peaceful about looking back through slices of life that appear in my old journal entries. It’s fun to think about when life seemed more carefree. It’s fun to remember those amazing minor characters in my life whom I had forgotten. They each taught me a little lesson along the way that molded me into the person I am today. And, it is remarkably reassuring to me to see God’s hand on my life as I’ve journeyed through the many turbulent times of life.

Writing Essays

If I passed my comprehensive exam, which I’ll find out about this Monday, I will be able to graduate in May. Well . . . that’s a bit too simple of a statement. . .

I have three essays (read: 35 pages) to write before I can graduate in May.

I have 5 1/2 weeks from now until May 1, which is the deadline for these papers.

If my calculations are correct, that’s about one page per day.

So, why can’t I think of a topic?

SERIOUS WRITER’S BLOCK! This is the only complaint I have about getting my Master’s through a summer program that allows nearly unlimited extensions on papers (after six years, the uncompleted course will not count). I wish I had been forced to decide the topic of each of these term papers while in the class because now, I’m beginning to panic.

Actually, I DID have a topic for this first paper I’m working on (South African Lit), but while researching and writing notes (I already had three paragraphs of the paper written!), I found an article that basically argues the very point I was going to try to tackle. Way more eloquently than I could have done, too. I need to find an oddball topic that nobody has talked about before. Any ideas? :)

The bad part about the whole deal is that Spring Break ends in a few days. And I have accomplished very little towards completing these three papers.

 

C’est la vie.