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I can remember the first time I discovered “Little House on the Prairie” on the television during a day I was home sick from school. I’m not exactly sure how I failed to find out about this marvel of 1970s television until then considering how much I adored and reread Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series but I was held in rapt attention for the next two hours. The show was the best part of being sick and, during hot summers in Texas where I couldn’t stand to do anything but lay inside in the air conditioning, the best part of summer. I’ve seen all the episodes (I think) and even now I can very easily become sucked into the series if I find it playing on the television.

Arngrim’s memoir caught my eye during my free trial to Oyster mainly in response to the photographs of that evil Nellie Olsen on the cover – like most viewers of the television show and readers of the novels, I hated Nellie Olsen until she graduated from school and married Percival (on the show). But the title made me laugh and I’ve always planned to read the memoir of Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls Wilder on the show, so I figured why not.

Turns out, Arngrim’s memoir is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a while. There are some very, very heavy topics; Arngrim suffers horrific sexual abuse at the hands of her brother and I cried when she discussed the loss of her dear Percival to AIDS. But, overall, the book is a humorous take on the odd experience of being a child actor on a period drama: Michael Landon’s refusal to wear underwear and heavy consumption of whiskey in the morning;  Katherine MacGregor (Mrs. Olsen) telling everyone how to act and being a larger than life personality; the fascination of all the child actors with the beautiful and kind Miss Beedle, who played their teacher; the writers’ fascination with putting Nellie into very murky water or having her and Laura duke it out.

Most of all, I was struck by Arngrim’s explanation that playing Nellie helped this quiet, abused girl learn to find her voice. People expected her to be a bitch affording her the opportunity to actually be one when the moment called for it. She didn’t have to worry about people hating her because most already did due to their inability to separate the character from the actor. A fellow student at Arngrim’s school called her a bitch after the first episode with Nellie aired, and Arngrim was actually knocked down by people at a fair who wanted to defend Laura.

In reality, she and Melissa Gilbert got along very well and are friends to this day. I spent much of the book laughing over their antics – peeing in their wetsuits during a particular long take, taking an advantage of the lack of audio during their fight scenes, sleepovers at each other’s house. Fiction does not always mirror reality. Although, I have to say, I always felt like there was something off about Melissa Sue Anderson, who played Mary Ingalls. I’m not a huge fan of Mary in the books, but I hated television Mary with the exception of a few episodes after she marries Adam. She’s so hoity-toity, and it was interesting to read that she was just the same in real life. (Now it’s her turn to write a memoir explaining why. I’d read it.)

Book Mentioned:

  • Arngrim, Alison. Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. eBook. 251 pgs.  ISBN: 9780062000101. Source: Purchase.
Book Cover © HarperCollins. Retrieved: August 18, 2014.

McCullough’s book focuses on three events during the opening phase of the American Revolution – the Siege of Boston (April 19, 1775-March 17, 1776), the Battle of Long Island/Battle of Brooklyn (August 27, 1776), and Washington crossing the Delaware River (December 25-26, 1776) made famous by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s 1851 painting. The book does not focus on the most well-known event of 1776: the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776), although I would argue that while most people know the date, they erroneously think July 4 is when the Declaration was signed and adopted.

But McCullough’s decision to concentrate on battles rather than documents certainly filled in gaps in my own knowledge about the beginning of the American Revolution, and his focus on a year rather than the entire war (1775–1783) allows him to create a more illuminating portrait of both the war and the people engaged in it.

I had heard of the Siege of Boston before; I’ve hiked to the top of the monument at Bunker Hill in Charlestown. My textbooks in school often glossed over the event stating that it was a victory for the Americans but barely mentioning that the residents of Boston starved for much of the nearly yearlong event or that the Battle of Bunker Hill was really a victory for the British. I can thank my dad for my knowledge about the importance of Dorchester Heights during the event, and I very much appreciated McCullough’s detailed attention to the event.

Boston has changed rapidly in the last 238 years. The area known as Back Bay, which the Americans traveled across at low tide to escape the British, is now home to the Boston Public Library, numerous hotels and shopping centers, and several public transportation hubs. It’s hard to imagine Copley Square as the swampy, marshland it once was, but McCullough manages to weave enough vivid details into his narrative that it is almost possible. The same can be said of Dorchester Heights, which was such a pivotal and strategic stronghold for the Americans during the Siege of Boston, and I cannot be the only one who laughed at the absurdity of the British not noticing the Americans moving cannons behind a line of hay bales towards Dorchester Heights, can I? But, apparently, the British did not see Dorchester Heights, the heights point in Boston, as an area they needed to control since they held Boston Harbor.

The focus on New York City, particularly Brooklyn, was surprising to me because I had heard nothing about the battles there. I suppose the history teachers I had did not want to concentrate on losses, but McCullough presents the Battle of Brooklyn as a major turning point in the war. The losses were so large and so shocking that many of the colonies started to recall their troops or refuse to send replacements and men began to desert left and right. Once again, the Americans managed to move themselves and their equipment without the British noticing thanks to a thicket of fog.

Yet the guerilla-style warfare and lack of bright red uniforms often championed by my teachers as an advantage to the Americans, but McCullough points out that the lack of regiment behavior – standards of appearance, clean uniforms – amongst the American troops meant disease was a constant scourge for them but not for the British. I spent much of this book feeling like my understanding of the American Revolutionary War was being turned on its head and for that I’m thankful that my father encouraged me to read this book.

Book Mentioned:

  • McCullough, David. 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. eBook. 388 pgs. ISBN: 9780743287708. Source: Gift.
Book Cover © Simon & Schuster. Retrieved: August 14, 2014.

After years of resistance and thinking I can motivate myself, I finally took the plunge and join The Classics Club. The last time I read a piece of classic literature, excluding my reread of the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, was in March 2013, and even that was a reread of a short novel I first read in high school. Obviously, motivating myself is not going well.

Club participants are supposed to pull together a list of fifty or more books considered to be classics and both read and discuss every single title on their personal blog within a five year period. I plan to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017 simply because I rather like the idea of reading twenty-five classics each year.

Neither the club nor I have a definition of what is a classic so in addition to those titles that immediately came to mind — those big, scary titles I’ve been avoiding for years — I pulled titles from two other lists I had hoped to read more titles from by now — 101 Great Books for College-Bound Readers and AP Literature. I would also like to finish reading the complete works of Jane Austen, and reread one novel I do not think I was ready to read when I original did. (I’m looking at you, Wuthering Heights.)

I’ve structured my list below the jump in alphabetical order by title, but I have also created a spreadsheet where you can organize my list by author, order in which I added it to my list, and year originally published. Read the rest of this entry »

Maguire owes Stephen Schwartz a great deal of thanks for turning his complex, meandering book into an amazing musical. I have been trying for years to read Maguire’s book thinking that if I just tried harder or if I switched from print to audio, I would understand how this book is so popular and how Schwartz was able to create one of my favorite musicals. But after listening to nearly twenty hours of audio over the course of three days, I’ve come to realize that it’s not me. It’s the book.

The premise is fairly well known; the life of the Wicked Witch of the West encountered by Dorothy during her visit to Oz before Dorothy’s house fell on top of the witch’s sister. Maguire named the witch Elphaba and begins telling her life even she is even born introducing readers to her promiscuous mother, according to Nanny, who cannot recall if she cheated on her husband let alone why her daughter would be born (a) green and (b) with sharp, fang-like teeth. It is a question Maguire refuses to answer until the very end of the novel preferring instead to concentrate on the question of what drives a person to become evil.

In Elphaba’s case, the answer is teased out in four separate parts to the novel with the first concentrating on Elphaba’s birth, the second on her years in university where she meets Galinda who will eventually become Glinda the Good Witch, the third on her years rejecting her former life and being Fiyero’s lover, and the fourth on the fallout from her life choices during the third part. The fifth focuses on Elphaba’s interactions with Dorothy but, by then, we are supposed to believe that Elphaba has already become wicked. Yet the catalysts – mainly, the lack of love from her family and the realization that she lives in a prejudiced, racist world — put forth as the reason behind her wickedness are the least believable aspects of this novel. I have yet to meet a college student – liberal or conservative – who hasn’t gone off to school and learned the world is not like they assumed it to be.

Elphaba’s quest to help Dr. Dillidmong, a professor who is now being cast out from academic circles because he’s an animal, and prevent the enslavement of animals speaks more to the wickedness of the world around her not the wickedness of Elphaba herself. Certainly, those in the Emerald City, Munchkinland, and the land of Oz are going to see Elphaba as wicked for her counterculture ideas, but that idea is much clearer in the musical than it is in the book. And I thought it was particularly on point that Galinda, who grew to accept Elphaba despite her green skin, would years later still be unable to shake the racism she internalized from the society around her.

Maguire might have wanted the affair to be seen as indicative of Elphaba’s wicked nature yet while I certainly don’t condone adultery, it is more difficult to cast stones against a woman and a man cheating on the wife he was forced to marry at a very, very young age. Was it wicked for Elphaba to treat her son, Liir, with such indifference and bring him to live at the home of Fiyero’s widow? Possibly, but you would also have to believe that Liir is, in fact, Elphaba’s son and Elphaba herself cannot remember being pregnant or giving birth. Taking Liir with her was the condition for her leaving the institutions where nun-like women cared for her during the time she was drugged, near-dead, or in a coma (Maguire never makes it clear what actually occurred) and never bothered to explain that she gave birth to a child, that Liir was not one of the many orphans the order cares for.

And was it wicked for Elphaba to covet the silver shoes given to her her sister, Nessarose, by her father? Nessarose was born without arms; a condition Elphaba is blamed for by the mother figure in her life because their mother had been so worried about having another green child a la Elphaba that she took unknown pills purchased from a Gypsy woman. And Elphaba spends her life caring for Nessarose helping her younger sister walk, watching her family fawn over her sister, and prioritizing her sister’s comfort whilst they were both enrolled at Chiz. (The later I have seen firsthand at university, and it is difficult to watch as the non-disabled sibling is denied the opportunity to be an individual rather than a pair or, worse, a shadow.) It certainly make sense that Elphaba would be willing to do all she can to assume ownership of the shoes sent to her sister when nothing was sent to her, especially when it becomes plain that the wizard was to use to shoes to seize the land Nessarose governed.

Given all this, it is possible that Maguire was not trying to explore how someone becomes wicked but rather how they are perceived as wicked through their (usually) morally just actions. But that I cannot answer in certain because the book is so poorly written, so jumpy and ill-structured and filled with characters who are never given a true story or characterization. The idea behind the novel – to tell the story of the Wizard of Oz from the villain – is perfect, but Maquire became lost in the endless possibilities. Thank goodness Schwartz was there to slog through the muck and give the world a truly amazing musical.

Book Mentioned:

  • Maguire, Gregory. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Narrated by John McDonough. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books, 2000. Audiobook. 19 hours, 37 minutes. ISBN: 9780060987107. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Recorded Books. Retrieved: August 16, 2014.

Imagine if two percent of the world’s population disappeared on October 14th? No virus. No war. One minute your brother, neighbor, coworker is there and the next? Poof — gone. Three years later, the residents of Mapleton are still struggling to make sense of the sudden disappearance of their loved ones.

The town’s reverend has launched a slanderous campaign to prove the event was not the Rapture because the people who disappeared could not possibly be worthy of God’s love. Others have channeled their attention on moving forward, on refusing to dwell on events that cannot be explained must to the dissatisfaction of the Guilty Remnant. Dressed in all-white, traveling in pairs, and smoking incessantly, members of the cult-like Guilty Remnant monitor the people of Mapleton silently reminding people of what they are choosing to forget.

Perrotta’s novel specifically focuses on the Garvey family and how they and the people closest to them deal with the fallout. Kevin, Mapleton’s new mayer, wants to move his community forward and channel their grief into a single day of remembrance, but his wife and son are unable to move on as quickly as he. Tom fixates on the disappearance of someone he once knew in grade school, someone he hasn’t spoken to in years dropping out of college to follow a self-proclaimed prophet, Holy Wayne, who claims to absorb people’s pain and abuses young, Asian girls in the name of his special gift. Laurie, who was visiting with her best friend when said friend’s daughter disappeared, joins the Guilty Remnant willingly choosing to severe all ties with her family, including her teenage daughter, Jill, who changes her entire image in order to deal with the changes.

The only non-Garvey focused on in this book is Nora Durst, who lost her husband and her toddler children on October 14th. Still reeling from the tragedy, Nora rations out episodes of “Spongebob Squarepants”, her son’s favorite show, and tries to move forward through her relationship with Kevin. But that is more difficult than she anticipated, especially given the temptation to see her missing husband and children as more than perfect.

I tried to convince my book club that members of the Guily Remnant, who states that their purpose is to reject society, smoke cigarettes as a way to get society to reject them in turn. The idea donned on me as I was walking home from work watching people speed up to pass smokers or hold their breath while waiting for the light to change in an obvious rejection of the behavior of the person next to them, and it was an idea that stayed with me long after Perrotta finally explained the group’s decision to smoke. My book club rejected this idea in favor of Perrotta’s explanation, but this example ultimately demonstrates the most interesting and frustrating thing about this book: the answers are few and far between.

I expected there to be more answers — I’m still trying to figure out if the rapture was truly the rapture — and it took me a few days and a book club discussion to realize the purpose of the novel is to explore human nature in the wake of an unexplainable tragedy. In this case, there is no one to blame (unless you choose to blame God), no cause to explain why people left so how does society move forward?

The gravitation to Holy Wayne and the reaction of the reverend are the two responses I felt were most accurate and, personally, I wish Perrotta has spent more time on them rather than on Laurie. It is hard to support both Nora and Laurie because Laurie chooses to abandon her family despite the fact that she didn’t lose anyone within her immediate family. At least, not the same sense that Nora lost her family, and the juxtaposition between the two characters is incredibly frustrating.

What is even more frustrating is the way this novel peters out. I expected some kind of climax and while in the context of the story Perrotta is trying to tell the ending makes sense,  I felt like it ended on an underwhelming and weak note. The beginning, however, is very engaging, and I can appreciate a good character study now and then.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Perrotta, Tom. The Leftovers. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011. Print. 355 pgs. ISBN: 9780312358341. Source: Library.
Book Cover © St. Martin’s Press. Retrieved: August 12, 2014.
August 2014
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