One old book!

On April 25, 1719–198 years and 1 day ago–Daniel Defoe published Robinson Crusoe.

I’m guilty of skipping this classic until now. Yesterday, when I saw the day’s “This Day In History” calendar, I decided it was time to read the book. Since my library is only K-4, I don’t have the original version. I do, however, have the Great Illustrated Classics version. I was able to read it in a couple of hours.

Maybe it was because of the condensed version, but I felt like the story skipped ahead very quickly and I’m confused why he waited so long to do some major things, like exploring the island?!?

I was also disappointed in the way that Friday came into the story. I love that Robinson rescued him but the idea that Friday would immediately swear himself to life-long slavery just grates against my nerves. Why didn’t he tell Robinson his given name? And what kind of egomaniac longs for a companion, finds one, and then teaches him to call him “Master”?

I get that Defoe was a product of a very different time but I struggle with the storyline. I’ve read other Great Illustrated Classics and they were some of the best books I’ve ever read. As a kid I read Swiss Family Robinson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds Sherlock Holmes and Journey To the Center of the Earth. I’ve read the complete version of many of these as an adult and as no complaint with how the condensing was done. That makes me think that my complaint is with Defoe, not Great Illustrated Classics.

Before you write me off as a the worst book nerd ever, I want you to know I’ve read Defoe before. I really enjoyed Moll Flanders. That poor girl was a hot mess. She’s got a great story though. So for my money, I’d recommend Moll over Robinson any day.

It’s Alive!

One of my top two favorite books of all time is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (the other slot goes to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee).

My senior year of high school I received a paperback copy for Christmas. Coincidentally, our English teacher started us on a unit after winter break reading the condensed version — I got permission to read the full story.

Most Americans can give you the gist of the story: Dr. Frankenstein uses corpses to assemble a monster that he uses electricity to bring to life. The monster then rampages and  has to be destroyed.

Close, but no cigar. Victor Frankenstein begins to study medicine and developes an obsession with returning life to dead flesh. Mary Shelley was very smart and wrote Victor’s diary in such a way that he never tells how he did it. (Critics can’t argue with something left unsaid.) Victor is never truly happy with what he has created. In his fervor of discovery he has broken the natural laws, and he has no desire to see it repeated. Lightning and electricity are a flashy visual added by the classic movies many of us love.

Boris Karloff’s classic portrayal of the monster has rooted itself into the American psyche. I see nothing wrong with how those first movies were made, but I think anatomically the monster sewn together from corpses would look more like this:

What Dr. Frankenstein feels after creating the monster is excitement that quickly becomes shame and regret. He has toyed with the laws of nature. His creation is an abomination.  It becomes a murderer, tormenting Victor to the end.

In the final scenes of the story we see the monster weep over the body of Frankenstein and we are left with a lingering doubt of whether the monster was really a monster.


Another iconic figure in The a Frankenstein myth is is the Bride, most iconically portrayed by Elsa Lanchester. (Side note: we almost always see the Bride with black hair and the white stripes, but Elsa was a redhead, you just can’t tell because of the black and white film.) The monster does want a mate so he won’t be alone, but Victor refuses complete the process, leading to more blood on the monster’s hands.

In senior English, we read the book and then watched the 1994 version starring Robert DeNiro as the monster, Kenneth Branagh as Victor and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth. I loved DeNiro’s monster!

 

We were then assigned an essay reviewing either the book or the movie. I chose to compare and contrast the two. After 20 years I’m still proud enough of it to share here.

Frankenstein: Then and Now

Though made centuries after the original, Kenneth Branagh’s modern film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may provide the final pieces to the puzzles of Shelley’s thought provoking characters. It seems that where Shelley’s characters confuse readers, Branagh’s movie picks up the slack with audiences. It is also true that Shelley’s novel fills some of the gaps in the movie. The two together form an unbeatable team in captivating audiences.

Shelley casts her novel with characters ruled by passions that stir a huge array of opinions in today’s readers. Victor can come across as cowardly or as a genius, depending on who is reading, whereas the creature may seem the innocent victim or as the embodiment of evil.

Under Branagh’s direction the movie tries to compensate for the character flaws. We see Victor as a man confused by his loyalties to mankind and his passions, and the creature begins to look more and more wronged and confused by man. Branagh also ventures to add dimension to Elizabeth, Victor’s lover. Branagh produces a strong woman lost in her love and concern for Victor, where Shelley wrote only of her concerns from long distance, never as an active role in Victor’s plight.

Shelley’s writing overpowers the movie in Victor’s insistence to hide the secret of life. Branagh endeavors to use electricity–a relic of earlier films–to bring the creature to life. Shelly’s novel closely guards this secret, providing no details, lest horrid consequences be lived again, this her lesson for the entire story.

Combined, the novel and the movie provide what could be the entire spectrum of Shelley’s first horrifying vision. The mix that they make is a potent lesson for readers and movie-goers alike–God’s domain is not our own.

🎶It’s the end of the world, and I feel fine🎶

I really enjoy post apocalyptic stories. I find the question “what would you be willing to do to keep your loved ones alive?” very intriguing. I haven’t read many of them lately, but I have read enough that it’s hard to pick which ones to share.

One of the first books I ever read in this genre was The Stand by Stephen King. This story is scary because a pandemic could easily happen with the ease of world travel and our dense population. It’s also terrifying to see how quickly some people choose to do bad things to keep themselves alive.

The Road was a great story that felt both real and heartbreaking. The father is working so hard to keep his son alive and safe. I can’t imagine trying to raise a child in such a world.

Kunstler’s World Made By Hand series is a bit of a more gradual decline. The people who have survived a flu epidemic have adapted fairly well and are making their way in the new world. They aren’t above violence though.

If you like zombies, and I do, this is probably the best written zombie book I’ve ever read…and I’ve read a lot. Max Brooks approaches the story as a reporter with individual stories following the pandemic in both geographic and chronological progression around the globe. (I was blown away to discover that Max Brooks is the son of Mel Brooks, as in Blazing Saddles, Young  Frankenstein and Space Balls!)

Though not true zombies, Amanda Hocking’s Hollowland series is along those lines. This is a young adult series, and the writer began her career by self-publishing online. She has found well deserved success. I loved the main character’s grit and determination. She will do anything to protect her brother and even manages to befriend a lion that helps protect them.

Another great YA series is the Ashfall series by Mike Mullin. The supervolcano under Yosemite erupts and sends the North American continent into chaos. The main character is a 15 year old boy trying to get from Des Moines to his family in Indiana. I’ve read the first two books in the set and loved them. I hope to catch up on the series this summer. 

One of the most powerful stories about a world gone wrong is Life As We Knew It and the follow up books in the series by Susan Beth Pfeffer. An asteroid hits the moon and shifts it closer to Earth. This results in tsunamis and massive flooding. Then later on, as the world reels, volcanic activity skyrockets plummeting the globe into a nuclear winter (of sorts). The story follows a 15 year old girl and her family in Pennsylvania. The second book is about a family in New York City and the third book brings the two families together. These families rely on the power of love and their devotion to one another to see them through.

I could probably come up with 20 more books like this that I think are good enough, or unique enough to tell you about. I would have recommended another volcano triggered apocalypse story if I could recall the name, and there’s an odd one by a classic author, again my brain is not working–where 100 years has passed since a virus wiped out most of the educated class. The servants survived in greater numbers and the result is an uneducated group of people who no longer even speak English correctly. I wish I could think of the name!

What big teeth you have!

If I had to pick a favorite fairytale, it would be Little Red Riding Hood. I don’t know why, it’s just my favorite.  Which is why I was excited to get in a new picture book called Wolf In the Snow by Matthew Cordell.

While it doesn’t follow the traditional Red Riding Hood story, there is an obvious comparison. The story is told all in pictures, the only words are the howling, whining and sounds of breathing. It is simple, but powerful. I won’t give it away but kindness is always returned is a great theme for this book.

For the traditional version, you’ll want to read Little Red Cap by the Brothers Grimm.

If you want a different culture’s Red Riding Hood, you might try Lon Po Po retold by Ed Young.

This Caldecott Award winning book tells a version of the story from China. I read it to my 6th grade students last year and we were surprised that it seemed to combine Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs.

If you want to laugh at a story about Red Riding Hood, try The Cat, the Dog, Little Red, the Exploding Eggs, the Wolf, and Grandma by Diane & Christyan Fox. 

The cat is trying to read to the dog, and he keeps interrupting and misinterpreting the story. You have to read this gem to truly appreciate the humor.

So let’s see if I have this right. The Red Hood is on her way to help an old lady when she meets the Wolfman. He has an evil plan. He likes to dress up in girls’ clothes and eat people. He and Red have a big battle, and Red’s father puts an end to Wolfie.

A more grown up version of the story can be found in the Daniel Egnéus illustrated book.

I found this one at the dollar store, of all places. The artwork is amazing!


And all this leads up to the book that I don’t have yet: Liesl Shurtliff’s Red the true story of Red Riding Hood.

I loved her books Rump  and Jack and I’ve been waiting for this for a few years. Red is Rump’s best friend in the first book so I was sure she would get her own book.

One last book recommendation for you. Tanith Lee’s Wolfland from her Red As Blood collectionif you want a little more sinister in your story.

It’s not a very nice story, is it?

Are you absolutely sure this is a children’s book?

Grown Up Books

Yes, sometimes I read grown up books. Of course, they are often filled with immature and juvenile humor, as well as inappropriate jokes that border on the distateful, but I read them with glee!

Here are a few of my favorite humor titles that made me laugh out loud, for real, none of that LOL nonsense:

I’m sure I read other humor before this, but Jenny McCarthy’s Belly Laughs was a great book on being pregnant, not like What To Expect When You’re Expecting, but still awesomeMy husband refused to even skim other pregnancy books but he read this one. McCarthy’s not afraid to say whatever comes into her head, and it’s usually on the vulgar side. I laughed my butt off!

A few years ago a friend of mine and I went on a 6 hour road trip. We brought along Sweet Potatoe Queens’ Book of Love on audio. We had a ball! The Sweet Potato Queens are wonderfully southern and had some great ideas about men.

I’m a crafter, so when I saw Simple Times: crafts for poor people at the public library, I had to read it. Amy Sedaris is a strange, strange woman. But I love an oddball, and this woman is funny on top of weird. I also enjoyed her cookbook, I Like You.

David Sedaris, who is Amy’s brother, is also a wonderful wack-job. He tells the story of being stuck in speech therapy as a kid, and I can relate! Sedaris then continued in a convoluted path to becoming a humor writer that he manages to make funny, in spite of all his trials and tribulations and addictions. I also loved his book Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.

I love Stephen Colbert! His satirical humor on the government are spot on. He manages to make you laugh while getting some real points across. I need to read more of his work.

I was a stay-at-home mom for 4 years and in order to stay sane, I had to find the humor in everyday life. Amber Dusick has done the same thing, added her self-described crappy drawings, and made herself some decent money. I love that she calls the family members Crappy Daddy, Crappy Mommy, Crappy Boy and Crappy Baby. Hilarious!

Allie Brosh is amazing. Aside from making me laugh uproariously, she broached the very serious subject of depression in her book. I’ve never read such a great explanation of what it’s like. If you’ve never had depression, it’s so hard to understand, but Brosh was able to make it very easy to understand. But all seriousness aside, I loved her stories about her brain damaged dog and the goose who invaded their home one night.

Adam Carolla, who is famous for things like ‘The Man Show’, ‘Loveline’ and more, is so great at telling stories from his misspent youth. Despite from a family that he describes as being committed underachievers, and being Not Taco Bell MaterialCarolla made a name for himself in show business and along the way picked up some great views on life.


Justin Halpern has some freaking hilarious stories about his dad. It’s not that he’s a bad dad, he just says whatever comes to mind and does not sugarcoat it. I’d like to read more of his books.

Chelsea is probably my all-time favorite humor writer. She tells unbelievably true anecdotes from her childhood, relates hysterical practical jokes she plays on everyone she can, and never seems to take herself too seriously. Reading about her obsession with little people and her dog Chunk had me laughing until I peed my pants. She like many great humorists didn’t come from a glamorous family but she made the best of it and came out on top.

The Last Tsar

I’ve always been intrigued by the tragic story of Tsar Nicholas II and his family’s fate after the Communist Revolution in Russia. The years leading up to the takeover were full of odd events as well. I’d read enough online about the enigmatic figure of Rasputin and his relationship with Tsaritsa Aleksandra to be excited when I came across Robert Alexander‘s Rasputin’s Daughter.


I had never realized that Rasputin had any family. I had always pictured him as a villain and so I was surprised to find his daughter a character I could sympathize for.

I decided that since Rasputin’s Daughter was so well researched and written that I would continue reading Alexander’s books. Next I read The Romanov Bride.


This book follows the story of Elisavyeta (or Ella), sister of the tsaritsa Aleksandra, who also married a member of the Romanov family. But this story takes place as the Communist Revolution is building momentum and Ella’s fairytale life isn’t spared from immense changes.

The final book I read by Alexander is considered a Young Adult title. It’s The Kitchen Boy. This book was the shortest but was definitely my favorite.


I can’t help but think that the family knew their time was drawing short. They still managed to hold themselves with dignity and keep their family ties strong in the face of their less than generous captors and guards. Alexander told this story in a way that makes you believe you know the narrator’s identity until a plot twist at the end.

The Russian people of course have a different perspective on this tumultuous time in their history than I do, as I’m only an outsider looking in. Robert Alexander did spend a lot of time researching his books and are well worth the read. While we may not be able to point to a definitive “better” choice between the Tsars and the Communists, we should learn from these tragic events so that they need not be repeated.

FYI: a mass grave was uncovered in the Russian wilderness that contained the remains of Tsar Nicholas’ family and staff, but the bodies of the two youngest children were missing. Later a pyre was discovered with the remains of the children. The woman who eventually settled in America claiming to be Grand Duchess Anastasia was genetically proven to be unrelated to the family.

The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk

I don’t consider myself a hardcore environmentalist, but I have read a book or two that has caused me great sadness about the state of our Earth. Specifically, I’m saddened by the cost humanity has brought to animals. A couple of years ago, Smithsonian Magazine published an article on the now extinct Passenger Pigeon. It was eye-opening for me. 

Then I found an amazing book at the public library.


Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize Winning book, The Sixth Extinction expanded on the passenger pigeon story as well as discussing the loss of megafauna due (possibly) to hunting and climate change. The number of species that have gone extinct within human memory is staggering. One of the saddest stories is that of the great auk, which looked similar to a penguin but was completely unrelated.


I recently got in The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk by Jan Thornhill. It’s full of gorgeous pictures showing the beauty of this extinct bird.


In language that most middle grade students can understand, Thornhill relates the auk’s story. As with many very specialized animals, the auk was left defenseless when humans began to hunt them. The author makes a point to explain the senseless of people who paid extra for specimens and eggs from a species that was known to be dwindling.

An interesting point made in the book is that the way the auk was handled ultimately opened up habitat for other species like puffins. I like that kids are shown the Tragic side effects of over predation as well as the beneficial side effects of natural processes like extinctions.

I hope conservation efforts can save our world’s animals, but this book has reminded me that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.