Sunday, February 16, 2020

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass is one of the great Americans in our history and right now we certainly need role models.  He was born into slavery around 1818 and escaped to freedom in 1838.  Douglass would go on to become a leader in the 19th century abolitionist movement, a powerful orator, editor writer and statesman. He was a lifelong supporter of women's suffrage and spoke out wherever he saw injustice, particularly when it came to ending slavery and working for civil rights.

Douglass wrote three memoirs.  His most famous is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass published 1845. It is the first book I have read for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic by a person of color.  It's a suprisingly short book, 45 pages, but it is very powerful dealing as it does with Douglass' early years growing up on a Maryland plantation and what he experienced and saw around him.  Here is Douglass writing about his mother Harriet Bailey who died when he was very young:

I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night.  She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from my home.  She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day's work.  She was a field hand, and a whipping was the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise ... She would lie down with me and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.  Very little communication ever took place between us.  Death soon ended what little we could have while she lived, and with it her hardship and suffering:

There are passages in this memoir that make for difficult reading.  Douglass knew first hand what slavery was like.  He tells us the stories of what he witnessed and  experienced at the hands of barbaric slaveholders.  When he was ten he left the plantation to work for Mr. and Mrs. Auld who lived in the city of Baltimore.  Mrs Auld began teaching Douglass to read but she stopped when Mr Auld told her it was dangerous and then things began to change:

"Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities.  Under its influence the tender heart became stone, and the lamb-like disposition gave way to tiger-like fierceness ... If I was in a separate room any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book, and was at once called to give an account of myself.  All this, however, was too late The first step had been taken". 

Frederick Douglass would continue to learn to read and write on his own and today many of his articles and speeches are online.   His relevance continues, strikingly so.  Currently there is a debate over the 1619 Project sponsored by the New York Times about slavery and the founding of America and whether the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery.

It's interesting to note that William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass had a similar disagreement over the American Constitution in the mid 19th century.  Garrison, also an abolitionist felt that the constitution was pro-slavery and an "agreement with  hell".  He refused to participate in American electoral politics until slavery was abolished.  Douglass maintained that the constitution, though flawed, was an anti-slavery document and he worked throughout his life to make its founding priciples a reality.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Glamorous Powers by Susan Howatch

Glamorous Powers published 1988 is book two in Susan Howatch's acclaimed Starbridge series of novels.  These six books are set in the UK in and around the fictional town of Starbridge.  The subject matter is the Church of England in the twentieth century and each book centers on a different Anglican priest.  These priests have come to a crisis point in their lives and the drama is why?  What happened in their past to bring them to this point?

And so when Glamorous Powers begins it is 1940.  Father Jon Darrow who narrates the book is an Anglican-Catholic priest and monk.  He entered the monastic life in 1923 in response to a vision.  Darrow has psychic powers.  His visions torment him because he can never be sure if they are sent by God or the Devil and now seventeen years later another vision is telling him to leave the monastery and reenter the world.

Prior to becoming a monk, Father Darrow had an active life.   He married young and had two children, Ruth and Martin.  He became a chaplain in the navy spending more and more time away from home.  He was at sea when his wife Betty died and his children didn't see much of him growing up.  As Darrow tells us he was not cut out for family life:

" I had no idea that the daily routine of marriage would be so hostile to sustain a rich inner life.  Nothing had prepared me for such chaos ...  Betty was seldom still.  She was always rushing hither and thither, continually invading my psychic space, laughing, crying, endlessly chattering .... And then the children came.  Of course I was pleased and proud, but the noise, the mess, the constant destruction of any interlude which encompassed peace and order"

But now Father Darrow is heading back into the world and so we follow him as he remarries less than six months after leaving the monastery.  We follow his attempts to reconnect with his grown children and as he tries to fit in as the new pastor at the parish in Starbridge.  Problems occur because Darrow's Anglo-Catholicism is not appreciated by his parishoners who want nothing to do with "Romish practices".  So he's got alot on his plate.

Glamorous Powers is the second book in Howatch's Starbridge series.  The first novel Glittering Images centered around Rev. Charles Ashworth a young man who suffered a bit of a breakdown.  Father John Darrow played a somewhat minor role in the first novel as the man Ashworth comes to for spiritual counselling.  And in the first book I was quite taken with Darrow, a strong, charasmatic, compassionate man whose life we know very little about.  Glamorous Powers is the novel where we find out everything we ever wanted to know about him and, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

I ended up preferring Rev Charles Ashworth in Glittering Images to Father Jon Darrow in Glamorous Powers.  I had empathy for Ashworth who had suffered a real tragedy in his life seven years prior in comparison to the trials and tribulations of Father Darrow which in many cases are of his own making, particularly  the problems with his grown children.  But though Darrow can be annoying and rather selfish, he is not boring.  Susan Howatch is a master at creating intriguing, complex characters and so in a few months I am eager to begin book three in the series, Ultimate Prizes, where it is now the late 1940's and our next cleric, the Archdeacon Nevill Aysgarth, is having his own issues to contend with.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

I started hearing about Michelle McNamara's I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer about a year ago.  The Golden State Killer had unleashed a reign of terror throughout California (over 50 rapes and 13 murders) from 1974 to 1986.  He had never been caught and the author, Michelle McNamara, wanted to change that.

She started pursuing him on her blog True Crime Diary, then in articles she wrote for Los Angeles Magazine.  She scoured the internet following leads, met with detectives who were impressed with her determination and gave her their case files.  The detectives trusted Michelle because they realized that like them she wanted to catch this killer and bring justice to his victims.

Michelle McNamara was working on I'll Be Gone in the Dark when she died in 2016.  She was only 46 and the cause of death was an undiagnosed heart condition made worse by prescription drugs.  In 2018 her husband the comedian Patton Oswalt got I'll Be Gone in the Dark published to wide critical acclaim and a few months after the book's publication the Golden State Killer was finally caught.

I enjoy True Crime Books and there are some excellent writers in this genre: Ann Rule, Joseph Wambaugh, Vincent Buglosi and I would add Michelle McNamara to that list.  She is a very engaging narrator as she draws you in, telling the story of the California towns where the killer operated, telling us about his victims and the detectives who sought justice.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark is also part memoir.  Michelle writes about growing up in Oak Park, IL, her family and friends, her desire to be a writer and when she was fourteen the event that changed her life, a young woman murdered two streets down from where she lived.  Michelle didn't know the woman but while the rest of the neighborhood was horrified they moved on but for Michelle it was a life changing experience and an obsession with unsolved murders was born.

Michelle McNamara was halfway through writing I'll Be Gone in tne Dark when she died and her editors gathering together her notes have done a reallly fine job.  The book doesn't feel half finished.  Michelle's obsession to catch the killer is also a testament to the internet and how much research on any subject that interests you is possible just by using the search engine.  It's a shame we won't have future books from Michelle McNamara but there is I'll Be Gone in the Dark which I am glad I read and recommend.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

2020 Back to the Classics Challenge

Thank you Karen K at Books and Chocolate (please see the link to her website under Blogs I Follow) for taking on the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge  I was debating about whether I wanted to do the Classics Challenge this year but when I learned a few days ago that the Challenge was on a big smile appeared on my face.

The Challenge prompts us to read great books we otherwise would never have read.  Even those books that weren't my cup of tea I'm still proud I read them.  But also I have read some wonderful books New Grubb Street by George Gissing, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston, The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder and this year who knows what new suprises await.  So thank you once again Karen K.

19th Century Classic - Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen - This is a book I've been curious about n which Jane Austen pokes fun at the world of gothic novels.  Austen was as far from being a gothic writer as one can get and so I will be interested in what she has to say on this topic.

20th Century Classic -  The Plague by Albert Camus - I read The Stranger two years ago and Brian at BriansBabblingBooks.com said that The Plague is even better so I definitely want to give this novel a try.

Classic by a Woman Author -  Middlemarch by George Elliot - I've never read her before and Middlemarch is not only her best book but one of the greatest  classics ofi world literature.

Classic in Translation - Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant - Ruthiella at Booked for Life chose this book two years ago I think for her Back to the Classics Challenge and she gave it high praise so I definitely want to check it out.

Classic by A Person of Color - Narrative of the Life of A Slave by Frederick Douglass.  A definitive biography of Frederick Douglass has recently been published.  He was a giant of American history but before I read his biography I should read his classic autobiography.

A Genre Classic  - The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green.  A classic mystery novel written by a woman in the 19th century.

Classic With a Person's Name in the Title - Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald - I've been hearing about this book forever.  It's a slim little book and yet it has gone on to be one of the great classics of world literatur so I'm curious.

Classic with a Place in the Title - To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf - I loved A Room of One's Own but I have heard that To The Lighthouse though a great book is difficult.  My plan is not to rush through a book like this but to take it slow.

Classic with Nature in the Title - The Jungle by Upton Sinclair - When this novel was published at the turn of tne 20th century it alerted the public to the terrible conditions for workers in Chicago's meat packing industry.  The book made quite a splash with Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill weighing in.

Classic about a Family - The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkinton.  Saw the movie which I was quite impressed with and the book won the Pulitzer Prize back in the 1920's so I want to give it a read.

Abandoned Classic - Dracula by Bram Stoker - I've made attempts to read this novel over the years and the parts I've read are very well written but 50 or 60 pages in I end up putting it down amd I'm not sure why.

Classic Adaptation - Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie - A number of films have been made of this novel but I've never read the book.

I wish everyone a Happy and Healthy New Year!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

2019 Back to the Classics Wrap Up

Here are the eleven books I was able to read and review this year for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate:

20th Century Classic - Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Classic by a Woman Author - Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Classic in Translation - The Wreath by Sigrid Undset.

Classic Comedy  - The Code of the Woosters by P. G Wodehouse

Classic Tragic Novel - Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Very Long Classic - The Adventures of Augie Marsh by Saul Bellow

Classic Novella - A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Classic from the Americas or Caribbean - Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania - The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

Classic from a Place You've Lived - A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Classic Play - Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

For the 19th century classic category I chose The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope.  I finished the book a few days ago but with the end of the year approaching  I didn't have enough time to compose my thoughts and write a review that would do justice to this great novel and it is great.  Fortunately two of my blogging friends, Brian at Babbling Books and Ruthiella at Booked for Life (please see links to their excellent websites under blogs I follow) have reviewed The Way We Live Now and I urge people to check out their insightful comments..  This is my first time reading Trollope.  It won't be my last!

Monday, December 2, 2019

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

I first read Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare during my sophmore year of high school.  Our teacher, Mrs. Jensen, did a wonderful job walking us through the play line by line.  But after all these years I would probably have been somewhat lost trying to reread this classic play if it weren't for the Shakespeare Made Easy series.  They give you both the original and modern versions of Julius Caesar.  I read both and it made all the difference. What I quote below of course will be the original Shakespeare.

Julius Caesar is set in 44 BC.  The play opens on the streets of Rome where two tribunes, Flaius and Marullus, are trying to break up a crowd.  They come upon a carpenter and a cobbler and the cobbler tells them that the crowd has gathered because today is a holiday.  Caesar has defeated Pompey (a rival Roman general) and is returning to Rome a hero and the crowd is there to cheer him on as he enters the city.  This infuriates Marullus who is no fan of Caesar:

"Marullus You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
                       O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
                       Knew you not Pompey?  Many a time and oft
                       Have you climb'd up to walls and battlements, 
                       To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops, 
                       Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
                       The livelong day, with patient expectation,
                       To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome 
                       And do you now cull out a holiday?
                       And do you now strew flowers in his way,
                       That comes in triumph over Pompey's blood?  
                       Be gone!"

The next scene is a public space where many have gathered to celebrate the Feast of Lupercalia.  The four major characters in this drama are there as well, Julius Caesar, Marcus Brutus, Cassius and Marcus Antonius.  A soothsayer comes up to Caesar famously warning him to "Beware the ides of March".  

Caesar dismisses the soothsayer as a dreamer but then we are introduced to Brutus and Cassius, both of whom are Roman Senators.  Brutus looks worried and Cassius asks why?  It turns out that though Brutus loves Caesar he also fears his ambition.  Caesar is amassing more and more power and Brutus worries that Rome is heading toward one man rule where the rights of ordinary citizens will be gone.

Cassius is unhappy with Caesar as well but with Cassius it's about envy.  He tells Brutus that years ago he rescued Caesar from drowning and Caesar as Cassius sees it behaved shamefully by calling out to Cassius for help.  Now Caesar is about to be crowned and Cassius is furious:

Cassius: Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world?
                  Like a Colossus, and we petty men
                  Walk under his huge legs, and peep about 
                  To find ourselves dishonorable graves
                  Men at some point are masters of their fates
                  The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars,
                  But in ourselves, that we are underlings"

Cassius along with other Roman politicians are conspiring to murder Caesar and they convince Brutus to join them.  The night before his murder Caesar's wife Calpurnia has a dream and begs her husband not to go to the Senate that day but Caesar says he must go.  Caesar heads to the Senate House where the conspirators, including Brutus, stab Caesar repeatedly.  Caesar dies and the city of Rome is in an uproar.  They want the men who killed Caesar to hang but Brutus addresses the crowd with a pwerful and moving eulogy telling them that it was "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved  Rome more."  

The crowd is ready to hail Brutus and the other conspirators as the saviors of Rome for putting an end to Caesar's reign.  But then Marc Antony, a great general and loyal friend of Caesar, takes the podium.  Antony is a much more powerful orator than Brutus.  He also recognizes that Brutus having swung the crowd to his side he cannot straightforwardly disparage Brutus, calling him a traitor and a murderer.  So instead Antony begins one of the most famous passages in literature:

Antony - Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
                  I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him
                  The evil that men do, lives after them, 
                  The good is oft interred with their bones, 
                  So let it be with Caesar.  

But then Antony goes on to both praise Caesar's bravery, his goodness, his genorosity to the people of Rome and how it must have tore at Caesar's heart when Brutus delivered the fatal blow.   Not that the crowd should blame Brutus, Antony hastens to add "For Brutus is an honourable man".  But by the time Antony finishes his speech, Brutus, Casius, and the other conspirators have to flee the city for their lives. They form an army to take on Antony and his men but they are no match and seeing no way out, Cassius comitts suicide and Brutus does as well, asking one of his soldiers to hold his sword while Brutus runs into it, thus ending his life.

It's a brilliant play and a political one in which many issues are addressed, honor, friendship, envy, loyalty, ambition and the fickle nature of crowds and how they can be with you one day and cheering your successor the next. And sometimes the crowd can be swayed by a powerful orator such as Marc Antony who turns the crowd against Brutus with one speech. 

Back in high school the character I felt the most empathy for was Brutus and that's still true because as Antony acknowledges at the end of the play, Brutus' concern, unlike Cassius and the others, was for Rome and preserving the rights of his fellow citizens and he feared Caesar once crowned would seize all power for himself.  Brutus had a blindspot though where Cassius was concerned and assumed that Cassius was motivated by honor and a sense of duty, which he was not.  Also would Caesar have made such a terrible leader if he had lived?  But to know more I would have to read up on Roman history.  In the meantime I am grateful to Mrs. Jensen for assigning Julius Caesar to our high school class and grateful to Shakespeare Made Easy so I could enjoy rereading it after all these years..

Julius Caesar fulfills the category - choose a classic play - for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Though I have been a fan of the TV show for years I resisted reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books.  I figured the time to have read them was when I was young.  But then last year in response to the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge I decided to give Little House in the Big Woods (the first book in the series) a try and I loved it.  I vowed that I would go on to read book two Farmer Boy published 1933 and now that I have I once again marvel at the quality of the writing.  Its the kind of writing that on the surface looks simple and effortless but in reality must have taken a tremendous amount of talent and hard work to accomplish.

That said I preferred Little House in the Big Woods to Farmer Boy.  I knew going in that Farmer Boy was a detour.  Unlike the other books in the series which center around Charles and Caroline Ingalls and their daughters Laura, Mary and Grace, Farmer Boy focuses on the author's husband, Almanzo Wilder growing up on a farm around 1870 in upstate New York.  I didn't think taking a break from the Ingalls family would matter that much to me but it did.  Laura Ingalls Wilder after all knew her own childhoood much better than she knew what Almanzo's early years were like.  I'm sure Almanzo shared his memories with his wife Laura but its not the same as writing down one's own story.

Farmer Boy takes us through a year in the life of the Wilder household.  We are introduced to Almanzo Wilder, age ten, his parents, his older brother Royal and his sisters, Eliza Jane and Alice. We learn a great deal in this book about running a farm and about the specific tasks the Wilders must complete each year based on the seasons, spring for planting and fall for harvesting but throughout the year there is constant work to be done, planting, hoeing, chopping wood, sewing, mending, breaking in horses, milking cows, house cleaning etc etc and then there is the food:

"Almanzo washed as quickly as he could and combed his hair.  As soon as Mother finished straining the milk, they all sat down and Father asked the blessing for breakfast. There was oatmeal with plenty of thick cream and maple sugar.  There were fried potatoes, and the golden buckwheat cakes. as many as Almanzo wanted to eat, with sausages and gravy or with butter and maple syrup.  There were preserves and jams and jellies and doughnuts.  But best of all Almanzo liked the spicy apple pie, with its thick, rich juice and its crumbly crust.  He ate two big wedges of the pie.

Almanzo and his family are well off, not only in comparison to the Ingalls but farmers in general. They own quite a bit of land with separate barns to keep their horses, cows, chickens, pigs.  In one scene Almanzo's father sells his crop of potatoes for $500.00 which in 1870 would have been a fortune.  This is a family that works hard from sun up to sun down and at one point Almanzo's parents decide to take off for a week's vacation miles away leaving their kids at home to run the farm.  That kind of shocked me and the first decision these kids make once their parents wave goodbye is to make candy.  Once the maple candy is made Almanzo sees no harm in feeding his little pig Lucy some of it but the next morning when he wakes up he discovers what a mistake he has made:

"Where her white teeth should have been, there was a smooth brown streak. Lucy's teeth were stuck together with candy!  She could not eat, she could not drink, she could not even squeal.  She could not grunt.  But when she saw Almanzo coming she ran ... she tore through the peas, and squashed the ripe tomatoes and uprooted the green round cabbages ... At last they cornered her.  Almanzo held her down.  Alice held her kicking hind legs.  Royal pried her mouth open and scraped out the candy.  Then how Lucy squealed! She squealed all the squeals that had been in her all night and all the squeals she couldn't squeal while they were chasing her, and she ran screaming to her pen".  

It's not an easy life working on a farm and for Almanzo's older brother Royal we learn that he wants no part of it and he tells Almanzo that when he grows up he wants to move to the city and open a store.  But for young Almanzo farming is in his blood.  That would remain true of the real life Almanzo Wilder and Farmer Boy is Laura Ingalls Wilder's loving tribute to her husband and the continuation of a truly wonderful children's series as well.

Farmer Boy fulfills the 2019 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic from the 20th century.