Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott: a Review

I chose to read this book for my 2016 Reading Challenge as one I’d previously abandoned. When I came to this category in the challenge, I was hard pressed to come up with something that qualified. I can recall only one time that I actually gave up on a book without finishing it, and that was so long ago I can recall neither the name of the author nor the title of the book. I’m not even sure what sort of book it was.

Ivanhoe, however, I gave up on before I ever began reading it in the first place. Back when I was in high school, I tried to earn a little extra credit in my English class. I was going to read Ivanhoe and write a paper on it. I never did. So, as the closest thing to an abandoned book that I could come up with, Ivanhoe made it onto my challenge list.

Published in 1820, the style of Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, is clearly not modern. Getting started on this book was difficult to say the least. Particularly beginning with the Introduction and the Dedicatory Epistle in which Scott laboriously declares his qualifications to write this book. Unless you’re into the historical or cultural study of the author and his works, I suggest skipping those parts.

Though it was difficult getting started, the story does eventually pick up. It is the story of King Richard, the Lion-Hearted, Robin Hood and his merry band and all the chivalrous, knighthood culture of twelfth century England. Lots of jousting, beautiful maidens, kidnapping, love, greed and religious angst.

Scott wrote from an omniscient point of view, a technique not often used any more, but popular in his time. Within this framework, Scott takes something of a god-like perspective over the story and characters. He frequently takes liberties with the time line, shifting backward and forward through time in order to catch up characters with the rest of the story. This is at times distracting, as is the author’s frequent intrusions into the narrative to directly address the reader. Scott takes great pride in his historical research and often inserts far more detail than is perhaps necessary to advance the story. And then deliberately draws the reader’s attention to those details.

The story finishes with a tidy closing of the circle first opened at the beginning of the book. The title character Ivanhoe finishes in a jousting duel with another knight who at the beginning arrogantly challenges Ivanhoe. The duel itself, however, is a bit disappointingly understated, ending in something of a “deus ex machina” sort of device.

According to britanica.com, Sir Walter Scott “is often considered both the inventor and the greatest practitioner of the historical novel.” He wrote many such novels, most exploring the history of his native Scotland. He was also a poet, historian and biographer. Ivanhoe remains Scott’s most popular book.

Overall, I found the book interesting. Will I read more of his work? Probably not. But I’m glad I took the time to read this one.

Stop That Girl, by Elizabeth McKenzie: A Review

Book #10 on the 2016 Reading Challenge is Stop That Girl, by Elizabeth McKenzie, a book I own but have never read. This is true of many books on my shelf as I have a bad habit of buying more books even when I have so many still to read. I’ll get to them all eventually, I swear!

I bought this book several years ago following a writer’s conference at which Ms McKenzie was a presenter. The conference opened with an Author’s Night where each of the presenters had an opportunity to offer a reading from one of their works. Ms McKenzie read a passage from Stop That Girl. I was delighted and intrigued. I bought a copy.

This book is the story of Ann Ransom and it opens when she is a girl of about eight. Each chapter is a self-contained moment in Ann’s life, a single episode. Written in the first person, we get to be witnesses to Ann’s life from childhood to adulthood, through the remarriage of her mother, the birth of a half-sister and encounters with a grandmother who might be crazy.

Published in 2005, Stop That Girl is McKenzie’s debut novel. It’s bright and funny, and it demonstrates family dysfunction at its finest. It was a delight to read. McKenzie is the author of two more books plus multiple works of short fiction published by The New Yorker, the Pushcart Prize anthology and more. Find out more about Elizabeth McKenzie at her website, stopthatgirl.com.

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut: a Review

Book #8 in the 2016 Reading Challenge is a book that was banned at some point. For this, I chose to read Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. I wondered why this book had been banned, so I tried to find out. Among the reasons, I found it was due to profanity, explicit sexual references and violent imagery. It has been banned and challenged many times in the years since it’s publication in 1969.

To be honest, I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed this book. I had a difficult time getting started on it, and even by the time I was halfway through, I still felt like I was reading an assignment.

Written during the Vietnam war, this is very much an anti-war statement. It is intentionally vulgar and offensive. Vonnegut’s dark humor is put to full effect. He uses some shocking and sometimes poignant imagery in order to convey his message. And I might say, quite effectively.

There was one image in particular I found rather stunning. The book’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has become “unstuck in time” and in this scene, he is watching a war movie, but in reverse. American bombers take off backwards from England and return over Germany while German fighters suck bullets and shrapnel from the bombers. Over the bombed German city, the flames are sucked in and tucked neatly back into the bombs which then return to the planes. It concludes…

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so that they would never hurt anybody again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

It’s a beautiful image, one that will likely stay with me a long time. If only it were that easy to pack up war and put it away for good.

Would I recommend this book? Though I didn’t particularly enjoy it, this book includes some striking images. If you are not put off by the vulgarity and explicit language, it has its moments. So, yes, go ahead and read it. Be offended even. But dare to look beyond the offensive language and see what was so offensive to Vonnegut in the first place that he had to write this book: war.

September, Tent Forts & Pumpkin Cheesecake: New Season, New Goals

I can’t believe it’s September already. Just two weeks ago, we had triple digit temperatures, but now, we have gray skies, rain showers and a bit of a chill in the air. It was downright shivery at work today as the air conditioning must still be in summer mode.

Yes, September has arrived. The leaves are turning and falling. The first day of school is only a week away. My children are sleeping in a make-shift tent on the floor in the living room tonight. And I am staying up late baking a pumpkin cheesecake. Indeed, summer is on her way out.

It’s a new season, it must be time for some new goals. I started this blog back in January without any real clue as to what I hoped to accomplish with it. I intended that it would be a place where I could share my words with others and push myself to do more with my writing. I think I’ve made a good start, but I still don’t really know what this blog should be about.

Writing…

I’ve been sharing my experiences as I work through my writing projects. This has been a bit of a wild ride for me. Exciting, but a little intimidating. In April, I shared some background and research bits on my middle grade novel in progress, The Curse of the Anne Venture. Introducing my three main characters, Mike, Tommy and Elijah was particularly fun.

Then, in July, I began working on fantasy short stories from the world of another novel in progress. I decided I would publish one here on my blog, and asked you to help me decide which one that would be. The process of writing, rewriting, revising and polishing a story for publication has proven to be different than I anticipated. Thus, I am behind on this project. I had hoped to publish the completed story, “Shattered”, on September 3. While I’ve had to rethink this schedule, I still intend to publish this story on the blog. But first, I want to make it the best story possible.

My writing goals this month then are first, to finish the story “Shattered” and have it ready for publication by the end of September. Second, I intend to continue with the book reviews, ideally, one per week. And last, I will continue with the personal essays in response to the WordPress daily prompt as well as any others that might come up.

Reading…

When started this blog I intended to also write book reviews. This is something I’ve never really done before, so it’s been a learning experience. I’m enjoying it more with each book. Participating in the 2016 Reading Challenge has pushed me to expand my reading experiences.

I’ve fallen a little bit behind with this challenge, however so one goal of mine is to catch up on my reading during the month of September. With November (National Novel Writing Month) coming quickly, I’d prefer to get ahead even. But two of the biggest books on the list are still to be read.

Ideally, I will be able to finish at least three books from this list. Currently I’m working on Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, and next up will be Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, followed by Stop That Girl, by Elizabeth McKenzie.

…and Life in General

As I work on expanding the reach of my blog, I decided to try responding to the WordPress daily prompt. A one-word prompt meant only to stimulate ideas, wherever that might take you. I wrote about more random subjects this past month than I would have thought possible.

While I’m enjoying this activity, and my posts seem to be well received, I’m not convinced this is the direction I want to go with my blog. I’ll keep at it for now. I’d like to see how things take shape over the course of the next few months.

My goal then, is to continue to respond to the daily prompts as I’m inspired. When I started this, I didn’t think I could ever find time to write something every day. I’m not there yet, and I don’t intend to push myself that hard. At least for now. I’d like to see at least one post a week, however, and I think that’s very doable!

 

These are my goals for September. It will be a stretch to accomplish all that I want to do, but they are not unreasonable. And there can be no growth without a bit of stretching. It’s a new season, a new start.

What are your goals this fall? Thanks for reading!

Classified Woman: The Sibel Edmonds Story – A Review

For the 2016 Reading Challenge, I was tasked with reading a book chosen for me by my spouse, partner, sibling, child or BFF. I decided to ask my younger sister to choose one for me. I chose her because of all those listed, I knew her reading choices would be the most unlike my own.

My sister and I share some similar views, but in many ways we differ in our approach to life. I have a great deal of respect for my sister’s intelligence, strength and courage, and I love that we can gracefully disagree – now that we are adults.

All that to say, I knew that whatever book she chose for me to read would challenge me somehow. It would stretch me, and force me outside my normal experience. And I was not wrong. The book she chose for me did all that and more. She chose Classified Woman: The Sibel Edmonds Story, a memoir by Sibel Edmonds.

This book documents the story of Turkish-American immigrant, Sibel Edmonds, who shortly after 9/11 began working for the FBI as a translator. During her tenure with the FBI she encountered sloppy investigations, abuse of government power and resources, blatant cover-ups and security breaches.

When she attempted to report these things to her supervisors, she was repeatedly shut down. Not satisfied with the answers she was getting regarding the potential national security risk she’d uncovered, she pressed up the chain of command even when it became obvious there were bigger forces at work that wanted the situation to simply disappear.

Ms. Edmonds writes with a compelling intensity, documenting her surreal tale of retaliation and injustice. This book reads in parts like a suspense novel, fast-paced and incredibly intense. The problem is, it isn’t fiction.

After being fired from the FBI, Ms. Edmonds continued to fight to have her story heard. She faced stall tactics, shut doors, and even outright threats. She was shut down by the “State Secrets Privilege”. Eventually, her case was presented to the Supreme Court of the United States, only to be once more turned away.

Over the course of nearly a decade, Ms. Edmonds has fought continuously to be heard, to bring to light the corruption and breaches within the American system. Despite her own personal losses – or perhaps because of them – she formed the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition in order to help others facing similar situations. In 2006 she was awarded the PEN Newman First Amendment Award for her efforts in defending the first amendment rights of all Americans. She continues to work toward getting truth out to the public on her website, Boiling Frogs Post.

I would challenge every American to read this book. It’s more than a little disturbing to face a story such as this one, but I think it’s an important one to read, to bear witness to the truth.

Anne Frank – Her Story Lives On

I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and express all that’s inside me! When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?
– April 5, 1944

I have been following this 2016 Reading Challenge, and for category #7, I was to choose a book published before I was born. There are a lot of books that qualify under this category, and choosing just one could have proven difficult, but I decided to choose something from my already enormous list of books I want to read someday. What rose to the top was Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

A small light in a dark room…

Sometime last year I began work on a new series of adventures intended for young girls, The Golden Locket Adventures. This is to be a sister series to my other middle grade stories, The Silver Compass Adventures, intended primarily for boys.

As I searched for ideas for these books, I began researching notable women throughout history that I could highlight in my books. I didn’t want just the obvious women who have been studied and profiled many times already, though I have considered the likes of Annie Oakley and Amelia Earhart. I looked for those I hadn’t heard of before and sought out their stories.

In this way, I encountered Miep Gies. Mrs. Gies worked for Otto Frank’s company in Amsterdam before the German invasion of Holland and throughout the war. She became instrumental in helping to hide the family, and was the one to recover Anne’s diary on the day the Franks were arrested, hoping to be able to return it once the war was over. I read Mrs. Gies’s autobiography, Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family. I was fascinated.

But even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.
– Miep Gies

This woman’s story was well told. I was captivated, even devastated by her story, and deeply impressed by her strength. She became one of the first women I hope to feature in my adventure series.

But after reading her story, I wanted to know more. Thus, Anne’s diary joined my list of books I needed to read. This reading challenge provided the perfect opportunity to do so.

I have now finished reading the diary, and hope to share my thoughts. This will not be a typical book review. It is more of a piece of an ongoing conversation that I think we should not lose sight of. A conversation that should not be left in the past. The Jewish Holocaust of the second world war may be over, but hatred, bigotry and other human indecencies continue unabated to this day. I have to believe that we are capable of so much better.

This book isn’t a story as a typical book would be. Even a biography follows a narrative with a beginning, middle and an end. This is simply a diary, published as it was written. Near-daily entries of the everyday life as Anne experienced it. She wrote about her thoughts. She wrote about her family. She wrote about the conflicts that inevitably arise between people who are in too close quarters without break. She wrote about her interests and her hopes for the future.

Oh, why are people so crazy?

There a so many directions I could go with this Anne Frank article. She had so much to say and a surprising amount of wisdom for a girl of her age. She wrote about the typical things an adolescent girl thinks about, family relationships, love, her changing body, the future.

But more than that, she wrote about the war and the Jewish plight.

There’s a destructive urge in people, the urge to rage, murder and kill. And until all of humanity, without exception, undergoes a metamorphosis, wars will continue to be waged, and everything that has been carefully built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and destroyed, only to start all over again!
– May 3, 1944

She wrote about the roles of men and women and the unfairness of gender bias.

Men presumably dominated women from the very beginning because of their greater physical strength; it’s men who earn a living, beget children and do as they please … Until recently, women silently went along with this, which was stupid, since the longer it’s kept up, the more deeply entrenched it becomes.
– June 13, 1944

Anne wrote with remarkable insight into the human condition. At the age of fourteen, she recognized within herself two “Annes” – an inner Anne she kept mostly hidden within herself out of fear, and the outward Anne which was the one everyone saw. She wrote often about the “outer” Anne as being dominant whenever anyone else was around. She would try to be the inner Anne, the better Anne, but expectations of others always had her shoving that Anne back down inside. She also felt that the inner Anne was her true self, but she could only seem to reveal this part of herself to her diary.

Anne began writing in her diary at the age of thirteen, shortly after going into hiding. She wrote primarily for herself in the beginning, but after hearing on the radio how documents such as letters and diaries could serve as a record of the war, she began to take her writing more seriously and even rewrote much of her earlier entries. It was her intention to share her experience with the world, but I can’t help but wonder if she could have imagined the reach her words would ultimately have, and the impact they would make on the world.

What I find most remarkable about Anne’s diary is that throughout this time in hiding, an experience most people would find terrifying, dull and extremely wearing, she remains upbeat and positive. She is hopeful for her future, and continues to work toward it with study and practice. Despite the hardships, she sees the positive.

I’m young and strong and living through a big adventure; I’m right in the middle of it and can’t spend all day complaining because it’s impossible to have any fun! I’m blessed with many things: happiness, a cheerful disposition and strength. Every day I feel myself maturing, I feel liberation drawing near, I feel the beauty of nature and the goodness of the people around me. Every day I think what a fascinating and amusing adventure this is! With all that, why should I despair?
– May 3, 1944

Anne’s diary provides a beautiful picture of a girl growing into adolescence. We get to be a witness to her growing maturity and self awareness. Anne writes with heartbreaking honesty, and her diary, to this day, holds a relevance that can’t be easily ignored.

I chose to read this book because I was fascinated by the story of a courageous woman who dared to do the right thing even when it was difficult. I wanted to know more of her story, and to see the result of her bravery. In the process I found a girl whose story is just as compelling.

Why do I think others should read this book? Because we all need to remember that underneath the labels – Jew, Christian, Muslim, Black, White or Brown – we are all still human. We all have the same fears, desires, curiosities, hopes and dreams. We all have to pass through the fire that is adolescence. Anne never had the opportunity to come out the other side of it. Many others through that time never had the opportunity. Even more throughout human history have been denied the right to become all they were born to be.

I am glad I made the time to read this book. I’m grateful that through their words, I’ve come to know the likes of Anne Frank and Miep Gies. For one, this is a piece of human history that should not be forgotten. But also, here are two remarkable women who have shared the truth as they saw it and lived it. Who dared to hope for a better future.

Let’s not allow their stories to be forgotten.

Apology & Redemption

Back in January I wrote this about my 2016 Reading Challenge. I listed twelve books chosen based on themes proposed by modernmrsdarcy.com. Since then, I’ve read and reviewed only five of the books on that list. Now, here it is already August, leaving me only five months to read the remaining seven.

In April and July I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo, making writing a priority over reading, and, well, nearly everything. Therefore, during those months if I read at all, it was minimal, and I did not complete a single book. I also failed to post a single book review during those two months as well.

Here, I offer this apology for not reading as much as I should have. And for not posting reviews of what I have read. I’d also like to make this the beginning of a new challenge to myself for the month of August, and perhaps in doing so, redeem myself for my lack.

Instead of a writing challenge, I assign myself a reading challenge. I normally don’t read more than one book at a time, but somehow I managed to crack open multiple books over the past several weeks. Therefore, I will work on completing these books first, and then, if I have enough time, I will move on to more.

Here then, is my list:

1. Moon of Three Rings, by Andre Norton – I borrowed this book from another member of my book club, The Dragon’s Hoard. This club consists of about seven, or so, of my coworkers who all enjoy reading the same sort of books that I typically enjoy – fantasy and science fiction. Because of my nearly toppling to-be-read pile, I’ve balked at borrowing books from other members so that I don’t end up keeping them for too long. One member has been particularly vocal about Andre Norton, and as she appears on another of my “must read” lists, I finally gave in and accepted this book on her recommendation.

2. Anne Frank: the Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank – This book is number seven on my 2016 Reading Challenge list, but I got a little out of order when I wasn’t able to get my hands on number six, Classified Woman, when I was ready for it. So, on a trip to the local library to get some summer reading material for my children, I went ahead and checked out this book and began reading it.

3. D is for Deadbeat, by Sue Grafton – I have an embarrassingly large stack of books I borrowed some time ago from a community bookshelf at my place of employment. I have grand intentions of reading these books and returning them. This one happened to be on top when I became overwhelmed guilt over how long I’ve kept these books, and so, I started reading it.

4. Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich – This book should perhaps be at the top of the list as I started reading it longer ago than any of the others. I was reading this book chapter by chapter and using the writing exercises at the end of each as writing prompts that I shared with my local writers’ group. I was having fun with this, but somehow got distracted and haven’t been back to it in some time.

5. Writers of the Future Volume XXIX, ed. by Dave Wolverton – When I decided I was going to try writing short stories for my July Camp NaNoWriMo project this year, I thought maybe I should read a few short stories by other writers to get a better feel for the genre. This book has been on my bookshelf for I don’t know how long. I picked it up but managed to read only one story.

6. Necromancer Awakening, by Nat Russo – I’ve only recently ventured into the ebook world. This is only my third. I’d been considering this book for a little while, when the sequel was released earlier this year. Since I can’t read book two before reading book one, I had to get this one first. Since it’s on my mobile device, I can read it in the grocery line, or wherever else I happen to be.

7. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy – This one is an audiobook I decided to download one night when I was busy making a cheesecake for yet another work pot luck. Since I can’t read, write, or do much of anything else while my hands are busy with baking, this seemed a perfectly logical way to make better use of my time. And so far, I’m loving it!

There it is, my hope of redemption for my reading failure so far this year. I am notoriously over-ambitious, and a slow reader. I will count myself successful to finally close even a few of these open-ended projects.