Reading, Reviews

Overlooked Greatness: Elizabeth Gaskell

I’ve mentioned before that I love British Literature from the Victorian era, or slightly before. It was a minor tragedy when I ran out of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters a few years ago.

Enter: Elizabeth Gaskell.

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My Gaskell Collection

I had never heard of Elizabeth Gaskell (known as Mrs. Gaskell during her publishing career), until I took a Bronte seminar in college and read parts of her The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Generally, I am terrible at reading nonfiction, biographies especially, but I found that I enjoyed Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte. Granted, some scholars claim that Gaskell took some liberties to make Charlotte’s life story a bit more like a novel. I forgive her for that, though, because her skill obviously lies in the novel form. Two of her works, Wives and Daughters and North and South are some of my favorite books.

Wives and Daughters (TV tie-in)Wives and Daughters is the story of Molly Gibson and her family. At the beginning of the novel, Molly is a motherless child, being brought up by her father, the village doctor. Molly enjoys her companionable relationship with her father. By and by, her father decides to marry again. His choice is questionable, but it makes for a great novel. The woman he  marries has a daughter, Cynthia. Cynthia is affectionate towards her new sister and father, but has made questionable choices in the past that come to light along the way. This novel also has a great villain, Mr. Preston. Wives and Daughters is centered on the family and village life, but it also has a lot to say about the struggle between science and traditionalism in the 1830s. Squire Hamley, a family friend and main character in the novel, is entrenched in his old farming ways, while his son, Roger, is an up and coming naturalist and has big ideas of what needs to change. That and many other plot lines and wonderful characters makes Wives and Daughters a beautiful work, comparable to the best novels of the time. Lauren Lerner calls it “surely the most neglected novel of its century” in his introduction to the Penguin Classic 1986 edition. Its only shortcoming is the fact that Mrs. Gaskell died before she tied up the ending into the beautifully wrapped package Victorian novels usually become. However, I think the ending is quite sufficient. Yes, it has a bit more of a modern, open-ended feel, but it’s pretty obvious where it’s going. If you like Austen, I think you’ll like Wives and Daughters.

North and SouthNorth and South surprised me with how different it was from Wives and Daughters. While Wives and Daughters closely follows a family and a several other village characters, North and South is full of social contrasts: industrial vs. agricultural, city vs. country, poor vs. rich. The title refers to the contrast in England between the industrial, factory-operated North and the pastoral, high-society south and London. It has a bit of a critical, Dickensonian approach. When Gaskell first introduces Margaret Hale, the main character, she is returning to her country home in Heston from a London visit to cousins. Margaret loves the picturesque cottage her family enjoys as her part of her father’s position as a minister in the Church of England. Margaret’s life quickly changes when her father’s conscience can no longer bear some differences he has with the Church of England, and he breaks ties with it. The family moves to a Northern city called Milton. Then, Margaret is thrust into a new perspective, as she watches and makes her own judgment of the factory life the Milton runs on. She meets a mill owner, John Thornton, and they form a tension-filled acquaintance, as Margaret disagrees with his treatment of the people he works for. As the novel progresses, the Margaret and Mr. Thornton find their opinions challenged and changed by one another and the circumstances that surround them.

Margaret Hale is one of my favorite literary characters of all time. I’d liken her a bit to an Elinor Dashwood or Ann Elliot, but much more lively. Margaret is aglow with the cause she champions and the people she wants to help. She is full of compassion and love tempered by steel determination and quite an ability to dislike as much as like. Her complexity is unparalleled in any Victorian literature I have read.

I hope you read both of these works by Gaskell. If you don’t think you’ll like them, perhaps you should try the Masterpiece Classic adaptations of them and see if they might whet your appetite for Elizabeth Gaskell. I’d usually not recommend watching the movie before reading the book, but they are pretty great, as far as movies go. =)

Links to movies on Amazon (please note: this post contains no affiliate links):

Wives and Daughters

North and South

think there are some videos from these movies on YouTube, but I’m not sure of their legality.

And finally, a disclaimer: if you read Elizabeth Gaskell, I would not recommend Mary Barton or Ruth. I’m sure that there are people somewhere who like those books. I found them to be rather trite–fallen Victorian woman plight, etc. Perhaps they were a little more cutting edge in their time, but if you’ve read The Mill on the FlossTess of the d’Urbervilles, or any number of similar stories, you don’t really need to add Ruth or Mary Barton to your repertoire, unless you find that you have become a die hard Mrs. Gaskell fan and must read all her works.

I hope you check out Elizabeth Gaskell and find a new favorite, or at least an enjoyable read. Happy reading!

Reading, Reviews

Life After Life – A Halfway Through Review

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is quite the conversation book right now. It’s the one every reader who reads anything is reading (that isLife After Life sarcasm– I hate those kind of statements that lump all readers together; if there’s any past time that can be more individualistic than reading, I’d be surprised). I started it on Wednesday night and read it every chance I got until yesterday afternoon, when I couldn’t take it anymore. I am not talking about the writing–the writing was poignant, sharp, and sometimes humorous. Kate Atkinson is  new name to me, but this is not her first book. Her writing was great. What I couldn’t take was the hardships of the children in the book.

The book is about Ursula, a girl who experiences reincarnation over and over again. However, she is not reincarnated into someone else, but always as the same person, in the same life. She starts to understand that her sense of deja vu is stronger than most at an early age, when she gets terrible forebodings about incidents. She can’t explain the feeling of foreboding, but she just knows she has to do something to change what she somehow knows will end badly. She quickly becomes “the odd one” in her family of five children and two loving parents. As life progresses, she becomes more and more confused about what her life is. The book has the feel of a British A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with a magical realism twist. So far, it’s a coming of age story on repeat. And it seems a terrible way to come of age. 

want to finish this book, but I am simply incapable of reading books in which bad things happen to children. I’m not alone in this–several of my friends who are moms are in the same reading boat. My Sister’s Keeper put me off books for a week. Sarah’s Key completely did me in; I was nauseated for days… it was like I had a stomach bug, but it was really just a book bug.  I simply cannot do books with tragic endings of children. That is why I don’t know if I can keep reading Life After Life. By the time Ursula is 10, she has experienced many different mothers’ worst nightmares. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, if the tragic things didn’t also happen to other children who do not share Ursula’s gift/curse of direct reincarnation. Although I think it’s more like a cat with nine lives than reincarnation. Anyway. I’d like to finish, but I’m not sure if it’s worth.

Have you read Life After Life? Can you tell me if the ending justifies the beginning? I have never, ever, ever skipped to the end of a book to make sure the ending was worth the reading…but this time, I’m really tempted to.

Everyday Life, Parenting

5 Things I Learned From Homeschooling That Didn’t Come From Books

I mentioned a week ago that I’m starting some official pre-schooling at home with my four-year-old, Ella. What I didn’t mention is that I am a 2nd generation home-schooling mother. In other words, I was homeschooled and I am now homeschooling [insert your own joke about jean jumpers here]. I am so grateful for the education my mom and dad gave me. The parts I have found the most valuable, however, didn’t come from books. Yes, I do have a love for reading. But the most valuable things I learned from my parents were lessons learned alongside the books. Parents have a huge impact on children, no matter what kind of school work they do. Whether you’re homeschooling or traditionally schooling your kids, here are some lessons every kid needs to know.

1. Learning happens everywhere.

People started asking me when I was going to start Ella in school when she was as young as two-year-olds. I always wanted to say, “I already have,” but I knew that they were asking about formal school work. We’re doing a simple work book right now, but before, we just learned as we played. Ella learned her numbers, letters, colors, all the preschool stuff without ever doing an official preschool curriculum. Children simply love to learn.

2. Younger children are precious friends.

I was totally unaware that “big kids” didn’t like to play with little kids until I was about eight and my friend from down the road came over and made a huge deal of playing without my younger sister. My sister and I are almost four years apart, but we played everything together. The idea that older children aren’t cool if they play with younger children makes me sad. I am glad my mom made it clear that siblings are the most valuable friends, and I’m hoping to instill that truth in my children as they grow.

3. Hard work is important in whatever you do.

Good grades are a nice outcome of hard work. But so is building character. I want my kids to know that I am proud of their hard work more than their results. My parents reinforced this in our home. I was an overachiever, so the grades were usually good. But when they weren’t…when I bombed that 6th grade math test and had a mini identity crisis…my mom made sure I knew that the worth was in the work, not the grades. That has proven true in school work and in all other areas of my life. I started two of my jobs with no experience in the field I was working in, and I had a lot to learn. I wasn’t great at it at first, but my employers saw my hard work and gave me a chance to get things right. I can see my kids hearing this a lot as they grow up: the worth is in the way you work.


4. Opportunities are boundless.

I loved how my parents would tailor our schooling to what we really liked to do. P.E. classes were actually gymnastics classes. Music classes varied from piano lessons to choir. And if we showed interest in something, we were encouraged to do more with it. My dad encouraged me to make hanging baskets of pansies and sell them. My mom gave me scraps to sew. At age 16, I got a job teaching gymnastics. There are all kinds of opportunities for your kids to do what they love, if they have some encouragement from you to think that way about their skills and passions.

5. All children learn differently.

I know I’m going to have to learn this for myself with my own children. Still, watching how my mom approached teaching each of us differently has been invaluable in how I approach working with my own children and others’ children, too.

Here’s to another school year starting. Wherever you send your children, we all need to remind ourselves that the most important lessons don’t have much to do with books.

Reading, Reviews

The Weird Sisters Review

The Weird SistersThe Weird Sisters is a novel by Eleanor Brown, released in 2009. I picked it up at 2nd & Charles while my kids were looking at children’s books and I was browsing the “To be shelved” carts next to the children’s section. The title intrigued me (I do like some Shakespeare). The first few pages had me hooked. This book is about three sisters; I am from a family of three sisters. This book is about a family of readers; I am from a family of readers. That may be where the similarities end, but I still smiled to myself many times at the familiarity of some of the personalities and situations in The Weird Sisters.

The three main characters, Rosamund, Bianca, and Cordelia, are grown women when they all move back home. They come back mostly because their mother is diagnosed with cancer, but they each of their own reasons for needing a safe haven for a while. The sisters are all very different, but they love each other. They just don’t exactly enjoy each other’s company. Or so they think.

I wholly enjoyed this book. I felt like I was a fly on the wall, watching the members of the family as they developed and grew to understand one another and themselves. When the book was done, I had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that those people I was reading about didn’t actually exist. Brown did a great job of making her characters seem real. I also liked the witty dialogue, and the way the book was narrated by all the sisters at the same time. Kind of like a triune narrator. It was only mildly confusing. =) I finished this book very thankful for the great relationships I have with my awesome sisters, and wishing that I had more Shakespeare memorized. I re-read The Tempest and I’m on to The Merchant of VeniceAll in all, The Weird Sisters was a fun book with a bit of a scholarly feel. I hope Eleanor Brown writes more books!


Reading, Reviews

How To Eat A Cupcake

There’s a part in the movie Music and Lyrics that I think of often when I’m reviewing books. Drew Barrymore confronts Hugh Grant about his pandering to a pop princess. She says “Your heroes, the Beatles, Smokey [Robinson], they never would have let this happen,” and Hugh Grant responds “That’s a completely different thing. They’re geniuses. They wrote dinner. I write dessert.”

How to Eat a CupcakeSome books are dessert. They’re not chocked full of nutrition for your brain, but they’re a nice change of pace sometimes. I don’t read dessert books a whole lot (I think each person may have his or her own definition of dessert). When I picked up How to Eat a Cupcake, I didn’t expect to like it. But I had a stack of ten books I’d gathered so far at the library and not one of them seemed at all promising. I started reading How to Eat a Cupcake on Saturday night when everyone else in my house was fast asleep and I was wide awake but wanting to be asleep. “This should do the trick,” I thought. I was wrong. I finished it the next day. It was not dinner, but I still kind of liked it. It was refreshing, in a way. Kind of like hanging out with an old friend watching old movies and drinking chocolate milk.

How to Eat a Cupcake was written by Meg Donahue and published in 2012. Here’s the plot line from

Funny, free-spirited Annie Quintana and sophisticated, ambitious Julia St. Clair come from two different worlds. Yet, as the daughter of the St. Clair’s housekeeper, Annie grew up in Julia’s San Francisco mansion and they forged a bond that only two little girls who know nothing of class differences and scholarships could—until a life-altering betrayal destroyed their friendship.

A decade later, Annie is now a talented, if underpaid, pastry chef who bakes to fill the void left in her heart by her mother’s death. Julia, a successful businesswoman, is tormented by a painful secret that could jeopardize her engagement to the man she loves. When a chance reunion prompts the unlikely duo to open a cupcakery, they must overcome past hurts and a mysterious saboteur or risk losing their fledgling business and any chance of healing their fractured friendship.

The friendship between Julia and Annie is complex. The story is told in turns by these two characters, which I think was a a great way to write the book. Readers can see what’s going on in the thoughts of the two main characters. Annie’s character was a little on the annoying side at times, but for the most part, it was easy to like the characters you were supposed to like. Donohue did a good job of introducing Julia as a society type you’d roll your eyes at and dismiss, or even loath, and then transforming her as you read and get to really know her. I didn’t enjoy the romance part of the book at all. It was very shallow. But it’s easy to skip over most of that. One of the best parts of the book was how it treated a certain grief many women have but don’t know how to deal with, or how to even talk about it. I won’t give it away, but it’s really a surprisingly insightful look into an issue that just doesn’t get talked about a whole lot, and I think it should.

Still, pick this book up only if you’re in the mood for a chick flick but would rather read a book than watch a movie. Or you feel like a very light read at the pool. Or you love this kind of book in general and don’t know why I’m making a huge deal over it. Forgive me. I’m still trying to get over my hang up about admitting that I like some books.

I’m also trying to get over a craving for cupcakes. I highly recommend buying the ingredients for cupcakes before reading this book.

Next on my to read list is Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. There’s a lot of buzz about this book, which makes me nervous to read it. I’m looking forward to it, though.

~Some books I’ve read (listened to, actually) that are similar to How To Eat A Cupcake:

A Mile In My Flip Flops

Keeping the Moon

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