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.

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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

Reading Round-Up: March 2017

How are we a quarter of the year through 2017 already? I thought the past couple years had flown – I’m thinking things have accelerated yet again.

After finally dragging through The Mysteries Of Udolpho in February, I got through far more books this month, including my first Kindle read for the year. I don’t usually read on my Kindle – I have the Fire tablet and it’s far too easy to get distracted by apps and notifications. But for those occasions when a paperback is unavailable or cost prohibitive and the digital copy is free, I’m glad to have it around.

COMPLETED:

Respectable Sins, Jerry Bridges

Litany of the Ordinary, Trish Warren

These two theological books were both quick reads yet very deep in their short pages. Both kept coming back again and again to the idea of preaching the gospel to yourself. This was a dominant theme in Tripp’s Parenting I completed in January as well. As a believer in Christ, this is a theme I need to never get tired of, for it is the source of all my strength.

“When the day is lovely and sunny and everything is going according to plan, I can look like a pretty good person. But little things go wrong and interrupted plans reveal who I really am; my cracks show and I see I am profoundly in need of grace. But here’s the thing: pretty good people do not need Jesus. He came for the lost. He came for the broken.”

Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain

Miss Mackenzie, Anthony Trollope

ONGOING:

The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald

Since this is the end of the quarter, I’m going to do a full update as well. Here’s where I am on all the challenges. Titles are linked to the reviews on my blog, the rest can be found on Goodreads.

Christian Reading Challenge  – Light list 7/13 (Titles in italics are also on Back to the Classics)

  1. A biography
  2. A classic novel: Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
  3. A book about history
  4. A book targeted at your gender
  5. A book about theology: Respectable Sins, Jerry Bridges
  6. A book with at least 400 pages: The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe
  7. A book your pastor recommends
  8. A book about Christian living: Parenting, Tedd Tripp
  9. A book more than 100 years old: Miss Mackenzie, Anthony Trollope
  10. A book published in 2017
  11. A book for children or teens
  12. A book of your choice: Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren
  13. A book about a current issue: America the Anxious, Ruth Whippman

Back to the Classics Challenge 3/12

  1. 19th Century: Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (1876)
  2. 20th Century
  3. Woman author
  4. Translation
  5. Published before 1800
  6. Romance: Miss Mackenzie, Anthony Trollope (1865)
  7. Gothic: The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe (1794)
  8. Number in title
  9. Animal (About or in title)
  10. Place you’d like to visit
  11. Award Winner
  12. Russian

Book Review: Miss Mackenzie

At the insistence of a few friends, I can no longer say I’ve never read an Anthony Trollope novel!

Miss Mackenzie was first published by Trollope in 1865. Margaret Mackenzie has spent her whole life in isolation. Taken from school at age 16, she first nursed her dying father and then her ill brother Walter. After his death, Margaret finds herself at age 36 both free to discover herself and with the income required to do something about it! She moves to Littlebath (a fictional town based on Bath) and begins to determine if she will be a sinner in the crowd of Miss Todd or a saint following the teachings of Mr. Stumfold, a prominent pastor in the place.

Several proposals by various potential lovers later, Margaret finds her fortune in crisis. At this point her true character begins to shine through as she navigates the waters of both the legal and social systems of the time. And that’s all I can tell you without spoiling this delightful book. From here on, read my thoughts at your own risk 🙂

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Book Review: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom SawyerHaving lived in the Midwest most of my life, I’m quite familiar with the world Mark Twain paints in his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I’ve even visited Hannibal, MO on multiple occasions. And yet, somehow or another, I’ve made it to almost 30 years old without ever reading this book. I read a Great Illustrated Classics version once, but seriously, those are so bad all they do is kill a desire to read the original. This deficiency in my education is at long last corrected!

First published in 1876, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer paints the picture of a group of rowdy boys living in a quiet river town. Tom, Joe, and Huck are perpetually enjoying such boyish activities as running away, fighting, digging for treasure, and sneaking out at night. He seeks to win the love of his classmate Becky the way many young boys attempt: gymnastics and crazy antics in the classroom. Many of these crazy activities lead them near to, or even into, major trouble.

I feel that one of Twain’s real skills as a writer is to capture children in writing. The description of the little boy playing steamboat early in the book is spot-on. The description of Tom and Joe playing Robin Hood in the woods was captivating. Tom’s mischievous mind made me laugh out loud more than once, from nearly the first page. The infamous whitewashing scene sets the tone for the whole book:

“Oh, come now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

He had a nice, good, idle time all the while – plenty of company – and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn’t run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.

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This was a quick and pleasant read, filled with laughter. I greatly appreciated finishing a book in less than a week after the massive investment of time Udolpho turned out to be. And now, I’m missing my Midwest home only minutes from the Mighty Mississippi as I sweat it out here in Florida.

This is my 2nd book for the Back to the Classics Challenge, in the 19th Century category.

Book Review: The Mysteries of Udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann RadcliffeThus had she been tossed upon the stormy sea of misfortune for the last year, with but short intervals of peace, if peace it could be called, which was only the delay of evil. (619)

So goes the year that changes Emily St. Aubert’s life. Raised in peaceful, pastoral comfort by parents who adore her, Emily’s life alters dramatically when first her mother, then her father pass away. She is given to the care of her selfish aunt who is only kind when the kindness will benefit herself. Through the actions of her aunt, Emily is removed from everything she knows – her home, her lover, her country – at the mercy of her aunt’s new husband, the Italian Montoni.

Practically every dramatic plot point possible in the history of dramatic plot points is tossed into this 693 page behemoth of a novel, written by Ann Radcliffe in 1794. Considered one of the most popular novels of Gothic literature, The Mysteries of Udolpho sports a massive cast of characters all connected by various forms of villainy. We find no less than 3 crumbling castles, 2 presumed ghosts, 1 veiled image to horrible to describe, more murderers than I can count, weeping on every page, kidnappings, sword fights, secret passages, subterranean burial chambers (which seem to only be used at midnight), shipwrecks, madness, love found and lost again, and even pirates. It’s a bit of a mess, but through the mess, I have to say I was entertained. It’s quite sensational.

Udolpho is like one of those daytime TV shows that has been on for 20 years. Every time you think that the plot is finally, FINALLY about to wrap up, a new cast of characters brings a new twist onto the scene. Out of the 693 pages, everything is described in excessive detail except the conclusion: it is really quite rushed after the abundance of earlier chapters. I suppose there is little drama to be found in “happily ever after”.

Gothic literature isn’t my thing. The mysteries, the drama, the weeping, the excessive use of commas, the word “sublime” yet again… I’m not one for horror films at all, either. Give me a Jane Austen any day! Actually, that’s why I read this – although I enjoyed Northanger Abbey, I knew there was a lot I was missing due to my unfamiliarity with the Gothic genre. Now that I’ve read Udolpho, Northanger may make its way back into my pile. I’m sure I’ll understand it better this time around.

This is my first book for Back to the Classics 2017, in the Gothic category. LINK UP here

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