Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (published 1937) is a book I first read I believe in tbe eigth grade and it made quite an impression on me.  George and Lennie, two ranch hands travelling together through California during the Great Depression looking for work.  George is small, quick, alert.  Lennie is big, strong with the mind of a child.  They are alone in the world except for each other and as George tells Lennie:

"Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world.  They got no family.  They don't belong no place.  They come to a ranch an' work up a stake and then they go inta town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they're poundin' their tail on some other ranch .... With us it ain't like that.  We got a future.  We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us"

The two men have a dream to have a place of their own where they can raise chickens, plant crops and Lennie will be able to care for the rabbits he loves so much.  It's a nice dream but there's a problem.  Lennie doesn't listen.  He doesn't do what George tells him and it has gotten George and Lennie into trouble but maybe things will be different at their new job.

Steinbeck tells us a good deal about the men who work on these ranches, as they hang around the bunk house, playing cards, talking about life, sharing gossip.  There is Slim, smart, respected and acknowledged by all to be the best rancher around.  Candy and his old dog who should be put down but Candy doesn't have the heart to do it. There is Curley, the boss' son who bullies the other men.  Crooks, the black ranch hand, angry and hurt that the white ranchers won't socialize with him.  There is Curley's young wife. The only female character in the book.  She is the catalyst to what will happen at the end and as with everyone else in the novel she is lonely and just wants a better life.

And that brings us to George and Lennie.  When I first read Of Mice and Men it was George that stood out for me but this time around the surprise was Lennie.  I remembered Lennie as a gentle giant who loved rabbits and all small creatures and  when we first meet him he is petting a little mouse he keeps in his pocket but here is the problem, the mouse is dead and for Lennie it doesn't make a difference.  He just likes to pet soft things,  Later when Lennie learns there are puppies on the ranch he gets excited.  George tells him to stay away from them.  Lennie doesn't listen and when he accidentally kills one of the puppies here is his reaction:

"And Lennie said softly to the puppy, 'Why do you got to get killed?  You ain't so little as mice.  I didn't bounce you hard ... Suddenly his anger arose.  "God damn you", he cried.  Why do you got to get killed?  You ain't so little as mice".  He picked up the pup and hurled it from him.  He turned his back on it.  He sat bent over his knees and he whispered, "Now, I won't get to tend the rabbits.  Now he won't let me".  He rocked himself back and forth in his sorrow".  

I had remembered Lennie wrong.  The only remorse he feels is self pity because now George might not let him tend the rabbits.  I make some allowances for the fact that Lennie is mentally disabled but I also wonder what does George see in Lennie?  Slim for example would have made a much better friend but could Steinbeck in the 1930's have written a story about Slim and George travelling together and telling their fellow ranch hands about their plans to have a place of their own?  My guess is Steinbeck didn't feel he could and so Lennie was created but even with Lennie, George feels the need to tell people they are cousins when in fact they are not related.

All of this said, I am glad I chose Of Mice and Men for my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge - reread a favorite classic and I have to get back to reading more Steinbeck.  The writer Barry Lopez said that "John Steinbeck brings together the human heart and the land" and I think that puts it very well.  He knew the American West, specifically California and its people.  But there is something universal and timeless about Steinbeck's novels which is why his books are read and loved the world over.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

As much as I love to read there are huge gaps in my literary education.  For example I rarely read books written prior to the 19th century.  Maybe I'm afraid that works written centuries ago will be written in a kind of old English that I won't be able to decipher.  But the great thing about the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) is that it is pushing me out of my comfort zone and so book seven on my classics list (choose a classic in translation) is one of the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated into modern readable English by G. H. McWilliam.

Literary scholars say that Giovanni Boccaccio probably conceived the idea for The Decameron in 1348 and completed the book in 1353.  The setting for The Decameron is Florence 1348 during the time of the Black Death, a terrible plague that Boccaccio lived through and which by some conservative estimates wiped out tens of millions across Europe and Asia.  Boccaccio paints a vivid picture in his introduction to The Decameron about the societal breakdown that occured in the midst of this pandemic.  He then introduces us to ten fictional young people (seven women and three men) who meet in an abandoned church.   Pampinea, one of the young women in the group, gives a rousing speech to the others as she suggests they leave the city of Florence with so much death and panic around them and head to the countryside:

"What are we doing here?  What are we waiting for?  What are we dreaming about?  Why do we lag so far behind the rest of our citizens in providing for our safety? ...I would think it an excellent idea for us all to get away from this city ... we could go and stay together on one of our various country estates, shunning at all costs the lewd practices of our fellow citizens and feasting and merrymaking as best we may"

Her friends think its an excellent idea as well and they decide that in addition to the food, the merrymaking, the dancing and the fresh air, they will spend their time telling each other stories centering around the subject of love and specifically the tricks lovers play so that they can be together.  These stories are also about fortune and how it smiles on some and not on others.  The ten young people will spend ten days in the country and each day they each tell a story, totalling one hundred stories that make up the Decameron.   To give you a taste of how ahead of his time Boccaccio was here is one story told by one of the young men in the group, Filostrato, about a woman charged with adultery standing before a judge:

"Sir, it is true that Rinaldo is my husband, and that he found me last night in Lazzarino's arms, wherein, on account of the deep and perfect love I bear towards him, I have lain many times before; nor shall I ever deny it  ... But before you proceed to pass any judgement, I beseech you to grant me a small favor, this being that you should ask my husband whether or not I have refused to concede my entire body to him, whenever and as often as he pleased ... Well then, the lady promptly continued, if he has always taken as much of me as he needed and as much as he chose to take, I ask you, Messer Podesta, what am I to do with the surplus?  Throw it to the dogs?  Is it not far better that I should present it to a gentleman who loves me more dearly than himself, rather than allow it to turn bad or go to waste".

And here is Pampinea introducing one of her stories and getting a few things off her chest with regard to the clergy:

"They go about in those long flowing robes of theirs, and when they are asking for alms, they deliberately put on a forlorn expression and are all humility and sweetness; but when they are reproaching you with their own vices, or showing how the layity achieve salvation by almsgiving and the clerics by almsgrabbing, they positively deafen you with their loud arrogant voices ... if only I were allowed to go into the necessary details, I would soon open many a simpleton's eyes to the sort of thing these fellows conceal beneath the ample folds of their habits".

Where Boccaccio is concerned no subject is off limits and the women in these stories are not shrinking violets.  They want sex and love as much as their partners do and very rarely is anyone punished in these tales for finding inventive ways to be together outside the bonds of matrimony.   Boccaccio has been called an early feminist and I think tnat is true.  He dedicated The Decameron to the ladies who "are forced to follow the whims, fancies, dictates of their fathers, mothers, brothers and husbands, so that they spend most of their time cooped up within the narrow confines of their rooms ... wishing one thing and at the same time wishing its opposite".  But it's also true that in some of these stories Boccaccio proves himself to be a man of the 14th century.

I recommemd The Decameron and there are abridged versions out there which include only Giovanni Boccaccio's most famous stories.  You will find when you read these tales that in some ways people from the fourteenth century were not that different from you and me but then you will encounter stories that demonstrate that it truly was a different time.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in her Little House series, in 1932.  She was 65 and the Great Depression was devastating the country and the Wilder family as well.  There was also the deaths of Laura's mother Caroline and sister Mary a few years back and so as a way to remember happier times Wilder began jotting down memories of her midwestern childhood in the 1870's.  Those memories, with the editorial help of her daughter Rose, would eventually become the Little House books.

The Ingalls family were farmers and homesteaders.  Homesteading has been described as a life of complete self sufficiency.  You built your own log cabin, built the furniture, hunted and grew the food you ate.  There were rare trips to town miles away where you would barter with wheat, eggs, animal skins in exchange for fabric and maybe some store bought sugar you reserved for company.  All through the spring, summer and fall you had to prepare for winter when the animals would be in hibernation, nothing would grow and your nearest neighbors were miles away::

"Now the potatoes and carrots, the beets and turnips and cabbages were gathered and stored in the cellar, for freezing nights had come.  Onions were made into long ropes, braided together by their tops, and then were hung in the attic beside wreaths of red peppers strung on threads.  The pumpkins and the squashes were piled in orange and yellow and green heaps in the attic's corners.  The barrels of salted fish were in the pantry, and yellow cheeses were stacked on the pantry shelves ...often the wind howled outside with a cold and lonesome sound.  But in the attic, Laura and Mary played house with the squashes and the pumpkins, and everything was snug and cozy".  

In the evenings Charles Ingalls would play his fiddle and tell stories to Mary and Laura about when he was a boy growing up in the Big Woods.  The stories could be funny like the time Charles and his brothers were forbidden to play on Sunday but  when their father fell asleep they snuck out and piled onto the new sled which halfway down the hill ran under a pig scooping it up onto the sled.  The brothers and the pig which was afraid and squealing loudly flew past their house with their father outside and not happy.  Other times Charles' stories could be harrowing.  The time his own father rode home from town later than he should have and encountered a panther:

Grandpa leaned forward in the saddle and urged the horse to run faster.  The horse was running as fast as it could possibly run, and still the panther screamed close behind.  Then Grandpa caught a glimpse of it, as it leaped from treetop to treetop, almost overhead.  It was a huge black panther, leaping through the air like Black Susan leaping on a mouse.  It was many many times bigger than Black Susan.  It was so big that if it leaped on grandpa it could kill him with it's enormous, slashing claws and its long sharp teeth ... the panther did not scream any more.  Grandpa did not see it anymore.  But he knew that it was coming, leaping after him in the dark woods behind him.  At last the horse ran up to Grandpa's house.  Grandpa saw the panther springing.  Grandpa jumped off the horse, against the door.  He burst through the door and slammed it behind him". 

Most of the book is not so harrowing.  We learn about Laura's getting a doll for Christmas, the first doll she had ever owned, which she named Charlotte.  Mary and Laura were close but Laura was a bit jealous of Mary who always did what she was told and had beautiful blonde hair which Lauta envied.  Charles and Caroline worked from dawn to dusk with Charles hunting and harvesting the wheat and Caroline cooking, churning and mending.  Everything had to be made by scratch including cheese which was quite a procedure and then tnere are the descriptions of maple candy which involves hot maple syrup poured over snow.  That recipe I think I could manage.

Sometimes when you read a children's book as an adult you can be disappointed. This is not one of those times.  Little House in the Big Woods is a fascinating wonderfully written look at what life was like for 19th century homesteading families like the Ingalls.  I understand that future books in the series get even better and that's saying alot since this first effort is so good. 

Little House in the Big Woods is book six on my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge list (choose a classic of children's literature) hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate.  I have six more classics to complete by the end of the year and I am getting a little nervous but I don't regret taking the challenge.  I am reading some wonderful books this year and without the challenge who knows when I would have gotten around to them.

Monday, August 13, 2018

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

A few months ago, Ruthiella at Booked for Life (see the link to her very fine website at blogs I follow) reviewed A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters (Edith Mary Pargeter).  It's the first novel in her Brother Cadfael mystery series which I have been curious about for some time and thanks Ruthiella for giving me the push to finally start reading these books.

The Brother Cadfael mysteries take place in the UK during the 12th century.  Brother Cadfael is the amatuer sleuth tasked in each book with solving the crime.  Cadfael's path to the monastic life is unusual in that he spent his early years as a soldier and sailor.  As Ruthiella points out this gives him a wealth of knowledge and experience about human nature which serves him well as a detective.

And so when A Morbid Taste for Bones begins Brother Cadfael is tending his garden at Shrewsbury Abbey when Brother Columbanus falls ill.  Prior Robert instructs Brother Jerome to stay with Columbanus during the night and the next morning Brother Jerome reports that while he was watching over Brother Columbanus he fell asleep and a beautiful young woman named Winifred who was martyred many years ago appeared to him saying that if Brother Columbanus is taken to Gwytherin in North Wales where she is buried he will be cured.  When Brother Columbanus his health restored returns to the abbey after his trip to Gwytherin, Prior Robert is sure that it's a miracle and since the Shrewsbury Abbey, has no holy relics of their own, it's an answer to another prayer as well.

Prior Robert and his fellow monks including Brother Cadfael journey to Gwytherin to bring back to Shrewsbury the bones of St Winifred but the village of Gwytherin is not accomadating.  Rhisiart, the largest landowner in Gwytherin, feels that Winifred should stay put.  Prior Robert first tries bribery and then tries to instill guilt and fear into Rhisiart and the villagers but the answer is still no and then Rhisiart winds up dead.  Who killed him?  One of the monks from the Abbey?  Or did one of the villagers who might have had a prior gripe with Rhisiart do him in figuring that the commotion over St. Winifred would throw people off the scent.  Everyone that is except Brother Cadfael who along with the help of Rhisiart's daughter is determined to have Rhisiart's murder solved and the killer brought to justice.

I  did some research after I finished reading A Morbid Taste for Bones and discovered there really was a Shrewsbury Abbey and a Prior Robert who is credited in history with bringing the bones of St Winifred to Shrewsbury Abbey.  If I have gone on a bit about Prior Robert at the expense of Brother Cadfael it's because he was the charachter that most interested me.  A man of faith no doubt but also an ambitious self important man as well. The historical Prior Robert would eventually become the Abbot of Shrewsbury and so I hope in subsequent Brother Cadfael books he will continue to have a role to play.  I agree with Ruthiella that A Morbid Taste for Bones is a good start to what I predict will be an educational and enjoyable mystery series.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner published 1929 is book five on my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) - choose a classic that scares you.  I had heard that Faulkner wrote in a stream of consciousness style that would be hard to follow and The Sound and The Fury is indeed a difficult book to get through.  When that happens it's not a bad idea to check out Spark Notes.  They go through the novel with you chapter by chapter,  It made a difference.  Passages I couldn't comprehend before became clearer.  But it's still a difficult read.

The Sound and the Fury tells the tragic story of the Compson family.  The novel is set in Jefferson, Mississippi and takes place primarily during an Easter weekend in 1928.  Each of the first three chapters are narrated by a different Compson sibling, Benji, Quentin and Jason.  You are inside the thoughts of these brothers each of whom is obsessed by the memory of their sister Caddy who is at the heart of all that happens.

Benji who is mentally handicapped and who Caddy cared for, since their mother was incapable of doing so, still waits for his sister to return.  Quentin's chapter is set in 1910 during his first year at Harvard.  When Caddy gets pregnant, Quentin is devastated and in a bizzare attempt to protect his sister's honor he suggests that Caddy tell their parents that he is the father.  It's not true but in Quentin's mind letting people think it was incest would be preferable to Caddy being unmarried and pregnant.  Caddy nixes this idea and decides instead to marry a wealthy young man who has no idea the baby isn't his.  When he discovers the truth he divorces Caddy and she is disowned by her family.

In Jason's chapter we are once again in 1928.  Jason is a bitter, hateful man who blames Caddy because her husband had promised him a lucrative banking position years ago which fell through once Caddy's marriage ended.  When Caddy left home she gave her baby daughter Quentin (named in memory of her brother) to her parents to raise but when her father died, Jason became the head of the family.  Jason treats seventeen year old Quentin badly and has been pocketing the money tnat Caddy has been sending her daughter for years.

Dilsey the Compson family's cook and housekeeper is the focus of chapter four, the final chapter.  Dilsey has been caring for her own family and the Compsons practically her entire life and in chapter four we spend a day with Dilsey. It's Easter Sunday and the Compson family is in an uproar (let's just say that Caddy's daughter Quentin has had the last laugh on Jason).  As poor Benji sits in the kitchen upset by all the commotion, Dilsey decides to take him to church.  As Dilsey, her daughter, her grandson and Benji head to church Dilsey and her friends she meets along the way talk about the guest preacher from St Loiuis.  No one has heard him preach before but everyone is excited and there is a nice moment where the minister is preaching and Dilsey has her hand protectively on Benji's knee listening to the sermon.  Benjy is quiet too, no longer afraid and what Faulkner might be saying at the close of the book is that it's Dilsey's values that are the Southern traditions worth keeping.

But then again I don't think The Sound and the Fury can be summed up so succintly.  Truth be told I was lost a good part of the way through.  I was able to give a recounting of the plot thanks to Spark Notes and to properly review this book I would need to read it again more slowly and also read what the critics have said.  But lost as I was I could definitely sense The Sound and The Fury's greatness.  I would be open sometime in the future to giving this novel another go or maybe try another Faulkner novel that is a bit more accessible because he's worth the effort.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Like Water For Chocolate: A Novel In Monthly Installments With Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel

Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel was first published in Mexico in 1989 and has gone on to international bestsellerdom and critical acclaim.  Like Water for Chocolate falls under the genre of magical realism involving scenes in which the supernatural can occur in everyday life.  It's a novel about passionate topics: food, cooking, romance and above all the love that Tita de la Garza and Pedro Muzquiz feel for each other.  When that love is thwarted by Tita's mother, Mama Elena, it will have devastating consequences for all involved.

The novel begins n Mexico at the start of the 20th century.  Tita is the youngest daughter of Mama Elena de la Garza, a mean woman who owns a ranch in northern Mexico.  At sixteen Tita and a neighborhood boy Pedro Muzquiz fall in love and want to marry.  Mama Elena says no because there is a tradition in the de la Garza family where the youngest daughter can never marry so that she can take care of her mother in her later years.  It's a cruel and nonsensical tradition but Mama Elena will not listen to reason.

Tita and Pedro are heartbroken but Tita cannot bring herself to go against her mother who she fears and also Tita doesn't have the stength to break family tradition.  As for Pedro he agrees to marry Mama Elena's eldest daughter Rosaura figuring that if he can't marry Tita he can stay close to her by marrying her sister. This works about as well as you can imagine.

Like Water For Chocolate consists of twelve chapters from January through December but the story itself takes place over years.  Each chapter leads with a new recipe from Tita's kitchen.  Cooking is the one outlet Tita has to express what's in her heart.  She learned how to cook when she was very young spending time in the kitchen with Nacha, the family cook.  These two women  have a special bond and Nacha in terms of love, support and encouragement is the only real mother Tita has ever known.

Tita's cooking has magical powers.  For example forced by her mother to cook the dinner for Pedro and her sister's wedding some of Tita's tears fall into the wedding cake.  Later at the wedding feast all of the guests after taking a bite of the cake are struck with such a feeling of longing and sadness that they start vomiting, including Rosaura who has her wedding day to Pedro ruined.  In a later chapter Tita's other sister Gertrudis, after eating a dinner prepared by Tita is so overcome by passion that she runs away with a young soldier who is part of a rebel army fighting for Mexican independence.  A certain suspension of reality is necessary to enjoy the book but the author does a good job in mixing the mythical with real life.  Like Water For Chocolate is a book filled with profound and beautiful imagery.  I particularly liked "Each of us is born with a book of matches inside us but we cannot strike them all by ourselves".  

One criticism I might make is that more time needed to be spent establishing  why Tita and Pedro's relationship is so special.  Pedro though he plays a central role in the story isn't a major character.  This is above all Tita's story and she spends much more time with Nacha, her mother and John a local doctor who falls in love with Tita than she does with Pedro.  When Pedro does appear throughout the course of the book longing glances between the two are supposed to suffice in convincing us that the chemistry is still there.  But I didn't feel the chemistry possibly because Pedro is not fleshed out enough as a character but maybe it's  different in the movie version of the book which I have not seen.

As we get to the end of the book we discover that the story of Tita and Pedro is being told to us decades later by Tita's grandniece.  Times are different now.  The family tradition of the youngest daughter never marrying is in the past.  These days one is encouraged to follow one's heart but as Tita's grandniece tells us food, cooking and Tita's recipes are traditions worth keeping.

Monday, July 2, 2018

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

I read a number of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries when I was young  and I remember enjoying them a great deal.  Not sure why I stopped reading Christie.  Sometimes we just move on to other authors but I always thought I might read her again and the 2018 Back To The Classics Challenge - choose a crime classic gave me the incentive.  I chose And Then There Were None (published 1939) which many consider Christie's best novel and certainly a favorite of fans.

And Then There Were None is set in the late 1930's and when the novel begins ten characters have received an invitation from a mysterious Mr. Owen.  He is the owner of Soldier Island off the coast of Devon.  The ten guests, strangers to each other, have been invited by Mr Owens to his mansion for a summer holiday.  None of the ten know Mr. Owen but in each invitation he mentions a mutual aquaintance to throw them off their guard.

The ten characters come from various walks of life.  What they have in common is that each is harboring a dark secret.  Each bears some blame in causing the death of another.  The Doctor who years ago walked in drunk to the operating room causing the death of his patient.  The General who sent a soldier having an affair with his wife to the front lines.  The wealthy playboy who drove recklessly killing a pedestrian etc.  These ten men and women have to a certain extent forgotten these past guilts and so they arrive at Soldier Island relaxed and eager to begin their summer holiday.

Upon arrival the ten get aquainted and wait for their mysterious host to arrive,  They visit their bedrooms where in each room hangs a framed nursery rhyme which begins "Ten little soldier boys went out to dine.  One choked his little self and thn there were nine". They don't notice the nursery rhyme at first or the fact that on a stand in the dining room there are ten little soldier figurines.  After dinner on the first night of their arrival, Ms Christie gives a chilling account of a voice that comes into the room while the ten guests are enjoying their coffee::

"Ladies and Gentlemen you are charged with the folliwing indictments". 

Edward George Armstrong, that you did upon the 14th day of March 1925, cause the death of Louisa Mary Clees".

Emily Caroline Brent, that upon the 5th of November 1931, you were responsible for the death of  Beatrice Taylor"

The voice goes on naming the indictments of the eight remaining characters and needless to say the reaction of the ten is like a bomb going off in the room.  The Butler's wife faints.  Other characters race out of the dining room trying to find the source of the voice.  It will turn out to be a gramophone and it won't be long before the first of the ten, Anthony Maston, tne wealthy playboy, ends up chokomg to death after sipping a glass of wine that's been poisoned.

The ten make a search of Soldier Island and the mansion and discover that they are alone.  They are trapped there because the ferryman who brought them to the island does not return the next day or the day after that and there is no other way off the island.  When the Butler's wife fails to wake up the next morning the ten (now eight) realize that the killer is one of them and he or she won't be satisfied until they are all dead.

Agatha Christie has written that she was inspired to write And Then There Were None "because it was so difficult to do.  Ten people had to die in this book without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious".  Christie does pull it off.  This is a gripping read but it's a disturbing book as well.  I did not find anyone I could root for in this novel.  There is very little character development and though these ten are flawed I was bothered much more by the vigilante killer at the core of tbis story who has chosen to play God.  Christie is a great mystery novelist but you might want to stick with her Hercule Poirot mysteries which I retain fond memories of.