Monday, December 31, 2018

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan published 1678 is book twelve on my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) - choose a classic travel or journey narrative.  Its author, John Bunyan, was a Puritan minister  who would spend twelve years in Bedford prison for preaching when he was repeatedly told not to by the Church of England.  It was during his time in prison that Bunyan wrote Pilgrim's Progress which has been described as a religious allegory.  I have had this book stored in my kindle for some time and the Classics Challenge was the incentive to finally give it a read.

And so when The Pilgrim's Progress begins an unamed narrator, possibly the author, has woken up in his prison cell.  He has dreamt that a character named Christian who has been living in the City of Destruction (the earthly world) has become terrified that the town in which he lives is doomed and that fire and brimstone will reign down upon it in the not so distant future.  Christian begs his wife and children to flee with him to the Celestial City (heaven) but they are afraid to leave the world they know and face whatever dangers might await.  Christian's family and neighbors think he has gone mad and so he sets out on the journey by himself.

Along the way Christian will be accompanied by two friends named Faithful and Hopeful.  But the road leading to the Celestial City is not straightforward.  Christian will encounter many obstacles: depression, ignorance, fear, greed etc which have caused others pilgrims to lose faith and turn back.   One thing the book seems to stress is that if you are going to go on a journey of whatever kind it helps to have companions.  Had it not been for Faithful and Hopeful during key parts of the novel Christian would not have made it to the Celestial City.

John Bunyan is a remarkable writer although his view of religion is a harsh one, a great deal of emphasis on the hell that awaits if you stray from the righteous path.  Still this book is a major classic which has gone on to influence countless authors and since the day it was published The Pilgrim's Progress has never gone out of print.

And so completes my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge and I made it just under the wire!  It's been a worthwhile journey and I plan to do my wrap up review of the books I've read tomorrow and thanks so much to Karen K at Books and Chocolate for hosting the challenge.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte published 1848 is the eleventh book I have read for my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic by a woman author.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall when it was first published was considered the most shocking of the Bronte novels (and that's saying something!) but I guess in Victorian times a woman fleeing her abusive husband and taking her young son with her to start a new life elsewhere was considered more scandalous than anything Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester could come up with. 

And so when The Tenant of Wildfell Hall begins it is 1827 and Helen Huntingdon and her young son have moved into Wildfell Hall, a run down mansion that has seen better days.   Helen has changed her last name to Graham so her husband, Arthur,  won't find her and she has let it be known to her new neighbors that she is a widow.  Helen keeps to herself and rarely ventures out to social gatherings.  One neighbor, Gilbert Markham (who narrates the book from the looking back vantage point of 1847) breaks through Helen's reserve. He takes a liking to her little boy as well.

Helen and Gilbert are growing closer but they have a falling out when false rumors about Helen begin to circulate.  She decides to tell Gilbert the truth about her prior life, handing him her diary.  The diary takes up a great part of this novel and it is a fascinating journal, drawing you in regarding who Helen was before she married Arthur Huntingdon, her Aunt's warning about marrying him, Helen's naive belief that she could change Arthur and his descent into alcoholism, unfaithfulness, emotional abuse and Helen's decision to leave.

I found The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to be an exceptional book and one theme running through this novel is that who you marry is serious business and not just for women.  Lord Lowborough,  for example, a character in the novel who falls in love with Annabella Wilmot who only marries him for his title.  He is a good husband and she betrays him at every turn.  Some have said that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall may have been Anne's response to Jane Eyre in which Mr. Rochester is reformed after going through trials and tribulations.  That's not the case with Arthur Huntingdon who gets worse as the novel progresses no matter how hard Helen tries to save the marriage.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a very modern novel in many ways and yet all of what we have come to expect from the Brontes is there as well, most importantly the gifted story telling and so I heartily recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Trial by Franz Kafka

"A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us" - Franz Kafka 

The Trial by Franz Kafka published 1925 is one of the great classics of world literature and Kafka one of the world's great writers.   I didn't find him an easy read though and the problem was not his writing style which I found very understandable but rather as with The Stranger by Albert Camus (and the resemblance between these two novels is uncanny),  I came to the end of The Trial disturbed and unsettled regarding what the author was trying to say.  This tends to be the case with many of the great modernist writers of the twentieth century, Kafka, Joyce, Camus, Woolf etc.  It's not all laid out on the table for you and as a reader you have to dig deeper.

And so as the Trial begins we are introduced to Joseph K who has just turned thirty.  He lives in a boarding house and works as a middle manager at a bank.  He leads a solitary existance.  No friends or family to speak of and on this particular morning he is waiting for his landlady to bring him breakfast.  Instead two men enter his room telling him that he is under arrest.  Joseph K is not told the charges, nor is he taken into custody.  He is simply told by these two officials to go about his daily life and the courts will be in touch with him:

"What kind of people were they?  What were they talking about?  Which department did they belong to?  After all, K had rights, the country was at peace, the laws had not been suspended - who, then, had the audacity to descend on him in the privacy of his own home?  He had always tended to avoid taking things too seriously, not to assume the worst until the worst actually happened  ... he could of course regard the whole thing as a joke, a crude joke his colleagues at the bank were playing on him for some unknown reason, perhaps because it was his thirtieth birthday".  

But it is no joke and its not long before Joseph K is told to report to the court.  He is  given the address where he is to appear but he is not told the time and so decides to arrive at 9:00 AM.  However, when he arrives he finds that the courtroom is housed in an old tenement building with so many rooms and stairwells that by the time Joseph K finds the right room he is late and berated by the magistrate.  This infuriates Joseph K and he goes on a tirade about the unfairness of the legal system.  He leaves the building and continues on as best he can working at the bank with his court case looming over him.

Joseph K reaches out to various people along the way, an attorney, a prison chaplain, a court painter and they all offer him advise on the best way to proceed with his trial but its confusing advise and no one will give Joseph K a straight answer about why he was arrested and what he did wrong.  Women play an odd role in The Trial as well.  Either Joseph K is trying to begin a relationship with them or they are making a pass at him but it never works out and for this I think we would need to know more about Franz Kafka's life.

Franz Kafka was born in 1883 in Prague, Czech Republic to a German Jewish family.  His father, Hermann Kafka, was a tyrant according to his son, emotionally abusive, mocking Kafka's interest in literature, terrorizing him as a child, disapproving so strongly of Kafka's engagement to Felice Bauer that their relationship fell apart.  We know all this because in 1919 Kafka wrote his father a one hundred page letter in which he laid it all out.  Kafka never sent the letter but critics have speculated that the oppressive legal system that Joseph K encounters in The Trial where he is found guilty but never told his crime serves as a metaphor for Kafka's relationship with his father, although some have pointed out that when it comes to Kafka and his father we only have Kafka's side of the story.

But the Trial can be read in many ways.  An indictment on the legal system,  a criticism of nameless faceless bureacracies and critics have also noted the prophetic nature of the Trial published in 1925, two years after Kafka's death.  Franz Kafka may have written The Trial  to work out his own sense of guilt, depression and self doubt but The Trial also foresaw the nightmarish world about to descend on the 20th century with the rise of Nazism and then Stalinism.  The Trial is not a beach read but as with The Stranger by Camus, I finished The Trial wanting to learn more about Kafka and his writings.

The Trial fulfills book ten on my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic by an author that's new to you.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Belinda by Maria Edgeworth

For my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic with a one word title, I chose Belinda by Maria Edgeworth published 1801.  Maria Edgeworth in her day was a very popular Anglo/Irish author who wrote books on education, children's stories and novels two of which are considered classics, Belinda and Castle Rackrent.  Jane Austen greatly admired this author and that is high praise.

Belinda begins at the turn of the nineteenth century in the town of Bath.  Mrs Stanhope a formidable woman in the matchmaking department has arranged for her youngest niece, Belinda Portman, to spend the winter season in London where she will stay with the fashionable Lady Delacour.  There will be parties, balls, theater events to attend but the ultimate goal as Mrs. Stanhope makes clear to Belinda is to find a suitable marriage partner.

Soon after arriving in London Belinda meets Clarence Hervey who she is smitten with but at a costume ball she is crushed when she overhears Hervey mocking both her and her Aunt to his friends.  Their relationship starts off with a number of obstacles the most serious of which is that Hervey may have a mistress.  As for Belinda she begins a courtship with a man from the West Indies, Mr. Vincent, who unbeknownst to Belinda has a gambling problem.  Meanwhile Lady Delacour is not up to the challenge of mentoring Belinda if anything Lady Delacour needs a mentor.  Her marriage to Lord Delacour, for example, is an unhappy union and in confiding to Belinda why she married him, Lady Delacour puts it as follows:

"I was a rich heiress ...I was handsone and witty ... Having told you my fortune need I add, that I, or it, had lovers in abundance  ...  of all sorts and degrees - not to reckon those, it may be presumed, who died of concealed passions for me ... any girl who is not used to having a parcel of admirers, would think it the easiest thing in the world to make her choice; but let her judge by what she feels when a dexterous mercer or linen draper produces pretty thing after pretty thing  - and this is so becoming, and this will wear forever ...the novice stands in a charming perplexity, and after examining, and doubting and tossing over half the goods in the shop , it's ten to one, when it begins to get late, the young lady, in a hurry, pitches upon the very ugliest and worst thing that she has seen ... Sad was the hour and luckless was the day I pitched upon viscount Delacour for my lord and judge".  

Lady Delacour is quite the character, witty, dramatic, funny.  Readers and critics have said over the years that she is actually the star of this book but Belinda is impressive too, like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice who would come after her, Belinda is very well grounded for someone so young, intelligent, rational and only willing to marry if she can find a husband she has affection for and  respects.  Belinda has been referred to as a novel of female development, a popular genre in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which would end with the young woman married since the life of a woman in the early nineteenth century if she remained single was not a happy one as Mrs Stanhope grimly lays out in her cautionary advice to her neice.  Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Burney and of course Jane Austen are the most shining practitioners of the novel of female development.  Although the irony is that Edgeworth and Austen never married.

There is much to recommend about Belinda but I had a serious problem with the novel as well, the anti-semitism I encountered in the book, specifically in the creation of Mr Solomon who is not so much a character as a caricature.  This is a problem one gets into when reading some of the classics where you will be enjoying a novel and then come upon bigotry and it stains the book for you. 

But this story has an interesting ending.  In 1815 Rachel Mordecai a young teacher living in North Carolina and a fan of Edgeworth's novels and books on education decided to write the author a letter.  Rachel who was Jewish was hurt by what she was reading in Edgeworth's novels: "how can it be that she, whom on all other subjects shows justice and liberality, should on one alone appear biased by prejudices?"  Edgeworth upon receiving this letter was clearly moved and responded "Your polite, benevolent and touching letter has given me much pleasure, and much pain.  As to the pain I hope you will some time see that it has excited me to make all the atonement and reparation in my power for the past".  Edgeworth the following year wrote the novel Harrington which tackled the subject of anti-semitism and how wrong it is head on.  As for Maria Edgeworth and Rachel Mordecai they began a friendship and a lifelong correspondence which their families would continue well into the 20th century.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (published 1937) is a book I first read I believe in tbe eigth grade and it made quite an impression on me.  George and Lennie, two ranch hands travelling together through California during the Great Depression looking for work.  George is small, quick, alert.  Lennie is big, strong with the mind of a child.  They are alone in the world except for each other and as George tells Lennie:

"Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world.  They got no family.  They don't belong no place.  They come to a ranch an' work up a stake and then they go inta town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they're poundin' their tail on some other ranch .... With us it ain't like that.  We got a future.  We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us"

The two men have a dream to have a place of their own where they can raise chickens, plant crops and Lennie will be able to care for the rabbits he loves so much.  It's a nice dream but there's a problem.  Lennie doesn't listen.  He doesn't do what George tells him and it has gotten George and Lennie into trouble but maybe things will be different at their new job.

Steinbeck tells us a good deal about the men who work on these ranches, as they hang around the bunk house, playing cards, talking about life, sharing gossip.  There is Slim, smart, respected and acknowledged by all to be the best rancher around.  Candy and his old dog who should be put down but Candy doesn't have the heart to do it. There is Curley, the boss' son who bullies the other men.  Crooks, the black ranch hand, angry and hurt that the white ranchers won't socialize with him.  There is Curley's young wife. The only female character in the book.  She is the catalyst to what will happen at the end and as with everyone else in the novel she is lonely and just wants a better life.

And that brings us to George and Lennie.  When I first read Of Mice and Men it was George that stood out for me but this time around the surprise was Lennie.  I remembered Lennie as a gentle giant who loved rabbits and all small creatures and  when we first meet him he is petting a little mouse he keeps in his pocket but here is the problem, the mouse is dead and for Lennie it doesn't make a difference.  He just likes to pet soft things,  Later when Lennie learns there are puppies on the ranch he gets excited.  George tells him to stay away from them.  Lennie doesn't listen and when he accidentally kills one of the puppies here is his reaction:

"And Lennie said softly to the puppy, 'Why do you got to get killed?  You ain't so little as mice.  I didn't bounce you hard ... Suddenly his anger arose.  "God damn you", he cried.  Why do you got to get killed?  You ain't so little as mice".  He picked up the pup and hurled it from him.  He turned his back on it.  He sat bent over his knees and he whispered, "Now, I won't get to tend the rabbits.  Now he won't let me".  He rocked himself back and forth in his sorrow".  

I had remembered Lennie wrong.  The only remorse he feels is self pity because now George might not let him tend the rabbits.  I make some allowances for the fact that Lennie is mentally disabled but I also wonder what does George see in Lennie?  Slim for example would have made a much better friend but could Steinbeck in the 1930's have written a story about Slim and George travelling together and telling their fellow ranch hands about their plans to have a place of their own?  My guess is Steinbeck didn't feel he could and so Lennie was created but even with Lennie, George feels the need to tell people they are cousins when in fact they are not related.

All of this said, I am glad I chose Of Mice and Men for my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge - reread a favorite classic and I have to get back to reading more Steinbeck.  The writer Barry Lopez said that "John Steinbeck brings together the human heart and the land" and I think that puts it very well.  He knew the American West, specifically California and its people.  But there is something universal and timeless about Steinbeck's novels which is why his books are read and loved the world over.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

As much as I love to read there are huge gaps in my literary education.  For example I rarely read books written prior to the 19th century.  Maybe I'm afraid that works written centuries ago will be written in a kind of old English that I won't be able to decipher.  But the great thing about the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) is that it is pushing me out of my comfort zone and so book seven on my classics list (choose a classic in translation) is one of the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated into modern readable English by G. H. McWilliam.

Literary scholars say that Giovanni Boccaccio probably conceived the idea for The Decameron in 1348 and completed the book in 1353.  The setting for The Decameron is Florence 1348 during the time of the Black Death, a terrible plague that Boccaccio lived through and which by some conservative estimates wiped out tens of millions across Europe and Asia.  Boccaccio paints a vivid picture in his introduction to The Decameron about the societal breakdown that occured in the midst of this pandemic.  He then introduces us to ten fictional young people (seven women and three men) who meet in an abandoned church.   Pampinea, one of the young women in the group, gives a rousing speech to the others as she suggests they leave the city of Florence with so much death and panic around them and head to the countryside:

"What are we doing here?  What are we waiting for?  What are we dreaming about?  Why do we lag so far behind the rest of our citizens in providing for our safety? ...I would think it an excellent idea for us all to get away from this city ... we could go and stay together on one of our various country estates, shunning at all costs the lewd practices of our fellow citizens and feasting and merrymaking as best we may"

Her friends think its an excellent idea as well and they decide that in addition to the food, the merrymaking, the dancing and the fresh air, they will spend their time telling each other stories centering around the subject of love and specifically the tricks lovers play so that they can be together.  These stories are also about fortune and how it smiles on some and not on others.  The ten young people will spend ten days in the country and each day they each tell a story, totalling one hundred stories that make up the Decameron.   To give you a taste of how ahead of his time Boccaccio was here is one story told by one of the young men in the group, Filostrato, about a woman charged with adultery standing before a judge:

"Sir, it is true that Rinaldo is my husband, and that he found me last night in Lazzarino's arms, wherein, on account of the deep and perfect love I bear towards him, I have lain many times before; nor shall I ever deny it  ... But before you proceed to pass any judgement, I beseech you to grant me a small favor, this being that you should ask my husband whether or not I have refused to concede my entire body to him, whenever and as often as he pleased ... Well then, the lady promptly continued, if he has always taken as much of me as he needed and as much as he chose to take, I ask you, Messer Podesta, what am I to do with the surplus?  Throw it to the dogs?  Is it not far better that I should present it to a gentleman who loves me more dearly than himself, rather than allow it to turn bad or go to waste".

And here is Pampinea introducing one of her stories and getting a few things off her chest with regard to the clergy:

"They go about in those long flowing robes of theirs, and when they are asking for alms, they deliberately put on a forlorn expression and are all humility and sweetness; but when they are reproaching you with their own vices, or showing how the layity achieve salvation by almsgiving and the clerics by almsgrabbing, they positively deafen you with their loud arrogant voices ... if only I were allowed to go into the necessary details, I would soon open many a simpleton's eyes to the sort of thing these fellows conceal beneath the ample folds of their habits".

Where Boccaccio is concerned no subject is off limits and the women in these stories are not shrinking violets.  They want sex and love as much as their partners do and very rarely is anyone punished in these tales for finding inventive ways to be together outside the bonds of matrimony.   Boccaccio has been called an early feminist and I think tnat is true.  He dedicated The Decameron to the ladies who "are forced to follow the whims, fancies, dictates of their fathers, mothers, brothers and husbands, so that they spend most of their time cooped up within the narrow confines of their rooms ... wishing one thing and at the same time wishing its opposite".  But it's also true that in some of these stories Boccaccio proves himself to be a man of the 14th century.

I recommemd The Decameron and there are abridged versions out there which include only Giovanni Boccaccio's most famous stories.  You will find when you read these tales that in some ways people from the fourteenth century were not that different from you and me but then you will encounter stories that demonstrate that it truly was a different time.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in her Little House series, in 1932.  She was 65 and the Great Depression was devastating the country and the Wilder family as well.  There was also the deaths of Laura's mother Caroline and sister Mary a few years back and so as a way to remember happier times Wilder began jotting down memories of her midwestern childhood in the 1870's.  Those memories, with the editorial help of her daughter Rose, would eventually become the Little House books.

The Ingalls family were farmers and homesteaders.  Homesteading has been described as a life of complete self sufficiency.  You built your own log cabin, built the furniture, hunted and grew the food you ate.  There were rare trips to town miles away where you would barter with wheat, eggs, animal skins in exchange for fabric and maybe some store bought sugar you reserved for company.  All through the spring, summer and fall you had to prepare for winter when the animals would be in hibernation, nothing would grow and your nearest neighbors were miles away::

"Now the potatoes and carrots, the beets and turnips and cabbages were gathered and stored in the cellar, for freezing nights had come.  Onions were made into long ropes, braided together by their tops, and then were hung in the attic beside wreaths of red peppers strung on threads.  The pumpkins and the squashes were piled in orange and yellow and green heaps in the attic's corners.  The barrels of salted fish were in the pantry, and yellow cheeses were stacked on the pantry shelves ...often the wind howled outside with a cold and lonesome sound.  But in the attic, Laura and Mary played house with the squashes and the pumpkins, and everything was snug and cozy".  

In the evenings Charles Ingalls would play his fiddle and tell stories to Mary and Laura about when he was a boy growing up in the Big Woods.  The stories could be funny like the time Charles and his brothers were forbidden to play on Sunday but  when their father fell asleep they snuck out and piled onto the new sled which halfway down the hill ran under a pig scooping it up onto the sled.  The brothers and the pig which was afraid and squealing loudly flew past their house with their father outside and not happy.  Other times Charles' stories could be harrowing.  The time his own father rode home from town later than he should have and encountered a panther:

Grandpa leaned forward in the saddle and urged the horse to run faster.  The horse was running as fast as it could possibly run, and still the panther screamed close behind.  Then Grandpa caught a glimpse of it, as it leaped from treetop to treetop, almost overhead.  It was a huge black panther, leaping through the air like Black Susan leaping on a mouse.  It was many many times bigger than Black Susan.  It was so big that if it leaped on grandpa it could kill him with it's enormous, slashing claws and its long sharp teeth ... the panther did not scream any more.  Grandpa did not see it anymore.  But he knew that it was coming, leaping after him in the dark woods behind him.  At last the horse ran up to Grandpa's house.  Grandpa saw the panther springing.  Grandpa jumped off the horse, against the door.  He burst through the door and slammed it behind him". 

Most of the book is not so harrowing.  We learn about Laura's getting a doll for Christmas, the first doll she had ever owned, which she named Charlotte.  Mary and Laura were close but Laura was a bit jealous of Mary who always did what she was told and had beautiful blonde hair which Lauta envied.  Charles and Caroline worked from dawn to dusk with Charles hunting and harvesting the wheat and Caroline cooking, churning and mending.  Everything had to be made by scratch including cheese which was quite a procedure and then tnere are the descriptions of maple candy which involves hot maple syrup poured over snow.  That recipe I think I could manage.

Sometimes when you read a children's book as an adult you can be disappointed. This is not one of those times.  Little House in the Big Woods is a fascinating wonderfully written look at what life was like for 19th century homesteading families like the Ingalls.  I understand that future books in the series get even better and that's saying alot since this first effort is so good. 

Little House in the Big Woods is book six on my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge list (choose a classic of children's literature) hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate.  I have six more classics to complete by the end of the year and I am getting a little nervous but I don't regret taking the challenge.  I am reading some wonderful books this year and without the challenge who knows when I would have gotten around to them.

Monday, August 13, 2018

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

A few months ago, Ruthiella at Booked for Life (see the link to her very fine website at blogs I follow) reviewed A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters (Edith Mary Pargeter).  It's the first novel in her Brother Cadfael mystery series which I have been curious about for some time and thanks Ruthiella for giving me the push to finally start reading these books.

The Brother Cadfael mysteries take place in the UK during the 12th century.  Brother Cadfael is the amatuer sleuth tasked in each book with solving the crime.  Cadfael's path to the monastic life is unusual in that he spent his early years as a soldier and sailor.  As Ruthiella points out this gives him a wealth of knowledge and experience about human nature which serves him well as a detective.

And so when A Morbid Taste for Bones begins Brother Cadfael is tending his garden at Shrewsbury Abbey when Brother Columbanus falls ill.  Prior Robert instructs Brother Jerome to stay with Columbanus during the night and the next morning Brother Jerome reports that while he was watching over Brother Columbanus he fell asleep and a beautiful young woman named Winifred who was martyred many years ago appeared to him saying that if Brother Columbanus is taken to Gwytherin in North Wales where she is buried he will be cured.  When Brother Columbanus his health restored returns to the abbey after his trip to Gwytherin, Prior Robert is sure that it's a miracle and since the Shrewsbury Abbey, has no holy relics of their own, it's an answer to another prayer as well.

Prior Robert and his fellow monks including Brother Cadfael journey to Gwytherin to bring back to Shrewsbury the bones of St Winifred but the village of Gwytherin is not accomadating.  Rhisiart, the largest landowner in Gwytherin, feels that Winifred should stay put.  Prior Robert first tries bribery and then tries to instill guilt and fear into Rhisiart and the villagers but the answer is still no and then Rhisiart winds up dead.  Who killed him?  One of the monks from the Abbey?  Or did one of the villagers who might have had a prior gripe with Rhisiart do him in figuring that the commotion over St. Winifred would throw people off the scent.  Everyone that is except Brother Cadfael who along with the help of Rhisiart's daughter is determined to have Rhisiart's murder solved and the killer brought to justice.

I  did some research after I finished reading A Morbid Taste for Bones and discovered there really was a Shrewsbury Abbey and a Prior Robert who is credited in history with bringing the bones of St Winifred to Shrewsbury Abbey.  If I have gone on a bit about Prior Robert at the expense of Brother Cadfael it's because he was the charachter that most interested me.  A man of faith no doubt but also an ambitious self important man as well. The historical Prior Robert would eventually become the Abbot of Shrewsbury and so I hope in subsequent Brother Cadfael books he will continue to have a role to play.  I agree with Ruthiella that A Morbid Taste for Bones is a good start to what I predict will be an educational and enjoyable mystery series.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner published 1929 is book five on my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) - choose a classic that scares you.  I had heard that Faulkner wrote in a stream of consciousness style that would be hard to follow and The Sound and The Fury is indeed a difficult book to get through.  When that happens it's not a bad idea to check out Spark Notes.  They go through the novel with you chapter by chapter,  It made a difference.  Passages I couldn't comprehend before became clearer.  But it's still a difficult read.

The Sound and the Fury tells the tragic story of the Compson family.  The novel is set in Jefferson, Mississippi and takes place primarily during an Easter weekend in 1928.  Each of the first three chapters are narrated by a different Compson sibling, Benji, Quentin and Jason.  You are inside the thoughts of these brothers each of whom is obsessed by the memory of their sister Caddy who is at the heart of all that happens.

Benji who is mentally handicapped and who Caddy cared for, since their mother was incapable of doing so, still waits for his sister to return.  Quentin's chapter is set in 1910 during his first year at Harvard.  When Caddy gets pregnant, Quentin is devastated and in a bizzare attempt to protect his sister's honor he suggests that Caddy tell their parents that he is the father.  It's not true but in Quentin's mind letting people think it was incest would be preferable to Caddy being unmarried and pregnant.  Caddy nixes this idea and decides instead to marry a wealthy young man who has no idea the baby isn't his.  When he discovers the truth he divorces Caddy and she is disowned by her family.

In Jason's chapter we are once again in 1928.  Jason is a bitter, hateful man who blames Caddy because her husband had promised him a lucrative banking position years ago which fell through once Caddy's marriage ended.  When Caddy left home she gave her baby daughter Quentin (named in memory of her brother) to her parents to raise but when her father died, Jason became the head of the family.  Jason treats seventeen year old Quentin badly and has been pocketing the money tnat Caddy has been sending her daughter for years.

Dilsey the Compson family's cook and housekeeper is the focus of chapter four, the final chapter.  Dilsey has been caring for her own family and the Compsons practically her entire life and in chapter four we spend a day with Dilsey. It's Easter Sunday and the Compson family is in an uproar (let's just say that Caddy's daughter Quentin has had the last laugh on Jason).  As poor Benji sits in the kitchen upset by all the commotion, Dilsey decides to take him to church.  As Dilsey, her daughter, her grandson and Benji head to church Dilsey and her friends she meets along the way talk about the guest preacher from St Loiuis.  No one has heard him preach before but everyone is excited and there is a nice moment where the minister is preaching and Dilsey has her hand protectively on Benji's knee listening to the sermon.  Benjy is quiet too, no longer afraid and what Faulkner might be saying at the close of the book is that it's Dilsey's values that are the Southern traditions worth keeping.

But then again I don't think The Sound and the Fury can be summed up so succintly.  Truth be told I was lost a good part of the way through.  I was able to give a recounting of the plot thanks to Spark Notes and to properly review this book I would need to read it again more slowly and also read what the critics have said.  But lost as I was I could definitely sense The Sound and The Fury's greatness.  I would be open sometime in the future to giving this novel another go or maybe try another Faulkner novel that is a bit more accessible because he's worth the effort.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Like Water For Chocolate: A Novel In Monthly Installments With Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel

Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel was first published in Mexico in 1989 and has gone on to international bestsellerdom and critical acclaim.  Like Water for Chocolate falls under the genre of magical realism involving scenes in which the supernatural can occur in everyday life.  It's a novel about passionate topics: food, cooking, romance and above all the love that Tita de la Garza and Pedro Muzquiz feel for each other.  When that love is thwarted by Tita's mother, Mama Elena, it will have devastating consequences for all involved.

The novel begins n Mexico at the start of the 20th century.  Tita is the youngest daughter of Mama Elena de la Garza, a mean woman who owns a ranch in northern Mexico.  At sixteen Tita and a neighborhood boy Pedro Muzquiz fall in love and want to marry.  Mama Elena says no because there is a tradition in the de la Garza family where the youngest daughter can never marry so that she can take care of her mother in her later years.  It's a cruel and nonsensical tradition but Mama Elena will not listen to reason.

Tita and Pedro are heartbroken but Tita cannot bring herself to go against her mother who she fears and also Tita doesn't have the stength to break family tradition.  As for Pedro he agrees to marry Mama Elena's eldest daughter Rosaura figuring that if he can't marry Tita he can stay close to her by marrying her sister. This works about as well as you can imagine.

Like Water For Chocolate consists of twelve chapters from January through December but the story itself takes place over years.  Each chapter leads with a new recipe from Tita's kitchen.  Cooking is the one outlet Tita has to express what's in her heart.  She learned how to cook when she was very young spending time in the kitchen with Nacha, the family cook.  These two women  have a special bond and Nacha in terms of love, support and encouragement is the only real mother Tita has ever known.

Tita's cooking has magical powers.  For example forced by her mother to cook the dinner for Pedro and her sister's wedding some of Tita's tears fall into the wedding cake.  Later at the wedding feast all of the guests after taking a bite of the cake are struck with such a feeling of longing and sadness that they start vomiting, including Rosaura who has her wedding day to Pedro ruined.  In a later chapter Tita's other sister Gertrudis, after eating a dinner prepared by Tita is so overcome by passion that she runs away with a young soldier who is part of a rebel army fighting for Mexican independence.  A certain suspension of reality is necessary to enjoy the book but the author does a good job in mixing the mythical with real life.  Like Water For Chocolate is a book filled with profound and beautiful imagery.  I particularly liked "Each of us is born with a book of matches inside us but we cannot strike them all by ourselves".  

One criticism I might make is that more time needed to be spent establishing  why Tita and Pedro's relationship is so special.  Pedro though he plays a central role in the story isn't a major character.  This is above all Tita's story and she spends much more time with Nacha, her mother and John a local doctor who falls in love with Tita than she does with Pedro.  When Pedro does appear throughout the course of the book longing glances between the two are supposed to suffice in convincing us that the chemistry is still there.  But I didn't feel the chemistry possibly because Pedro is not fleshed out enough as a character but maybe it's  different in the movie version of the book which I have not seen.

As we get to the end of the book we discover that the story of Tita and Pedro is being told to us decades later by Tita's grandniece.  Times are different now.  The family tradition of the youngest daughter never marrying is in the past.  These days one is encouraged to follow one's heart but as Tita's grandniece tells us food, cooking and Tita's recipes are traditions worth keeping.

Monday, July 2, 2018

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

I read a number of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries when I was young  and I remember enjoying them a great deal.  Not sure why I stopped reading Christie.  Sometimes we just move on to other authors but I always thought I might read her again and the 2018 Back To The Classics Challenge - choose a crime classic gave me the incentive.  I chose And Then There Were None (published 1939) which many consider Christie's best novel and certainly a favorite of fans.

And Then There Were None is set in the late 1930's and when the novel begins ten characters have received an invitation from a mysterious Mr. Owen.  He is the owner of Soldier Island off the coast of Devon.  The ten guests, strangers to each other, have been invited by Mr Owens to his mansion for a summer holiday.  None of the ten know Mr. Owen but in each invitation he mentions a mutual aquaintance to throw them off their guard.

The ten characters come from various walks of life.  What they have in common is that each is harboring a dark secret.  Each bears some blame in causing the death of another.  The Doctor who years ago walked in drunk to the operating room causing the death of his patient.  The General who sent a soldier having an affair with his wife to the front lines.  The wealthy playboy who drove recklessly killing a pedestrian etc.  These ten men and women have to a certain extent forgotten these past guilts and so they arrive at Soldier Island relaxed and eager to begin their summer holiday.

Upon arrival the ten get aquainted and wait for their mysterious host to arrive,  They visit their bedrooms where in each room hangs a framed nursery rhyme which begins "Ten little soldier boys went out to dine.  One choked his little self and thn there were nine". They don't notice the nursery rhyme at first or the fact that on a stand in the dining room there are ten little soldier figurines.  After dinner on the first night of their arrival, Ms Christie gives a chilling account of a voice that comes into the room while the ten guests are enjoying their coffee::

"Ladies and Gentlemen you are charged with the folliwing indictments". 

Edward George Armstrong, that you did upon the 14th day of March 1925, cause the death of Louisa Mary Clees".

Emily Caroline Brent, that upon the 5th of November 1931, you were responsible for the death of  Beatrice Taylor"

The voice goes on naming the indictments of the eight remaining characters and needless to say the reaction of the ten is like a bomb going off in the room.  The Butler's wife faints.  Other characters race out of the dining room trying to find the source of the voice.  It will turn out to be a gramophone and it won't be long before the first of the ten, Anthony Maston, tne wealthy playboy, ends up chokomg to death after sipping a glass of wine that's been poisoned.

The ten make a search of Soldier Island and the mansion and discover that they are alone.  They are trapped there because the ferryman who brought them to the island does not return the next day or the day after that and there is no other way off the island.  When the Butler's wife fails to wake up the next morning the ten (now eight) realize that the killer is one of them and he or she won't be satisfied until they are all dead.

Agatha Christie has written that she was inspired to write And Then There Were None "because it was so difficult to do.  Ten people had to die in this book without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious".  Christie does pull it off.  This is a gripping read but it's a disturbing book as well.  I did not find anyone I could root for in this novel.  There is very little character development and though these ten are flawed I was bothered much more by the vigilante killer at the core of tbis story who has chosen to play God.  Christie is a great mystery novelist but you might want to stick with her Hercule Poirot mysteries which I retain fond memories of.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

New Grub Street by George Gissing

George Gissing (1857 - 1903) was a nineteenth century British Victorian novelist who is not widely known today and that's a real shame. I discovered Gissing years ago when I read his novel The Odd Women (published 1893).  I was struck by Gissing's talent and also his understanding and sympathetic view of the suffrage movement.  I learned that George Gissing's novel New Grub Street (1891) is the book he is most famous for and so I decided to include New Grub Street for my 2018 Back to The Classics Challenge - choose a classic from the nineteenth century and I made a very wise choice indeed.

New Grub Street is set in London's literary world of the 1880's and when the novel begins the Victorian Era is coming to a close and the Modern Age is just around the corner.  Class is beginning to be overtaken by commerce and how much money one can earn.  The book trade is undergoing a revolution as well and no one understands this new world better than Jasper Milvain,  the cynical young journalist who is one of the main characters in the book.  Jasper at the start of the novel explains to his sisters what is required tto succeed these days in publishing:

"But just understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me.  He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882.  He won't make concessions, or rather, he can't make them; he can't supply the market.  I -- well, you may say that at present I do nothing; but that's a great mistake, I am learning my business.  Literature nowadays is a trade.  Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skillful tradesman.  He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetizing. ... Reardon can't do that kind of thing, he's behind his age, he sells a manuscript as if he lived in Sam Johnson's Grub Street".

Edwin Reardon, of whom Jasper speaks, and his wife Amy Reardon, are also main characters in New Grub Street.  Edwin is a talented writer who prior to his marriage was able to publish three well reviewed novels but they did not sell well.  Since their marriage Edwin has not been able to publish anything and Amy is not supportive.  In fairness, Amy is justifiably worried about their financial situation since they have a young son.  But when Edwin tries to write any sort of book just so it will sell, Amy is worried about what their friends will think:

"But darling, he took her hands strongly in his own.  "I want you to disregard other people.  You and I are surely everything to each other?  Are you ashamed of me, of me myself?"

There was silence

"Edwin, if you find you are unable to do good work, you mustn't do bad".

Later when Edwin gets his old job back as a hospital clerk so they can make ends meet, Amy is not happy with that either.  She was counting on Edwin rising in the literary world when they married so that she could be the wife of a great man.  Amy and Edwin separate and as the book proceeds the lives of Amy and Jasper go quite well.  While the fortunes of Edwin Reardon and Marion Yule decline.

Marion Yule is the fourth major character in New Grub Street.  She is an intelligent, shy young woman who helps her parents and spends her time in the British Museum researching and writing her father's scholarly articles.  It is at the museum that she has the misfortune of meeting and eventually falling in love with Jasper Milvain.  Jasper does care about Marion but his plan is to marry a woman with an income larger than his own so that as he puts it "casualties may be provided for" and Marion does not have alot of money.

New Grub Street is a cynical look at what it takes to succeed in publishing and in life.  Tragedy looms in this book but there are also lovely moments in which Gissing shines a light on friendship and the love of books.  Here for example are Edwin Reardon and his fellow impoverished writer friend Harold Biffen having dinner in a coffee-shop.  Edwin has been complaining bitterly to Biffen about Amy having left him but then:

"They ate their ham and eggs and exilerated themselves with a cup of chicory -called coffee.  Then Biffen drew from the pocket of his venerable overcoat the volume of Euripides he had bought, and their talk turned once more to the land of the sun.  Only when the coffee-shop was closed did tney go forth again into the foggy street, and at the top of Pentonville Hill they stood for ten minutes debating a metrical effect in one of the Fragments".

George Gissing during his short life published twenty three novels and in New Grub Street what he had to say about literature, poverty, love, social standing, money is as relevant today as it was back in the Victorian Age.  If you are a fan of 19th century British novels, or great novels in general, your collection is not complete without New Grub Street.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

I was sure I was going to like Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (published 2017).  Prairie Fires has received widespread critical acclaim and has been awarded this year's Pulitzer Prize for Biography.  It can be daunting to give one's views on such a book but I have to be honest and say I struggled to get through Prairie Fires and the question is why?

I'm a fan of the Little House TV series so you would think I would be an ideal candidate for this biography.  But though I am a fan of the TV show, I have never gotten around to reading any of Ms. Wilder's classic Little House children's novels.  I think that matters.  It would be like reading a biography of Charlotte Bronte without having read Jane Eyre.  You should always read the author's work before tackling a biography about the author.

That said, for me the most interesting part of Prairie Fires takes place in the first third of the book as Charles, Caroline and their children try to make a living on the Great Plains during the 1870's.   The second and third parts of Prairie Fires  revolve around Laura and her husband Almanzo Wilder's life in Mansfield Missouri.   We don't hear much about Laura's parents and sisters again.  Instead the story shifts to Mansfield, MO where Laura and Almanzo who arrived there as newlyweds would spend the rest of their lives.

Almanzo Wilder was a private man and Laura though more outgoing was also rather private.  She became an important member of her small town community in Mansfield, writing a column for the local newspaper, and she had a job for many years processing loan applications for her neighbors.  Laura was an active member of social get togethers in her town but until she started jotting her childhood memories down in her later years her life was not the stuff of biography.   Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane is another story however and the deeper one gets into Prairie Fires the more Rose's life begins to take over the book.  Caroline Fraser to put it bluntly cannot stand Rose and though Rose was a hard person to like I couldn't help wonder are we getting the full story when you factor in Ms. Fraser's distaste.

One may also ask in a biography about Laura Ingalls Wilder why is Rose taking up so much space?  But then again, how could it be otherwise?  Laura and Rose as the author tells us had a loving but complex relationship.  Rose Wilder Lane was a talented writer and journalist who during her life had articles and short stories regularly published in the newspapers and major magazines of the day.  A few of her short stories were nominated for O'Henry awards.  Rose would return to her mother's home in Mansfield MO during the Great Depression and begin helping her mother turn the drafts of her Little House books into publishable products.  But the question will always remain did the substantial editing Rose did on the Little House books cross the line into rewriting?  Prairie Fires makes the case that it may have and if so co-authorship for Rose Wilder Lane on the Little House books was warranted even though Rose never requested it.

So, should you read Prairie Fires?  I think if you have read and loved the Little House books you should. There will be much to suprise as Caroline Fraser separates fact from fiction regarding what life was really like on the prairie of the 1870's.  The real Ingalls family as opposed to their fictional counterparts had a much tougher road filled with hardship and peril that the books and the TV series have tended to gloss over.  But fans will be pleased to know that the books, the TV series and the biography are all in agreement on one thing, Charles and Caroline Ingalls were remarkable people who struggled to keep food on the table for their children against all odds while providing fun times as well.  All her life, Laura Ingalls Wilder loved and idolized her parents and she was right to do so.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Ten Nights in A Bar Room And What I Saw There by Timothy Shay Arthur

"He loved his mother, and was deeply afflicted by the calamity; but it seemed as if he could not stop.  Some terrible necessity appeared to be impelling him onward.  If he formed good resolutions  - and I doubt not that he did - they were blown away like threads of gossamer, the moment he came within the sphere of old associations.  His way to the mill was by the Sickle and Sheaf, and it was not easy for him to pass there without being drawn into the bar, either by his own desire for drink, or through the invitation of some pleasant companion, who was lounging in front of the Tavern". - Ten Nights In A Bar Room by Timothy Shay Arthur.

Ten Nights In A Bar Room by Timothy Shay Arthur was published in 1854 and it was a very popular novel in its day dealing with the subject of temperance.  Only Uncle Tom's Cabin did better in book sales during the 1850's.  Yet today Ten Nights in A Bar Room has fallen into obscurity.  That fascinates me, once popular books that are no longer read or remembered  I have a number of such novels in my kindle and are they worth reading?  Do they have lessons for modern times?

And so when Ten Nights In A Bar Room begins it is the mid 19th century in the fictional town of Cedarville.  The novel is narrated by a business man whose name we never learn.  His work keeps bringing him back to Cedarville over a ten year period.  Each time the narrator returns he rents a room for the night at the Sickle and Sheaf, the local saloon.  The Sickle and Sheaf starts out as a promising enterprise for the town and its owner Simon Slade.  However as the years go by the Sickle and Sheaf detiorates into a den of vice and corruption which eventually destroys the lives of the owner, his family, the young men who frequent the tavern, their long suffering mothers and wives and pretty much anyone who walks through its doors. 

As the novel progresses a young girl is killed by a flying bottle when she comes to the bar pleading for her father to come home.  Willie Hammond, the son of Judge Hammond,  who is the light of his parent's lives and who is one of the nicest young men around who tne town has high hopes for, develops a drinking and gambling problem.  Simon Slade the owner of the bar gets seriously injured in a bar fight.  His wife loses her wits seeing what has happened to her family.  Their son, sixteen year old Frank Slade, starts out helping his father run the bar and takes up with a bad crowd.   At various points in the novel the subject of temperance is discussed and despite the damage that the saloon is doing to Cedarville, many of the bar patrons are not willing to go there.  As Judge Lynan states:

"The next thing we will have will be laws to fine any man who takes a chew of tobacco or lights a cigar.  Touch the liberties of the people in the smallest particular, and all guarantees are gone.  The Stamp Act, against which our noble forefathers rebelled, was a light measure of oppression to that contemplated by these worse than fanatics".  

Ten Nights In A Bar Room is not shy about conveying its message with regard to the evils of alcohol.  It can be overwrought, particularly as we get near to the end of the book.  On the whole though its decently written and it did cause me to think.  Nowadays the temperance movement looks foolish and fanatical but if you look at the situation from a 19th century perspective saloons opening up in small towns across the country could cause real problems.  When Ten Nights was written for example what could a young man (women weren't allowed in bars back then) do for fun?  This was before television the movies, radio, the telephone, automobiles.  It could get boring and lonely in small towns and saloons were a place of commraderie.  But the book points out that in many of these saloons gamblers would arrive.taking advantage of customers too inebriated to know what they were doing.  Women were hit hard by the saloon culture as well.  If a woman was married to a man who drank what recourse did she have?  Divorce was not an option back then and there were no jobs for women to help feed their families.

So I am glad I read Ten Nights In A Bar Room.  I think its worth reading for its historical value, a window into a different time and why temperance became such a big issue in the 19th century.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin

Boris Akunin is a contemporary Russian writer who currently lives in Moscow and is best known for his Erast Petrovich Fandorin mystery series.  These novels are hugely popular in Russia and internationally Boris Akunin's books have received  acclaim as well.

The Winter Queen published in 1998 is the first novel in the Pandorin series and when the novel begins it is 1876 and Erast Pandorin's supersvisor at the police department, Xavier Grushin, is looking through that day's edition of the Moscow Gazette.  He comes upon a shocking story that reads as follows :

"Yesterday the Alexander Gardens were the scene of a sad incident only too distinctly typical of the cynical outlook and manners of modern youth when Mr N., a handsome young fellow of twenty-three, a student at Moscow University, and the sole heir to a fortune of millions, shot himself dead in full view of the promenading public ... It would appear tnat the fashionable epidemic of pointless suicides, which had thus far remained the scourge of Petropolis, has finally spread to the walls of Old Mother Moscow ... O tempora, o mores!  To what depths of unbelief and nihilism have our guilded youth descended if they would make a vulgar spectacle even of their own deaths?  If our home grown Brutuses adopt such an attitude to their own lives, then how can we be suprised if they care not a  brass kopeck for the lives of other, incomparably more worthy individuals?"

The suicide is particularly disturbing since the young man, Mr N, who shot himself  did so in front of a young woman and her governess sitting on a park bench. He did not know these two women.  Why would he do such a thing?  It also seems like a closed case.  But Grushin is bothered by this story and asks young Erast Pandorin to investigate.  Earst who is twenty and has had only clerical duties to perform is very eager to take on a real case   As the book progresses and Erast Pandorin digs deeper we will see that what started out as a sensless suicide in Alexander Gardens is in reality a much wider conspiracy with international implications.  Our young detective matures a great deal throughout the book as he uncovers plot twist after plot twist and by the time the novel ends Erast Fandorin is not the same naive twenty year old who we began the book with,

I was impessed with the Winter Queen.  Over the years I have read a number of 19th century Russian novels and though the Winter Queen was published in 1998,  Boris Akunin's depiction of 19th century Russia is very well done.  The dialogue, the characters, the whole ambiance rings true.  You feel you are in Moscow in the late 19th century and that is a credit to the author's talent.

I do have criticisms though.  First, Erast Pandorin, our young hero, survives multiple attempts on his life throughout the novel and I began to find it implausible that he could escape both physically and emotionally so many close calls.  I also felt by the time I got to the end of the novel that we were far afield from the suicide that began the book.  For me there were too many plot twists along the way and a resolution of the mystery that I can't see happening in reality.

But I closed the Winter Queen deciding that I would like to give the Erast Fandorin series another try.  Maybe skip to book five or six when our young detective  is older, has more of a personal life and the crimes he is asked to solve a little more straightforward.   One thing is for sure, the author doesn't need gimmicks, international conspiracies and plot twists to move his books along. He is a very fine writer and that alone kept me turning the pages.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (published 1937) is book two in my 2018 Back To the Classics Challenge - Choose A Classic From the 20th Century. It's a moving, beautifully written story centering on Janie Crawford, an African American woman in her early forties living in Florida during the early 1900's.  I wanted to quote so many passages in this book.  Hopefully the one's I have chosen will give people a sense of why the praise for this novel is so well deserved and thank you Brianna for lending me your copy.

When Their Eyes Were Watching God begins Janie Crawford is returning to her hometown in Eatonville.  Janie left Eatonville, FL about a year prior to join her lover Tea Cake in the Everglades.  The neighbors in Eatonville were shocked.  Janie running off with a younger man so soon after her husband died?  As Janie walks by, worn out, but with her head held high, the neighbors speculate about why Janie is back and what happened to Tea Cake.  Why isn't he with Janie.  Did he take her money and  run?  One of Janie's neighbors, her good friend Phoeby Watkins, confronts the gossipers:

"You mean you mad 'cause she didn't stop and tell us all her business.  Anyhow, what you ever know her to do so bad as y'all make out?  The worst thing Ah ever knowed her to do was taking a few years off a her age and dat ain't never harmed nobody.  Y'all makes me tired.  De way you talkin' you'd think de folks in dis town didn't do nothin' in de bed 'cept praise de Lawd.  You have to 'scuse me, 'cause Ah'm bound to go take her some supper".  

The rest of Their Eyes Were Watching God is Janie telling her friend Phoeby her story not only what happened to Tea Cake but her entire life story.  Being raised by her grandmother in West Florida.  Janie having an epiphany at sixteen about how for her, the only marriage worth having is a marriage of love, a marriage of soulmates.  But Janie's grandmother who grew up in slavery and faced hard times steers Janie at age sixteen into a marriage with a well off, much older man so Janie can have security.  It doesn't work out and a few years later Janie meets Joe Starks, a handsome go getter who has great plans for the future.  Janie runs off with Joe who will become her second husband.

Joe and Janie move to Eatonville where Joe becomes Mayor.  At first everything is fine but Joe Starks reveals himself to be controlling and jealous.  Janie is faithful to Joe for the 20 years they are together but it becomes a loveless marriage, two strangers living in the same house, barely speaking.  When Joe dies, Janie finally feels free to do whatever she likes and then she meets Tea Cake.

Tea Cake is charming and he makes Janie laugh.  He's ten years younger than Janie but they have a true bond.  There is a touching vulnerability about Tea Cake and though he is certainly not perfect, the author, Zora Neale Hurston, does an excellent job in letting us see why Janie would love Tea Cake so much.  But tragedy looms for Janie and Tea Cake and in the midst of her sadness and fear, Janie thinks about God:

She looked hard at the sky for a long time.  Somewhere up there beyond blue ether's bosom sat He.  Was He noticing what was going on around here?  He must be because He knew everything.   Did He mean to do this thing to Tea Cake and her?  ... Maybe it was some big tease and when He saw it had gone far enough He'd give her a sign.  She looked hard for something up there to move for a sign.  A star in tne daytime, maybe, or the sun to shout, or even a mutter of thunder.  Her arms went up a desparate supplication for a minute.  It wasn't exactly pleading, it was asking questions.  The sky stayed hard looking and quiet so she went inside the house".  

At the end of the novel Janie tells Phoeby that if she wishes she can tell Janie's story to the curious neighbors but Janie doubts they'll understand about her and Tea Cake and the love they had for each other:

"Ah know all dem sitters-and-talkers gointuh worry they guts into fiddle strings till dey find out whut we been talkin' 'bout.  Dat's all right, Phoeby, tell 'em.  Dey gointuh make 'miration cause mah love didn't work lak they love.  If tney ever had any.  Then you must tell 'em that love ain't somethin lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch.  Love is lak de sea.  It's a movin' thing, but still and all, it takes it's shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore".  

Their Eyes Were Watching God is not a very long book.  Some have said they found the dialect a little hard to follow but I had no problem.  And as I hope the above passages I've quoted prove, this is a novel packed with beautiful poetic imagery and profound things to say about love, God, relations between men and women, black people and white people and the meaning of life in general.  It's therefore shocking that this novel was out of print for decades and the author Zora Neale Hurston having died in 1960, buried in an unmarked grave.  Thanks to the writer Alice Walker in the 1970's Their Eyes Were Watching God was rescued from obsurity and today it is available everywhere, taught in high school and colleges and internationally acknowledged as a classic of 20th century literature.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

The accomplished journalist and bestselling author Walter Isaacson has a fascination with genius.  How do the brilliant minds throughout history differ from the rest of us?  What might they have in common with each other?  Walter Isaacson has written biographies of Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs partly to address these questions.  The subject of his latest biography is Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo daVinci (1452 - 1519) was the ultimate Rennaissance man not only because he lived during the Italian Rennassance era but because his interests crossed all boundaries. da Vinci is most famous for painting two of the greatest masterpieces in history, the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper but Leonardo, as Isaacson tells us, was also fascinated by science and engineering:

"With a passion that was both playful and obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, fossils, birds, the heart, flying machines, optics, botany, geology water flows and weaponry ... His scientific explorations informed his art.  As he aged, he pursued his scientific inquiries not just to serve his art but out of a joyful instinct to fathom the profound beauties of creation".

Walter Isaacson has done an excellent job researching and writing about da Vinci's life and work.  A good portion of the book provides us with an analysis of da Vinci's paintings and his science and engineering experiments.  da Vinci spent years for example studying birds and sketching out plans in his notebooks for flying machines.  He had plans for diverting rivers, building cities, creating musical instruments, ideas for pagents and plays.  He participated in dissections in hospitals which enhanced the real life quality of his paintings.  Also because of da Vinci's dissections he is credited with a major scientific breakthrough, how the aortic valve of the heart works, a discovery that scientists today still marvel at.  We also have Leonardo da Vinci's legendary notebooks, 7,200 pages of which still survive.  He took his notebooks wherever he went, jotting down and drawing ideas, observations, everything he was curious about.

Walter Isaacson tells us about Leonardo's personal life, He was born out of wedlock which is important because had da Vinci's parents married he would have been expected to go into the notary business like generations of da Vinci men before him.  But because of his out of wedlock status he was barred from the notary profession and free to pursue whatever career he liked.  At age fourteen DaVinci secured an apprenticeship and began working for Andrea del Verrocchio, an artist and engineer, who ran an excellent art school in Florence.  Leonardo da Vinci was gay and at age 38 he met his lifelong companion Salai who he loved but their relationship could be stormy.   da Vinci was good natured, generous with his friends and he was well liked by many but he could also exasperate his patrons because he had trouble finishing paintings.  As to da Vinci's spititual side he had a belief in the beauty and oneness of nature and was a  lifelong vegetarian because he didn't think animals should be killed for food.

His great painting of course is the Mona Lisa.  Who was the Mona Lisa?  Her name was Lisa del Giocondo, the 24 year old wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant who commissioned Leonardo early in his career to paint a portrait of his wife Lisa.  Leonardo sensed something in the painting because he never gave it to Frances del Giocondo and instead kept it for himself and continued to work on it throughout his life.

I am glad I read Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson and I would heartily recommend this book to those interested in art history, science, innovation, the Italian Rennassance or anyone wanting to know more about one of the greatest minds that ever lived.  The illustrations of Leonardo's paintings and sketches throughout this biography are wonderful to look at as well and though none of us can hope to equal da Vinci's genius, it wouldn't hurt to carry around our own notebooks in our travels and write down all the interesting things we observe.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Question of Belief by Donna Leon

A Question of Belief (published 2010) is book nineteen in Donna Leon's acclaimed Commissario Brunetti mystery series.   Death At LaFenice, the first book in the series, remains my favorite.  However, A Question of Belief (starred review from Publisher's Weekly) is very good as well.  In fact what's remarkable is the high quality Ms. Leon has maintained certainly in the three Brunetti mysteries that I have read so far.

She created in Guido Brunetti a decent, thoughtful, very smart detective who is happily married, enjoys good food and wines reads The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in the evening for pleasure.  He is cynical about government bureaucracy but he is committed to solving crimes and when A Question of Belief begins it is August in Venice and it is hot.  Comissario Brunetti speculates on what the criminal population is doing:

"Could they be induced to leave people alone until the end of this heat spell?  That presupposed some sort of central organization, but Brunetti knew that crime had become too diversified and too international for any reliable agreement to be possible ... His thoughts drifted to the promises he had made to Paola that tonight they would discuss their own vacation.  He, a Venetian, was going to turn himself and his family into tourists, but tourists going in the other direction, away from Venice, leaving room for the millions who were expected this year.  Last year twenty millon.  God have mercy on us all".

Unfortunately, Commissario Brunetti does not get to join his family in the mountains for vacation.  He is stuck in sweltering Venice working two separate cases. The first involves a psychic healer who is depriving vulnerable people of their money.  The second case involves a murder of a civil servant at the courthouse and could his death be linked to the fact that he was helping a judge delay court cases in exchange for pay offs?

I enjoyed A Question of Belief.  Many of Donna Leon's book are topical dealing with issues of the day and a running theme throughout her novels is the cynicism the people of Venice, including Brunetti and his wife Paola, feel towards their government, the media, the church.  I am reminded of a passage in Death at LaFenice, for example, in which Paola is sitting in the kitchen reading the newspaper.  She explains to Brunetti that she reads a different paper each day, going from left to right politically because "I want to see how many different ways the same lies can be told".  

Donna Leon's novels tell us that the Venetians have made a certain peace with their "it's all corrupt" mindset.  They go about their lives in spite of it and I felt a little envious.  Here in the US where there used to be accountability, Trump has completely changed that.  He is awash in corruption and he has a Congress who rubber stamps whatever he wants.  I wish like the Venetians I could ignore him and go about my life but Trump makes it impossible.  Anyway, I recommend A Question of Belief.  Is a nice escape from what is going on now.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Small Room by May Sarton

I read The Small Room by May Sarton (published 1961) decades ago and the beginning of the novel has always stayed with me, a young woman, Lucy Winter, is heading to her new teaching job at a small prestigious women's college in New England.  It's quite an accomplishment for someone only 27 to be a professor but Lucy is feeling melancholy.  Her plan was to be married but that fell through and now Lucy is beginning a teaching career she didn't want and she is also plagued by fears that she is not prepared.  She wonders what does she really know about teaching?  What does it take to inspire one's students and get them to be  passionate about the subject one is teaching?

Later, after settling in at Appleton College, Lucy will face deeper questions about the dangers of getting too close to a student or remaining too detatched when a student needs your help.  The crisis that will bring these questions about happens shortly after Lucy arrives at Appleton.  One of the most brilliant students on campus, Jane Seaman, is caught plagerising an article she wrote for the school newspaper.   It is Lucy who discovers this plagerism and she brings it to the attention of the administration.  Plagerism means expulsion from Appleton College but the school is conflicted.  A plagerism expulsion would follow Jane Seaman throughout her life and so it's a harsh punishment.  Also Jane is the protege of a famous professor at the school, Professor Carryl Cope, one of the top Medieval History scholars in the country.  Professor Cope wants to protect Jane and sees herself when she was young in Jane  and feels guilt about putting too much pressure on the young woman to excel.  The student body gets wind of what is happening and they are angry knowing that had they done what Jane Seaman did they wouldn't be let off so lightly.

Battle lines are drawn and the question of what to do is debated over a number of faculty dinner parties as we are introduced to Lucy's colleagues, their lives off campus, their views about teaching, their different opinions about the best way to deal with Jane's plagerism.  Lucy because she is young and new to the academic politics at Appleton College becomes the sounding board for her colleagues as they confide to her about the school, what they think about teaching and what they think of each other.  Appleton, Lucy comes to see, is an insular community where the professors live too near to each other and to the campus.  They are lonely, argue, drink too much and they know each other too well but they are also brilliant teachers.

A little bit about the author May Sarton (1912 - 1995).  She was a talented poet and novelist who had a rebirth as a writer in the 1970's.  Ms Sarton was a pioneer in feminist and gay and lesbian literature.  She wrote openly about being a lesbian woman back in 1965 when she published Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, possibly her most well known novel.   In her later years May Sarton who had moved to York, Maine began publishing her journals: Journal of Solitude (about turning sixty), House by the Sea, Recovering, After the Stroke, At Seventy, At Eighty-Two.  Her journals are about solitude, nature, women, friendship, love, writing, illness, books, life, etc.  I enjoyed rereading The Small Room and the novel left me eager to begin May Sarton's journals which continue to have a wide readership.  I'll be turning sixty myself this year so maybe Journal of Solitude is the place to begin.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare published 1958 and winner of the 1959 Newbery Medal is one of the novels I chose for my 2018 Classic's Club Challenge.  It's a well written historical children's novel set in the late 1600's.  The book left me with a desire to learn more about Puritan New England.  More generally it's a novel about standing up for what's right and standing by those who are under attack.  In that sense the book is timeless.

When The Witch of Blackbird Pond begins Kit (Katherine) Tyler is sailing from her home in sunny Barbados to the colder and more austere community of Wethersfield Connecticut.  Kit is 15 and she will be living with her Aunt Rachel, Uncle Matthew and their teenage daughters Judith and Mercy. The year is 1685 and Kit, a bright and free spirited young woman, soon realizes she has made a mistake leaving Barbados.  She knows it even before the boat docks.  A young child, Prudence, loses her doll when it falls off the ship into the water.  Kit jumps in to the water to retrieve the doll causing a comotion.  The passengers are scandalized and Prudence's mother Goodwife Cruff is particularly outraged.  She is the villain of this novel and she will later lead the charge in accusing young Kit Tyler and Kit's elderly friend Hannah Tupper of witchcraft.

Before that happens though we are introduced to Kit's Aunt Rachel a good woman who is kind to Kit.  Her husband Matthew in comparison is a strict and dour man who no one in the family challenges. Rachel and Matthew's teenage daughters, kindhearted Mercy who befriends Kit and though Mercy is disabled she never complains and looks at the bright side of things.  Her sister Judith in contrast is quite vain and resentful when things don't go her way. There is John Holbrook who is studying for the ministry, a young man who when he reads the bible leaves those around him comforted rather than trembling.  Judith tells Kit that she has "set her cap" for John but it's Mercy he loves.  Kit also has a young fellow she is interested in, Nathaniel Eaton, the son of the Captain of the Dolphin the ship that brought Kit to Wethersfield.

So there are a number of balls juggling in this novel and the author does a good job of explaining the history of that time period and day to day life for Puritans.   The heart of the story for me is Kit's relationship with the elderly widow Hannah Tupper who lives alone in a one room cottage by the meadow with her cats.  The town's people say she is a witch (the witch of Blackbird Pond) and at first Kit is afraid as well.  But in reality Hannah is a Quaker woman and in the 17th century Quakers who came to New England seeking freedom of religion ended up being jailed banished and even hanged by the Puritan Community for practicing their faith.  Hannah's husband Thomas died years ago and she is lonely.  Kit is lonely as well and Hannah and Kit enjoy tneir time together sipping tea and eating blueberry cakes and talking about life.  But this idealic situation cannot last forever.  An illness sweeps over Wethersfield, people are sick and some have died and fingers point to Hannah Tupper and Kit Tyler.  A trial takes place and I will leave it there so as not to give too much of the story away.

I enjoyed the Witch of Blackbird Pond although I have to be honest and say that throughout the reading of this novel I was thinking of another children's classic I read a few years ago, Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (Newbery Medal 1944) and for me Johnny Tremain is the better book.  Johnny is the same age as Kit and yet Johnny Tremain is a much more complex character who doesn't start off admirable but through an accident the plans he had for his life have to change drastically and though its not easy you see him gradually rebuild his life and join in the cause for American Independence.  Kit on the other hand is admirable right from the start when she jumps off the boat into the freezing water to save a young girl's doll.  There isn't much growth potential for Kit because there is nothing to improve.  And yet maybe I'm not the best judge because this book was written for children ages 9 to 13.  And so for those who are in their early teens I do recommend The Witch of Blackbird Pond and check out Johnny Tremain as well.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Glittering Images by Susan Howatch

Many years ago I discovered Susan Howatch's excellent Starbridge Series of novels.  Six books which tell the story of the Church of England during the mid twentieth century (1937 - 1960's).  Each novel takes place in the fictional Cathedral town of Starbridge.  I read the first novel in the series Glittering Images published 1987 over 20 years ago and now having reread Glittering Images I continue to marvel at how good it is and this time I vow to complete the entire Starbridge Series.

When Glittering Images begins the year is 1937 and the House of Lords has taken up Mr. A. P. Herbert's Marriage Bill which seeks to extend the reasons for granting a divorce.  Only a year prior Edward VIII abdicated the English throne to marry the divorced Mrs Simpson.  The Anglican Church didn't come out well in the Abdication crisis and Dr. William Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been afraid to take a position for or against the Marriage Bill.  The fiery and charasmatic Bishop Alex Jardine of Starbridge believes the divorce laws should be more liberal and publicly criticizes Archbishop Lang for his silence.  Lang is furious and tells his young assistant, Reverened Dr Charles Ashworth:

"Jardine's attack was quite inexcusable ... after all I was in the most unenviable position.  I couldn't condone any relaxation of the divorce law; that would have been morally repugnant to me.  On the other hand if I had openly opposed all change there would have been much damaging criticism of the church ...Yet the Bishop of Starbridge has the insufferable insolence not only to accuse me of "sitting on the fence" -- what a vulgar phrase! -- but to advocate that multiple grounds for divorce are compatible with Christian teaching!  No doubt one shouldn't expect too much of someone who's clearly very far from being a gentleman, but Jardine has behaved with gross disloyalty to me personally and with gross indifference to the welfare of the Church".

The Archbishop of Canterbury also wonders why Bishop Jardine was so eager for the Marriage Bill to pass?  Rumors are that Bishop Jardine's marriage is not a happy one.  The Jardines have been employing for years a young attractive woman by the name of Lyle Christie who serves as Mrs Jardine's assistant but is something going on between Bishop Jardine and Miss Christie?  Are they having an affair?  Archbishop Lang sends Dr. Charles Ashworth, a rising young cleric in the Anglican Church, to Starbridge to find out (under the pretense of doing research for a book) if the rumors of an affair are true.

Dr. Ashworth upon arrival at Starbridge immediately becomes involved in the Jardine household which proves to be a big mistake.  He decides without even knowing if the rumors are true to rescue Miss Christie from the grip of Bishop Jardine.  Dr Ashworth decides this because after knowing Miss Christie for only three days that he is in love with her though she has given him no encouragement.  But another reason Dr. Ashworth needs the rumors to be true is because if behind the "glittering image" Bishop Jardine is in reality a flawed and sinful man then maybe Charles Ashworth can forgive himself for his own feelings of unworthiness to serve God, an unworthiness stemming from his childhood and the guilt he still feels over his wife's death seven years prior.  We learn early in the book that Dr. Ashworth though only 37 is a widower.  His wife was killed in a tragic auto accident.  She was pregnant with their first child.  Dr Ashworth has not remarried and though it appears that he has moved on, achieving great success as he rises high in the Anglican church he is a troubled man.  The trip to Starbridge will be a life changing experience for Dr Ashworth who narrates the book and all of the characters involved are in for a rude awakening.

I submit that if Jane Austen wrre alive she would enjoy the Starbridge Series and Anthony Trollope would have also recognized and appreciated these novels.  I realize that's high praise but Glittering Images warrants it and I am already looking forward to book two in the series, Glamerous Powers.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Happy and Healthy New Year!

I am in the process of reading my next book which I am enjoying and I hope to have a review up in about a week.  In the meantime I want to wish everyone who has been nice enough to read my reviews a sincere thank you and a very Happy and Healthy New Year.  I particularly wish good health to everyone which is the most important.

Life has been tough for me these past few years since I moved to Florida but there have been good things too and I put creating this blog at the top of the list of good things.  First, this book blog has given me a real sense of accomplishment because I don't follow through on projects but I have kept this site up since 2015.  My book blog has forced me to read classics (Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Stranger, My Antonia, North and South, Pere Goriot) that I would otherwise have never gotten around to reading.  In the past I had a tendency to read about 50 or 60 pages of a novel and put it down eager to be on to the next book.  This site has changed all that since I would never review a book that I haven't finished.

I have also discovered or had recommended to me some great mystery novelists Lawrence Block, Donna Leon, Linda Castillo and its comforting to know that these wonderful authors and their novels will be there as back up when I get into a reading slump. Finally I have found that reviewing books and keeping a blog can clue you in to who your favorite writers are, your favorite genres and time periods.  I know for me there is nothing like a good mystery series.  And in terms of authors, countries and their time periods I have become a big fan of 19th Century British literature and the Brontes in particular.  As G. K. Chesterson wrote: "what the Brontes really brought into fiction was the blast of the mysticism of the North ... the strong winds and sterile places, the old tyranny of barons and the new and blacker tyranny of manufacturers".  He got it right.  That's what I love about the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell too.

But I digress and so let me end by saying I would advise anyone who is thinking about starting a blog to do so.  You can write about any topic: books, movies, life, politics, music, film, TV, religion, you name it.  It's whatever you are passionate about.  One thing I would advise though is that whatever you wish to blog about, don't get hung up on the quality of the writing.  I tried to keep a journal for years and could never get past the first few entrys before I would become obsessed by the thought that I could have said it better.  And so that's another New Year's Resolution.  I'll try going forward to write well but the most important thing is to enjoy the reading experience and accurately write down what I thought of the book and how it made me feel.

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!