If You Like This Classic, Try This Middle Grade

classic-and-middle-grade-book-match-up-1

If You Like A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Try Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by  Katherine Rundell

Cartwheeling in ThunderstormsWilhelmina Silver loves living on a farm in Zimbabwe. But then she receives the news that little girls must not grow up half-wild, but instead go to boarding school in London.  The girls in London do not understand Will, however, and they do not like what they do not understand.  Alone and tormented, Will must learn how to turn the bravery that allows her to face down wild animals into the kind of bravery that can overcome spiteful classmates.

If You Like Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Try The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

Scandalous SisterhoodWhen the headmistress of St. Ethedreda’s School for Girls and her younger brother are poisoned at Sunday dinner, the seven boarders know just what to do.  Hide the bodies; convince the town that Headmistress Plackett is alive and well; and continue to live at the school as independent women.  But can the girls identify the murderer before he or she attempts to strike a second time?

If You Like Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Try Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Gregor the OverlanderGregor’s father disappeared years ago and thus has to spend the summer caring for his baby sister Boots.  The two find adventure, however, when they fall through a grate in the laundry room into the Underland, where humans live uneasily alongside giant roaches, rats, bats, and spiders.  The humans believe Gregor to be the warrior named in an ancient prophecy, but Gregor wants nothing more than to return his sister safely home.

If You Like The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Try The Girl Who Circumvented Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente

Girl Who Circumvented FairylandOne day the Green Wind catches up September and takes her to Fairyland—but all is not how it should be.  Fairies are scarce, winged beasts are forbidden to fly, and the Marquess has stolen the spoon the witches use to see the future.  September agrees to travel to the capital and retrieve the spoon, but somewhere along the way she realizes that her quest has grown bigger than she anticipated.

If You Like The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

Try 100 Cupboards by N. D. Wilson

100 CupboardsWhen Henry moves to live with his aunt and uncle in Kansas, he doesn’t expect to do much exciting besides perhaps learn to play baseball.  But then he sees a short man in the house, who disappears into a room that has been locked for years.  Can it be that the cupboards in the attic really lead to different worlds and that his grandfather knew the secret?

If You Like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Try Leepike Ridge by N. D. Wilson

Leepike RidgeEleven-year-old Thomas Hammond floats down the stream and over a waterfall one day, then finds himself trapped underneath Leepike Ridge.  With only a few sardines and a light, Tom will have to find the courage and the wits to stay alive long enough to find his way out.  But up above a gang of treasure hunters is thwarting the search efforts.

If You Like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Try Floors by Patrick Carman

Leo Fillmore lives in the greatest place on earth—the Whippet Hotel, consisting of nine (known) floors each full of rooms that boggle the imagination.  The Cake Room.  The Pinball Room.  The Flying Farm Room.  As the son of the maintenance man, Leo knows these rooms better than most, but even he is unprepared for the day the owner goes missing and the hotel starts to fall apart.  With a mysterious box to guide him and a duck at his side, Leo sets forth to save the hotel before there’s nothing left at all.

Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri, Translated by Mark Musa

DanteINFORMATION

Goodreads: Purgatorio
Series: Divine Comedy #2
Source: Purchased
Published: 1985

SUMMARY

Having emerged from hell to see the stars, Virgil and Dante continue on through purgatory.  There Dante witnesses the souls who delight in the punishments that purify them and allow them to see the face of God.

Review

I have always been a little disappointed that most people only read Dante’s Inferno because I think the books increase in beauty as they go along.  Furthermore, only reading the Inferno gives some readers the impression that Dante delights in gore and in sending people to hell.  Maybe he does a little–Pope Boniface VIII sure receives no mercy from him–but Dante is also interested in divine justice, free will, charity, and the glory of God.  It’s hard to receive a well-rounded understanding of Dante’s understanding of these concepts when readers are stuck feeling miffed that Dante is being oh-so-judgmental and damning them for things many readers wouldn’t even call a sin these days.

Reading Purgatorio can help reveal more about Dante’s beliefs, however, as it shows souls guilty of the same sins for which some are burning in hell–but the souls here are on their way to heaven.  The difference?  These souls repented before they died.  The souls in hell knew they were committing a mortal sin and separating themselves from God, but they did not care.  They, in Dante’s view, chose their own destiny.  The souls in purgatory chose differently, allowing for what I think is the most beautiful moment in the trilogy–Manfred’s smile.

Manfred, you see, was an apparently utterly horrible person who killed a few family members during his lifetime as he sought to gain political power.  Most people wouldn’t expect to see him on his way to heaven and possible a good many people wouldn’t want to see him going to heaven.  But divine mercy knows no bounds and Manfred, who was excommunicated by the Church, tells Dante that “The church’s curse is not the final word,/ for Everlasting Love may still return,/ if hope reveals the slightest hint of green” (Purg. III.133-35). Talk about a powerful moment.

This moment also reveals another aspect that makes Dante so lively, so complicated, so perplexing, so alive.  Even though I have met some readers who have cast Dante as a curmudgeonly and apparently stupid (I know, I know) follower of the Church who can’t think for himself but blindly follows whatever the Church says, Dante is actually always questioning his own faith.  He’s grappling with the same problems readers are.  If these sinners are so sympathetic, why are they in hell?  If this guy was saved, why wasn’t the other guy?  How can it be that my favorite poet ever, Virgil, is stuck in Limbo just because he has the misfortune to be born before Christ?  Is any of this fair?  I don’t understand.  It’s true that Dante ultimately tends to confirm the wisdom of the Church, even if he doesn’t understand it and even if he doesn’t seem to like it, but he isn’t blindly content with it.  And he’s confident enough to believe he can question his faith and that, if it’s true, it will stand up to the test.

So cast aside your preconceptions of who Dante is and what he wrote.  The complexity, daring, beauty, and imagination of his work may surprise you.

5 starsKrysta 64

Along the Shore by L. M. Montgomery

along-the-shoreINFORMATION

Goodreads: Along the Shore
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1989

SUMMARY

This volume presents sixteen previously unknown short stories written by L. M. Montgomery, best-known for Anne of Green Gables, and collected by Rea Wilmshurst.  Though each one is centered around the sea, they span in content from romance to humor to tragedy.

Review

Though I appreciate Wilmshurt’s work in collecting previously unknown work, I admit that I find her editorial choices a little strange.  She presents various collections of Montgomery’s work by gathering tales with similar themes– the sea, the supernatural, orphans, correspondence–and publishing them all together in the same volume.  (Along the Shore, of course, is all about the sea.)  The sixteen short stories in Along the Shore are already a little repetitive because they contain characters, events, and entire chunks of narration and dialogue that can also be found in books such as Emily of New Moon, Anne of Avonlea, and Anne of Ingleside.   But because they are all centered around the same oceanic theme, they also repeat themselves within the same volume.  Tales of characters about to be caught by the tide or saved by dogs occur  more than once within the collection making it seem, if not predictable (Montgomery’s work is already arguably predictable and does the stories no harm), at least a little tiresome. One wishes for variety.

If one overlooks Wilmshurst’s editorial choices and considers only the short stories, it is clear that Montgomery brings to them the same wit and sensitivity that have endeared her to readers of her novels.  They vary from tragic romances to happy romances, tales of brave children to tales of brave dogs.  Notable among them are the courtship of a woman and a man who can never meet face-to-face, thanks to the woman’s man-hating aunt;  a minster’s love for a woman who has never been to church; and the inadvertent betrayal of two friends who fall in love with each other’s beaux.  Even when the stories are tragic, they often contain a hint of the humorous or at least of the ironic.

Any L. M. Montgomery fan will surely love this collection, but it also has appeal for those who simply enjoy a good short story.  These are the kinds of short stories that wrap up right, giving one a sense of closure, even if the ending is sad.  No nebulous, modern endings that simply off the tale and call it “mysterious” here.  Every tale feels like a precious gem, carefully wrapped up and gifted to the reader.  Montgomery wants her readers to enjoy these tales, to be moved by them, to live them.  She doesn’t do you the discourtesy of ending a good tale that has only just begun.

*Content Note: The final story contains an offensive use of the n-word.

4 starsKrysta 64

Classic Remarks: Is “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” Feminist?

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!


Do you think “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer is feminist?

Canterbury Tales

Anyone who has ever taught a class about the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale will know that students love the Wife of Bath, and the number one thing they love about her is how feminist she seems.  She speaks her mind! She’s been married multiple times! She shows her husbands she has a say in the relationship, too! And her tale is about punishing a knight who raped a maiden!  However, all the essays in the world encounter a major problem: Can you call someone feminist who existed before feminism was even a concept?

It’s a tough question, one which people sometimes try to skirt by calling the Wife of Bath “proto-feminist” and moving on.  I think it’s more complicated than that, but for the sake of this post I’ll say that the Wife of Bath (particularly her Tale) does seem interested in increased equality between men and women, though she doesn’t have a 100% percent modern view of what that looks like and seems primarily interested in women being able to gain power in their marriages (basically the only place women had any power or social standing in the Middle Ages).  That is to say, the Wife of Bath doesn’t seem particularly interested in single women being respected or women being able to support themselves or anything like that.  Those would have been incredibly foreign ideas in medieval England, so much so that they simply don’t  occur to her–or really anyone.

However, yes, the Wife of Bath wants women to have sovereignty within their marriages, which is  the entire theme of her tale.  The story opens with a knight raping a maiden, and everyone is outraged and demands King Arthur dispense justice (already pro-woman).  Normally, “justice” is death, but Queen Guinevere proposes an alternative: If the knight can come back to court in a year and a day and tell her what women most desire, his life will be spared.  This is a very tidy plot, with related crime and punishment. The knight harmed a woman, and now he must learn to understand women to atone for his crime.  (Again, pretty pro-woman.)

The real puzzle comes at the end of the tale, however. If you’re reading this post, you probably know the plot of the tale: the knight finds a woman who gives him an answer to the riddle (Women most desire sovereignty) in exchange for his agreeing to marry her. He agrees because he wants to live, but the problem is that she’s an ugly old hag, and he’s not really into that. But, plot twist: On the night of the wedding, the hag (his wife) offers the knight another deal.   He can choose for her to be ugly and faithful to him or for her to be beautiful and potentially unfaithful.  The knight really wants her to not be ugly, but he also doesn’t want her sleeping with other men, so this is a dilemma. Unsure what to pick, he tells her to choose what she wants.  (He gives her sovereignty.)  Giving her sovereignty is the correct answer, so his wife tells him he can have everything, that she will be both beautiful and faithful:

‘Kiss me, and we won’t quarrel any more,
For I’ll be both to you, upon my honour!
That’s to say, beautiful as well as good.
May death and madness be my lot,’ she said,
‘If I am not a wife as good and true
As ever wife was since the world was new,
And if I’m not as pretty as a queen,
As ay empress that was ever seen
From east to west, before tomorrow’s dawn,
Then you can deal just as you like with me.
And now, lift up the curtain and see.’ (250)

Is this feminist? I’d say yes, since the wife seems to be making the decision to be both beautiful and faithful of her own free will.  A couple lines later, the narrator notes that “she obeyed him in all things,” but that also seems to be her decision.  There’s no implication that the knight is forcing her to do anything.  Everything–from getting married in the first place, to offering him the decision of how she will look and act, to choosing to obey him always–appears to have been her idea.  It sounds limiting from a modern perspective, yet she appears happy, and I suppose that’s what feminism aims for.

At any rate, the Wife of Bath has her own commentary on the story she just told:

And may Christ send up husbands who
Are meek and young, and spirited in bed;
And send us grace to outlive those we wed;
And I pray Jesus to cut short the lives
Of those who won’t be governed by their wives;
And as for all old and ill-tempered skinflints,
May heaven rain upon them pestilence! (250)

These final lines actually seem contradictory to her tale in some ways.  Is the knight really meek?  Or governed by his wife? We may not have enough details about their married life to know definitively.  We do know that the Wife of Bath wants women to have power in the marriages, but “sovereignty” doesn’t always have to be flashy or forceful.  The Wife might boss her own husband[s] around, but if the lady in her story finds happiness in doing what most pleases her husband, that seems fine too.

*Translation by David Wright (The Canterbury Tales, Oxford University Press)

If you are participating this week, please leave us your link in the comments!

Briana

The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis

weight-of-gloryINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Screwtape Letters
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: 1949

Summary

This collection brings together a series of essays and lectures, addressing topics from the morality of pacifism to learning in wartime to forgiveness.

Review

Despite the tendency of modern readers to declare the independence of the individual from outdated notions of sin, C. S. Lewis continues to speak to contemporary audiences.  Something about him seems to bring clarity to the subject, reminding his readers of the deep importance of grappling with questions of morality.  He makes big theological concerns seem close, dealing not with abstract notions of sin or illustrating his points with examples of sins his readers would ascribe to someone else, but instead reminding his readers that, yes, this book is about you.  This book is about all of us.

Part of his magic lies, I suspect, in his ability to illuminate how everyday actions shape individuals.  He does not cry out the usual exhortations to  obey the commandments.  Don’t murder people.  Don’t steal.  Don’t, don’t, don’t–all things that seem to be the sins of that guy down the street or that woman in the newspaper.  Instead he says, look.  Look at what you are doing everyday, and see how you are failing (but also how you might do better).

One of the essays in this collection, for example, focuses on the desire of individuals to belong.  Titled “The Inner Ring,” it reveals how that very ordinary wish to be “in,” to be recognized, to be not the person who is on the outside being made fun of, can lead individuals to make moral compromises.  You start out by doing something small because everyone else is and because you don’t want to be the uncouth individual who still believes no one takes bribes or no one sweeps things under the rug or no one refuses to speak ill of others.  And soon you are corrupted.  You have become part of the inner ring.  But at what cost?

Another essay, “On Forgiveness,” addresses the modern tendency to excuse sin.  Yes, I did wrong, but… He points out both the need to take responsibility for our own actions and to realize that when we forgive others, we do not have to excuse their actions.  Indeed, if the action were excusable, it would not need to be forgiven!  Again, his essays hits home.  Finding a way to forgive an injury is something everyone has had to grapple with.  The essays are not about all those other sinners you can think of, but about you, the reader.

Lewis’s ability to make theological questions seem continually relevant and timely, and of the utmost personal importance, is combined with a clear prose style that makes philosophy seem easy.  He writes clearly and provides plenty of analogy and illustrations, always writing for the lay person and not for the scholar, always writing with the assumption that his reader is not necessarily already Christian and possessed of all the theological background knowledge.  For accessibility and relevance, Lewis really can’t be topped.

4 starsKrysta 64

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

screwtape-lettersINFORMATION

Goodreads: The Screwtape Letters
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: 1942

SUMMARY

The demon Screwtape writes letters of advice to his nephew Wormwood, describing different methods Wormwood should use to lead the human soul under his charge to damnation.

Review

C. S. Lewis possesses a talent for illuminating the importance of everyday moments.  In this brilliant satire, written as a series of letters from the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood on how to lead a soul to damnation, Lewis reveals how the smallest occurrences, the words, thoughts, actions that individuals would brush aside as ordinary or as no consequence, are really the first stepping souls on the path to heaven or to hell.  Screwtape takes everything seriously, from the way Wormwood’s patient talks about acquaintances to what type of tone he uses when responding to his mother’s requests.  And if the devil takes these moments seriously, apparently so should we.

However, Lewis’s book reveals more cause for hope than for despair.  If little actions or words can become habits that lead one into serious vice, so can little actions or words lead one to virtue.  Screwtape is alarmed every time Wormwood’s patient takes time to pray, even if he isn’t feeling particularly close to God when he does so.  He panics when Wormwood’s patient recognizes his weaknesses and humbles himself instead of giving up.  He is furious when he discovers that Wormwood’s patient is talking to Christians and going to church!  He has to scramble to find ways to corrupt these moments.

Corruption, as Screwtape reveals, can come as a stealth attack.  His advice to Wormwood warns readers to guard themselves against many a feeling or a thought they might think innocuous.  On being in love, he writes that Wormwood should keep in mind that humans forget the euphoria of falling in love cannot last forever and many couples splinter when, years later, they find it difficult to continue being unselfish the way they were when they were first dating.  On selfishness, he writes about the people who make themselves bitter by pretending to give up what they want, only to become furious when people take them at their word: “When I said I didn’t care if we went to the Italian restaurant, you should have known that I really wanted Chinese food!”  On flippancy, he writes that speaking poorly of others can lead individuals to pride.  Suddenly everything takes on a new dimension.

Of course, many today may feel that C. S. Lewis has nothing to say to them.  Right and wrong are antiquated ideas.  Chastity is oppressive.  Sin is a myth.  Lewis would respond that this attitude is the devil’s greatest triumph.  He works best when no one believes in him.  He wants his attacks to go unnoticed.  To recognize that Lewis might onto something and to begin to question one’s own moral responsibility is exactly what Screwtape and his kind don’t want.

Krysta 645 stars

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

brave-new-worldInformation

Goodreads: Brave New World
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1932

Official Summary

Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs, all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations, where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress…

Huxley’s ingenious fantasy of the future sheds a blazing light on the present and is considered to be his most enduring masterpiece.

Review

Minor spoilers about the message of the book.

I first read Brave New World in high school, in conjunction with George Orwell’s 1984, at which time I concluded 1984 was much more horrifying and Brave New World was a bore. I hoped that this reread of Huxley’s classic dystopian novel would give me a fresh perspective on it, since I’m older and have some more literature studies under my belt. Unfortunately, while I can admit that the themes of Brave New World are thought-provoking and extremely relevant to today’s society (at least American society, with which I am most familiar personally), I still found the narrative itself flat.

1984 still scares me because I find the portrayal of the surveillance in the novel terrifying.  Rebellion against the established order is impossible because someone is always watching. There is no privacy; even in your own home you are not alone and cannot behave as you wish.  It’s appalling and stifling.  Brave New World doesn’t inspire that same  visceral horror in me , the feeling that makes me superficially declare 1984 a more moving book, because on the surface Huxley’s world is  much more innocuous.  In the end, that’s what should be really terrifying about the book--that it’s not scary, that some people would legitimate consider the world utopian rather than dystopian.

After all, the values of the Brave New World society are not so different from what we would consider left-wing viewpoints today (though of course I’m not saying every person who is left-wing agrees with all of these things or agrees with them to such extremes).  The society values recreational sex and promiscuity; sleeping with many people is good.  Parenthood or pregnancy is no longer an “inconvenience.” Abortion is on demand. So is euthanasia; when a person becomes too old to be useful to society, they’re put to sleep.  The government has legalized and subsidizes recreational drugs.  It also pays for birth control and sterilization.  Education and job training appear to be free, as well.

The major problem with all of this, of course, is that none of it is optional.  It’s not that you can have sex with everyone without judgment or get an abortion or spend your entire weekend high; it’s that you must. At least, I think that’s the problem many readers would initially see.  The problem, as the book presents it, is that many of these things this society values are not good at all.  The society, in the name of making everyone happy, has also made them complacent.  Life is flat.  There’s no purpose because there’s nothing to truly do, nothing to overcome.  Love, passion, sacrifice–none of these things exist, and life is emptier for it.  I can’t say I disagree with this.  Throughout history arguments have been made for the necessity of people experiencing at least some pain, at least some obstacles they can overcome.

However, the problem of writing about a world/life that is flat is that the story itself must also be somewhat flat, must also be bit about the pointlessness of it all.  None of the characters have ever been truly compelling to me, precisely because they don’t experience much opposition or shocks to their worldview and subsequently don’t experience much growth. There’s a message to that, too: the book takes the pessimistic view that no one really can grow.  They can feel they ought to, but too much of history and culture and freedom of choice has been destroyed for them to know how to.  That’s interesting philosophically, but it doesn’t necessarily make for an engaging plot or characterization.

So is Brave New World worth reading? Yes. It’s a staple in dystopian literature, and I think readers who want to know about the genre, or just be well-read in the classics, should add it to their list.  It’s referenced often enough in Western culture that having a working knowledge of it can be beneficial.  I think it’s also very eye-opening in terms of the things it posits as belonging in a dystopian world. But am I promising it will be the most exciting book you read this year? No, not really.

3 stars Briana