Fighthing Fate in 18th Century Scotland

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Fate and inevitability play a large role in Diana Gabaldon's book Dragonfly in Amber.  The second in a series about Claire Randall Fraser, a mid-20th century woman transported back to 18th century Scotland, Dragonfly in Amber picks up the story of Claire and her Sottish husband Jamie.  Claire knows that Jamie and thousands of other Highland Scots are to be slaughtered in the Battle of Culloden, fought on behalf of Bonnie Prince Charlie in a failed attempt to restore the Stuarts to the throne of England and Scotland.  She and Jamie race to try and stop the coming war, first in Paris where Prince Charles is waiting to return to Scotland, and again in Edinburgh.  But nothing, not even the foreknowledge of what will happen, can turn the tide of history in the Scots' favor.

Like her first novel, Outlander, this book is rich in historical detail, and intricate in plot.  In a previous post, I complained of how long it took me to read it, because that level of detail requires the reader to really slow down and take it all in.  It is full of political machinations, betrayals, unkept promises, and the hubris of the nobility.  Add to the complex plot the many details about life in 18th century France and Scotland, and the descriptions of the medical care that Claire gives in her role as a healer, and you have a fully formed world that draws you in.  The romance between Claire and Jamie is besides the point to me, other than as a catalyst for some of Claire's decisions regarding staying in Scotland or trying to stop duels...Claire herself is the reason that I kept reading.  And I am so grateful to Ms. Gabaldon that she set this series in a time period I know very little about.  While I love my Tudor and Elizabethan period pieces, I am happy to have knowledge of another era of UK history.

Practicing What I Preach

Friday, February 25, 2011

Reading instruction has come a long way from the days of Dick and Jane.  Best practices say that when teaching students about reading you should teach them not just the skills needed to decode the words, or to have a basic understanding of a text.  Teachers of reading all over the country are teaching their students to be strategic readers.  We model meta-cognition (that is, thinking about what you are thinking), have students practice monitoring their comprehension, making connections, visualizing, questioning, and summarizing a text.  We teach the features and structures of non-fiction, and how they differ from fiction.  And we teach them that the purpose for reading determines how you should read something.  Some texts require a slower rate and more strategic reading, some texts can be read faster without losing meaning.

So why is it that I can't practice what I preach?  I am a pretty quick reader, as I'm sure many book bloggers are.  I can whip through most YA and easy adult reads in a single day, more literary or longer works take me a week, max.  But I am working on week number three of the book I am currently reading, and it is driving me crazy.  Not the book, mind-that I'm enjoying very much.  It's the amount of time it's taking me to read it.

The book is Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon.  In my defense it is over 700 pages long, with small font, so it's not as though it's an especially short book.  But the real issue is that whole purpose for reading thing I mentioned above.  Gabaldon's prose is dense with historical detail.  And it's interesting historical detail, about a time period I don't know much about.  Both of these facts mean that in order to fully comprehend the text, even as an adult, I need to SLOW DOWN.  Darn it!  How can I fly through this book and get to the next book if I have to SLOW DOWN?!

But what do I have against slowing down?  I mean, it's not like I get paid by the book for the books I read.  I have no deadlines for reading.  The books that are waiting in my to-be-read bookcases (yes, bookcases, don't judge) will still be there.  So where is this pressure coming from?

Here's what I've figured out-I have so much of my self-concept tied up in being a smart, fast reader, that slowing down feels like a character flaw.  Do I know that this is irrational?  Yes.  Do I know that I should savor the titles that make me slow down?  Yes.  Can I seem to make myself do that?  NO

I believe I have now identified what my New Year's Resolution should have been...

Top Ten Tuesday: Lights, Camera, Action!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Welcome to Top Ten Tuesday!  The award for Best Tuesday Meme Host goes to The Broke and the Bookish for hosting this weekly event that allows me to make lists-I love lists!  In case you had not yet picked up on my very subtle movie references, this week's theme is best movie adaptations of books.

This may be the first week I can't come up with ten, because I generally prefer the book by a wide margin to the movie made from it.  Often when I watch a movie and love it, then find out it was based on a book, I avoid the book so as to not ruin the movie for myself.  I have no problem in the reverse-I know that the movie will never ruin the book!  But I will do my level best, and if I can't make it to ten, well, it was an honor just to be nominated...

1.  Chronicles of Narnia:  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe-If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you know that this is one of my very favorite books, and that I have many fond childhood memories or it.  So you'd think that I'd be destined to be disappointed in the movie version.   But the director of that movie and I must have an awful lot in common, or perhaps have a Narnia-related psychic link, because everything in the 2005 movie looked and felt exactly as I had imagined.  That has never happened to me before, and I suspect never will again, but it was magical.

2. The Prince of Tides:  I've loved all of Pat Conroy's books.  My favorite is probably Lords of Discipline, but I thought the movie version was only OK.  I liked novel The Prince of Tides OK, but thought the movie was amazing-really emotionally powerful and raw.  This is probably the first and only time I liked the movie better than the book.

3.  Shutter Island:  This Dennis Lehane book was just destined to make a really atmospheric, creepy movie.  Even having read the book first, I was still caught up in the drama of the madness of Shutter Island.  The cinematography on that movie is stunning, and really helps set the emotional tone.

4.  The Lord of the Rings Cycle:  I can't really choose just one of Peter Jackson's masterpieces to single out, since I think they were all amazing.  When I read Tolkien's work, I was so appreciative of his skillful style and huge imagination, but while I appreciated the story I did not get as emotionally engaged or invested as I did watching the movie version.  I think that Peter Jackson made Tolkien's work more accessible to people outside of literature or fantasy readers.

5.  Brokeback Mountain-I realize that this may not technically count, since it is actually a short story, but too bad-I'm having enough trouble thinking of really good movie adaptations as it is.  This is one of the few times that I saw the movie first and then read the original, but I was so moved by the story of Ennis and Jack that I wanted to revisit it in a way that allowed me to slow down and think about it.  The fact that this was also a groundbreaking moment in gay cinema didn't hurt.

6.  The Secret Life of Bees:  I think it would have been difficult not to make a pretty decent movie out of this book.  It is a pretty simple plot, and the theme is very accessible to most people.  Add Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah and you've got a winner!

I have no doubt that after reading everyone else's posts on this topic I'm going to be writing a lot of comments like "Oh, I wish I'd thought of ___________________", but six is the best I can do this week.

I Should Not Have Been Fearful of Her Fearful Symettry

Monday, February 14, 2011

Her Fearful Symmetry is the second novel by author Audrey Niffenegger, author of the much admired The Time Traveler's Wife.  As someone who read and loved, loved, triple loved TTTW, I was a little nervous picking up Her Fearful Symmetry.  What if her second novel couldn't live up to the mind-bending, mind-blowing amazingness of the first?  Well, I should have had more faith in Ms. Niffenegger (sorry, Audrey-maybe we could meet at Uncle Julio's for margaritas and I can make it up to you!).  Her Fearful Symmetry, while a completely different sort of novel, is in fact pretty amazing itself.

Her Fearful Symmetry tells the story of two different sets of twins, and the people who love them.  The first set, Elspeth and Edie, have not seen or spoken to each other in nearly 20 years.  When Elspeth finds that she is dying of cancer, she leaves all of her possessions, including her flat in London, to Valentine and Julia, the twin daughters of her estranged sister.  The only condition is that they have to live in the flat for one year to inherit anything.  Little does Elspeth know when he makes that condition that she will be there with them.  After her death she finds herself an insubstantial ghost in her flat, unable to leave.  Valentine and Julia have their own issues.  Julia is fiercely insistent that the girls stay together always, even though Valentine feels smothered by her sister's constant presence and yearns to break free.  It is this desire that leads to a decision that changes everything, for everyone, living or dead.

It is fitting that a central feature of the novel is Highgate Cemetery in London, a rather famous Victorian era cemetery.  There is much about this novel that reminds me of Victorian-era stories.  Their fiction tended to be almost as cluttered as their mantelpieces and pianos.  Lots of characters, lots of plot lines, lots of intrigue.  The relationship between the twins borders on creepy, and you can feel Valentine's restlessness and claustrophobia quite clearly.  Her relationship with her dead aunt's lover is also a little creepy, though he is frankly the most likeable character in the book.  The big family secret that underlies a great deal of the book drives the story, making it a page turner.  When the big reveal finally comes, I thought I had it all figured out-and I was wrong.  I love that, when  a book can surprise me.  And then surprise me again with what happens in the aftermath of the truth.  Valentine's fate is the very definition of cruel irony.  All in all, this novel lives up to my very high expectations for Ms. Niffenegger's writing, if not being quite as engaging a story for me as her first, amazing novel. 

Top Ten Tuesday-Characters I'd Name My Children After

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Thank you, lovely bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish, for hosting this weekly meme that allows me to indulge in my love of all things listy!

This week's prompt is a chance to give some character love.  When my daughter was born in 1994, my then husband and I had a deal.  If the baby was a girl, could name her, but if it was a boy, he could name him.  We each, however, reserved veto power over the other's choices.  And that is the reason my daughter Briana does not have a literary name-I was overruled on Elizabeth (Pride and Prejudice), Morgaine (Mists of Avalon) or Guinevere (also Mists-I was a bit obsessed at the time).  It's probably a good thing in the last two cases that I was vetoed, but I was only 24, so I plead youth.  Now, at the more "mature" age of 41, I've read a lot more, and have many more character to choose from!

1.  Claire-This comes from both The Time Traveler's Wife and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.  Both women are  loyal, strong, and loving, which I think are good qualities to hope for in a child.

2.  Henry-From the Time Traveler's Wife.  Again, smart, loving, loyal...and we'll just leave the ultimately doomed thing behind.

3.  Hermione-Ah, if only I lived in Britain or was British myself, I could get away with this one.  Hermione is definitely the best of all of the Harry Potter characters.  Ron is sweet and Harry is noble, but Hermione was the one who ensured that things got done so Harry would still be around to fight Voldemort.

4. Lisbeth-Ok, this is mostly because I thought the name was pretty long before I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  But let's face it, Lisbeth can kick some serious butt, which is not a bad trait to have, at least metaphorically speaking.

5.  Peter-The oldest brother of the Pevensie children from the Narnia series,  Peter was brave and steadfast, unlike Edmund, the moody younger brother.

6.  Lucy-Also from Narnia.  Small but mighty, Lucy was all heart and loyalty.  Susan may have been older, but I don't think she was wiser than little Lucy.

7.  Alex-The Alex Delaware novels was one of the first mystery/thriller series I read, and I have always loved Alex's intelligence and compassion.  Plus he was completely accepting of his gay friend and police officer Milo way back before most authors were comfortable having gay characters in their books.

8.  August-I loved August Boatwright's character from The Secret Life of Bees.  Comfort-everything about her brings comfort and strength.

9.  Sam-After Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings books.  Best.Friend.Ever.

10.  Stargirl-OK, I probably would never actually have the nerve to do such a thing, but the main character of Stargirl and Love, Stargirl is everything I want my daughter to be.  Loving, idealistic, quirky, and completely comfortable with herself.

Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card

Monday, February 07, 2011

What would you do to ensure the survival of the human race?  What would you sacrifice?  Your money?  Your freedom?  Your life?  Most of us probably would if we were up against it.  But what about the lives of our children?  What if the survival of the species meant giving up your children to violence, war, and possible death?

It is exactly this rather sticky ethical question that Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card, takes on.  Well, that and a few others, like the morality of xenocide and government manipulation.  That's a lot for what is essentially a young adult novel, but Card manages it by creating a version of Earth that is both alien and somehow familiar.

Ender's Game is the story of Ender Wiggins, a genius among geniuses.  Bred specifically for intelligence and cunning, Ender is the last, best hope for humanity in their war against the buggers, and alien race that attacked the Earth not once, but twice, in an attempt to colonize it.  Sounds like the basic plot of just about any  science fiction novel.  The twist?  Ender is only six years old.  He is taken from his family and sent to Battle School, where he learns to fight in mock battles with other cadets.  But the real plan for Ender involves him learning to be very good at the game that the military has devised to develop his skills as a strategist.  At the age of 10 he is sent to Command School, where he trains with the person who defeated the buggers during the last invasion.  As the games become more challenging and Ender begins to collapse under the weight of everyone's expectations, the military's manipulation of him leads to devastating consequences-for the fleet, for the buggers, and ultimately for Ender.

Card's writing in Ender's Game is almost clinical, but that just adds to the "otherness" feeling that you get from the characters.  Ender and his siblings-both of whom washed out of the Battle School program-are just as brilliant as he is.  Peter, his older brother, washed out for being a ruthless little sociopath whose tendency towards violence and power was not tempered by empathy.  Valentine, his sister, washed out for the opposite reason-too much empathy, not enough ruthlessness.  The military hopes it is Ender who will present the perfect blend of these two traits-calculating and violent enough to lead a war, but empathetic enough not to kill unnecessarily.  And while you feel sorry for Ender, he is certainly not perfect.  He is violent, and emotionally distant, and ruthless when provoked.  But how much can be blamed on a child, when from birth he was trained for war.  

Given the fact that there are children all over Africa and Asia being conscripted as soldiers and made to fight right now, the premise feels more possible than a science fiction novel often does.  Ender does his job, and he does it well-but there is a price.  I will admit to being surprised to find that the final "games" were real battles.  I guess since I knew there were sequels I assumed the war continued.  Despite being manipulated into xenocide, Ender feels crushing guilt.  While an argument can be made that it wasn't his "fault", it doesn't begin to assuage the remorse he feels for that and so many other things that were kept from him during his time at the school.  And after losing his family and never being allowed to have real friends, he loses his home.  Concerned that he will be used by the various governments to defeat the other governments, he is forbidden ever to return to Earth.  And so the rest of the world blithely goes on with their politics-and Ender pays the price.

Literary Blog Hop-Wish You Were Here

Friday, February 04, 2011

Literary Blog Hop

It's that time again!  The Literary Blog Hop is a hop designed for book bloggers who read and review primarily literary fiction hosted by the lovely bloggers at The Blue Bookcase.
This week's prompt was a real challenge for me...

Robyn asks: What setting (time or place) from a book or story would you most like to visit? Eudora Welty said that, "Being shown how to locate, to place, any account is what does most toward making us believe it...," so in what location would you most like to hang out?

Ok, so this presents a couple of conundrums for me.  First of all, I've read A LOT of books in my time, as I'm sure most of you have as well.  I'm pretty sure that I've read a novel that takes place on just about every continent and in most climate regions of the world, making it hard to narrow down.  Really, I could pick just about anywhere and I could probably find a book I've read that takes place there.

Second, unlike some of you I do read some genre fiction, fantasy and science fiction specifically.  So, does my place have to be real?  I mean, would choosing Narnia be totally cheating because it doesn't really exist? (Because if I was going to choose a fictional place, it would definitely be Narnia.  Come on, talking animals?  Fugedaboudit!) 

Finally, there is the time factor.  I mean, sometimes a place would only be interesting if you were there for the historical events that surrounded it.  I mean, most Civil War battlefields are only flat spaces covered with grass now.  I could visit them, but what would I see?  

So, how to answer the question?  Funnily enough, the place I have chosen is from a fantasy novel that has a historical context, and there is some question of how much of that historical context was reality rather than fiction.  And that place is....drumroll...Cornwall in England.

Cornwall is the supposed site of King Arthur's reign, and there is a group in North Cornwall that believes they have identified Arthur's castle and Merlin's Cave near Tintagel.  This area is the setting for Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon, which is my favorite re-telling of the Arthurian legend.  With it's strong feminist focus and themes of the Christianization of the old world and fate vs. free will, it made quite an impression on me as a high schooler.  I've read it several times since then, and every time I want to jump on a plane to England and visit all of the places mentioned.  Tintagel, the Tor, the rugged coast, the woods where the Horned God and the Goddess met and renewed the world...all magical.  The fact that I am a bit of an Anglophile doesn't hurt.  If I ever make it to England, Cornwall will be but one of many places I want to visit.  But there are actually tours designed to take you to the sacred sites of the ancient world in the UK, and as nerdy as I feel being excited about that, if I ever get over there I'm signin' up!

Tintagel Castle, possible site of Camelot

Glastonbury Tor, also prominent in the legend