Sunday, December 29, 2019

2019 Back to the Classics Wrap Up

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

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

Classic by a Woman Author - Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Classic in Translation - The Wreath by Sigrid Undset.

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

Classic Tragic Novel - Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

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

Classic Novella - A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

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

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

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

A Classic Play - Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

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

Monday, December 2, 2019

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

I first read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck when I was in my early teens and
the novel made quite an impression on me.   And so when the 2019 Back to the Classics category came along  - choose a classic set in Africa, Asia or Oceania, I knew it was time for a reread.

The Good Earth begins around 1880 in the rural farming village of Anhwei, China.  At  the start of the novel we are introduced to Wang Lung.  He is a poor farmer and it is his wedding day.  A bride has been chosen for him by the old mistress who rules the House of Hwang, the wealthiest family in the district.  Wang Lung's bride, O-lan, works as a kitchen servant for the Hwang family.  She was sold to them by her parents when she was ten years old.

Wang Lung is hoping for a pretty wife but O-lan turns out to be rather plain. She is a hard worker, an excellent cook, never complains and Wang Lung is very pleased.  Olan doesn't talk much though and certainly not about herself.  But early in the novel she does open up to Wang Lung when he suggests that they go back to the House of Hwang to find a midwife since their first child is about to be born:

"None in that house!" she cried out at him ... When I return to that house it will be with my son in my arms.  I shall have a red coat on him and red-flowered trousers and on his head a hat with a small gilded Buddha sewn on the front and on his feet tiger-faced shoes.  And I will wear new shoes and a new coat of black satin and I will go into the kitchen where I spent my days and I will go into the great hall where the Old One sits with her opium and I will show myself and my son to all of them".  

The Good Earth will take us through the next fifty years in the lives of Wang Lung, his family, their children, relatives and neighbors.  They endure much hardship.  There are births, deaths, marriages, drought, war but always there is the land which Wang Lung and O-lan have a reverence for:

"Moving together in perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor.  He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only the perfect sympathy of movement , of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods".  

The Good Earth is the first book in a trilogy, The Sons and A House Divided are books two and three in this series but its the book that Pearl Buck is most known for, a huge bestseller when it was published in 1931 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1932.  It held up very well upon my rereading it and I would also recommend the movie The Good Earth starring Paul Muni and Luise Rainer and Ms. Rainer is particularly touching as O-lan. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

"The plot of the novel, which is quite slight, is rather hard to tell, but it concerns a young man and his wife, members of the club set, and how the young man starts off the Christmas 1930 holidays by throwing a drink in the face of a man who has aided him financially.  From then on I show how fear of retribution and the kind of life the young man has led and many other things contribute to his demise.  There are quite a few other characters, some drawn from life, others imaginary, who figure in the novel, but the story is essentially the story of a young married couple in the first year of the depression".  - John O'Hara

Appointment in Samarra is the eighth book I have read for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) - choose a classic from the Americas or the Carribbean.  Originally I had planned on reading A House for Mr. Biswas by the great writer V. S. Naipaul but 140 pages in I wasn't connecting with Mr. Biswas' story.

Appointment in Samarra has been on my radar since early this year when I read Will Schwalbe's very fine memoir The End of Your Life Book Club.  The plot revolves around a reckless and impulsive act commited by a wealthy young man, Julian English.  At a Christmas party he throws a drink into the face of another much wealthier and well connected man, Harry Reilly.  Reilly has done nothing to warrant this behavior except that Julian is sick and tired of having to once again listen to one of Harry's rather boring stories.

And so what interested me about this novel is that we all live by certain norms.  Sure we have fantasies for example of walking off our jobs in the middle of the day and never coming back but we don't do that because after the first hour or two of freedom comes the repurcussions.  How will we be able to list the job on a resume after we pull a stunt like this?  And so my curiousity regarding Appointment in Samarra was what happens after Julian so recklessly disregards the norms?

Harry Reilly is not someone to make an enemy of and Julian owes him alot of money.  Plus Harry is socially well connected in Gibbsville PA where the novel is set.  He has wealthy friends who have been frequenting Julian's Cadillac dealership but when the story about how Julian behaved at the party circulates around town Julian and his wife Caroline begin to lose standing in the community and eventually their financial well being would have taken a hit.  I say eventually because we never get that far.  The novel is set entirely over the 1930 holiday season, about three or four days.  But in those three or four days we learn a great deal about Julian, his wife Caroline,, the snobbish social set they are a part of and Julian's father who Julian has always felt judged by but who in reality is worried about his son.  All of this is leading towards tragedy and I was a bit suprised by the form it took, although I shouldn't have been since we are given clues.

Appointment in Samarra is a rather depressing book which touches on a number of themes.  It's an interesting portrait of a marriage and O'Hara does a good job of  letting us know who Julian and Caroline are, not simply as a couple but as individuals. Appointment in Samarra has been compared to the Great Gatsby and some critics actually prefer this novel.  Having never read the Great Gatsby I can't judge.  John O'Hara's biographer Frank McShane would later say that Appointment in Samarra written ten years after The Great Gatsby and set in 1930 is a novel that belongs to the "hangover generation".  The young people who had a great time living through the jazz age when things were good but didn't build up their defenses when the Great Depression hit.

Appointment in Samarra is well written but I wouldn't say the writing is great and yet it is considered a classic so much so that Harold Bloom included this novel in his history of the Western Canon and Modern Library lists it as one of the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century.  Book lists are very subjective though and so if you are curious you might want to give Appointment in Samarra a try and judge for yourself.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

One of the great things about book blogs is that you are introduced to some interesting novels that you otherwise would never have known about.
Thank you Lark for introducing me to Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
published 1949 and please check out Lark's excellent book blog at

I found Earth Abides to be a thought provoking read, a post apocalyptic classic in which a pandemic kills off most of the earth's human population.  This virus does not affect the rest of the planet's ecosystem and so a central theme of Earth Abides is what happens to the animals, plants, trees, forests, and all that man has built, when humans are not here in sufficient numbers to keep things in check?  What happens to civilization?

And so in part one of Earth Abides we meet Isherwood (Ish) Williams, a young grad student who is travelling through the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Disaster strikes when Ish is bitten by a rattlesnake but he miraculously recovers. However, when Ish gets back to town he grows increasingly uneasy.  Why no other cars on the road and why no people?  Ish will discover that during the weeks he spent alone in the mountains a deadly plague came out of nowhere rapidly killing most of human life.  Possibly Ish was spared because the snake bite venom destroyed the virus within him but over 95% of the rest of humanity was not so lucky.

Ish tries various methods to cope with this new world.  He goes in search of other survivors but the people he encounters are either emotional wrecks or dangerous.  Ish then wonders if maybe he could live out his days in isolation.  But panic sets in when the electricity goes off and it's only when Ish meets Emma, the woman who will become his wife, that he begins to see a future:

"And now he would not be the lonely spectator, at least, not merely that.  He could read.  He was equipped with the background of much knowledge already.  He would extend that into technics and psychology, into political science, if that were needed.  There must be others that he could find also to join with them - good people who would help in the new world.  He would start looking for people again.  He would look craftily trying to keep away from all those who had suffered too much from the shock, whose minds and bodies were not what one wanted to build up the new society". 

Ish and Emma do find other survivors and part two and three of Earth Abides takes us through the next twenty-three years and beyond as this little group, their children and grandchildren build a community.  There is tension in that Ish is interested in the human race having a future and that involves teaching the children to read, teaching them about history, math and trying to inspire everyone to begin growing more food, developing an irrigation system, trying to find alternatives for gunpowder and matches which are necessities in this new world but will eventually become useless and dry up and then what? Ish is right of course and yet I felt the other group members, content to live in the present, had a point as well because civilization as it once was is gone and not coming back.  Ish too notices this when he is observing the children:

"The children, he came to realize, were not only children, but they were also unsophisticated and inexperienced as children in the Old Times had rarely been. None of them had ever seen more than a few dozen people.  Though their lives, he believed, had been happy, they had been happy with the simplicity of a few satisfying experiences, repeated again and again. They had not suffered the continual shock of change which had so affected children in the old days, both for good and for bad, making them nervous on the one hand, and yet alert on the other".

I was very impressed by Earth Abides.  It's well written, philosophical and really caused me to think.  I finished the novel curious about George R. Stewart the author as well.  He was a professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley.  He wrote a number of books on diverse topics.  His most well known novels are Ordeal by Hunger about the tragic Donner Party expedition, Storm about a hurricane named Maria and here is an interesting fact.  It was Storm that caused the National Weather Service to begin giving hurricanes personal names.  Stewart's great novel is Earth Abides and though it is not environmentalist literature exactly one is reminded of the fragility of civilization and today may be even more timely than when it was published seventy years ago.  The classics have a way of staying relevant.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse

"There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself 'Do trousers matter?"

"The mood will pass, sir."

"I don't see why it should.  If you can't think of a way out of this mess, it seems to me that it is the end." 

For the 2019 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic comic novel, I went with The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse published 1938.  P. G. Wodehouse is one of the great humorists of the 20th century.  He is best known for his Jeeves and Wooster series.  Bertram (Bertie) Wooster is the narrator of these books.  He is an upper class young English gentleman and Reginald Jeeves is his trusted valet.  Jeeves is the smarter and more mature of the two but as admirable as Jeeves is, Bertie is the standout.  He has a way of putting things that defies description.  Here for example is Bertie at the start of The Code of the Woosters drinking one of Jeeves' hangover remedies after a night of partying:

"He returned with the tissue-restorer.  I loosed it down the hatch, and after undergoing the passing discomfort, unavoidable when you drink one of Jeeves' patent morning revivers, of having the top of the skull fly up to the ceiling and the eyes shoot out of their sockets and rebound from the opposite wall like raquet balls, felt better.  It would have been overstating it to say that even now Bertram was back in mid-season form, but I had at least slid into the convalescent class and was equal to a spot of conversation".  

As to what proceeds in The Code of the Woosters, It's a plot involving a number of eccentric and wealthy characters with too much time on their hands.  But the gist of it is that Bertie's friend, Gussie Fink-Nottle, is engaged to Madeline Bassett but old Pop Bassett, Madeline's father, is not keen on Gussie as a son-in-law. Meanwhile, Stiffy Bying who is Pop Bassett's neice hopes to marry Rev Pinker but Pop Bassett isn't wild about him either.  One thing Pop Bassett does care about is his antique cow creamer. Stiffy Bying asks Bertie Wooster to steal the cow creamer so that later when Rev Pinker retrieves it and hands it back to Pop Basset, he'll be a hero in Pop Basset's eyes and Stinky and the Rev Pinker can be married.

As to why Bertie would go along with this we come to the notebook.  Gussie Fink-Nottle to feel less intimidated around his soon to be father-in law decides to write down all of Pop Bassett's shortcomings in a journal.  But then Gussie loses the notebook which Stiffy Bying finds.  She tells Bertie that if he doesn't steal the cow creamer she'll give the notebook to Pop Bassett and the wedding between Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline Bassett will be off and if Madeline Bassett can't marry Gussie she will start looking at Bertie as potential husband material and he definitely doesn't want that.

Granted, the plot of The Code of the Woosters is a bit ludicrous and Bertie and his eccentric friends are not where you go for character development.  Therefore, a steady diet of Wooster and Jeeves, reading one book right after another, would be a mistake.  But these novels are very funny and the reason once again is Bertie Wooster.  He is a marvelous comic creation and Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster series is top of the line when it comes to British humor and that's saying alot because when done well, British humor is unrivaled.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith published 1943 when I was in high school and it made quite an impression on me.  But I wonder if I were a young person growing up today would I know of this book or have a desire to read it?  I ask because nowadays the young adult book market is booming with so many choices and so why seek out a coming of age classic written seventy five years ago?  But now having reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn all these many years later I would say that this is a novel that readers of any age will enjoy and the issues touched upon in this book are as relevant now as they ever were. 

So, when A Tree Grows in Brooklyn begins it is 1912 and Francie Nolan, the young girl around whom the book centers, is eleven years old.  It's a typical Saturday morning in Williamsburg.  The kids in the neighborhood including Francie and her younger brother Neeley are carrying the junk that they have been collecting all week (tin foil, bottle caps, cigarette packages, rags etc) to sell to the junk dealer.  The junk dealer gives each kid about eight or nine cents.  The kids give most of what they earn to their parents.  The remaining money they can use to buy penny candy and then head off to play.  For Francie though the highlight of each Saturday is her trip to the library and her arms loaded with books she heads home:

"Home at last and now it was the time she had been looking forward to all week: fire-escape-sitting time.  She put a small rug on the fire-escape and got the pillow from her bed and propped it against the bars.  Luckily there was ice in the icebox.  She chipped off a small piece and put it in a glass of water.  The pink-and-white peppermint wafers bought that morning were arranged in a little bowl, cracked, but of a pretty blue color.  She arranged glass, bowl and book on the window sill and climbed out on the fire-escape.  Once out there, she was living in a tree.  No one upstairs, downstairs or across the way could see her.  But she could look out through the leaves and see everything.  

The Nolan family is poor.  Katie Nolan, Francie's mother, works cleaning apartments.  She has a no nonsense practicality about her because Francie's father, Johnny Nolan, works sporadically as a singing waiter and he drinks.  He goes on a bender for example the night Francie is born.  The pressure is too much for him and so Katie asks her mother what can she do to get her children out of poverty and her mother who never learned to read or write advises her daughter that every night she must read to her children a page from the Bible and a page from Shakespeare.  Reading and education factor big in this novel.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn introduces us to a number of memorable characters.  Katie's sister Aunt Sissy, for example, who is a bit scandalous but also fun and kind.  She helps Katie as much as she can and is a second mother to Francie and Neeley.  The tragedy is that Sissy's own pregnancies have ended in miscarriages and she so loves children.  We are introduced to a neighborhood boy age nineteen dying of tuberculosis.  It was tough living back then and Betty Smith knows the specifics about what the years prior to the first World War in Williamsburg were like.

We learn about Tammany Hall and how milk back then was delivered by horse-drawn wagons, apartments had yet to receive electricity.  We learn about how the poor were looked down on and when Francie and Neely arrive at the clinic to get vaccinated the doctor and nurse make condescending remarks.  They don't even have the decency to lower their voices.  Francie so looks forward to school but it's a tough place with poor kids bullying even poorer kids until Francie's father figures out a way to get Francie into a better school. 

It's beginning to sound like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a depressing book but it's  not because the novel revolves around Francie.  We watch her grow from an eleven year old girl to a seventeen year old when the novel ends.  We realize how far she has come, thinking things through for herself and getting an education.  Francie is the tree in the book's title, a tree that can grow through concrete.

"She sat on the El train on her way to the office, clutching the two textbooks ... Francie started to feel sick.  She felt so sick she had to get off at the next station even though she knew she'd be late for work ... It couldn't have been anything she ate because she had forgotten to eat lunch.  Then a thunderous thought hit her.  "My grandparents never knew how to read or wtite.  Those who came before them couldn't read or write.  My mother's sister can't.  My parents never even graduated from grade school ..but I Frances K. Nolan am now in college.  Do you hear that Francie? You're in college".

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the sixth book I have read for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) - choose a classic set in a place you've lived.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey published 1951 is a classic in the mystery/ crime genre, a unique sort of crime novel involving a 20th century Scotland Yard Detective determined to solve a 500 year old mystery involving Richard III (The English King who ruled from 1483-1485). Was Richard responsible fo the deaths of his two nephews, the Princes in the Tower as they have been called, or has he been unfairly maligned by history?  Josephine Tey makes a good case for why Richard might be innocent and I found this book to be both entertaining and educational.

And so when The Daughter of Time begins we are in England during the early 1950's and Alan Grant is a detective with Scotland Yard.  He is in the hospital recuperating from an injury.  He is bored and frustrated.  Friends bring him books he has no interest in reading and then one of his closest friends Marta Hallard a theater actress brings him a portfolio containing dozens of portraits of famous historical figures.  It turns out to be just what the doctor ordered since Alan is a specialist in reading faces. He spends an enjoyable day in bed looking at each portrait, speculating about who they were, their character traits, etc.  But then he comes to one photo he has overlooked:

"It was the portrait of a man.  A man dressed in the velvet cap and slashed doublet of the late fifteenth century.  A man about thirty-five or thirty-six years old and clean shaven ... a judge? a soldier? a prince?  Someone used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority.  Someone too conscientious.  A worrier, perhaps a perfectionist ... Someone, too who had suffered ill-health as a child ... He turned the portrait over to look for a caption.  Richard the Third.  So that was who it was.  Richard the Third.  Crouchback.  The monster of nursery stories.  The destroyer of innocence. A synonym for villainy".  

What bothers Alan Grant is how he could have read a face so wrong "mistaken one of the most notorious murderers of all time for a judge" and so Grant decides to investigate.  Who was Richard the Third, what made him tick, and what really happened to his two young nephews?  But how do you begin an investigation confined to your hospital bed?  And how to discover the truth about a crime that happened five hundred years ago?

Detective Grant uses the tools at his disposal.  He discusses the case with the hospital staff and it turns out one of his nurses knows a good deal about Richard III and directs Grant to an influential biography of the man written by Sir Thomas More.  But Grant discovers there are serious problems with More's biography, gossip and inuendo reported as fact.  

Detective Grant realizes that he needs to start from scratch to learn the truth about Richard III.  Once again his friend Marta comes to the rescue.  She introduces Grant to a young American scholar, Brent Carradine who is at the British Museum doing research about the Plantagenet period in English history.  Brett jumps at the chance to help Alan and as they hash out the case together they uncover a great deal. Richard was not a ruthless King and Edward IV had older children who would have inherited the throne before the nephews so their murder made no sense.  Grant and Carradine go on to discover that during Richard's short life (he died at age 32) there were no accusations that the nephews were dead or even missing.  Grant comes to the conclusion that the nephews were therefore alive when Henry VII who suceeded Richard took power and could he have been the real killer?

One thought that occured to me as I was reading The Daughter of Time was did Josephine Tey uncover all this evidence of Richard's innocence and if so where were the historians down through the centuries?  Well actually after the Tudor line ended the historians of the 18th and 19th century took a look at this case and  questions began to arise.  But in the 20th century regarding Richard's innocence Josephine Tey has done a great deal to bring this case to the modern day public's attention and with over 700 reviews on Amazon its clear that readers are still interested.  I recommend The Daughter of Time for mystery lovers and history buffs alike.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Adventures of Augie Marsh by Saul Bellow

"I am an American, Chicago born -- Chicago, that somber city -- and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way". 

The Adventures of Augie Marsh by Saul Bellow took the literary world by storm when it was published in 1953 and today it is considered one of the great novels of 20th century literature and I am in full agreement.  There isn't much of a plot to the book though.  Augie goes about his life haphazardly in an effort to find his place in the world.  That said, what makes this novel so good is the writing, a "cascade of prose" as it has been described.   The amount of talent and work it must have taken Saul Bellow to produce this classic is awe inspiring.

And so when The Adventures of Augie Marsh begins it is the 1920's and Augie is a young boy growing up in a poor section of Chicago.  Augie lives with his mother Rebecca, his older brother Simon, his younger mentally disabled brother George and Grandma Lausch. The father is absent and Augie's mother is a sweet woman but timid.  Grandma Lausch runs the show and she is not a loving presence.

it's not a happy household and Augie leaves home while still a teenager.  We follow him as he tries to make his way during the Great Depression.  Augie will take on many jobs and get involved in all kinds of off the wall schemes.  But whether it's his brother Simon, his friends, employers, romantic partners who try to enlist him in their plans there is something stubborn about Augie.  He will go along for a time but then sabatoge those plans that others have made for him so he can be free to follow his own path.  He's just not sure what that path is.

The novel ends in Paris after the war where Augie is living with his wife.  Its been a long journey to get where he is and on the surface it sounds like Augie is settled but the reader suspects otherwise.  The Adventures of Augie March has been called the Great Novel of the American Dream and Augie is a character always looking for what's over the next horizon and there is something very American about that.

I found The Adventures of Augie Marsh a very difficult book to summarize and my apologies for giving such a bare bones description. There are so many moving parts to this book, adventures, characters, jobs etc that I found it impossible to recount it all.  But what I do want to reiterate again is the quality of the writing. I thought about quoting passages but its the sort of writing that needs to be read in context.  Saul Bellow would later say that The Adventures of Augie Marsh was the novel where he found his voice and it was a voice worth finding.

The Adventures of Augie Marsh fulfills the category - choose a very long classic for my 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad is a writer I have been meaning to read for years.  I knew he had written some of the great classics in literature. What I didn't know is that prior to beginning his writing career, Conrad had spent his early years at sea starting out as a sailor and eventually rising to the level of ship's captain with the British Merchant Service.  He uses this knowledge about sea travel to marvelous effect in Lord Jim published 1900, a novel that deals with guilt and redemption.

And so, when Lord Jim begins it is the late 19th century.  Jim, the title character, is a young English maritime officer who has grown bored with his profession.  As a young boy he read stories of high drama at sea, a chance to be a hero and test oneself against the elements.  But Jim has been sailing for a few years and his voyages have been uneventful.

And then Jim accepts a job on the Patna, a ship carrying 800 passengers on a pilgrimage to Mecca.  The voyage starts out routine but suddenly at night the Patna hits something and begins sinking.  Jim watches in horror as his fellow officers and the captain get into one of the few lifeboats prepared to abandon ship with the passangers sleeping below.  Jim doesn't want to get into the lifeboat:

"He was not afraid of death perhaps, but I'll tell you what, he was afraid of the emergency.  His confounded imagination had evoked for him all the horrors of panic, the trampling rush, the pitiful screams, boats swamped - all the appalling incidents of a disaster at sea he had ever heard of.  He might have been resigned to die, but I suspect he wanted to die without added terrors, quietly, in a sort of peaceful trance".

And so at the last moment, with Jim fearing the chaos that will ensue, he jumps into the lifeboat.  A day or two later a French ship rescues Jim and the officers and they learn that the Patna miraculously has also been rescued.  All of the passengers are safe. An inquiry is held back in England.  Jim's fellow officers don't bother to show up and their sea licenses are revoked.  Jim insists on attending the inquiry believing possibly that he can convince the court that he behaved differently somehow than his colleagues.  However his officer's licsence is revoked as well.

It is during the inquiry that we are introduced to the novel's narrator Captain Charles Marlow who attends the inquiry and though Marlow doesn't appprove of how Jim behaved he is empathetic.  Maybe he sees some of himself in Jim.  Throughout the book Marlow tries to figure out Jim's psychology.  What is he searching for in terms of finding peace? It's not a fascination I shared at first.  I didn't judge Jim for what he did.  Who knows how any of us would have behaved?  But it seemed that Jim didn't so much feel guilt as shame and he was angry about that.  He was angry a good deal of the time.

Marlow tries to set Jim up with other jobs at sea under a different name but then someone would mention the Patna at the new place he worked and Jim would walk off.  Why couldn't Jim find some other career and most important where was his gratitude that the 800 passengers had survived?  Jim is upset that the image he had of himself didn't measure up in a crisis but you can recover from shame and humiliation.  It's alot harder to recover from the kind of guilt he would have suffered if the passengers had drowned.

Jim finally lands a job managing a trading post on a remote island where they have never heard of the Patna.  It's a chance to prove himself and start anew.  He falls in love with a young woman named Jewel and the native people see him as a great leader (Lord Jim) due to his protecting them when he first arrives.  Jim has found peace and his friend Marlow who visits notices the change.  Jim cares about the local population and has a number of ideas to make improvements on the island.  This ideal circumstance though cannot last.  I won't go any further as to why except to say that my image of Jim changed.  He shows himself in the end to be the romantic, mysterious young man that Marlow suspected he was all along and very brave as well.

I recommend Lord Jim.  Book four on my 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic tragic novel.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton by Susan Bordo

In the months after the 2016 Presidential election Hillary Clinton retired for a bit from public life.  She stayed at her home in Chappaqua trying to regroup. It had been a brutal campaign with chants of "lock her up" at Trump rallies and you would think that the Hillary haters would be relieved that they hadn't seen or heard from their nemesis for awhile.  But instead accusations of why is she hiding began to be heard.  She's a sore loser etc.  I remember Jeanine Pirro at Fox for example prowling the grounds near Hillary's home with a nasty smile on her face whispering into her microphone about how there was no sign of Hillary yet.

This is what hatred looks like and it's not a pretty picture.  Hatred can't leave someone alone and the question is why?  Why the Hillary hate dating back to 1992 when she became First Lady?  And how big a factor does Hillary's gender play in all this obsessional rage and what role did it play in 2016? I have searched for a book to answer these questions.  I assumed it had yet to be written but actually Susan Bordo tackled this subject back in 2017 when she published The Destruction of Hillary Clinton and it has turned out to be the book I needed.

Susan Bordo is an English Lit and Women Studies Professor at Kentucky State University.  She is the author of a number of books, one of which, Unbearable Weight, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  Ms. Bordo makes clear at the beginning of The Destruction of Hillary Clinton that by destruction she does not mean Hillary Clinton the woman who as the author notes is "as resilient as they come".  Instead what Bordo is referring to is that while we have had rough Presidential campaigns before in our history what happened in 2016 was different, "an all-out assault on the character and candidacy of Hillary Clinton".  

As to how we got here Susan Bordo takes us back to 1992 and Bill and Hillary Clinton's arrival on the national stage.  Hillary was a new kind of First Lady.  A Yale Law School graduate, first female partner at her law firm.  She was opinionated, smart and had kept her maiden name while Bill was Governor of Arkansas.  When you first enter public life you can slip up.  Hillary's exasperated comments during Bill's campaign for example about how she wasn't going to sit home and bake cookies was unfortunate.  Ditto for Bill Clinton's remark about how if people elected him they would "get two for the price of one".  Hillary apologized for the cookies remark but for her enemies its never enough.  They have been parsing every word she utters for almost thirty years and I marvel at her strength.  Subjected to the same treatment I would have been a basket case by now.

Susan Bordo writes about all of this and tells us that being from the same generation as Hillary she has always felt a kinship with her which many younger women figuring the battles have all been won, cannot understand.  Bordo quotes Hillary's experience back in the early 1970's taking her law school admission's test as an example of what her generation faced:

We had to go into Harvard to take the test, and we were in a huge room, and there were very few women there, and we sat at these desks waiting for the proctors or whoever to come and all the young men around us started to harrass us.  They started to say, "What do you think you're doing?  If you get into law school, you're going to take my position.  You've got no right to do this.  Why don't you go home and get married". 

The majority of Susan Bordo's book focuses on the 2016 campaign and as Bordo sees it the destruction of Hillary Clinton's campaign was book-ended by two factors.  One was the interference in the general election by FBI Director James Comey pertaining to Hillary's emails which Bordo discusses at length.  The other factor involves Bernie Sanders' supporters

These people in so many ways are my natural colleagues, and most are as upset as I am by Trump's victory.  But they played a big role in the thin edge (not a landslide as Trump would have us believe) that gave Trump the election.  For while Trump supporters hooted and cheered for their candidate, forgiving him every lie, every crime, every bit of disgusting behavior, too many young Democrats made it very clear (in newspaper and internet interviews, in polls and in the mainstream media) that they were only voting for Hillary Clinton as the "lesser of two evils," "holding their noses," tears still streaming down their faces over the primary defeat of the person they felt truly deserved their votes.  Some didn't vote at all."

Susan Bordo is writing here I believe about a small segment of Bernie Sanders' supporters.  Most who voted for Bernie in the primaries had no problem voting for Hillary in tne general and I saw a statistic that bears that out.  But its also true as we head to 2020 that Democrats need to pull together whoever the party nominates be it Biden, Harris, Sanders, Buttigieg etc.  No staying home this time or going third party.

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton was published in April 2017 and alot has happened since then but the book doesn't feel dated.  And if fifty or sixty years from now America has still not elected a woman President people may come back to Susan Bordo's book to learn the reasons why.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

A few years ago Elizabeth Scalia at her website The Anchoress posted her thoughts about a biography of St Catherine of Sienna by Sigrid Undset.  It was a glowing review and so I filed away Ms. Undset's name as someone I might want to read in the future.  Now, thanks to the 2019 Classics Challenge - choose a classic in translation, that day has arrived.  But instead of Sigrid Undset's biography of Catherine of Sienna,  I decided to go with another book, The Wreath published 1920. It's the first book in Ms. Undset's highly acclaimed Kristin Lavransdatter series (The Wreath, The Wife and The Cross).  Three historical novels set in fourteenth century Norway which revolve around the life of Kristin Lavransdatter.

The Wreath, begins with Kristin Lavransdatter at about age six and ends with her marriage at age seventeen.  She is a very well drawn character and Sigrid Undset does a wonderful job depicting her thoughts, her conflicts, her dreams.  Other interesting characters appear in The Wreath as well: Kristin's parents Lavrans and Ranifrid Bjorgulfson, Kristin's betrothed, Simon Andresson and Erlund Nikulausson the man she really loves.  I was concerned that I might have trouble keeping straight the different Norwegian names of the chatacters but after a few pages it was fine and I got drawn in to Kristin's world.  Kristin age six for example accompanying her father on a journey, the furthest she has been from home:

"Kristin had thought that if she came up over the crest of her home mountains, she would be able to look down on another village like their own, with farms and houses, and she had such a strange feeling when she saw what a great distance there was between places where people lived ...she knew that wolves and bears reigned in the forest, and under every rock lived trolls and goblins and elves and she was suddenly afraid, for no one knew how many there were but there were certainly many more of them than Christian people.  Then she called loud to her father, but he didn't hear her because of the wind".

Later in The Wreath when her younger sister Ulvhild is seriously injured, Kristin contemplates becoming a nun and that if she enters the convent God will perform a miracle and make Ulvhild well:

"But Kristin didn't want to do it; she resisted the idea that God would perform a miracle for Ulvhild if she became a nun.  She clung to Sira Eirik's words that so few miracles occured nowadays.  And yet she had the feeling this evening that it was as Brother Edvin had said -- that if someone had enough faith that he could indeed work miracles.  But she did not want that kind of faith; she did not love God and His Mother and the saints in that way.  She loved the world and longed for the world.

It is this struggle that Kristin Lavransdatter wrestles with in The Wreath whether to do what God and her parents want and marry Simon or follow her heart and marry Erlund and as the series progresses Kristin Lavrandatter will no doubt be presented with other challenges.

In 1928 Sigrid Undset was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature and the comittee singled out The Kristin Lavransdatter novels.  It's an exceptional series  and not just because of the amount of research Ms. Undset did in accurately portraying fourteenth century Norwegian life but the characters have an authenticity about them as well.  I really did feel that this is how people must have thought and behaved back in Medieval times.  The Kristin Lavransdatter novels have been greeted with renewed interest in recent years thanks to the very fine translation by Tina Nunnally which makes these books accessible while maintaining the beauty and other worldliness of the prose.  This is a series I see myself completing.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Time to Murder and Create by Lawrence Block

Time to Murder and Create published 1977 is book two in Lawrence Block's bestselling and critically acclaimed Matthew Scudder mystery series.  There are a total of eighteen novels in this series, all of which are narrated by Matthew Scudder.  He's the ex cop turned private investigator who when he's not working on a case can be found nursing his troubles in bars around Manhattan.  In lesser hands Scudder might have come off as a hard-boiled caricature but Lawrence Block is too good a writer for that.  I knew from book one, Sins of the Father, that Scudder was a character worth following.

And so when Time to Murder and Create begins we are in NYC and it's the 1970's. The crime rate is high, people are on edge.  It's a world before 9/11, cell phones, the internet, texting etc and Scudder is in his favorite watering hole, Armstrong's, waiting to meet a prospective client, Jacob, the Spinner, Jablon.  The Spinner back when Scudder knew him from his time on the police force was a small time crook and informer but Scudder hasn't seen him in years and things have changed:

"When a man who side-steps through life by keeping his ears open suddenly turns up wearing a three-hundred dollar suit, it's not hard to figure out how he got it.  After a lifetime of selling information, the Spinner had come up with something too good to sell.  Instead of peddling information, he had turned to peddling silence.  Blackmailers are richer than stool pigeons, because their commodity is not a one-time thing; they can rent it out to the same person over and over for a lifetime.  The only problem is that their lifetimes tend to shrink.  The Spinner became a bad actuarial risk the day he got successful".

The Spinner tells Matthew Scudder that he has been blackmailing three people and one of these three is trying to kill him.  The Spinner hands Matthew Scudder an envelope with compromising photos of all three.  He trusts that if he winds up dead, Scudder will find out a) who killed him and b) destroy the pictures of the other two who as the Spinner sees it played it straight with him and deserve to be let off the hook once he's gone.  As to why Matthew Scudder would take a case like this, the Spinner explains it as follows:

"Why I think you'll follow through is something I noticed about you a long time ago, namely that you happen to think there is a difference between murder and other crimes.  I am the same.  I have done bad things all my life but never killed anybody and I never would".

This is true.  Matthew Scudder is not a judgemental man but he draws the line at murder.  Some things you don't get to get away with and murder is at the top of that list for Scudder and so he decides to take the case.

As the novels in this series progress through the 1980's, 1990's, 2000's, Matthew Scudder will change.  He gives up the booze, finds love and becomes more at peace with himself, all while retaining his wit and cynical view of human nature.  An added bonus is that NYC changes along with Scudder so that the 1970's New York when these novels began is very different from the NYC that one encounters in Block's most recent addition to the series published in January of this year where Matthew Scudder decides to come out of retirement to take on one last case.

In the world of mystery and crime fiction Lawrence Block is a legend.  He has been compared by fellow writers and critics to the great Dashiell Hammett and having read both authors I can agree.   My favorite Block novel is The Girl With the Long Green Heart published 1965 but his Matthew Scudder series is his most popular and so if you have never read Lawrence Block that is also a very fine place to begin.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

There are always going to be writers that we never get around to reading and for me, until recently, Barbara Pym fell into that category.  I knew she was a mid-20th century British novelist.  I assumed she wrote well but my desire to read her never materialized.  But it turns out many of my favorite bloggers are Barbara Pym fans and I value their judgement and so for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic by a woman author, I chose Excellent Women by Barbara Pym published 1952.  It's one of the best books I have read in some time.

Excellent Women is set in London in the early 1950's.  The first person narrator and protagonist is Mildred Lathbury, a spinster in her early 30's, which is how she defines herself.  Mildred's social life revolves around St Mary's Church.  She is good friends with Father Julian Malory and his sister Winifred and when Mildred is not volunteering or attending services at St Mary's she works part time for an agency that helps elderly ladies who have fallen on hard times.

Mildred is an "excellent woman".  As described in the novel excellent women are single women who fill their lives volunteering and offering a sympathetic ear and a cup of tea when friends and neighbors come calling with problems.  Excellent women are seen as a bit odd and to be pitied by their friends due to their lack of family ties and no one is more aware of this than Mildred.  Throughout the novel Mildred makes a number of references to her spinster status in a somewhat joking manner but I sensed a defensiveness in tone which got me wondering if Mildred was as content with her situation as she assures the reader she is.

Still, Mildred's life is reasonably comfortable and predictable but then things take a turn when two new tenants, Rocky Napier and his wife Helena, move into the apartment above Mildred.  She gets entangled in their lives eventually becoming a go-between as the Napier's marriage comes apart.  Trouble is brewing at St. Mary's as well when Father Julian, who no one thought would ever marry, becomes engaged to the widow, Allegra Gray.  Allegra does not get along with Julian's sister Winifred and wants her to move out.  Mildred is dragged into this domestic dispute as well.

As a writer Barbara Pym has been compared to Jane Austen and I see the resemblance, the humor, the excellent writing and as with the narrators in Jane Austen's novels, Mildred is a keen observer of the world around her.  But maybe what Barbara Pym is also telling us is that observing life is not the same as living it, taking risks and being open to change.  There can be a danger in wanting to keep things exactly as they've always been and this is brought home with regard to another character in Excellent Women, Winifred Malory.

Winifred is a sweet and innocent woman who if she knew anything in life it was that she would always have a home in the rectory, helping her brother Rev Julian Malory run St. Mary's.  When Julian becomes engaged to Allegra, Winifred thinks it's wonderful.  She will simply move into the attic apartment and the three of them can help run St. Mary's together.  Allegra though wants Winifred out and at one point suggests that Winifred might want to join a religious order or live in a settlement house in the East End.  Avoiding change did not provide Winifred with security, quite the contrary, and so it pays in life to take sensible risks or others will make the decisions for you.

As to how the situation with Winifred, Allegra and Julian resolves itself I leave it to the reader to discover and I hope people will read Excellent Women.  I enjoyed this novel a great deal and as with many classics I was left with alot to ponder.  In a few months I am looking forward to my next Barbara Pym novel.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Bastard by John Jakes

The Bastard by John Jakes published in 1974 is a book that's been stored away in my kindle for some time.  It's the first novel in Jakes' bestselling Kent Family Chronicles series.  Eight books which takes the fictional Kent Family and their descendents from the 1770's to the 1890's.  Family saga novels can be alot of fun.  Throw in some American history, which is what this series does, and it can be an educational experience as well.

And so, when The Bastard begins it is 1770.  Philippe Charbonneau (who will later change his name to Phillip Kent) is a young man living in Auvergne France with his mother Marie.  Philip has grown up never knowing his father but when he turns seventeen Marie decides to tell him.  Philip is the son of Lord James Amberly, a member of the British aristocracy.  Marie met Lord Amberly years ago when she was an actress performing on the Paris stage.  A member of the aristocracy could never marry an actress and so their affair ended.  Lord Amberly returned to England and Marie stayed in Paris to raise their son Philip on her own.  But Lord Amberly gives Marie a copy of his will stating that upon his death Philip will share half of Lord Amberly's estate with his other son Roger.  When Lord Amberly dies Marie and Philip head to England to claim the inheritance.  Needless to say Lord Amberly's wife and son Roger are not pleased.  Roger goes one step further in trying to have his half brother killed.

The Amberly's are a powerful family and it is not safe for Philip and Marie to remain in England.  Going back to France holds no appeal either.  They decide to leave for the colonies.  Marie in poor health doesn't survive the crossing.  Philip makes it to America landing in Boston, the epicenter of rebellion against the British Crown.  As the novel progresses Philip will get a job at a printing press and find himself in the thick of it as he encounters Sam Adams, Paul Revere, Dr Joseph Warren.  He falls in love with Anne Ware, a spirited young woman who supports American independence.  But Philip is torn.  Should he make his home in this new land with its uncertain future or keep the promise he made to his mother which would involve returning to England and fighting for his inheritance?

I enjoyed The Bastard.  The characters are well drawn and John Jakes has done an impressive job of research regarding what was happening during the lead up to the American Revolution and who the key historical figures were.  Ultimately this is the story of a young man (Philip Kent) who thought he was destined for wealth and security only to discover that his life would take a very different turn.  Philip Kent sits at the start of what will go on to be the Kent Family's story in America.  The fun of a series like this is to learn in future novels who Philip's children, grand children, great great grand children will turn out to be, what their lives will be like and what events in American history will be taking place around them.  This series ends in 1890 and though I wish John Jakes had been able to take these books into the 20th century, I am grateful he took the series as far as he did and so I do recommend The Bastard.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I was unsure how to begin my review of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol published 1843 because after completing the novel I realized that I preferred the 1951 film version starring Alistair Sim.  I felt bad about that since Charles Dickens isn't just any author.  But I think the reason I preferred the 1951 film, which I have seen many times, is it's a pretty accurate retelling of the novel and so once I got around to reading the book I didn't find alot new to discover.

Then too, there is Alistair Sim's marvelous portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge, putting all other Scrooge portrayals to shame.  In comparison, the Scrooge we meet in the novella needed to be fleshed out more in my opinion.  One scene from the movie for example is missing from the book and I think it needed to be there.  It's the scene in which Ebenezer, in his late twenties, is standing by the bedside of his sister Fan, the only relative who loved him.  She is dying having just given birth to a son, Ebenezer's nephew Fred, who Ebenezer will go on to blame for her death. 

That scene is missing from the novel and without it it's harder to see why Scrooge turned out so bitter because despite the cruelty of his father, Ebenezer goes on, at least in his early years, to have a good life.  He becomes an apprentice to the jolly and generous, Mr Fezziwig.  Ebenezer becomes engaged to a young woman he loves named Belle but years later she breaks up with him because she states that Ebenezer's love of money has replaced her in his heart.  But how do you go from Mr. Fezziwig and Belle to Ebenezer becoming so hard?  The interim death of Fan is the most logical explanation.  The book hints at this but the film is quite clear.

All of this said I am glad I read A Christmas Carol for my 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic novella.  I have also read Great Expectations and though I have yet to find the Dickens' book with my name on it so to speak and may never do so I so admire Dickens. He never forgot what it was like to be poor, particularly a child growing up in poverty.  As Scrooge's nephew Fred tells his uncle at one point:

There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round - apart from the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys". 

It has been said that with his novel A Christmas Carol, Dickens pretty much invented Christmas as we have come to know it today, the family get togethers, the sumptous food, the dancing, the singing and the spirit of reaching out and being a little nicer to each other during the Holiday season.  It shows the power a novelist could have back in the 19th century and how we could use a novel to come along today that speaks  to these times and the dilemna we find ourselves in but novelists no longer have that sort of influence on the culture as they once did.  Thankfully we still have great authors like Charles Dickens whose books still speak to us about what's going on.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

Stored in my kindle and around my apartment are loads of unread books and this year I vow to change that.  So, first up from my backlist pile is Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden published 1939.  I discovered this novel and author through a website I subscribe to, Early Bird Books.  The plot of Black Narcissus which centers around a group of nuns living in an isolated corner of the world and the challenges they face sounded interesting.  I knew that an acclaimed movie had been made of this book.  Would the novel also be worthwhile?

And so when Black Narcissus begins it's the early 20th century.  A small group of Anglican sisters has been sent by their religious order, the Servants of Mary, to a remote region in he Himilayas to start a girl's school and a medical clinic.  The nuns have been invited to do so by General Toda Rai who owns most of the land in the area including the Palace at Mopu where the sisters will house their school and medical clinic.

General Rai wants to bring progress and education to the local people. He is also embarrassed by the Palace at Mopu where his father when he was alive kept his wife and concubines.  By inviting the nuns into the palace, which they rename the convent of St Faith, the General  hopes to erase the memories of what went on there.  But as the book progresses it becomes clear that the divide between the nuns and the local Hindu population is not going to be bridged.  The local people have been living their way of life for thousands of years and are happy to continue doing so.  Instead it will be the nuns who are shaken by their life in the Himilayas: the beauty and sensuality of the region,  the people, the culture, the hard work building the school and the isolation begin to affect the sisters profoundly, testing their faith.

Sister Ruth for starters is unbalanced and should never have been sent on this journey.  Sister Honey loves the children she cares for but gets too involved which leads to trouble.  Sister Philippa becomes obsessed with creating a beautiful and expensive garden, neglecting her other duties and then there is Sister Clodagh the young Sister Superior.  Mother Dorothea before sending Sister Coldaugh to the Himilayas expresses her doubts to a colleague about the young nun:

She has always felt herself just a little better than anyone else.  What makes it so hard to deal with, is the fact that she undoubtedly is.  She has great gifts and one can't deny it.  But one day I think she'll learn to know herself.  I have always found it wiser to let God teach his own lessons in his own time".

Sister Clodagh is the central character in this novel and a good part of the book takes place inside her thoughts which begin to drift back  to her years as a young girl in  Ireland.  I liked Sister Clodagh and another character that interested me was Mr. Dean, General Rai's English overseer tasked with helping the nuns build the convent.  The sisters meet Mr. Dean on the first day of their arrival, a handsome man with an amusing smirk on his face about what the sisters have gotten themselves into.  He's been living by himself in this remote region for years, knows the dialect, the people and the customs.  Mr. Dean doesn't have any desire to go back to England and one senses, as with Sister Clodagh, that there's a story there, that he's running from something.

I enjoyed Black Narcissus.  There is a haunting quality to this book.  You feel as you get deeper into the novel that a crisis is coming, you just don't know what form it will take.  Rumer Godden does a good job in creating intriguing characters and her descriptions of the beauty of the Himilayas is also well done. I closed Black Narcissus thinking that I would like to investigate what else Rummer Godden has written because she tells a good story..

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

My Book Choices for 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge

Here are the twelve novels I plan to read this year for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge and thanks again to Karen K at Books and Chocolate for hosting this event.

19th Century Classic -  The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope - I have been introduced to Trollope through Brian Joseph's excellent book blog, Babbling Books, and so this year I will read what many consider to be one of Trollope's best novels.

20th Century Classic -  Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I loved the first novel in Wilder's Little House Series and Farmer Boy is book two which I'm pretty certain I will love as well.

Classic by a Woman Author  - Excellent Women by Barbara Pym - Ruthiella at Booked for Life, Lark at Lark Writes On Books and Life and JaneGS at Reading Writing Working Playing are all Pym fans and that's all the encouragement I need to give Pym a try.

Classic in Translation -  The Wreath by Sigrid Undset - Never read her but I have been hearing about Undset's acclaimed Kristin Lavransdatter saga for some time now and The Wreath is book one in that series.

Classic Comic Novel - The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse.  Skimmed Jeeves In The Morning many years ago and Bertie Wooster is hysterically funny without even realizing it.

Classic Tragic Novel - Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad.  A great novel about how we may think we know how we'll behave in a crisis but until the crisis hits, we really don't know.  Been described as a novel of guilt and atonement.

Very Long Classic  - The Adventures of Augie Marsh by Saul Bellow - Years ago I read a bit of Dean's December but Augie Marsh is the novel Bellow is most known for, one of the great novels and novelists of the 20th century.

Classic Novella -  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens - I have seen the movie starring Alistair Sim many times.  A marvelous story about how it's never too late to turn one's life around for the better.

Classic from the Americas or the Caribbean  -  A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul.  This novel is set in Trinidad.  I read Naipaul's A Turn in the South years ago which I was quite impressed with and so I am looking forward to A House for Mr. Biswas.

Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania (includes Australia) -  The Good Earth by Pearl Buck which is set in China where many of Pearl Buck's novels take place.  Read it possibly in high school and the novel made a big impression and so I'm hoping that will still be true when I read it again after all these years.

Classic From A Place You've Lived  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  Okay, I've never lived in Brooklyn but I have lived in New York City for most of my life and Brooklyn is a borough within NYC so I figure I'm covered.

Classic Play - Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare.  Not proud of the fact that this is the only Shakespeare play I've ever read and it helped that our high school English teacher walked us through it line by line.  So I have decided to reread Julius Caesar to see how much I retained.

Thanks to everyone who has stopped by to read my reviews here at Reading Matters.  It means so much to me and I wish everyone a Healthy and Happy New Year.  Now, on to the reading!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018 Back To The Classics Challenge - Wrap Up

Thanks to Karen K at Books and Chocolate for hosting the 2018 Back To the Classics  Challenge.  It was my first year taking the challenge and I am happy I did.  So, here are my wrap up thoughts for each of the 12 classics that I read in 2018:

1. 19th Century Classic - New Grub Street by George Gissing.  My favorote book from the 2018 Classics Challenge set in the publishing world of 1880's London, a world in which talent plays second fiddle to how well one's books can sell.

2.  20th Century Classic - Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurtson is right up there with New Grub Street as being my favorite novel from the 2018 Classics Challenge.  For me its a novel about love and the scene I will remember is Janie Crawford standing outside her house looking up at the sky for a sign from God about why he would do this terrible thing to her and her beloved husband Tea Cake.

3. Classic by A Woman Author - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. I felt this was an exceptional novel dealing with some important issues, alcoholism, spousal abuse, child custody and the importance of who you marry.  These are issues just as relevant today as they were in Victorian times.

4. Classic in Translation - The Decameron by Giovanni Boccacio is one of the classics of the Middle Ages and set during the time of the Black Death.  The novel consists of a total of 100 stories told by ten young people who have moved to the country outside Florence to escape the plague   It's amazing how forward thinking Boccaccio was not only for his time but some of his stories would have the censors howling today!

5. Classic of Children's Literature - Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I loved it.  It's the first book in Wilder's acclaimed Little House on the Prairie series and though I have a tendancy not to finish a series, this time it will be different.

6. Classic Crime Story - And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.  I was expecting to like the book more than I did but when ten characters secluded on an island start dying off there isn't much time for character development.  Mostly though I didn't like the vigilante theme in which one character plays God.  But Christie is a major talent and I love Hercule Poirot.

7. Classic Travel or Journey Narrative - I chose Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan about a man who goes on a religious pilgrimage leaving his home so that he can  make his way to the Celestial City (heaven).  This is a major classic and some say a candidate for the first English novel (published 1678).  A great work of literature, although a rather fearsome view of God.

8. Classic With A One Word Title - Belinda by Maria Edgeworth is a novel Jane Austen admired so much that she has one of her characters mention Belinda favorably in Northanger Abbey.  Austen was right about this book and Lady Delacour in particular is a character you want to meet. 

9. Classic With A Color In The Title - The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.  Published in 1958 and winner of the prestigious Newbery Medal for children's literature.  I enjoyed the book set in 17th century New England.  A book like this can inspire kids to find out more about what life was like in Puritan times.

10 Classic By An Author New to You - The Trial by Franz Kafka.  Kafka writes in a very understandable prose style and I really appreciate that.  As with Camus's The Stranger what Kafka was trying to say in the Trial is open to interpretation.  It's a disturning book but I finished the novel wanting to know more about Kafka and maybe check out his diaries and short stories.

11 A Classic That Scares You - The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner.  I finished this book annoyed.  A stream of consciousness novel narrated in large part through the thoughts of a character with the mind of a three year old.  I knew I was in trouble from the first page and apparently I'm not the only one.  There is now a color coded version of tbis book so that the reader can more easily figure out who is narrating each part.

12. Reread A Favorite Classic - Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.  Held up very well, although Lennie not as I remembered.  In 2019 I would like to reread another great Steinbeck book Travels With Charley.

That's the wrap up and I have decided to take the 2019 Challenge and post my book choices in about a week or two.  A Happy and Healthy New Year to All and thank you for visiting my book blog.  I really appreciate it.