Sunday, November 29, 2020

Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments by Edmund Gosse

I had never heard of Edmund Gosse but I wanted to read his memoir Father and Son published 1907 when I learned a few weeks ago that it was a favorite book of one of my favorite writers, Vivian Gornick.  I decided therefore to go with it for the 2020 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic about a family.  

Father and Son tells the story of the English writer and critic Edmund Gosse's early life  growing up with his father the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse.  Edmund's mother Emily Bowes Gosse was accomplished too, a painter and writer of Christian poetry. Edmund's  parents were members of a small religious community known as the Plymouth Brethren.  It was strict. The reading of novels was forbidden by Edmund's mother, no holiday celebrations and the bible was taken literally.  Despite all this, though, according to Edmund, it wasn't an unhappy childhood in the early years : 

"My Father and Mother lived so completely in the atmosphere of faith, and were so utterly convinced of their intercourse with God, that, so long as that intercourse was not clouded by sin they could afford to take the passing hour very lightly .. So long as I was a mere part of them, without individual existence, and swept on, a satellite, in their atmosphere, I was mirthful when they were mirthful and grave when they were grave ...the mere fact that I had no companions, no storybooks, no outside amusements ... did not make me discontented or fretful because I did not know of the existence of such entertainments"  

But then when Edmund was eight his mother died of cancer.  It was devastating.  His father decided that he and his son should move from London to the seaside town of Devon.  Philip continued his naturalist work and became a lay minister to his neighbors in the surrounding villages.  At first Edmund was the model son, believing his father in all things, but a big change occurred when Edmund was eleven and Philip decided to relax the ban on novels, for whatever reason, and handed his son a copy of Tom Cringle's Log by Michael Scott: 

"It was like giving a glass of brandy neat to someone who had never been weaned from a milk diet. .. the long adventures fighting and escapes sudden storms without, and mutinies within, drawn forth as they were, surely with great skill, upon the fiery blue of the boundless tropical ocean, produced on my inner mind  a sort of glimmering hope, very vaguely felt at first, slowly developing ... but always tending toward a belief that I should escape at last from the narrowness of the life we led at home".  

An even bigger change in Edmund's life came when his father remarried.  His new stepmother was a kind and pious woman but not overly puritanical.  She introduced Edmund to Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, encouraged his friendships with other children in the neighborhood and took Edmund to museums to admire painting and sculpture.  Edmund's father worried that his son would become too worldly and as Edmund grew up, began to read further, and think for himself about God and religion, that's exactly what happened.

Now having read Father and Son I can understand why it remains a classic in the memoir genre.  It's a rather sad book though in that Edmund Gosse's childhood was a lonely and difficult one.  His father Philip wanted the best for Edmund and felt that following the religious path of the Plymouth Brethren was the way to true happiness.  But his son could not follow in his father's footsteps and had to chart his own course, a timeless coming of age story.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

At the beginning of the year I chose The Jungle by Upton Sinclair for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic with nature in the title.  But this has been a tough year, as we all know, and with the year coming to a close I wanted a book that was fun and  entertaining and so I went with Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart published 1956

According to Mystery Scene Magazine, Mary Stewart along with Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney are the "Grandes Dames of modern romantic suspense".  They wrote hugely popular novels from the 1940's on through to the 1990's. and yet I had never read them. I decided to change that by giving Mary Stewart a try and I found Wildfire at Midnight to be a very enjoyable read.  I can see why fans continue to collect and treasure Stewart's  books.

And so when Wildfire at Midnight begins it is 1953 and the city of London is preparing for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.  We are introduced to Gianetta Brooke, the young narrator at the center of this novel.  Gianetta lives in London and  works as a model for a fashion house.  She has an ex-husband Nicholas Drury who she still has feelings for but the marriage broke up three years prior due to Nicholas' affairs.  But, as Gianetta tells us, there were problems with their marriage from the start:

"I was wildly, madly, dumbly in love with him, of course, a silly little star-dazzled adolescent, plunged into a life completely strange and rather terrifying.  And Nicolas, it became very quickly apparent, wasn't on his own ground either. What he had meant to marry was a modern Gianetta Fox, a composed young sophisticate who could hold her own in the fast moving society to which he was accustomed; what he'd actually got was Gianetta Brooke, not long out of school, whose poise was a technique very recently acquired in Montfiore's salons and the Mayfair mannequin factory".  

Gianetta Fox was Gianetta's great grandmother who in 1858 arrived in London at age 17 and was "painted by every painter who mattered" and she led a scandalous life.  Gianetta is not the adventurous spirit her great grandmother was.  She is reserved and practical and with the hustle and bustle in London surrounding the coronation, she needs a break.

So Gianetta decides to spend a few weeks in Camasunary in the Isle of Skye, a beautuful mountainous region of Scotland where she can relax and think about her life.  But soon after she arrives in Camasunary, Gianetta discovers that her ex-husband Nicholas is staying at the same hotel and as if that weren't uncomfortable enough she also learns that two weeks prior to her arrival a young woman in the area was murdered.  The police suspect that the culprit is one of the guests staying at the hotel.  The guests suspect each other.  

As to why Gianetta upon hearing all of this doesn't get in her car and drive back to London or why the other guests remain at the hotel with a murderer on the loose, that does stretch credibility a bit.  But then agaiin Gianetta, like every amateur sleuth before her, is determined to solve the mystery.  The presence of her ex-husband Nicholas at the hotel who she still has feelings for might also be playing a part in her decision to stay.  

Wildfire at Midnight is probably more mystery than romantic suspense but the romance is there too and Gianetta is a heroine with depth, courage, intelligence and heart.  I also liked the chemistry between Gianetta and Nicholas.  Their marriage may have ended but they still, despite the anger and bitterness, belong together.  This is my first time reading Mary Stewart but it won't be my last.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula by Bram Stoker published 1897 is the ninth book I have read for this year's Back to the Classics Challenge - choose an abandoned classic.  It's a novel that I have made attempts to read over the years but this time I got all the way through and I found it to be a gripping and enjoyable read.  I also recommend the Oxford World Classics edition of Dracula due to the excellent introduction by Roger Luckhurst.  

Dracula takes place in the late 19th century and is set in London and Transylvania.  The novel is mapped out in the form of letters and journal entrys written by the major characters in the book.  Our story begins with Jonathan Harker's journal.  He is a young British solicitor who has been sent by his law firm to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula who lives in a castle high up in the Carpathian Mountains.  Dracula is planning to purchase an estate in London and Jonathan Harker will be staying at the castle to complete the paper work.  But shortly after he arrives in Transylvania it becomes clear that the villagers are terrified of the mysterious Count and they plead with Harker to return home and once Jonathan arrives at Dracula's estate it becomes clear that he has made a big mistake: 

"I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings.  At first I could not believe my eyes.  I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow, but I kept looking and it could be no delusion ... What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man?  I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me ; I am in fear -- in awful fear -- and there is no escape for me". 

The novel then shifts to London where we meet Mina Murray who is Jonathan Harker's fiance and her best friend Lucy Westerna who is also engaged to be married.  Mina and Lucy are good hearted young woman and Lucy must be quite ravishing since she receives three proposals of marriage, one from Dr. John Seward who runs a hospital nearby, another from Quincy Morris a wealthy Texan, and finally from the Hon Arthur Holmwood whose proposal Lucy accepts.  

Lucy is not a flirt.  She has a tender heart and though she chooses Arthur Holmwood she feels terrible about hurting Dr. Seward and Quincey Morris.  Mina and Lucy are great friends but they are different.  Its been said by critics that Mina with her practicality, her job as a school mistress and her shorthand skills represents the new woman who was emerging in late Victorian England whereas Lucy with her innocence and sheltered knowledge of the world represents the young ladies of an earlier age.

And then Lucy becomes ill, growing more pale and sleeping all the time.  Mina is concerned.  She is also concerned about her fiance Jonathan Harker who she hasn't heard from recently.  Dr. Seward is called in to help Lucy.  Albert Holmwood and Quincey Morris are called in as well.  One would think that these three men who were rivals for Lucy's affection would be at each other's throats, so to speak, but their love for Lucy gives them a shared purpose and they become very good friends.  Dr. Seward stumped at what is wrong with Lucy calls in his old professor and mentor from Denmark, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing who is a brilliant diagnostician.  He begins to piece things together and realizes that something very old and evil is at work.

Meanwhile, Mina Harker and her husband Jonathan, who was able to escape Dracula's castle, are back in London and horrified to learn of what has happened to Lucy.  They  join forces with Dr Seward, Quincey Morris, Albert Holmwood and Van Helsing to track down Count Dracula, who after the start of the book doesn't appear in the novel as often as one might think.  Instead Dracula is the story of these six friends who consult each other's journals and letters to piece together Dracula's whereabouts and put an end to his plans to create an army of monsters like himself. 

Dracula is a classic of horror literature but what suprised me is that it's also a very good Victorian novel.  If you are a fan of the Vampire genre, this book is where it all began. I'm glad I read Dracula and I encourage others to give this book a try as well.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Plague by Albert Camus

"All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences" - The Plague by Albert Camus

Albert Camus was a major figure in 20th century literature and philosophy.  He was a novelist, playwright essayist, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1957.  Camus  is connected with the philosophy of absurdism which is the belief that the universe is a meaningless chaotic place and therefore man's attempt to find meaning is futile since if there is no God what does it matter?  

It's a bleak view of life and Camus who once described himself as "an atheist with Christian preoccupations" took issue with this mindset.  He felt that despite the irrationality of the cosmos each of us should live a life of meaning and service anyway.  He lays his philosophy out in The Stranger published 1942 which I read in 2017 and The Plague published 1947 which I have now finished.  I much prefer The Plague but it's best to begin by reading The Stranger since these two books build on each other..  

The Plague is set in the 1940's in the port city of Oran, Algeria.  The unnamed narrator (who will be named at the end of the book) tells us about Oran which though it borders a beautiful ocean is a rather visually unappealing city and a citizenry concerned primarily with business. The narrator spends some time describing the ordinaryness of Oran possibly because a renarkable event is about to happen. It starts with rats coming out of their hiding places all over the city.  Rats are suddenly everywhere and they are turning up dead.  The citizens are alarmed and soon people in Oran start getting sick and dying with this mysterious illness.  Soon the city is placed in quarantine.  Nobody can enter Oran and no one can leave.  

And so this novel is a kind of a petri dish of human nature and how people in a locked down city behave when an unforseen disaster occurs.  The people of Oran are shocked at first.  They are scared and depressed but the citizens of Oran also display an admirable stoicism.  They take the virus seriously.  I started The Plague thinking I would see many similarities between what happens in the novel and what is taking place now with the coronavirus but this was a major difference.  No one in Oran considers the plague a hoax and they rise to the challenge. 

The book zeroes in on a number of characters and their reaction to the plague.  Raymond Rambert a journalist desparate to escape Oran so he can reunite with his wife. Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest who is sure that the plague is punishment from God.  M. Cottard who prior to the plague was wanted by the police and tried to commit suicide.  He is a rather fascinating character because unlike the other citizens of Oran, Cottard is thriving during the plague. 

And finally there is the main character, Dr. Bernard Rieux who works himself to the point of exhaustion treating plague-stricken patients.  Dr Rieux becomes friends with Jean Tarrou who is visiting the city when the lockdown happens and decides to aid Dr. Rieux in his work. Both men are similar in that neither believes in God but both are deeply moral men and their discussions about what they are witnessing around them can get quite philosophical and are one of the highlights of the book.   As Dr. Rieux explains to Tarrou at one point about why he became a doctor

"When I entered this profession I did it abstracted because it meant a career like an other, one that young men often aspire to.  Perhaps, too, bbecause it was particularly difficult for a workman's son, like myself.  And then I had to see people die.  Do you know there are some who refuse to die?  Have you ever heard a woman scream 'Never!" with her last gasp?  Well, I have.  And then I saw that I could never get hardened to it.  I was young then, and I was outraged by the whole scheme of things, or so I thought.  Subsequently, I grew more modest. Only I've never managed to get used to seeing people die.  That's al I know". 

I found The Plague to be a great novel and Albert Camus a remarkable man.  He wrote The Plague around 1942 when he was living n France and a member of the French resistance working on the underground newspaper Combat.  Critics have speculated that the plague which descends on the city of Oran is an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France.  It's a novel that can be read on many levels and is certainly relevant during the times we are going through right now.  

The Plague by Albert Camus fulfills the category choose a 20th century classic for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge.  The translator is Stuart Gilbert and he did a very fine job.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Books and Beyond

My tablet has been having trouble for the past week and so when I came back on today I  noticed that my Reading Matters blog was configured differently.  So I am posting this message just to be sure I can continue to post.  I am currently reading The Plague by Albert Camus.  Hope to have a review up in a week or two. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is that rare writer who is acclaimed for both her fiction and non-fiction writing.  She is a marvelous essayist, diarist, book reviewer and also a great novelist.  But as much as I have enjoyed her essays, a Room of One's in particular, I have avoided her novels.  I had heard they were difficult but I have also known that to really appreciate Virginia Woolf's brilliance you have to give her fiction a try and so this year for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic with a place in the title, I decided to take on Virginia Woolf's greatest novel, To the Lighthouse. And I have to say it was not the difficult read I feared.  Yes it is written in a stream of consciousness style and you do have to go slowly but it is accessible and a true work of art, well deserving of its canonical status.  

To the Lighthouse is set on the Isle of Skye in Scotland in the years before and after World War I.  The novel revolves around Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their children and a few guests who come to the Ramsay's summer home to vacation.  The novel is divided into three chapters and in Chapter One, the Window, the day begins with the Ramsay's six year old son James asking if the family will be able to visit the lighthouse the next day.  Mrs Ramsay, says that it might be possible weather permitting but Mr. Ramsay sternly says no, the weather won't be fine.  This infuriates young James: "what he said was true.  It was always true.  He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being least of all his own children. 

Mr Ramsay is a formidable character, accomplished in his field of metaphysics  but he is also gruff and short-tempered.  HIs opposite is his elegant beautiful wife, Mrs. Ramsay.  She is at the core of this book, shielding her children from disappointment, bolstering her husband's spirits, making sure her guests feel included. She is a kind and patient woman but there is also a mysterious, and sad quality to Mrs. Ramsay.  In the privacy of her thoughts we learn that her view of life is pessimistic:

"There it was before her - life.  Life: she thought but she did not finish her thought.  She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband.  A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it as it was of her; and sometimes they parleyed (when she sat alone); there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance" 

Chapters Two and Three, Time Passes and The Lighthouse take place a few years after World War I and alot has changed.  We learn that Mrs. Ramsay died suddenly from a heart attack a few years back.  Andrew, the Ramsay's son, died in combat during World War I and the Ramsay's daughter Prue  died in childbirth.  The book closes with Mr. Ramsay and his younger children, James and Cam, now teenagers, retuning to their summer home.  Some of the guests we met at the beginning of the novel return as well.  Mr. Ramsay and his children finally take that voyage out to the lighthouse.  

There isn't much of a plot to this novel and there is very little dialogue.  Instead we are provided with a window into the internal monologues people have with themselves and it's done very well.  I wasn't bored by To the Lighthouse and a number of times I found myself putting the book down for a moment, marvelling at the quality of the writing.  As to what the novel is about I would need to read what the critics have to say but I know enough about Virginia Woolf's life to see autobiographical aspects in this novel.  Like Mrs. Ramsay for example, Virginia's mother died young  and like Mr. Ramsay, Virginia Woolf's father was a noted scholar with several books to his name.  I also sense the lighthouse itself is symbolic but of what?  So, I will be curious to learn more and then possibly a reread.  To the Lighthouse is not a very long book.  It held my interest and it is considered one of the greatest novels to have been written during the 20th century.  I am pleased to have read it.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Fidelity by Susan Glaspell.....

Susan Glaspell is a writer I have wanted to read for some time.  Born in Iowa in 1876 she was a journalist, novelist, short story writer and a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (Alison's House).  In Iowa she was a member of a writing community known as the Davenport Group where she met her husband, George Cram Cook.  They married after he obtained a divorce and in 1913 Glaspell and Cook moved to Greenwich Village where they were part of an influential group of writers and activists which included John Reed, Emma Goldman, Upton Sinclair, Floyd Dell.  Glaspell was also a feminist and a socialist which is reflected in her writings. 

I mention all this because Glaspell's novel Fidelity (published 1915) is somewhat autobiographical.  The book is set in Freeport, a small midwestern town and at the center of the book is Ruth Holland who is returning home to say her goodbyes to her father who is dying.  Ruth left Freeport eleven years prior when she was 20 to run off with a married man causing a scandal in the town and she has not been back until now..

The man Ruth fell in love with, Stuart Williams, could not obtain a divorce from his wife.  When Stuart came down with TB, Ruth was determined to leave with him for Colorado where he could seek treatment.  But now as Ruth returns to Freeport all these years later she wonders did she make the right decision?  Her life with Stuart has not been easy.  Their love for each other has lasted but instead of building a future in Colorado they have struggled all these years to make ends meet.  They have been afraid to make friends, the town of Freeport continuing to cast a shadow over their lives. 

FIdelity is a book that weighs the pros and cons of whether one should follow society's norms or follow one's heart and the author gives both sides of the equation because it's not always an easy choice.  But what's not in dispute in this book is the danger people place themselves in when they can't move on.  This is shown to be true in the case of Stuart's wife Marion who out of vengeful bitterness cannot grant Stuart a divorce.  It's shown to be true for Ruth and Stuart who have lived for eleven years in Colorado keeping to themselves and maybe most sadly it's true of Deane Franklin, Ruth's childhood friend and now the town doctor.  Deane has never gotten over Ruth and he stands by her when she returns to Freeport at a great cost to himself.  

So many passages I wanted to quote from Fidelity but I felt I'd be taking them out of context and not giving people the true flavor of this novel.  I'm not usually a fan of midwestern regional fiction which can be quite melancholy but Fidelity is an exception.  It's a novel filled with interesting well drawn characters and important things to say about small town America and the people who lived there during the early 20th century.  I will certainly be reading more by Susan Glaspell.

Fidelity fulfills my 2020 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic by a woman author.