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.