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.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

New Grub Street by George Gissing

George Gissing (1857 - 1903) was a nineteenth century British Victorian novelist who is not widely known today and that's a real shame. I discovered Gissing years ago when I read his novel The Odd Women (published 1893).  I was struck by Gissing's talent and also his understanding and sympathetic view of the suffrage movement.  I learned that George Gissing's novel New Grub Street (1891) is the book he is most famous for and so I decided to include New Grub Street for my 2018 Back to The Classics Challenge - choose a classic from the nineteenth century and I made a very wise choice indeed.

New Grub Street is set in London's literary world of the 1880's and when the novel begins the Victorian Era is coming to a close and the Modern Age is just around the corner.  Class is beginning to be overtaken by commerce and how much money one can earn.  The book trade is undergoing a revolution as well and no one understands this new world better than Jasper Milvain,  the cynical young journalist who is one of the main characters in the book.  Jasper at the start of the novel explains to his sisters what is required tto succeed these days in publishing:

"But just understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me.  He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882.  He won't make concessions, or rather, he can't make them; he can't supply the market.  I -- well, you may say that at present I do nothing; but that's a great mistake, I am learning my business.  Literature nowadays is a trade.  Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skillful tradesman.  He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetizing. ... Reardon can't do that kind of thing, he's behind his age, he sells a manuscript as if he lived in Sam Johnson's Grub Street".

Edwin Reardon, of whom Jasper speaks, and his wife Amy Reardon, are also main characters in New Grub Street.  Edwin is a talented writer who prior to his marriage was able to publish three well reviewed novels but they did not sell well.  Since their marriage Edwin has not been able to publish anything and Amy is not supportive.  In fairness, Amy is justifiably worried about their financial situation since they have a young son.  But when Edwin tries to write any sort of book just so it will sell, Amy is worried about what their friends will think:

"But darling, he took her hands strongly in his own.  "I want you to disregard other people.  You and I are surely everything to each other?  Are you ashamed of me, of me myself?"

There was silence

"Edwin, if you find you are unable to do good work, you mustn't do bad".

Later when Edwin gets his old job back as a hospital clerk so they can make ends meet, Amy is not happy with that either.  She was counting on Edwin rising in the literary world when they married so that she could be the wife of a great man.  Amy and Edwin separate and as the book proceeds the lives of Amy and Jasper go quite well.  While the fortunes of Edwin Reardon and Marion Yule decline.

Marion Yule is the fourth major character in New Grub Street.  She is an intelligent, shy young woman who helps her parents and spends her time in the British Museum researching and writing her father's scholarly articles.  It is at the museum that she has the misfortune of meeting and eventually falling in love with Jasper Milvain.  Jasper does care about Marion but his plan is to marry a woman with an income larger than his own so that as he puts it "casualties may be provided for" and Marion does not have alot of money.

New Grub Street is a cynical look at what it takes to succeed in publishing and in life.  Tragedy looms in this book but there are also lovely moments in which Gissing shines a light on friendship and the love of books.  Here for example are Edwin Reardon and his fellow impoverished writer friend Harold Biffen having dinner in a coffee-shop.  Edwin has been complaining bitterly to Biffen about Amy having left him but then:

"They ate their ham and eggs and exilerated themselves with a cup of chicory -called coffee.  Then Biffen drew from the pocket of his venerable overcoat the volume of Euripides he had bought, and their talk turned once more to the land of the sun.  Only when the coffee-shop was closed did tney go forth again into the foggy street, and at the top of Pentonville Hill they stood for ten minutes debating a metrical effect in one of the Fragments".

George Gissing during his short life published twenty three novels and in New Grub Street what he had to say about literature, poverty, love, social standing, money is as relevant today as it was back in the Victorian Age.  If you are a fan of 19th century British novels, or great novels in general, your collection is not complete without New Grub Street.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

I was sure I was going to like Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (published 2017).  Prairie Fires has received widespread critical acclaim and has been awarded this year's Pulitzer Prize for Biography.  It can be daunting to give one's views on such a book but I have to be honest and say I struggled to get through Prairie Fires and the question is why?

I'm a fan of the Little House TV series so you would think I would be an ideal candidate for this biography.  But though I am a fan of the TV show, I have never gotten around to reading any of Ms. Wilder's classic Little House children's novels.  I think that matters.  It would be like reading a biography of Charlotte Bronte without having read Jane Eyre.  You should always read the author's work before tackling a biography about the author.

That said, for me the most interesting part of Prairie Fires takes place in the first third of the book as Charles, Caroline and their children try to make a living on the Great Plains during the 1870's.   The second and third parts of Prairie Fires  revolve around Laura and her husband Almanzo Wilder's life in Mansfield Missouri.   We don't hear much about Laura's parents and sisters again.  Instead the story shifts to Mansfield, MO where Laura and Almanzo who arrived there as newlyweds would spend the rest of their lives.

Almanzo Wilder was a private man and Laura though more outgoing was also rather private.  She became an important member of her small town community in Mansfield, writing a column for the local newspaper, and she had a job for many years processing loan applications for her neighbors.  Laura was an active member of social get togethers in her town but until she started jotting her childhood memories down in her later years her life was not the stuff of biography.   Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane is another story however and the deeper one gets into Prairie Fires the more Rose's life begins to take over the book.  Caroline Fraser to put it bluntly cannot stand Rose and though Rose was a hard person to like I couldn't help wonder are we getting the full story when you factor in Ms. Fraser's distaste.

One may also ask in a biography about Laura Ingalls Wilder why is Rose taking up so much space?  But then again, how could it be otherwise?  Laura and Rose as the author tells us had a loving but complex relationship.  Rose Wilder Lane was a talented writer and journalist who during her life had articles and short stories regularly published in the newspapers and major magazines of the day.  A few of her short stories were nominated for O'Henry awards.  Rose would return to her mother's home in Mansfield MO during the Great Depression and begin helping her mother turn the drafts of her Little House books into publishable products.  But the question will always remain did the substantial editing Rose did on the Little House books cross the line into rewriting?  Prairie Fires makes the case that it may have and if so co-authorship for Rose Wilder Lane on the Little House books was warranted even though Rose never requested it.

So, should you read Prairie Fires?  I think if you have read and loved the Little House books you should. There will be much to suprise as Caroline Fraser separates fact from fiction regarding what life was really like on the prairie of the 1870's.  The real Ingalls family as opposed to their fictional counterparts had a much tougher road filled with hardship and peril that the books and the TV series have tended to gloss over.  But fans will be pleased to know that the books, the TV series and the biography are all in agreement on one thing, Charles and Caroline Ingalls were remarkable people who struggled to keep food on the table for their children against all odds while providing fun times as well.  All her life, Laura Ingalls Wilder loved and idolized her parents and she was right to do so.