Tuesday, October 31, 2017

From the Archives: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. first posted 10/12/2015

If you have never read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic Sherlock Holmes stories a good place to start is The Hound of the Baskervilles.  It remains his most popular novel and the perfect book to curl up with on a cold winter night.

The Hound of the Baskervilles begins with Holmes and Watson in their London flat on Baker Street.  The time is the 1880's and Dr. James Mortimer comes to see Sherlock Holmes to find out what really happened to his friend Sir Charles Baskerville.  The death was ruled a heart attack but Dr. Mortimer has questions.  He tells Sherlock Holmes that in the months leading up to his death, Sir Charles worried about the Baskerville curse.

The curse begins in the 1600's when Hugh Baskerville captured a young woman imprisoning her on his estate.  She escaped and Hugo and his friends raced after her with their hounds in hot pursuit.  The young woman fell to her death but Hugo was killed too, savegely attacked by a monstrous hound.  Since that time bad luck has befallen the Baskerville descendants.  Dr. Mortimer wants Holmes to investigate since he is sure he saw the footprints of a very large animal near the place where Sir Charles had his heart attack.

Holmes is skeptical but decides to take the case particularly since before he died Charles Baskerville was worried about his nephew Henry Baskerville's well being. Henry was next in line to inherit the Baskerville estate and it turns out when Holmes and Watson meet Henry someone is following him but who and why?  Holmes with the help of Dr. Watson solves the case and the resolution is believable.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is narrated by Dr. John Watson and he is a great observer of all that is going on including the brilliant mind of his friend Sherlock Holmes.  As many have written there is a timelessness about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.  No matter what else is happening in the world we can open our book and suddenly it's the 1880's and Holmes and Watson are sitting at the breakfast table reading their newspapers trying to decide which case they'll take next.

From the Archives: Persuasion by Jane Austen. first posted 9/19/2015

Persuasion is Jane Austen's final novel completed in 1816, a novel dealing with lost love and second chances.  Having loved Pride and Prejudice I wondered if Persuasion might be a let down.  I shouldn't have worried.

Persuasion tells the story of Ann Elliot who is 27 and unmarried.  Life and certainly romance seems to have passed her by.  But eight years prior Ann at age 19 was engaged to Frederick Wentworth, a young man who was just starting his career in the British Navy.  They were very much in love but from different classes.  Ann, the daughter of Sir Walter Elliot was upper class.  Her family a part of England's landed gentry.  Frederick Wentworth from a lower class.  Her family objected to the match and at 19 Ann didn't have the strength to go against her family.  She broke off the engagement.  Frederick was heartbroken and furious  He left England to pursue his career in the navy.  As for Ann, Austen writes:

"Time had softened down much, perhaps nearly all of peculiar attachment to him but she had been too dependent on time alone, no aid had been given in change of place (except in one visit to Bath soon after the rupture) or to any novelty or enlargement of society.  No one had ever come within the Kellynch circle who could bear a comparison with Frederick Wentworth as he stood in her memory".

Fast forward to Ann's present day life and the Elliot family are in financial difficulty.  Nothing dire but it will require Sir Walter Elliot to rent out Kellynch Hall for a few months to Admiral and Mrs. Croft.  Sir Walter is not thrilled and he expresses his frustration with the navy as follows:

"I have two strong grounds of objection to it.  First of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction and raising men to honor which their fatbers and grandfathers never dreamed of, and secondly as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour horribly; a sailor grows older sooner than any other man.  I have observed it all my life.  A nan is in greater danger in the navy by being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to and of becoming permanantly an object of disgust to himself, than in any other line".

But Sir Walter agrees to rent his estate to Admiral and Mrs, Croft and Mrs. Croft it turns out is the sister of Frederick Wentworth, now Captain Wentworth, who has returned from the Napoleanic wars a rich man.  Has he forgiven Ann or is he still angry?  Does he still feel about her the way she still feels about him?  Are second chances possible or has too much time gone by?

Jane Austen is one of tbe greatest writers in English literature, World literature and it is hard to convey in a review why she is so special.  She must be read.  Her novels center around marriage, a woman making the perfect match, because back in the early 1800's, a woman's entire future happiness and financial security depended on it.

Her novels also deal with class, money, family.  She was popular in her day and possibly even more popular now with movies and miniseries of her novels still being produced, as well as Jane Austen literary societies, contemporary authors writing sequels to her novels etc.  But nothing compares to reading Jane Austen and if you haven't read her, Persuasion at a little over 200 pages is a good place to start.

From the Archive:: Many Minds, Many Masters by Brian Weiss M.D. first posted 9/2/2015.

One night 25 years ago I was listening to the Barry Farber show and Barry's guest was Brian Weiss M.D. His book Many Minds, Many Masters: The True Story of A Psychiatrist, His Young Patient and the Past Life Therapy That Changed Both of Their Lives had just been published.  I don't remember much of the interview but I must have been impressed since I bought the book and now many years later I've reread it to see if it holds up.

In Many Minds, Many Masters Dr. Weiss tells the story of his patient Catherine who came to his office in 1980 to see if her anxiety could be cured.  Regular therapy was not working and so Dr. Weiss decided to hypnotize Catherine back to her childhood to uncover possible traumas that led to her curent problems.  To the astonishment of Dr. Weiss, Catherine started remembering fragments of past lives she had lived, a soldier in battle, a servant girl in the 17th century, a woman living in ancient Egypt etc.

Dr. Weiss tells us that prior to meeting Catherine he was an agnostic.  His life had been on a successful path.  He was Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at a major teaching hospital, married, two kids, had the respect of his colleagues but he had also experienced tragedy.  His young son Adam had died years before from a rare heart ailment.  And so ten years later Dr. Weiss was not prepared for what Catherine would tell him.

During one of her hypnotic sessions Catherine was able to reach that in between state where, according to past life beliefs, souls that have died recuperate and learn what they need to for the next life.  Catherine told Dr. Weiss that his son Adam and his father were there and they were happy.  Dr. Weiss never revealed anything personal to patients.  How could Catherine know that he even had children let alone the name of his father and son and the rare disease that had killed Adam.  This had a powerful impact on Dr. Weiss and as he says, his life would change forever.

If you are interested in learning about reincarnation, Many Minds, Many Masters is a good place to start.  I would say though that a large part of this book is taken up with Catherine's past life memories which would be okay if Catherine could give more details but since she can't we get pages and pages of brief fragments of her past lives and it can get boring. 

Since he published Many Minds, Many Masters in 1988, Dr. Weiss has become a leading figure in the field of reincarnation and past lives.  He's 70 now, lectures widly and holds seminars worldwide.  He has written six more books on life after death and how past life therapy can be used to treat people with anxiety, depression, addiction, the way Catherine's emotional problems were healed.

As for me I am not a believer in reincarnation but there is something comforting about going through life knowing that this isn't it and there is no hell but rather the mistakes we make can be corrected in the next life and that we will meet our loved ones again.  Finally, Dr. Weiss is an interesting man who in response to a tragedy decades ago found a new path to make sense of it and has stuck to that path all these years later.  It's inspiring.

Monday, October 30, 2017

From the Archive: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley first posted 8/13/2015

I talk about A Thousand Acres being my second book review in my 50 book reading challenge.  That was back when I thought I would read and post 50 book reviews at my blog and call it a day but I'm enjoying it too much and will be posting here at Reading Matters for a long long time (health permitting).  Also, as my book reviews have gone on I have abandoned my vow not to quote passages from the book without the author's permission.  What I found is quoting a book directly is often the best way to give the reader a sense of what the book is like and A Thousand Acres is beautifully written but it's disturbing.  

The second book in my 50 book reading challenge is A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, a highly acclaimed novel that won the National Book Award in 1991 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.  A Thousand Acres was also made into a movie starring Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer which recieved not so great reviews but critics agree the novel itself is a masterpiece.  But be warned this novel is very tragic, some would say on a Shakespearean level which is not a coincidence since A Thousand Acres is a modern retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Jane Smiley has set A Thousand Acres on a rural farm community in Iowa.  The year is 1979 and Larry Cook is the wealthiest farmer in Zubolon County.  He has three grown daughters.  The eldest two, Ginny and Rose, live on their father's farm and with their husbands help their father run his thousand acres, catering to his wishes and never challenging his authority. The youngest, Caroline, is the only daughter who has moved away and shaped a different life for herself.

Then one day Larry Cook announces he is retiring and giving the farm to his three daughters.  Ginny, Rose and their husbands are pleased to finally have something of their own but Caroline replies "I don't know".  Her father immediately cuts her out of the inheritance and gives the farm to Ginny and Rose setting the stage for all that is to come, which is considerable.

A Thousand Acres is about families and long buried secrets reverberating through many generations.  It's about fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, life in rural America, the perils of farming and how terrible accidents can happen in an instant and much more.  Ultimately, it's the story of Ginny and her sister Rose  and the bond they share forged in childhood.  Ginny narrates the novel.  We see it all through her eyes as she looks back from some future time trying to understand that fateful summer of 1979.

I wish I could quote the many passages that stood out for me in Jane Smiley's book but I feel hesitant without the okay of the author. So I would say, read A Thousand Acres for yourself.  It's a reading experience you won't soon forget.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

From The Archive: Dual With The Devil by Paul Collins first posted on 8/1/2015

I've decided to add a new feature here at Reading Matters called From the Archives.  Periodically I'll be reposting my old reviews.  Dual With The Devil for example is the first review I posted here at Reading Matters back in August 2015.  Its necessary to repost because a few days ago I lost all my prior reviews  But thankfully I kept a written copy of each review and Brian who runs the really great website Briansbabblingbooks showed me how to get back the most recent reviews.  At first I thought retyping my old reviews is alot of work why not just start over but I worked hard on these reviews and this blog wouldn't be the same without them so hope you enjoy reading my review of Duel With the Devil below.  

Dual With The Devil originally posted 8/1/2015

Just finished reading Duel With the Devil by Paul Collins.  It falls under the category American History/True Crime about a sensational murder that took place in New York City 1799 and came to be known as the Manhattan Well Murder.  The victim Elma Sands was a young woman living in a boarding house in New York City run by her cousin.  On the night of December 22, 1799 Elma went missing.  Her body was later found at the bottom of a well in the Soho section of Manhattan.  Once her body was discovered the city was in an uproar and fingers pointed to Levi Weeks a young man also living in the boarding house.  The theory was that Elma went out with Levi  on the night of her death thinking they were going to elope.  Levi was immediately arrested and thrown into prison awaiting his trial.  What makes this case historically interesting is that Levi Weeks' defense team consited of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton.  A rare moment when these two bitter rivals agreed on anything.  

I wouldn't say Duel With the Devil is the best true crime book I've ever read but once the trial gets going it did pick up for me and the author Paul Collins does a good job laying out what New York City was like in 1799-1800.  Manhattan was just getting over a yellow fever outbreak and the conditions around the city were very unsanitary, the water in particular being undrinkable.  It was not a safe place for a young woman living by herself in a boarding house either.  Paul Collins agrees with the jury verdict, which took them only minutes to arrive at, that Levi Weeks could not have been the killer.  As to who killed Elma Sands, Collins points to another boarder who had a history of insanity and violent behavior towards women and young girls and who seemed too eager after the murder to spread rumors that Levi was responsible.  

After the trial Levi Weeks had to leave the city.  Despite the not guilty verdict many continued to see him as guilty.  But his carpentry skills after he set up a new life for himself down south provided a good living and he went on to rebuild his life, get married and have children.  As for Hamilton and Burr their next major encounter would not end happily.  They were brilliant but flawed men which led to their famous and tragic dual in which Burr killed Hamilton.  

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Once And Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla

First posted Oct 14, 2017

In November 2016, Mark Lilla a professor of Humanities at Columbia University, wrote an essay for the New York Times trying to explain how Donald Trump could have been elected President.  Professor Lilla has now expanded his essay into a book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (published in 2017).  It's one of a number of books this season that seeks to understand how someone as unqualified and unprincipled as Trump could be sitting in the Oval Office.  Lilla acknowledges that there are many reasons for this but as a self described "frustrated American liberal" he is interested in focusing on how Liberalism and the Democratic Party lost it's way.  He points the blame at the rise of identity politics on college campuses and social justice movements in general.  He writes:

"Identity politics on the left was at first about large classes of people -- African Americanswomen seeking to redress major historical wrongs by mobilizing and then working through our political institutions to secure their rights.  But by the 1980's it had given way to a pseudo-politics of self-regard and an increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities.  

Professor Lilla notes that going forward the only way Democrats can protect the rights of the citizenry is by getting their fellow Democrats and Liberals to the voting booth.  Lilla points out there was a time when Democrats understood this.  Unions for example knew their members, knew their districts and how to get their friends and neighbors to the polls and they had a coherent message that everyone could rally around.  But Professor Lilla argues rhat identity politics have to a certain extent supplanted unions in today's Democratic Party and that they have become more concerned with group think, preaching to the converted, banning speakers they disagree with from colleges etc.  And many don't believe in voting at all unless their dream candidate is on the ballet.

Mark Lilla sees a grim future if the Democratic Party and Liberalism doesn't change.  He points out that right now Republicans control tne Presidency, both Houses of Congress and in the past couple of years Democrats have lost over 900 seats in state legislatures across the country.  Lilla writes that we can wait for the Trump Administration to implode but:

"it is easy to imagine that until liberals succeed in recapturing the country's imagination, a new class of populist demagogues drawing selectively from the Reagan catechism and even radicalizing some of its dogmas will still be able to stir up and exploit public anger.  They already are".  

The Once and Future Liberal is a slim book, 160 pages, and Professor Lilla makes many insightful observatuons about the current state we find ourselves in.  He has solutions as well and one of those solutions is that the politics of identity has to end By that he doesn't mean that groups dedicated to fighting for women's rights, minority rights, immigrants rights, gay and lesbian rights should disband.  Quite the contrary but he does mean that the identity politics mindset has to end.  A mindset where the mood is anti-political, conspiratorial and where registering voters, volunteering for a Democratic candidate in your district, knocking on doors to talk to people outside your comfort zone is considered a waste of time because everything is rigged anyway.  As Lilla points out the same distrust of government exists in many left/liberal movements as exists on the right but the difference is the right didn't split their vote on election day in 2016, nor did they stay home.

Mark Lilla as he states in the Introduction has only tackled one aspect of why Trump won.  There is blame to go around on both sides of the political aisle (and let's not forget Putin's part in this).  More books will be coming out in the months and years ahead and I will be interested to read some of them but until then The Once and Future Liberal has some valuable observations and so it's worth the read.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

With Halloween fast approaching I wanted to read and review a novel in the horror genre and what better choice than The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (published 1886), a classic not only in terms of horror literature but world literature in general.

And yet a funny thing happened on my way to posting my review.  I lost not only what I think was a pretty good analysis of this classic work (if I do say so myself) but I must have hit something I shouldn't have on the keyboard and lost all of my prior reviews here at Reading Matters as well.   But its not a catastrophe because knowing I am not computer savy I made sure each time I posted a review going back to 2015 to write it out in long hand.  So I have about 30 of my 41 prior reviews saved in a notebook.  I thought about typing them onto this blog again but I figured why not start fresh.

So I am starting over and actually its ironic because in doing research for the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde I learned that Robert Louis Stevenson's wife burned the first draft and he had to write this classic work all over from scratch.  I was thinking of doing that with my review of Jekyll  and Hyde but its not easy to recreate what you wrote.  So suffice it to say I highly recommend The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a  novel about a man named Henry Jekyll who could not accept the duality of his nature, the light and dark that exist in all of us, and instead concocted a magic potion to separate the good from the evil within him with disasterous results.  I promise future reviews will be much more detailed.

Let me close by assuring my readers that I am fine.  I saved my reviews in a notebook and going forward I may retype them onto this blog under the heading Blast From The Past.  One thing I know is I plan on reading and reviewing books here at Reading Matters for a long long time.  And I want to thank everyone who has been so nice to read what I have to say and your thoughtful comments.  You have given me the encouragement to continue.