Tuesday, December 22, 2020

2020 Back to the Classics Wrap Up

Here is my 2020 Back to the Classics Wrap Up and thank you Karen K at Books and Chocolate (karensbooksandchocolate.blogspot.com) for once again hosting this annual event.  And so in 2020 I read the following classics: 

19th Century Classic - Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen - Northanger Abbey was the first of Jane Austen's six classic novels that she completed and in this book you get to see Austen's tremendous talent taking shape.  But having now read Persuasion and Northanger Abbey I have to say that for me nothing compares to Pride and Prejudice.  Next up Emma which I hope to read next year.

20th Century Classic - The Plague by Albert Camus - The Plague as I understand is the second novel in Camus' trilogy (The Stranger, The Plague, The Fall).  All three are stand alone books but should be read in sequence to get the full effect.  I preferred The Plague to The Stranger.  It's a much more humane novel and really drives home the idea through its central characters that  the universe may be a chaotic place but one is obligated to make the world better regardless. 

Classic by a Woman Author - Fidelity by Susan Glaspell - Ms Glaspell was an early 20th century American writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the 1930's.  Her novel Fidelity published 1915 is worth checking out and Glaspell deserves to be better known.

Classic in Translation - Bel Ami by Guy deMaupassant - Ruthiella at Booked For Life (please check out her excellent website under blogs I follow) recommended Bel Ami and I recommend it highly as well.  A great 19th century novel about Parisian society and a young rogue named George DuRoy determined to rise high in that society based on his good looks and charm.  

Classic by a Person of Color - Narrative of the life of a Slave by Frederick Douglass -  A classic American memoir by the 19th century abolitionist writer, orator and human rights advocate Frederick Douglass who grew up in slavery but escaped to freedom at age 18.  Its a powerful book about Douglass' early years and once read it stays with you.

A Genre Classic - The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green -  She wrote mystery novels in the 19th century and inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I really enjoyed The Leavenworth Case and as with so many writers from years ago, she deserves to be better known.  

A Classic With A Place in the Title - To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf  - Modern Library lists To The Lighthouse as one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century and Virginia Woolf is a brilliant writer.  I would start though with her classic A Room of One's Own which I loved.  I was impressed with To the Lighthouse but to get the most out of this book a second reading combined with knowledge about what the critics have said is required.

Classic with a Person's Name in the Title - The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald - Also named by Modern Library as one of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century.  Fitzgerald's classic novel of the Jazz Age.  A second reading required here too I think.

Classic with Nature in the Title - Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart - My first time reading Mary Stewart.  She is a mid-twentieth century British writer of classic romantic suspense novels.  A very nice change from all the heavy duty reading and I am so excited to have found this new author.

Classic about a Family - Father and Son by Edmund Gosse -  An excellent 19th century British memoir about growing up under the influence of a very religious father and how the son needed to eventually break away and find his own path.

An Adapted Classic - Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie -  An excellent book to start with if you have never read Agatha Christie and you should read her!

An Abandoned Classic - Dracula by Bram Stoker  After trying to read this novel over the years and never getting past page 50 or 60 I finally sat down and read it cover to cover.  Dracula is told in diary and letter form and it's not only a classic in the horror genre but a superior late Victorian novel as well.  

I wish everyone Happy Holidays and Health and Happiness in the New Year.  Thank you so much for reading my blog.  It's greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I never read The Great Gatsby when I was in school and afterwards as the years went by I kept putting it off.  Something about the plot didn't grab me and now having finally read The Great Gatsby I can't say I loved the book but I have been left with many questions and the realization that one reading is not  enough.

Is this a novel for example about the decadence of the Jazz Age?  Are Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan stand ins for F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald?  Is Gatsby a cautionary tale about the American Dream and what is meant by the American Dream? Does the age at which you read The Great Gatsby and the era you are living through matter?  I would say yes to all of these questions.  There are multiple meanings to take from this book.

And so when The Great Gatsby begins it is 1922  The novel is set on Long Island and New York City and narrated by Nick Carraway.  Nick is from the Midwest.  He's also a Yale graduate and a World War I Vet who is working in the bond business in New York.  Nick lives in a modest house in West Egg, a nouveau rich part of Long Island that is looked down upon by East Egg, the town across the river.  Nick's neighbor is the very wealthy and mysterious Jay Gatsby.  Gatsby lives in a beautiful mansion and almost every night he throws fabulous parties.  The guests show up in their finery and dance and drink the night away.  Jay Gatsby is the host but no one sees him at these parties and there is all sorts of speculation about where he came from and how he makes his money.  

Shortly after Nick moves next door he receives an invitation from Gatsby to attend one of his parties.  Nick accepts and is stunned by Gatsby's estate and the excess he sees around him.  He also meets an attractive young woman named Jordan Baker at the party.  Jordan is a professional golfer with a cynical personality that Nick falls for and it will be at this party that Nick also  meets Jay Gatsby.  The two men talk about heir recent service in World War I but Gatsby has a reason for wanting to be Nick's friend.  Gatsby knows that Nick is a distant cousin of Daisy Buchanan who lives across the river in more fashionable East Egg and Gatsby has been obsessed with the beautiful Daisy for years.  

Like Nick, Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan are also originally from the Midwest but from different classes.  Daisy comes from a prominent family and Jay Gatsby (Jimmy Gatz) is the son of a poor farmer.  Normally these two would never have met but five years ago a handsome young Jay Gatsby was in uniform stationed in Daisy's home town and they fell in love.  The courtship was cut short when Gatsby went overseas to serve in World War I and Daisy ended up marrying the wealthy Tom Buchanan.  It's not a happy marriage.  Tom cheats on Daisy, beats up his mistress and he's a racist and a bully.  As for Daisy despite her beauty and her flirtatious charming exterior she is silly, vain and selfish.

Jay Gatsby meanwhile has been spending the last five years pining for Daisy.   He has remade himself, grown rich through bootlegging and he's moved to West Egg determined to win Daisy back.  Nick is called upon by Gatsby to facilitate the reunion.  Gatsby is sure that Daisy never loved Tom and that he can win her back and finally have the life he's always dreamed of and I won't go any further in the story except to say that it ends in tragedy.  

This isn't a book filled with likeable characters and as bad as Tom Buchanan is, Daisy doesn't prove herself to be a decent person either.  Quite the contary and so if you ask yourself what Gatsby sees in Daisy, it's actually what she represents.  Jimmy Gatz (Jay Gatsby) the poor boy remaking himself by winning over the beautiful girl from a prominent family is at the core of this book. It doesn't matter where you come from in other words.  If you have determination you can rise high and your past and your class won't matter and I suppose that is at the center of what has come to be known as the American Dream.

But I think to read The Great Gatsby in the 1920's is different than reading it now because back in the 1920's the public was fascinated by the rich and famous to an extent I am not sure we are today.  Maybe we are still fascinated but the awe is gone.  Movie stars for example are not the Gods and Goddesses they once were during the silent film era.   I think New York has changed too. It's still a great city but the way F. Scott Fitzgerald experienced it, coming from the Midwest a successful young author and his beautiful wife, it must have seemed like a magical city with every door opened to this golden couple.

But The Great Gatsby continues to have relevance today best expressed I think by Azar Nafisi in her book Reading Lolita in Tehran: "It shows how dreams can be tainted by reality and that if you don't compromise you may suffer".  I think that's a universal truth that never goes out of fashion.

The Great Gatsby is book twelve on my Back to the Classics Challenge list fulfilling the category - choose a classic with a name in the title.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments by Edmund Gosse

I had never heard of Edmund Gosse but I wanted to read his memoir Father and Son published 1907 when I learned a few weeks ago that it was a favorite book of one of my favorite writers, Vivian Gornick.  I decided therefore to go with it for the 2020 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic about a family.  

Father and Son tells the story of the English writer and critic Edmund Gosse's early life  growing up with his father the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse.  Edmund's mother Emily Bowes Gosse was accomplished too, a painter and writer of Christian poetry. Edmund's  parents were members of a small religious community known as the Plymouth Brethren.  It was strict. The reading of novels was forbidden by Edmund's mother, no holiday celebrations and the bible was taken literally.  Despite all this, though, according to Edmund, it wasn't an unhappy childhood in the early years : 

"My Father and Mother lived so completely in the atmosphere of faith, and were so utterly convinced of their intercourse with God, that, so long as that intercourse was not clouded by sin they could afford to take the passing hour very lightly .. So long as I was a mere part of them, without individual existence, and swept on, a satellite, in their atmosphere, I was mirthful when they were mirthful and grave when they were grave ...the mere fact that I had no companions, no storybooks, no outside amusements ... did not make me discontented or fretful because I did not know of the existence of such entertainments"  

But then when Edmund was eight his mother died of cancer.  It was devastating.  His father decided that he and his son should move from London to the seaside town of Devon.  Philip continued his naturalist work and became a lay minister to his neighbors in the surrounding villages.  At first Edmund was the model son, believing his father in all things, but a big change occurred when Edmund was eleven and Philip decided to relax the ban on novels, for whatever reason, and handed his son a copy of Tom Cringle's Log by Michael Scott: 

"It was like giving a glass of brandy neat to someone who had never been weaned from a milk diet. .. the long adventures fighting and escapes sudden storms without, and mutinies within, drawn forth as they were, surely with great skill, upon the fiery blue of the boundless tropical ocean, produced on my inner mind  a sort of glimmering hope, very vaguely felt at first, slowly developing ... but always tending toward a belief that I should escape at last from the narrowness of the life we led at home".  

An even bigger change in Edmund's life came when his father remarried.  His new stepmother was a kind and pious woman but not overly puritanical.  She introduced Edmund to Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, encouraged his friendships with other children in the neighborhood and took Edmund to museums to admire painting and sculpture.  Edmund's father worried that his son would become too worldly and as Edmund grew up, began to read further, and think for himself about God and religion, that's exactly what happened.

Now having read Father and Son I can understand why it remains a classic in the memoir genre.  It's a rather sad book though in that Edmund Gosse's childhood was a lonely and difficult one.  His father Philip wanted the best for Edmund and felt that following the religious path of the Plymouth Brethren was the way to true happiness.  But his son could not follow in his father's footsteps and had to chart his own course, a timeless coming of age story.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

At the beginning of the year I chose The Jungle by Upton Sinclair for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic with nature in the title.  But this has been a tough year, as we all know, and with the year coming to a close I wanted a book that was fun and  entertaining and so I went with Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart published 1956

According to Mystery Scene Magazine, Mary Stewart along with Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney are the "Grandes Dames of modern romantic suspense".  They wrote hugely popular novels from the 1940's on through to the 1990's. and yet I had never read them. I decided to change that by giving Mary Stewart a try and I found Wildfire at Midnight to be a very enjoyable read.  I can see why fans continue to collect and treasure Stewart's  books.

And so when Wildfire at Midnight begins it is 1953 and the city of London is preparing for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.  We are introduced to Gianetta Brooke, the young narrator at the center of this novel.  Gianetta lives in London and  works as a model for a fashion house.  She has an ex-husband Nicholas Drury who she still has feelings for but the marriage broke up three years prior due to Nicholas' affairs.  But, as Gianetta tells us, there were problems with their marriage from the start:

"I was wildly, madly, dumbly in love with him, of course, a silly little star-dazzled adolescent, plunged into a life completely strange and rather terrifying.  And Nicolas, it became very quickly apparent, wasn't on his own ground either. What he had meant to marry was a modern Gianetta Fox, a composed young sophisticate who could hold her own in the fast moving society to which he was accustomed; what he'd actually got was Gianetta Brooke, not long out of school, whose poise was a technique very recently acquired in Montfiore's salons and the Mayfair mannequin factory".  

Gianetta Fox was Gianetta's great grandmother who in 1858 arrived in London at age 17 and was "painted by every painter who mattered" and she led a scandalous life.  Gianetta is not the adventurous spirit her great grandmother was.  She is reserved and practical and with the hustle and bustle in London surrounding the coronation, she needs a break.

So Gianetta decides to spend a few weeks in Camasunary in the Isle of Skye, a beautuful mountainous region of Scotland where she can relax and think about her life.  But soon after she arrives in Camasunary, Gianetta discovers that her ex-husband Nicholas is staying at the same hotel and as if that weren't uncomfortable enough she also learns that two weeks prior to her arrival a young woman in the area was murdered.  The police suspect that the culprit is one of the guests staying at the hotel.  The guests suspect each other.  

As to why Gianetta upon hearing all of this doesn't get in her car and drive back to London or why the other guests remain at the hotel with a murderer on the loose, that does stretch credibility a bit.  But then agaiin Gianetta, like every amateur sleuth before her, is determined to solve the mystery.  The presence of her ex-husband Nicholas at the hotel who she still has feelings for might also be playing a part in her decision to stay.  

Wildfire at Midnight is probably more mystery than romantic suspense but the romance is there too and Gianetta is a heroine with depth, courage, intelligence and heart.  I also liked the chemistry between Gianetta and Nicholas.  Their marriage may have ended but they still, despite the anger and bitterness, belong together.  This is my first time reading Mary Stewart but it won't be my last.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula by Bram Stoker published 1897 is the ninth book I have read for this year's Back to the Classics Challenge - choose an abandoned classic.  It's a novel that I have made attempts to read over the years but this time I got all the way through and I found it to be a gripping and enjoyable read.  I also recommend the Oxford World Classics edition of Dracula due to the excellent introduction by Roger Luckhurst.  

Dracula takes place in the late 19th century and is set in London and Transylvania.  The novel is mapped out in the form of letters and journal entrys written by the major characters in the book.  Our story begins with Jonathan Harker's journal.  He is a young British solicitor who has been sent by his law firm to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula who lives in a castle high up in the Carpathian Mountains.  Dracula is planning to purchase an estate in London and Jonathan Harker will be staying at the castle to complete the paper work.  But shortly after he arrives in Transylvania it becomes clear that the villagers are terrified of the mysterious Count and they plead with Harker to return home and once Jonathan arrives at Dracula's estate it becomes clear that he has made a big mistake: 

"I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings.  At first I could not believe my eyes.  I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow, but I kept looking and it could be no delusion ... What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man?  I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me ; I am in fear -- in awful fear -- and there is no escape for me". 

The novel then shifts to London where we meet Mina Murray who is Jonathan Harker's fiance and her best friend Lucy Westerna who is also engaged to be married.  Mina and Lucy are good hearted young woman and Lucy must be quite ravishing since she receives three proposals of marriage, one from Dr. John Seward who runs a hospital nearby, another from Quincy Morris a wealthy Texan, and finally from the Hon Arthur Holmwood whose proposal Lucy accepts.  

Lucy is not a flirt.  She has a tender heart and though she chooses Arthur Holmwood she feels terrible about hurting Dr. Seward and Quincey Morris.  Mina and Lucy are great friends but they are different.  Its been said by critics that Mina with her practicality, her job as a school mistress and her shorthand skills represents the new woman who was emerging in late Victorian England whereas Lucy with her innocence and sheltered knowledge of the world represents the young ladies of an earlier age.

And then Lucy becomes ill, growing more pale and sleeping all the time.  Mina is concerned.  She is also concerned about her fiance Jonathan Harker who she hasn't heard from recently.  Dr. Seward is called in to help Lucy.  Albert Holmwood and Quincey Morris are called in as well.  One would think that these three men who were rivals for Lucy's affection would be at each other's throats, so to speak, but their love for Lucy gives them a shared purpose and they become very good friends.  Dr. Seward stumped at what is wrong with Lucy calls in his old professor and mentor from Denmark, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing who is a brilliant diagnostician.  He begins to piece things together and realizes that something very old and evil is at work.

Meanwhile, Mina Harker and her husband Jonathan, who was able to escape Dracula's castle, are back in London and horrified to learn of what has happened to Lucy.  They  join forces with Dr Seward, Quincey Morris, Albert Holmwood and Van Helsing to track down Count Dracula, who after the start of the book doesn't appear in the novel as often as one might think.  Instead Dracula is the story of these six friends who consult each other's journals and letters to piece together Dracula's whereabouts and put an end to his plans to create an army of monsters like himself. 

Dracula is a classic of horror literature but what suprised me is that it's also a very good Victorian novel.  If you are a fan of the Vampire genre, this book is where it all began. I'm glad I read Dracula and I encourage others to give this book a try as well.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Plague by Albert Camus

"All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it's up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences" - The Plague by Albert Camus

Albert Camus was a major figure in 20th century literature and philosophy.  He was a novelist, playwright essayist, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1957.  Camus  is connected with the philosophy of absurdism which is the belief that the universe is a meaningless chaotic place and therefore man's attempt to find meaning is futile since if there is no God what does it matter?  

It's a bleak view of life and Camus who once described himself as "an atheist with Christian preoccupations" took issue with this mindset.  He felt that despite the irrationality of the cosmos each of us should live a life of meaning and service anyway.  He lays his philosophy out in The Stranger published 1942 which I read in 2017 and The Plague published 1947 which I have now finished.  I much prefer The Plague but it's best to begin by reading The Stranger since these two books build on each other..  

The Plague is set in the 1940's in the port city of Oran, Algeria.  The unnamed narrator (who will be named at the end of the book) tells us about Oran which though it borders a beautiful ocean is a rather visually unappealing city and a citizenry concerned primarily with business. The narrator spends some time describing the ordinaryness of Oran possibly because a renarkable event is about to happen. It starts with rats coming out of their hiding places all over the city.  Rats are suddenly everywhere and they are turning up dead.  The citizens are alarmed and soon people in Oran start getting sick and dying with this mysterious illness.  Soon the city is placed in quarantine.  Nobody can enter Oran and no one can leave.  

And so this novel is a kind of a petri dish of human nature and how people in a locked down city behave when an unforseen disaster occurs.  The book zeroes in on a number of characters and their reaction to the plague.  Raymond Rambert a journalist desparate to escape Oran so he can reunite with his wife. Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest who is sure that the plague is punishment from God.  M. Cottard who prior to the plague was wanted by the police and tried to commit suicide.  He is a rather fascinating character because unlike the other citizens of Oran, Cottard is thriving during the plague. 

And finally there is the main character, Dr. Bernard Rieux who works himself to the point of exhaustion treating plague-stricken patients.  Dr Rieux becomes friends with Jean Tarrou who is visiting the city when the lockdown happens and decides to aid Dr. Rieux in his work. Both men are similar in that neither believes in God but both are deeply moral men and their discussions about what they are witnessing around them can get quite philosophical and are one of the highlights of the book.   As Dr. Rieux explains to Tarrou at one point about why he became a doctor

"When I entered this profession I did it abstracted because it meant a career like an other, one that young men often aspire to.  Perhaps, too, bbecause it was particularly difficult for a workman's son, like myself.  And then I had to see people die.  Do you know there are some who refuse to die?  Have you ever heard a woman scream 'Never!" with her last gasp?  Well, I have.  And then I saw that I could never get hardened to it.  I was young then, and I was outraged by the whole scheme of things, or so I thought.  Subsequently, I grew more modest. Only I've never managed to get used to seeing people die.  That's al I know". 

I found The Plague to be a great novel and Albert Camus a remarkable man.  He wrote The Plague around 1942 when he was living n France and a member of the French resistance working on the underground newspaper Combat.  Critics have speculated that the plague which descends on the city of Oran is an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France.  It's a novel that can be read on many levels and is certainly relevant during the times we are going through right now.  

The Plague by Albert Camus fulfills the category choose a 20th century classic for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge.  The translator is Stuart Gilbert and he did a very fine job.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Books and Beyond

My tablet has been having trouble for the past week and so when I came back on today I  noticed that my Reading Matters blog was configured differently.  So I am posting this message just to be sure I can continue to post.  I am currently reading The Plague by Albert Camus.  Hope to have a review up in a week or two. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is that rare writer who is acclaimed for both her fiction and non-fiction writing.  She is a marvelous essayist, diarist, book reviewer and also a great novelist.  But as much as I have enjoyed her essays, a Room of One's in particular, I have avoided her novels.  I had heard they were difficult but I have also known that to really appreciate Virginia Woolf's brilliance you have to give her fiction a try and so this year for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic with a place in the title, I decided to take on Virginia Woolf's greatest novel, To the Lighthouse. And I have to say it was not the difficult read I feared.  Yes it is written in a stream of consciousness style and you do have to go slowly but it is accessible and a true work of art, well deserving of its canonical status.  

To the Lighthouse is set on the Isle of Skye in Scotland in the years before and after World War I.  The novel revolves around Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their children and a few guests who come to the Ramsay's summer home to vacation.  The novel is divided into three chapters and in Chapter One, the Window, the day begins with the Ramsay's six year old son James asking if the family will be able to visit the lighthouse the next day.  Mrs Ramsay, says that it might be possible weather permitting but Mr. Ramsay sternly says no, the weather won't be fine.  This infuriates young James: "what he said was true.  It was always true.  He was incapable of untruth; never tampered with a fact; never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being least of all his own children. 

Mr Ramsay is a formidable character, accomplished in his field of metaphysics  but he is also gruff and short-tempered.  HIs opposite is his elegant beautiful wife, Mrs. Ramsay.  She is at the core of this book, shielding her children from disappointment, bolstering her husband's spirits, making sure her guests feel included. She is a kind and patient woman but there is also a mysterious, and sad quality to Mrs. Ramsay.  In the privacy of her thoughts we learn that her view of life is pessimistic:

"There it was before her - life.  Life: she thought but she did not finish her thought.  She took a look at life, for she had a clear sense of it there, something real, something private, which she shared neither with her children nor with her husband.  A sort of transaction went on between them, in which she was on one side, and life was on another, and she was always trying to get the better of it as it was of her; and sometimes they parleyed (when she sat alone); there were, she remembered, great reconciliation scenes; but for the most part, oddly enough, she must admit that she felt this thing that she called life terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance" 

Chapters Two and Three, Time Passes and The Lighthouse take place a few years after World War I and alot has changed.  We learn that Mrs. Ramsay died suddenly from a heart attack a few years back.  Andrew, the Ramsay's son, died in combat during World War I and the Ramsay's daughter Prue  died in childbirth.  The book closes with Mr. Ramsay and his younger children, James and Cam, now teenagers, retuning to their summer home.  Some of the guests we met at the beginning of the novel return as well.  Mr. Ramsay and his children finally take that voyage out to the lighthouse.  

There isn't much of a plot to this novel and there is very little dialogue.  Instead we are provided with a window into the internal monologues people have with themselves and it's done very well.  I wasn't bored by To the Lighthouse and a number of times I found myself putting the book down for a moment, marvelling at the quality of the writing.  As to what the novel is about I would need to read what the critics have to say but I know enough about Virginia Woolf's life to see autobiographical aspects in this novel.  Like Mrs. Ramsay for example, Virginia's mother died young  and like Mr. Ramsay, Virginia Woolf's father was a noted scholar with several books to his name.  I also sense the lighthouse itself is symbolic but of what?  So, I will be curious to learn more and then possibly a reread.  To the Lighthouse is not a very long book.  It held my interest and it is considered one of the greatest novels to have been written during the 20th century.  I am pleased to have read it.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Fidelity by Susan Glaspell.....

Susan Glaspell is a writer I have wanted to read for some time.  Born in Iowa in 1876 she was a journalist, novelist, short story writer and a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (Alison's House).  In Iowa she was a member of a writing community known as the Davenport Group where she met her husband, George Cram Cook.  They married after he obtained a divorce and in 1913 Glaspell and Cook moved to Greenwich Village where they were part of an influential group of writers and activists which included John Reed, Emma Goldman, Upton Sinclair, Floyd Dell.  Glaspell was also a feminist and a socialist which is reflected in her writings. 

I mention all this because Glaspell's novel Fidelity (published 1915) is somewhat autobiographical.  The book is set in Freeport, a small midwestern town and at the center of the book is Ruth Holland who is returning home to say her goodbyes to her father who is dying.  Ruth left Freeport eleven years prior when she was 20 to run off with a married man causing a scandal in the town and she has not been back until now..

The man Ruth fell in love with, Stuart Williams, could not obtain a divorce from his wife.  When Stuart came down with TB, Ruth was determined to leave with him for Colorado where he could seek treatment.  But now as Ruth returns to Freeport all these years later she wonders did she make the right decision?  Her life with Stuart has not been easy.  Their love for each other has lasted but instead of building a future in Colorado they have struggled all these years to make ends meet.  They have been afraid to make friends, the town of Freeport continuing to cast a shadow over their lives. 

FIdelity is a book that weighs the pros and cons of whether one should follow society's norms or follow one's heart and the author gives both sides of the equation because it's not always an easy choice.  But what's not in dispute in this book is the danger people place themselves in when they can't move on.  This is shown to be true in the case of Stuart's wife Marion who out of vengeful bitterness cannot grant Stuart a divorce.  It's shown to be true for Ruth and Stuart who have lived for eleven years in Colorado keeping to themselves and maybe most sadly it's true of Deane Franklin, Ruth's childhood friend and now the town doctor.  Deane has never gotten over Ruth and he stands by her when she returns to Freeport at a great cost to himself.  

So many passages I wanted to quote from Fidelity but I felt I'd be taking them out of context and not giving people the true flavor of this novel.  I'm not usually a fan of midwestern regional fiction which can be quite melancholy but Fidelity is an exception.  It's a novel filled with interesting well drawn characters and important things to say about small town America and the people who lived there during the early 20th century.  I will certainly be reading more by Susan Glaspell.

Fidelity fulfills my 2020 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic by a woman author.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

"I don't want to be immortal if it mean living forever, cause then everybody else just die and get old in front of you, while you stay the same, and that's just sad  But maybe I'll come back as some He La cells like  my mother, that way we can do good together out there in the world ... I think I'd like that"  - Deborah Lacks

I don't read as much non-fiction as I probably should and so about six months ago I started looking around for a non-fiction book that had received alot of critical acclaim.  In the end I went with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot published 2010 and I made a very good choice.  

So who was Henrietta Lacks?  She was an African-American woman born in Roanoke Virginia in 1920.  Her family were tobacco farmers.  She married and moved to Baltimore, Maryland with her husband in the 1940's.  They had five children.  As her cousin Hector would later recall: 

"Everyone liked Henrietta ... always smilin, always takin care of us when we come to the house ... Even after she got sick, she never was a person who say 'I feel bad and I'm going to take it out on you'.  She wasn't like that, even when she hurtin.  But she didn't seem to understand what was going on.  She didn't want to think she was going to die".

Tragically, Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 at the age of 31 from an aggressive form of cervical cancer.  But before her death, doctors at Johns Hopkins without her knowledge took a sample of her tumor for research.  It was standard practice back then.  Patients were not always informed.  

Henrietta's tumor samples were given to Dr George Gey who was the head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins.  For decades scientists had been trying to get human cells to stay alive in culture but it never worked. The cells ended up dying so when Dr. Gey received Henrietta's tissue samples he wasn't expecting much.  But Henrietta's cells didn't die.  They continued to divide and multiply at an astounding rate becoming the first cells that could reproduce indefinitely, an immortal cell line, the He La cells:

"They have helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization ... if you could lay all He La cells ever grown end-to-end, they'd wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet"

Yet for a long time Henrietta's family knew none of this.  Partly the reason no one told them is that many in the scientific community didn't know who the donor of the cells were.  Some thought the original donor was named Helen Lane but no one was sure.  Eventually Henrietta's name did begin to get published and in the late 1960's researchers needed to locate her family.  A problem had developed with the He La cells and they needed the family's DNA to do more research.  So the doctors arrived at the Lacks home wanting to do a blood test..  

As Rebecca Skloot states in the book, this was the first time the Lacks family was hearing about Henrietta's cells and they were confused and worried.  Was Henrietta herself still alive?  Did they want to draw blood to test for cancer?  None of this was true of course but the doctors didn't do a very good job of explaining and misconceptions arose.  Deborah with children of her own was worried that she would die from the cancer her mother had.  After the blood was drawn she called John Hopkins repeatedly trying to find out if she had cancer but they never got back to her. 

As the years went on the Lacks family found out more about Henrietta cells as reporters came around. Also a man claiming to be an attorney gained the Lacks' trust but he turned out to be a con man.  And so by the time Rebecca Skloot a young science reporter showed up wanting to tell Henrietta's story the Lacks family was guarded.  They had been burned before by people they trusted.  

But Rebecca was persistent.  She had been fascinated by Henrietta's story since she was sixteen when her biology teacher started talking about cell division and the importance of the He La cells.  Deborah, Henrietta's  daughter, who was two when her mther died also wanted to learn as much as she could about her mother.  Deborah was in her 50's and in poor health when Rebecca came calling but the two formed a close bond as they uncovered the details of Henrietta's life.  

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an important book because without it we would not know who she was and the important contribution she has made to medicine.  I'm not very good with science but the author explains it well and it's also a book about medical ethics, racism, poverty, faith and it's a book about family.  I found the Lacks family members that Rebecca interviewed very interesting and inspirational  They have been poor all their lives but they are survivors with alot of wisdom to share.  In 2017 HBO made a film of the book starring Oprah Winfrey and Rebecca Skloot has set up The Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help Henrietta's children and grand children with health insurance and tuition for school.   I think Henrietta would be pleased.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant (1850 -1893) is a writer that I had vaguely heard about over the years but as to what he wrote I could not have told you. Then two years ago my blogging friend Ruthiella (please check out her excellent website ruthiellareads@blogspot.com) reviewed his novel Bel Ami for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge and gave it high praise.  Now having also read the book I heartily agree.  This is a remarkable novel well deserving its status as a classic.

And so when Bel Ami begins we are introduced to George Duroy, a handsome young man who arrives in Paris around 1880 determined to rise high in Parisian society.  For George his good looks have always been his fortune and so though he arrives with very little money he knows that won't be the case for long.

After a few months in Paris, George runs into an old army buddy, Charles Forestier, who he served with when he was stationed in Algeria.  Charles is now an editor at La Vie francaise and he helps George get a job at the paper.  George has trouble writing his first article but that's no problem.  Charles tells George to go see his wife Madeleine Forestier who will write the article for him.  The Forestiers also invite George to a dinner party at their home and it's there that George meets Clotilde de Marielle.  She is a friend of Madeleine Forestier and Clotilde and George begin an affair.

Clotilde is alot like George, young, beautiful, adventurous with a taste for the seedier side of Paris.  George is very familiar with this part of town and is happy to accompany Clotilde on these outings.  Clotilde is also married but she assures George that this fact is irrelevant as long as one is discreet.  George has a good time with Clotilde.  She provides him with money, pays for their secret apartment and the restaurant bills etc.

George meanwhile begins to make his way at the newspaper and becomes rather good at his job but his position has no future.  He begins thinking about Madeleine Forestier.  She is beautiful, smart and has the drive and connections that can help a young man like George go far.  He professes his love to Madeleine but she is not interested. And in a cold way explains:

"My dear friend, for me, a man who's in love is erased from the roll of the living.  He becomes a half-wit, and not just a half-wit, but a dangerous one.  With men who are really in love with me, or who claim they are, I break off any close relationship, first because they bore me, but also because I don't trust them, just as I don't trust a rabid dog who might go on the rampage.  So I put them into moral quarantine until their sickness is over.  Don't ever forget this". 

It's quite a declaration and of course Madeleine sees through George quite clearly knowing he cannot love anyone but himself.  Still, when her husband dies, George is a help to Madeleine during Charles' final hours.  She decides to marry George with no illusions.  It's a partnership, a way for Madeleine to advise George so that as a couple they can rise high in French society.  George for his part has not given up his relationship with Clotilde and has also begun a new affair with the wealthy publisher's wife, Mme Walter.  As to how George's juggling act involving three society women and a fourth on the way resolves itself I will leave it to the reader to discover.

Bel Ami presents a very cynical picture of 19th century Parisian society and more generally a pessimistic view of life and love in general.  Some may ask therefore why read Bel Ami?  Well, for me two reasons.  First Guy de Maupassant is a masterful writer, very detail oriented in terms of describing what Paris in the late 19th century must have been like.  But also I noticed that the subject of death takes up a powerful place in this novel.  Charles Forestier for example is dying of tuberculosis which when he first meets George he dismisses as bronchitis but his increasingly terrible coughing alerts the reader.  Charles tries to remain in denial but everyone around him is not.  And then there is the elderly poet, Norbert de Varenne who walking home with George one evening tries to warn the young man about the kind of life he's living:

"Life is a hill.  While you're climbing up, you look towards the summit, and you're happy; but when you reach the summit, suddenly you can see the slope down, and the bottom, which is death.  It's slow going up, but coming down is quick.  At your age you're happy.  You hope for so many things, which moreover never happen ... get married my friend, you don't know what it means to live alone at my age".  

The author, Guy de Maupassant died at age 42 in an asylum.  He found out he had syphillis in his twenties and back then there were no good treatments.  When he published Bel Ami he was 35 and one can't help seeing parellels between George and the author who was also quite the ladies man, a cautionary tale perhaps? And what I am discovering the more 19th century literature I read is how many classic authors never reached 50 years of age but fortunately they live on through their great writing.

Bel Ami fulfills my 2020 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic in translation.  The translator being Margaret Mauldon.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

For the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge (choose a 19th century classic) I decided to go with Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.  I wanted to read this novel because Jane Austen is always worth reading but also in Northanger Abbey, Austen pokes gentle fun at the world of gothic novels and since I would be hard pressed to name a writer less inclined to the gothic than Jane Austen I wanted to hear what she had to say on the subject.

And so when Northanger Abbey begins we are introduced to seventeen year old Catherine Morland.  Catherine is a good-hearted young woman who comes from a large and loving family.  She has led a sheltered life in the village of Fullerton and so when her neighbors, the Allens, suggest that Catherine accompany them on a six week visit to the city of Bath she jumps at the chance.

When Catherine arrives in Bath she is thrilled by everything she sees around her, the dances, the shops, the theater and shortly after her arrival she meets Isabella Thorpe and her brother John Thorpe.  The Thorpe's, unlike Catherine's family, are not wealthy but they have expensive tastes and so before long Isabella sets her sights on Catherine's brother James and John Thorpe tries to put the moves on young Catherine but she isn't interested.  Catherine falls instead for a young clergyman, Henry Tilney and the reader can see why.  Unlike John Thorpe who one critic has described as a blowhard, Henry Tilney, is intelligent, a good conversationalist and a gentleman.

Henry's family is also extremely wealthy, owners of the gothic style estate Northanger Abbey.  Henry and his sister Eleanor invite Catherine to spend a few weeks there and before long all of Catherine's gothic novel reading let's her imagination run wild.  She comes up with the idea that Henry and Eleanor's mother did not die from an illness years ago but rather that her husband, General Tilney, unbeknowst to his children has the poor woman locked away somewhere on the estate (shades of Jane Eyre).

Of course it isn't true and Catherine is horribly embarrassed when Henry figures out what she was thinking.  Henry doesn't hold it against Catherine.  More importantly he doesn't tell his father what Catherine was imagining..  As for Catherine she begins to have second thoughts about where her love for gothic novels has led her:

"Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland and the south of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented ... But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age.  Murders were not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb from every druggist". 

Although the above passage conveys Catherine's thoughts I sense she is also speaking for the author as well.  As Austen would later write to her niece Anna who was an aspiring writer "three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on".  Austen knew her world of Bath and it's environs and wrote about it beautifully but having now read three novels by Jane Austen I can't help wishing she would have taken a few more chances.

I enjoyed Northanger Abbey.  It's not her best book though possibly because it was the earliest of her six classic novels to be completed in 1803.  As for how things end with Henry and Catherine I don't think I'm giving away spoilers in an Austen novel when I say that of course it ends in wedding bells.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Eight Million Ways to Die by Lawrence Block

Eight Million Ways to Die published 1982 is the fifth book in Lawrence Block's acclaimed Matthew Scudder mystery series.  There are 18 novels in this series and they center around Matthew Scudder, an ex NYC police detective who now works as a private investigator. Scudder is very good at his job and since he does not have an expensive lifestyle it gives him the freedom to choose only those cases he cares about.

When Matthew Scudder is not working he can be found in bars all over Manhattan drinking away his troubles.  In the first four books of the series he could do this without many ill effects.  However, in Eight Million Ways to Die, Scudder is forced to take his alcoholism seriously, although at the beginning of the novel he is still in denial:

"A block further downtown I realized something.  I'd been controlling my drinking for days now, and before that I'd been off the sauce entirely for over a week, and that proved something.  Hell, if I could limit myself to two drinks a day, that was fairly strong evidence that I didn't need to limit myself to two drinks a day.  I had my problems with alcohol in the past, I couldn't very well deny it, but evidently I had outgrown that stage in my life.  So, although I certainly didn't need another drink, I could just as certainly have one if I wanted one.  And I did want one, as a matter of fact, so why not have it?  

As for the case Scudder takes on in Eight Million Ways to Die it involves a young prostitute, Kim Dakkinen.  She seeks out Scudder on the advise of a mutual friend.  Kim wants to quit being a call girl but worries what her pimp, Chance, will do if she tells him directly..  So she asks Matthew Scudder if he will approach Chance and convey her message that she wants out.

Scudder says okay, locates Chance, conveys Kim's message.  Chance says fine and two days later KIm is brutally murdered in a hotel room.  All fingers point to Chance as the killer but he has an alibi and in fact Chance comes to Scudder to hire him to find out who murdered Kim.  Scudder is skeptical but Chance puts it as follows:

"Scudder that killer's a loaded gun and I don't know who he's pointed at.  Maybe killing Kim's a way for somebody to get at me.  Maybe another girl of mine is next on his list.  I know one thing.  My business is hurting already.  I told my girls not to take any hotel tricks, that's for starters, and not to take any new johns if there is anything funny about them.  That's like telling them to leave the phone off the hook."

Scudder believes Chance and the rest of the novel goes along two tracks.  Matthew Scudder searching for Kim's killer but also dealing with his drinking problem, attending AA meetings and taking his sobriety seriously.

Eight Million Ways to Die is a pivital book in this series since its the book in which Scudder stops drinking but if you are interested in the world of Matthew Scudder this is not the novel I would recommend you start with.  It's alot more dark and violent than the prior Scudder books I've read (and that's saying something).  But I was particularly disturbed by one episode of vigilante justice that Scudder takes out on a mugger who granted intended to kill him but still Scudder went way overboard and it turned me off a bit.

So, best to begin with the first novel in the series Sins of the Father and become more gradually aquainted with Matthew Scudder, his good points and his bad.  As for me I will be on to book six in the series in a few months and it goes without saying Lawrence Block is an amazing writer and at 81 still going strong.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie published 1934 is the second book I have read for the March Mystery Madness Challenge and it also fulfills the 2020 Back to the Classics category - choose an adapted classic.  I enjoyed this mystery a great deal and I am looking forward to watching Kenneth Branagh film version of the novel when it airs tomorrow.

The plot is pretty straightforward.  A passenger, Mr. Ratchett, is murdered on the Orient Express as it travels through Europe.  Mr. Ratchett is killed in the middle of the night in his sleeping car but due to a snow storm the train is stopped and whoever killed him is unable to escape.  The first class section where the murder occurred is closed off from the rest of the train so the killer must be one of the thirteen passengers residing in first class.  But who and why?

Agatha Christie's legendary Detective, Hercule Poirot, is on the train travelling to a business appointment in London.  Assisting him in solving the murder will be his friend M Bouc, an exec with the Orient Express Company and Dr. Constantine who agrees to fill in as a coroner.  These three will interview the passengers, search luggage and debate back and forth as to who the killer might be but as always its Poirot's instincts that are worth following.

One of the problems I have found with reviewing a mystery is that to really discuss this book properly and quote the passages I would like to quote I would need to give away too many clues.  Suffice it to say that if you have never read Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express is a very good place to begin.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green

Anna Katharine Green (1846 -1935) has been called the Mother of American Detective Fiction and during her lifetime she was the author of over thirty mystery novels.  Ms. Green's most famous novel, The Leavenworth Case, published 1878 would go on to sell over a million copies.  I first heard about this book a few years back in the pages of Ellery Queen Magazine and how The Leavenworth Case was a novel not to be missed.  I heartily agree.  It's a suprisingly good mystery and a very good novel period.

The book is set in New York City during the 1870's.  The plot centers around Horatio Leavenworth, a wealthy businessman who is murdered late at night in his study.  The mansion in which he lived is locked from the inside each evening and not opened until the next morning and so whoever the killer is came from inside the house and there are a range of suspects.

Living with Mr. Leavenworth for example are his two nieices Mary and Eleanor Leavenworth.  Mary and Eleanor are cousins, their respective parents having died in the same accident years ago.  Mr. Leavenworth has been raising them ever since and he has been a good father to these girls who are now young women.  But there has always been a caveat.  Mr. Leavenworth made it clear from the start that Mary Leavenworth would inherit his entire fortune. It's a cruel thing to do to Eleanor but she has never complained.  As for Mary she has grown up spoiled, taught to value money too highly.  Both women therefore have motive.  Has Eleanor been harboring a supressed rage all these years over having been left out of the will?  Is Mary afraid the will is about to be changed?

There were other people in the house as well that night.  Truman Harwell, Mr. Leavenworth's personal secretary.  Hannah the maid who flees the house the morning after the murder.  Thomas Dougherty the Butler and Henry Clavering who was seen visiting the house the day of the murder.  Narrating the Leavenwort Case is a young attorney by the name of Mr. Raymond who joins forces with Detective Ebenezer Gryce who would appear in a number of Anna Katharine Green's novels.  Gryce is an unassuming sort of man but he misses nothing.

In some ways The Leavenworth Case might seem like a standard mystery but the quality of the writing the characterization and how well plotted this book is make this novel so much more and maybe the biggest mystery is why The Leavenworth Case was allowed to fall into obscurity for so long. 

The Leavenworth Case fulfills two challenges I am taking this year:  March Mystery Madness and the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge - -choose a genre classic.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

March Mystery Madness

Thanks Ruthiella at Booked for Life for alerting us to the March Mystery Madness Challenge hosted by Lizzie Faye Loves Books and Troi Towel.  It's the 5th year they have hosted this challenge and their theme is the number five.  Example: books with five in the title, books that are the fifth in the series etc.  But I've decided to ignore the category prompts and just choose five mystery novels I really want to read:

Eight Million Ways to Die by Lawrence Block published 1982 - Actually this particular novel conforms to one of the categories in the Mystery Challenge.  It's the fifth novel in Lawrence Block's acclaimed Matthew Scudder series.  I just love Matthew Scudder.  I have not tired of him yet and I have many more books in this series to look forward to.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie published 1934 - Have wanted to read this for some time and it will be nice to check in with Hercule Poiot again to see if he is all I remembered him to be.

The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green published 1878 - She wrote detective novels in the 19th century and I found out about her through Ellery Queen Magazine.  The Leavenworth Case is set in NYC and its the novel she is best known for.

The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton published 2009 - The first book in Barbara Hamilton's historical mystery series featuring Abigail Adams as the amateur detective who solves the crime.  This book received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly and they don't give those out easily.

The Adventures of Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer by Alice and Claude Askew 
published 1914 - They were a husband and wife writing team who wrote a series of short stories featuring best friends Aylmer Vance and Dexter who are modeled after Holmes and Watson except in the case of Vance and Dexter they investigate the supernatural.

It's a tall order to read five books in one month but I am excited by this challenge and most of these novels were already in my kindle to begin with and so it's a perfect opportunity to finally read them and post my thoughts.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass is one of the great Americans in our history and right now we certainly need role models.  He was born into slavery around 1818 and escaped to freedom in 1838.  Douglass would go on to become a leader in the 19th century abolitionist movement, a powerful orator, editor writer and statesman. He was a lifelong supporter of women's suffrage and spoke out wherever he saw injustice, particularly when it came to ending slavery and working for civil rights.

Douglass wrote three memoirs.  His most famous is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass published 1845. It is the first book I have read for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic by a person of color.  It's a suprisingly short book, 45 pages, but it is very powerful dealing as it does with Douglass' early years growing up on a Maryland plantation and what he experienced and saw around him.  Here is Douglass writing about his mother Harriet Bailey who died when he was very young:

I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night.  She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from my home.  She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day's work.  She was a field hand, and a whipping was the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise ... She would lie down with me and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.  Very little communication ever took place between us.  Death soon ended what little we could have while she lived, and with it her hardship and suffering:

There are passages in this memoir that make for difficult reading.  Douglass knew first hand what slavery was like.  He tells us the stories of what he witnessed and  experienced at the hands of barbaric slaveholders.  When he was ten he left the plantation to work for Mr. and Mrs. Auld who lived in the city of Baltimore.  Mrs Auld began teaching Douglass to read but she stopped when Mr Auld told her it was dangerous and then things began to change:

"Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities.  Under its influence the tender heart became stone, and the lamb-like disposition gave way to tiger-like fierceness ... If I was in a separate room any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book, and was at once called to give an account of myself.  All this, however, was too late The first step had been taken". 

Frederick Douglass would continue to learn to read and write on his own and today many of his articles and speeches are online.   His relevance continues, strikingly so.  Currently there is a debate over the 1619 Project sponsored by the New York Times about slavery and the founding of America and whether the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery.

It's interesting to note that William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass had a similar disagreement over the American Constitution in the mid 19th century.  Garrison, also an abolitionist felt that the constitution was pro-slavery and an "agreement with  hell".  He refused to participate in American electoral politics until slavery was abolished.  Douglass maintained that the constitution, though flawed, was an anti-slavery document and he worked throughout his life to make its founding priciples a reality.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Glamorous Powers by Susan Howatch

Glamorous Powers published 1988 is book two in Susan Howatch's acclaimed Starbridge series of novels.  These six books are set in the UK in and around the fictional town of Starbridge.  The subject matter is the Church of England in the twentieth century and each book centers on a different Anglican priest.  These priests have come to a crisis point in their lives and the drama is why?  What happened in their past to bring them to this point?

And so when Glamorous Powers begins it is 1940.  Father Jon Darrow who narrates the book is an Anglican-Catholic priest and monk.  He entered the monastic life in 1923 in response to a vision.  Darrow has psychic powers.  His visions torment him because he can never be sure if they are sent by God or the Devil and now seventeen years later another vision is telling him to leave the monastery and reenter the world.

Prior to becoming a monk, Father Darrow had an active life.   He married young and had two children, Ruth and Martin.  He became a chaplain in the navy spending more and more time away from home.  He was at sea when his wife Betty died and his children didn't see much of him growing up.  As Darrow tells us he was not cut out for family life:

" I had no idea that the daily routine of marriage would be so hostile to sustain a rich inner life.  Nothing had prepared me for such chaos ...  Betty was seldom still.  She was always rushing hither and thither, continually invading my psychic space, laughing, crying, endlessly chattering .... And then the children came.  Of course I was pleased and proud, but the noise, the mess, the constant destruction of any interlude which encompassed peace and order"

But now Father Darrow is heading back into the world and so we follow him as he remarries less than six months after leaving the monastery.  We follow his attempts to reconnect with his grown children and as he tries to fit in as the new pastor at the parish in Starbridge.  Problems occur because Darrow's Anglo-Catholicism is not appreciated by his parishoners who want nothing to do with "Romish practices".  So he's got alot on his plate.

Glamorous Powers is the second book in Howatch's Starbridge series.  The first novel Glittering Images centered around Rev. Charles Ashworth a young man who suffered a bit of a breakdown.  Father John Darrow played a somewhat minor role in the first novel as the man Ashworth comes to for spiritual counselling.  And in the first book I was quite taken with Darrow, a strong, charasmatic, compassionate man whose life we know very little about.  Glamorous Powers is the novel where we find out everything we ever wanted to know about him and, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

I ended up preferring Rev Charles Ashworth in Glittering Images to Father Jon Darrow in Glamorous Powers.  I had empathy for Ashworth who had suffered a real tragedy in his life seven years prior in comparison to the trials and tribulations of Father Darrow which in many cases are of his own making, particularly  the problems with his grown children.  But though Darrow can be annoying and rather selfish, he is not boring.  Susan Howatch is a master at creating intriguing, complex characters and so in a few months I am eager to begin book three in the series, Ultimate Prizes, where it is now the late 1940's and our next cleric, the Archdeacon Nevill Aysgarth, is having his own issues to contend with.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

I started hearing about Michelle McNamara's I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer about a year ago.  The Golden State Killer had unleashed a reign of terror throughout California (over 50 rapes and 13 murders) from 1974 to 1986.  He had never been caught and the author, Michelle McNamara, wanted to change that.

She started pursuing him on her blog True Crime Diary, then in articles she wrote for Los Angeles Magazine.  She scoured the internet following leads, met with detectives who were impressed with her determination and gave her their case files.  The detectives trusted Michelle because they realized that like them she wanted to catch this killer and bring justice to his victims.

Michelle McNamara was working on I'll Be Gone in the Dark when she died in 2016.  She was only 46 and the cause of death was an undiagnosed heart condition made worse by prescription drugs.  In 2018 her husband the comedian Patton Oswalt got I'll Be Gone in the Dark published to wide critical acclaim and a few months after the book's publication the Golden State Killer was finally caught.

I enjoy True Crime Books and there are some excellent writers in this genre: Ann Rule, Joseph Wambaugh, Vincent Buglosi and I would add Michelle McNamara to that list.  She is a very engaging narrator as she draws you in, telling the story of the California towns where the killer operated, telling us about his victims and the detectives who sought justice.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark is also part memoir.  Michelle writes about growing up in Oak Park, IL, her family and friends, her desire to be a writer and when she was fourteen the event that changed her life, a young woman murdered two streets down from where she lived.  Michelle didn't know the woman but while the rest of the neighborhood was horrified they moved on but for Michelle it was a life changing experience and an obsession with unsolved murders was born.

Michelle McNamara was halfway through writing I'll Be Gone in tne Dark when she died and her editors gathering together her notes have done a reallly fine job.  The book doesn't feel half finished.  Michelle's obsession to catch the killer is also a testament to the internet and how much research on any subject that interests you is possible just by using the search engine.  It's a shame we won't have future books from Michelle McNamara but there is I'll Be Gone in the Dark which I am glad I read and recommend.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

2020 Back to the Classics Challenge

Thank you Karen K at Books and Chocolate (please see the link to her website under Blogs I Follow) for taking on the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge  I was debating about whether I wanted to do the Classics Challenge this year but when I learned a few days ago that the Challenge was on a big smile appeared on my face.

The Challenge prompts us to read great books we otherwise would never have read.  Even those books that weren't my cup of tea I'm still proud I read them.  But also I have read some wonderful books New Grubb Street by George Gissing, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston, The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder and this year who knows what new suprises await.  So thank you once again Karen K.

19th Century Classic - Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen - This is a book I've been curious about n which Jane Austen pokes fun at the world of gothic novels.  Austen was as far from being a gothic writer as one can get and so I will be interested in what she has to say on this topic.

20th Century Classic -  The Plague by Albert Camus - I read The Stranger two years ago and Brian at BriansBabblingBooks.com said that The Plague is even better so I definitely want to give this novel a try.

Classic by a Woman Author -  Middlemarch by George Elliot - I've never read her before and Middlemarch is not only her best book but one of the greatest  classics ofi world literature.

Classic in Translation - Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant - Ruthiella at Booked for Life chose this book two years ago I think for her Back to the Classics Challenge and she gave it high praise so I definitely want to check it out.

Classic by A Person of Color - Narrative of the Life of A Slave by Frederick Douglass.  A definitive biography of Frederick Douglass has recently been published.  He was a giant of American history but before I read his biography I should read his classic autobiography.

A Genre Classic  - The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katherine Green.  A classic mystery novel written by a woman in the 19th century.

Classic With a Person's Name in the Title - Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald - I've been hearing about this book forever.  It's a slim little book and yet it has gone on to be one of the great classics of world literatur so I'm curious.

Classic with a Place in the Title - To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf - I loved A Room of One's Own but I have heard that To The Lighthouse though a great book is difficult.  My plan is not to rush through a book like this but to take it slow.

Classic with Nature in the Title - The Jungle by Upton Sinclair - When this novel was published at the turn of tne 20th century it alerted the public to the terrible conditions for workers in Chicago's meat packing industry.  The book made quite a splash with Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill weighing in.

Classic about a Family - The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkinton.  Saw the movie which I was quite impressed with and the book won the Pulitzer Prize back in the 1920's so I want to give it a read.

Abandoned Classic - Dracula by Bram Stoker - I've made attempts to read this novel over the years and the parts I've read are very well written but 50 or 60 pages in I end up putting it down amd I'm not sure why.

Classic Adaptation - Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie - A number of films have been made of this novel but I've never read the book.

I wish everyone a Happy and Healthy New Year!