Friday, December 31, 2021

Becoming by Michelle Obama

A First Lady has to be somewhat cautious when writing her memoirs because how candid she chooses to be could effect her husband's legacy far into the future. So a balanced approach between being careful and letting one's guard down needs to be struck and Michelle Obama in Becoming (published 2018) has pulled it off very well.  Becoming reveals a thoughtful, accomplished woman with a very nice conversational writing style.  Michelle has lived an extraordinary life and there is much to be learned in her memoir particularly for young people who are looking for guidance in these troubled times.

Becoming is divided into three parts, Becoming Me about Michelle Obama's childhood growing up in Chicago.  Becoming Us about meeting Barack Obama, starting a family and entering into politics and Becoming More about their years in the White House.  Michelle's childhood years resonated the most with me and what stands out is that though she grew up in a wotking-class family on the south side of Chicago, Michelle would go on to graduate from Princeton University and Harvard Law School.  Her brother Craig is also a Princeton graduate with a successful career and family.  

Michelle makes no secret in Becoming of how much it matters to children to have a support system around them and she stresses how blessed she has been to have the mentors she has had in her life, colleagues, teachers, aunts, uncles and above all her parents, Fraser and Marian Robinson. Her father died at age 55 .  He was diagnosed with MS when he was in his 30's but as Michelle tells us he put that diagnosis to the side, never talked about it and was there for his family 100%.  Michelle's mother Marian also incredibly supportive and strong and her brother Craig continues to this day to look out for his kid sister.  

It was a loving and close family but then again as Michelle and Craig have proven, you can have all the support in the world but you still have to go out and work hard and set a plan for your life.  Luck enters into it too and in Becoming, Michelle tells the story of her college roomate Suzanne who was a free spirit as opposed to Michelle who as she describes herself is more of a box checker.  But Suzanne died at 26 from cancer.  Michelle was devastated and it was a lesson she never forgot about how enjoying the here and now is necessary because you never know.  

Part Two, Becoming Us involves Michelle meeting Barack Obama. Michelle had already graduated from Harvard and was working at at a top law firm in Chicago when they hired an intern from Harvard Law School.  They asked Michelle if she could be his mentor for the summer.  Barack was 3 years older than Michelle but he had taken a break between college and law school to work as a community organizer.  Michelle fell for him right away and she was also intrigued: 

"I sensed already that he was more at home with the unruliness of the world than I was, more willing to let it all in without distress.  I woke one night to find him staring at the ceiling ... he looked very troubled as if he were pondering something deeply personal.  Was it our relationship?  The loss of his father"?  

"Hey, what're you thinking about over there"? 

"He turned to look at me, his smile a little sheepish.  "Oh", he said, "I was just thinking about income inequality".  

That's funny and touching but it's also how you would want a young man who would one day be President to be thinking.  

Part Three, Becoming More is about Barack and Michelle's time in the White House and Michelle writes about her role as First Lady, meeting with soldiers and their families at Walter Reed which moved her a great deal and also planting a vegetable garden at the White House and starting a campaign to encourage schools and food corporations to provide more nutritious meals.  It continues to be an important cause.  Michelle also talks about her daughters Malia and Sasha who along with Barack are the most important people in the world to her.  Both Michelle and Barack tried hard in the White House to give their daughters as normal a life as they could but it wasn't easy, the White House being a fish bowl. 

I finished the book curious about other First Lady's biographies and also missing the Obamas in the White House.and I am worried about 2024.   

Monday, December 27, 2021

2021 Back to the Classics Wrap-Up

Here are the 12 books I completed for the Classics Challenge this year: 

Choose a 19th Century Classic - Middlemarch by George Elliot

Choose a 20th Century Classic - Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammet

Choose a Classic by a Woman Author - So Big by Edna Ferber

Choose a Classic by an Author New to You  - Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway

Choose a Travel or Adventure Classic - Here in New York by E. B. White

Choose a Classic about an Animal - Call of The Wild by Jack London

Choose a Children's Classic - Ramona by Beverly Cleary

Choose a Humor or Satiric Classic - The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Choose a Classic Play - Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde

Choose a BIPOC Classic - House Made of Dawn by N Scott Monaday

Choose a Classic in Translation - City Folk & Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

Choose a Classic by a Favorite Author - 7 Best Short Stories by George Gissing

It must have been a long year because I look at some of the books I read  at the start of 2021, Here in New York by E. B. White and Red Harvest by Dashiel Hammet and it feels like I read them more than a year ago but it was actually this year.  

Two books stand out for me on the above list, Middlemarch by George Elliot and Call of The Wild by Jack London.  They are two very different writers with very different stories to tell and I loved both books.  

Middlemarch by George Elliot of course needs no introduction.  It is a masterpiece, a classic among classics but also a very readable Victorian novel and what made the novel special for me was Dr. Tertius Lydgate.  I finished the book infatuated with him and wanting a sequel.  

Call of The Wild by Jack London was my second favorite book. And for people who might be hesitant to pick up Middlemarch (it is over 800 pages), the Call of The Wild which is less than 70 pages might be a better fit and boy does Jack London pack some brilliant writing into those 70 pages!

Thanks as always to Karen K for hosting the 2021 Back to the Classics Challenge and if there is a 2022 Classics Challenge I will be sure to sign up.

Have A Happy and Healthy New Year! 

City Folk & Country Folk - Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

When I was in my twenties I read Crime and Punishment by Fydor Dostoyevsky and I have been a fan of 19th century Russian literature ever since.  I went on to read Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev and I am now pleased to add City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (1863) to my list. It's a well written novel about Russian life in the 1860's and the translator, Nora Seligman Favorov, does a fine job in making this book accessible.  City Folk and Country Folk is also a rarity, a 19th century Russian novel by a female author.

And so when City Folk and Country Folk begins it is the summer of 1862 the year after the emancipation of the serfs, a momentous event in Russian history.  The novel centers around Nastasya Ivanovna Chulkova and her 17 year old daughter Olenka.  Mother and daughter own a modest estate in the country that they manage quite well.  Nastasya and Olenka are hard working and unpretentious.  

But then into their lives arrives Anna Ilinishna, Nastasya's cousin who moves in with them and does nothing but complain.  There is also their neighbor Erast Sergeyevich, who has returned home after years of spending and partying abroad and finally we have Katerina Petrovna, a wealthy society woman who is determined to marry off Nastasya's daughter Olenka regardless of what Olenka thinks about the matter.  

These three, Anna Ilinishna, Erast Sergeyevich and Katrina Petrovna are the city folk.  They have lived a good part of their lives in Moscow, have traveled to Paris and London and they look down on Nastasya and Olenka's country ways.  But as Prof Hilde Hoogenboom writes in the introduction to this novel

"The comedy turns on the fact that everyone depends on Nastasya's well-run estate, traditional Russian hospitality and Christian virtue for shelter, food, loans and kindness.  Although they are all poor and indebted, they are so blinded by their relative noble wealth and status that none of them feels any gratitude toward Nastasya.  Nor does she feel deserving of thanks".

Her daughter, though, sees things differently and as Prof. Hoogenboom points out, Olenka is a different sort of young heroine than one is used to encountering in 19th century Russian novels.  Olenka is pretty but not a great beauty.  She is intelligent but not an intellectual.  She doesn't read much and  that's particularly true of the articles that Erast Sergeyevich has been submitting to journals about his thoughts on the new Russia and how it is up to the nobles like himself to show the peasants the way forward.  Erast presses Olenka to read his writings and she is pretty much openly laughing at him.  

In many ways Olenka represents the new Russia.  She is unimpressed with class and sees through hypocrisy and she is furious at the way their snobbish neighbors treat both her and her mother.  A minor crisis arrives at the end of the novel which answers the question will Nastasya take her daughter's advise and finally stand up to Anna, Erast and Katrina who have been making her life miserable.

I enjoyed City Folk and Country Folk and it has been receiving critical praise including a starred review from Publisher's Weekly.  As for the author, Sofia Khvoshchinskaya came from a family of literary sisters (Sofia, Nadezhda and Praskovia) and they have been compared to the Brontes although the Brontes to be fair are without equal.  But Sofia Khvoshchinskaya has talent and critics have pointed out that her style resembles Jane Austen and I can see the resemblance.  

Sofia and her sisters published under male pseudonyms and Sofia left instructions that her work not be republished.  She died young.  Another talented 19th century author lost to TB.  She was hard on herself as a writer, as she once said "never does one see the faults of one's pen so well as when one sees it leaving a bookstore".  That's both funny and kind of sad.  But today Sofia Khvoshchinskaya is finally being republished and hopefully a new voice is being added to the study of Russian literature.

City Folk and Country Folk fulfills my final category for the 2021 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic in translation.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

"The landscape of the American West has to be seen to be believed and has to be believed to be seen" - N Scott Momaday

For the 2021 Back to the Classics Category- choose a classic by a BIPOC author, I knew I wanted to go with a Native American writer but all of the writers I wanted to read, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Linda Hogan, David Heska Wanbli etc are contemporary and to conform to the classic's rules the books we choose have to be at least 50 years old.  And so after a bit of research I came upon N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn, winner of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and it truly is a book worthy of all the praise it has received over the years.

House Made of Dawn is set during the mid twentieth century and centers around a young Kiowa man named Abel who returns to his hometown in Jemez, New Mexico after serving overseas in World War II.  As the author tells us in the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of the book, Abel is a composite of many of the Native American men he knew when he was growing up in Jemez New Mexico.  Young men who had grown up on the reservation.  It was the only world they knew and then suddenly they were pulled out of that world, drafted and sent overseas.  They were not prepared for what they saw and experienced during the war.

Many came home suffering from PTSD and they turned to alcohol, violence, suicide.  When Abel's grandfather for example meets his returning grandson at the bus station the grandfather is shocked and saddened to discover that Abel is drunk.  Abel tries to settle back in to his old life in Jemez but he is haunted by flashbacks from the war and one night during a festival in the village he drunkenly kills a man thinking he is killing a demon.  

The next time we meet Abel it is 1952.  He has been released from prison and is living in Los Angeles.  He has a job and a fellow Native American roomate named Ben Benally, and a girlfriend, Millie.  The three friends form a bond going on picnics, telling each other about their lives, sharing dinners but Ben worries it can't last: 

"He was unlucky.  You could see that right away.  He wasn't going to get along around here.  Millie thought he was going to be all right, I guess, but she didn't understand how it was with him. He was a longhair, like Tosamah said.  You know, you have to change.  That's the only way you can live in a place like this.  You have to forget about the way it was, how you grew up and all. Sometimes it's hard but you have to do it.  Well, he didn't want to change, I guess, or he didn't know how."

Abel is caught between two worlds.  In years past he would have stayed in Jemez New Mexico where he grew up, hunting, fishing and taking part in the Kiowa traditions and customs as his ancestors did.  But the 20th century changed all that and a central question House Made of Dawn poses is can Abel find a place in the modern world and if not can he go home again, return to Jemez and the world he once knew?

Normally I don't go in for too many nature scenes in novels or non-linear story telling but here it works.  The descriptions of life and nature in Jemez, New Mexico are so well done and a spirituality infuses this book.  You will finish House Made of Dawn wanting to know more about Native American culture, traditions and there are so many really fine Native American authors writing today but House Made of Dawn is a very good place to begin.

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

The Cruelest Month (2007) is book three in Louise Penny's excellent Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series and as with all of the books in this series the setting is the fictional village of Three Pines, Quebec.  It's a charming place, off the beaten path.  Very few outsiders know of it but for those who reside there they would not want to live anywhere else. 

Certain residents of Three Pines we follow from book to book.  Clara and Peter Morrow, who make a living through their art work.  Myrna Landers who runs the local bookstore.  Ruth Zardo an elderly, famous and brilliant poet who lives in Three Pines for the privacy and for the fact that her neighbors accept her curmudgeonly behavior.  And finally Gabriel Dubeau and his partner Olivier Brule who own the local B&B and bistro where the town members often gather to socialize.  

These six characters are regulars in the series.  They appear in each novel as does Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team of agents who work at the police headquarters in Quebec and they are used to solving big city crimes.  However, Three Pines despite its small size has a way of continually drawing Gamache and his team back to solve the  latest murder happening in their little town.  One would think Inspector Gamache would be exasperated by now but actually he loves Three Pines and has become friends with many of its residents.  

In the Cruelest Month the novel features two storylines.  There is the crime in which during the Easter weekend some of Three Pines' residents decided to hold a seance at the deserted Hadley House to exorcise the house's demons.  But something goes very wrong.  One of the participants in the seance, Madeleine Favreau, dies of fright.  The town is horrified and the thinking is that Madeleine had a heart attack but when the medical reports come back it turns out she was poisoned.

As Inspector Gamache tries to solve the case involving Madeleine's murder we come to the second storyline involving the Arnot case.  Years ago, Superintendent Pierre Arnot who was well liked among his fellow police officers in Quebec committed a terrible crime which Gamache discovered and couldn't ignore.  He brought Arnot to justice and Gamache's supervisors have never forgiven him for betraying a fellow officer and bringing shame to the department.  And so now as a way to bring Armand Gamache down, his boss, Michel Brebeuf, has planted a spy on his team.  Gamache is aware of who on his team is disloyal but what the reader knows and Gamache does not is that his best friend and boss Michel Brebeuf is in on the betrayal.  

And that is one theme of the book, betrayal and jealousy by people we thought we could trust.  Resentment began to build in Brebeuf over the years about all of the qualities that Gamache has that Brebeuf can never hope to match.  And that is true also of Madeleine Favreau.  She was a beautiful and accomplished woman who many admired and wanted to be around but for some closest to her it was hard to compete with all that perfection and jealousy and rage began to build there as well.

I really enjoyed The Cruelest Month and I would advise anyone who is thinking of beginning this great series to read it in order because these characters grow and change from book to book and in a few months (if not sooner) I will be on to book four, A Rule Against Murder.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

7 Best Short Stories by George Gissing

Maybe twenty or thirty years ago I read George Gissings' classic novel The Odd Woman (1893) which is set in late Victorian England.  I read it so long ago that I have forgotten many of the specifics but as I recall the novel centers around two young women who are struggling with the issue of marriage.  

One of the women, Rhoda Nunn, is a suffragette and she worries that though she loves Everard Barfoot, the young man she is thinking of marrying, their union will endanger her independence which back in the 19th century was not an unreasonable thought for a woman to have.  I remember really enjoying the Odd Women and I was also very impressed by Gissings' portrayal of Rhoda.  There was no mocking of her fears.  It was clear that the author understood Rhoda and women's suffrage and he was supportive of both.  

I finished the Odd Woman vowing to read more from Gissing but it wasn't until 2018 that I got around to reading his greatest novel, New Grubb Street (1891), which I reviewed here at Reading Matters on June 9 2018.  It was even better than The Odd Woman and so when the 2021 Back to the Classics Category - choose a classic by a favorite author came along I was planning to read another Gissing novel, The Nether World (1889) but I decided to go with a collection of his short stories instead.

That was a mistake.  I just can't recommend these 7 short stories.  Not enough work in my opinion was put into the writing and crafting and though I only finished these stories a few days ago I'd have to go back and reread them to remind myself who the characters were and the various plot lines.  Still, reading these stories had a value in that as I have begun to go deeper into the work of George Gissing I am noticing certain themes.  Here for example is a passage from his short story The Capitalist.

"Those were damned days! It wasn't the want of good food and good lodgings that troubled me most, -- but the feeling that I was everybody's inferior.  There's no need to tell you how I was brought up; I was led to expect better things, that's enough.  I never got used to being ordered about.  When I was told to do this or that, I answered with a silent curse, -- and I wonder it didn't come out some times.  That's my nature.  If I had been born the son of a duke, I couldn't have resented a subordinate position more fiercely than I did".

And here is a passage from his short story The Poor Gentleman: 

"In a sense, all the families round about were poor, but -- he asked himself  -- had poverty the same meaning for them as for him?  Was there a man or a woman in this grimy street who, compared with himself, had any right to be called poor at all?  An educated man forced to live among the lower classes arrives at many interesting conclusions ... He saw around him a world of coarse jollity, of contented labor and of brutal apathy.  It seemed to him more than probable that the only person in this street, conscious of poverty, and suffering under it, was himself". 

The above quotes gives one a window into the kind of books George Gissing wrote and the way he saw the world.  The subject of class, poverty, resentment towards the upper classes but not feeling he belonged with the lower classes either was not only the story of his fiction but his life and it was not an easy life.  It was only towards the end, and Gissing died young at 46, that he found romantic happiness and he was beginning to finally make a decent living through his novels as well.  

After George Gissing died his novels went into obscurity but not entirely and I sense a revival of his work is happening because great novels like The Odd Women and New Grub Street and great writers like George Gissing, never go out of fashion.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

My December 2021 Reads

I was looking at Sam Sattler's excellent book blog Book Chase (please see the link under blogs I follow) and I noticed that Sam lays out at the end of each month the list of books he plans to read for the following month.  I thought I'd like to try that too, make it a regular feature here at Reading Matters.  Now I may not finish all of the books I set out to read but it will give me a goal to shoot for and so here is the list of books I plan to read in December (some of which I have already started):

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

7 Best Short Stories by George Gissing

Becoming by Michelle Obama

House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

The Children's Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin

City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskya

Three of the above (George Gissing's short stories, House Made of Dawn and City Folk and Country Folk) fulfill three categories for the 2021 Back to the Classics Challenge.  Becoming is Michelle Obama's bestselling memoir which I am really enjoying.  The Children's Blizzard is a novel recommended by my friend Iris who also introduced me to Louise Penny's wonderful mystery series and so I definitely plan to read the Cruelest Month in December.  

So, that's my reading schedule for December and I am looking forward to it! 

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Lady Windermere's Fan by Oscar Wilde

For the 2021 Back to the Classics Category - choose a classic play I had planned to go with Macbeth by William Shakespeare.  But with the year drawing to a close I didn't feel I had enough time to give Macbeth the attention it deserves.  Maybe next year.

So if not Shakespeare what play to choose for this year's challenge?  I was considering a number of options and then a few weeks ago I clicked open Book Bub, a daily book service I subscribe to and saw Lady Windermere's Fan (1893) by Oscar Wilde, an author I have been meaning to read and here was my opportunity.

And I have to say, I enjoyed Lady Windermere's Fan a good deal.  It's a witty comedy set in late Victorian England among the British upper classes.  And when the play begins we are introduced to Lady Margaret Windermere who is in her drawing room getting ready for the evening's birthday festivities.  It is Lady Windermere's 21st birthday and she is showing her guest Lord Darlington the beautiful fan her husband Lord Arthur Windermere has given her.  Lady Windermere and Lord Darlington soon get to talking about life and it's clear they see the world differently.  Lady Windermere is much more prim and proper:

Lady Windermere  "You look on me as being behind the age - Well, I am!  I should be sorry to be on the same level as an age like this

Lord Darlington:  "Do you think seriously that women who have committed what the world calls a fault should never be forgiven?

Lady Windermere: "I think they should never be forgiven".

Lord Darlington:  "I think life too complex to be settled by these hard and fast rules".

After Lord Darlington departs the Dutchess of Berwick arrives. The Dutchess is also a friend of Lady  Windermere but an insincere friend who loves nothing more than to spread rumor and gossip.  She seems to get a particular kick out of letting the injured party know what is being said about them.  And she has news for Lady Windermere.  

Lady Windermere's husband has been seen as of late visiting the home of Mrs. Erlynn a woman with a scandalous reputation who arrived in London six months ago without much money and now has a lovely townhouse, a carriage and visits from Lord Windermere at least three or four times a week.  No this can't be true, Lady Windermere tells the Dutchess.  Her huband would never do such a thing but later Lady Windermere finds her husband's bank book listing the money he has been giving to Mrs Erlynn. 

She confronts Lord Windermere.  He denies vehemently that there is anything going on between him and Mrs. Erlynn.  His explanation is that Mrs. Erlynn is a woman who made a mistake years ago and is now trying to get back into society and deserves that chance.  He asks his wife to invite Mrs. Erlynn to her birthday party.  Lady Windermere is adamant.  No way this scandalous woman is setting foot in her home.  Lord Windermere pleads with his wife to be reasonable and then tells her that he will extend an invitation to Mrs. Erlynn if she won't.  Lady Windemere tells her husband that  when Mrs Erlynn arrives she will be horrid to her in front of all their guests.

And then we come to the night of the party  and I can't go any further regarding what happens without spoiling the play.  Those who have read Lady Windermere's Fan will know what I mean.  Suffice it to say that it will upend everything Lady Windermere thought she understood about good women and bad women and how they are not distinct and totally separate categories.  Life to quote Lord Darlingon is much too complex.

As to why the play is titled Lady Windermere's Fan and not simply Lady Windermere. I will say that the fan has an important role in this story. This is a play with wit and sparkle but there is alot of heart here and the ending is quite satisfying.  I would really love to see a live production 

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Haunting of Ashburn House by Darcy Coates

For some time now I have been meaning to read a novel by Darcy Coates.  She's a bestselling author who writes in the gothic horror genre and has about twenty novels to her credit.  I decided to go with The Haunting of Ashburn House since I am a pushover for books in which a young woman inherits an old house and moves in hoping for a fresh start.  Such is the case with Adrienne our young heroine:

"She had a house.  It was old and smelled funny and was a long way from town, but holy heck, she had her own house.  As long as the Wi-Fi worked well enough that she was able to submit her freelance articles on time she could end up being very happy here.  She thought she could grow fond of the town, too, and maybe even make some friends"

But then Adrienne begins to hear disturbing things about the house she has inherited from her great Aunt Edith.  The Ashburn family was murdered in this house almost a century ago  The only Ashburn to survive was Aunt Edith who was eight years old at the time.  Oddly, Edith moved back into Ashburn House when she reached adulthood and she was quite the eccentric figure to the townspeople.  She lived at Ashburn House until her death and then left it to Adrienne which comes as a shock since Adrienne never even knew she had an Aunt Edith.  Her mother never talked about any of their relatives.   

Things start going awry. Edith had all the mirrors in the house removed.  She also etched weird notes on the tables reminding herself to "Light the Candle. Your Family is Still Dead".  The electricity goes out and each night birds come out of the trees in the nearby woods creating a terrible racket.  There is a grave near the Ashburn House but why has it been dug up and  why is it empty?  Adrienne considers leaving but how can she since taking care of her Mom through her long illness wiped out her savings. and Ashburn House is all she has? 

I really felt bad for Adrienne.  She is a kind, strong and optimistic young woman who despite the disappointments life has thrown her is determined to have her happy future.  Now, towards the end there are some gory scenes but I didn't mind because I liked and identified with Adrienne and I liked her cat Wolfgang as well.  He's a demanding little fellow who expects his cat food to arrive on time.  But at the end of the book he proves himself to be a loyal friend and protector to Adrienne.  It's no wonder she cares about him so much.  

So the bottom line is that if you don't mind some blood and guts this is a book you might want to try out, particularly on a cold winter's night with a cup of tea nearby.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger published 1951 was a book I first read in high school in the 1970's and I loved it.  But would a rereading hold up after all these years?  I was expecting to be let down, actually.  But I found to my suprise that it is still a powerful novel deserving of its classic status.

The narrator of The Catcher in the Rye as most of us know is sixteen year old Holden Caulfield.  He is probably one of the most famous narrators in literature and at the beginning of the book Holden is staying at a psychiatric facility in California.  He is telling his story to a therapist about "the madman stuff that happened around last Christmas" What happened is that Holden was kicked out of his high school, Pencey Prep:  

"I wasn't supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all.  They gave me frequent warning to start applying myself  -  especially around mid-terms, when my parents came up for a conference with old Thurmer -- but I didn't do it.  So I got the ax.  They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey.  It has a very good academic rating, Pencey.  It really does". 

Holden, knowing his parents are going to be very upset (this isn't the first school he's been kicked out of) decides to delay going home.  He books a hotel room in New York.  The plan is to stay there a couple of days and then go home after his parents have "thoroughly digested it and all".

And so the novel is a three day odyssey of a young teenager wandering around Manhattan visiting jazz clubs, calling up an old girlfriend, visiting the Natural History Museum, going to the movies, Central Park etc before facing the music with his parents.  The book also gives quite a good description of what New York must have been like in the 1940's. 

Holden is a sophisticated kid.  He is smart but also very judgemental.  He can't stand phonies and he sees them everywhere.  His classmates are phonies, his teachers, pretty much everyone he encounters and he can be quite funny with his observations.  Holden is a very ethical young man.  The kind of kid who would come to the aid of a classmate being bullied.  He doesn't like to see people being hurt or put down. It drives him crazy.

Holden has misanthropic aspects to his personality but he loves his parents, his older brother, D.B. and his younger sister Phoebe.  He likes his old girlfriend Jane Gallagher and there are one or two former teachers he admires.  And then there is Holden's younger brother Allie who died from leukemia when Holden was thirteen.  Allie is an important part of this novel.  At one point Holden is in his hotel room feeling depressed and he starts thinking about Allie:

"What I did , I started talking, sort of out loud, to Allie.  I do that some times when I get very depressed ... I keep telling him to go home and get his bike and meet me in front of Bobby Fallon's house.  Bobby Fallon used to live quite near us in Maine ... what happened was, one day Bobby and I were going over to Lake Sedebego on our bikes ,,, Allie heard us talking about it, and he wanted to go, and I wouldn't let him. I told him he was a child.  So once in a while, now, when I get very depressed, I keep saying to him, "Okay.  Go home and get your bike and meet me In front of Bobby's house"  ... I keep thinking about it anyway, when I get very depressed".  

That passage got to me.  It's about regret and maybe that's why The Catcher in the Rye is a novel we gravitate to when we are teenagers because Holden's exasperation with the phonies is easier to identify with when we are young. As we get older it's not so easy to judge others since we have too much we would like to change if we could go back.  

Also when I read The Catcher in The Rye in the early 1970's it was kind of thrilling since high school is an anxious time and Holden is a young man who is failing four subjects and could care less.  It was liberating in the same way Jack Kerouac's books filled with characters on the edge can be liberating.  But back then you could still drop out for a time to find yourself.  I don't t think that's true anymore which is why teenagers today from what I've heard are not as likely to identify with Holden's reckless behavior.

And yet it would be a mistake for young people to dismiss The Catcher in the Rye  as a dated novel from the baby boom generation.  J. D. Salinger was not a baby boomer.  He started writing The Catcher in The Rye in the 1930's and in 1942 was drafted into World War II.  He was part of the Normandy invasion. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge.  He was among the first soldiers to liberate the concentration camps at Dachau.  He fought bravely and rose to the level of army-sargeant.  Right after the war he was hospitalized for PTSD and his experiences and the horrors he saw never left him.  Salinger also carried his notes for The Catcher in the Rye with him all through the war.

Knowing this gives one a different perspective on Holden Caulfield.  His bitter view of humanity and his dream of living by himself in a cabin out west away from civilization doesn't sound so naive based on what the author saw.  Nor does Holden's fantasy in which there are thousands of kids in a field of rye and his job is to catch them before they fall over the cliff (enter adulthood) sound so strange when you consider the author's wartime experience.  

I chose The Catcher in the Rye for the 2021 Back to the Classics Category- choose a humor or satiric classic.  I did so because Holden is very funny in a sarcastic sort of way.  But make no mistake this is also a serious novel and I am glad I reread it.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

The Starbridge Book Series by Susan Howatch

Currently reading Scandalous Risks by Susan Howatch (published 1990).  It's the fourth novel in Howatch's wonderful Starbridge series (6 books in total).  These novels are set in mid-twentieth century England (1930's-1960's) and they center around the town of Starbridge and more specifically the Cathedral of Starbridge and the Bishops, Archdeacons, wives, children, parishoners, who live there.  Each novel is narrated by a different cleric who has risen high in the church but now finds himself at a crisis point in his life and the question is why?  What has gone wrong that has brought him to this point?  

Theology and the history of the Church of England get discussed in these books in a very informative and interesting way.  And also psychology as we try to learn what got our main character into the predicament he finds himself in and the roots in these books are very often located in the main character's early years before he ever entered the clerical life.  I am currently listening to Scandalous Risks on audio and the British actress Sian Thomas who is reading this novel is doing a fabulous job.  I plan to listen to more of her audio recordings.

One thing I will say is that though the Starbridge novels can be read out of sequence,  I don't advise it.  These characters carry over into each novel and there are things you learn from these prior books that are essential in order to get the full enjoyment of the series.  So my advise is start with the first book, Glittering Images, and you won't be disappointed.

P.S. I should add that Scandalous Risks (book 4) is the one book in the series narrated by a woman, Venetia Flaxton.  The year is 1963 and Venetia is twenty-six years old, rather innocent in spite of her outward sophistication and she makes the mistake of becoming involved with the married Archdeacon of Starbridge, Neville Aysgarth.  Part of the fun of reading Scandalous Risks is that we learn everything we need to know about Neville Aysgarth in Ultimate Prizes (book 3) and he is no prize.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot

In 2015 the BBC took a poll asking critics around the world to name the greatest British novel ever written.  The critics chose Middlemarch by George Eliot published  between 1870-1871.  Now, I don't believe too much in ranking classics. They all have their unique genius and admirers but what I will say is that Middlemarch is one of the greatest books I have ever read and I have read a great deal.

Middlemarch is also a novel that covers a wide range of topics:  love, marriage, religion, families, industrialization, class, medicine, politics, human nature and the narrator of Middlemarch doesn't hold back in giving her opinions and observations.  But I didn't mind because the narrator (possibly George Eliot herself) has great insight into why people behave as they do and why they make the bad choices they sometimes make.  There were characters I didn't like in this book, specifically Rosamond Lydgate and Edward Casaubon but even there George Eliot is able to flesh them out so that I had some sympathy.  And so now, on to the plot.

Middlemarch is set in England during the early 1830s and the novel begins with an unusual preface, a brief story about St Theresa of Avilla and how in 16th century Spain as a child she and her young brother set out from their home hoping to become martyrs. We then leave this brief tale and are introduced to Dorothea Brooke, the main character and heroine of Middlemarch. 

Dorothea is 17 beautiful, intelligent, upper class.  She lives with her sister Celia and her Uncle Arthur Brooke who has raised both young women since the death of their parents.  Arthur is a somewhat foolish character but he's done a good job raising his neices   The town of Middlemarch assumes that Dorothea will make an excellent match with some lucky fellow.  

But Dorothea is not like other young women.  Clothes, fine jewelry, wealth mean nothing to her.   She wants to do good in the world and had she lived in the twentieth century she might have joined a humanitarian organization but in 1830 she doesn't have this option.  And then while talking with Rev Edward Casaubon at a dinner party she is smitten. Edward is 50, a loner and a confirmed bachelor. A recluse who rarely leaves his estate and who has been working on a book The Key to All Mythologies for the past 30 years which he has yet to publish.  He's not a great catch but Dorothea is convinced there is so much more:

"It would be my duty to study that I might help him the better in his great work ... and then I should know what to do, when I get older: I should see how it was possible to lead a grand life here -- now -- in England.  I don't feel sure about doing good in any way now: everything seems like going on a mission to a people whose language I don't know, -- unless it were building good cottages -- there can be no doubt about that.  Oh I hope I should be able to get the people well housed in Lowick! I will draw plenty of plans while I have time".

Her Uncle knowing his neice Dorothea has made up her mind to marry Edward Casaubone decides to accept the situation "But you must have a scholar and that sort of thing?".  Dorothea's sister tries to talk her out of this marriage and the rest of Middlemarch is shocked as well:

"Good God!  It is horrible!  He is no better than a mummy!"

"She says, he is a great soul -- A great bladder for dried peas to rattle in!" said Mrs Cadwallader".

"What business has an old bachelor like that to marry?" said Sir James. "He has one foot in the grave."

"He means to draw it out again, I suppose."

Dorothea, after she marries Edward soon becomes aware of the mistake she has made.  They honeymoon in Rome and Dorothea wants to share the experience with Edward but he's been to Rome before and is bored.  Once back in Middlemarch he pretty much locks himself in his library spending all his time working on The Key to All Mythologies.  Dorothea is hurt and disappointed but she is loyal and tries to help him with his book.  Edward is not in the best of health and dies from a heart condition a year or two after their marriage leaving his estate to Dorothea with a stipulation.  She must never marry his young cousin Will Ladislaw.  Edward suspects that they are carrying on an affair which is completely untrue and once the contents of his will become known around Middlemarch it endangers Dorothea's reputation.  

The other main character in the novel is Dr. Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor who comes to Middlemarch hoping to set up his practice and make great discoveries in medicine.  Lydgate is similar in many ways to Dorothea.  Both characters are idealistic, they long to do great things to help humanity.  They can be stubborn and Lydgate can be quite arrogant but both have kind hearts and as with Dorothea, Lydgate makes a bad choice when it comes to choosing a marriage partner, the beautiful but spoiled and deceptive Rosamond Vincy.  She reeled him in during their courtship and turns into another person entirely after the wedding.  

There are a number of other characters that populate Middlemarch and George Eliot does a masterful job juggling these characters and plots and then during the last two hundred pages of the book you realize that what seemed like different storylines are coming together due to a scandal involving a minor character in the novel, the banker Mr. Bulstrode. 

I will end my summary here although this is a hard book to describe and summarize.  The great works of art need to be read and even quoting passages often doesn't give you the flavor of this novel.  I so admired Dorothea Brooke but I was truly smitten with Dr. Lydgate and for me that's what makes a book so special, falling a bit in love with one of the main characters. I do hope everyone who loves literature will read Middlemarch.  It's a long book, almost 800 pages and so you have to pace yourself but you will never regret the experience of reading this monumental work of art.

Middlemarch fulfills my 2021 Back to the Classics Category- choose a 19th century classic.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Books and Beyond - The Classics and Me

Currently reading Middlemarch by George Elliot.  I am almost near the end and I plan to post my thoughts in a week or two about this truly great novel.  I am in awe.  And it got me thinking about the classics in general, what I've learned and which great authors and novels I still want to read

Before I began my blog Reading Matters I had spent decades neglecting the great novels and their authors.  I think that's common for alot of us after we graduate from school.  We rarely visit the classics again.  I was taught Julius Caesar at Msgr Scanlan for example but until I started this blog in 2015 and more importantly began to participate in the Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) it had never occurred to me to read anything else by Shakespeare.  I just felt that as great as he was without a teacher to guide me I wouldn't be able to undersrand his plays.  

But now in this year alone I have read Call of The Wild by Jack London, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.  I am also currently reading Middlemarch by George Elliot and later this year I will be tackling Macbeth and I am looking forward to it!  And once again thanks to the Classics Challenge in the past four years I have read Laura Ingalls Wilder, Giovanni Boccaccio, Zora Neal Huston, ALbert Camus, Charles Dickens, Anne Bronte, Willa Cather, Anthony Trollope, Herman Hesse etc etc.  

It begs the question does it pay to squeeze so many great novels into four or five year's worth of reading or is it better to read these great books one or two a year throughout the course of your life?  I think reading them in a more spread out manner is preferable.  Because cramming these masterpieces into four years during your later years means that rereading them a decade or two into the future may not be as possible and certain books benefit from a reread.  

Regarding the classics I have read since starting this blog my favorites are:

Middlemarch by George Elliot
New Grubb Street by George Gissing
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hursto
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 
Bel Ami by Guy deMaupassant 
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
Belinda by Maria Edgeworth
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell 
Call of The Wild by Jack London
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

And of the above novels my number one favorite is Middlemarch by George Elliot even though I haven't yet finished the book.  But I am almost finished and unless it falls apart at the end, which I doubt, Middlemarch will rank alongside Pride and Prejudice and Crime and Punishment as my all time favorite novels.  Books like Middlemarch remind us of why we read.

Finally, when do you reach a point where you feel you have checked off enough boxes in terms of the classics so that you can slow down and focus on the great authors you like?  I know I want to read something by Thomas Hardy.  Stendahl, Thackeray.  But there are so many other great writers I may never get around to and that's okay.  Because maybe after you have read enough from the classics' list you can start focusing on your favorite authors from that list.  Time is limited and so if you are a Bronte fan, as I am, better to read Villette by Charlotte Bronte than feel you have to read Homer's The Illiad, unless Homer is who you want to read.

Anyway those are some of my thoughts on the great books.  

Friday, July 23, 2021

Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary

For the 2021 Back to the Classics Category - choose a children's classic I wanted to go with Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary but I got halfway through the book and I wasn't getting into it so I decided to try out Beverly Cleary's Ramona series instead.  I went with Beezsus and Ramona published 1955, the first book in the series, and I am glad I did.  

Beezus  is 9 year old Beatrice Quimbey.  She is a thoughtful and intelligent young girl.  Helps her Mom out with the chores which mainly involves looking after her younger sister Ramona.  It's a full time job because four year old Ramona is a little terror peddling around on her tricycle figuring out new ways to get into mischief.  The kind of little kid who doesn't understand the word no.  

The story begins with  Ramona pestering Beezus to read to her from her favorite book The Little Steam Shovel.  Ramona never tires of having the book read to her and her family is at their wits' end.  Beezus comes up with a solution.  She'll take Ramona to the library to pick out a new book and hopefully take her mind off The Little Steam Shovel.  And best of all Ramona will not be able to get too attached to the new book because it will have to be returned to the library in two weeks.  This works about as well as one might expect with Ramona who loves the new book, Big Steve the Steam Shovel (a sequel) and decides it's not going back to the library.

Beezus and Ramona is not very long.  Six chapters in total each dealing with a different Ramona escapade and I had a smile on my face throughout.  Some might say Ramona is a bit of a brat who will not accept being told she can't have everything her own way but I found her adorable.  She is only four and she very often does get her own way.  I liked Beezus as well, a very patient older sister.

I can see why the Ramona series of children's books has been so popular for decades.  Mothers read it when they were young and gave it to their daughters to read who are now giving it to their daughters.  It's also a good series for girls with little sisters. 

Beverly Cleary passed away this year at age 104.  She started out as a librarian back in the 1940's and was inspired to begin her writing career when a young boy asked her if there were any books "about kids like us".  Today 91 million copies of Beverly Cleary's books have been sold worldwide and she has won multiple awards in the category of children's literature.   I never did get to read Beverly Cleary when I was a kid and so I am grateful to the Classics Challenge for once again giving me the push I needed. 

Thursday, July 8, 2021

So Big by Edna Ferber.

"My father was wrong.  He said that life was a great adventure - a fine show.  He said the more things that happen to you the richer you are, even if they're not pleasant things ... Well, it isn't true.  He had brains and charm, and knowledge and he died in a gambling house, shot by looking on at someone else who was to have been killed .. My little So Big... Asleep on a pile of potato sacks because his mother thought that life was a grand adventure Well it's going to be different with him.  I mustn't call him So Big anymore.  He doesn't like it.  Dirk.  That's a fine name Dirk DeLong".

I have been meaning to read Edna Ferber for many years.  She was a very popular writer in her day and many of her bestselling novels were made into successful films, most notably Giant which continues to be shown on Turner Classic Movies.  And so at first I thought I might choose Giant, a big sprawling novel set in the 1950's about a wealthy Texas oil family for the 2021 Back to the Classic's Challenge - choose a classic by a woman author.  

I was hesitant to choose her more critically acclaimed novel So Big (published 1924) which tells the story of a mid-western farm woman because small town/rural fiction has been a hit or a miss for me.  I enjoyed Fidelity by Susan Glaspell for example but My Antonia by Willa Cather set in the Nebraskan prairie I found, despite it's greatness,  rather dull and melancholy.  

But I decided in the end to go with So Big because it's Ms. Ferber's most critically acclaimed novel.  Winner of the 1925 Pulitzer Prize and the number one bestseller n the US in 1924.   And so now having read So Big I can see what all the fuss was about. It's a detailed and fascinating story about what life was like for a woman on her own raising her young son in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America.  You get to experience life on a farm in Illinois during the turn of the last century but also life in Chicago during the Roaring Twenties and as Selina's son Dirk grows into a man he makes choices that differ in how his mother lived her life and the dreams she had for him.  Selina is advised by a friend that you can't live another person's life for them.  They will have to find their own way.  

And so as the book progresses and Dirk makes his own way you are presented with the question of what defines a successful life?   Is it a career that can provide you with the wealth and security you desire as you climb the corporate ladder or is it doing what you love, what you are passionate about, even if it means you may have to struggle. We go on quite a journey with the two main characters, Selina DeLong and her son Dirk (So Big) DeJong and it's a journey I enjoyed taking.  I finished this novel knowing I will be reading more from Edna Ferber and I am really looking forward to it.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Over the years I had been vaguely aware of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway's memoir about Paris in the 1920's but the book really entered my consciousness in November 2015 after a series of terrorist bombings had taken place in Paris leaving many dead and wounded.  The people of Paris were devastated and a few weeks later I learned that A Moveable Feast had risen to the top of the bestseller list in France.  As someone once said books will be there for you when you need them and the people of Paris in a spirit of solidarity were reading Hemingway's classic ode to their city and finding strength. And so this year I decided to choose A Moveable Feast published in 1964 for the Back to the Classics category - choose a classic by a new author.

A Moveable Feast is a memoir by Ernest Hemingway about his life in the 1920's when he was living in Paris with his first wife Hadley Richardson and their young son. The Hemingways could have lived anywhere in Europe but they chose Paris because at that time it was the gathering place of some of the great writers and painters of the 20th century. 

Ernest and his wife Hadley were poor but Hemingway makes clear it was one of the happiest times in his life. He describes the cafes where he would do his writing, the boulevards he walked down, his trips to the race track which though the book doesn't say so sounds like a bit of an addiction and even more so the wine consumption. 

Hemingway also writes about the people he knew in Paris, his friends and fellow ex-pat writers who would come to be known as The Lost Generation:  Sylvia Beach who ran the legendary Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and of whom Hemingway writes " She was kind, cheerful and interested and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one I ever knew was nicer to me".  

There was Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas who often had the Hemingways and other writers over for dinner to discuss art and literature.  Paris back then was a place where you never knew who you could run into.  James Joyce and his wife Nora, Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot stopping by one's cafe table to chat. Wyndham Lewis,, Sherwood Anderson and of course the Fitzgeralds who have their own chapter in this memoir.  Hemingway writes that he could already see the effects alcohol was having on Scott and rather harshly puts the blame on Zelda:

"Zelda was jealous of Scott's work and as we got to know them, this fell into a regular pattern.  Scott would resolve not to go on all-night drinking parties and to get some exercise each day and work regularly.  He would start to work and as soon as he was working well Zelda would begin complaining about how bored she was and get him off on another drunken party"

That was the image many had of Zelda Fitzgerald up until Nancy Mitford's ground breaking book Zelda  published in 1970.  But now that image has changed.  There are now allegations that Scott was very contemptuous of Zelda's writing and the more serious charge that he may have lifted portions of Zelda's journals into his own novels.

But I digress.  If Hemingway is harsh towards Zelda he presents Hadley Richardson, his first wife, in very loving terms tinged with regret.  He writes for example of the poverty they endured during those Paris years 

"I knew how severe things had been and how bad things had been.  The one who is doing his work and getting satisfaction from it is not the one the poverty bothers ... My wife had never complained once about these things ... I had been stupid when she needed a grey lamb jacket and had loved it once she bought it.  I had been stupid about other things too".

A Moveable Feast is not on the same level as Ernest Hemingway's novels.  His talent was for fiction not memoir.  But I am glad I read this book because it's good to know something about an author before you tackle their great works and in A Moveable Feast and also the recent documentary about his life I learned a great deal about Hemmingway.  He was not the hard liquor, big game hunting, ready to duke it out with his fists caricature I had grown up with.  There was more to the man than that.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Still Life by Louise Penny

When I started hearing a few years ago about Louise Penny's Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series I put off giving the novels a try since I already have enough reading matter.  But the great reviews finally got to me and so I decided to read her first book in the series, Still Life published 2005.  And now, having finished Still Life I can say that the raves from critics and fans are well deserved.  It's an excellent novel and along with Donna Leon and Lawrence Block I now have another favorite mystery series to add to my collection.  

Still Life is set in the present day fictional town of Three Pines, Quebec.  It's a charming village off the beaten path where the residents are smart, civic minded and many have an artistic bent.  There is Ruth Zardo an accomplished poet with an abrasive personality, Olivier and his partner Gabri who run the bed and breakfast in Three Pines, collect antiques and serve delicious food.  Myrna a retired psychologist who runs the bookstore.  Clara and Peter who make a living through their artwork. Ben Hadley and his mother Timmer.  Matthew Croft, his wife Suzanne and their son Phillipe.  These are some of the residents and many have lived in Three Pines all their lives.  They grew up together and don't t bother to lock their doors

But then Jane Neal, the town's elderly retired school teacher ends up dead.  Her body is found in a wooded hunting area, killed with an old fashioned bow and arrow.  At first Chief Inspector Gamache and his colleagues Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir and Agent Yvette Nicol assume it was a hunting accident but as Inspector Gamache tells us "the problem with a bow and arrow is that you have to be too close.  Close enough to see what you're aiming at". And the injury that Jane sustained was a direct hit.

Three Pines is a town in other words with secrets and motives and Jane was also mysterious.  She loved to paint but never showed anyone her artwork.  She was social and a good friend to others but no one had ever seen the inside of her home.  These two aspects of her life remained private.  And then a few days before she died Jane suddenly decided to submit her paintings to the Arts Williamsburg Museum but before the night of the unveiling, she was murdered.

I have always felt that a mystery series rises or falls on the lead detective and Inspector Armande Gamache is smart, observant, compassionate, a good home life.  But he also has a tense relationship with the young agent Yvette Nicol on his squad.  They don't get along and Gamache has serious doubts about her abilities to listen and take orders which will probably be explored in subsequent novels in the series.  And as I understand the series will continue to be set in Three Pines and the villagers we are introduced to in Still Life will carry over and I am glad of that.  There is much more to learn about this little town and its mysteries.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

For this year's 2021 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a twentieth century classic - I went with Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett published 1929 and to cut to the chase in no way can I recommend this novel.  No plot, no characterization, rival gangs gunning each other down on every other page, what was the author thinking?  

I ask because Dashiell Hammett is a major twentieth century writer.  Along with Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain he pretty much invented hard boiled crime fiction.  Hammett is the author of such classics as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man and what attracted me to him is that I had read one of his short stories many years ago and it was excellent.  And so maybe the problem with Red Harvest is that it was his first novel.  

I should add at this point that over at, Red Harvest has received 392 reviewers, the majority of which are 4 and 5 stars.  I don't get it but as with The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner, I am probably missing something.  Therefore, I will definitely be reading more from Dashiell Hammett, maybe the Maltese Falcon, and I will put the Red Harvest experience behind me.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

It occurred to me as I was trying to compose this review that in the past few years I have read three books with the word "Wild" in the title.  Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, Wild by Cheryl Strayed and now The Call of the Wild by Jack London published 1903.  I didn't plan on it. I chose The Call of the Wild for example because it fits this year's Back to the Classics category - choose a classic about an animal.  And yet something drew me to all three of these adventure books in which man, woman and dog go on their separate and dangerous journeys into the harsh wilderness.  

For Chris McCandless of Into the Wild it ends in tragedy.  But for Cheryl Strayed of Wild and Buck the Saint Bernard in The Call of the Wild it is a life changing experience.  Cheryl Strayed finds in herself the strength she went searching for and Buck whose journey into the Yukon is not voluntary nevertheless locates a part of himself he didn't know was in him, his ancient wolf nature.  As to whether the reader will be happy about how Buck changes that's another story.  I myself was not happy but that is not a criticism of the novel which is an amazing piece of literature, well deserving its classic status. It is violent though, "beautiful and savage" as one Amazon reviewer described the book.

And so, The Call of the Wild begins in the late 1890's on a ranch in Santa Clara, California owned by a wealthy judge and his family.  All kinds of animals reside on Judge Miller's property but Buck the family's four year old Saint Bernard/Scottish Shepard is special: 

"Buck was neither house-dog or kennel-dog.  The whole realm was his.  He plunged into the swimming tank or went hunting with the Judge's sons; he escorted Mollie and Alice, the Judge's daughters, on long twilight or early morning rambles; on wintry nights he lay at the Judge's feet before the roaring library fire ... Among the terriers he stalked imperious and Toots and Ysabel he utterly ignored for he was king --- king over all creeping, crawling, flying things of Judge Miller's place, humans included".

But despite Buck's pampered life danger is heading his way. Gold has been found in the Yukon, a northwest Canadian territory bordering Alaska.  Tens of thousands of prospectors from around the world are heading there to seek their fortune and big strong dogs are in high demand to pull the sleds and transport the goods.  At 140 pounds Buck is just the sort of dog they are looking for and one night he is lured outside, kidnapped by strangers, beaten, forced into a cage and put on a train that will eventually make its way to the Yukon. 

Buck's mistreatment at the hands of cruel masters both on his journey to the Yukon and once he arrives is hard to read.  Once he arrives in the Yukon he becomes part of a team of sled dogs and these dogs are worked to the bone, forced to haul mail and goods weighing hundreds of pounds for hours and hours with very little rest and often not enough food.  It's a violent world that Jack London conveys in The Call of the Wild. And many of the dogs are too soft and gentle and they don't make it. But Buck from the start is a leader who as the book tells us possesses cunning and imagination. He decides he wants to be the lead dog on the team pulling the sled and viciously kills Spitz his rival who has been the lead dog up to then.  And as we go deeper into the novel ts clear that despite the hardships and tough terrain Buck has taken to his new life:

"This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the depths of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of time". 

When the novel ends, Buck is not the same dog we were introduced to at the beginning of the story.  He is a wolf-like creature.  Any resemblance to the domesticated dog who lived contentedly with Judge Miller's family is gone although one could make the case that even back at the ranch in California there was an arrogance about Buck, an aloofness and cunning intelligence that the wild simply brought to the surface.  It's hard to know which version of Buck Jack London approved of or maybe he was just telling the story as accurately as he could of how a dog like Buck would transform himself given the circumstances he was faced with.  Either way, Jack London did a magnificent job with this novel and though no one can really know what dogs are thinking, London's creation of Buck rings quite true.

Monday, March 15, 2021

A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Prouix by Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter is an award winning literary critic and biographer who has spent her career focusing on women's literature.  A prior book she wrote in 1977, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing  was very well received and in 2009 she published A Jury of her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Prouix which centers around US women novelists, poets and playwrights from the 19th and 20th century.  

And what you discover after the first few pages of A Jury of Her Peers is that it's very difficult for most people to name 19th century American women writers after one gets through mentioning Louisa Mae Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Kate Chopin.  Were no other US women publishing novels and poems between 1800 and 1899?  

A Jury of Her Peers is the book that fills in the blanks and not in a boring list sort of way.  Elaine Showalter is too good a writer for that.  A Jury of her Peers (the title is taken from a famous short story by Susan Glaspell) reads like a novel and it's a book not only of American women's literature but also American history itself. You learn such interesting facts.  For example in 1791 Susanna Rowson published Charlotte Temple.  It would remain the biggest bestselling novel in the US until Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin published in 1852.  

We learn about Lydia Maria Childs and Catherine Maria Sedgwick who in the 1820's published really fine novels: Hope Leslie and Hobomok. Childs and Sedgwick were passionate advocates for Native American rights and people may know Lydia Maria Childs as the author of the classic children's song "Over The River and Through the Woods" but there was much more to her story.  The 1850's spurred on by the overwhelming popularity of Jane Eyre saw a real flowering of American women's fiction.  Not everyone was pleased, particularly Nathaniel Hawthorne, although to his credit he knew good writing when  he saw it, hence his remarks about Fanny Fern's novel Ruth Hall published in the 1850's:

"The woman writes as if the devil was in her and that is the only condition under which a woman writes anything worth reading. ,,. when they throw off the restraints of decency and come before the public stark naked ... then their books are sure to possess character and value". 

We learn about the late 19th century and how regional writing and the short story came into fashion in the US with such writers as Rose Terry Cook, Sarah Orne Jewett,  Mary Wilkins Freeman, Helen Hunt Jackson, Kate Chopin, Alice Dunbar Nelson etc and then we move to the 20th century and such writers as Mary Austin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Susan Glapell, Zora Neal Hurston, Anzia Yezierska, Ellen Glasgow, Nella Larsen, Dorothy Parker and so many others.  

And as we get deeper into the 20th century the women novelists mentioned in A Jury of Her Peers and the time periods they lived through become more familiar and the impulse might be to put the book down and go on to something else.  But I am glad I didn't do that because the life stories of Flannery O'Conner, Shirley Jackson, Carson McCullers, Grace Metalious, Sylvia Plath and Amy Tan to name a few are worth reading about.  I did not know for example that Amy Tan's mother fled China and an abusive husband before the Communist revolution took over, leaving her three daughters behind.  But you can see from that real life story where the inspiration came for The Joy Luck Club.

They say that books lead you to other books and certainly that is true with A Jury of Her Peers. And what is even better is that practically all of the novels Elaine Showalter mentions are available via one's kindle at reasonable rates and sometimes at no cost at all.  Of course a number of these books are obscure for a reason, they are simply not that good, and Elaine Showalter doesn't shy away from saying so.  She makes an excellent guide as we go on this journey with her through American women's literature and American history as well.  

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (reposted from my archives 8/8/2017)

In 1993 bestselling author and adventure writer Jon Krakauer wrote an article for Outside magazine about a young hiker who in April 1992 walked into the wilds of Alaska.  He carried with him a hunting rifle, a ten pound bag of rice, a few books and very little else.  His name was Christopher McCandless and his plan was to live in isolation, hunting his own food and communing with nature.  Four months later McCandless' body was found by a group of hunters who had stumbled upon the abandoned bus he had been living in.  

Chris McCandless had starved to death.  The Alaskan river he had crossed to make his way into the wilderness was passable in April when he arrived but when the summer came and the ice melted, the river swelled making it impossible for Chris to cross back into civilization, effectively trapping him where he was.  He was only 24.

Jon Krakauer wrote the article for Outside Magazine but couldn't let go of the story.  He decided his article needed to be a book. The result is Into the Wild (published 1997) an engrossing and thought provoking read.

Who was Christopher McCandless and why two decades on are many still fascinated by his story?  Most of us do what is expected in life and when we are young and finished with school the next step is the job market.  Sure we would like to live a carefree existence but there are consequences to that kind of life and so we conform.  Chris McCandless was different. After graduating with honors from Emory University he decided he would not do what was expected.  He took the $24,000 his parents had given him for Law School and donated it to charity.  He then set out on a two-year penniless hitchhiking journey throughout the American West which would eventually lead him to Alaska. 

Jon Krakauer went back and interviewed the people Chris met during his two-year odyssey and they are interesting.  Many parts of the American West are filled with people who have fallen off the grid, hippies, seekers, drifters, eccentrics.  But even though many of the people Chris met were living on the margins, they were worried when Chris shared his Alaska plans. Some tried to talk him out of it. Others tried to get him to let his parents know where he was since he had not written or called them in two years.  But Chris would not listen.  There had been a falling out between Chris and his parents over a secret his father had been keeping.  Chris in addition to being very bright could be very judgemental.  

I heartily recommend Into the Wild.  Jon Krakauer is a fine writer and he not only writes about Chris McCandless' life but he tells us about other explorers and adventurers from the 19th and 20th century.  Young men who also set out on journeys they did not adequately prepare for.  Jon Krakauer quotes from Chris' journals and letters which gives you an indication of why he chose to live the way he did.  Krakauer doesn't shy away from how badly Chris hurt his parents.  The people Chris met on the road were also shaken by his death.  It's probably a major reason people don't skip town, change their names and set out on risky adventures, our obligations to others.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Cravings: How I Conquered Food by Judy Collins

"When I was controlled by food my soul shrank and my fear grew.  When I was abstinent, my soul grew and my body shrank.  When I was in the depths of my eating disorder, not only was I obsessed with food but my mind never stopped. The chatter, the talk, the back and forth, the internal argument was never-ending.  The peace of mind, quiet and serenity that I prayed for from the depths of my illness came with surrender.  It is something for which I am eternally grateful".  - Judy Collins

I have never been a smoker or had a problem with alcohol or drugs but I understand people who do because my addiction since I was a teenager has been food.  My weight is not good.  It's not healthy and over the years I have tried reading diet books and overeating memoirs but when it comes to sticking to a diet I have nothing but false starts.

And so a few weeks ago I was watching an interview on PBS with the legendary folk-singer Judy Collins.  She was very insightful in talking about her life and the current times we are living through.  After the interview I went to Amazon to see if Judy had written any books and it turns out she has written several.  One of her books, Cravings: How I Conquered Food published 2016, stood out in particular and so I decided to give it a read.   

It's a marvelous memoir about Judy Collins' life long struggle with food and bulimia and it's not every memoir that can boast a favorable review from the historian Ron Chernow and a starred review from Publisher's Weekly.  What makes Cravings so good is first Judy's writing.  She is not afraid to dig deep regarding her eating disorder and the answers she ultimately found with the 12 step program. 

Cravings is structured in an interesting way.  Chapters that deal with Judy Collins' life alternate with chapters devoted to the history of dieting.  I didn't know for example that  Lord Byron devised his own diet plan which consisted of tea, slices of toast, vegetables and chain smoking or that William the Conqueror fashioned his version of the liquid diet which involved drinking ale, beer, wine and nothing else.  

Fortunately as the centuries rolled on more medically sound nutritionists arrived and Judy tells their stories. Gaylord Hauser, for example, known in the 1940's as the Nutritionist to the Stars, Dr. Alfred Pennington who in 1953 published A New Concept in the Treatment of Obesity in the journal of the American Medical Association, Jean Nidetch the founder of Weight Watchers, Dr. Robert Atkins, Dr. Andrew Weil's Spontaneous Healing.  These diet plans began to show a pattern, eliminating starch, white bread, pasta, potatoes and drinking plenty of water.  Exercise and vitamins began to be added as well.

But Cravings is primarily a memoir of Judy Collins' personal struggles with food and also about her life.  She had a remarkable father, Charles Thomas Collins, blind since he was four but graduated with honors from the University of Idaho.  He was a fun loving man who inspired Judy to follow her dreams.  But he was addicted to alcohol and was never able to stop.  Judy writes about her mother, her siblings, the romances in her life, her friends and her music teacher, Dr. Antonia Brico, a famous musician in her own right, who was heartbroken when Judy as a teenager abandoned the piano to take up folk music and the guitar.  They would reconnect years later when Judy made a film about Dr. Brico, honoring her career.  

In Cravings Judy Collins is very generous to all the people she has known.  If she is hard  on anyone it's herself. Her life has been one of triumph and tragedy but today she is at peace, happily married for twenty-five years, a grandmother and she still tours, although at 82 not as often.  And because Judy wrote Cravings to help others she also includes the diet she has been following for many years.  It's strict but very simple.  I also like that her daily routine includes meditation.  Judy's life was changed years ago when she read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.  The older I get the more fascinated I too become by meditation, Buddhism, past lives.  

Who should read Cravings?  I think anyone with an eating disorder or any form of addiction would benefit from Judy Collins' hard earned wisdom.  But I would expand that and say if you are stuck in your life, looking for a new path, you can also benefit from this book. I know I am going to try to incorporate what I learned from Cravings in my life but ultimately the teacher can provide the way but it's up to the students to follow through.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Here is New York by E. B. White

In 1948 E. B. White (the author of Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumphet of Swan) was asked by Holiday Magazine, to write an article about New York.  White was living in Maine at the time and didn't like traveling all that much but he agreed to stay at the Algonquin and spend a few weeks walking around Manhattan recording what he saw and how the city had changed since he had last lived there in the 1920's.  The result was Here is New York a classic essay later published as a book and described by critics as one of the great love letters written about the city: 

"New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of  being able to choose his spectacle".

"Every block or two, in most residential sections of New York is a little main street.  A man starts for work in the morning and before he has gone two hundred yards he has completed half a dozen missions: bought a paper, left a pair of shoes to be soled, picked up a pack of cigarettes, ordered a bottle of whiskey to be dispatched in the opposite direction against his home-coming ... So complete is each neighborhood, and so strong a sense of neighborhood, that many a New Yorker spends a lifetime within the confines of an area smaller than a country village".  

But is that still true about New York?  I haven't been there in a decade but I would guess that the newsstands where you could buy a newspaper and a cup of coffee have gone out of business and who gets their shoes soled these days? The Automat, Chock Full of Nuts and Scrafft's where you could sit down and have a nice lunch are long gone and let's not even start on what's happened to the bookstores. 

E. B. White understood all this and reflected in the 1940's that New York was becoming more crowded, louder and more hectic. The landmarks were being torn down and newer taller and more impersonal buildings were going up.  But White reminds us that New York is always changing and yet never quite loses it's magic and sense of possibility.  And anyone reading Here is New York today will be struck by how prescient E. B. White was in 1948 about the future:  

"The subtlest change in New York is something people don't speak much about but that is in everybody's mind.  The city, for the first time in it's long history, is destructable.  A single flight of planes no bigger than a flock of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers ... this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled".  

Here is New York is about 50 pages and it's very Manhattan centric but it's packed with keen observations and insights about what makes the city tick.  Anyone who has ever lived in New York or is planning a visit will benefit from reading E.B. White's ode to the Big Apple.  Here is New York fulfills the 2021 Back to the Classics category - choose a travel classic.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Secrets Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

I don't regret focusing on the classics these past few years.  It's been a rewarding experience.  But if there is one drawback it's that I don't get to read as much contemporary fiction as I would like and so I am not sure who is out there right now worth reading.  Fortunately my good friend Iris has been keeping tabs on the new and talented authors and she has wonderful judgement.  Some time back for example Iris suggested The Secrets Between Us published 2018 by the Indian-American award winning novelist Thrity Umrigar.  Iris found the book excellent and I completely agree. This is not a book you want to miss.

The Secrets Between Us is set in present day Mumbai, India and tells the story of two elderly women, Bhima and Parvati who form a suprising friendship.  I say suprising because Bhima and Parvatti are very poor and rhey have been hurt badly by life and are not open to trusting others.  Bhima lives in a one room shack with her granddaughter Maya who she is trying to put through college.  She had a secure job for twenty years working as a house keeper for the wealthy Dubash family.  But when the family's son-in-law took advantage of Maya, Bhima could not continue working there and at age 60 Bhima worries where her next job is coming from.  

Parvati is a few years older than Bhima.  When Parvatti was twelve her father sold her to a house of prostitution where she stayed for many years until a disfiguring lump on her neck forced her to leave.  She married an abusive husband who when he died left her penniless.  When the novel begins Parvati earns her living selling vegetables on the street.  She barely has enough to feed herself.  

The lives of Bhima and Parvati and the betrayals they have faced can be hard to read.  Your heart breaks for them and what they've gone through but these two women are also strong, smart and feisty.  Parvati in particular can be quite funny in a bitter way.  After a rocky first meeting the two women decide to go into business together selling fruits and vegetables and a real bond develops.  

Two other characters in the book are Sunitra and Chitra a lesbian couple that Bhima  works part time for and at first Bhima doesn't know what to think.  But she begins to realize that Sunitra and Chitra are kind and good women who love each other and who treat Bhima not as a housekeeper and cook but as a friend. They are eager to help Maya succeed in college by offering their apartment so she can study.  All of the women in this novel are keeping secrets that separate them from others and a happier life.  As Bhima says to Parvati at one point:

"Parvati. Do all human beings keep secrets from one another?  Today you tell me about your life.  And then ten minutes later I run into Serabai.  And she -- she is being killed by the secrets she is keeping.  And Chitra baby says her own father and mother don't know that she moved to Mumbai for Sunitra.  Why do we all walk around like this, hiding from one another"?    Parvati's thumb circles the lump in a fast motion as she ponders the question.  "It isn't the words we speak that makes us who we are.  Or even the deeds we do.  It is the secrets buried in our hearts".  She looks sharply at Bhima  "People think that the ocean is made up of  waves and things that float on top.  But they forget -- the ocean is also what lies at the bottom, all the broken things stuck in the sand.  That, too, is the ocean".

Goodreads has called The Secrets Between Us "a dazzling story about gender, strength, friendship and second chances".  And though the poverty depicted is intense and there are scenes, particularly surrounding Parvatti's life, that are heartbreaking, The Secrets Between Us is an inspiring tale.  It's a novel that shows us the power of friendship to transform people's lives and that friendship is only possible when we reach out to others and not judge.  The Secrets Between Us is a sequel to Thrity Umrigar's bestselling 2006 novel The Space Between Us but both are stand alone books and I enjoyed The Secrets Between Us so much that I would advise you read it first.  Thank you Iris for a great reading experience. 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

2021 Back to the Classics Challenge

A new year has arrived and let's hope 2021 is better for all of us.  Books of course always make things more bearable and so here are the books I plan to read this year for the 2021  Back to the Classics Challenge: 

I9th Century Classic -  Middlemarch by George Elliot - I had planned to read this novel last year but it's a long book and I kept putting it off.  This year I resolve to read it even if I never get around to posting because Middlemarch is not just a classic but one of the greatest novels in the English language.

20th Century Classic  -  Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammet - Years ago I read one of his short stories and remember thinking, boy he's good!  Red Harvest is the first volume in Hammet's collection of Continental Op hardboiled detective stories.

Woman Author -  So Big by Edna Ferber - A popular Pulitzer Prize winning novelist from the earlier part of the 20th century.  Well known in her day and you wonder did gender play a factor in why authors like Edna Ferber, Susan Glaspell and Ellen Glasgow (also early 20th century Pulitzer winners) aren't better known today?  

Classic in Translation - The Wife by Sigried Undset - This is the second book in Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy.  These novels are set in Norway during the Middle Ages and well written.

Classic by a New Author -  Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway - First time reading him and this is a memoir about his time in Paris as a member of the lost generation in the 1920's.

Classic by a Favorite Author -  The Nether World by George Gissing - I have read his classic 19th century novels The Odd Women and New Grub Street and loved both books so The Nether World is next on the list.  

Classic Travel or Adventure  Novel - Here is New York by E. B. White.  A book length essay written in the 1940's in which the author walks around Manhattan writing down everything he sees.   Considered a classic love letter to New York.

Classic About an Animal - Call of The Wild by Jack London.  Kind of an obvious choice for this category.

Children's Classic - Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary -  I remember reading a book I liked when I was very young about a boy named Henry and his dog.  I don't remember the title but if Henry Huggins is the novel I read back then I was reading classics early.

Classic Play - Macbeth by William Shakespeare - I have read only one play by Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, and that's not enough.  Once again I am using the Shakespeare Made Easy edition.

Classic Comedy -   Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger.  Holden Caulfield is a troubled young teenager but also a very funny narrator as he goes after the phonies he sees all  around him. I loved this book as a teenager but does it hold up? 

Classic by Person of Color -The Street by Ann Petry - Karen K at Books and Chocolate (please check out her book blog under blogs I follow) is hosting this year's 2021 Back to the Classics Challenge.  She recently posted about The Street which centers around a  single mother living in Harlem during the 1940's trying to raise her young son.  This novel has been on my radar for a long time and so now is my time to give it a try.

Thanks once again Karen K for hosting this wonderful Classics Challenge and Happy New Year and Happy Reading to All!