Friday, March 17, 2017

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Jane Austen wrote beautifully about the south of England in such masterpieces as Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion but did she ever wonder about the north of England and what life in Yorkshire and Manchester was like?  She must have wondered but it would have been difficult for Austen during her lifetime to visit these regions.

But by the mid 19th century England had changed.  Trains were transporting people regularly from the rural and agricultural south of England of land owners where class and one's family mattered to the grittier industrialized north of England, a population not as intimidated by class or even by the mill owners for whom they worked.  Both regions had harsh views of each other and in North and South, published in 1855, Elizabeth Gaskell set out to bridge the gap by creating two formidable characters, Margaret Hale and John Thornton.

Margaret Hale is a beautiful, intelligent, spirited young woman from Helstone in the south of England.  John Thornton is a cotton mill owner from Milton in the north of England who after his father's death, when he was a young boy, worked long hours in factories to rescue his mother and sister from poverty. Normally these two would never have met but Margaret Hale's father due to a downturn in his finances moves his family to Milton so he can accept a position as a private tutor.

Margaret is not happy about the move.  She loves her home in Helstone but she moves with her parents to Milton.  Her eyes will open to a new world not only her growing attraction to John Thornton but also to the conflict between the Masters (mill owners) and their employees.  Eighteen months later, Margaret is back in the south of England.  Alot has changed in her life during her year and a half in Milton and she has experienced tragedy as well.  As Margaret sits in her wealthy cousin Edith's home she reflects:

"But all the rest of the family were in the full business of the London season, and Margaret was left alone.  Then her thoughts went back to Milton, with a strange sense of the contrast between her life there, and here.  She was getting surfeited of the eventless ease in which no struggle or endeavor was required  She was afraid lest she should even become sleepily deadened into forgetfullness of anything beyond the life that was lapping her round with luxury.  There might be toilers and moilers there in London, but she never saw them; the very servants lived in an underground world of their own, of which she knew neither the hopes nor the fears, they only seemed to start into existance when some want or whim of their master or mistress needed them".

I began this review by writing about Jane Austen parly because North and South has been compared to Pride and Prejudice, two characters ((Margaret Hale and John Thornton) meant to be together but their pride and prejudice getting in the way.  And also because the one criticism I've had about Austen's novels (at least from the two books of hers I've read) is she stayed very close to home, the landed gentry and the world surrounding them of balls and ball gowns, horse drawn carriages, summers at their country homes, witty drawing room conversation and of course happy endings. The lives of anyone from the lower classes, as Gaskell writes about above, left firmly off stage.

But here is the thing.  I enjoyed North and South a good deal and Gaskell is to be commended for taking on such important issues as the Industrial Revolution.  She has created a complex and admirable mill owner in John Thornton and Margaret Hale is an attractive and good hearted heroine.  North and South is a great novel included for example in the literary critic Harold Bloom's book on the Western Cannon.  However, now that I have finished North and South I am reminded that Jane Austen is in a class by herself.  Gaskell is a great writer but Austen is simply greater.  So if you have read Pride and Prejudice I think you will enjoy North and South (and the BBC miniseries of North and South now on netflix is very good).  But if you haven't read Pride and Prejudice, what in the world are you waiting for?

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World by David Denby

Books are my passion but there have always been significant gaps in my reading experience and that is particularly true when it comes to the great books:  The Iliad and the Odyssey, The Confessions of St Augustine, Don Quixote, King Lear etc. Fortunately, the noted film critic David Denby has read these books.  First in 1961 as an 18 year old undergradate at Columbia University and then in 1991 at age 48 Denby went back to Columbia to retake these core-curriculum courses.  He writes about his journey in Great Books: My Adventures With Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World published in 1996.

Denby states in the Introduction to Great Books that he decided to go back to Columbia because college had changed in the thirty years since he'd first been a student.  These great books courses were now under attack for not being diverse. Many in academia complained that not enough women writers were on the curriculum and practically no writers from outside Europe. Denby sympathised but he didn't want diversity to come at the expense of bumping Homer, Milton and Shakespeare from the list.  Denby says the debate also affected him because he had gotten out of the habit of reading serious literature and as he looked back he had trouble remembering many of the classics he had read. Were the critics right? Were these books obsolete?

So in Great Books we accompany David Denby back to college for one year.  We listen as professors teach these classics,  poking and proding their students to get the most out of these texts and apply what they learn to their own lives and today's world. Mostly though we learn about David Denby's reaction as he rereads these books this time in middle age with much more life experience behind him.  Great Books is part memoir and Denby is a very good writer, insightful and opinionated with a deep knowledge of the arts, history and the culture.

As for my reaction I did struggle to understand many of the writers Denby quoted in Great Books.  Alot of it was beyond me.  The ancient Greeks for example.  One needs a professor to go through Homer's lyric poetry at least I did. Ditto for the writings of Plato and Aristotle.  But then my interest picked up when we got to Sophocles' play Oedipus the King and as I continued to read Great Books I found more classics I would like to check out: The Confessions of St Augustine, the Decameron and I was particularly impressed by the last two chapters where Denby discussed and quoted passages from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.  These were two writers whose novels I had not read before but I want to now.

Denby said that one can read Great Books chronologically or you can skip to the chapters that interest you.  I read Great Books from beginning to end and I am glad I did.  It was a struggle and alot of it went over my head but I felt by the time I got to the last page I had been on a worthwhile journey.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo

Sworn to Silence is the first novel in Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder mystery series and after finishing the book I immediately ordered the second book in the series, that's how much I liked it.  But a warning.  The book is graphic with a number of very disturbing scenes.  A serial killer is on the loose murdering, raping and torturing young women and we are not spared the gory details.

I realize I may be turning people off at this point but what sold me on the novel were the two main characters:  Chief of Police Kate Burkholder and Special Agent John Tomasetti who is called in to help Kate and her fellow officers catch this brutal killer. Kate and John have wonderful chemistry together and I'd follow them anywhere.

So, all that said, Sworn to Silence is set in the town of Painters Mill, Ohio where about a third of the population is Amish.  Kate Burkholder has been the Chief of Police in Painters Mill for two years, prior to that she was a homocide detective in Columbus, Ohio.  Kate is originally from Painters Mill.   She was raised in the Amish faith but left as a teenager.  After all these years away Kate does not regret coming back to her hometown.  She gets along well with her officers.  She isn't close with her Amish family though having left the faith when she was a teenager and there is also a dark secret from years ago that she shares with her family which has certainly added to the rift.

Still, things are peaceful in Painters Mill until the dead body of a young woman is discovered.  The killer made carvings on the body, the same carvings that appeared on the bodies of four young women who were killed in Painters Mill sixteen years ago.  Is the same killer back after a sixteen year hiatus? Everyone in the town is on edge and Kate Burkholder is worried too but for a different reason. Sixteen years ago when Kate was fourteen she was raped and might have been murdered like the other young women but she was able to kill her attacker in self defense.  Her father and brother disposed of his body.

But is Daniel Lapp the rapist from years ago back?  Was he alive when Kate's father and brother placed his body down into a pit located in the abandoned grain elevator? Was he able to crawl out and is he now back committing these murders?  The guilt weighs on Kate since no one in her family ever went to the police about any of this and now this secret could be impeding the case.  As another young woman's body is found the Mayor sends for extra help, a Special Agent from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation John Tomasetti.  John like Kate has certainly experienced tragedy in his life and he is barely holding it together.  Still he's a smart relentless detective and like Kate committed to solving this case so that no other women are killed.

Linda Castillo is a talented writer and you learn about the Amish faith and culture in her novels.   For me though, and I say this again, Kate Burkholder and John Tomasetti are the main attraction.  They begin an on again off again romance which will continue throughout the series and I am eager to see how that develops.  So if you have a strong stomach and are a fan of shows like Criminal Minds and the novels of Patricia Cornwall then I think Sworn To Silence might be for you but it is graphic in terms of the violence and so I recommend the novel with an advisory.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Thanks Alexia and thanks Brian (briansbabblingbooks.com) for recommending Siddartha by Herman Hesse.  I may have read a short story by Hesse when I was in high school but never got around to reading his classic novel Siddartha about a man's search for enlightment and I am happy to have finally done so. This review will contain spoilers.

Siddartha is a beautifully written poetic novel published in 1922 and set in India around the 6th to 4th century BC.  When we meet Siddartha he is a young man, the son of a Brahmin which is a priestly caste in Hinduism. Everyone in Siddartha's village including his parents admire him greatly for his piety, his knowledge.  But Siddartha decides to leave his village because he does not feel his father and the Brahman elders have the answers he seeks.  He notices that after all their years of studying, making offerings and praying they have not found peace and enlightment. They have not reached nirvana.

So accompanied by his best friend Govinda, Siddartha joins the Samanas who practice lives of extreme self denial, fasting and meditation.  Siddartha at first takes very well to this ascetic life but he becomes disillusioned once again because after fasting and meditating  he can't maintain the altered state and he awakens back into the material world with all its pain, suffering and complexities. Siddartha and Govinda leave the Samanas and decide next to follow Gotama, the historic Buddha. Siddartha admires this great man but comes to the realization that the Buddha has achieved enlightment not by learning it from teachers but rather by going on his own journey which cannot be taught.

Govinda though decides to stay with the community of Buddhist monks while Siddartha leaves to continue his search.  Siddartha also makes the decision to have no more teachers and that rather than trying to negate the self in an attempt to reach enlightenment he will try to find out who he is and listen to his own voice for instructions on how to proceed in life. Siddartha also decides he must embrace not only the world of thought and meditation but also the physical world, the world of the senses which he has shunned up to now.

Siddartha armed with this insight moves to the city.  He finds love and wealth.  He lives in a beautiful house, eating rich foods, drinking fine wines, gambling.  Years go by.  He forgets what he learned from the Samanas, the Buddhists and the Brahmans. Siddartha becomes disgusted with himself and leaves the city.  Now, no longer a young man, Siddartha very depressed about how his life has turned out decides to end it all by drowning himself in the river.  But something stops him, the Brahman faith and the holy word "Om" return to him in his hour of need and rather than drown himself, Siddartha goes into a deep sleep by the side of the river with the word "Om" in his thoughts and he awakens no longer depressed but at peace.

Siddartha continues his journey for enlightment for a bit longer. There are still a few more lessons to learn and experiences to be had but it will ultimately be reuniting with an elderly ferryman named Vasudeva who has been ferrying people across the river for most of his life who will teach Siddartha some eternal truths. Siddartha also meets his old friend Govinda who has not had an easy life either possibly because unlike Siddartha who took part in the world and experienced heartbreak, love and all that life has to offer, Govinda stayed in a rather sheltered life with the monks all these years and never got a chance to go on his own journey which is needed to come to a realization of what life is about.

My summary cannot match the experience of reading Siddartha.  Its written in a beautiful and understandable style.  There are many truths to be found in its pages. Siddartha is a book that I feel needs to be read more than once and throughout one's life because as one's life changes what you take away from the book will change as well.  So thanks again to Alexia and Brian for recommending Siddartha which I too highly recommend.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I had been thinking about reading Gone Girl for some time and when my friend Lorraine two months ago recommended the book it was the push I needed.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was published in 2012 and has been a phenomenal hit with readers and critics alike.   I've heard Gone Girl described as a thriller, a crime novel, a profile of a marriage gone horribly wrong.   It is all these things including a psychological profile of two people that is really well done. It's a difficult novel to review though because I would have to give away a major plot twist that happens halfway through the book.

So here is what I can reveal.  Gone Girl is certainly a story about a marriage and when the novel begins it is Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth wedding anniversary but when Nick comes home he finds Amy missing and the police discover Amy's blood at the scene and begin looking at Nick as the suspect.  The novel alternates chapter by chapter between Nick's present day reflections on their marriage and his fears about the investigation. The alternating chapters are from the diary Amy kept in which she also talks about their life together.

We learn through Nick and Amy's different narritives that their relationship after starting out so well was in trouble these past few years.  Nick blames Amy for their problems.  As he sees it she changed from the beautiful smart cool girl he married to a woman who was unhappy, and unsatisfied. Amy in her diary tells a different story. about being supportive of Nick and making sacrifices for him which he did not appreciate.  Amy also tells us in her diary that she is becoming afraid of Nick.

And that's all I can reveal without spoiling the experience for the reader because halfway through the novel you are hit for a loop.  Can I recommend Gone Girl?  Well on the plus side Gillian Flynn does a great job in creating two intriguing characters in Nick and Amy and this is particularly true with regard to Amy Dunne.  I've sometimes wondered where is the novel in which a female character truly breaks the mold.  Here she is to put it mildly.

But its also a very dark novel and I think that would be okay except for the ending.  I was hoping for a different outcome, an ending that would put things right and make up for some of the darkness.  But many readers felt the ending fit the story and with 43,000 reviews over at Amazon and most of them 4 and 5 stars that's something to consider as well.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

A few years ago I was watching an interview with an author by the name of Wes Moore.  He was an Army Combat Veteran who had served in Afghanistan,, a Rhodes Scholar, he had worked as an assistant to Condoleezza Rice.  He was a father and husband and he had written a memoir: The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore.  I remember filing his book away in my mind and then a few months ago when the book appeared on Bookbub I said, now is my chance.

Wes was 32 when his book The Other Wes Moore was published in 2010 and while that's rather young to write a memoir Wes has an important story to tell.  His inspiration for writing the book came in 2000 when he was finishing his senior year at John's Hopkins University.  He became transfixed by a series of articles in the Baltimore Sun focusing on another young man also named Wes Moore who grew up in circumstances eerily similar to Wes.  Both Wes Moores were around the same age, both African American, both raised by single mothers.  Both grew up poor in nearby Baltimore neighborhoods where the school dropout rate was high and crime was rampant.  Yet here was Wes Moore in 2000 about to begin his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University reading about another young man with an identical name sentenced to life in prison for taking part in a robbery in which a police officer was killed. Wes was haunted by this story.  As he says in the book "The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine.  The tragedy is that my story could have been his".

Wes decided to visit the other Wes Moore in prison and the seeds of the book began to form in which Wes Moore tells both of their stories.  Each chapter focuses on pivital points in their childhood and teenage years when the two Wes Moores  were presented with choices and depending on which road they took (to stay in school, avoid gangs, avoid drugs, avoid fights) their options with regard to tbeir future began to either expand or contract.   But though there were similarities between both men, there were major differences too and it becomes clear as you read deeper into the book that the author had a much better support system in terms of family and mentors than did the Wes Moore who ended up in prison.

The author says he doesn't have a single answer as to what made the difference in both of their lives and taking personal responsibility plays a role as well. But the problem as the author points out is that young people are going to make mistakes and too often in neighborhoods where there is crme and drugs you are faced with adult decisions before you are ready.  Or as Wes who is in prison says to the author at one point "From everything you told me, both of us did some pretty wrong stuff when we were younger.  And both of us had second chances. But if the situation or the context where you make the decisions don't change, then second chances don't mean too much, huh?"

Currently the author Wes Moore runs a company called BridgeEdu.com which helps kids transition from their senior year at high school to freshman year of college so that students are motivated to complete college.  He's gone on to write other books and is involved in Veterans issues.  Wes Moore's book The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates ends with a list of resources in every state where kids and parents can go to get help.  The Other Wes Moore is an important book which is being assigned in schools so that teachers can discuss it with their students.  So a thumbs up from me.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

As with Great Expectations, which I reviewed a few months ago, Jane Eye is a 19th century coming of age novel in which the lead character looks back on their life and recounts the experiences they've had and the lessons learned.  There are a number of other similarities between these two great classics and differences too but I have to say, I much prefer Jane Eyre, a novel that touches on so many themes and which also presents us with a young woman, Jane Eyre, without friends or family trying to make her way in the world

When you consider that Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre in 1846 that is remarkable.  One passage stood out for me in terms of the feminist aspects of the book.  Jane is 18 and a teacher at Lowood Institute the boarding school for poor girls where Jane's aunt had callously shipped her off to when she was 10. Jane has been at Lowood almost half of her life and though the school is much improved and Jane has a steady income she wants something different:

"What do I want?  A new place, in a new house, amongst new faces, under new circumstances.  I want this because it is of no use wanting anything better.  How do people do to get a new place? They apply to friends, I suppose; I have no friends.  There are many others who have no friends, who must look about for themselves and be their own helpers; and what is their resource?  I could not tell: nothing answered me; I then ordered my brain to find a response, and quickly ... I got up and took a turn in the room; undrew the curtain, noted a star or two shivered with cold, and again crept to bed.  A kind fairy, in my absence had surely dropped the sugestion on my pillow; for as I lay down, it came quietly and naturally to my mind. --Those who want situations advertise; you must advertise in the -- shire Herald."

After placing the ad, Jane receives an offer from a Mrs Fairfax who lives at Thornfield Hall and works for Edward Rochester, the master of the estate.  Mrs Fairfax is seeking a governess for young Adele who is a ward of Mr Rochester.  Jane accepts the job to teach Adele and comes to live at Thornfield and so begins the passionate yet rocky romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester.

For me the main attraction in this novel was Jane Eyre who narrates the novel but I was charmed by Mr Rochester too, a brooding, Byronesque hero who says to Jane at one point: "Nature meant me, on the whole, to be a good man, Miss Eyre and you see I am not". But actually Mr Rochester is a good man, Jane would not love or respect anything less. Granted, Mr Rochester is flawed.  Life has dealt him a bad set of cards but he has admirable qualities too and a great deal of courage when called upon. He loves Jane and sees in her his salvation and he is right in this.

Jane Eyre when it was published was a phenomenal success with readers on both sides of the Atlantic.  The literary critic Elaine Showalter writes in her book A Jury of Her Peers that women everywhere were reading Jane Eyre and a kind of "Jane Eyre mania" took hold. A fascination developed as well with Charlotte Bronte, the author of Jane Eyre and later with Emily Bronte who wrote the novel Wuthering Heights and that fascination for the Bronte family lives on to this day.  Having read both novels I can only marvel at how so much genius could exist among two sisters and their sister Anne as well who wrote the Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  I would say for anyone curious about the Brontes or anyone wanting to read a great romantic novel to start with Jane Eyre a reading experience you will not soon forget.