Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Good to be back reading and blogging!  And my first book back is A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf (published in 1929).  I read it many years ago and had forgotten a great deal about the book but one thing holds true, it remains a wonderfully written thought provoking classic on the subject of women and fiction.  A Room of One's Own is also an interesting hybrid of a book, an essay in the form of a novel.

When our story begins Mary Beton (a pseudonym poossibly for Virginia Woolf) is walking around Oxbridge University.  Mary has been asked by the University to give a lecture on the subject of women and fiction but she soon realizes that giving a quick talk on Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Elliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and calling it a day, won't do.  The subject of women and fiction is not simple.

Mary, carrying a notebook, decides to visit the Oxbridge Library looking for answers as to what sort of talk she should give but finds it barred to women.  Mary then decides to head to London and visit the British Museum and discovers that prior to the 18th century  while very little was written by women, a great deal was written about women.  Mary notices a curious contradiction.  Throughout the ages, the women depicted by men in poetry, drama and novels:  Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Phedre, Rosiland, Desdemona, and later Clarissa, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovery etc have been strong and independent characters:

""Indeed, if women had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a figure of the utmost importance, very various, heroic and mean, splendid and sordid, infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme ... She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.  She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction ... some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband".  

In doing her research Mary discovers a bishop now deceased who wrote that no woman would ever be able to match the genius of Shakespeare any more than a cat will be able to get into heaven and Mary remarks: "how much thinking those old gentleman used to save one"!  And yet on further reflection Mary Beton realizes that the bishop had a point which brings us to a famous passage in the book.  What if Shakespeare had a gifted sister?  What would have been the fate of a woman of genius in Shakespeare's time?  Mary makes a convincing case that it would have ended tragically but she also recognizes that no woman in Elizabethean England would have been able to write the plays of Shakespeare:

For genius like Shakespeare's is not born among labouring, uneducated servile people.  It was not born in England among the Saxons and the Britons.  It is not born today among tne working classes.  How, then, could it have been born among women whose work began almost before they were out of the nursery, who were forced to it by their parents and held to it by all the power of law and custom". 

There are many issues explored in A Room of One's Own, some of which I take issue with for example Mary Beton (Virginia?) feels that anger at injustice can be healthy in real life but has no place in literature.  It's why Mary regards Jane Austen and Emily Bronte as great whereas Charlotte Bronte is simply good.  As Mary sees it too much of Charlotte's bitterness at her situation in life made it onto the pages of Jane Eyre.  Having read Jane Eyre I disagree.  Charlotte Bronte is a great novelist, sometimes passionate and angry but that's what gives her novels their power.

Mary has other thoughts.  I particularly liked the section in which she writes about Lady Winchilsea, Margaret of Newcastle and Diana Osborne all of whom lived in the 1600's.  We get snipets of their poetry and their letters in a Room of One's Own but their talent was never allowed to develop.  Mary also gives us her thoughts on the future of literature when men will more freely explore their feminine side and women their masculine and no topic will be off limits.  But are we there yet?  Today in many parts of the world if you are a woman you cannot write freely and that's true of men as well.  In many parts of the world you are putting your life in danger if you decide to challenge the system through your writing.

At the end of the book Mary is ready to give her lecture as she arrives at her conclusion that to produce great art women have always needed a room of their own.  An independent income to be able to afford that room and the freedom and time to be able to sit at one's desk and write.   I recommend A Room of One's Own.  Mary is an engaging and at times humorous narrator and if you have never read Virginia Woolf, one of the great writers of the 20th century, A Room of One's Own is a great place to start.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Up and Running

So, for the past two weeks I have been reposting my book reviews that I wrote from August 2015 to May 2016.  The reviews got deleted accidently and my blog wouldn't be the same unless I reposted them.  I have about 20 more old reviews left and over time I will get them all back on but now it's time to go back to reading and reviewing new books here at Reading Matters and I hope to have a new book review up within a week. 

From the Archive: Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett first posted on 5/22/2016

My next book here at Reading Matters is The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.  Ken Follett began his writing career writing spy thrillers all of which were bestsellers.  Then in 1989 he changed course and published Pillars of the Earth a historical novel set in 12th century England.

The result was phenomenal.  Readers loved Pillars of the Earth.  It became his biggest bestseller and critics were impressed as well.  I had read Follett before.  I knew he was talented and since I enjoy historical fiction I decided to give Pillars of the Earth a try.  It's a 1000 page read so it takes committment but it's a measure of Ken Follett's skill that he kept me interested throughout and you learn about history in an interesting way.

Pillars of the Earth begins in 1120 with the sinking of the Whiteship in the English channel.  It's a true historical event in which about 300 people died including William Adelin, the only legitimate son of Henry I.  William's death threw the British monarchy into crisis as to who would succeed Henry I.  A civil war broke out from 1135 to 1154 in which Steven of Blois, the nephew of King Henry I and Empress Matilda, King Henry's daughter battled for the crown.  But Pillars of the Earth does not so much focus on what was happening in the monarchy as it does on the building of a Cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge during this period of turmoil.

Two characters in Pillars of the Earth stood out for me.  William Hamleigh, the evil son of Lord Percy Hamleigh.  You definitely root for him to get his just deserts as the attrocities he commits keep mounting.  And then my favorite character is Phillip, the Prior of Kingsbridge.  Phillip is a monk, an intelligent, good and brave man who runs the monastery at Kingsbridge. He is intent on building the Cathedral as a beautiful monument to God but also he understands that a Cathedral in Kingsbridge would attract worshippers and improve the livelyhood of the towns people.

Phillip's determination to continue building the Cathedral is aided by another major character in the novel, a gifted architect named Jack Jackson. The characters determined to stop the Cathedral seeing it's construction as a threat to their power are William Hamliegh and Waleran Bigod, the Archdeacon of Shiring.  There is also a love story between Jack Jackson and Alena, the daughter of the Earl of Barholomew.  We meet Thomas Beckett a real historical figure whose murder rocked England to its core.  I heard the name Thomas Beckett but always thought he lived in the 15th or 16th century but Pillars of the Earth educated me on who he was, why he was important and the time period in which he lived.

I ended Pillars of the Earth impressed with Ken Follett's talent although maybe the book could have been condensed a bit without losing its power.  In 2007 Ken Follett published a sequel to Pillars of the Earth that takes place once again in Kingsbridge but this time in the fourteeth century.  Follett has also written Fall of the Giants the first novel in his 20th century trilogy series which focuses on five fictional families as they make their way tbrough the 20th century.  It's a book I want to read and as with all of Ken Follett's novels it's a major bestseller. 

From the Archives: The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins by James Angelos first posted 5/8/2016

We don't hear much about the Greek debt crisis these days but the lessons that James Angelos wrote about in The Full Catastrophe are still relevant about the dangers governments can get into financially when they are not balancing the books.  James Angelos does a good job in laying out what happened.  

posted 5/8/2016 - I like to mix it up here at Reading Matters reading and reviewing history, classics, current affairs, fiction, biographies, mysteries etc and so book fourteen in my fifty book reading challenge is The Full Catastrophe: Travels Among the New Greek Ruins by James Angelos.  It's a book about the Greek Debt crisis which has been in the news since 2009.  I'm of Greek descent on my father's side and I wanted to know what were the root causes of the financial crisis in Greece and was there a way forward?  The Full Catastrophe is an informative book that goes a long way in answering these questions.

The author James Angelos is a second generation Greek American and a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.  As he explains the Greek debt crisis came to light partly due to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the domino effect it created.  But primarily the crisis took off in 2009 when Greece revised its projected budget.  Turns out their deficit would not be 3.7 percent of their GDP as they told the Eurozone but revised to over 15 percent.  Angelos writes that since joining the European Union, Greece had made substantial upward revisions to their debt ever year.

The European Union was furious but let Greece leave the EU and other countries in Europe with troubled economies might soon follow.  So in exchange for bailouts to Greece in the billions the EU and the IMF demanded that Greece sign on to a strict austerity plan and Angelos writes about how devastating that plan has been  particularly towards the poor and the elderly and unemployment has hit 28%.  The Greek people have not reacted well to the demands of the EU and widespread protests and strikes have occurred.  Most worrisome has been tbe rise of the neo fascist group Golden Dawn which thankfully has begun to lose support in Greece and the government has begun to seriously crack down on this group as well.

Greece's financial troubles had been brewing for decades according to Angelos: false disability claims, people working off the books and not paying taxes, people being hired for life, pensions given too early and generously.  Widespread corruption in which the government had turned a blind eye to all of this, particularly around election time.

As to how Greece can recover Angelos points to the city of Thessalonoki run by a forward thinking mayor Yiannis Boutaris who wants to emphasize Thessaloniki's pluralistic past. Thessaloniki once had a substantial Turkish and Jewish population and everyone lived together for centuries.  The Turkish population left and the Nazis came and murdered almost the entire Jewish population and demolished with the collaboration of Greek authorities one of the largest Jewish cemetaries in Europe, possibly thousands of years old. A terrible part of Greek history.

Thessalonoki today is almost entirely Greek Christian and Boutaris feels this lack of diversity is a detriment to Greek progress and betrays Thessaloniki's diverse past.  He's gone to Israel and Turkey inviting people to visit where their ancestors once lived and many Israelis and Turks have come for a visit.  Boutaris has also tried to hold the prior government in Thessaloniki responsible for corruption and instituted new accounting practices.  Newspapers from the New York Times, Telegraph, Der Speigel etc have called Boutaris a breath of fresh air.  The citizens of Thessaloniki are grumbling but on the plus side despite the criticism they reelected Boutaris by a two thirds majority.

Reading the Full Catastrophe can be a sobering experience.  At the end of the book realizing he painted a gloomy picture of Greece, Angelos emphasizes the kindness he encountered through his travels and the beauty of Greece, the scenery, and urges people to visit.  If you are interested in Greece, it's history, psychology, present day struggles, this is a good book to pick up.  It doesn't sugarcoat but change happens when you address problems directly.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

From The Archives: Death At La Fenice first posted on 4/14/2016

Death at La Fenice piublished 1992 is the first book in Donna Leon's internationally acclaimed and bestselling Guido Brunetti mystery series.  Commissario Brunetti is a Venetian detective and all of the novels in the series are set in present day Venice where he lives and works.   As my friend Iris, who recommended Death at La Fenice said to me, the city of Venice becomes a character itself.  I value Iris' opinion and she is right.  Venice, the people, the politics, the food, the culture make this novel worth reading.

But ultimately any mystery series rises and falls on the lead detective.  If we bond with the detective, private investigator etc we are going to want to follow him or her into book two, three, four in the series.  People keep coming back to Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novels because of Hercule Poirot and since there are currently 25 Guido Brunetti novels in the series and fans have yet to tire of him I would say Ms. Leon has done her job well.

As to why I became smitten with Commissario Brunetti it's hard to pinpoint.  Above all Donna Leon is a talented writer.  But also too many sleuths in mystery novels these days are loners, alcoholics, fighting with their ex-wives or their supervisor and the actual mystery can play second fiddle.  Not so in Death at La Fenice.  The mystery of who poisoned the famous conductor at the Venice Opera House remains front and center.

But as Commissario Brunetti walks around the city interviewing witnesses and suspects we get to learn a bit about him.  Brunetti is happily married for seventeen years to his wife Paola a university professor.  They have two teenage children.  Brunetti is thoughtful, intelligent.  He knows about philosophy, music, books.  He has a cynical side partly due to his job as a police officer but also as Leon seems to say it's a trait he shares with everyone in Venice, a cynicism about the government, the church, the newspapers.  He cares about his job and though he deals with crime and murder his home life is happy but he is not boring.  And Ms. Leon takes care in creating the other characters who populate Death at La Fenice as well.

It's a great thing to find a new author who keeps you turning the pages.  And even better to find a great new mystery series so that you will have books in reserve to look forward to when life gets stressful or you are feeling down.  I suspect Detective Brunetti, the city of Venice and I will be spending alot of time together in the years to come.  Thank you Iris!  I highly recommend Death at La Fenice.

Friday, November 3, 2017

From the Archives: Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt first posted on 4/1/2016

"My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born.  Instead they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother Malachy three, the twins Oliver and Eugene, barely one and my sister Margaret dead and gone".

And so begins Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt's extraordinary memoir of his poverty stricken childhood from age four when his family moved to Limerick Ireland in the 1930's ending at age nineteen when he moved back to America.  Angela's Ashes was a literary sensation when it was published in 1996, an international bestseller that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and now having read it I can certainly see why.

Some might say, well, do I really want to read a memoir about an author's impoverished childhood?  Oh but you want to read this book. You want to read it because it's very funny as Frank McCourt tells us about his family, the neighbors, the goings on in the pubs, Catholic school etc.  It's also tragic and very moving when you learn what the McCourt family endured.  I was shocked about what poverty is really like and Frank McCourt is a gifted writer who tells his story from the mindset of how young Frank age four, seven, thirteen experienced what was going on around him.

Angela's Ashes caused a scandal in Limerick when it was published.  Some felt it portrayed an unfair portrait of Limerick.  I can see their point because every city and town particularly during the Great Depression had neighborhoods where people were living a hand to mouth existance.  John Steinbeck's novel the Grapes of Wrath is one such example and of course there is widespread poverty today.

As for why the McCourt's were so poor?  Alcoholism.  Frank's father could not hold a job and if he did have a job he'd be drinking away his wages at the pubs.  Frank McCourt said he waited so long tp publish his memoir because he couldn't do it while his mother was alive. and as I continued to read the book I had an evolving opinion of Angela McCourt, Frank's mother.  She isn't the warmest of mothers.  Their father drinking away is a much more amiable sort.  Angela, understandably, is frazzled, worried, angry and very often in tears about the situation her family is in.  However by the time the book ended and I realized by hook or by crook Angela kept the family together, despite all the heartache she experienced herself, I really admired her.

Frank McCourt would go on to write two more memoirs, Tis about what happened at age nineteen when he got to America and Teacher Man which recounts his thirty years as a school teacher in NYC.  He passed away a few years ago but his masterpiece, Angela's Ashes, will be read and marvelled at one hundred years from now.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

From the Archives: Divine Secrets of the Ya, Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells first posted 3/19/2016

After reading Great Expectations I wanted to choose a novel that was a little lighter in content and Divine Secrets of the Ya,Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells seemed just the thing.  A number one bestseller when it was published in 1996.  Divine Secrets of the Ya, Ya Sisterhood tells the story of four female friends (Viv, Tensey, Caro and Necie) living in Louisiana from the 1930's when they meet as young girls on up to the 1990's when they are grandmothers.  A review of the book said if you like the novels of Fannie Flagg (which I do) then Divine Secrets is for you and so I began reading hopefully but the deeper I got into the book the more I struggled to finish Divine Secrets.

Part of the reason I think is that despite the Ya, Ya Sisterhood title this is not really a book about four female friends where we follow each of them through narriages, careers, triumphs and tragedies.  Divine Secrets keeps its focus on only one of the Ya, Ya women, Viv Walker, and the rift that occurs when her daughter Sidda Walker, a successful theater producer gives an interview to the New York Times in which she reveals that her mother hit her as a child.  Viv hurt and humiliated back in Louisiana severs ties with Sidda.  Sidda devastated by her mother's rejection decides to postpone her wedding.  Viv hearing this feels guilty because when sober she was a great mother but when drunk the demons came out.

So Viv, still mad, decides to mail Sidda her scrapbook, the Divine Secrets of the Ya, Ya Sisterhood.  It's filled with photographs, mementos, letters detailing the fifty year friendship of the four Ya, Ya women.  Each picture that Sidda takes out of the scrapbook tells a story but Sidda only sees the photograph, we the reader are told a great deal more.  We learn for example that the picture of a handsome young man with his arm around Viv is Jack, the love of Viv's life.  Jack will be killed a few years later flying a combat mission in World War II.  We learn about the Great Depression and what it was like to attend the opening night of Gone With the Wind.  We learn about racism in the South.  We learn about Viv's parents, an abusive father who beat his wife and children and a mother who took out her rage on Viv who had spunk and a sense of fun and adventure that her mother never had.

But Sidda knows known of this.  All she sees are the photographs of Viv's mother and father who make any parenting mistakes Viv made with Sidda look mild in comparison.  As I got deeper into the book I found myself getting annoyed at Sidda.  We spend alot of time with her in the cabin in Seattle as she pours over the old photos, crying, drinking wine and trying to fugure out her mother's life.  Does Sidda have a right to be angry at Viv?  Yes, but as one reviewer put it Viv isn't so much angry as obsessed.  At one point Viv's friend Caro asks Sidda "isn't the scrapbook enough"?  And Sidda replies:

"No it's not enough.  It irritates me, it frustrates me to look through that scrapbook and only get inklings, only tiny slivers of information.  No explanations, no dramatic structure!  Mama owes me some pointers ..."

And Caro points out that Sidda is 40 now and that her mother doesn't owe her anything.  Viv wasn't perfect.  No mother is but she did the best she could and she loved her children and it's time for Sidda to move on.  Wise advise and Sidda by the end of the book is able to make peace and move on but I had moved on way before that.