Book Review: Mansfield Park

I recently reread (via audiobook) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, one of my favorite Austen novels–although it rather surprises me that it is a favorite!  As sometimes happens, rereading gave me a few more insights.

Our heroine is Fanny Price, a penniless child taken in by her wealthy aunt and uncle, Sir and Lady Bertram at Mansfield Park.  She grows up beside her cousins, becoming particularly close with Edmund.  As all the young people reach adulthood, Austen takes us through courtships and scandals of the Bertram family and their possibly questionable friends Mr. and Miss Crawford.

It’s a bit difficult to summarize Austen, because it’s not really a plot-driven book.  I freely admit that Mansfield Park meanders–or perhaps I should say it strolls along a country lane.  The book is a long series of incidents of family life, all of which last longer than they would in a modern novel and often only vaguely build upon each other.  And yet–it’s just such a pleasant read!  I like an exciting story too, but sometimes a country stroll is very appealing. Continue reading “Book Review: Mansfield Park”

Book Review(s): Bud, Not Buddy and A Single Shard

I don’t set out to read thematically-similar Newbery winners in a row, but sometimes it happens.  Today, two books about orphan boys looking for a place to belong.  Both good–but I think I’d better read one with a heroine next!

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Set during the Great Depression, Bud is a ten year old orphan, bouncing from orphanages and foster homes ever since his mother died when he was six.  When things go badly at another foster home, he seizes the opportunity to run away–and to travel in search of his father, based on slim evidence and personal conviction about who his father might be.

This is a book that’s made by its main character.  Bud is a tough kid, but not as tough or grown-up as he thinks he is.  He has a fierce streak of independence, but he also has impeccable manners, a good heart, and a nice sense of humor that lightens what could have been a very grim book.  It also helps that he mostly meets good people.  Not everyone, and rough things happen, but mostly people are at a minimum well-meaning (if not always effective). Continue reading “Book Review(s): Bud, Not Buddy and A Single Shard”

Classic Review: Banner in the Sky

Somehow or other, rock-climbing has come up in a few different conversations recently.  I respect people who want to try that, but I’m not one of them.  But when I do find myself with any urge to climb a mountain, I have a favorite go-to book I pick up instead.

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I want to begin this review by saying that I have never been mountain-climbing.  Nor do I ever plan to go.  The truth is, I don’t even like steep hills (which, believe me, can be a problem if you live in San Francisco).  I can walk very happily for miles on flat ground, but give me a hill and it’s all over.  But this is why I love books.  I love that they let me live lives I would never actually live, whether that involves casting magical spells, visiting a distant planet, or climbing a mountain.

That last brings me to Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman.  You’ll notice I have a picture of Third Man on the Mountain.  Walt Disney changed the title for his movie version, and then they reprinted the book with the new title.  I like Banner in the Sky better–for one thing, I’m not sure what Disney’s title is even supposed to mean!

With either title, the book is about Rudi Matt, and about the Citadel.  Rudi is a teenager living in a small village in the Alps in the 1800s, and he dreams of climbing the Citadel.  It’s the one unconquered peak, the one no man has ever reached the top of.  No one has tried for years, since the failed expedition that killed Rudi’s father.  Rudi’s mother has forbidden him to become a mountain climber (and I do understand her viewpoint!) but when an Englishman comes determined to lead an expedition up the unclimbable mountain, Rudi is determined to go.

The book is as much about Rudi’s growth as it is about the mountain.  He learns that there’s more to climbing a mountain than just scrambling over rocks, learns about things like trusting others and never leaving a comrade.  He learns to follow his father’s footsteps in more ways than one.  My best guess on Disney’s title is that Rudi becomes a man on the mountain, rather than a boy–but I can’t quite figure out how Disney calculates him as the third one.

This makes it all sound like it’s deep and reflective, and occasionally it is–but there’s also plenty of scrambling over rocks, and getting caught on ledges, and even an avalanche or two.  It’s an exciting story as well as a meaningful one.

It reminds me a little bit of stories about Scott’s expedition to the South Pole.  Not because of the snow similarity, but because they’re both about men trying to achieve a feat that has been considered unachievable.  They’re about pursuing the impossible dream.  And while I personally don’t have any desire to climb a mountain or ski to the South Pole, when the story is told right, I can get very enthused about someone else’s dream.

Why does someone climb a mountain?  “Because it’s there” is always a good answer.  Because it’s there to be conquered.  For Rudi, it’s because he wants to take his climbing staff and his father’s red sweater, and plant them as a flag at the top of the Citadel–a banner in the sky.

Even though I need a good reason to climb a steep hill and can’t imagine climbing a mountain, Banner in the Sky makes me believe in Rudi’s dream, makes me see it as vital and important for him, and makes me want to see him succeed.

Book Review: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I was recently perusing my bookshelves for something to read (this comes up less often than you’d think—usually I have a stack from the library) and settled on an old favorite classic: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

The tale begins with one of my favorite opening lines in all of literature: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” (It’s best in a British accent, and preferably Joan Fontaine’s voice.)  The never-named narrator goes on to describe her whirlwind courtship with Maxim de Winter, her arrival with him at his ancestral estate of Manderley, and her growing realization that the memory of the deceased Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, still holds powerful sway over the house and their lives.

This is a delightful, wonderful read in so many, many ways.  I love the narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter.  I love that we never learn her name—that’s such a brilliant writing device.  Throughout the book she’s overwhelmed by the overwhelming presence of Rebecca, and even her name is obscured.  The second Mrs. de Winter also slots nicely into a couple of my favorite literary types.  I love heroines who think they’re ordinary who discover their own power, and I have a serious soft spot for children who are disregarded by the adults in their lives.  The second Mrs. de Winter is definitely the first type, and has elements of the second too, even though she’s twenty-one.

Maxim does see and appreciate her when he meets her, but unfortunately joins a long list of literary heroes (including Mr. Rochester and Mr. Darcy) who do not use their words.  Causing, of course, far more complications and therefore plot. Continue reading “Book Review: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier”

Book Review: Around the World in Eighty Days

I can’t remember how long ago I read Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, but it was probably high school or even earlier.  I’ve been meaning to reread it for a while now, for a very writerly reason!  In my Phantom of the Opera reimagining, my protagonist Meg dreams of travel.  The Phantom needs a Christmas gift for her, and I thought–Around the World in Eighty Days!  Verne was a French author popular at the time.  Perfect!  Except I thought I ought to reread the book to make sure it really was perfect.

The novel tells the tale of English gentleman Phileas Fogg and his (possibly) mad bet that he can travel around the world in a mere 80 days.  Accompanied by French manservant Passepartout, Fogg travels east from London, through India to America, passing through a series of adventures and mishaps with perfect, imperturbable calm all the way.

This is a strange and fun book.  Like its protagonist Fogg, it is frequently quite calm and unperturbed and serenely explaining (in more detail than really necessary) the exact mathematical calculations enabling Fogg to pursue his goal.  But like its secondary protagonist Passepartout, it also goes on wild flights of drama, including encounters with a murderous cult in India and an extremely bloody attack by Indians somewhere in the American west. Continue reading “Book Review: Around the World in Eighty Days”

Book Review: Orphan Train

I love it when a book I picked up on impulse turns out to be excellent.  I stumbled across Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline in my library’s audiobook section and it turned out to be a gem.

The story begins with Molly Ayer, seventeen and about to age out of the foster home system.  She’s bounced from home to home for years, rootless and trusting no one.  Enforced community service brings her together with Vivian Daly, a wealthy, elderly woman who needs her enormous attic cleaned.  But the attic holds all the memories of Vivian’s life, of when she was a nine-year-old orphan in the 1920s, sent west on an orphan train to find a new family.

The book is in alternating storylines, with the bulk of it on Vivian’s memories–or rather, Irish-born Niamh, who acquired new names as she was taken into different families.  Niamh’s story is frequently heart-breaking, as she bounces from adult to adult who won’t or can’t take care of her.  She encounters terrible callousness, occasional brutality, and a few sparks of kindness.  Her perseverance and will to survive is powerful.  For all the bleakness, she does eventually find safety, if not a fairy tale ending.

I loved the way Molly and Niamh/Vivian’s stories are paired.  On a surface level, they’re both orphans who passed from family to family.  On a deeper level, that has caused them both to struggle with trust and relationships.  In Vivian we see how her tragedies and her fears caused her to accept a life that, while not unhappy, was not all that it could have been.  The much younger Molly still has a chance to learn and grow and seek something different for herself–although there is a nice piece at the end suggesting that it’s not too late for Vivian to find new meaning either. Continue reading “Book Review: Orphan Train”

Book Review: The Little House Series

Ages ago I reviewed Little House in the Big Woods, and then went on to read the entire rest of the series…but somehow I never came back to review the others.  Today I thought I’d finally pick that thread up and review the nine books en masse!  And since it happens to coincide with the Fourth of July, I guess that’s fairly appropriate…

The series follows the somewhat fictionalized life of Laura Ingalls, growing up as a pioneer girl as her family moves west.  It starts when Laura is four, moves on up through adulthood, her marriage to Almanzo Wilder, and the first four years of their marriage.

This is a charming and mixed series.  The first few books were fun but also bogged down a bit for me.  There was frequently too much detail on how various pioneer occupations are done and not enough of an active role for Laura. The broad strokes of life were interesting and the forays into the wild country were exciting (if slightly unfathomable why anyone would want to!)  Also in these early books, they so rarely seem to have any fun!  But by about book five, By the Shores of Silver Lake, Laura is getting older, the level of detail gets more reasonable, and the books pick up significantly.

Book Six, The Long Winter, is a wonderful choice during a hot summer.  I was listening to the audiobook last summer (it was that long ago!) and despite a heat wave it made me long for cozy firesides.  Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years recount Laura’s teenage years, her school days, becoming a teacher, and her courting by Almanzo.  These were always my favorites—the most happens, plus Laura is actually having a much better time! Continue reading “Book Review: The Little House Series”