Thursday, September 24, 2009

Quote, Unquote

While collecting my favorite quotes from books, I discovered that quite a few of them come from Charles Dickens novels. I always knew I liked Dickens, but I never realized why. At least, not really. If you were to ask me earlier why I liked Charles Dickens, my answer probably would have been great characters, his grasp of both comedy and drama, his theatrical sensibility, his social conscience, his role in the popularity of Christmas, and any number of other reasons. You know what never jumps to mind first? Writing. Isn’t that funny? He is one of my favorite authors, and I never think to remember his writing skills. Perhaps the answer seems too obvious, and so I assume that it’s a given. Regardless, this attribute should not be overlooked.

It sounds so simple: I like Charles Dickens because he writes well. But I can’t say that about every author I encounter or every book I read. I like other writers for various reasons. Perhaps I should explain.

Story comes first. Whether it be a book, a play, a film, a song, or whatever, story always comes first. I am much more willing to forgive bad writing than I am willing to overlook a bad story. For example, Star Wars is a classic. However, some of its dialogue can make me cringe. Bad writing saved by its story. George Lucas himself has admitted he hates writing, and it is one of his weak points, but who cares?

And there is some writing that may not be bad, per se, but you just don’t mesh well with the author’s writing style. Like say, those people who have unsuccessfully attempted to read Tolkien but love watching the story in the Lord of the Rings movies. I had a similar experience with The Phantom of the Opera. Hard time reading it, but love the musical. And The Three Musketeers. Same thing. For me, a tough (and big) book to get through, but their adventures have always translated well on film. The bottom line is, for every author I like, I will always like their stories, if not necessarily their writing.

To clarify, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that for the authors I like, I do admire BOTH their writing and storytelling, but to varying degrees. The two are inevitably linked. Jack London is another author who I like specifically for his writing style. It’s kind of straightforward and unadorned (some might say boring), but in my opinion, he is one of the best prose writers out there. He knows how to be poetic without waxing poetic, if you get my drift. But he’s no Dickens. Dickens is so, well, quotable.

The only other writer that I can think of who is comparable to Dickens in his way with words is Shakespeare. I have a whole book of just Shakespeare quotes, not to mention a publication of his complete works. I think I’ve heard this said before, although I can’t remember where I heard it, and it is so true: Dickens is the Shakespeare of the novel.

In closing, here is a sample of my favorite Dickens quotes:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” (A Tale of Two Cities)

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” (A Tale of Two Cities)

"I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D.
December, 1843."

(A Christmas Carol [Preface])

Marley was dead: to begin with.” (A Christmas Carol)

“And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us Every One!” (A Christmas Carol)

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” (David Copperfield)

* “The sound of a deep bell came along the wind. One.

‘Lie on,’ cried [Ralph Nickleby], ‘with your iron tongue! Ring merrily for births that make expectants writhe, and marriages that are made in hell, and toll ruefully for the dead whose shoes are worn already! Call men to prayers who are godly because not found out, and ring chimes for the coming in of every year that brings this cursed world nearer to its end.’ ”
(Nicholas Nickleby)

The Charles Dickens works that I’ve read include Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol, A Cricket On The Hearth, and Nicholas Nickleby. Yes, I’ve read a lot of Dickens, but anyone who is familiar with Dickens would know that I still have a long way to go.

*Edit: I forgot this quote from Nicholas Nickleby. Ralph Nickleby's speech before his demise. Even Dickens villains have their moments.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Joy Luck Club*

It’s coming on back-to-school time again, and I’m only now beginning to realize that I’ve missed out on summer reading this year. My summer was spent instead on TV marathons and summer blockbusters. This would explain why my last two blog posts were inspired by TV shows rather than books. Have you ever just felt tired of reading? I have, so you’ll forgive me if I’ve given myself a break these last few months. Maybe TV-watching was my summer reading. Think of it as my way of giving my brain a vacation. School officially starts tomorrow here in my hometown, so I guess that means that it’s time to get back to work.

I do want to get back into a rhythm, but it’s been difficult to work myself up to that necessary level of excitement. However, in an attempt to find the joy of books again, I’ve been trying to think back to a time when I was enthusiastic about reading. Which begs the question: What was the last really good book I ever read? I can tell you, but first let me tell what it’s not. It’s not a Harry Potter book. It’s not a Twilight book. It isn’t a Shakespeare play or Austen or Dickens. Can you guess what it was?

The answer: Lord of the Rings.

The key to identifying a really good book is that you want to reread it again as soon as you finish it. Or read more, as in the case of a book series. Then you want to read it again, no matter how many times you've read it before. I've only read Lord of the Rings once, but nevertheless, it is still part of this club. Perhaps if the movies hadn’t come out so soon after I’d finished LOTR, I would have reread the book by now. But it’s a good thing the movies did come out when they did because I was a quick fanatic. Such books are few and far between. They are in a club all their own, beyond academics and above hype.

Matilda also belongs in this category for me, the book I read four times in a row when I was younger and could still pick up today with complete anticipation. To Kill a Mockingbird came later. I love To Kill a Mockingbird because I can pick it up, begin reading at any chapter, and still get lost in the story. It took time for me to warm to The Giver, but I came around. I think I was too young when I read it the first time, but giving it a second try made me want to give it a third.

Harry Potter counts, too, but strangely, I had also been so busy trying to finish the series, wondering what was going to happen next, and reading the books so quickly once I got them that I get the feeling I never took the time to really savor them. Harry Potter is a special circumstance because it is simultaneously a great book experience and a regrettable one.

Matilda, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Giver, Lord of the Rings. A very short list considering the amount of books I’ve read. It’s a very elite club, but they wouldn’t be so special if you read books like that every day. My very own Joy Luck Book Club. Joy, because I’m happy to have discovered them, and Luck because, well, I’m also lucky to have found them. No one knows for certain which books will hit all the right notes for any given person, even oneself. But that is what good fortune is: Joy and Luck. You may have to do a lot of reading to find the gems, but once you do, they are valuable beyond words.

Edit: I would also add A Christmas Carol to this list.

*Joy Luck Club is my favorite book by Amy Tan. Also, it was the first book I read of hers. I also recommend The Bonesetter's Daughter.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Little Women*

I just finished a major marathon of the TV show Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. I’ve been watching various episodes off and on for a while now, and it took only one weekend to get through the last season, start to finish. It’s funny because I remember seeing the movie years ago during a sleepover, and suffice it to say, it wasn’t a favorite, which is probably the reason why I was never interested in seeing the TV show. Thinking back, I wonder whether I would have given the TV show a chance while it was on if I hadn’t known about the movie. Now I’ll never know, but at least I’ve rectified my ignorance since. I know what you’re thinking: Hours of television = totally useless. Maybe it is, but watching Buffy did get me thinking about female heroes through the ages.

ELIZABETH BENNET (of Pride and Prejudice): I consider Elizabeth Bennet to be Cinderella. Classic. Indisputable. She is the fairy tale. I believe every woman needs a role model like her, namely, someone who literally lives happily ever after. And they need to believe in her. Is it unhealthy to think this way? Well, on the other hand, is it healthy to be a cynic about happily-ever-afters? Answer for yourself, but consider this last question while you’re at it: Is Elizabeth Bennet’s life perfect? Really? Having a happy life and having a perfect life are not the same thing. I believe that if everyone had a role model like Elizabeth Bennet, they’d reconsider what “happily ever after” really means, and consequently live happier, healthier lives for it.

JO MARCH (of Little Women): Jo March is my personal favorite. She loves books, writes for fun, lives in New England, and, best of all, loves her sisters, so for all those things I can identify with her personally. But what I like about her most is that she comes across as ordinary. Certainly, compared to the other women in this list, she may seem rather boring. She doesn’t go on any grand adventures. Her virtue is that she finds identity and happiness living an everyday life. She’s poor, she does not have superpowers, nor does she triumph over anything by kicking anyone’s butt. Jo conquers her problems through perseverance, talent, hard work, and family support. Yeah, I can dig that.

NANCY DREW: As far as heroines go, Nancy Drew is a relatively flat character. She never really evolves in any way through her stories, but remains the same. Each mystery is independent of the others because none of her stories seems to have an impact on the next one. But maybe her consistency is part of her appeal. No matter what, she always solves her case. She’s clever, attractive, smart, independent, strong, brave. Why mess with that?

LOIS LANE (of Superman): You can’t talk about Superman without including Lois Lane. I remember being obsessed over Superman when I was really young, ever since seeing Superman: The Movie. Lois Lane is probably my earliest fictional female icon, come to think of it. I mean, honestly, I wasn’t reading Pride and Prejudice when I was six. All that Austen wit would have gone right over my head. And I was definitely too young to be allowed to watch Terminator. She even beats out Nancy Drew because I fell in love with Superman before I ever read a Nancy Drew mystery. I think that maybe, subconsciously, I loved Superman because I wanted to be Lois Lane. Don’t get me wrong: The superpowers are great and everything, but Superman isn’t the same without her.

SARAH CONNOR (of the Terminator movies): The thing that attracts me to Sarah’s character is that she is a mother. She may not be the best mother, but it is what motivates her. It is what defines her. It’s also what keeps her grounded and holds her humanity intact. Perhaps more than any other heroine on this list, she is a fighter, but not to the point of becoming like the unfeeling robots that she’s forced to deal with. She represents the motherly instinct to a heightened, primal degree. And that rocks.

As Jo March defines it, she says, “I’ll try to be what he loves to call me, ‘a little woman’, and not be rough and wild; but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else” (Little Women, Chapter 1). Each of these women proves that regardless of time or place, “little women” have always been around and always will be. In fact, the title is kind of ironic because there’s nothing “little” about these women at all.

*Little Women actually comes in two parts. Louisa May Alcott's Good Wives is considered its sequel. Some publications of Little Women include Good Wives, some do not.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Long Way From Chicago*

I’ve been watching a lot of ER episodes lately, buying the DVD sets and watching the seasons straight through. (But not in order, as usual. I bought season 8 first. On sale. See my blog entry “The Long Winter.”) I grew up with this show, but it was not until this year, when the show ended after 15 seasons, that I truly began to appreciate just how much of an impact the show has had on me.

The first ER episode I ever saw was “Hell and High Water” from season 2 (i.e. the one where Doug Ross saves a boy from a storm drain). That episode has remained my all-time favorite episode of the series ever since, and not because I’m a George Clooney fan. In fact, I’m not really a George Clooney fan aside from his work on ER. You have to admit, though, that “Hell and High Water” did make George Clooney a movie star. Perhaps what’s so brilliant about that episode is that it feels like a full-blown movie production instead of a TV show. And they did it in one hour. It wasn’t a two-parter with a clever cliffhanger or a big-bang season finale. It was near the start of the season. In TV terms, such a big show was most likely unexpected, in a good way. It was the first ER episode filmed outside the ER, and for that it was a big step forward for the show. But probably the biggest reason I love that episode so much is because it is my first ER memory.

Some of my favorite episodes include:

-“Blizzard” and “The Gift” (Season 1, episodes 9 and 10): the quintessential Christmas episodes of the series; great to watch back to back; plus, Rosemary Clooney sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" :)

-”Love’s Labor Lost” (Season 1, episode 18): a defining episode for Mark Greene as he tries to save a woman in the middle of a difficult labor and her baby; guest: Bradley Whitford

-”Hell and High Water” (Season 2, episode 7): see above

-”The Long Way Around (Season 3, episode 15) and “Great Expectations” (Season 6, episode 8): two great Carol Hathaway episodes; in "The Long Way Around," Carol finds herself in the middle of a convenience store robbery (guest: Ewan McGregor), and in "Great Expectations," she gives birth to her twins.

-”Exodus” (Season 4, episode 15): great John Carter episode, where he takes charge of the ER after a chemical spill. Carter is my favorite character.

-”Such Sweet Sorrow” (Season 6, episode 21): Doug and Carol reunite for good

In truth, I quit watching the show regularly after the eighth season. I would have been satisfied if the show had ended at the death of Mark Greene. By then, all of the characters I cared about were either gone and/or resolved enough story-wise for me to let it be. Mark Greene had lived a good life; Doug and Carol were finally together; Benton found a stable family life; Susan Lewis was back at work, like old times; and John Carter had gone from med student to mentor. In other words, all of the original characters had come full circle, and as for the other characters (i.e. Weaver, Corday, Romano, Abby, Kovac, and Chen), it was easy for me to imagine that they would simply carry on. I admire its longevity, even if the show may have gone on a little too long. It was nice to see some of the old cast members come back for a few episodes in its last season anyway. It almost makes me regret dismissing the show for the last 7 years.

When it was announced that ER would be ending after 15 years, I couldn’t help but step back and think, “It’s been fifteen years?” That means I’ve only really been following the show for a little over half its run. But in that interim, even when I wasn’t watching, ER was there, you know? I took it for granted that it would always be on TV, and then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. Fifteen years? Needless to say, ER changed a lot over 15 years, and so did I. Both of us have come a long way from that first show. I think I’m bound to remember ER if only because it was one constant during the pivotal years of my life--the growing-up years. It’s funny to think that the show has existed through my adolescent to college, and now post-college years.

Maybe I have nothing to worry about. There may not be anymore new episodes, but that doesn’t mean it won’t always be on TV, or DVD. I just have to learn not to take it for granted. The Chicago-reality on ER may be a long way from the Chicago that actually exists, but for awhile, even in reruns, I am swept up by the story, caught up in the characters. For an hour at least.

*A Long Way From Chicago is one of several young adult novels by Richard Peck. It also has a sequel called A Year Down Yonder.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Jane (Austen) Book Club*

Recently I have been rereading Jane Eyre. I didn’t think I would get as far as I have, but I am now about halfway and still eager to continue. Jane Eyre is another book that I was introduced to in an English class. Although I had been thinking that I should read it again, I thought that if I did pick it up, I would lose interest within the first few chapters, or even the first few pages. Here’s a test for you: Take a book you’ve read because you had to (usually from an English class, at least for me) and read it again when you don’t have to. Do you still like it? Or, if you didn’t like it before, do you like it now? This was probably my main motivation for reading Jane Eyre again--to see if I actually liked it.

And I am pleased to say that, yes, I do like Jane Eyre. In fact, I would say that in some ways Jane Eyre is superior to that other famous Jane of English literature, Jane Austen, which I know is a blasphemous statement to all the hopeless romantics of the world. Sorry about that. I like Jane Austen, but she isn’t perfect.

For one thing, the description in Jane Eyre is much stronger than any comparative text in an Austen novel. Its tone and atmosphere is vivid and distinct. Description has always been one of Austen’s weak points for me. Rather, Austen’s novels thrive on dialogue, and her stories and characters are merely used as illustrations of the specific concepts being discussed, such as pride, prejudice, sense or sensibility.

Perhaps the Austen novel that is the best comparison for Jane Eyre is Emma, which also happens to be my favorite of Austen’s books, because both are essentially well written character studies. It’s no surprise that both novels are named after their main characters. To Austen’s advantage, she has, in Emma Woodhouse, created a character who is not restricted by her need for wealth, which takes the novel’s focus somewhat off marriage. This is, I think, what allows the story to examine a character rather than an issue, just as Jane Eyre does. But these books also show how Austen and Eyre are different. Eyre is much darker in imagery and tone, gothic, and bleak. Austen’s tone is more comedic and, of course, romantic.

But that’s not to say that Jane Eyre isn’t a love story. It is. Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester make an intriguing couple, and I enjoy seeing their relationship develop throughout the story. But romance, I must say, is where Austen excels beyond Bronte. No one tells a love story like Austen does, and she has done it time and time again in several novels, not just one.

Each Jane has her strengths and weaknesses, and I admit that I can’t seem to choose one over the other, but the beauty of it is, do I have to?

*I have never read The Jane Austen Book Club, so I couldn’t tell you if you should read it or not, but the movie was pretty good.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Dark Is Rising*

I am going to start making book recommendations through the titles of my blog posts. Each title will be the name of a book and will reflect a topic I wish to address. I will try to always include a small blurb at the end of each entry about the book I’ve included. For this entry, I’ve chosen The Dark Is Rising because it is the perfect lead-in to talk about villains, and a perfect title/theme to counterpoint my blog post “Esperanza Rising.”

There’s an interesting line from the movie The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” One thing I’ve learned from my reading experience is that the line between hero and villain is actually a lot thinner than most readers realize. In fact, I would argue that the best villains are the ones most like their respective heroes.

Take, for instance, the Queen from Snow White. Beauty is the defining characteristic of both the Queen and Snow White and the key to each women’s rise to power. It’s a simple comparison, but we’re talking about a fairy tale with a basic story line, so the comparison works. Think about it: the Queen, perhaps, was a carbon copy of Snow White when she was a young girl. But that’s where the similarities end. In contrast, for the Queen, beauty is a curse that leads to vanity and jealousy, but for Snow White it’s a blessing. She’s so beautiful, in fact, that the woodsman sent to kill her spares her out of mercy. Why is that?

And then there’s Star Wars, and the brilliance of that saga is that the villain is the hero. It is Anakin’s story after all, not Luke’s. Luke just carries the saga forward in the middle of the story, in place of his father, and acts as Darth Vader’s means of redemption. The story is not complete until Anakin’s story is fully told. Furthermore, the Darth Vader/Luke dynamic only proves the hero-villain theory that the best duos are more alike than different: both are powerful, with similar Jedi training. They even share the same genes! But they use the same means to achieve different ends.

Returning to The Dark Knight: What is it that causes a hero to become the villain? And conversely, what prompts a villain to redeem himself, as Darth Vader does? To explain, I’m reminded of another line from another story: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

That, of course, is a line from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I love that book particularly for its hero-villian conflict, as Harry debates whether or not he should have been a Slytherin. The idea of choices is what Chamber of Secrets--and the difference between a hero and a villain--boils down to. The best hero-villain pairs are those who clearly illustrate the choice between good and evil, which is the essence of truth. And they illuminate truth by showing us the same situation with vastly different outcomes.

Yes, Dumbledore is a wise man indeed.

Note: The Dark is Rising is the title of the fantasy series by Susan Cooper. The Dark Is Rising is also the name of the second book in the series.

Update: Looks like Entertainment Weekly stole my topic this week. Check it out here:,,ewTax:1041,00.html

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Esperanza Rising*

Esperanza is the Spanish word for hope, so it’s easy to deduce from the title Esperanza Rising that the story will be, well, hopeful. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. . . . right? Unfortunately, in this day and age, nothing is that cut-and-dry. There’s always a cynic. (Gee, that was a very cynical thing to say.)

The phrase “happily ever after” either makes you leap for joy, or makes you cringe. Maybe a little of both.

What is a happy ending? To me, a happy ending is one that does not make you a cynic. Under that definition, even some sad endings can qualify. Also under that definition, even some so-called “happy” endings DON’T qualify. So don’t think I’m trying to say that all stories should end in “happily ever after.”

So, let’s define “happy.” Off the top of my head, I can think of these categories of what, to me, qualifies as a happy ending.

Bittersweet: A Tale of Two Cities, Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird, Titanic

Inspirational: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, sports movies like Rudy or Remember the Titans

Happily ever after: Cinderella, Pride and Prejudice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

“Life goes on”: Charlotte’s Web, Tuck Everlasting

Cinderella is usually the model people use when discussing happy endings, and I think that is because the story is often used on both sides of the debate. On one hand, Cinderella is considered the ultimate happily ever after, but on the flip side, Cinderella is an example of a “bad” happy ending. The example of Cinderella is proof to me of how optimists see the world one way and cynics another. I can usually tell a cynic from an optimist depending on if they like or dislike the Cinderella story.

I like to think of Cinderella’s cynics as ugly-stepsister-caricature types who are so jealous of Cinderella’s beauty, long-suffering, kindness, friendships, and good fortune that their only excuse is that Cinderella is an impossible standard (because they are inferior themselves). I see more good than bad. But that’s just me.

The sad part is, cynics use Cinderella as a blanket excuse to reject all happily ever afters. But not every happy ending follows the Cinderella model, as I’ve pointed out. Hope, esperanza, is the common thread. Cynicism seems to me to be the lazy way out the more I read. A cynical ending is simply one where the author didn’t go far enough to discover the hope, and if he had gone just a little bit farther, he might have found it. Happy endings are tough to find and to pull off, but well worth the payoff.

And so I leave you with this book recommendation, Esperanza Rising, a riches-to-rags story that is like Cinderella in reverse. I promise there will be a happy ending, but you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out what kind of happy it is.

*Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan is about a girl from a well-to-do Mexican family who is forced to move to America and become a field worker in California after a devastating family tragedy.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Children’s Literature: Not Just for Kids

I once went through a reading stage where my main ambition was to read as much “literaure” as possible. Dickens, Austen, Twain, London, Shakespeare, Bronte, Alcott, Emerson, Thoreau, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Longfellow, and on and on. Even when I departed from the classics, I stayed within modern literary boundaries like Amy Tan and John Irving. This attitude probably defines my high school and college careers. I read what my English teacher told me to read, and then to further my goal, I became an English major in college.

Well, in truth, I may have had the desire to read all these authors’ works, but mostly I just collected their books to read “someday.” I succeeded to some degree, though, because I read and learned a lot from English classes, even enduring the books I didn’t like for the sake of knowing more about books. I still have this attitude to a certain degree. I never stopped wanting to explore the classics, and I am still holding on to my book collection, and expanding it, for someday.

But halfway through college, something happened that forever changed the way I view a good book: I took a children’s literature class. Admittedly, it never crossed my mind at first to even consider taking the class. But after some prodding from my sisters, I gave in, thinking it might be an easy “A” at the very least, especially after all the grueling literary analysis in other classes. However, I was still skeptical that I would only end up being bored.

Thankfully, that was not the case. What did happen was that I ended up rediscovering books I remembered reading when I was younger, or discovering new books that I would have never read had it not been for the class. It also helped relieve this weird pressure I was inflicting on myself to be so intellectual about books. I discovered that reading could be fun. I discovered that books could be meaningful. (Maybe I already knew this, but I had forgotten.) Not only that, but I learned about children’s lit history and about the authors, explored several different genres, and I got to read! Soon after, I moved on to the young adult literature class.

In a way, what the children’s lit class really did was remind me of why I love books. It gave me the same feeling I had when I was introduced to A Tale of Two Cities in my freshman year of high school, or when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird. The reason I had become so ambitious about literature was because I love reading so much. I just got a little carried away and forgotten what I was doing it for.

So, in closing, I’ll simply leave you with a list of children’s/young adult lit reading recommendations. Some of these books are ones I read in the children’s/YA lit classes.

The Giver by Lois Lowry
Beauty by Robin McKinley
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Holes by Louis Sachar
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman
Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World by Jennifer Armstrong
The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Picture Books

Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin & Mary Azarian
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Olivia by Ian Falconer
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe
Tuesday by David Wiesner
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka & Lane Smith

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Long Winter

I just got done reading the Little House book of the same name as this blog post. Technically I was on the fourth book, not the sixth. But I read it anyway because wintertime has got me in the mood, and I have to tell you, it has helped me keep things in perspective. After reading the book, I feel like I’m getting off easy in this weather.

I oftentimes read a series out of order. There’s Harry Potter, of course. When I picked up the series, I started at the second book (although admittedly I skipped the first one only because I had just seen the movie), and went chronologically from there, before going back and reading the first one. I read them one after the other, until the fifth book, then I had to wait eagerly for the release of the next Potter book like everyone else.

I haven’t finished the Narnia series yet. For the longest time, I could never get past The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I’ve read that book and The Magician’s Nephew more than once, but I’ve never felt the need to go further, until recently when I made it about a quarter way through The Horse and His Boy before skipping to Prince Caspian when the movie was about to come out. Maybe it’s because of sequel syndrome. Most times, the sequel isn’t as good as the original, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a high point in the series. I still can’t get into The Horse and His Boy, but maybe skipping to Prince Caspian was the solution because now I’m eager to keep going.

Another fantasy series I haven’t finished is the Dark is Rising. And I started with the fourth book, The Grey King, picking it up at random one day and, honestly, not realizing it was part of a series until I brought it home. Then I read the second and third. Still haven’t read the first or last of the series, but I like it a lot and hope to get to it someday.

The very first series of books that I ever got into was the Nancy Drew books. I read them voraciously when I was younger. But I tried to read one again after not reading one for years and years, and though it brought back fond memories, I think I’ve moved past them. That’s a good thing. If anything, I will always love them for the fun memories they give and the role they had in developing my love for reading.

A Series of Unfortunate Events. I haven’t finished yet, but (gasp!) I actually am reading this one in order. I think I’m on the . . . seventh? . . . one. I love the humor and tone of this series. It’s definitely one of a kind. And after the deluge of fantasy book series, this one is so refreshing since it’s not so heavy-handed on the epic drama. They’re each fast, engrossing reads and each can stand alone as a great story in itself. I feel like I could pick up any one of them on a whim and be entertained regardless. This a strength because sometimes a series can be exhausting because of the involvement it often requires to read them. Sometimes you want to read one book and be done with it.

Oh, and can anybody say Twilight? Love it. Enough said.

So for this long stretch of winter when we’re all stuck indoors, why not pick up a new series to read, or finish ones you’ve started?

Disclaimer: I left out Lord of the Rings because Tolkien never considered it as three books, and really, it is impossible to read those books out of order.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What Did You Get for Christmas?

Clothes and movies pretty much sums up what I got for Christmas. One of the movies I got was Mamma Mia!, which I watched for the first time with my family over the holiday. I also received the new biography of Stephen Schwartz (the composer and/or lyricist of Disney’s Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Prince of Egypt, Wicked, and Enchanted).

In addition, I just finished watching The Phantom of the Opera, and the other night I watched The Sound of Music. See a pattern? I love movie musicals. Along with those already mentioned, I have Annie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Singin’ in the Rain, Hairspray, Mary Poppins, Enchanted, White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Funny Face, My Fair Lady, several Disney films, five Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies, and five other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals besides The Sound of Music. There’s probably one or two I’m forgetting. . . . Suffice it to say, it is one of my favorite genres.

The Sound of Music has been my all-time favorite movie since I was a little girl, and I’ve always adored Disney films. However, I have to admit that I didn’t truly appreciate the movie musical until adulthood. My family might disagree with this conclusion. Apparently when I was little, I was obsessed with Annie. Perhaps the interest has always existed, but it just went unexplored.

Consider that I had never seen Singin’ in the Rain, Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers, White Christmas, Oklahoma!, or several other musicals until my adult years. Although I do recall watching Carousel when I was younger, but only the one time, and in bits and pieces at that. It did make an impression, enough so that it got my attention when I encountered it again much later. But, the first production of West Side Story I ever saw was not until my later years in high school, when a friend of mine was playing the lead as Maria. My introduction to Fiddler on the Roof? College. And besides a vague familiarity with the song “Music of the Night,” I knew nothing about the story of Phantom of the Opera until the release of the Gerard Butler/Emmy Rossum adaptation.

It’s funny how little impressions and inclinations can influence you, how the things that you remember and loved as a child end up being the things you study in depth as an adult. In the space of a few years, my interest in and knowledge of musicals has expanded tremendously. It doesn’t hurt that Hollywood has taken notice, although none of the recent movie musicals, besides perhaps Enchanted, has ever matched up to the classics, in my opinion.

And the best part is, it’s just for fun. I can’t sing. I can’t dance. I never studied theater or filmmaking. Movie musicals can be criticized for being too kid-friendly, too corny, too artificial, and even too happy, but if you really look into the genre, you realize that it can be diverse and deep. Occasionally you have those cringe-worthy moments when you also realize why musicals get a bad rap, but I am a firm believer that the more time you take to get to know a subject, the more you are able to understand its weaknesses and more fully appreciate its strengths. And don’t take it too seriously. That always ruins things. Just have fun.