Book Review – Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey
A Review by Catherine H. Armstrong

Internet websites have begun to light up recently as Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James has hit the number one spot on the best sellers lists.  US Magazine reports that, in just this month alone, more than 2 million copies of the book have sold; and news is now rife that movie rights have been purchased and actors are practically lining up to play the part of the lead male character, Christian Grey.  All of this hype has really piqued my attention and I immediately put Fifty Shades of Grey on my list of books to read “sooner, rather than later.”

As a result of my complete disappointment in previous books that have received a lot of hype only to leave me disappointed, I have a personal rule:  If a book gets a lot of media attention, I deliberately avoid reading the reviews and even the synopsis on the back jacket.  I want to walk into the experience without any bias.  And so it was that I picked up Fifty Shades of Grey knowing only that it was getting a lot of attention and that it was a romance novel.  I walked into it “blindfolded,” you might say, and – once in – my “hands were tied.”  I had to keep reading.

At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering what it’s all about.  You might be thinking:  Why all the hype?  What’s the story?  Will I like it?  Should I run out and get it right away?  What am I missing?

E. L. James

Writen by E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey is a romance novel written in first-person about new college grad, Anastasia Steele, and the control-freak billionaire, Christian Grey.  The two meet when the naive and inexperienced Anastasia interviews the older and much more worldly Christian for her college newspaper.  From that first meeting, sparks fly and the two seem incapable of avoiding each other.  Pretty typical romance novel, right?  Ummm…not so fast.  You see, Christian is not just a control freak.  He has rather eccentric and dark sexual habits which compel him to require a non-disclosure agreement to be signed by Anastasia before they can enter into any type of physical relationship at all.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there.  Christian wants Anastasia as his partner and, to that end, he requests that she enter into a contractual relationship with him, giving him complete sexual dominance and her submissive response in all things.  The specifics of the relationship are spelled out in complete detail regarding what is and is not “acceptable,” and what can or cannot be negotiated.  Simply stated, then, Fifty Shades of Grey is Fiction Erotica.  Or, as the New York Times has dubbed it, “Mommy Porn.”

Imagine walking into this book not knowing any of that!  I’m not a prude; I’ve read the Kama Sutra.  No, that’s not entirely true.  But I have flipped through the pages a few times over the years.  I’ve seen The Joy of Sex and flipped through its pages, too.  I’ve read my fair share of romance novels, some of which were pretty “steamy.”  In addition to all of that, I’m 41 years old and I’ve had two children.  So I’m not completely innocent.  With that said, though, I felt myself blushing throughout this entire book.  There were times when – sitting all alone in my house – I kept looking over my shoulder to be sure there wasn’t someone reading over it.  The book is very descriptive and graphic, and leaves almost nothing to the imagination.

I tell my kids that there’s no such thing as a “bad book,” and that every book has at least one redeeming quality; at least one thing that you learn from it and take away to store in your mind’s vault of information.  That is certainly true of Fifty Shades of Grey.   There were more than a few words and phrases I didn’t know and had to look up on Google.  Umm..word of caution:  Be careful which website you pull up in your quest for knowledge.  More than once I found myself flustered and frantically trying to see how quickly I could close the page when unexpected images popped up.  Ack!  I have no idea what I’ll do with all that I learned from this book, but I can assure you that I’ll store it in my mental vault to be pulled out for some obscure purpose some day.

At this point, you might be wondering:  Are people really reading this book?  What kind of people are reading this book?  The answers to those questions are:  (1) Not only are people reading this book, they’re enjoying it and discussing it with their friends, and (2) Lots of people are reading it, including a good number of people right here in in Rochester.  At Rochester Public Library alone, the Library owns three copies and there are (as of this afternoon) 112 people on the waiting list.  According to Lynette Perry at RPL, that’s a statistic equal to the same type of interest as Rochester residents have shown for the new releases of a Harry Potter book.  It’s that popular.

At Barnes and Noble at Apache Mall, Community Relations Manager Janice Jett says “It’s flying off the shelves…We’re selling at least 20 copies a day.”  She goes on to say that earlier this week she sold three copies in just thirty minutes as she manned one of the store’s registers.

“Some people are shy about it and ask for it with a whisper” Jett said.  And, while the majority of the consumers appear to be women, there are some men who have walked in looking for it as well.  Jett went on to say that it’s become so popular that it’s pushed The Hunger Games out of the top spot and they have had to move the copies of Fifty Shades of Grey closer to the front of the store.

So what, then, is all the hype?  Why is this book flying off of books shelves?  Is it really any good, or is it just “Mommy Porn?”

As a reader, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I enjoyed this book.  I immediately fell in love with the main character, Anastasia Steele, and I wanted to see her be successful.  Unlike most romance novels, Anastasia didn’t come off as simpering and weak.  Rather she came off as intelligent, motivated, nurturing and possessing a strong set of principles.  I wish I could say the same of the male lead character, Christian Grey.  It took me much longer to decide whether I liked him and, honestly, the jury is still out on that one.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a bit deeper than your typical fluffy romance novel.  There’s nothing fluffy about the relationship between Anasastia and Christian.  In fact, at times the story is extremely dark.  Christian Grey is a man with many layers and clearly comes with a great deal of emotional damage.  It will take a strong woman like Anastasia to cut through the barriers he’s put up to reach the man inside.

At its core, Fifty Shades of Grey is simply a well-told story.  Yes, it is graphic and, because of its graphic nature,  it may turn off some readers.  It’s simply not for everyone.  It’s not a book for young adults, and I’m not sure it’s one that I’d pass down to my 81 year old mother.  The passages are so descriptive that I’m afraid they might give her a stroke.  But, with that said, it’s an enjoyable read for those who need a bit of escapism and who can take their reading assignments a little less seriously.  And, really, don’t we all sometimes need to take our reading a little less seriously?

For more information about this book, visit the author’s website by following this link.  In the meantime, take a look at the YouTube video of Ellen Degeneres as she attempts to read the book for an audiobook format. It’s sure to give you a giggle.

Book Review – Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice
A Review by Catherine H. Armstrong

As an avid reader, it’s been with no small amount of embarrassment that I’ve been forced to admit – until recent years – that I’d never read Jane Austen’s classic love story, Pride and Prejudice.  To be completely honest, it didn’t appeal to me.  First, it was written in the 19th century, so I knew I’d have to get past the barrier of the writing style and speech.  Then, to be honest, it just didn’t sound that interesting to me.  Admittedly, I didn’t really know the whole premise of the story, but some guy named “Mr. Darcy” didn’t sound all that romantically appealing.  But, after a series of other books wherein “Mr. Darcy” or “Elizabeth Bennet” were repeatedly referenced, I figured I better just bite the bullet so that I can at least feel a little bit intelligent.  And so I sat down to read an old, dusty copy of Pride and Prejudice that had been in our family since what felt like the beginning of time.

The first few pages were a slow-go.  It took me several pages to get the rhythm of the writing style but, after about ten pages, I was hooked.  I quickly became immersed in the life of the Bennet sisters and felt the pain of their long-suffering father as he tolerated the drama of his hypochondriac wife.

Pride and Prejudice is really what every good novel should be.  It’s humor intertwined with drama, a bit of suspense, a little bit of sorrow and a whole lot of fun.  Take for example, the egotistical, self-important Mr. Collins.  He’s the distant cousin to Mr. Bennet and the next in line to inherit the Bennet properties.  He has money – which is something the Bennet sisters will be without once their father passes – so “out of the kindness of his heart” he proposes marriage to Elizabeth Bennet.  From this proposal ensues one of the most amusing misunderstandings in this book.  Mr. Collins simply cannot believe that Ms. Bennet would turn him down and so simply chooses to ignore her repeated replies of “no” to his proposal.  All young women must marry; Elizabeth Bennnet will be poor and presumably destitute upon the passing of her father, so why wouldn’t she want to marry Mr. Collins?  For the answer to that, you’ll need to read the book.

Jane Austen

Next you have the youngest Bennet sisters, Kitty and Lydia, whose behavior is so absurd for the time period that you can’t help but feel empathy for the two older sisters who must endure the embarrassment of their unrestrained behavior.  Rather than correct their behavior and rein them in, their mother dotes on them and their father just chuckles at their antics.

Then of course there’s the oldest sister:  sweet, simple Jane.  She’s in love with Mr. Bingley, and this is an obvious match made in heaven since they’re both bitten so strongly by the love bug that there can be no other match for either…though you will wonder for a while whether that match will ever solidify.

And finally – and most importantly – you have Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.  I have no idea what Mr. Darcy’s first name is.  I’m not sure the author ever gives it; or, if she does, it’s just not important.  He’s Mr. Darcy.  A seemingly arrogant and snobbish gentleman and the best friend to Mr. Bingley.  Clearly from the beginning, the reader knows there’s some type of chemistry between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, but how they go from the platform of contempt and dislike of each other is a roller coaster ride involving a whole lot of pride and more than a little bit of prejudice.  Hence the title, Pride and Prejudice.

Pride and Prejudice is a truly great read and one that would appeal to both young and mature adults.  Surprisingly to me, it is at the top of my list of favorite books of all time.  And to think that I was reluctant to read it!

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy - BBC Version

Since reading this book, I’ve had the opportunity to see both movie adaptations; the Kiera Knightly version, as well as the incredibly well-done BBC version.  For those who wish to see a screen version as part of the experience, I strongly recommend the BBC version starring Colin Firth.  It is the truest book to movie adaptation I’ve ever seen and is well worth the time to watch.  It brings the book to life and does so without changing the heart of the story even a fraction.  Check it out!

YouTube Video:  Mr. Collins Proposes Marriage

Book Review – Rebecca

A Review by Helen McIver

Jonathan Yardley’s publication of Second Reading, Notable and Neglected Books Revisited, inspired me to revisit a few classics and old favorites. There are 60+ book reviews in this collection which had me seek out a few authors I had passed over – I had never heard of Paper Tigers by Stanley Woodward, nor The Fathers by Allen Tate. But when I discovered that most of one of my book groups had never read Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier, 1938), I checked out the Book Group in a Bag at the Library and we started reading.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again,”

I didn’t remember it being so melodraumatic and, reading it now, I was far more impatient with the unnamed non-Rebecca wife. But this is a classic gothic novel, and much of our book discussion centered on that history. Gothic novels have haunted castles or mansions, windswept moors, usually obsessed handsome dark brooding men with defenseless young women, a few family secrets and an atmospheric romantic suspense plot. They are often adored by readers (and bestsellers!) and even more often deplored by reviewers.

Some of the best gothic novels are Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! I would also include works by 19th century writers Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker and Elizabeth Gaskill.

The physical descriptions of the various settings in this book are vivid and richly detailed. I absolutely love books and/or movies where the house is just as much a character as the people in the book! And I enjoyed learning that the house actually exists, and the success of her book enabled her to renovate the ruin and make it her home for a number of years.  Much of the novel was written while she was staying in Egypt where her husband was stationed, and may also be filled with the longing and nostalgia for home.

Daphne du Maurier

In Rebecca, the plot has the unnamed narrator recall her past: As the companion to a rich American woman vacationing in Monte Carlo, she is courted (apparently unknowingly) by a wealthy Englishman, Maxim de Winter. After a week of courtship (not even recognizing the proposal), she marries him, and they move to his Cornish mansion, Manderley. There she discovers that his first wife, Rebecca, is still alive in the memories of all the estate inhabitants; but especially its domineering housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers –  one of literature’s great infamous female villains. I was actually horrified that the narrator felt relief that Max didn’t love Rebecca when he reveals that he murdered her! (Remember the Hitchcock film has a different ending!) But because of the film, Rebecca has been in print since 1938.

Additional Reading:
I loved the comment that “If I wanted to go to Manderly again, I would just reread Rebecca.” Still, there are several books that have been approved by the du Maurier estate:

  • Mrs de Winter (1993), by Susan Hill is a sequel originally written in the 1980s
  • The Other Rebecca (1996), by Maureen Freely is a contemporary version.
  • Rebecca’s Tale (2001), by Sally Beauman, is a narrative of four characters affected by Rebecca. (My bookclub’s best comment: “Rebecca left no man untouched.”
  • Daphne by Justin Picardine, is also a fascinating fictional account of DuMaurier.

Rebecca won two Academy Awards: Best Picture and Best Cinematophotography in 1940 with Alfred Hitchcok as director. Olivier played Max, Joan Fontaine, the unnamed Heroine, and Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers. Rebecca has been adapted for television by both BBC and ITV (then Masterpiece Theatre 1997 with Diana Rigg playing Mrs Danvers).

The Easter Tradition

An Historical Look at Easter Customs
by Helen McIver

Easter eggs are special eggs that are often given to family and friends to celebrate Easter or springtime. The egg is a pagan symbol of the rebirth of the Earth in celebrations of spring and was adopted by early Christians as a symbol of the resurrection of Jesus. The egg has traditionally been a symbol of the start of new life, just as new life emerges from an egg when the chick hatches out. The ancient Zoroastrians painted eggs for Nowrooz, their New Year celebration, which falls on the Spring equinox. The Nawrooz tradition has existed for at least 2,500 years. The sculptures on the walls of Persepolis show people carrying eggs for Nowrooz to the king.

The oldest Easter tradition uses dyed or painted chicken eggs, but now most of us substitute chocolate eggs, or plastic eggs filled with confectionery such as jelly beans. These eggs are often hidden, allegedly by the Easter Bunny, for children to find on Easter morning. Individual baskets may also be hidden, with clues for specific children to find them. The eggs may also be put in a straw / plastic basket filled with real or artificial straw to resemble a bird’s nest (originally the Plover).

Easter eggs are a widely popular in Bulgaria, Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Poland and other Slavic countries’ folk traditions. A batik (wax resist) process is used to create intricate, brilliantly-colored eggs, the best-known of which is the Ukrainian pysanka. The celebrated Fabergé workshops created exquisite jewelled Easter eggs for the Russian Imperial Court. Most of these creations themselves contained hidden surprises such as clock-work birds, or miniature ships. A 27-foot (9 m) sculpture of a pysanka stands in Vegreville, Alberta.

There are many other decorating techniques and numerous traditions of giving them as a token of friendship, love or good wishes.

A tradition exists in some parts of the United Kingdom (such as Scotland and North East England) of rolling painted eggs down steep hills on Easter Sunday. In the U.S., such an Easter egg roll is often done on flat ground, pushed along with a spoon and has become a much-loved annual event on the White House lawn. An Easter egg hunt is a common festive activity, where eggs are hidden outdoors (or indoors if in bad weather) for children to run around and find. This may also be a contest to see who can collect the most eggs.

When boiling hard-cooked eggs for Easter, a popular tan color can be achieved by boiling the eggs with onion skins. A greater variety of color was often provided by tying on the onion skin with different colored wool yarn. Many different stickers can be glued on with less mess. I will never forget our omelette dinners or baked custard desserts to use up all the scrambled eggs!

For tips on boiling the perfect Easter Eggs, see this YouTube video below with easy step-by-step instructions!

Book Review – Midnight Rising

Midnight Rising:  John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War
A Review by Helen McIver

Disclaimer: I am a huge fan of Tony Horwitz. I give multiple copies of nearly all of his books to friends across the United States and several continents: “You must read this!” I tell them.

Even with early reviews warning that his new book Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War wasn’t the usual Horwitz, I knew I would own a copy, not least for historical reasons. I expected to discover new insights into the complicated man, John Brown, and understand more of our nation’s Civil War. I was not disappointed.
In fact, I was completely fascinated.

One of my grandmothers lived not far from John Brown’s birthplace. The old Post Office had a huge CCC mural of John Brown standing tall in an effort to abolish slavery. As a small child, this imprinted John Brown in my mind as a hero and martyr for a just cause. There was some consternation when I moved south to Virginia and discovered he was considered a terrorist.  I learned the importance of sources, facts and biases in the interpretation of history. John Brown’s story, though, remained incomplete.  Until now.

I was thrilled when Tony Horwitz was chosen as our Rochester Reads 2012 author for his two books Midnight Rising and an earlier book on the Civil War, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. Horwitz is a Pulitzer prize-winning author and Civil War buff whose books often include hysterical personal observations. By mixing history with a contemporary update, his books are compelling, informative and entertaining.  In contrast, however, John Brown’s riveting story is much more somber than Horwitz’s earlier works.

We know our textbook history of the attack at Harper’s Ferry (the only Federal armory in the South and a mere 60 miles from the Capitol), the events leading up to it as well as the expedited trial. I, personally, didn’t know much of the how and the why. I certainly had little understanding of the commitment, passion, and dedication of John Brown, who obviously knew he couldn’t free the slaves with a band of only 21 men (5 black).  He was, however, prepared to strike a blow, shed blood against the tyranny of slavery, and hoped this would galvanize the rest of the country.

Using primary sources of personal letters, archives and new material, Horwitz delivers a fresh perspective on a dark chapter in American History.  During the Centennial marking the end of the Civil War, Martin Luther King Jr stated, “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.”  As we celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, we have President Obama; but we also have states that do not acknowledge the role of slavery in our Civil War (see Virginia’s Confederate Month).

Midnight Rising is a compelling historical narrative and a rapid read (I actually read it twice, once because the story just drew me in, and again to absorb more of the interesting facts). Horwitz writes in stunning, vivid detail about events that propelled America towards an inevitable bloody civil war. The raid shocked and further polarized the nation. Compromise was no longer possible and the issue couldn’t be ignored.

Author Tony Horwitz

Horowitz personlizes the story using stunning illustrations (photographs and drawings) that bring the characters to life. Excerpts of personal letters reveal the emotions of Brown, his wife Mary, his sons, and compatriots. I am astonished at how wide his circle of friends and supporters were, including progressives of the era Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry David Thoreau and Harriet Tubman. I was unfamiliar with the role of Bleeding Kansas, nor did I know of the Secret Six, prominent Yankees who supported Brown.

Marine Robert E Lee led the counter attack. Brown’s eloquence at his trial made him a hero to many northerners, and a radical extremist to the southerners. Instead of accepting a defense of insanity, he put the South on trial for slavery with a searing moral indictment. Brown was neither a madman nor terrorist or fanatic.  He was a man who passionately believed that all men are created equal.

Midnight Rising is one of two of Horowitz’s books selected for Rochester Reads 2012.  Please join us next Monday,  April 9th,  at 7PM in the Willow Creek Middle School Auditorium as we welcome Tony Horwitz to discuss his riveting books on the American Civil War.