Saturday, January 29, 2022

Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontes by Jude Morgan

If you are a fan of the Brontes, as I am, Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontes by Jude Morgan published 2009 is a must read.  The only qualification I would make is that this book is not available on kindle.  You can only read it in paperback but it is very much worth the effort.  

What makes this novel so good?  Well, it starts with the fact that Jude Morgan is an excellent writer who specializes in historical novels centering around literary figures.  Another one of Morgan's books Passion is about the lives of the Romantic Poets, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats and has been described by Publisher's Weekly as "well researched, deeply imagined and gorgeously written"  

The same applies to Charlotte and Emily which is also a deeply imagined novel and though the title implies that the focus will be on the two famous sisters, this is very much a novel of a family and that's really the only way the Bronte story can be told.  Their lives were intertwined by their passion for writing, imagining and learning.  But it is also a story of grief and lives cut way too short.

The novel begins for example with the father, Patrick Bronte, at the bedside of his dying wife Maria who is beside herself worrying about what will happen to her children, the oldest of which being only seven.  After Maria passes it is left to Patrick Bronte to raise their six children on his own.  Fortunately, his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Branwell, moves in and she was a great help providing motherly attention and what money she could spare towards the children's education.  But tragedy was never far from the Brontes and after the two eldest daughters Maria and Elizabeth age eleven and ten died from TB at the Dickensian boarding school they attended (a school made infamous in Jane Eyre), Patrick decided to teach his children at home.  

Home was Haworth West Yorkshire and Patrick was the town's parson.  He was not wealthy by any means but what Patrick was able to give his children was a love of reading and learning.  One day he brought home a box of wooden toy soldiers and his children's imaginations took off.  Charlotte and Branwell chose two of the soldiers and created the imaginary world of Angria.   Emily and Ann created the world of Gondol.  For the next eleven years Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Ann wrote poems and little handmade books about their magical kingdoms filled with lords and ladies, battles and adventures for their fictional characters.  

But childhood doesn't last and siblings are expected to grow up and venture out into the world.  As the book shows, Emily could never do this.  If she was away from home for any length of time she began to weaken and so any thought of being a governess was out of the question.  Charlotte and Ann did spend a good part of their twenties as governesses.  It was not an easy life but what could they do?   Branwell upon whom his father, and to a certain extent his sisters, had placed so much hope was floundering. 

So there you have it in 1846, Branwell in serious decline.  Patrick elderly and almost blind.  Charlotte sees the handwriting on the wall since Patrick doesn't even own the house they are living in which belongs to the church.  Charlotte reminds Emily and Ann how much they have always loved writing.  Why not submit their poems to a publisher and more important why not see if they can each write a novel and of course the rest is literary history. 

I enjoyed Charlotte and Emily a great deal and Jude Morgan does a good job of imagining what Patrick, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Ann were like.  The dialogue and their internal thoughts ring true as does their interaction with each other.  It's harder of course to get inside the head of Emily who will forever remain a mystery and Morgan is careful not to assume too much about what Emily was thinking.  Charlotte who was the sister who ventured out into the world is much easier to write about and she left letters as well.

We learn about Ann, a sweet sensitive young woman who had a great deal of self doubt and yet in her novels was bold and ahead of her time.  And Branwell who has come down to us through history as a burden on the family who destroyed himself through drink and drugs.  But as with Anne who is finally getting the respect she deserves might it be time for a second look at Branwell?  He had talent as a poet and painter but is it possible too much pressure was put on him as the only son?  Patrick was counting on Branwell from a very early age to be a brilliant success and to be able to support his three sisters in their later years.  

But of course the Bronte children never reached their later years but we have their poetry and their novels Jane Eyre, Villette, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which will live on for as long as great literature continues to be read

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Next Century by David Halberstam

A few weeks ago I was scrolling through Book Bub (an online reading service I subscribe to) and I came upon The Next Century by David Halberstam.  I wanted to read this book  because David Halberstam was a great reporter (he died in 2007) and was best known for his coverage of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.  But what interested me the most is that The Next Century was a book about what the world and the US would look like in the 21st century and he wrote the book in 1991. 

Imagine trying to contemplate what 2022 would look like from the vantage point of 1991?  Halberstam had too much experience of course covering wars and revolutions to make such firm predictions.  Instead in The Next Century he lays out where the world and the US has been since World War II, where we were in 1991 and his concerns for the future.

But what I came to realize as I finished The New Century is that any sort of speculation from 1991 about where we are now was going to miss so many key events that no one saw coming.  Halberstam's book for example begins with Gorbachev, the breakup of the Soviet Union, Lech Walesa and the trade union movement Solidarity.  It seems like a long time ago.  He also writes a good deal about Japan.  Back in the 1980's Japan and how they were possibly moving ahead of the US in auto production, electronics etc was seen as a big challenge.  No one worries about that now. 

But did David Halberstam spot back in 1991 things about America that we should have been more concerned about?  He does write:  

"What started in the early fifties as a sense of possibilities gradually became expectations and then finally entitlements.  Those who have memories of a poorer pre-World War II America, one touched by the Depression, where people (and the nation) had to make choices about spending, are older and increasingly a minority ... Now we have the current generation which believes that living in the present and paying in the future is the best revenge ... How quickly it all goes when it's built on sand ... and Donald Trump's empire is in the hands of banks (the key to the Trump success, while it lasted, is that New York City was in such bad shape that it gave him a 160 million tax benefit for his glitzy projects).  The result, of course, was not greater productivity but greater wealth for the already wealthy".  

Halberstam did a decent job in The Next Century trying to see into the future but it turned out to be an impossible task.  Even in 2019 who could have predicted Covid? And so I can't recommend The New Century.  Instead you might want to go with David Halberstam's other books, his critically acclaimed bestseller The Best and the Brightest about the Kennedy Administration and The Children about the Civil Rights Movement.  Both books I believe will have a great deal to say about today's times.  

Saturday, January 8, 2022

2022 Back to the Classics Challenge

I am so happy that the 2022 Back to the Classics Challenge is on for this year and thank you Karen K at Books and Chocolate for once again hosting the challenge.  Here is my list:

Choose a 19th Century Classic-  Frankenstein by Mary Shelley -  Written by Mary Shelley when she was 19 and staying at a resort in Geneva with Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and Lord Byron's personal physician, John Polidori.  The four challenged each other on a stormy night to come up with a really good ghost story and after a few days of struggle Mary began writing Frankenstein and a classic was born.

Choose a 20th Century Classic - Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington - Saw the movie with Joseph Cotton which I enjoyed and so would like to give the novel a try.

Classic by a Woman Author -  Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier - I've never read Rebecca but have always been meaning to and so this year I will finally check it off my to do list.

Classic Mystery or Crime Book - Laura by Vera Caspary - When it comes to mid- twentieth century crime noir fiction there are not many novels by women but Vera Caspary along with Dorothy Hughes (In a Lonely Place) were two exceptions and the plot of Laura, a detective obsessed with the mysterious woman whose death he has come to investigate has always intrigued me.

Choose a Classic in Translation - Meditations by Marcus Aurelius -  Guido Brunetti the lead detective in Donna Leon's marvelous mystery series reads Marcus Aurelius at night when he's at home to relax.  So I want to try reading him as well.  

Choose a Classic written before 1800 - The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster - A very early American novel published in 1797.  

Choose a Classic from Your TBR shelf - Aylmer Vance: Ghost Seeker by Alice and Claude Askew - The book I believe has been on my TBR pile the longest.  The Askew's were a British husband and wife writing team who wrote novels influenced by Sherlock Holmes but the two detective friends in the Askew's short stories investigate the paranormal.

Choose a Classic from a Place You Would Love to Visit - Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote - Would love to visit New York again.

Choose a Classic Book of Short Stories - Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories by Edgar Allen Poe - Eager to begin reading these classic stories but maybe not just before I go to bed. 

Choose a Classic Book of Non-Fiction - Silent Spring by Rachel Carson - A classic in environmental literature.

Choose a Classic by a BIPOC author - Passing by Nella Larsen - Been meaning to read this novel and now there is a Netflix film as well.

Choose a Wild Card Classic - Men to Match My Mountains by Irving Stone -  This is another book from my TBR list,  a big, sprawling history of the American far west from 1840 - 1900.  And I have read Irving Stone's historical novel about the marriage of John and Abigail Adams and it was well done.  

So those are my choices for 2022.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The Children's Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin

"It was the right thing to do, she decided; they were already bundled up and ready to go home ... There would be no teaching her disappointed pupils if she changed her mind and kept them all inside.  And there would be no pretending with Tiny, in the snug little farmhouse cooking him the meal she'd planned ... No kisses designed to lasso her cowpoke. 

"Go home," Gerda called gaily over the whine of the wind causing some of the students to halt in confusion ... Homestead children understood weather.  Shelter in place -- wasn't that what they were taught to do in a blizzard?  But they were also taught to always obey teacher" 

The above passage is from The Children's Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin (2021) recommended by my friend Iris and thank you Iris for letting me know about this gripping and very moving historical novel with characters I will not forget any time soon.  

The Children's Blizzard tells the story of a real event, a terrible blizzard, that struck the Great Plains on January 12, 1888.  By the time it was over 235 people had died and many of the dead were children.  No one saw this tragedy coming because the day had started out so well.  The weather had been bad in the week leading up to the blizzard but then on the morning of Jan 12th it was unseasonably warm and the children went off to school miles away dressed in relatively light clothing.  But then suddenly around noon the sky darkened and shortly after a monstrous blizzard descended on the plains states.  Winds so strong they blew out windows and shattered buildings, temperatures plunging to sub zero and snow and sleet so bad that it was impossible for people to see a few feet in front of them if they were unlucky enough to be caught outside.  

And so Melanie Benjamin uses this backdrop to tell a powerful story (based loosely on real life characters) of two sisters Raina and Gerda Olsen. They are also school teachers and very young.  Raina is 15 and teaching in Nebraska and Gerda is 18 and teaching in South Dakota.  These two sisters are isolated in their one-room school houses with their young students when the blizzard hits.  Raina decides to keep her students together, sheltering in place.  Gerda cares about her children but also decides that the weather isn't that bad and so sends them home early when the sky starts darkening.  

The second half of the Children's Blizzard deals with the aftermath of the storm and the different choices Raina and Gerda made.  There are other interesting characters in the novel.  Raina for example is boarding with the Pedersen family while she teaches school and the father of the household, Gunner Pedersen, is a piece of work, seducing 15 year old Raina.  Also living with the Pedersens is one of Raina's students, Annette.  Her mother sold her to the Pedersen family and Anna Pedersen, Gunner's wife, takes her frustrations out on little Annette treating her like a servant.

And in a separate storyline that later will link up with the other characters in the novel we have the newspaperman Gavin Woodson who writes for the Omaha Daily Bee.  He hates it.  He had a great job in New York working for The World but due to an argument with the owner, Joseph Pulitzer, he was let go and is now stuck out in the middle of nowhere as he sees it.  Woodson longs to be back in New York and he feels guilt as well because his articles for The Bee are not real reporting.  The advertisers demand he write articles that sugarcoat what life on the prairie is like so as to attract immigrant families and families back east and urge them to sell their belongings and head west.  Gavin Woodson feels guilt about this and so when the blizzard hits he knows he has the story of his career but also a chance at redemption.

Guilt and the search for redemption factor big in this book and ultimately this is a story about two sisters, the dreams they had planned and the journey they saw their lives taking until that fateful day.  I heartily recommend The Children's Blizzard.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

My January 2022 Reads

A new year of reading has begun and I was thinking of going with a wintery theme for my January 2022 choices but best to tackle my TBR list instead which is one of my New Year's resolutions.  So, here are my January 2022 choices:

The Next Century by David Halberstam - published in 1991 about what the 21 century would look like.  This is going to make for fascinating reading when you consider all that's happened since the book was published that no one could have seen coming.

Charlotte and Emily by Jude Morgan  - A novel about the Brontes which has received a great deal of critical praise

The Girl of his Dreams by Donna Leon -  A wonderful mystery series set in Venice and featuring Guido Brunetti as the detective tasked in each novel with solving the case.  We are really in a golden age right now when it comes to the mystery genre.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley - I will be curious to see how this classic novel differs from the film.

The Staircase by Ann Rinaldi - A YA historical novel set in 19th century New Mexico.  I saw a movie of this story that I was really taken with in which a group of nuns, led by the mother superior portrayed by Barbara Hershey, hire a mysterious architect to build a beautiful staircase for their chapel.  The staircase is an amazing piece of architecture that continues to attract visitors from around the world to this day.  

Those are my picks for January 2022 and I wish everyone a Happy Year of reading!