Monday, November 15, 2010

"By the Pricking of My Thumbs..."

 "...Something wicked this way comes." William Shakespeare – Macbeth (Act IV, Scene 1)

I have been conducting a little "experiment" where I am leaving my computer off for the day to see how much I can get accomplished. If I turn it on at all, it is not until night time. I have accomplished so many things in the past three or four days of doing this. I won't bore you with everything that I have finished, but I have been able to finish TWO books, Endless Nights and By the Pricking of My Thumbs, both by Agatha Christie.


This novel, published in 1968, features two of Christie's regular characters, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. They are, by this time, quite older than in their spy-games days, as they are now grandparents. It's nice to see them resurface in a later novel. (They first appeared in their early twenties in The Secret Adversary, published in 1922).

In By the Pricking of My Thumbs,while visiting an aunt in a nursing home, they encounter an elderly woman by the name of Mrs. Lancaster. She utters a bewildering comment to Tuppence about something behind the fireplace and a poor child. When Mrs. Lancaster suddenly disappears, and the Beresfords discover a painting of a house in connection with Mrs Lancaster, a house that Tuppence knows she has seen somewhere before, the wheels are in motion. Tuppence cannot fight the feeling of danger and is determined to find out what has happened to Mrs. Lancaster and how the painting, or the house are connected.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Box-O-Books Giveaway

Okay, I realize that I may be going a little crazy with these giveaway posts (can 2 qualify as "going crazy"?), but I'm really excited about this one! Emily over at Red House Books is hosting a Box-O-Books Mega Giveaway! Why am I so excited about this? Because I would LOVE to win this to help stock that future bookshelf in my future high school English classroom! Seriously, providing students with ample reading material in the classroom is important. Stocking those shelves can be pricey, so what better solution than to win a box of books?

But go check it out. Even if you aren't an English teacher, it may be something you would be interested in.

"Matched" by Ally Condie Giveaway

I have just heard about this novel, Matched by Ally Condie, and I think that it sounds great! Based on the description that this reviewer has given, it sounds as though it will have similar themes to The Giver by Lois Lowry and even possibly The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, both books that I enjoyed.

There is a giveaway contest for this book over at I Read Banned Books (as we all should). It ends November 24th, so check it out!

And yes, your suspicions are correct, I DID just earn bonus entries for this post. HOWEVER, I really do think this book looks great and probably would have still recommended it if I had come across it first.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Endless Night"

Guess what folks? I am this close to accomplishing my goal of reading all of Agatha Christie's stories. I have read 72 novels and 140+ short stories thus far! I am entering the 1970s, 1972 to be exact. But prior to that, I finished reading Endless Night which was published in 1967.

When I started reading this novel, I was surprised as it started reading like one of Christie's Mary Westmacott "romances". It is told in first person, the narrator being a young man, and begins with his thoughts and feelings about falling in love with both a place and a girl. It does not initially read like a typical Christie mystery to me.

The majority of this novel is a story about the young couple as they fall in love, marry, and begin their life together. They have built a dream home that they had been planning together since the day they met. Everything seems to be going well, and, in my opinion, it would have remained so if Christie had continued with this aspect of the story. However, like most of her stories, there is a pretty big twist at the end that changes the story from what the reader has expected. Brief rundown of the main conflict: they move into their house, but are soon threatened by a local gypsy who warns them that there is a curse on their land yadda, yadda, yadda. There is also some conflict between the couple and their various family members, but for the purpose of this post, I'm skipping over those details.

As I was thoroughly enjoying the "romance" story between the two main characters, I found myself to be very disappointed with the ending. While the first three-quarters of the novel seemed to occur at a comfortable pace, the ending seemed too rushed. Everything was happening too quickly, without any real details. All of a sudden, there have been three deaths, only one presented to the readers; the other two were revealed through correspondences. I also felt that there were too many loose ends that were left hanging, not tied up or concluded in any way. There were too many coincidences among the characters; they were connected in ways that were a little unbelievable, if not bewildering. It seemed as though Christie was throwing in as many little red herrings as she possibly could with this one.

But what I was most disappointed with was the twist at the end. And I suppose that's mainly because I prefer to see the good in people,and would like to believe that what we see, and what we are told can be trusted.

Not so with this novel.

I was surprised to learn that this novel was actually a favorite of both Christie and her husband. The reason being the exact one that I ended up disliking about it; the twist at the end. Without giving any details away, it basically involves a character who chooses "evil" over "good".

I think that this story would have been more successful (for my tastes) if Christie had chosen to go in a different direction with it. As it is, I would probably only recommend Endless Night to people who enjoy unexpected, unbelievable twists, who are thoroughly bored and desperate for a book to read, or who, like me, have set a personal goal of completing all of Agatha Christie's novels.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dear Loser;

Today I received a thick envelope in the mail from one of the local schools. I have applied to several different English positions at this school, so as I was walking back inside the house, I was (wishfully) thinking, "Oh! They're offering me a job! One of their new teachers has not panned out, and they must have realized what a valuable asset I would be to their school, so they're going to offer the position to me straight away!" Then I opened the envelope and found this:

Dear Ms. Substitute;

     It has recently come to our attention that you have applied for several teaching positions in our school district. We regret to inform you that, although you have plenty of experience as a substitute teacher,  (10+ years, thankyouverymuch), we will never be able to hire you unless you have had your own classroom first. We do not consider substitute teaching to be adequate experience for a position in our school. 
     We require our potential teaching candidates to have already had their own classroom, to have past experience advising extra-curricular activities, and to have a tenured position. (What you have read in the paper about the steps we are trying to make to keep our budget low is false. We would rather hire a tenured teacher who we will have to pay more than someone who is starting off at the bottom of the pay scale. Please don't tell our taxpayers).
     Furthermore, we have noticed that you have applied to not one, but four teaching positions in our school, only to be rejected for them all. If you have not gotten the picture after receiving four rejection letters, then you are even less qualified than we thought and we will never hire you. So please stop applying to our school district. We will never hire you, even if you do live just one block away. 


Mr. Superintendent

Okay, so I didn't really get that letter in the mail either, (but wouldn't it be more entertaining if I had?). What I did receive was my substitute welcome letter and information packet. This is actually pretty nice because they included the times that we are supposed to be there, and a copy of the teachers' schedules.

Now, if only the school where I sub the most were to do something like this, then maybe I wouldn't have made a fool of myself last year when I showed up to work at 7:30, not realizing that their schedule had changed and classes now started at 7:25 instead of 7:45!

The Key to Educational Success is...

For whatever reason, I have been receiving free copies of Parents magazine in the mail. I have been perusing the November 2010 issue and it has inspired reactions to several articles that I am going to share here. This is my first one.

I always find it annoying when statistics are presented in a way that misleads people, or only conveys half of the point. Case in point, there is a statistic being thrown at us that people who floss their teeth will live longer. Now this statement by itself implies that the existence of extra plaque will cause an early death. (Not true). What they don't tell you, (or what you have to read a million paragraphs into the study) is that people who floss their teeth are generally the same people who care enough about their health to be conscious of the choices that they make and actively pursue a healthy lifestyle. Therefore, these people ARE going to live longer, because they take care of themselves, not just because they floss their teeth. Make sense?

So anyway. There is a little paragraph titled "Bring on the Books" in this issue of Parents magazine that claims, "Keeping books around the house will up your kid's odds of snagging that college diploma later on," (45). It further claims that a collection of 25 books, either children's or adults', will add a year to their high school or college career, while a collection of 500* books will add an extra 3.2 years! The "article" (can one paragraph really be considered an article?) then goes on to suggest 9 books to add to a child's library. And, that's it.

See, my issue with this isn't the results of the study, but the information that Parents magazine failed to provide regarding the study, or the participants of the study. I looked it up here, and it turns out that over a 20 year period, Mariah Evans (who the magazine doesn't even give credit to), discovered that an environment with at least 25 books in it, regardless of a parent's level of education, will produce these results in children.

I think that it's safe to assume that regardless of their own education level, these parents who are providing their children with books are obviously concerned with their child's educational success. It's probably also safe to assume that these parents are actively involved in their child's education, and are encouraging reading for pleasure. It would have been nice to see this additional information provided in the Parents article. Otherwise, I can just see some clueless parent reading it and thinking that just by having these books in the house, without doing anything with them, will provide the same results. (Hey, I'm sure that there is someone out there who is just stupid enough to think this).

It would have been nice to see Parents expand on this and provide suggestions for actively engaging children in reading and tips to help ensure success. I am sure that there are many parents out there, especially those who did not enjoy their own educational experiences as children, who might not know exactly what they can do to help their child enjoy reading or become a more active reader. Allow me to offer a few of my own suggestions:

* Make reading fun, and active. Instead of just reading a story straight through from the first page to the last, discuss what is happening in the pictures. Many illustrators of children's books include little surprises, or jokes, "Easter Eggs", if you will, in their pictures. They are meant to be explored, examined, and discussed by parents and children alike. Quiz your children on what they have just read or seen in the pictures. Give them a few moments to study the pictures, then close the book and ask them questions. What color hair ribbon is the little girl wearing? How many birds are in the sky? Where is the mouse hiding? You get the idea.

* Establish a bedtime routine that includes at least one story. And be sure to provide a suitable environment for a bedtime story. Ideally, this would be at the end of the routine when the child is already bathed, dressed, and in bed. A child is more likely to pay attention to the story if there are no other distractions around them (such as the television, or older siblings etc.). A bedtime story will also help the child to switch from "active" mode to "rest" mode.

* Visit your local library. Books cost money, and can be quite expensive. Some families are not going to be able to afford to build a personal library at home for their children. This is one of the greatest benefits of a local library, hundreds of books for kids to read, for FREE. Most libraries also provide story hours and other activities for preschool children and school-age children. They usually also have at least a couple of computers for children to listen to stories or play (educational) games. This is also a great resource for families who do not have a computer at home. It just takes a little research to find out what services your local library provides.

Those are some of the ideas that I have right now.  There are many more things that parents can do to help children enjoy reading. Just remember that it's one thing to have 25+ books in your house, but it's another to know how to use them. They are not there just to sit on a shelf and look pretty.

Anyone have more suggestions to share?

*I would really like to know who has a personal library of 500 books that participated in this study!


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Passages to the Past: Announcing the Mischief of the Mistletoe + Christm...

Passages to the Past: Announcing the Mischief of the Mistletoe + Christm...: "Hello readers, have I got a yummy giveaway to announce! In honor of the release of Lauren Willig's latest book in the Pink Carnation series..."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

For the Love of English

I was recently perusing my "Suggested Shops" on Etsy (thank you, Bittersweet Blonde, for pointing out this feature), and came across the Beanforest and the Calamity Collective shop. Their specialty is humorous buttons/magnets, including many witty English-related references. Here are some of my favorites:


And my favorite non-English related button, because it describes me so well:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Make an Appointment with Death

I just finished reading Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie (I know, big surprise there, huh?). I have to say that this story is one of my favorites top picks of her crime stories.

At the time of publication, this book received mixed reviews. Some critics cited it as being brilliant and among her best, whereas others claimed that it is lacking in plot, and too full of psychology. This last complaint is perhaps the reason why I ranked it among my top favorites, (excluding her Westmacott novels).

The story takes place in Petra, Jerusalem, which to me is neither here nor there, as the setting itself doesn't really play any essential role in the story. The first half of this book, Part I, focuses primarily on the Boynton family. It is essentially a psychological glimpse, or character sketch, of a family who is governed by a sadistic matriarch. The other members of the Boynton family, including three step-children, one daughter-in-law and one daughter, all ranging between ages 17-30, are entirely dependent on Mrs. Boynton, both financially and psychologically. They are all stuck at home under their mother's thumb; she limits their contact with the outside world and controls their every move as though she has them hypnotized. Christie's description of Mrs. Boynton as a domineering tyrant is haunting, and the torment that her children are put through is worthy of anyone's pity.

I enjoyed the first half of this book because of it's focus on the family and their influence on the people who are outside looking in, the unknown observers. The second half, however, was exactly what I would expect any of Christie's crime novels to be; it was both predictable and unexpected at the same time. Part II ran like a typical Hercule Poirot novel. The pattern, the tone, and the plot are characteristic of a Christie story. Poirot as a character is his usual egotistical, over-confident self. He pulls his clues and his solution seemingly out of nowhere, and sets up his dramatic reveal at the end as he always does. He gathers everyone in a room and goes through his process step-by-step until he finally reveals the murderer, who really has nothing to do with the speech and clues that he has just spent a hundred hours spewing out. 

After reading as many of her novels as I have, (over 40), some solutions are starting to become a little too obvious. I had a sneaking suspicion as to who the murderer would be revealed to be, but I doubted it because it seemed a little too obvious, as it was the character least likely to be the murderer. But as most of Christie's novels turn out, it often IS the least likely character.

I would recommend reading this novel only if you are bored with her regular crime stories, and enjoy the ones that delve into the psychology of the characters.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

I ♥ Agatha Christie

When I find something that I really enjoy, or take an interest in, I have the (bad?) habit of becoming completely consumed by it, basically to the point of obsession. For example, when LOST first came on television, and the real mysteries of the island started to develop, I had to read EVERYTHING  about the characters, the featured books, the hidden references etc. that I could get my hands on. I was obsessed and drove my sister nuts with all of the "outside" information that I was trying to drag into our weekly conversations dissections of each episode. And like most of my obsessions, that one slowly fizzled out with each new season, and I stopped trying to read into everything and just let the show's mysteries unfold on their own, (which sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn't). But I digress.

My current obsession is Agatha Christie, and as far as my infatuations go, this one has probably lasted the longest (with the exception of the Anne Rice-phase I went through in high school and college, and my unwavering infatuation with my fourth-grade crush). I "discovered" Agatha Christie a little over a year ago when our local library ran out of books on my "Books to Read" list. (I realize that I could have ordered them through inter-library loan, but I never remembered to do so before my weekly visits, so I just picked up whatever I could find on the shelves). I needed something to read, so I decided to read And Then There Were None again, (the one Agatha Christie book that I had read while I was in high school). I really enjoyed this story; it reminded me of an adult version of The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, which I LOVED when I was in sixth grade.

I decided to check out another "well-known" Agatha Christie book, (it was most likely Murder on the Orient Express, but I forget now exactly which one it was), and pretty soon I was hooked. I quickly worked through the selection at my own library, and started requesting them through inter-library loan. When I find an author I enjoy reading, I try to read all of his or her novels; I like to be thorough and complete with my obsessions. (Prior to this I made it through all of Jane Austen's works, minus one). That's when I discovered exactly how many pieces of work Agatha Christie has! Over 80 novels, short story collections and plays, which has not deterred me in the slightest. I have made a list of each piece of work, organized them by decade written and I am proud to say that I have made it past the halfway point! I have read at least 45 of her novels or short story collections. (Her website actually has a nifty list of her books in publication order to avoid any spoilers while reading, and of course I just discovered this ten minutes ago, AFTER I wrote up my own list months ago!)

 As a stay-at-home-mom, I need books that I can put down and pick back up two hours later without a second thought. I need to be able to continue reading a story right where I left off without having to go back and reread the whole chapter. Believe it or not, Charles Dickens does not fulfill this requirement, and I've tried several times. (I've been reading Our Mutual Friend-thanks to my obsession with LOST-for two years now). Agatha Christie, however, passes with flying colors. Although really well-written, her stories are pretty straightforward, an effortless read. All of her mysteries basically follow the same pattern, so once you have read a few, you can zip right through the rest. Despite their similarities, each story she tells sucks me right in; I have a hard time putting them down. Usually I think that I know how the story ends, that it's so obvious, but in most cases I have been wrong, with the exception of one book that I called the ending on halfway through. She must have been having an off year with that one. The surprise solutions to her mysteries oftentimes leads to a sense of disbelief, of skepticism, because they seemingly come out of nowhere. I, however, do not mind so much; the reason I'm reading her pieces is primarily for entertainment and to pass the time.

My favorite novels so far have actually been the ones written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott, especially Unfinished Portrait and Absent in the Spring. These six novels have been dubbed "romances", but are a far cry from what we think the typical romance is these days. They are more along the lines of character studies, or psychological profiles, bittersweet stories that get right to the heart of human nature. Christie has an impeccable grasp on the psyche that motivates people's behavior, which is one of the reasons I love her writing (that and the fact that they are "quintessentially English" and I am also obsessed with all things English since my grandmother's family hails from England).

Long story short, ("Too late!"), I ♥ Agatha Christie and I am currently obsessed with reading all of her 80+ stories. Wish me luck!


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Multiple Personalities, Multiple Souls?

I was reading a collection of short stories by Agatha Christie (from The Hound of Death) and while reading The Fourth Man, I came across this passage that introduced a concept to me that I had never contemplated before:

"'Are you so sure," he said gravely," that there is only one occupant of this structure-for that is all it is, you know-this desirable residence to be let furnished-for seven, twenty-one, forty-one, seventy-one-whatever it may be!-years? And in the end the tenant moves his things out-little by little-and then goes out of the house altogether-and down comes the house, a mass of ruin and decay. You're the master of the house-we'll admit that, but aren't you ever conscious of the presence of others-soft-footed servants, hardly noticed, except for the work they do-work that you're not conscious of having done? Or friends-moods that take hold of you and make you, for the time being, a 'different man' as the saying goes? You're the kind of the castle, right enough, but be very sure the 'dirty rascal' is there too.'" (The Fourth Man by Agatha Christie)

Three gentlemen, a doctor, a lawyer, and a canon (priest) are in the middle of a discussion about a woman who apparently suffered from multiple personalities. The doctor brings up the possibility that our bodies are capable of housing not just multiple personalities, but more than one soul

I thought that Agatha Christie's body/house metaphor was brilliant, a description of multiple personalities that I had never considered before. From what I understand of MP, there is one "dominant" personality, much like the master of the house, and then at least one more "behind the scenes" personality, the "servants" who are only occasionally seen, but whose presences are always felt. 

I did a quick search online to see if anyone had actually discussed this concept before, and came across a book written by Matt Ruff. I was immediately drawn to it's close similarity to Agatha Christie's description, as it is titled Set This Hour in Order: A Romance of Souls. Without actually reading the book, what I get from the description is that it's basically about a man named Andy Gage and the hundreds of "souls", as Ruff calls them, that reside within his head. There's a lot more to it than that, but I am more concerned with how Ruff refers to the personalities as souls

When I read his FAQ section, I was interested to see that he is claiming that the use of "souls" in reference to multiple personalities was an original term of his own.

"In the novel, you use the word “souls” to refer to your protagonists’ various personalities. Is this a term you came up with yourself?

Yes. Standard psychiatric labels like “personality” and “fragment” reflect a belief that the different characters in a multiple system aren’t true individuals, but pieces or facets of a single self. It seemed intuitively obvious to me that multiples who rejected this way of looking at themselves (or their selves) would also reject the language. So I needed to come up with another word, and “souls” seemed right."

Obviously he is not familiar with Agatha Christie's The Fourth Man to realize that it was not as an original concept as he himself believes. Which is understandable, because I'm sure that not everyone is as obsessed with Agatha Christie as I am to make a point of reading every single one of her stories!

The author does offer the first four chapters of his book as a sample online, and I think that when I get the chance, I will sit down to read them. Maybe it will give me more to think about and more to add to this post. 

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