Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

10931946Horses! Again! Not a fan. I don’t know what a horse did to me in a previous life, but the only horsey thing I can think of that I’ve loved in the past 29 years is Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken – remember that movie? My aunt used to take us horseback riding when we were little and I was never impressed. Perhaps Mr. Ed had something to do with it – I hated that show.

Anyway, I had a copy of Black Beauty growing up (who didn’t?), but I never read the thing due to my horse aversion. I would hold it, smell it, and generally love it – but no reading about the horse inside was allowed. A strange child – absolutely. And to be honest, the only reason I bought the book as an adult is because it was part of the Penguin Threads editions. I feel like I should write Penguin a letter now and thank them profusely for providing the proper incentive to read a book about a horse.

Black Beauty tells the story of a horse living life in England during the Victorian era. I was surprised to learn that the narration is told by Black Beauty himself! Getting into a horse’s mind was quite fascinating and even I crumbled a bit under his trials and tribulations. Beauty goes through many owners – some wonderful, many wicked – and learns much about the ways of humans and horses alike. Seeing humanity through his eyes was somehow more powerful, more engaging, and extremely more damning than through ordinary human eyes. You’ll be hard-pressed not to shed a few tears at Beauty’s ending, even if you have been known to turn a cold shoulder to these beautiful, majestic creatures.

Sewell’s writing is nothing less than lyrical. Every so often, I did find myself slogging through some of the more obvious preachy moments about such things as bearing reigns and the like. Characters would have conversations entirely devoted to making a rather bland point about how to rightly treat a horse. I’d sooner have seen these ideas depicted through the novel’s actions rather than repeatedly summed up through dialogue. But I know Sewell’s intentions weren’t necessarily to write a masterpiece, but instead to bring light to a troubling problem.

I also found Sewell’s rainbow of human characters well done. Yes, many are morally upright and well behaved and others are downright cruel – fairly black and white. But she also populates her story with all the in-between which always makes for more convincing moral tales in my own opinion.

Don’t let the horse keep you away from this story! It was lovely and a great book to share with a child you know and love. So many important lessons, fun characters, and a swiftly plotted pace can only make this book the beloved classic known and beloved by so many over the past decades. Spending an afternoon with Black Beauty was time more than well spent!

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cropped-classicsclub3I’m on a roll with my Classics Club reads this year! How about you?

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Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

8240080The Bronte sisters are some of my favorite writers EVER, but I had never read anything by Anne until this reading of Agnes Grey. It’s my first Classics Club read of 2013 and a superb way to begin my classics reading list for this year.

Agnes is a young women born into a family of good standing, but lack of money. Her mother was once a Lady, but married out of love instead of proper social climbing etiquette. When her family’s monetary situation begins to worsen and her father’s health to decline, Agnes goes in search of governess positions to save her family or at least make their lives a little easier. She’s met with spoiled children and a solitary life until she meets a clergyman she can’t stop thinking about!

Anne’s writing, at least in my opinion, is the perfect combination of both Emily and Charlotte. Her prose is perhaps more simplistic (like Emily’s) and straightforward, while her subject matter mirrors Charlotte’s a great deal. Once you’ve taken the supernatural, spooky undertones of Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre out of the equation, you’re left with a lovely story of a young woman’s coming-of-age, some social commentary, and the common marriage plot.

There’s nothing overly complex about Agnes Grey with the entire plot and characterizations being grounded in realism and concision, but Agnes was a joy to meet among the pages. Her descriptions of the wild heathen children she taught were bitterly humorous at times and the sense of her own loneliness was often heartbreaking. Many readers criticize Agnes’s ‘goody-goody perfection’ and believe that she lacks development. I tend not to agree – I love her struggling with her affections and attractions for the first time, her often unpleasant thoughts and emotions towards her pupils, and can see her underlying struggle to remain the upright and moral woman her parents have raised her to be.

If you’re new to Victoria literature, Anne Bronte would be a superb introduction to her more flowery sisters and other writers of the time. The story is short and sweet and offers a gentle first glimpse of mid-nineteenth century England. Anne is a protagonist that we’d all like to be friends with and who we root for against the nasty little sprites that only hope to see her fail!

I wish Anne had lived much longer (she died at 29) because as a writer she could only have grown more focused, mature, and amazing. She and her sisters are very deserving of your attention and I’m so very close to having read all their novels! Add them to your classics list if you haven’t already!

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cropped-classicsclub3First Classics Club read of 2013! I’m off to a great start.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Smith’s novel saw me through the entirety of my read-a-thon participation and was an absolute delight to spend several hours reading.  If you think you’ve never heard of her before (and many of her novels are out of print), she wrote 101 Dalmatians!  What more do you really need to know after that?

I Capture the Castle could be described as a young adult/coming of age tale about a precocious 17-year-old in early 20th century England.  Cassandra and her family live in this cozy, little hamlet and their house is a dilapidated old castle!  Her father made money initially off writing a critically acclaimed novel, but then spent some time in prison after threatening a neighbor with a  butter knife and never wrote again.  They live in extreme poverty with seemingly no way out.  Cassandra, her older sister, younger brother, father and stepmother (who loves getting naked outdoors) are completely sequestered away from modern society and come off as very eccentric – basically, freaks.  Rose and Cassandra’s hopes appear to rely solely on finding a rich husband, but with no marrying men about what’s a girl to do?  Enter their new landlords, the exceptionally rich Cotton brothers straight out of America and you’ve got yourself a little golddiggery on the horizon!

Smith’s novel is excellent, but on the same eccentric side as her characters.  Cassandra is our narrator via her diary and you honestly wouldn’t know she was 17 except that she tells you so in the first few pages.  I constantly thought of her as 12-14 with her naivety being so overwhelming.  You really get a sense of how closed away this family is from anything remotely normal.  But this aspect also makes Cassandra and her family super charming and refreshingly unique.  You never really know what’s going to happen next due to the family’s quirks and that made the pages easy to turn.  The Cotton brothers help ground the novel in actual reality when the Mortmain family seems sure to transcend into fairytale land at any moment and add just the right amount of romantic intrigue.

The best way I can describe how I felt reading I Capture the Castle is enchanted.  I wanted to climb the castle’s walls, hold midsummer bonfires, and get swept away by the riches of London right along with Rose and Cassandra.  If I have any complaints, it’s only that sometimes the Mortmains seemed a bit too unrealistic, but that was also half the fun.  And let me just take a moment to recommend the film version because I watched it a year or so ago and loved it!  Henry Cavill stars and he’s a bucket full of fried chicken – YUM!  Notice how I just got real Southern on y’all?  That’s what Mr. Cavill does for me.

So don’t waste anymore time reading this post – go pick up a copy of I Capture the Castle pronto!

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Knocking ’em down one book at a time!  Loving my classic’s list!

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

I can’t believe I’ve lived almost three decades and this is only my first run-in with Agatha Christie!  I feel so ashamed!  October seemed like the perfect time to remedy this tragedy and so I picked up And Then There Were None off the TBR shelf.  Such a fun theme read for the Halloween season!

The basic premise involves 10 seemingly random people brought together on Indian Island (a small island off the coast of England).  One by one, the guests begin to die and eventually surmise that the killing must be an inside job due to there being no one else on the island!  The remaining victims are in a race against time to discover the true killer if they are to survive to see the mainland again!  Brilliant.

I don’t know what else can possibly be said about Agatha Christie.  She met all my expectations and more.  Her tale was expertly crafted and I suspected every single character of being the murderer at some point.  And I can guarantee that once the full story is revealed everyone will be pleasantly surprised at how things went down.  Readers will also encounter some fantastically written characters, especially the strong female lead character of Vera – loved her!

And there is so much suspense!  I know a lot of readers might think this book rather tame as compared to modern day slasher flicks, but I honestly preferred reading certain parts of this novel in the daytime rather than the dark of night!  And I love slasher flicks, but well done suspense is timeless.

So if you need a very quick, delightfully spooky Halloween read – please consider And Then There Were None!  I almost want to go back and read it again now knowing the details uncovered at the end of the story.  I can’t wait to read another Christie novel to see how well her other novels stand up to this winner.

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My first Agatha Christie!  Perhaps I should add more to my Classics Club List?

North and South Read-A-Long: Week Four – The Grand Finale

Y’all, I’m sitting here trying to find something to say about the ending of the story and I got nothin’.

Pa Hale’s death was so sudden and random.  I kind of wanted him to get hit by a train or something at the end, ya know?

And then Mags goes back to London to have all of the BORING times.  Seriously, the worst part of the novel for me.  Nothing happens in the hustle and bustle of London.  She begins to miss Milton.

Edith was such a little twit – ‘Oh, you don’t love me as much as I love you, Mags!’ – as she proceeds to pout on the sofa for the remainder of the day.

Also, Mr. Bell felt like a creeper to me.  Like he wanted him some Mags in all the wrong kind of ways.  The mini-series amplifies this.  Their trip back to Helstone was uneventful.  Mags just sees how imperfect Helstone is and misses Milton again.  Absence = heart fonder and all that jazz.

Then poor Mr. Thornton loses the mill!  But wait!  His landlady is Mags thanks to Mr. Bell’s demise.  She’ll cut him a deal and let him stay on as master – of her and the mill, kinky!  The End.  The finale felt anti-climactic, no?

As for the mini-series, I’m fairly certain I just drooled over Richard Armitage while somewhere in my subconscious knowing that the BBC had done an amazing job.  Mr. Bates as Higgins!  Cinematography was also superb – especially the scenes in the mill with all the cotton fluff flying around – gorgeous and deadly.  The music was hypnotically beautiful as well…but maybe I’m confusing it with ol’ Richard.  I liked the girl who played Mags and I think I liked her character more in the mini-series.  And the train station scene at the end, YES. PLEASE.  So much better than the book’s ending, but that’s to be expected.

Overall, North and South was a very enjoyable reading experience.  I must admit, however, that Wives and Daughters is still my favorite Gaskell so far.  I’ve year to read Cranford or any of her other works.  Still, I’d recommend Mags’s story to anyone who enjoys Victorian literature or really wants a great depiction of how England was affected by the Industrial Revolution.  Gaskell has a real knack for dialogue and killing nearly all of her characters.  This book would have been a better zombie re-write than P&P.

Ok – I’m still half asleep and have rambled long enough.  None of the above thoughts really showcase any sort of intellectual reading of North and South.  It’s just too much of a Monday for all that!  Now for some lovely imagery:

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Another Classics Club title finished! To see the first three posts on North and South, head to these links:

(Week One)(Week Two)(Week Three)

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I’ve been thinking about this post for almost two weeks.  And will continue to think about it for two more weeks since our book club discussion isn’t until the end of the month.  There are just too many themes and topics crammed in this epic novel to possibly do all of them justice in one tee-tiny blog post.  Here are just a few:  the Civil War, Reconstruction, the South, the North, civil rights, racism, slavery, the KKK, holding onto the past, women’s rights, motherhood, ideas of femininity and masculinity, life/death, survival, industrialization v. agriculture…See what I’m up against?  And while it bodes really well for a fabulous book discussion, my poor fingers would die from carpel tunnel before I fleshed out all of those ideas.  So let’s just get the review part out of the way quickly, shall we?

Is the novel perfect? No.  Was the racism rampant and often hard to read?  Yes.  Are the characters likable? Yes and No.  Would I consider this a page turner? Very much so.  Did it offend your sensibilities as a Southerner?  No.  Do I believe the South will rise again? Oh dear. Rhett or Ashley?  Melanie. How’s the ending?  Perfectly frustrating.  Is it a novel worth reading?  Without a doubt.

Now that we’ve taken care of business, let’s get personal.  If you’ve never read GWTW, you’re likely to be a bit lost for the rest of this post because I’m just going to harp on a few specifics that personally affected my reading.  Namely:  Scarlett O’Hara.

My first run in with GWTW took place in college about 8 years ago.  I was about 20 years old and my life had mostly been smooth sailing.  That eye-lash fluttering, silly Scarlett at age 16 was closest to my own personal life experiences.  My women in literature class required the book and I read it over spring break – as a page-turning, beach read.  Nothing of substance stuck with me.  Frankly, I only gave a damn about the ‘will they or won’t they’ nature of Scarlett and Rhett.  Fast forward 8 years and a lot has changed.

My family filed bankruptcy (twice), I lived below the poverty line for several years, my toddler niece died in a plane crash, my family fell apart, I became estranged from my father, I got fired from my first big-girl job and have yet to find another, my dad had a massive heart attack – went bat shit insane – and became an even bigger asshole than before.  And that’s just some of the yucky that has made me the 28 year old I am today.

Scarlett O’Hara goes through her own trials and tribulations throughout GWTW that change her into a very different 28 year old as well.  And she makes decisions along the way that appall many readers.  I think Scarlett is at once the most hated and most beloved woman in literary history.  She’s a survivor at heart and will do anything to live on one more day.  She believes wholeheartedly in self-preservation over the ‘Great Cause’ and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about proper womanly behavior or what others think of her.  As you inhale shockingly at her drastic choices, you exhale respect because she gets things done.  And let’s be honest, women’s rights wouldn’t exist without brazen women going against the grain to make a change for the better.  I RESPECT Scarlett even when I find her unbearable.

And now, I better understand her decisions.  I’ve done things and made bold decisions this past decade that haven’t been popular, especially with my family.  And I would do them again with no regrets.  Not everyone likes me and that’s okay.  When life gets tough, you either get tough with it or lay down and die.  I’ve chosen get tough – I’ve vowed to never go hungry again – and I’ve calmly accepted that I’ll never be the most admired or have the most friends or even earn the approval of my family.  Fiddle-dee-dee.

As far as themes go, the exploration of motherhood really stood out to me this time.  I think what separates Scarlett from many of the other female characters is her utter lack of human empathy and maternal instinct.  To me, Scarlett and Melanie have the most in common as far as characters go.  I see you giving me that slanty eye!  But it’s true.  What differs is that motherly role that Melanie so easily falls into – like Ellen or Mammy – something that Scarlet doesn’t know the first thing about, but admires.  If you took that away from Melly and made her a bit louder, you’d end up with Scarlett.  That’s why Melanie is Scarlett’s true soulmate in GWTW.  Scarlett fuzzily recognizes this fact off and on but doesn’t fully appreciate Melly until the bitter end which for me is a far greater tragedy than her doomed love affair with Rhett.  Melly and Scarlett should have grown old together.

I understand Scarlett in this aspect as well.  Motherhood has never held any kind of charm for me.  But at the same time, this is also where Scarlett and I part ways.  I may not want to be a mother, but would be a fairly decent one if I had kids – namely because I do like children and Scarlett really doesn’t.  So despite understanding Scarlett’s position, I side more with Melly which made me think about these two characters in a deeper way.  I think all women (maybe all men, I mean Rhett’s a far better mother-figure than Scarlett) have Melanie and Scarlett within them somewhere.  Together, Melanie and Scarlett almost complete the role of Woman.  Just imagine combining their best and worst qualities and then writing a new book.  Let’s name our new heroine Marlett.  She would be FIERCE.  I mean, she’d have won the war all on her own.

And as for all those other big issues raised by Mitchell, we’ll have to think on them tomorrow…

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I promise I’ll get back to posting proper Litwit meetup summaries soon, but for now I’ll just add a bit of an addendum to my personal review post.

Our group discussion was a bit of a let down because we only have 5 members in attendance – just a busy time for everyone with back-to-school and all.  But those who did attend LOVED the book.  Some read it every year, others were just discovering the story for the first time.  No matter, the novel was a winner.

We talked a great deal about the women in the novel and how the book is a great counterpart to women’s rights and social/civil rights in general.  Everyone really seemed to loved the historical context of the novel and reading about places that we now live (since we all live in the Atlanta area).  It was fun to read about the history and re-birth of our city – the good and the bad.

Of course there was much conversation about the movie, particularly the casting.  Clark Gable is adored!  We all chose our favorite Scarlett dress (even though they were all gorgeous) and shared our shock at how much of the novel is left out.  Next we concentrated on sequels — some had read the sequel, Scarlett, but most hadn’t.  We discussed some of the other spin-off novels before moving on to Margaret Mitchell and the circumstances surrounding her death.

Overall, a great discussion.  Honestly, we could have several more meetups on GWtW and still not cover all the discussion points raised within the story.  But GWtW gets super high praise from the Litwits who read the book and we encourage you to give it a shot if you haven’t yet!

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Classics Club #2 finished!

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Y’all know I love Nathaniel Hawthorne.  He’s just so much fun with his creepy, over-the-top, supernatural symbolism.  And The Scarlet Letter is the perfect example of this.  I last joined Hester Prynne on her 7 years journey with the embroidered ‘A’ upon her breast my junior year of high school.  A lot has changed in my life since then – not so much for Hester.

The low-down?  We meet Hester as she’s released from jail and made to stand in all her shame upon the town scaffold as the curious townsfolk stare at her – for three hours.  She stands tall and proud, red ‘A’ blazing brightly in the sun, and her little babe held tightly in her arms.  You see, Hester has been naughty – she’s mothered a child (the elfish Pearl!) out of wedlock.  The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale begs her to name the man and co-conspirator in her wicked dance between the sheets.  Hester refuses and spends the next seven years bearing her ignominy boldly.  Meanwhile, her husband – the delightfully renamed Roger Chillingworth – has reappeared in time to become the deviously twisted, yet altogether neighborly physician to his newest pal, Rev. Dimmesdale.  All the while Pearl dances devilishly in the sunlight.

Hester’s a cool, hip-hip lady.  Too hip for Puritan New England.  I love her as a protagonist and a woman you can really put your faith into.  She doesn’t let the symbolic letter upon her chest keep her down.  She almost embraces her punishment – ornately embroidering the ‘A’ to stand in stark contrast to the bleakness of her clothing.  Before long, the ‘A’ sheds its obvious allusion to adultery and instead comes to symbolize the idea of ‘Able’.  She’s the sort of Scarlett O’Hara of her time.

In contrast, I never have much time for old Dimmesy.  He lets his shame and horror of fathering little Pearl cripple him.  He who wears his ‘A’ in secret lets the weight of all its meaning beat him down until he’s knocking on death’s door, literally.  The Reverend is a weak character and not very interesting.  Roger, as his counterpart, is far more intriguing in all his EVIL.

And then there’s little Pearl.  She functions mostly as a symbol of all the SEX.  She’s the personification of Hester and Arthur’s sin.  I prefer to see her as a symbol of freedom and advancement.  She’s also kind of crazy.

But the real question?  Should you read The Scarlet Letter?  Um..yeah.  Of course you should, silly!  Hawthorne’s tale is overwrought with literary devices – mostly symbolism.  Everything is a symbol.  The forest, the ‘A’, Pearl, the scaffold, the town…yada, yada, yada.  Can you see a drinking game forming here?  On top of all the metaphors, there’s an underlying current of magical realism that’s a crowd pleaser and who doesn’t love a good scandal?  If you find yourself pouring over the current tragic happenings between K.Stew and R.Patz, you’ll love this novel!  And yes, you might have to warm up a bit to Hawthorne’s richly layered prose and powerhouse vocab, but you’ll come out a winner who’s read the word ‘ignominy’ more times than anyone else you know!

Kidding aside, The Scarlet Letter is a classic for a reason.  After all these years, you can still find parallels to our societal norms and rules.  Just think of Hester’s time upon the scaffold the same way you think of K.Stew’s million pictures of shame in everyone tabloid right now.  We still grapple with the sourness of infidelity and how to go about punishing such a crime.  Or is it a crime?  Should K.Stew stand with her head held high or shudder in fear?  Do we hee and haw over adultery or still hold it as a serious crime?  Should there be legal ramifications?  What about the undertones of female sexual liberation?  After all, despite the fact that Hawthorne keeps the deets decidedly vague, we can put together that Hester married the artist formerly known as Mr. Prynne, not out of love, but out of a need to secure her ability to eat and have shelter over her head.  Why couldn’t she just wait and marry for love and have all the lovely sexy times she could stand?  And then you have to question, was R.Patz really just not that good in bed?

Go forth and judge for yourself!

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My first Classics Club read is in the bag!  One down, 74 more to go!