Book Review: And Then There were None

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I just finished reading And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. This is my second review for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, in the category Classic Crime Story.

I’ve never been much of a mystery reader but Christie is convincing me I should keep trying. Murder on the Orient Express was my first novel of hers and I deeply loved it. When I saw Crime Story on the list this year, I knew I’d pick another by her. This was a captivating story. 10 strangers arrive at a mysterious island. A disembodied voice accuses them of crimes – murders, but those outside the scope of the justice system. Guilt.

One by one they’re killed themselves, following a pattern set out in a Ten Little Indians poem framed throughout the house. One by one they come to terms with their own guilt. One by one they succumb to fear and finally death. It’s the perfect mystery – 1o dead bodies and no one else could possibly have been on the island.

I binge read this book in a way I needed. I’ve been reading a lot of theology lately, plus I just finished Dickens. I needed something engaging and quick to pour through and “reset” in a way. And now I’m ahead on my BTTC Challenge! Maybe I’ll actually finish this year.

On Goodreads, I gave And Then There Were None four stars. It would have been five stars if I had just skipped the epilogue. For some reason, finding out how it all went down spoiled it for me. I was much more enthralled when the mystery was unsolved. But then I would have been wondering for the next several days…

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Book Review: Great Expectations

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens was my 1st book for Back to the Classics 2018 – A Classic that Scares You. Why this one? I’ve been intimidated of this read since a bad experience freshman year of high school. First, I’m not sure I actually read the book when it was assigned – that was a bad season of using Cliff Notes instead. Then we watched a terrible film adaptation. And THEN my teacher stepped out of the room during the scene where Miss Havisham catches fire. Bored teens + no supervision = watching that awful scene on repeat for several minutes until the teacher came back. Needless to say it left a horrible taste in my mouth. I’ve been saying I really should re-read it due to it’s classic value for 3 years now. I never got around to it out of fear. But I conquered my fear and I’m so glad I did!

Basic recap: Pip, an orphan living in poverty with his abusive sister and wimp brother in law, has nothing to look forward to in life. Until he enters a complicated web of wealth and crime and lies and expectations. From nothing, to everything, back to nothing, Dickens leads us on a whirlwind of emotions. Dickens does a particularly brilliant job building believable characters – even the weirdest minor ones. My favorite is Wemmick with his Walworth sentiments. I love Pip’s journey. The ending is especially powerful as he moves past his Great Expectations into a life worth living.

I’d call this a coming of age novel, but it’s the best one I’ve ever read to the point it blows every other coming of age novel out of the water. Beautifully done.

Back to the Classics 2018

So, um… it’s January! Time to set ambitious reading goals I’ll most likely fall off on, but I accomplish more when I DO set them than when I DON’T. Even if my goal isn’t actually achieved.

I didn’t finish Back to the Classics last year. I’m not even sure how far I got. But I read books I never would have picked up without it – namely, my gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho. My first Anthony Trollope was only because of the challenge as well. I actually read 36 books last year but I got on a heavy YA novels kick that accounted for something like 11. I love a well written YA novel! I started using GoodReads more heavily this year – if you’re on there, please add me. I’m toying with dropping the blog and just posting over there…

https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/19746539-jenny-preston

So! 2018! Filled in titles are from my own shelves. Blanks are TBA from the library as I get rolling. Here’s a link to the sign up:  https://karensbooksandchocolate.blogspot.de/2017/12/back-to-classics-2018.html

  1. 19th Century
  2. 20th Century
  3. Woman Author: A Modern Mephistopheles, Alcott
  4. In Translation
  5. Children’s Classic: Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, Dodge
  6. Crime Story, fiction or non: And Then there were None, Christie
  7. Travel or Journey Narrative: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Verne
  8. Single Word Title: Walden, Thoreau
  9. Color in Title: How Green was my Valley, Llewellyn
  10. An author new to me
  11. A classic that scares/intimidates me: Great Expectations, Dickens
  12. Reread a favorite!: Something Austen

Book Review: Five Little Peppers and How They Grew

Just a brief review on my next “Back to the Classics” read:

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew was written by Margaret Sidney. It was released serially in Wide Awake children’s magazine in 1880 and as a book in 1881.

A sweet story of the Pepper family – five children and their mother who live in the Little Brown House living in cheerful poverty. Through a series of unlikely situations, assisted by their own pleasant attitudes, the charming family finds themselves in greatly improved circumstances.

It’s a little Pollyanna at times (SO upbeat!) but I feel the children are written very well. They are well rounded characters. Although the circumstances are unlikely, they aren’t SO much so as to come across inauthentic. Everything ties up a little too neatly in the end but I don’t feel that diminishes the story – it IS a children’s novel after all. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a happy ending.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series at some point, especially with my children. There are a total of 12 Pepper books; Sidney calls 6 of them the “original series” with the other 6 giving background information (according to Wikipedia).

This is my sixth B2tC read for the year – I’m halfway! This my “Classic with a Number in the Title.” I’d originally intended Dickens but life demanded a lighter read.

Homeschool Kindergarten

“In this time of extraordinary pressure, educational and social, perhaps a mother’s first duty to her children is to secure for them a quiet and growing time, a full six years of passive receptive life, the waking part of it for the most part spent out in the fresh air.” Charlotte Mason, Vol.1 pg 43

I didn’t blog a bit this past year about our gentle kindergarten experience. Probably because I was creating it as I went. Although I consider myself a CM-inspired homeschooler, I have my own take on things. With a daughter already reading and desperate to learn as much as she could, I decided to go ahead and do a structured kindergarten – so not CM! But we kept to the principles of the “early years” – low pressure, lots of empty time for play, and as much outdoors as we could handle.

About the outdoors element: we live in Florida. It’s hot year round. There isn’t a day since we moved here that my kids haven’t been icky sweaty by the end of the day. So we tried. I know I fell WAY short of the 4-6 hours CM recommends but yet, I’m content that 30 minutes is better than nothing. We do what we’re able.

Here’s what our gentle CM inspired kindergarten involved:

Lots of snuggling on the couch reading worthwhile stories. A little math, a little writing, some phonics practice. Singing hymns and memorizing psalms. Followed by more snuggling and reading

For reading aloud, I kept one longer literature book going at a time to help build the skills of listening and remembering. We read a stack of TW Burgess animal stories, such as Reddy Fox and Buster Bear. These stories are an excellent introduction to chapter books – the characters are fun, the chapters are short, and the morals aren’t too overwhelming. Our top two literature reads for the year were Milly Molly Mandy by Joyce Brisley and Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren.

I used Give Your Child The World by Jamie C Martin as the main source of book ideas for our “Culture/Geography” category. One of our major goals for our homeschool is to introduce our children to the rest of the world. We want them to love people who are different than them and respect them, while maintaining our Christian worldview. I loved the picture book selections Give your Child The World offers. It offers suggestions for different age groups (4-6, 6-8, 8-10, and 10-12) for each of the major regions of the world. We didn’t have a particular order or pattern – basically I checked out whatever I could find from our local library. We stuck mostly to the picture books from the 4-6 age group. We would read the story, talk a little about how their life compares to ours, and locate the setting on the map. I kept a list of the titles we read in my bullet journal and tried to represent a wide variety of cultures.

Our favorite books in this category were:

  • Mirror by Jeanie Baker. A book without words, it shows an average day in two families: Australian on one side, Moroccan on the other. The mixed media artwork is beautiful and we had lots of fun coming up with the story ourselves.
  • Chandra’s Magic Light by Theresa Heine. Set in Nepal, two sisters earn money to replace their family kerosene lamp with a solar powered one. This book does show Hinduism. We used it as a great conversation about what we believe as well as a chance to pray.
  • Everything by Patricia Polacco! She is an excellent story teller. She writes about her history coming from a Russian Jewish family frequently, especially her beloved babushka, but dives into many other areas as well. Our favorites are The Keeping Quilt, Just Plain Fancy, and Fiona’s Lace.

We chose Singapore for math but will be switching this year.

I picked the Pathway Readers series to help Grace develop her reading skills. She took to reading like a duck to water when she was four, but she isn’t very careful. She skips words and makes up pronunciations sometimes instead of slowing down to actually figure it out. We read aloud from these for 5-10 minutes a day to practice these weaknesses. We love the Pathway Readers – simple stories of a (Mennonite? Amish?) farming family. They have a baby horse and a kitten and the siblings have to learn to play together. After reading them together, Grace poured over them again and again, savoring the stories. We will continue through these for at least one more year.

And this is a quick glance at my not-planning system. It is more of a record keeping than a planning system. I wrote a running record in a bullet journal style each day we had school. I have collections at the front for loose preplanning and an at-a-glance book list (you can see the one for our culture books above) and some of our procedure lists at the back, such as what is included in morning basket.

Other miscellaneous details: We followed the artist, composer, and hymn selections from AmblesideOnline. We sort of did drawing lessons from Draw Write Now but those fell off at some point and I just gave her the book to enjoy. We took the Christmas season to do The Promises study from Stone Soup for Five. We also did handwriting using PenTime.

And that’s it! Most days took less than 45 minutes. This left lots of time for free play – often in the form of Lego building and story telling.

We’re a few weeks from starting Year One from AmblesideOnline. Originally I had brilliant ideas of altering things but after a few months of considering and evaluating, we’re using it *almost* exactly as written. Really the only change is that I’m continuing with PenTime instead of doing copywork from our reading books. I need open and go in that area. I’m really excited to get into our beautiful stack of books!

Book Review: Their Eyes were Watching God

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“It’s uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh GO there tuh KNOW there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” (183)

Written in 1937, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is a well known novel in African-American and feminist literature. I’ve had it and tried to read it a few times now; this time I can say I’ve accomplished it! This novel was originally well received but fell out of favor due to Hurston’s falling out with the Harlem Renaisance / Uplift political agenda. It was rediscovered beginning in the 1970s as part of new Black Studies and Women’s Studies college programs.

This book took me some effort to get into, primarily because it is written heavily in southern Black dialect. I had to concentrate to figure out what the characters were saying, since this isn’t familiar to me in aural or written form. Once I got the pattern, though, I can attest it was completely worth the effort.

Overall, this book is about Janie finding her voice. As a teen, her blooming womanhood is stifled by a rushed and unwanted marriage deemed necessary by her grandmother. A few years later she abandons that marriage with the hope of love, as Jodie stirs her heart and leads her down the road. But quickly he settles in to life as mayor of Eatonville and Janie is appreciated for her role, not her self. She’s set up on a pedestal and isolated from the community. Eventually (after 20 years) she finds her tongue and tells Jodie what-for, which dooms the end of their relationship as well as his life, as he succumbs to ill health.

Janie is left with money and freedom for the first time in her life. Although she goes through the motions of grief for the sake of the community, her mind is pondering what might come next. This is when Tea Cake comes into the picture. Honestly, he’s not good for much – a poor, dark man from farther south who is twelve years younger. But for the first time in her life, Janie feels SEEN. She marries him and they move about some, first to Jacksonville then to the Everglade swamps. Janie continues to explore who she is vs who she’s been expected to be, eventually joining Tea Cake in the bean fields and fire dances.

“He kin take most any lil thing and make summertime out of it when times is dull. Then we lives offa dat happiness he made till some mo’ happiness come ‘long.” (135)

The ending chapters of this book feel very rushed. Lots of things happen with little narration or dialogue. A hurricane sweeps through the area, flooding the lake and forcing a rapid flight towards Palm Beach. Tea Cake gets bitten by a dog. After the storm, he’s conscripted into labor burying the dead but flees from it and they head back to “the muck,” where Tea Cake becomes ill from the dog bite (rabies?). Little is said about his death, Janie’s trial, and her journey back to Eatonville, where apparently her house remains. Nothing is said about what comes next in Janie’s life. We leave her in her bedroom, gathering the horizon about her as she sits with the memories of Tea Cake. What we do know from the introduction is that she walks tall in her own strength, despite the chattering of neighbors. Janie has found her voice and will use it as she chooses.

This is my fifth book for the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge, 20th Century Classic. You can find the link up here.

Book Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

“There had to be the dark and muddy waters so that the sun could have something to background its flashing glory.” Page 165

There is much “muddy water” in Francie Nolan’s life. Born in poverty in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Francie’s life is in many ways a tragedy. Her father is a drunk and her mother doesn’t love her; there’s often not enough money for food and the community around is depraved to say the least. And yet, like the tree mentioned in the title, Francie’s spirit can’t be killed. She presses through the hardest of circumstances to survive.

 

A “Tree of Heaven” in an urban yard

What do I talk about from a book of nearly 500 pages that has thoroughly captivated me for the past month? This novel is beautiful. It is hard, very hard. But it is also beautiful. To quote the book itself, when Francie is quested by her teacher about the dark subject material of her writing compositions:

“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.

“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.

“What is beauty?” asked the child.

“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: Beauty is truth, truth is beauty.”

Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”

“Nonsense!” exploded Miss Gardner. (page 321)

While Miss Gardner wasn’t convinced, I am. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a true story, based on the life of the author Betty Smith. Like Francie, she was born in Williamsburg and bounced between multiple apartments with her hardworking mother and drunken father. Like Francie, and the Tree of Heaven, she sunk roots into the concrete and strived to reach the sky. And like Francie, when she was a young adult she made her way out of the clutches of poverty to study in Michigan and lay a new path for her life.

As I was reading I jumped off on rabbit trails many times to do additional research into the setting. I’m a Midwest girl (and now a Florida transplant). Building over 3 stories have been rare in my experience – especially block after block after block of raw humanity stacked together like sardines. It’s amazing how landlords/architects will follow the letter of the law (“ventilation”) while completely missing the point (livable conditions for tenement residents). You can search for “dumbbell tenements” if you want to learn more.

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Modern aerial view of tenements described in the novel

This book is sad. There isn’t any other word to summarize it. From the beginning pages, we hear about children being exploited and tormented. One young single mother is even stoned (not to death, but to injury) and a child is murdered. There seems to be little joy to be found, and yet, I found it in these many pages. It is a very engaging book. You have to look hard for the hope, but it is there, and by the end the characters have found it as well. I think one of the most poignant things is how *normal* this book is, and yet beautiful in the normal. Crazy things happen (like Sissy’s baby) but the events don’t feel forced or fabricated the way they do in many novels.

This is one I will revisit again after I’ve had time for the ideas to soak into my mind.

This is my 4th book for the Back to the Classics challenge, category: Woman Author