Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Weathering Wuthering Heights

I swear that there is a Friends reference for any situation you encounter in life. I’ve been saying it for years! And well, the show was on for 10 seasons so it only makes sense that they were able to cover a lot of situations and issues. You want proof? Well, I’ve already referenced friends once on this blog and I’m about to do it again.  Without further ado, the one that relates to Wuthering Heights:

Now that I’ve read the novel I see that Phoebe was indeed correct. The wildness of the moors do mirror the wildness of Heathcliff’s character. The symbolism isn’t subtle and Heathcliff’s character presents little else to land upon. 

Now, it is pretty rare that I read a classic novel and don’t really like it. My mantra has always been “they are classics for a reason” and there is some value in the characters, themes, author’s technique, etc. that will resonate with and impact any reader. And yet, I can’t say that I enjoyed Wuthering Heights or that I will take much away from it. 

About halfway through my reading of the novel I realized that I didn’t actually like any of the characters. Not one.  They were all obnoxious in their own special way and I wasn’t rooting for a single one to find resolve, I just didn’t care. Since that was the case it was difficult to feel invested in the plot or even interested in the ending.  But I forced myself to finish the book, as I often do.
I can’t help but wonder if my apathy was a reaction to the narrative technique that Bronte employed. Wuthering Heights is a story told by Mr. Lockwood, who is not a central character in anything interesting, and is actually just telling the reader about how he was told a story by Ellen Dean, a house-keeper. So, by the time the action of the story is distilled through two narrators it seems a bit watered down. It’s like hearing a story from a guy who once heard a story from another person? Kind of annoying.  Beyond the narrative technique though, each of the unlikable characters had some sort of misguided motivation to destroy their own lives and the lives of others. Even the central, tragic love story couldn’t proceed rationally without being undermined by both Cathy and Heathcliff (the central figures who were supposed to be in love?). 

I think I am probably being a bit too harsh on the novel, it is not completely devoid of worth or skill. The themes of revenge and the destruction that results from singular obsession did come across well and are timeless enough to have some power. Also, the supernatural elements that were woven in actually did make the novel haunting. I’m just not convinced that, that other-worldly element really made the novel eternal in the way that Bronte intended. Although, I think that Stephanie Meyer would disagree with me and that she found the book much more relevant when she decided to reference it repeatedly in her Twilight Series. I see the supernatural connection but if Meyer is implying that the themes in her books and the themes in Wuthering Height are comparable I would say that is quite the stretch.  

The bottom line? I don’t think that I’ve ever regretted reading a book, even one I didn’t enjoy. In the end, reading anything can expand your knowledge base and your perspective on many subjects. In this case, I am now much better equipped to put references to this book into perspective (even if they are from the show Friends).  But I don’t see myself re-reading this book anytime in the near future or without a well-articulated urging from an Emily Bronte champion, if those people exist in the world (and I’m sure they do). But maybe I will revisit it at some point in my life and be able it understand it in a new way, I would never rule out that possibility. 

“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” –Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Moving on from 2012

So, 2012 was not my best year. Don’t get me wrong…personally, professionally, academically I did pretty well.  However, I feel as though I dropped the ball in my literature life.  Here is the (far too short) list of books I read for pleasure:
1.       The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton – January 7, 2012
2.       The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb – January 20, 2012
3.       The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. – February 12, 2012
4.       The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – February 19, 2012
5.       The Pearl by John Steinbeck – March 9, 2012
6.       The Grace to Race by Sister Madonna Buder – March 18, 2012
7.       The Journey to the East by Herman Hesse – May 28, 2012
8.       Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond – June 7, 2012
9.       The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – June 9, 2012
10.   A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – July 21, 2012
11.   The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson – August 1, 2012
12.   The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larson – August 1, 2012
13.   The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larson –October 28, 2012
14.   Gluten-Free Girl by Shauna James Ahern – December 1, 2012
*dates reflect the day that I finished each book
Yep…that’s it! The number is almost embarrassing to me.

But then I remember that I made significant progress in the journey toward my graduate degree and a significant amount of my free time is dedicated to that endeavor (if I included grad school reading on this list, it would tell a whole other story about my year).  I also took on much more responsibility at work and this fall was possibly one of the most stressfully busy times that I’ve experienced in my life. 
Okay, here’s the plan…move forward! Finish my master’s degree this year and hopefully be much more proud of my 2013 reading list.  The funny thing is, that would have been the plan no matter what this list looks like.  So, in retrospect, I must be doing okay.
Also, what should I read in 2013?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Bloggers blog about blogs more than you think...

Lately, I find myself drawn to food blogs much more than ever before. Rather than assert that the blogs are getting better, I’m sure that the shift occurred within me. Through recommendations from friends/ family and the growth of avenues for sharing sites (no, I’m not on pintest yet…and no I don’t need an invite until my master’s degree is complete) I guess I’ve slowly turned into a food-blog follower. Oh, and it’s pretty awesome. There is such a wealth of free information out there – recipes, tips, restaurant reviews, product reviews, etc.—that it is becoming difficult not to follow more and more bloggers. I am finding all of the information invaluable, especially since I have to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet. So many talented writers and experienced foodies are open about their own trials and tribulations with gluten-free living and the food that they have experimented with or discovered. Here are some of my favorite gluten-free food blogs:

But that is not even a complete list of the food blogs that I keep an eye on. Seriously, I could go on. But why am I telling you this? Because the book that I read most recently is the memoir of the woman who writes the Gluten Free Girl and the Chef Blog, that’s why.  Being familiar with her blog, I thought that her book would be a fun read…and it was, but it also impacted me in a way that I didn’t expect.
Shauna James Ahern is pretty well known in the gluten-free world and in the food blog world in general.  In her book Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food the Loves Me Back and You Can Too she allows the reader access to her life lived with celiac disease. Like many of us, she wasn’t diagnosed with celiac disease until adulthood but the signs were there throughout her childhood and adolescent years.   Her explanations of how her family ate when she was young and how she began to define her own relationship with food when she set out on her own were endearing and most likely hold some familiarity for all Americans in the Gen-X and Millennial generations.  But it was her journey toward a diagnosis of celiac disease and the way her life changed afterward that impacted me the most.
                Shauna (I now know so much about her that I feel like we’re on a first name basis) had symptoms and struggles that were so similar to my own before I was diagnosed celiac that the familiarity really resonated with me.  So much so that reading her story helped me to reflect on and understand my own in a deeper way than I have before.  I’m not sure if I fully realized the blessing that having celiac disease has really been in my life. Having an autoimmune reaction to gluten has forced me to take better care of myself. It means that I HAVE to be conscious of the food that I put into my body; there is no such thing as mindless eating for me anymore.  And that I HAVE to advocate for myself in situations that I wouldn’t have before (something I am still working on in some cases).  It has taken patience and time but I feel like it has literally made me a new person, healthier and more stable emotionally and physically.  
                Since there is comfort in solidarity, reading about how Shauna found a “new lease on life” after her diagnosis was interesting and entertaining to me.  Not to mention I learned a lot! I learned things about celiac disease that I had never thought to research before. I learned about a few new foods to be wary of and a few new foods that can be added to my repertoire.  The book is intermixed with some gourmet recipes and inspiring tidbits about life, so it is now properly sticky noted and will remain accessible in my apartment. 
                The bottom line? The book maintains an easy, enjoyable pace and Shauna James Ahern has a background in teaching writing, so there is substance there for sure. This book is a quick, pleasing read about gluten and celiac disease. It is worth a read if you have celiac disease or if you have an interest in learning more about the disease and how it affects the people in your life who have it. It may also be worth a read as just an interesting memoir that gives you perspective on a different walk of life (I can’t really say for sure on that one, because I can’t read the book as a person without celiac disease).  I will definitely recommend it to any gluten-free newbies as a useful way to learn more and to get some insight on their own struggles.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Tale of Gotham City?

Don’t you even try to tell me that the literary classics aren’t relevant today! I’ve heard it all, and I’m not interested.  Come on people, they are called classics for a reason. The themes, the characters, and even the words themselves are timeless. No matter when you pick up a classic, there will be something in it that resonates with you (I promise).  I bet you are wondering if I have a real world example…of course I do. I feel as though I have been unusually blessed in my literary life. I always seem to read the right book at the right time, so that all of a sudden I can understand references and allusions in popular culture. Case in point: reading A Tale of Two Cities right before the newest Batman movie was released.  

It is shameful to admit as an English major that I had never read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, not in high school or in college. In fact I was never asked to read any Charles Dickens and didn’t until after I graduated. Needless to say, I’ve had some catching up to do and I’m still working on it. So, I grabbed A Tale of Two Cities off of my shelf and made it one of my summer reads.  The novel took some time for me to really settle in to and I understand why people may struggle with it. Dickens was a master of details, and he takes his sweet time laying the ground work and the character background before the plot really seems to find a comfortable pace.  It makes me sad that people get bogged down in all of that in the beginning of his novels (and most classics) that they give up on them. Because if you can power through all of that and read on, the pay-off is sweet! 
Once the French Revolution truly begins in the novel, it is difficult to put down. Dickens was so thorough in his descriptions of French life before and during the revolution that some scenes seem almost graphic.  The novel paints a clear picture of how the oppressed people became the bloodthirsty oppressors, but does so without any form of black and white judgment. It lets us explore a national revolution with access to the complicated human emotions on both sides. That’s what makes novels like this so prolific. The hope is that a reader will emerge with a better understanding of the horrors that plague the human legacy, so that we can learn not to repeat them; if not as a society or as a race then at least as individuals. A theme like that is absolutely relevant today…just ask Christopher Nolan.
I finished reading A Tale of Two Cities on July 21st and saw The Dark Knight Rises on July 22nd, so I immediately recognized the parallels between the novel and the new movie.  They would be difficult for anyone to miss. Without giving too much away, here’s a few of the obvious:
  • Ripping the rich from their homes and sharing the spoils
  • A bloated “judicial system” holding ridiculous public trials
  • Thin ice rather than the outright, gruesome horror of the guillotine (but same idea)
  • Storming Black Gate Prison = Storming the Bastille    
Now, despite the similarities, it would be incorrect to say the movie was based on the novel or that it was just a reenactment of the French Revolution.  In the movie it was a misguided criminal leading the revolution with no aim what-so-ever at freeing the people of Gotham or moving forward with a new government; that of course is why Batman has to step in and attempt to save his beloved city once again. 

So, when I saw the movie the first time I thought that I may have been overreaching with the similarities. You know how it is…when material is fresh in your mind you somehow find a way to apply it to everything else you see or read.  However, I felt vindicated when I saw the movie a second time (yes, I’ve already seen it twice so feel free to judge me).  During my second watch, I realized that Commissioner Gordon is actually reading directly from A Tale of Two Cities at the very end of the movie.  I knew the words sounded familiar so I double checked the end of the novel and sure enough, there I found a slightly different version of what was read in A Dark Knight Rises.  I wasn’t overreaching the first time I saw it. The classic novel is still prolific in popular culture. And the classics may be more relevant than ever.  I love it!

So, what does it all mean? Pick up a classic novel and you’ll be surprised at how many references to it you will begin to notice (and understand) in your daily life. Hollywood is more well read and on top of allusions than we like to give them credit for. And go see the new Batman movie, it’s worth it.
If you aren’t a Batman fan (do those people actually exist?), don’t worry! There are plenty of other references to this novel in popular culture:

“He knew enough of the world to know that there is nothing  in it better than the faithful service of the heart.”  ~Charles Dickens,  A Tale of Two Cities

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Iron Nun? Really?

Yeah…really! Sister Madonna Buder is a Spokane legend. Being able to say, “I saw Sister Madonna running home from the store this morning,” is pretty much a celebrity sighting in the Inland Northwest. Even more so if you discover her patented technique for running while holding a carton of eggs. Sister Madonna is an 82 year old nun who travels the world running triathlons. Actually, not just triathlons…many of her events are ironman distance. That’s a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, and capped off with a full marathon (26.2 miles) run. If you haven’t already picked up on how impressed I am with Sister Madonna, then you need to sense the tone and get on board with me…she’s amazing!

It was really interesting to read about her early years (she grew up in a wealthy St. Louis family) and what led her to become a nun. I can personally say that I have never really thought about the process that leads a person to choose a nun’s life. It was also very interesting to get a look into what a nun might do and where she might go, depending on what order she joins.

Sister Madonna never even went for a run until she was 48 years old, but after that it took over the latter half of her life. Her first competition was Bloomsday in Spokane (an event that I am hoping to run this year) and she slowly worked her way up to ironman triathlons. She has so many stories to share in this memoir about mishaps and triumphs during her race circuits. She has had many “angels” pop-up during her races to encourage her, she has been an “angel” to other competitors, she’s been blown off her bike by the wind, broken several bones, etc. but she keeps going. Basically, if you feel like you need some inspiration you should pick up this book! It’s not that well written but it’s definitely easy to read and the stories she has to tell are worthwhile.

I am in the process of training for a sprint triathlon this summer, which was another motivation for reading Sister Madonna’s book. If she can open the 80-85 age group in the Canada and Kona ironman races (no one that age had ever tried it before) then I can certainly finish a sprint distance tri. I’ll just have to keep that in mind!

“The real battle in life is conquering self.”

~Sister Madonna Buder, The Grace to Race

If you're looking for a quick intro to the Iron Nun, watch this:

Monday, March 19, 2012

Oh charmer!

It’s no secret to those who know me that I am in love with John Steinbeck. In fact, if he were still alive I believe that I could make him a very fitting fourth wife. I would encourage his literary talents and polish his Nobel Prize metal weekly. The fact that he died nearly 20 years before I was even born is probably a sign that it just wasn’t meant to be. If I can’t be with him in real life, I will have to be content in getting to know him more through his literature. I’d like to eventually read all of his works, which is why I chose The Pearl for my next book.

Although this is just a short novella (less than 100 pages), it shouldn’t be counted out among his other great work. It can’t necessarily stand up against comparison to say The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden but it has its own merits due to Steinbeck’s true talent as a writer. The Pearl is a folktale turned parable in which the main character’s life is ruined by just the prospect of great wealth, which a great pearl he has found could bring him. The short story packs a powerful view of the downfall of “the American dream” and the contrast of strong community ties versus a life of wealth. The morals of the story are not unfamiliar by any means, but they are ideas that we could stand to be reminded of as often as possible.

The true beauty of this short book was in Steinbeck’s use of music throughout the work. Yep, I said music. You usually don’t think of music underlying the scenes of a book because you just can’t hear it. Not to mention, music can be an extremely difficult thing to express in words. Movies have the musical theme thing locked down, but who would have thought that books can incorporate music too? But Steinbeck did it so well! You can almost hear the calm sustaining music of the family as they go about their morning routine. Your heart almost skips a beat when the song of evil begins to take more and more of a hold in the lives of the main character and his family. Just like a movie, without the music underlying the action this novella would be so much less powerful.

It’s impossible to conjecture whether the musical element would have worked so well if the novel was written in a time before movies. Maybe we need that framework, in which music compliments images and words, to really appreciate The Pearl. Even if that is the case, Steinbeck did a phenomenal job with this book. I can only assume it’s because he was a genius.

"A plan is a real thing, and things projected are experienced. A plan once made and visualized becomes a reality along with other realities -- never to be destroyed but easily to be attacked." ~John Steinbeck, The Pearl

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Just give in to the Hunger already!

Chances are you’ve heard the recent buzz about The Hunger Games. The three book series has become wildly popular and the first movie is scheduled to hit theaters later this month. It’s become a big deal….so what? I am always amazed by some people’s reactions to any fad that hits society. I know many people who will avoid something simply because it’s popular. Does it make us cool to say we aren’t giving into the latest craze? Maybe. But here’s my advice when it comes to books that quickly become wildly popular… give in to it. That’s right, pick up the book and give it a read. You will gain one of two things from this:

1. You will see that the book became wildly popular for a reason and was worth your time.


2. You will be able to silence the misguided fans of the book with an informed rebuttal on why the book is crap (if there’s one thing I hate, it’s people who say a book is stupid without ever having read it).

Either way you win. You especially have no excuse for not picking up The Hunger Games because it’s young adult literature; it won’t take a lot of effort or time to read.

Oh and also….The Hunger Games is awesome! It became wildly popular for justified reasons.

I gave into the fad last fall and found myself reading all three books in about a week. Since then I have pretty much recommended the series to anyone who will listen (or in this case read). The problem was that as I started recommending the books to friends I got jealous when I saw them reading. I seriously would look upon them with envy (one of the seven deadly sins…oops) and as we would talk about the books I was sad that I wasn’t immersed in Suzanne Collins’ dystopia version of future America. Obviously the only solution was to reread the book, and with the release of the movie on the near horizon, there seemed to be no better time than the present. So, I reread The Hunger Games.

Let me start by saying that rereading a favorite book is one of the greatest pleasures in life. You already know that you like the characters and you are invested in the plot, so on the second (or third or eighth) read you can feel free to really revel in the details and the writing. You can explore the characters at a new depth and take your time getting to know the world. It’s the best.

In this go-around I really focused on the main character, Katniss. It struck me that she is what has made the series so successful. Suzanne Collins wrote the character Katniss extremely well. If you think it’s easy to write a teenage girl as your main character and make her not only believable but likeable to millions of people, you should try it sometime. Katniss is strong and intelligent but she is also vulnerable in many ways. In the face of the horrible Hunger Games she is able to maintain her humanity and even has some characteristic teenage emotion without going over the top. Readers don’t just sympathize with her, they empathize with her. That is the sign of good writing, even if it is young adult literature.

While enjoying my second read of this book I was able to pinpoint the characteristic in Katniss that makes her so relatable…her inability to be scripted. Throughout the series various constituents attempt to tell her how to act in front of crowds and cameras, but she just can’t do it. Even when she thinks she is pretending, there is real emotion behind it. It’s so refreshing to read a character who has no idea how to be anything but a truly honest and genuine version of herself. Katniss also has her priorities in order. She values her family as well as the dignity and freedom of others over her own fame and fortune. All of these qualities make for a relatable character and provide the centerpiece for a bestselling series. I’m glad that young people, as well as adults, are connecting with such a worthwhile character and books that propagate important values while shedding harsh light on the course our society seems to be on.

So if you haven’t read The Hunger Games, what are you waiting for? I just wrote an entire blog post about them while trying to avoid any spoiler details…I did that for you! The movie will be released on March 23rd, so there’s still time. If you have read the books, read them again. Or at least the first one before seeing the movie. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Still not convinced? Maybe this will get you motivated to read the books: