Monday, February 28, 2011

Oliver Twist Final Thoughts

I finally finished the last section last night.  This section definitely had a quicker pace.  The stories moved along rapidly.  Once everything was set in motion, I was surprised by how quickly everything was resolved.

There was a happy ending for the "good guys," and justice was served for the "bad guys," but one particular ending made me sad.  I really loved Nancy for her courage in doing what she thought was right.  She knew the risks, but in her heart she was selfless in her help to Oliver.  That she felt trapped in her way of life, broke my heart.  Her loyalty to Sikes was admirable (in theory) but didn't end well for her.

Overall?  It was interesting to see how each character's story was resolved.  I still didn't really get pulled into this one emotionally.  Oliver Twist was a nice kid and all, but he wasn't very charismatic.  The characters that made this memorable were all of the minor characters--particularly the horrible ones.

I'm still a lover of Dickens.  Although this one was a bit lukewarm for me, I still love his writing and his unforgettable characters.  I don't think this is one that I will revisit, but I'm glad that I read it.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Foodie Challenge February--Mac and Cheese

This month, I went for comfort food.  I've always wanted to make Macaroni and Cheese from scratch. I think the boxed stuff is kind of nasty.  I put it off because I always assumed it would be difficult.  My husbands co-worker gave him a recipe, and I was surprised by how easy it was.  Throw almost everything in and heat.  No making a roux like the other recipe I tried.  It's thickened with corn starch.

Mac and Cheese

1 2/3 cups dry macaroni, cooked and drained
2 tbsp corn starch
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp white pepper
12 oz evaporated milk (or any combo of milk, cream or half and half)
1 cup water
2 tbsp butter
3 cups cheddar cheese or more

Preheat oven to 375.

1. Mix corn starch, salt, mustard, and pepper in medium saucepan.
2. Add milk, water, and butter.
3. Cook over medium high heat, stirring constantly until it boils. Boil 1 minute.
4. Remove from heat. Stir in 2 to 2 1/2cups of cheese until melted.
5. Pour into buttered casserole dish. Top with remaining cheese.
6. Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until cheese is at your desired brownness.

As it came from an individual, I'm not sure of the original source.  I don't know where to give credit so I apologize in advance if I'm stepping on anyone's toes.

Look at my cheesy goodness!

It was so tasty.  I love how you can customize it.  I had leftover feta that needed to be used so I did a combination of feta and cheddar.  I made it in a round casserole dish, but next time I'll make it in a 13 x 9 pan.  That way you get more of the crunchy cheese on the top.  My family loved it.  There were no leftovers.  It's not the healthiest meal--more of a once in a while dish--but it's delicious!

Go check out more recipes.  Trish at Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity is hosting this month.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day

by Kazuo Ishiguro
published 1989
completed February 2011

I have been wanting to read The Remains of the Day for a very long time.  I finally reserved it at my library and it took five months for it to come.  It happened to arrive when I was in the middle of two readalongs.  I went to renew the book only to discover that someone else had reserved it.  Ahhhh!!  I had two days to read it before leaving on vacation.  I didn't want to wait another five months so I read it very fast, and I wish I hadn't.  Halfway into the book I was still wondering why everyone thought it was so special.  It finally clicked, and I wished I had slowed down.

On the surface, the story is a little stuffy due to the first person narration by a traditional English butler.  He's reflecting on his service over the past several years while traveling through the English countryside.  Sounds boring, right?  It actually isn't.  What it is, is very subtle.  Probably the most subtle book I've ever read.  It really sneaked up on me and by the end, I was in awe of what Ishiguro accomplished.  The story is heartbreaking, but you don't realize it until you put all of the pieces together.  It requires a little reading between the lines, as the cliché goes.  Below is a quote towards the beginning where Steven describes why the English countryside is so remarkable.
And yet, what precisely is this "greatness"?  Just where, or in what, does it lie?  I am quite aware it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart.  What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint.
This description of beauty reminded me so much of Ishiguro's writing.  It's never pretentious and is so restrained that you don't realize it's full impact until it's nearly over.

The first person narration, which is difficult to execute, and the use of an unreliable narrator is genius.  Stevens is different than other unreliable narrators in that he isn't intentionally deceiving you.  Stevens is a butler and he acts the part in every aspect of his life.  I thought it was apt when Miss Kenton asks him why he is always pretending.  He refuses to allow himself to display any emotion so the narration is fact only, no feeling.  By the end, you realize how severely his choices have devastated him.  He feels the regret and tries to change going forward, hence the title.

I'm so sad that I sped through this.  I probably missed so much.  As soon as I finished it, I wanted to start all over and find more subtleties that I might have missed.  I've heard there is a movie adaptation.  Has anyone seen it?  What did you think?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

War and Peace Readalong--Volume III

I was supposed to publish this post February 12.  Oops!  That's what happens when you throw too much on your plate (my own fault).  I just finished Volume III this morning.  It took me FOREVER!!!  This volume was by far the most tedious.  I love reading about the characters, but the tactical battle stuff was making my eyes glaze over.  Talk of the redoubt (with fleches?) and the position of the left flank.  What?  I don't get it.  I just can't picture it.  I kind of don't care.  I just want to know what happened.

I was interested to see the transformation of some of the characters.  I love Prince Andrei, but the circumstances of the last volume left him bitter.  I was happy to see a bit of a transformation at the end, albeit for a sad reason.  I love that Natasha is maturing.  She's not perfect, but she's not the flighty little girl of the past.  Her compassion on the wounded soldiers at the expense of the Rostov's material possessions made me smile.

It's hard to read about the devastation of the war.  I've always considered the lives lost in the military, but the civilians surrounding the battle were placed in terrifying situations.  How awful that the rich were able to flee, but many of the peasants were left behind.

Tolstoy spent a few chapter philosophizing about war.  It was interesting to learn his perspective.  To him, war is won or lost by the combination of thousands of varied circumstances and thousands of individual wills.  He paints a vivid picture of this in the battle of Borodino.  It shows that Napoleon and Kutuzov had very little control over what was happening.  For all of their planning, what mattered were the choices of thousands of individual soldiers in the thick of the battle.  I'm curious to see how this theme develops in the next volume.

Although it's slow going, I'm glad that I'm making the effort to read War and Peace.  I'll be back on February 28th with my thoughts on Volume IV.  I won't be late next time!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Oliver Twist--Check In #2

I finally caught up!  Only two days late.  Not over a week late like War and Peace.  Whoops!  Life happens right.

At the end of the last book was the botched robbery.  I was interested to see what happened to poor Oliver.  Luckily, after being ditched by the other robbers, he found favor with a few individuals who nursed him back to health.

I'm still curious as to Oliver's origins.  A new character Rose also has an unknown past, and I wouldn't be surprised if they were somehow connected.  Dickens is know for such coincidences.

I find myself struggling with Oliver Twist.  Like I said, I am curious, but I don't really feel compelled to pick it up.  Much of the humor seems to be absent from the second book.  I miss it.  I'm hoping that the last section will really turn the tide for me.  I really want to love this, but I don't yet.  I'll be back on February 28th with my final thoughts.  See you then!

As a side note, I was delighted to visit Westminster Abbey this past Monday and see where Dickens is buried.  I really wanted to take a picture, but photography is not allowed inside the Abbey.  I'm a rule follower so the best I have are some pictures of the structure from the outside.  I'll post more about my London trip next week.  If you get the chance to visit London someday, make sure you pay a visit to Westminster Abbey.  Poet's Corner is worth the visit.  It made my bookish little heart flutter.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I'm Alive!

I kind of disappeared for a while.  The past two weeks have been crazy!  I got hammered with work and was prepping for a family vacation.  I'm still have 100 pages left to finish of War and Peace and Oliver Twist so I can write my readalong posts that are now late.  Whoops!  No time to read.  Hopefully I'll finish those up and get my posts written this weekend.

Our family just got home from a five day trip to London.  It was my first time, and it was pretty amazing.  I have a few bookish things to share from our trip.  I'm hoping I'll post my thoughts on that early next week about poet's corner at Westminster Abbey and our tour of the reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Oliver Twist Readalong--Check in #1

I've been wanting to read Oliver Twist for years.  I finally purchased a copy this past November.  This readalong came up at the perfect time.

Oliver Twist was orphaned when his mother died shortly after childbirth and was moved from orphanage, to a workhouse, and to an apprenticeship.  Each place he was treated appallingly.  In a particularly fearful moment, Oliver runs away and makes his way to London.  There he falls in with a band of thieves.

With biting social commentary, it's obvious how Dickens feels about the treatment of the poor during this time period.  Based on his background, having been in a workhouse himself, it's understandable why he feels so strongly.  His insights into humanity are spot on, and he doesn't limit his criticism to the wealthy.  Noah, a charity-boy (slightly above an orphan), was pleased at the fortune of having Oliver around so that he finally had someone to torment, as he had been tormented.  The narrator sarcastically remarks,
This affords charming food for contemplation.  It shows us what a beautiful thing human nature sometimes is, and how impartially the same amiable qualities are developed in the finest lord and the dirtiest charity-boy.
It's angering to read about how the orphans were treated as almost sub-human.  Mr. Bumble even remarks that, "What have paupers to do with soul or spirit?  It's quite enough that we let 'em have live bodies."  Uh!  How awful!

On a lighter note, I love Dickens' humor and sarcasm.  I found it amusing that Mr. Bumble, one of the most despicable characters in his treatment of others, was proudly wearing his buttons displaying the scene of "The Good Samaritan."  Mr. Grimwig created some great comedic moments with his ridiculous, "I'll eat my head!" mantra.

The scene in Mr. Brownlow's study when Oliver is marveling at his books is one of my favorites.  At one point Mr. Brownlow says to Oliver,
You shall read them if you behave well...and you will like that much better than looking at the outsides--that is, in some cases, because there are books of which the backs and the covers are by far the best parts.
To which Oliver replies, "I suppose they are those heavy ones, sir."  I got a chuckle out of that.

I've read a few other Dickens' novels and really loved them.  I'm sort of on the fence about this one.  There are some shining moments.  I'm interested, but not invested (if that even makes sense).  I'm hoping that the next section will really pull me in.

In a bit a randomness, my six-year-old received an assignment this past weekend to choose a famous Victorian person or invention and share it with the class.  When I asked him what he wanted to do he said, "Do you know Charles Dickens?  He's a writer."  He was amazed that we had several of his books at home and that I was currently reading one.  He did his little report yesterday on Dickens' 199th birthday and he thought that was pretty cool.  We discovered that Dickens is buried at Westminster Abbey, and since we're heading to London on holiday next week so we will be sure to make a stop there.