Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Question of Belief by Donna Leon

A Question of Belief (published 2010) is book nineteen in Donna Leon's acclaimed Commissario Brunetti mystery series.   Death At LaFenice, the first book in the series, remains my favorite.  However, A Question of Belief (starred review from Publisher's Weekly) is very good as well.  In fact what's remarkable is the high quality Ms. Leon has maintained certainly in the three Brunetti mysteries that I have read so far.

She created in Guido Brunetti a decent, thoughtful, very smart detective who is happily married, enjoys good food and wines reads The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in the evening for pleasure.  He is cynical about government bureaucracy but he is committed to solving crimes and when A Question of Belief begins it is August in Venice and it is hot.  Comissario Brunetti speculates on what the criminal population is doing:

"Could they be induced to leave people alone until the end of this heat spell?  That presupposed some sort of central organization, but Brunetti knew that crime had become too diversified and too international for any reliable agreement to be possible ... His thoughts drifted to the promises he had made to Paola that tonight they would discuss their own vacation.  He, a Venetian, was going to turn himself and his family into tourists, but tourists going in the other direction, away from Venice, leaving room for the millions who were expected this year.  Last year twenty millon.  God have mercy on us all".

Unfortunately, Commissario Brunetti does not get to join his family in the mountains for vacation.  He is stuck in sweltering Venice working two separate cases. The first involves a psychic healer who is depriving vulnerable people of their money.  The second case involves a murder of a civil servant at the courthouse and could his death be linked to the fact that he was helping a judge delay court cases in exchange for pay offs?

I enjoyed A Question of Belief.  Many of Donna Leon's book are topical dealing with issues of the day and a running theme throughout her novels is the cynicism the people of Venice, including Brunetti and his wife Paola, feel towards their government, the media, the church.  I am reminded of a passage in Death at LaFenice, for example, in which Paola is sitting in the kitchen reading the newspaper.  She explains to Brunetti that she reads a different paper each day, going from left to right politically because "I want to see how many different ways the same lies can be told".  

Donna Leon's novels tell us that the Venetians have made a certain peace with their "it's all corrupt" mindset.  They go about their lives in spite of it and I felt a little envious.  Here in the US where there used to be accountability, Trump has completely changed that.  He is awash in corruption and he has a Congress who rubber stamps whatever he wants.  I wish like the Venetians I could ignore him and go about my life but Trump makes it impossible.  Anyway, I recommend A Question of Belief.  Is a nice escape from what is going on now.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Small Room by May Sarton

I read The Small Room by May Sarton (published 1961) decades ago and the beginning of the novel has always stayed with me, a young woman, Lucy Winter, is heading to her new teaching job at a small prestigious women's college in New England.  It's quite an accomplishment for someone only 27 to be a professor but Lucy is feeling melancholy.  Her plan was to be married but that fell through and now Lucy is beginning a teaching career she didn't want and she is also plagued by fears that she is not prepared.  She wonders what does she really know about teaching?  What does it take to inspire one's students and get them to be  passionate about the subject one is teaching?

Later, after settling in at Appleton College, Lucy will face deeper questions about the dangers of getting too close to a student or remaining too detatched when a student needs your help.  The crisis that will bring these questions about happens shortly after Lucy arrives at Appleton.  One of the most brilliant students on campus, Jane Seaman, is caught plagerising an article she wrote for the school newspaper.   It is Lucy who discovers this plagerism and she brings it to the attention of the administration.  Plagerism means expulsion from Appleton College but the school is conflicted.  A plagerism expulsion would follow Jane Seaman throughout her life and so it's a harsh punishment.  Also Jane is the protege of a famous professor at the school, Professor Carryl Cope, one of the top Medieval History scholars in the country.  Professor Cope wants to protect Jane and sees herself when she was young in Jane  and feels guilt about putting too much pressure on the young woman to excel.  The student body gets wind of what is happening and they are angry knowing that had they done what Jane Seaman did they wouldn't be let off so lightly.

Battle lines are drawn and the question of what to do is debated over a number of faculty dinner parties as we are introduced to Lucy's colleagues, their lives off campus, their views about teaching, their different opinions about the best way to deal with Jane's plagerism.  Lucy because she is young and new to the academic politics at Appleton College becomes the sounding board for her colleagues as they confide to her about the school, what they think about teaching and what they think of each other.  Appleton, Lucy comes to see, is an insular community where the professors live too near to each other and to the campus.  They are lonely, argue, drink too much and they know each other too well but they are also brilliant teachers.

A little bit about the author May Sarton (1912 - 1995).  She was a talented poet and novelist who had a rebirth as a writer in the 1970's.  Ms Sarton was a pioneer in feminist and gay and lesbian literature.  She wrote openly about being a lesbian woman back in 1965 when she published Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, possibly her most well known novel.   In her later years May Sarton who had moved to York, Maine began publishing her journals: Journal of Solitude (about turning sixty), House by the Sea, Recovering, After the Stroke, At Seventy, At Eighty-Two.  Her journals are about solitude, nature, women, friendship, love, writing, illness, books, life, etc.  I enjoyed rereading The Small Room and the novel left me eager to begin May Sarton's journals which continue to have a wide readership.  I'll be turning sixty myself this year so maybe Journal of Solitude is the place to begin.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare published 1958 and winner of the 1959 Newbery Medal is one of the novels I chose for my 2018 Classic's Club Challenge.  It's a well written historical children's novel set in the late 1600's.  The book left me with a desire to learn more about Puritan New England.  More generally it's a novel about standing up for what's right and standing by those who are under attack.  In that sense the book is timeless.

When The Witch of Blackbird Pond begins Kit (Katherine) Tyler is sailing from her home in sunny Barbados to the colder and more austere community of Wethersfield Connecticut.  Kit is 15 and she will be living with her Aunt Rachel, Uncle Matthew and their teenage daughters Judith and Mercy. The year is 1685 and Kit, a bright and free spirited young woman, soon realizes she has made a mistake leaving Barbados.  She knows it even before the boat docks.  A young child, Prudence, loses her doll when it falls off the ship into the water.  Kit jumps in to the water to retrieve the doll causing a comotion.  The passengers are scandalized and Prudence's mother Goodwife Cruff is particularly outraged.  She is the villain of this novel and she will later lead the charge in accusing young Kit Tyler and Kit's elderly friend Hannah Tupper of witchcraft.

Before that happens though we are introduced to Kit's Aunt Rachel a good woman who is kind to Kit.  Her husband Matthew in comparison is a strict and dour man who no one in the family challenges. Rachel and Matthew's teenage daughters, kindhearted Mercy who befriends Kit and though Mercy is disabled she never complains and looks at the bright side of things.  Her sister Judith in contrast is quite vain and resentful when things don't go her way. There is John Holbrook who is studying for the ministry, a young man who when he reads the bible leaves those around him comforted rather than trembling.  Judith tells Kit that she has "set her cap" for John but it's Mercy he loves.  Kit also has a young fellow she is interested in, Nathaniel Eaton, the son of the Captain of the Dolphin the ship that brought Kit to Wethersfield.

So there are a number of balls juggling in this novel and the author does a good job of explaining the history of that time period and day to day life for Puritans.   The heart of the story for me is Kit's relationship with the elderly widow Hannah Tupper who lives alone in a one room cottage by the meadow with her cats.  The town's people say she is a witch (the witch of Blackbird Pond) and at first Kit is afraid as well.  But in reality Hannah is a Quaker woman and in the 17th century Quakers who came to New England seeking freedom of religion ended up being jailed banished and even hanged by the Puritan Community for practicing their faith.  Hannah's husband Thomas died years ago and she is lonely.  Kit is lonely as well and Hannah and Kit enjoy tneir time together sipping tea and eating blueberry cakes and talking about life.  But this idealic situation cannot last forever.  An illness sweeps over Wethersfield, people are sick and some have died and fingers point to Hannah Tupper and Kit Tyler.  A trial takes place and I will leave it there so as not to give too much of the story away.

I enjoyed the Witch of Blackbird Pond although I have to be honest and say that throughout the reading of this novel I was thinking of another children's classic I read a few years ago, Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (Newbery Medal 1944) and for me Johnny Tremain is the better book.  Johnny is the same age as Kit and yet Johnny Tremain is a much more complex character who doesn't start off admirable but through an accident the plans he had for his life have to change drastically and though its not easy you see him gradually rebuild his life and join in the cause for American Independence.  Kit on the other hand is admirable right from the start when she jumps off the boat into the freezing water to save a young girl's doll.  There isn't much growth potential for Kit because there is nothing to improve.  And yet maybe I'm not the best judge because this book was written for children ages 9 to 13.  And so for those who are in their early teens I do recommend The Witch of Blackbird Pond and check out Johnny Tremain as well.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Glittering Images by Susan Howatch

Many years ago I discovered Susan Howatch's excellent Starbridge Series of novels.  Six books which tell the story of the Church of England during the mid twentieth century (1937 - 1960's).  Each novel takes place in the fictional Cathedral town of Starbridge.  I read the first novel in the series Glittering Images published 1987 over 20 years ago and now having reread Glittering Images I continue to marvel at how good it is and this time I vow to complete the entire Starbridge Series.

When Glittering Images begins the year is 1937 and the House of Lords has taken up Mr. A. P. Herbert's Marriage Bill which seeks to extend the reasons for granting a divorce.  Only a year prior Edward VIII abdicated the English throne to marry the divorced Mrs Simpson.  The Anglican Church didn't come out well in the Abdication crisis and Dr. William Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been afraid to take a position for or against the Marriage Bill.  The fiery and charasmatic Bishop Alex Jardine of Starbridge believes the divorce laws should be more liberal and publicly criticizes Archbishop Lang for his silence.  Lang is furious and tells his young assistant, Reverened Dr Charles Ashworth:

"Jardine's attack was quite inexcusable ... after all I was in the most unenviable position.  I couldn't condone any relaxation of the divorce law; that would have been morally repugnant to me.  On the other hand if I had openly opposed all change there would have been much damaging criticism of the church ...Yet the Bishop of Starbridge has the insufferable insolence not only to accuse me of "sitting on the fence" -- what a vulgar phrase! -- but to advocate that multiple grounds for divorce are compatible with Christian teaching!  No doubt one shouldn't expect too much of someone who's clearly very far from being a gentleman, but Jardine has behaved with gross disloyalty to me personally and with gross indifference to the welfare of the Church".

The Archbishop of Canterbury also wonders why Bishop Jardine was so eager for the Marriage Bill to pass?  Rumors are that Bishop Jardine's marriage is not a happy one.  The Jardines have been employing for years a young attractive woman by the name of Lyle Christie who serves as Mrs Jardine's assistant but is something going on between Bishop Jardine and Miss Christie?  Are they having an affair?  Archbishop Lang sends Dr. Charles Ashworth, a rising young cleric in the Anglican Church, to Starbridge to find out (under the pretense of doing research for a book) if the rumors of an affair are true.

Dr. Ashworth upon arrival at Starbridge immediately becomes involved in the Jardine household which proves to be a big mistake.  He decides without even knowing if the rumors are true to rescue Miss Christie from the grip of Bishop Jardine.  Dr Ashworth decides this because after knowing Miss Christie for only three days that he is in love with her though she has given him no encouragement.  But another reason Dr. Ashworth needs the rumors to be true is because if behind the "glittering image" Bishop Jardine is in reality a flawed and sinful man then maybe Charles Ashworth can forgive himself for his own feelings of unworthiness to serve God, an unworthiness stemming from his childhood and the guilt he still feels over his wife's death seven years prior.  We learn early in the book that Dr. Ashworth though only 37 is a widower.  His wife was killed in a tragic auto accident.  She was pregnant with their first child.  Dr Ashworth has not remarried and though it appears that he has moved on, achieving great success as he rises high in the Anglican church he is a troubled man.  The trip to Starbridge will be a life changing experience for Dr Ashworth who narrates the book and all of the characters involved are in for a rude awakening.

I submit that if Jane Austen wrre alive she would enjoy the Starbridge Series and Anthony Trollope would have also recognized and appreciated these novels.  I realize that's high praise but Glittering Images warrants it and I am already looking forward to book two in the series, Glamerous Powers.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Happy and Healthy New Year!

I am in the process of reading my next book which I am enjoying and I hope to have a review up in about a week.  In the meantime I want to wish everyone who has been nice enough to read my reviews a sincere thank you and a very Happy and Healthy New Year.  I particularly wish good health to everyone which is the most important.

Life has been tough for me these past few years since I moved to Florida but there have been good things too and I put creating this blog at the top of the list of good things.  First, this book blog has given me a real sense of accomplishment because I don't follow through on projects but I have kept this site up since 2015.  My book blog has forced me to read classics (Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Stranger, My Antonia, North and South, Pere Goriot) that I would otherwise have never gotten around to reading.  In the past I had a tendency to read about 50 or 60 pages of a novel and put it down eager to be on to the next book.  This site has changed all that since I would never review a book that I haven't finished.

I have also discovered or had recommended to me some great mystery novelists Lawrence Block, Donna Leon, Linda Castillo and its comforting to know that these wonderful authors and their novels will be there as back up when I get into a reading slump. Finally I have found that reviewing books and keeping a blog can clue you in to who your favorite writers are, your favorite genres and time periods.  I know for me there is nothing like a good mystery series.  And in terms of authors, countries and their time periods I have become a big fan of 19th Century British literature and the Brontes in particular.  As G. K. Chesterson wrote: "what the Brontes really brought into fiction was the blast of the mysticism of the North ... the strong winds and sterile places, the old tyranny of barons and the new and blacker tyranny of manufacturers".  He got it right.  That's what I love about the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell too.

But I digress and so let me end by saying I would advise anyone who is thinking about starting a blog to do so.  You can write about any topic: books, movies, life, politics, music, film, TV, religion, you name it.  It's whatever you are passionate about.  One thing I would advise though is that whatever you wish to blog about, don't get hung up on the quality of the writing.  I tried to keep a journal for years and could never get past the first few entrys before I would become obsessed by the thought that I could have said it better.  And so that's another New Year's Resolution.  I'll try going forward to write well but the most important thing is to enjoy the reading experience and accurately write down what I thought of the book and how it made me feel.

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Stranger by Albert Camus

Thank you Brianna for lending me your copy of The Stranger by Albert Camus (published 1942).  Albert Camus was a major French philosopher and writer of the 20th Century and I had been planning to read The Stranger eventually but there is no time like the present.  This review will contain spoilers.

When The Stranger (translated by Matthew Ward) begins Meursault, the main character in the novel, is living in Algiers.  His mother has just died.  As Mersault travels to the nursing home where his mother was living it becomes clear that he is not broken up by her death.  He's not happy or sad.  He doesn't cry.  It's just that nothing affects him one way or the other.  After his mother's funeral for example he begins a relationship with a young woman named Marie.  She brings up the subject of marriage and Meursault responds::

"I said it didn't make any difference to me and that we could if she wanted to.  Then she wanted to know if I loved her.  I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn't mean anything but that I probably didn't love her.  "So why marry me, then?" she said.  I explained to her that it didn't really matter and that if she wanted to, we could get married.  Besides she was the one who was doing the asking  and all I was saying was yes.  Then she pointed out that marriage was a serious tbing.  I said "No".  She stopped talking for a moment and looked at me withot saying anything."

Mersault also makes friends with Raymond, a neighbor.  Raymond beats up his mistress who he believes is cheating on him.  She has two brothers who vow revenge.  Meursault, Raymond, Marie and another couple are vacationing at the beach when they spot the two brothers.  Later that day Meursault goes back to the beach where the brothers are staying and for no reason shoots and kills one of the brothers.  The second part of the book involves Meursault's trial where he is facing the death penalty.

The Stranger is a philosophical novel and needs to be read with that in mind.  Meursault behaves as if life is meaningless and because of this he is a threat to the other characters in the book.  At his trial the prosecutor, judge, even the defense attorney are obsessed not with the murder but with why Meursault did not cry at his mother's funeral.  Why didn't he visit her more?  Why did he begin a relationship with Marie so soon after his mother's death?   Meursault will not conform to what society expects of him.  He will not pretend to have emotions he doesn't feel.  He sees life as fundementally meaningless and everyone else in the novel including the prison chaplain at the end of the book is trying to get Meursault to come around to their point of view.  They don't want to acknowledge that he may be right, maybe life is meaningless.

In one of his other books, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus lays out the philosophy of absurdism which sees the universe as chaotic and uncaring.  To offset this grim picture humanity has tried to build a world with meaning:  religion, marriage, children, work, laws, art politics etc but its all futile.  Camus who was an atheist believed that people would be happier if they could admit to the absurdity of life and he encouraged people not to give up in the face of absurdity but to revolt against it.  Live a life with meaning anyway.  This was the road to true happiness and freedom.  At least I think that's what Camus is saying.  I would have to read more to be sure. 

The facts of Camus' life may have contributed to his philosophy of the absurd.  His father died iwhen he was a year old.   Camus grew up poor but happy and he loved his mother. Camus got accepted to the University of Algiers but had to drop out because of TB.  Camus lived through World War II which must have reinforced his view that life was uncaring and where was God?  But he was a brave man who joined the French resistance and published the underground newspaper Combat.  He was very troubled by the bombing of Hiroshima and what these devastating weapons meant for humanity's future.  Camus continued to speak out against the death penalty, poverty, war.  He was critical of the Soviet Union and their treatment of Eastern Europe which caused his break with Jean Paul Sartre. As Camus once put it "I am for the left, despite myself, and despite the left."  Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957.  He died in 1960 in a car crash.   He had bought a train ticket to Paris but at the last moment his publisher offered him a ride and they were killed when their car hit a tree.  Camus was 46.

I recommend The Stranger and am glad I read it. It's not a beach read but it's a novel that causes you to think.  I came away from The Stranger wanting to know more about Albert Canus and read his other classics, The Plague, The Fall and his book The Myth of Sisyphus where he goes into more depth about absurdism.  Thanks once again Brianna for recommending The Stranger

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Back To The Classics Challenge 2018

As 2018 approaches I have been looking at the various Reading Challenges out there and I have decided to try the one hosted by Karen K who runs the Book review website Books and Chocolate.  The challenge is to read 12 Classics in 2018 one from each category listed below and here are my choices:

A 19th Century Classic -  New Grubb Street by George Gissing.  I read his book The Odd Women years ago in which the lead character is a 19th century suffragette and Gissing portrays both her and women's suffrage in an understanding and respectful light.  Very impressed with the Odd Women so now time to read the classic that Gissing is most known for, New Grubb Street.

A 20th Century Classic -   There Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.  My niece Brianna gave me this book over Thanksgiving.  Always meant to read it and based on the first few pages that I skimmed, it's good.

A Classic by A Woman Author -  Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte.  Read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and I don't want to leave Anne out.

A Classic In Translation -  The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.  It's a great classic and written in the 14th century.  I have a pretty good translation too which is key.

A Classic of Children's Literature -  Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I love the series and now its time to read the books.

A Classic Crime Story (Fiction or Non Fiction) And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.  Haven't read her in decades but I remember how much I enjoyed her books and this book is considered one of her best.

A Classic Travel or Journey Narrative (fiction or non fiction) Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyon.  One of the many yet to be read books stored in my kindle and so it's now or never.

A Classic With A Single Word Title - Belinda by Maria Edgeworth.  Jane Austen was a fan of this author.

A Classic With A Color in The Title -  The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare  Newberry Award Winner set in Puritan New England in the 1600's.  .

A Classic by An Author that's New To You -  The Trial by Franz Kafka.  Never read him but have become curious based on a review of his diaries in Literary Hub.

A Classic that Scares You -  Sound and Fury by William Faulkner.  Heard his books are difficult but we'll see.

Reread A Favorite Classic - Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.  Read this in high school and loved it.  Big Steinbeck fan.

I plan to read and review many other books in 2018 but the above books are definitely on my to do list.