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A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

*Warning:  This post likely contains spoilers!  Beware if you’ve never read this book!*

I did it!  I finally finished A Tale of Two Cities!  This book has been on my “need to read” list since I was in high school.  Somehow I missed the class in which it was required reading, so I never read it.  I’m making up for lost time.  I have two regrets about this book: 

  1. that I didn’t read it sooner.
  2. that I didn’t read it faster. 

First, I took a whole semester of French Revolution/Napoleonic period history in college, and much of this novel would’ve made even more sense to me then.  Of course, I had other books to read then, so I never even thought about it.  Second, if I had only managed to read this one in a week instead of several weeks, I wouldn’t have forgotten the identity of some of the minor (but major in their contributions to the plot) characters.  Such is life.  I feel like I slogged through the first two-thirds of the book, and then, when most of the major characters are once again in Paris, I picked up speed.  It got good then. 

Ah, Sydney Carton.  Sydney Carton.  Sydney Carton.  He surprised me.  Way back when I posted these quotes from the novel, I had nothing more than a mere inkling of an idea of how it would all work out.  I have to say that this novel has one of the most satisfying (‘though heart-wrenching) conclusions I’ve read.  What better theme than redemption?  This exchange got me:

‘Are you dying for them?  she whispered.

‘And his wife and child.  Hush!  Yes.’

‘Oh, you will let me hold your brave hand, stranger?’

‘Hush!  Yes, my poor sister; to the last.’

I’ve never written much about the name of my blog before, but Victor Hugo wrote somewhere in Les Miserables (another classic I’ve yet to complete) that “hope is the word God has written on the brow of every man.”  I love the idea that as long as we have hope (and we do), we have no reason to despair.  I like to see the theme of hope played out in literature, and if Sydney Carton is not a seemingly hopeless character who ultimately provides the greatest gift to his friends, I don’t know who is. 

Strangely, I thought of To Kill a Mockingbird while I was reading of Sydney Carton’s sacrifice, and it wasn’t Atticus Finch or Tom Robinson who came to mind.  It was Ms. Dubose.  I always loved that little vignette–how Atticus makes Jem go and read to her, a very crochety old lady.  Later, Jem finds out the reason for his father’s insistence that he help her.  In my opinion, she is a noble character because of her steely determination to die a free woman, even in the midst of her pain.  (I don’t want to provide too many details–I don’t want to turn this into a post which provides spoilers for two books.  If you haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, please do yourself a favor and read it.  Thank you.)  Sydney Carton’s decision to finally do this one thing right reminds me of her.

Of course, there’s the other part of A Tale of Two Cities that I love so much:  the humor.  Jerry Cruncher and Miss Pross provide just the comic relief needed in a heartbreaking story.  I’ve quoted the novel extensively in my Week in Words posts, and most of the quotes pertain to these two characters.  For a sampling of Dickens’ humor, you can read these posts here and here and here.   

I love this book, and I’m really glad I finally read it.  Now I want to watch a screen version.  Does anyone have any recommendations?  Any to avoid?


Author/Illustrator Spotlight::Robert McCloskey

I’m probably coming a little late to the party for this particular author and illustrator, but my only exposure to him as a child that I recall is Make Way for Ducklings.  It is certainly a charming book in its own right (not to mention that it’s a Caldecott Medal winner!), but I must’ve been a little too old (or something?) for it to make a huge impression on me.  (Either that, or now I’m reverting back to my second childhood.)  When I discovered One Morning in Maine, I positively fell in love.  I’m not sure what it is about this book–the relationship we’ve already established with the younger Sal through Blueberries for Sal, the fact that my girls are just about the age that Sal is in One Morning in Maine, or just the simple fact that this somewhat lengthy picture book has so many interesting details about life in coastal Maine.  (An island, even!) Sal’s delight over losing a tooth; her consternation over losing (as in misplacing) that tooth while going clam digging with her father; and her fastidious care for her little sister while they travel by boat across the bay to do some shopping are just perfect–McCloskey really nailed the age, I think.   This one’s definitely going on my Best Picture Books list.

I was interested to note that McCloskey only wrote eight books.  To quote Eleanor Blau, the author of McCloskey’s NY Times obituary, “It had to be right, and it often was.”  My girls and I have also enjoyed Time of Wonder, another book for which McCloskey won the Caldecott Medal.  It didn’t grab me quite as much as One Morning in Maine, but it also doesn’t have such an endearing heroine.  I also think I prefer the black-and-white illustrations of his earlier works over the color ones in Time of Wonder.

I would really like to read McCloskey’s Homer Price and its sequel, Centerburg Tales: More Adventures of Homer Price.  His obituary states that these are full of tall tales; I’m not sure if this means they are tall tales or if they contain tall tales.  Something I’ve read before about them makes me think the latter.  Has anyone read these?

If you haven’t introduced your children to the wonder of Robert McCloskey, don’t wait.  I’m planning to “Row” Lentil some time this spring.  I can’t wait!  (For more on Lentil, check out Lisa’s post.)

Top Ten Picks of 2009

Despite the fact that my reading slowed to a trickle at the end of 2009, I managed to read a total of 51 books.  (Why, oh why, didn’t I hurry up and finish just one more book?!?!?  One  a week would be a real record for me, but I guess this is close enough to count, right?)  Add to this number the seventeen or so chapter books I read aloud to my girls (not to mention the countless picture books we shared), and that boosts my total to nearly 70 books. I’m giving myself a hearty pat on the back over this, believe me.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my 2009 reading , and that’s really what it’s about for me right now. 

I’m really not very good at picking favorites, but I’m going to try. Looking back at my Best of 2008 list, I’d say I was pretty much on target in terms of picking the books that were most memorable to me, so here goes:

thumb_change-heart-bookThe last half of this year has been fiction-heavy, so I was surprised to look back and realize that I read about sixteen nonfiction titles.  By far the one that stands out the most to me is Change Your Heart, Change Your Life by Dr. Gary Smalley.  I was charmed by Smalley’s informal, funny, touching presentation at a marriage conference Steady Eddie and I attended, and we promptly bought his book after hearing his testimony.  I’m sorry to say that I’ve fallen off the Bible memorization and meditation wagon through my months of holiday preparations and morning sickness, but I’m ready to turn over that proverbial new leaf for 2010 and make it a part of my life again.  I might just re-read this book to get me started.  It’s that good.

9781576831441Another nonfiction book that I found to be inspiring, encouraging, and convicting is Feeding Your Soul:  A Quiet Time Handbook by Jean Fleming.  (Can you tell by these first two choices that I’m in dire need of some discipline in my own spiritual life?  I am.)  I found this book immensely readable and pratical.  My review of this book is short, but really, this book is more about doing than thinking, so maybe that’s appropriate.
sacredparentingSacred Parenting is one of those books that bears re-reading, and it’s definitely one of the best I read in 2009.  However, I feel sort of like the person James describes in this passage concerning this book (and lots of other things):

23For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24For he looks at himself and goes away and at once  forgets what he was like.  (James 1:23-24)

I saw so much of myself in Thomas’ book, but I’ve forgotten so much of what he said.  Sigh.  It’s good–anything by Thomas is.  I think I need to re-read this one. 

I suppose it’s appropriate that so many of my most memorable reads last year were “God Reads”–that’s exactly how I feel about A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller.  I just can’t believe I’d had to book around for so long and hadn’t read it. 

Fiction-wise, I had a juvenile/young adult heavy year, which is perfectly okay by me.  Of all the adult books I read, though, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Some Wildflower in My Heart get top billing. This year I’d like to break out of my adult fiction rut of reading fiction by primarily one author.

It’s no secret that I love juvenile fiction, and young adult fiction comes in right behind it.  I feel like I’m always playing catch-up when I read about new books on other bloggers’ blogs because I rarely read any book when it’s brand new.  However, I did manage to read a few relatively new titles from these genres which this year which I loved.  The Mysterious  Benedict Society and Volume One of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing are two books I won’t soon forget and two books the sequels of which I really hope to read this year.  I also really enjoyed The Pirate’s Son by Geraldine McCaughrean.  This is the second book by McCaughrean I’ve read, and I look forward to spending more time with this talented and thought-provoking author.

I’m rounding out 2009’s top ten with a classic that I was surprised to enjoy so much, ‘though I don’t know why.  A Girl of the Limberlost is one of those books I’ve always known about, and I’m really glad that 2009 is the year I finally read it.  Old fashioned books really are the best sometimes, aren’t they?

That’s a lot of fine reading. 2009 was a great bookish year, and I’m looking forward to 2010 being the same! I hope to post a few bookish thoughts and plans for this new year in the next day or two, so stay tuned. 🙂

Read Aloud Thursday–Best of 2009


My girls and I have read a lot of good books together this year, so when I first began to think about how I wanted to end the year for Read Aloud Thursday, I thought I might actually try to go back and check out from the library as many of the picture books I’ve reviewed this year as I could and let my girls pick their favorites.  Then I decided I’m not nearly as brave (or energetic!) as Carrie and promptly abandoned that idea.  I just don’t think I could even begin to pick a favorite, favorite, favorite picture book for myself (or even a few of them), let alone get my girls to do it by just looking at the covers on the computer screen.  My always-a-work-in-progress Best Picture Books list will have to suffice. 

What I decided to do instead is highlight the best chapter book read-alouds we did this year.  Actually, it seems more and more that chapter books are becoming the norm around the House of Hope for read-alouds; Lulu tends to request them, and Louise just goes along for the ride.  Oh, by no means am I giving up reading picture books!  No way!  I think I just got a little overwhelmed the past couple of months with the holidays and early pregnancy funk.  Besides, with a new little one on his or her way,  there will be plenty of picture books to read and enjoy all over again, as well as new ones to discover! 

Anyway, back to the best chapter books discussion.  Looking over the list of what we’ve read together (click and then scroll down to see it), I think my favorite of all was our saunter through The House at Pooh Corner, but I’m just very sentimental that way.  Read this post for proof of my extreme sentimentality.  

I read the list of books we’ve finished aloud to the girls just before bedtime last night, and Lulu predictably voted The Best Christmas Pageant Ever as her favorite, so little sister (also predictably) followed.  I don’t know if they really loved it that much, if they remember it best since it’s the last one we read, or if they loved it because we saw their cousins perform in a stage production of it while we were in the middle of reading it, but that was their number one pick.  Of course, Lulu had to give a loyalty vote to Little House on the Prairie, which I hope and believe she will always hold near and dear to her heart.  I know we’ve spent many, many, many hours listening to the audiobooks of that series here at the House of Hope this year.

Honestly, it would be very difficult for me to pick which book I think they enjoyed the most.  I could more easily pick the ones I think didn’t go over as well, but what would be the fun in that?  😉  If I were to pick a top three five six, though, not including the above choices, the list would include

  • All things Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.  The girls loved this book and its sequel, found it hilarious, and much to my chagrin, actually “got” the mischief the children got themselves into. 
  • Charlotte’s Web.  How can I not include this one?  I consider this book the pinnacle of read-aloud perfection:  immensely readable text, perfect illustrations by none other than Garth Williams of Little House fame, and a perfect story.  To have it read by the author raises it to an even higher plane.  This book has also provided lots of fodder for my girls’ imaginations.   This year was our second trip through, and I daresay it won’t be our last. 
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  This read-aloud brought me as much joy as any I’ve shared with them yet, and that’s saying a mouthful for sure.  The fact that Lulu saw a large read-aloud copy I just purchased and requested another trip back into the Wardrobe is testimony to me of the power of this story. The girls have even listened to this one in audio a few times.  However, they share a CD player during rest time, their normal audiobook-listening time, and some of the scenes with the White Witch are a little too intense for Louise, so she usually votes against this one, at least the dramatized audio version we have. 
  • The Story of Helen Keller was an unexpected treat for my girls.  This sort of links back (like many, many things here at the House of Hope) to the Ingalls family, since Mary was blind.  They really soaked up Helen Keller’s inspiring story, and yes, we took a field trip to Ivy Green, even if I never managed to share the pictures here like I promised to do. 
  • Betsy-Tacy enchanted us all.  I’ll never forget lying in bed in our hotel room on vacation and finishing this book with the girls.  I look forward to sharing the sequels with them in the future. 
  • .Last but certainly not least, Tumtum and NutmegThese books were a joy to read, and Louise still gets a kick out of Madame Tiptoe and her pogo-ing ballerinas in the second story.  I don’t think I expected a modern book to be this much fun and imaginative for some reason, but rest assured that there is still good children’s literature being written today. 

As for 2010, I’m not sure which direction we’ll travel.  Rest assured, though, I’ll share whatever we discover together here at Read Aloud Thursday!  🙂

What about your family?  Care to tell us your top picks of 2009, or maybe just what you’ve been enjoying lately?  Link up your blog post below, or simply leave a comment.  Oh, and don’t forget about the Read Aloud Thursday buttons!

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Have a magnificent last day of 2009!  What better way to go out than a Read Aloud Thursday! 🙂

I Read It!::The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

ireaditI love the I Read It!  challenge over at 5 Minutes for Books, and I almost wish it came around more frequently than just the months which contain five Tuesdays.  I’m just kidding, sort of—I’m not sure I could handle the pressure.  Reading my selection for this month’s I Read It!, though, was no pressure at all–it is that good.

I picked up The Mysterious Benedict Society because really, how could I not?  I mean, Carrie goes on and on about it here, and then she continues here.  Sherry of Semicolon read it when it first came out (of course) and loved it.  Stephanie really liked itJanet did, tooDitto The Correspondent.    I haven’t find anyone who doesn’t like it. 

Add me to the long list of MBS lovers!  When I first started reading this book and grew acquainted with the very eclectic quartet of children that makes up the Mysterious Benedict Society, I was reminded of The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg and The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.  The similarities grew as I read further and learned more about the mystery the children were to solve.  Although it has been a long time since I’ve read either Konigsburg’s or Raskin’s book, what I remember about them is a team of children who are thrown together for reasons unknown to them to achieve something very difficult, if not impossible.  The camaraderie that grows out of their unlikely circumstance is one of the real “messages” of the book (if we must find “messages”).  Likewise for MBS, I think.   The fact that we, the readers, get to go on an amazing, entertaining, funny, suspenseful adventure along with these children is “extra.” 

The good vs. evil theme in this book leaves so much room for interpretation, and as a Christian, I cannot help but see all kinds of parallels.  However, I will spare you the details here (besides, Carrie did a great job of explaining these already).  I can see all kinds of possibilities for reading this as a family and then discussing it.  I must say that this book caused me, a (mostly) adult, to once again think about technology and the impact it has on our society and on me, individually.  What I find when I take a long, hard look at this is not all good, I assure you. 

Another thing I thought about as I read The Mysterious Benedict Society is the movie potential in this book.  I am not usually a fan of books-to-movies, really, and I can’t imagine that this one would fare very well in the translation.  Oh, I think Hollywood could do a fabulous job on all the adventure and action (just imagine Kate, y’all!), but I’m afraid the much more subtle parts of story (which are the best parts, after all) would be lost, or worse, reinterpreted.  Does anyone know if a movie is in the works?

I laughed out loud several times while reading this book.  I’ve noticed that this is something I almost only do while reading children’s books.  What does this say about me?  What does this say about adult literature?  🙂  This is the first passage I marked:

“I’m sorry, Reynard,” the woman interrupted, tugging unsuccessfully on a closed window.  “I’m afraid there isn’t a telephone.”

“But Miss Perumal–”

“Reynard,” the woman said with a smile, “I’m sure you can make do without one, can’t you?   Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must sneak out the back door.  These windows appear to have been painted shut.”

“Sneak out?  But why?”

“I’ve learned from experience.  Any moment now, some of these children’s parents will come storming in to demand explanations.  Unfortunately, I have none to give them.  Therefore, off I go.  I’ll see you this afternoon.  Don’t be late!”

And with that, away she went.  (14)

I had immediate visions of myself as a first year teacher when I read that one.  😉

If you haven’t read The Mysterious Benedict Society yet, don’t put it off any longer.  It really is that good!

(Oh, and be sure to visit 5 Minutes for Books for more I Read It! posts.)

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell

The girls found this board book treasure on the shelf the other day, and boy, did I get start getting teary-eyed and sentimental.  (Do baby toes make you yearn for another little one?  Books are my poison, apparently.  😉 )  Reading this book to them the fifty-second time (while they sat perched on the Dora the Explorer stool which props open my bathroom door and I applied my make-up, no less), I saw their too-soon passed babyhood flit across the screen of my memory.  This happened not just because I have warm-and-cozy memories of reading this book to them long before they themselves have memories of it, but because this book is mostly about security and maternal love.  Sarah and Percy and Bill, the three Owl Babies in the story, wake up to find their owl mother GONE.  Sarah and Percy express confidence that she will return and guess where she might’ve gone without them; Bill, on the other hand, just repeats over and over again the refrain of “I want my mommy!”  Of course, Owl Mother returns in the end, with a gentle admonition for her owl babies for worrying in her absence.  The language is lyrical and Patrick Benson’s illustrations are dark and cozy, just right for this comforting read.  This one belongs on my Best Picture Books list!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

This book has everything I like in a story:  an intriguing plot, some good history thrown in (of the World War II variety, which is my favorite period to read about), a hint of romance, and charming voices.  I won’t bother to give a synopsis here since they are readily available.  I’m just glad that this month’s Bookclub at 5 Minutes for Books nudged me toward this book, which I normally would’ve avoided given its best-seller status.  Melissa, who contributes to 5 Minutes for Books, posed several interesting questions about this book, but I am so taken by my own ponderings about the story that I share them, instead.  This post might be a little tedious for those of you who aren’t fans of a certain Canadian authoress from the early twentieth century and well-read in her ouevre, so feel free to skip it.  Or, read it and be inspired to delve further into what I consider to be some of the most entertaining and heart-warming writing around.

I was not too far into this charming story before the voices of Juliet Ashton and her pen-pals began to sound comfortingly, enjoyably familiar.  This book just smacks of L.M. Montgomery’s influence!  I have no way of knowing if Mary Ann Shaffer was a fan of L.M. Montgomery, but reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society reminded me so much
several of Montgomery’s books that I wouldn’t wonder if she were.  Several of Montgomery’s books in particular stand out as similar to me:  Anne of Windy Poplars, due to its epistolary format, and post-marriage books about Anne:  Anne’s House of Dreams, Anne of Ingleside, Rainbow Valley, and Rilla of Ingleside

Both Guernsey Society (please, may I abbreviate the title?  One of the few things that bugged me about this book is the title–it’s too long)  and Anne of Windy Poplars are written from the point of view of a young, unmarried woman.  
Juliet is much older and more worldly wise than Anne, and Anne is engaged in her story, but still, the voices and observations are very similar.  I love this!  I love this type of story–full of vignettes that introduce you, the reader, to so many other characters that you would’ve never gotten to know without their social, wry, witty lives and observations.  Granted, if memory serves me well (and it has been a long time since I’ve read it), Windy Poplars is comprised entirely of correspondence between Anne and Gilbert, not other correspondence between a host of people, like Guernsey, but still–it’s the little snapshot into life that we get from reading them that is similar.

Guernsey Literary Society reminds me of the post-marriage Anne books for a couple of reasons.  One of my favorite, favorite, favorite vignettes (really, it’s more than that–it’s a major part of the plot) from one of the latter Anne books (House of Dreams or Anne of Ingleside, I forget which) is the story of Leslie Moore.  Her story is romantic and tragic, and her character is spellbinding.  Her counterpart in Guernsey Society is, of course, Elizabeth McKenna.  Elizabeth’s daughter, Kit, is a war baby, which brings us to Rilla of Ingleside and Rilla’s own war baby.
     The similarities abound, but really, it’s the spirit of the stories that are similar.  Montgomery’s characters, especially Anne, and Shaffer’s characters, especially Juliet, have an effervescence and love for life that is heartwarming and refreshing.  What’s more, they both have a way with words that make their correspondence, thoughts, and dialogue a joy to read. 

I loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society almost as much as I love the Anne series.  That’s saying a lot.  Of course, Guernsey Society has a few too many obligatory nods to modern day sensibilities (i.e. cursing, hom****uality mentioned several times, etc.) for my own personal taste, but I love the story itself too much to not give it a Highly Recommended.  If you love Anne, read Guernsey Society.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Would you like to read more opinions (that actually make sense, unlike mine 😉 ) about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society?  Click over to 5 Minutes for Books!

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

I mentioned last week that I am beginning a list of my favorite picture books of all timeBarbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius is the book that inspired me to do this.  This book is a perfect, heart-warming, gentle story about a girl who grows to be a woman and finally makes her mark on the world.  Miss Alice Rumphius achieves the two things she desired to do with her life before she reached her latter years, but it is only when she is past her prime that she finally fulfills the comission that her grandfather gave her.  What is it?  I won’t spoil the beautiful message of this book for those who haven’t read it, but truly this one is not to be missed.  It is heart-warming and inspiring for every age.

Best Picture Books

I’ve decided it’s time for a new feature here on my blog. I spend a large portion of my time nowadays reading and thinking about picture books, so I want to start a list of my favorite picture books of all time. I’m creating a page for it and I will add to it as books cross our path or I think of ones I haven’t highlighted.  I don’t have any hard and fast criteria for what makes the list.  This books will contain both old and new titles.  Many of them will be award winning books, but some might be little known.  They must resonate with me as a reader, with my children (at least a little bit), and they must each seem like a book that will stand the test of time.  I am not including longer works that also include pictures (like A.A. Milne’s books, etc.)–this will strictly be picture books in the true sense of the word.

There are several books I’ve already written up here that fit this category.  They are

We read a lot of picture books, but every once in a while, we read one that I don’t want to forget.  This list is as much for me as it is for anyone, but if you can use it, I’m glad.  🙂  Look for new additions in the coming weeks!


What’s on My Nightstand–April Wrap-up and Looking Ahead

nightstandIt looks like I read and reviewed a grand total of four books during the month of April that I read for my own enjoyment or edification.  That brings me up to sixteen for the year.  While there’s a chance I’ll finish one more before the month’s end, that’s not a big stack of books.  I thought I read more than that.  It has been a very busy month, so I guess that’s pretty good.  Of course, that doesn’t include the many, many, many books I read to my girls.  I have long since given up updating that list.  We enjoyed a few chapter books together, as well, including Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic and Ribsy, and we’re in the middle of a re-reading of Charlotte’s Web.

My favorite work of fiction for the month of April was The Suncatchers. I pulled this Jamie Langston Turner novel off the shelf on a whim and out of a need for a comfort read, and I’m so glad I did.  I must mention again, too, the nonfiction book I read this month, Change Your Heart, Change Your Life by Dr. Gary Smalley.  It has been a long time since a book resonated so strongly with me.

For May, I don’t have too many specific plans.  I’m enjoying this laissez-faire approach to reading, Les Miserables notwithstanding.  I do plan to read The Penderwicks for the Children’s Classics challenge and The Underneath for the Semicolon Book Club.  Other than that, I might try to tackle something else on my TBR list.   It’s more likely that I’ll just read as the spirit moves me.  I like that.

Do you want to read more Nightstand posts?  Click over to 5 Minutes for Books!