Monday, May 23, 2011

Ethan Frome

Do you want to feel cold and heartbroken? Read this book. I've actually read it twice before, when I was a Freshman in high school, and then again when I was a Junior. But I hadn't read it since, so I decided to give it another go.

Plus, I had wandered over to the Ws to check out House of Mirth or Age of Innocence from the library, but they were both checked out. So I got Ethan Frome instead. And it's a perfect rainy weather book, since the whole thing takes place during a frozen New England winter.

It's a short book, I think it's technically called a novella, so it's a fast read. But if it were a longer book, I think it would take a long time to read because of the writing. It's very beautiful and kind of slow. It's quiet and cold, mostly because it's talking about people and places that are quiet and cold.

The whole book takes places over just a couple of days. Ethan Frome lives on an isolated farm with his crabby, sickly wife, Zeena, and her young, pretty cousin, Mattie, who lives with them to help out Zeena. Can you see where this is going? Ethan of course falls in love with Mattie. And although I am never a fan of such things, it makes so much sense. His wife is so terrible and Mattie is so sweet.

I mostly remembered the ending, but I had forgotten one key part of it that makes it all the more heart wrenching, so I just felt agonized over it. So good. Sometimes it just feels so amazing to have your heart torn out by the pain of fictional friends. Why is that? I don't know, but I loved it, and I love this book. It really is so fast. I remember the one I read in high school was less than 100 pages long. The one I read just barely was like 150, but the book was so small it fit in the back pocket of my jeans.

The writing is beautiful and gives such solid visuals to it all, you feel like you're there. It's really really beautiful.

Half Broke Horses

(One of the only disappointing things about this book is the cover photo. Not that the photo isn't amazing--because look at that girl with her cat on the right, so adorable--but it's not a photo of Lily, and I wish it were. This is a Dorothea Lange photo that is so great, but I think I would have preferred it to be more personal to the book.)

I just realized I never wrote about this book! I finished it a couple weeks ago, and thought I had. So . . . . yeah.

Half Broke Horses is the other book by Jeannette Walls, of The Glass Castle. I think most of you have either read The Glass Castle or at least know about it. Half Broke Horses is the story of Lily Casey Smith, Jeannette's maternal grandmother. She is amazing. She grew up on a ranch, moved away from her family at 15 to be a teacher in a small town in Arizona, lived in Chicago for awhile, then returned to the Southwest where she got married and continued to live on a ranch and also be a teacher.

That makes it sound boring, though, and it isn't. Lily just has a lot of spirit and spunk and she is awesome. Here's a good example: When she was 15 she packed up her horse and rode it 500 miles to a new town to be a teacher. She went alone, camped out on the way, and then became a teacher in a new place. At 15. When I was 15 I wouldn't have slept in my backyard by myself.

She is amazing, and her life is too. We get to know how Rosemary, Jeannette's mom, was when she was younger, which is so interesting if you've read The Glass Castle and know how she ends up. I'm sure any of you who liked The Glass Castle would really love this. And if you haven't read The Glass Castle, then what are you doing on the computer? Go read it right now, please. But really, I think anyone would like this. It was really good, and actually sort of inspiring to me to always be a strong woman no matter what happens in my life.

Oh, also, Jeannette Walls called this a novel, since that's the honest thing to do because she had to fill in some gaps, but it really is a true story. If you were wondering.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Gone with the Wind Anniversary Edition

So I realized this morning that you guys would think this is cool.

I am a huge Gone with the Wind fan. I love the book. I love the movie. I didn’t love the sequel, Scarlett, written by Alexandra Ripley, but I have read it more than once. Usually when I’m super depressed and want that happy ending, even though I love the real ending most.


This year is the 75th anniversary of the publication of Gone with the Wind. Per my google reader feed, I discovered about six weeks ago that there was a library in Southport, Connecticut that had an exhibit of the last four chapters of the typed manuscript on display for a month before they sent it to Atlanta with all the other GWTW paraphernalia. As I love this story so, so much, I desperately wanted to go. I easily convinced my roommate and her not-yet boyfriend, and we convinced another friend to come as well. He was more hesitant, but I’m pretty sure what sold him was the argument that he “needs to pay homage to the book that inspired the first movie that ever used a swear word.” It worked, and he enjoyed the exhibit.

Guys, it was SO COOL. They had the manuscript in a glass display case and you could see the copyediting marks in the margins, which was amazing. I loved being able to read it right there, and I know the book well enough to pick up on some text that changed between the manuscript and the final printing. They also had copies of foreign covers in many, many languages, which was really cool to see.  A lot of the covers were done after the movie came out and had excellent likenesses of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. They also talked about how in America we see it as this great tragic love story, but in Europe it was read much more for the political undertones. Apparently it made a big impact on them in the way the South handles the Reconstruction and stuff, and it was even banned in Spain (I might have the country wrong) during a war for fear that the people would rebel. I had no idea it was so influential in Europe. It made me want to read the book all over again.

I took some photos on my phone to text to my mother (who loves GWTW as much as I do), so they aren’t particularly high quality. But they are still cool.

GWTW in Hebrew and Arabic

GWTW in Danish

Part of the typed manuscript. The last line on the bottom of the right-hand page is Rhett Butler's famous, "My dear, I don't give a damn."

Orange Is the New Black

Orange Is the New Black was not written by Salman Rushdie :)

No, it was written by Piper Kerman, a Smith-graduate who unintentionally got herself caught in the world of drug trafficking, and ended up paying for it ten years later.

The bulk of the memoir covers the time she did in Danbury, the women’s prison in Connecticut, although she does discuss how she got to that point in the first place. I learned more than I ever knew before about the prison system, which is very interesting and full of flaws. I also learned a great deal about empathy. Because to me, that was the point of this book: people commit crimes when they don’t care about the suffering of others. Rape, theft, assault, drug dealing, they all are very selfish and uncaring acts. But when we start to care about other people’s suffering and we start to empathize with them, that’s when we become better and begin to heal. The relationships Piper has with her family and friends, and the relationships she forms with other inmates, are amazing examples of how we can help each other through terribly hard situations in life. We cannot get through life alone; we need other people.

So a little background, I’ve known about this book for several years, although it was only published in 2010. Piper Kerman, author, is the sister-in-law to my uncle Michael; I’ve actually had the chance to meet her twice, once at Michael’s wedding in 2007 and once just last month in New York. I like her a lot. It was a little strange to read a book where I’d met the author, as well as some other people who are mentioned (her husband and his family, my uncle’s in-laws). But she is a great writer: she had me laughing sometimes at the ridiculousness of some situations, and other times I cried because of the sadness she or others had to deal with. It’s a powerful book that I highly recommend. Her husband, Larry, wrote an article for the New York Times right before the book was published, talking about how it was for him while she was in prison. Also some powerful writing, so you should check it out too.

I do feel I have to give fair warning about the language in the book. It can get rather colorful, but as it was a depiction of her year in prison I didn’t really have a problem with that because I’m sure it was quite accurate. I also think I should perhaps warn you that homosexuality is discussed fairly regularly as well; again, it is a huge aspect of the prisoners’ lives (she mentions how some people choose to be “gay for the stay”), but it is never in any way explicit or graphic and didn’t make me uncomfortable at all. But I have no idea how others feel about those things, so I thought I'd mention it.

I really liked this book. I was impressed by her writing and I came away with serious questions about the prison system, as well as a strong desire to help (in the back of the paperback edition there is a list of organizations that work with women in the system as well as their children).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Millie)


Marilynne Robinson's book, Gilead, won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2004 and has been on my to read list for quite some time. (Not since 2004, but for some time.) Though I read her first book, Houskeeping, and liked it a lot, when I read reviews of Gilead, I was put off by quite a few negative reviews I read on Amazon.  The main complaints were that it was slow, wasn't plot driven, and that it was too religious.  As it turns out, I liked those things about it.

Gilead is set in Gilead, Iowa in 1956 with the minister, John Ames, facing death from heart disease. He has a young wife and son whom he loves deeply and decides to leave his son a family history.  Since his son is only 7, he knows he will not remember much about him and he wants his son to know him and how much he loved him and his wife, the boy's mother.  He decides to write a letter to be read when the son is older.
His rambling letter was a little slow moving the story along, but I loved the things he wrote.  They were about such simple, but real, moments in his life, and since he knew he didn't have long to live, he savored them.  It made me want to really observe and feel the simple things in life with a little more intensity and reverence and clarity.  Intensity and reverence don't seem to go together, but somehow, that's how his observations struck me.

As his writings start to include his remembrances and dealings with the family of his life-long friend, Old Boughton, the pace of the plot picks up.  He struggles as he writes about the "black sheep" of the Boughton family, Jack.  Clearly, he has negative feelings about him for a number of reasons, but he so wants to treat him with Christian charity.  This struggle shows the depth of John Ames's goodness and at the same time, the weaknesses he contended with.  Although he was a preacher, and there were scripture quotations a plenty, it did not seem "preachy" to me.  

There was an extensive review of the book in the New York Times, you might enjoy reading.  I read it after I read the book and it explained and clarified thoughts and feelings that I found hard to explain after reading it.  

I listened to the audio version of this book and thought the reader was excellent. His narration added dynamics to the story and maybe that is why I didn't find it super slow as some other readers did.  The only drawback to the audio version is that you can't mark or re-read passages and phrases that you love.  I might just have to buy the printed version too.

Here is an excerpt that was part of the review I mentioned above.  I think it gives you a little taste of the book and John Ames:

  The Church at Dawn
It's a plain old church and it could use a coat of paint. But in the dark times I used to walk over before sunrise just to sit there and watch the light come into that room. I don't know how beautiful it might seem to anyone else. I felt much at peace those mornings, praying over very dreadful things sometimes -- the Depression, the wars. There was a lot of misery for people around here, decades of it. But prayer brings peace, as I trust you know.
In those days, as I have said, I might spend most of a night reading. Then, if I woke up still in my armchair, and if the clock said four or five, I'd think how pleasant it was to walk through the streets in the dark and let myself into the church and watch dawn come in the sanctuary. I loved the sound of the latch lifting. The building has settled into itself so that when you walk down the aisle, you can hear it yielding to the burden of your weight. It's a pleasanter sound than an echo would be, an obliging, accommodating sound. You have to be there alone to hear it. Maybe it can't feel the weight of a child. But if it is still standing when you read this, and if you are not half a world away, sometime you might go there alone, just to see what I mean. After a while I did begin to wonder if I liked the church better with no people in it. . . .
In the old days I could walk down every single street, past every house, in about an hour. I'd try to remember the people who lived in each one, and whatever I knew about them, which was often quite a lot. . . . And I'd pray for them. And I'd imagine peace they didn't expect and couldn't account for descending on their illness or their quarreling or their dreams. Then I'd go into the church and pray some more and wait for daylight. I've often been sorry to see a night end, even while I have loved seeing the dawn come.
Trees sound different at night, and they smell different too. 

So, for me it was a 4 star book, but I realize this slower pace is not for everyone.  I think it's the kind of book you will really like or really not like, but I doubt there will be too many on the fence about this one.   

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Before we can go on, there is something I must clarify: Emma is my favorite movie. I watch it like 6 times a year. I think it's the funniest movie in the world, it seriously cracks me up. It's what I want to watch when I'm sick, or when I work on a craft project, I quoted it at the beginning of this post--stuff like that.

However, I hadn't read the book. And a few weeks ago I realized that was pretty ridiculous, so I read it.

I think most of you probably know the story, but just in case--Emma Woodhouse is a young woman, I think she's 21, who decides to take a new friend, Harriet Smith, under her wing and introduce her into good society. She also dabbles in matchmaking. Harriet is an orphan who lives with Mrs. Godard, a teacher. There are a whole bunch of other characters of course--Mrs. Weston, Emma's former governess who is recently married, and her new son in law, Frank Churchill. Mrs. Bates and Miss Bates, an elderly woman and her middle aged spinster daughter, and Jane Fairfax, their granddaughter/niece. Mr. Woodhouse, Emma's father, is so cute, and much more neurotic in the book than he is in the movie. And in the book we get to know John and Isabella Knightley, Emma's sister and her husband, much better. And then of course there is Mr. Knightley, who I love so dearly, so greatly. He is wonderful. The Eltons, who provide comedy and social faux pas galore. Everyone is so great.

One thing that is much more prevalent in the book than the movie is the amount of concern with class and rank and society. They talk a lot about who is beneath who, and whether this person or that person is suitable as a friend or a spouse. It made me glad to live in a much less stratified society, where it doesn't matter if you marry someone who isn't established in the area, or who is only a farmer.

As always, the book is better than the movie. I will always always love the movie, because I just will, but I got so much more enveloped in the plot and the characters in the book, where there is space enough to develop both more fully. A lot of things happen that don't happen in the movie, of course, and I loved it all.

Anyway, it was so good. I really loved it, and am so glad I read it. I highly recommend picking this up.

Oh, and here is an awesome quote I emailed to myself because it just sort of sums up the way Emma is: "Oh! I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any other."

Monday, May 9, 2011


I'm sure a lot of you have seen this book around. The cover is really so gross. I couldn't handle looking at it.

The book itself, however, is very funny. There are a couple of F words, which is disappointing, but I thought it was really funny. It's sort of a memoir, but sort of just a collection of essays about different things in her life. Like there's a chapter about her dad, who sounded awesome. He was like a scary dad who everyone just respects the moment they meet him. And there's a chapter about starting at Saturday Night Live, and one about leaving to create 30 Rock, a chapter about her honeymoon cruise to Bermuda and how the ship caught on fire and everyone had to fly back to New York--stuff like that.

It was really fast, too. I picked it up from the library on Friday and finished it on Saturday. I probably spent 5 hours reading the whole thing. So it goes fast.

One of my favorite things about the book was the girl power-ness of it. I really liked that. She brings in little feminist elements throughout the whole thing, but my favorite part was when she talked about working at Second City, an improv group in Chicago. The improv group had a touring company, which toured, obviously, and a mainstage company, which put on shows in Chicago. The mainstage company had always been 6 people. 4 men, 2 women. When she was working there, they suggested that they change it to 3 men and 3 women. And the people in charge, whoever they were, argued that having an equal number wouldn't work, because there wouldn't be enough parts for all the girls. Tina Fey called this her first experience with the illusion of not enough. She was like, "Not enough parts? We're not doing Death of a Salesman. This is improv. We're making it up, it's not even real. Of course there will be enough parts." And for some reason that little experience was my favorite part of the book.

So yeah. It was good, it was fast, and I laughed out loud frequently. Excellent book by my favorite funny lady.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Luka and the Fire of Life

Okay, don't hate me.

So I read another Salman Rushdie book. I know you're probably thinking, Why did we even let her join this group if she only talks about one author? or perhaps, Good grief, is she stalking him? Answer to first question: I promise I'm halfway through another book that is so far from Salman Rushdie you will be amazed at my diversity.

And I may or may not be attempting to stalk him.

Anyway. Luka and the Fire of Life is a sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, so if you want to read it it's worthwhile to read Haroun first. Luka is our protagonist, and he embarks on an adventure with Bear, his dog, and Dog, his bear, as well as a variety of other characters, into the Magical World in search of the Fire of Life. One of my favorite characters who he encounters is the Insultana of Ott. She is clever and funny and very very kind. She and her Otters help Luka through several situations, as is explained by a red squirrel named Ratatat:

And some of us (I don’t want to boast, but there it is) are Honorary Otters of long standing—oh yes!—members of the highly confidential Ott List, the Insultana’s emergency undercover squadron—sleeper agents, if you will, lurking in our secret Ott Beds and available to the lady twenty-four/seven on her personal Ott Line, just in case she needs to activate us. But, much as I’d like to stop and chat about these Ott Topics, I do believe you might be in something of a hurry. So, let’s Ott-foot it up this so-called Mountain while we can.

Once again, Rushdie's word plays are some of my favorite parts of the book. But really it's a beautiful story about the love and loyalty Luka feels for his father. You will love it. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Poet and the Murderer

I can't remember where I heard about this book, but it interested me because it's about Emily Dickinson and Mark Hoffman. So, the poet and the murderer, respectively. If you aren't familiar with Mark Hoffman, he was a forger. In the 1980s, he created hundreds of forged documents from historical figures. He forged signatures of Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Boone, Betsy Ross, and of course, Emily Dickinson. He also created a lot of historical Mormon documents and sold them to the Church. I knew that he had sold a lot of things to the Church, and that it was a whole big mess, but what I didn't realize before I read this book is that he also hated the Church. Mark Hoffman grew up in Salt Lake, as a member of the Church, but by the time he was a teenager he had decided he didn't believe anymore. He went on a mission, got married in the temple, and all the while he was disaffected with the Church. Then he discovered he had this skill for forgery, and decided he would use it to embarrass the Church. The documents he created conflicted with Church history. He created a blessing that Joseph Smith gave to his son, Joseph Smith III, stating that he should be the next Prophet. This of course gave legitimacy to the RLDS Church, and created quite a stir, which is what he wanted. He also created the Salamander Letter, his most famous Mormon forgery. It's a letter written from Martin Harris to W.W. Phelps, saying that a small white salamander appeared when Joseph found the plates. This obviously is not present in any of the accounts that we have, and made Joseph's claims about the Angel Moroni leading him seem less founded.

The part of the book about Emily Dickinson has much less information than is given about Mark Hoffman, but is also really fascinating. She's a very interesting character. They talk about how she wrote thousands of poems that she just hid away in her room, and were found after she died. Also, she had requested that after she died, that all her correspondence be destroyed, which I found infuriating and awesome at the same time.

The reason they bring the two together is that Mark Hoffman wrote an Emily Dickinson poem. He WROTE it. He didn't copy an existing one in her handwriting. And a whole bunch of people who were experts believed that it was real. It was in her correct handwriting for the date (I guess her handwriting changed a lot throughout her life), it was on the same kind of paper that she used at that time period, and most amazingly of all, the poem itself seemed to be in her style. I obviously think Mark Hoffman is a terrible guy. He killed two people just so he could keep on doing this deceptive work and making money from it. But I have to admit that he is a genius. Everything he did was thought to be authentic. And it wasn't like the documents were never tested, or never sent to experts. They were. He was just THAT good at what he did. And I can't say I admire that, the nature of forgery is a lie, but there's something about it that is really amazing to me.

I have to warn you, however, that this book will be offensive where the LDS Church is involved. The author did NOT do a good job of seeming objective. I understand that he had to explain some things about Church history that are pretty weird in order to explain the documents that Mark Hoffman created. But I really did not like the way he did it. You are very clear about the author's view of the Church in this book, and it is certainly not a positive one. He talks more about the temple than I was comfortable with, and calls Joseph Smith a sex addict. He talks about the Church and culture in Utah as being very authoritative, no one should ask questions, secretive, manipulative, etc. I didn't appreciate that very much. The day of the bombings that killed 2 people, Mark Hoffman went to the Church office building and met with Elder Oaks. And in the book he talks about how the Church believes that their Apostles have a divine connection, and can discern things, but he didn't even know that the man he was talking to was a murderer, so how can they possibly truly be Apostles of God? I did NOT like that. 

So anyway, it was a VERY interesting book, as far as the descriptions about forgery, and the stories of trying to trace everything back to Hoffman, and Emily Dickinson, and pretty much all of it, actually. In fact, when I was about 50 pages in, they hadn't gotten to any of the Church stuff yet, and I found myself telling everyone about it, and how interesting it was. But you must have a very thick Mormon skin to be able to handle the Church stuff and the things he says. 

Oh, and if you're wondering, yes, Mark Hoffman is of course in prison for the rest of his life, at the Utah State prison. One thing I thought was so funny was the author's description of the prison, he said something about it being on a lonely windswept plain West of Salt Lake City. That was when I REALLY decided to not trust everything this guy said. I was like, dude, you could practically hit the prison with a rock from your car, driving down I-15. Ikea is like next door. I will give him the Ikea thing, actually, the book was published in 2003, but still. Come on. There was still a waterpark across the freeway in 2003. I kind of thought, "Did he think no one on the Wasatch Front was going to read this book?" But whatevs, Simon.

So I would recommend it, but I couldn't possibly feel good about not giving that qualifier. I would hate for someone to pick it up and read it and be like, "Erin, why would you tell me to read this book that is sort of anti?" So I have to tell you that up front. It was interesting, and I liked it, but it is not something you MUST read. If it weren't for all the Church stuff, it might have been, but to have something so close and dear to me treated to insensitively and negatively was pretty hard to take. And in the end, it was interesting, but it's not like it was uplifting or made me feel good. It's about a guy who deceived my Church for money and killed a couple of people. So it's not like I expected it to make me feel all warm and fuzzy, but you know.