Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

"The plot of the novel, which is quite slight, is rather hard to tell, but it concerns a young man and his wife, members of the club set, and how the young man starts off the Christmas 1930 holidays by throwing a drink in the face of a man who has aided him financially.  From then on I show how fear of retribution and the kind of life the young man has led and many other things contribute to his demise.  There are quite a few other characters, some drawn from life, others imaginary, who figure in the novel, but the story is essentially the story of a young married couple in the first year of the depression".  - John O'Hara

Appointment in Samarra is the eighth book I have read for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) - choose a classic from the Americas or the Carribbean.  Originally I had planned on reading A House for Mr. Biswas by the great writer V. S. Naipaul but 140 pages in I wasn't connecting with Mr. Biswas' story.

Appointment in Samarra has been on my radar since early this year when I read Will Schwalbe's very fine memoir The End of Your Life Book Club.  The plot revolves around a reckless and impulse act commited by a wealthy young man, Julian English.  At a Christmas party he throws a drink into the face of another much wealthier and well connected man, Harry Reilly.  Reilly has done nothing to warrant this behavior except that Julian is sick and tired of having to once again listen to one of Harry's rather boring stories.

And so what interested me about this novel is that we all live by certain norms.  Sure we have fantasies for example of walking off our jobs in the middle of the day and never coming back but we don't do that because after the first hour or two of freedom comes the repurcussions.  How will we be able to list the job on a resume after we pull a stunt like this?  And so my curiousity regarding Appointment in Samarra was what happens after Julian so recklessly disregards the norms?

Harry Reilly is not someone to make an enemy of and Julian owes him alot of money.  Plus Harry is socially well connected in Gibbsville PA where the novel is set.  He has wealthy friends who have been frequenting Julian's Cadillac dealership but when the story about how Julian behaved at the party circulates around town Julian and his wife Caroline begin to lose standing in the community and eventually their financial well being would have taken a hit.  I say eventually because we never get that far.  The novel is set entirely over the 1930 holiday season, about three or four days.  But in those three or four days we learn a great deal about Julian, his wife Caroline,, the snobbish social set they are a part of and Julian's father who Julian has always felt judged by but who in reality is worried about his son.  All of this is leading towards tragedy and I was a bit suprised by the form it took, although I shouldn't have been since we are given clues.

Appointment in Samarra is a rather depressing book which touches on a number of themes.  It's an interesting portrait of a marriage and O'Hara does a good job of  letting us know who Julian and Caroline are, not simply as a couple but as individuals. Appointment in Samarra has been compared to the Great Gatsby and some critics actually prefer this novel.  Having never read the Great Gatsby I can't judge.  John O'Hara's biographer Frank McShane would later say that Appointment in Samarra written ten years after The Great Gatsby and set in 1930 is a novel that belongs to the "hangover generation".  The young people who had a great time living through the jazz age when things were good but didn't build up their defenses when the Great Depression hit.

Appointment in Samarra is well written but I wouldn't say the writing is great and yet it is considered a classic so much so that Harold Bloom included this novel in his history of the Western Canon and Modern Library lists it as one of the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century.  Book lists are very subjective though and so if you are curious you might want to give Appointment in Samarra a try and judge for yourself.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

One of the great things about book blogs is that you are introduced to some interesting novels that you otherwise would never have known about.
Thank you Lark for introducing me to Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
published 1949 and please check out Lark's excellent book blog at larkwrites@blogspot.com.

I found Earth Abides to be a thought provoking read, a post apocalyptic classic in which a pandemic kills off most of the earth's human population.  This virus does not affect the rest of the planet's ecosystem and so a central theme of Earth Abides is what happens to the animals, plants, trees, forests, and all that man has built, when humans are not here in sufficient numbers to keep things in check?  What happens to civilization?

And so in part one of Earth Abides we meet Isherwood (Ish) Williams, a young grad student who is travelling through the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Disaster strikes when Ish is bitten by a rattlesnake but he miraculously recovers. However, when Ish gets back to town he grows increasingly uneasy.  Why no other cars on the road and why no people?  Ish will discover that during the weeks he spent alone in the mountains a deadly plague came out of nowhere rapidly killing most of human life.  Possibly Ish was spared because the snake bite venom destroyed the virus within him but over 95% of the rest of humanity was not so lucky.

Ish tries various methods to cope with this new world.  He goes in search of other survivors but the people he encounters are either emotional wrecks or dangerous.  Ish then wonders if maybe he could live out his days in isolation.  But panic sets in when the electricity goes off and it's only when Ish meets Emma, the woman who will become his wife, that he begins to see a future:

"And now he would not be the lonely spectator, at least, not merely that.  He could read.  He was equipped with the background of much knowledge already.  He would extend that into technics and psychology, into political science, if that were needed.  There must be others that he could find also to join with them - good people who would help in the new world.  He would start looking for people again.  He would look craftily trying to keep away from all those who had suffered too much from the shock, whose minds and bodies were not what one wanted to build up the new society". 

Ish and Emma do find other survivors and part two and three of Earth Abides takes us through the next twenty-three years and beyond as this little group, their children and grandchildren build a community.  There is tension in that Ish is interested in the human race having a future and that involves teaching the children to read, teaching them about history, math and trying to inspire everyone to begin growing more food, developing an irrigation system, trying to find alternatives for gunpowder and matches which are necessities in this new world but will eventually become useless and dry up and then what? Ish is right of course and yet I felt the other group members, content to live in the present, had a point as well because civilization as it once was is gone and not coming back.  Ish too notices this when he is observing the children:

"The children, he came to realize, were not only children, but they were also unsophisticated and inexperienced as children in the Old Times had rarely been. None of them had ever seen more than a few dozen people.  Though their lives, he believed, had been happy, they had been happy with the simplicity of a few satisfying experiences, repeated again and again. They had not suffered the continual shock of change which had so affected children in the old days, both for good and for bad, making them nervous on the one hand, and yet alert on the other".

I was very impressed by Earth Abides.  It's well written, philosophical and really caused me to think.  I finished the novel curious about George R. Stewart the author as well.  He was a professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley.  He wrote a number of books on diverse topics.  His most well known novels are Ordeal by Hunger about the tragic Donner Party expedition, Storm about a hurricane named Maria and here is an interesting fact.  It was Storm that caused the National Weather Service to begin giving hurricanes personal names.  Stewart's great novel is Earth Abides and though it is not environmentalist literature exactly one is reminded of the fragility of civilization and today may be even more timely than when it was published seventy years ago.  The classics have a way of staying relevant.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse

"There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself 'Do trousers matter?"

"The mood will pass, sir."

"I don't see why it should.  If you can't think of a way out of this mess, it seems to me that it is the end." 

For the 2019 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic comic novel, I went with The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse published 1938.  P. G. Wodehouse is one of the great humorists of the 20th century.  He is best known for his Jeeves and Wooster series.  Bertram (Bertie) Wooster is the narrator of these books.  He is an upper class young English gentleman and Reginald Jeeves is his trusted valet.  Jeeves is the smarter and more mature of the two but as admirable as Jeeves is, Bertie is the standout.  He has a way of putting things that defies description.  Here for example is Bertie at the start of The Code of the Woosters drinking one of Jeeves' hangover remedies after a night of partying:

"He returned with the tissue-restorer.  I loosed it down the hatch, and after undergoing the passing discomfort, unavoidable when you drink one of Jeeves' patent morning revivers, of having the top of the skull fly up to the ceiling and the eyes shoot out of their sockets and rebound from the opposite wall like raquet balls, felt better.  It would have been overstating it to say that even now Bertram was back in mid-season form, but I had at least slid into the convalescent class and was equal to a spot of conversation".  

As to what proceeds in The Code of the Woosters, It's a plot involving a number of eccentric and wealthy characters with too much time on their hands.  But the gist of it is that Bertie's friend, Gussie Fink-Nottle, is engaged to Madeline Bassett but old Pop Bassett, Madeline's father, is not keen on Gussie as a son-in-law. Meanwhile, Stiffy Bying who is Pop Bassett's neice hopes to marry Rev Pinker but Pop Bassett isn't wild about him either.  One thing Pop Bassett does care about is his antique cow creamer. Stiffy Bying asks Bertie Wooster to steal the cow creamer so that later when Rev Pinker retrieves it and hands it back to Pop Basset, he'll be a hero in Pop Basset's eyes and Stinky and the Rev Pinker can be married.

As to why Bertie would go along with this we come to the notebook.  Gussie Fink-Nottle to feel less intimidated around his soon to be father-in law decides to write down all of Pop Bassett's shortcomings in a journal.  But then Gussie loses the notebook which Stiffy Bying finds.  She tells Bertie that if he doesn't steal the cow creamer she'll give the notebook to Pop Bassett and the wedding between Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett will be off and if Madeline Bassett can't marry Gussie she will start looking at Bertie as potential husband material and he definitely doesn't want that.

Granted, the plot of The Code of the Woosters is a bit ludicrous and Bertie and his eccentric friends are not where you go for character development.  Therefore, a steady diet of Wooster and Jeeves, reading one book right after another, would be a mistake.  But these novels are very funny and the reason once again is Bertie Wooster.  He is a marvelous comic creation and Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster series is top of the line when it comes to British humor and that's saying alot because when done well, British humor is unrivaled.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith published 1943 when I was in high school and it made quite an impression on me.  But I wonder if I were a young person growing up today would I know of this book or have a desire to read it?  I ask because nowadays the young adult book market is booming with so many choices and so why seek out a coming of age classic written seventy five years ago?  But now having reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn all these many years later I would say that this is a novel that readers of any age will enjoy and the issues touched upon in this book are as relevant now as they ever were. 

So, when A Tree Grows in Brooklyn begins it is 1912 and Francie Nolan, the young girl around whom the book centers, is eleven years old.  It's a typical Saturday morning in Williamsburg.  The kids in the neighborhood including Francie and her younger brother Neeley are carrying the junk that they have been collecting all week (tin foil, bottle caps, cigarette packages, rags etc) to sell to the junk dealer.  The junk dealer gives each kid about eight or nine cents.  The kids give most of what they earn to their parents.  The remaining money they can use to buy penny candy and then head off to play.  For Francie though the highlight of each Saturday is her trip to the library and her arms loaded with books she heads home:

"Home at last and now it was the time she had been looking forward to all week: fire-escape-sitting time.  She put a small rug on the fire-escape and got the pillow from her bed and propped it against the bars.  Luckily there was ice in the icebox.  She chipped off a small piece and put it in a glass of water.  The pink-and-white peppermint wafers bought that morning were arranged in a little bowl, cracked, but of a pretty blue color.  She arranged glass, bowl and book on the window sill and climbed out on the fire-escape.  Once out there, she was living in a tree.  No one upstairs, downstairs or across the way could see her.  But she could look out through the leaves and see everything.  

The Nolan family is poor.  Katie Nolan, Francie's mother, works cleaning apartments.  She has a no nonsense practicality about her because Francie's father, Johnny Nolan, works sporadically as a singing waiter and he drinks.  He goes on a bender for example the night Francie is born.  The pressure is too much for him and so Katie asks her mother what can she do to get her children out of poverty and her mother who never learned to read or write advises her daughter that every night she must read to her children a page from the Bible and a page from Shakespeare.  Reading and education factor big in this novel.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn introduces us to a number of memorable characters.  Katie's sister Aunt Sissy, for example, who is a bit scandalous but also fun and kind.  She helps Katie as much as she can and is a second mother to Francie and Neeley.  The tragedy is that Sissy's own pregnancies have ended in miscarriages and she so loves children.  We are introduced to a neighborhood boy age nineteen dying of tuberculosis.  It was tough living back then and Betty Smith knows the specifics about what the years prior to the first World War in Williamsburg were like.

We learn about Tammany Hall and how milk back then was delivered by horse-drawn wagons, apartments had yet to receive electricity.  We learn about how the poor were looked down on and when Francie and Neely arrive at the clinic to get vaccinated the doctor and nurse make condescending remarks.  They don't even have the decency to lower their voices.  Francie so looks forward to school but it's a tough place with poor kids bullying even poorer kids until Francie's father figures out a way to get Francie into a better school. 

It's beginning to sound like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a depressing book but it's  not because the novel revolves around Francie.  We watch her grow from an eleven year old girl to a seventeen year old when the novel ends.  We realize how far she has come, thinking things through for herself and getting an education.  Francie is the tree in the book's title, a tree that can grow through concrete.

"She sat on the El train on her way to the office, clutching the two textbooks ... Francie started to feel sick.  She felt so sick she had to get off at the next station even though she knew she'd be late for work ... It couldn't have been anything she ate because she had forgotten to eat lunch.  Then a thunderous thought hit her.  "My grandparents never knew how to read or wtite.  Those who came before them couldn't read or write.  My mother's sister can't.  My parents never even graduated from grade school ..but I Frances K. Nolan am now in college.  Do you hear that Francie? You're in college".

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the sixth book I have read for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) - choose a classic set in a place you've lived.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey published 1951 is a classic in the mystery/ crime genre, a unique sort of crime novel involving a 20th century Scotland Yard Detective determined to solve a 500 year old mystery involving Richard III (The English King who ruled from 1483-1485). Was Richard responsible fo the deaths of his two nephews, the Princes in the Tower as they have been called, or has he been unfairly maligned by history?  Josephine Tey makes a good case for why Richard might be innocent and I found this book to be both entertaining and educational.

And so when The Daughter of Time begins we are in England during the early 1950's and Alan Grant is a detective with Scotland Yard.  He is in the hospital recuperating from an injury.  He is bored and frustrated.  Friends bring him books he has no interest in reading and then one of his closest friends Marta Hallard a theater actress brings him a portfolio containing dozens of portraits of famous historical figures.  It turns out to be just what the doctor ordered since Alan is a specialist in reading faces. He spends an enjoyable day in bed looking at each portrait, speculating about who they were, their character traits, etc.  But then he comes to one photo he has overlooked:

"It was the portrait of a man.  A man dressed in the velvet cap and slashed doublet of the late fifteenth century.  A man about thirty-five or thirty-six years old and clean shaven ... a judge? a soldier? a prince?  Someone used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority.  Someone too conscientious.  A worrier, perhaps a perfectionist ... Someone, too who had suffered ill-health as a child ... He turned the portrait over to look for a caption.  Richard the Third.  So that was who it was.  Richard the Third.  Crouchback.  The monster of nursery stories.  The destroyer of innocence. A synonym for villainy".  

What bothers Alan Grant is how he could have read a face so wrong "mistaken one of the most notorious murderers of all time for a judge" and so Grant decides to investigate.  Who was Richard the Third, what made him tick, and what really happened to his two young nephews?  But how do you begin an investigation confined to your hospital bed?  And how to discover the truth about a crime that happened five hundred years ago?

Detective Grant uses the tools at his disposal.  He discusses the case with the hospital staff and it turns out one of his nurses knows a good deal about Richard III and directs Grant to an influential biography of the man written by Sir Thomas More.  It is this biography that has led people for centuries to believe that after the death of his brother King Edward IV, Richard III had his two young nephews (Edward age 12 and Richard age 9) smothered to death thus securing the throne for himself.  But Grant discovers there are serious problems with More's biography, gossip and inuendo reported as fact.  Also at the time Sir Thomas More was part of the Tudor Court and they would not have looked kindly on a positive book about Richard III.  Josephine Tey does a very good job of letting us know how history gets written. How rumors and falsehoods make their way into history books, particularly contemporary histories and biographies, where the authors may have had an agenda.

Detective Grant realizes that he needs to start from scratch to learn the truth about Richard III.  Once again his friend Marta comes to the rescue.  She introduces Grant to a young American scholar, Brent Carradine who is at the British Museum doing research about the Plantagenet period in English history.  Brett jumps at the chance to help Alan and as they hash out the case together they uncover a great deal. Richard was not a ruthless King and Edward IV had older children who would have inherited the throne before the nephews so their murder made no sense.  Grant and Carradine go on to discover that during Richard's short life (he died at age 32) there were no accusations that the nephews were dead or even missing.  Grant comes to the conclusion that the nephews were therefore alive when Henry VII who suceeded Richard took power and could he have been the real killer?

One thought that occured to me as I was reading The Daughter of Time was did Josephine Tey uncover all this evidence of Richard's innocence and if so where were the historians down through the centuries?  Well actually after the Tudor line ended the historians of the 18th and 19th century took a look at this case and  questions began to arise.  But in the 20th century regarding Richard's innocence Josephine Tey has done a great deal to bring this case to the modern day public's attention and with over 700 reviews on Amazon its clear that readers are still interested.  I recommend The Daughter of Time for mystery lovers and history buffs alike.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Adventures of Augie Marsh by Saul Bellow

"I am an American, Chicago born -- Chicago, that somber city -- and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way". 

The Adventures of Augie Marsh by Saul Bellow took the literary world by storm when it was published in 1953 and today it is considered one of the great novels of 20th century literature and I am in full agreement.  There isn't much of a plot to the book though.  Augie goes about his life haphazardly in an effort to find his place in the world.  That said, what makes this novel so good is the writing, a "cascade of prose" as it has been described.   The amount of talent and work it must have taken Saul Bellow to produce this classic is awe inspiring.

And so when The Adventures of Augie Marsh begins it is the 1920's and Augie is a young boy growing up in a poor section of Chicago.  Augie lives with his mother Rebecca, his older brother Simon, his younger mentally disabled brother George and Grandma Lausch. The father is absent and Augie's mother is a sweet woman but timid.  Grandma Lausch runs the show and she is not a loving presence.

it's not a happy household and Augie leaves home while still a teenager.  We follow him as he tries to make his way during the Great Depression.  Augie will take on many jobs and get involved in all kinds of off the wall schemes.  But whether it's his brother Simon, his friends, employers, romantic partners who try to enlist him in their plans there is something stubborn about Augie.  He will go along for a time but then sabatoge those plans that others have made for him so he can be free to follow his own path.  He's just not sure what that path is.

The novel ends in Paris after the war where Augie is living with his wife.  Its been a long journey to get where he is and on the surface it sounds like Augie is settled but the reader suspects otherwise.  The Adventures of Augie March has been called the Great Novel of the American Dream and Augie is a character always looking for what's over the next horizon and there is something very American about that.

I found The Adventures of Augie Marsh a very difficult book to summarize and my apologies for giving such a bare bones description. There are so many moving parts to this book, adventures, characters, jobs etc that I found it impossible to recount it all.  But what I do want to reiterate again is the quality of the writing. I thought about quoting passages but its the sort of writing that needs to be read in context.  Saul Bellow would later say that The Adventures of Augie Marsh was the novel where he found his voice and it was a voice worth finding.

The Adventures of Augie Marsh fulfills the category - choose a very long classic for my 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad is a writer I have been meaning to read for years.  I knew he had written some of the great classics in literature. What I didn't know is that prior to beginning his writing career, Conrad had spent his early years at sea starting out as a sailor and eventually rising to the level of ship's captain with the British Merchant Service.  He uses this knowledge about sea travel to marvelous effect in Lord Jim published 1900, a novel that deals with guilt and redemption.

And so, when Lord Jim begins it is the late 19th century.  Jim, the title character, is a young English maritime officer who has grown bored with his profession.  As a young boy he read stories of high drama at sea, a chance to be a hero and test oneself against the elements.  But Jim has been sailing for a few years and his voyages have been uneventful.

And then Jim accepts a job on the Patna, a ship carrying 800 passengers on a pilgrimage to Mecca.  The voyage starts out routine but suddenly at night the Patna hits something and begins sinking.  Jim watches in horror as his fellow officers and the captain get into one of the few lifeboats prepared to abandon ship with the passangers sleeping below.  Jim doesn't want to get into the lifeboat:

"He was not afraid of death perhaps, but I'll tell you what, he was afraid of the emergency.  His confounded imagination had evoked for him all the horrors of panic, the trampling rush, the pitiful screams, boats swamped - all the appalling incidents of a disaster at sea he had ever heard of.  He might have been resigned to die, but I suspect he wanted to die without added terrors, quietly, in a sort of peaceful trance".

And so at the last moment, with Jim fearing the chaos that will ensue, he jumps into the lifeboat.  A day or two later a French ship rescues Jim and the officers and they learn that the Patna miraculously has also been rescued.  All of the passengers are safe. An inquiry is held back in England.  Jim's fellow officers don't bother to show up and their sea licenses are revoked.  Jim insists on attending the inquiry believing possibly that he can convince the court that he behaved differently somehow than his colleagues.  However his officer's licsence is revoked as well.

It is during the inquiry that we are introduced to the novel's narrator Captain Charles Marlow who attends the inquiry and though Marlow doesn't appprove of how Jim behaved he is empathetic.  Maybe he sees some of himself in Jim.  Throughout the book Marlow tries to figure out Jim's psychology.  What is he searching for in terms of finding peace? It's not a fascination I shared at first.  I didn't judge Jim for what he did.  Who knows how any of us would have behaved?  But it seemed that Jim didn't so much feel guilt as shame and he was angry about that.  He was angry a good deal of the time.

Marlow tries to set Jim up with other jobs at sea under a different name but then someone would mention the Patna at the new place he worked and Jim would walk off.  Why couldn't Jim find some other career and most important where was his gratitude that the 800 passengers had survived?  Jim is upset that the image he had of himself didn't measure up in a crisis but you can recover from shame and humiliation.  It's alot harder to recover from the kind of guilt he would have suffered if the passengers had drowned.

Jim finally lands a job managing a trading post on a remote island where they have never heard of the Patna.  It's a chance to prove himself and start anew.  He falls in love with a young woman named Jewel and the native people see him as a great leader (Lord Jim) due to his protecting them when he first arrives.  Jim has found peace and his friend Marlow who visits notices the change.  Jim cares about the local population and has a number of ideas to make improvements on the island.  This ideal circumstance though cannot last.  I won't go any further as to why except to say that my image of Jim changed.  He shows himself in the end to be the romantic, mysterious young man that Marlow suspected he was all along and very brave as well.

I recommend Lord Jim.  Book four on my 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic tragic novel.