Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tolkien Five

Here is a great little top five essay for Middle Earth fans. My favorite quote within the essay describes predominately inferior world-building by lesser authors as the "great clomping foot of nerdism."

Thursday, June 18, 2009


I'm a cynic. I approach nearly everything with at least a touch of sarcasm. But there are also quite a few times when I just like something unabashedly. Here's something I stumbled upon that made me not a cynic.

Having Everything

Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light is such a lovely, plaintive book. It interweaves the true death of a young woman in 1906 with the tale of a fictional girl, Mattie Gokey, growing up in the Great North Woods. Donnelly was inspired by Grace Brown's letters as well as the stories told by her grandmother, who grew up in the region. It reminded me a bit of Northern Borders by Howard Frank Mosher, although I resonated more deeply with Donnelly's protagonist, possibly because she's a young woman who dreams of being a writer.

The novel's chapters alternate between two time frames, and the story concludes when these time frames meet. The first storyline begins with the discovery of the drowned body of Grace Brown and the mystery of her missing partner. Mattie works at the lakeside hotel where Grace and her companion were staying. The second storyline begins a few months earlier, as Mattie struggles to finish high school, mourns her recently deceased mother, and cares for her father, younger siblings, and their farm. Mattie is bright and creative, with a love for books and words. She and her best friend Weaver, the town's only black boy, dream of going to college in New York City.

The novel is filled with the overwhelming grind of everyday life and much tragedy. So many scenes were heartbreaking and a few were amusing. On a personal note, it was therapeutic for me to read this book this week. Whenever I became overburdened with my daily responsibilities of caring for my baby, housekeeping, and freelance editing, I would pick up A Northern Light and read about Mattie's friend trying to care for her newborn twins, cook for her husband and all the farm hands, boil laundry, etc. To say life was hard is an understatement.

The mysteries of the story are thinly veiled, but the manner in which Donnelly reveals information is touching and deeply personal. She focuses more on the effect the revelation of truth has on Mattie than on manufacturing twists and surprises for the reader. I still hurt right through when I think about Mattie talking about her first kiss and how nice it felt because it was the first time anyone had embraced her since her mother's death nearly a year ago.

A Northern Light
is delicately composed and is a credit to Mattie's literary idols (e.g., Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Louisa May Alcott), and although it has obvious appeal to women, I believe men would appreciate the quality of the work as well. (At least you fellows ought to do so!)

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Most of us have a movie, book, or TV show quote that's worked its way into our daily use, serving as an inside joke among our little club of fellow fans. Who among us didn't quote Monty Python's Holy Grail constantly in high school or college? (If you didn't, you might not be nerdy enough to enjoy my blog.)

Ickie and I have several regulars in current rotation. We can always make each other laugh by saying "Go back from whence you came!" (G.O.B. in Arrested Development). As cuss-word substitutions, Ickie often uses "Frak" (BSG) and I use "Blurg" (30 Rock). But the really random, just-between-the-two-of-us quote is "When will they listen, Bob? When will they listen?" We're not even sure that's the exact quote anymore. Any deviation just makes us laugh harder. "When will they learn, Jim? When will they learn?" It comes from a Mystery Science Theater short that's a cheesey educational video about train-track crossing safety (view here). Basically, a 1950s kid gets hit by a train because he doesn't follow proper precautions, and the railroad employees comment on his carelessness, shaking their heads grimly in a laughably stilted bit of acting. We reference it all the time. You'd be surprised how applicable it is to everyday life. For example, Pizza Hut shows an ad for gross-looking pasta, some rednecks have a noisy argument on the street outside our house, Ickie's students fail because they don't apply themselves, a duck gets hit by a rock...the possibilities are endless, especially when you go around feeling superior all day long like we do. Just thinking the phrase now in my head makes me feel like laughing.

I'd love to read your favorite oft-used quotes in the comment section. Maybe I'll even make a pie chart of the results. Because pie charts are super fun.

Unwelcome Neighbors

Last night I stayed up late to complete We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. You know Jackson from her short story "The Lottery," required reading for all middle school English classes. Castle is similar thematically. The title alone made me want to read the book, as it reminds me of the oft repeated phrase from Cold Comfort Farm: "There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm." I couldn't get this phrase out of my head, which is replete with humor, so I took an undeservedly whimsical approach to Jackson's dark novel. I often do that with the most frightening of tales. I enjoy scary stories so much that my reaction is to be simultaneously creeped out and giddy.

Castle is the tale of Merricat, who lives in the isolated Blackwood mansion with her elder sister and senile uncle. Several years ago, all the other Blackwoods died when someone put arsenic in the sugar bowl. Readers get a wonderfully warped perspective via Merricat's narration, who reveals more and more of her strange compulsions as the plot progresses. Jackson writes in modern, eerie prose, focusing on the cruelty of which ordinary people are capable and leaving just enough of the mystery unrevealed at the conclusion. It reminds me a bit of Jane Eyre and the stories of Flannery O'Conner.