Tuesday, September 5, 2017

R.I.P. XII Challenge

With triple digit heat, it doesn’t feel much like fall in my neck of the woods. And yet, the calendar says that on September 22, Autumn will officially begin.  And that means that the RIP challenge (R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril ) is back, hosted in this year by Andi at Estella’s Revenge and Heather at My Capricious Life

I participated last year for the first time and enjoyed the excuse to get to some of the spookier books on my to-be-read list.   I am again signing up for Peril the Second, which requires me to read only two books that fit in any of the following genres: mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, Gothic, horror or supernatural.   

This may change, but I plan on reading Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane  (I’ve not seen the film BUT somehow, somewhere the “twist” ending was spoiled for me but hopefully I will like the book anyway)and Bird Box by Josh Malerman,  which is supposed to be creepy as all get out. 

There is also a group read planned for Slade House by David Mitchell which I might read as well, since I also have a copy and I have really enjoyed everything else I have read by Mitchell.  We'll see if I manage it.

Are any of you taking part in the RIP XII or do you have any seasonal reads on deck for the fall months?

Friday, August 25, 2017

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE 2017: The Call of the Wild by Jack London

As a animal lover and dog owner, at first I wasn't sure if I could handle this book...and this after reading The Yearling! The story is told from the point of view of Buck, a young Saint Bernard/Scotch Shepherd mix (google them, they are gorgeous dogs) who is dognapped from his northern California home and sold as a sled dog up north at the height of the Klondike gold rush of the late 1800s.

This is a very short novella, the Puffin edition pictured above is only 150 pages long, which was good for me because I didn't find the writing style that engaging although it was very descriptive and evocative of place.  Buck encounters hardship along the way but he also has joyful moments. It is questionable, however, if the ending is a happy one. It depends upon the perspective of the reader.

I did think that much of the canine behavior depicted was familiar based on dogs I have known, but I also think London  anthropomorphized a little too much now and again.  Dogs are smart, don't get me wrong. And in many ways, they are smarter than humans. But I don't think they reason in the same way that humans do and sometimes London attributed this kind of thinking and action to Buck. 

I chose Jack London's The Call of the Wild for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 category of a "Classic About an Animal or With an Animal in the Title".   This is also another two for the price of one since it is also included on the Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century, of which I now have only 28 left to read.
Here are two of my fierce huskies!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Back to the Classics Challenge 2017: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Initially I was going to read The Yearling for the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge category “Classic About an Animal or With an Animal in the Title”.  However, I have now decided to use it in the “Award Winning Classic” since The Yearling won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1939.  (I think I will read The Call of the Wild for the Animal category instead…but we’ll see 😃. )

I am fairly sure I either saw the movie as a child and/or read an abridged version of the book, because lots of it seemed very familiar.  Since I was aware of the basic story line, I figured the book would make me cry and it did, but probably for different reasons than it would were I still a child. Although as best I can tell (i.e. Wikipedia), the book wasn’t written for children, I can see how it could be marketed to tweens and teens. It is a coming of age story after all. But I think a more mature reader will be able to see points that would probably be overlooked by a child or even a young adult. 

So, clearly the story is more than just a boy who adopts an orphaned fawn in post Civil War Florida.  In fact, the fawn, named Flag, doesn’t even show up until about half way through the novel. The focus of The Yearling is the boy, Jody Baxter, and his transition from 12 to 13 and from boy to man.  Jody is an only child, his parents having lost 6 children before his birth. His father tends to humor him, believing that the trials of adulthood will come soon enough, whereas his mother, hardened perhaps as a preventative to more loss, is more strict,  The Baxter’s nearest neighbors are the rough and slightly dangerous Forresters who live 14 miles away.  The nearest town is Volusia, a day’s ride and across the St. Johns River. This is where the Baxters go to trade and purchase goods they can’t raise themselves and to visit the coquettish Grandma Hutto.  

I appreciated that Rawlings does not romanticize the past or a life lived off the land. The book is pretty clear in its message that neighbors are mandatory for survival and that subsistence farming is hard and precarious work. There is also a strong message about taking only what one needs and hunting only for meat and not for sport.

All the dialogue is in dialect, which is normally a pet peeve of mine, but it didn’t bother me in this case. I had no trouble understanding it and in fact, it enabled me to really “hear” the speech rhythms of the characters. There really wasn’t much I didn’t love about this book. I loved the detail of the Florida scrub and wildlife; I loved the description of the food, clothing and domiciles.  I didn’t even mind the parts about hunting.  Reading The Yearling gave me the same sort of satisfaction  as an adult that I had as a child reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books, that sense of a completely different time and place that you could jump into anytime you opened the pages.

I read the paperback edition pictured above re-issued for the 50th anniversary of the book and with reproduced beautiful woodcut illustrations from previous editions, which I really enjoyed looking at at the start of each chapter. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Octavia E. Butler at the Huntington Library

I thought I would share my recent trip to the Huntington Library on this blog since it is a piece of bookish tourism which I normally avoid, not for lack of interest, but rather because I am lazy and traffic-phobic, particularly if I have to drive in or near Los Angeles.

However, when I heard about this exhibit featuring the too-soon departed Octavia Butler, I knew I could not let the opportunity pass me by, especially when it was is  a mere 45 minute drive away.   I only found out about science fiction writer Butler when she died in 2006 at the age of 58.  At that point in my life I was morphing from a semi-casual reader to the obsessed dedicated reader I am now.  I have since read four of her books and hope to read more…at the very least I hope to finish the Exogenesis trilogy this year.  
This is one of Butler's notes to her self
In the exhibit, there is a lot of emphasis on the pioneering aspects of Butler’s life as a black woman working in a field which typically published works only by white male authors.  But in my experience of her work, it is Butler’s ability to tell stories that sets her apart from her peers, more so than her gender or her race.  I readily admit that I have not read that much sci-fi or fantasy but what I admire about Butler is her uncompromising ability to challenge the reader into thinking about how the stories have larger implications and echoes in the here and now.  Butler does not pull her punches and she goes places where other writers fear to tread, in my estimation.
I was a little unsure what the exhibit would look like, but it was visually extremely well put together with handwritten notes,  journals, and correspondence  combined with photographs, book jackets etc .  I think my biggest take away was the amount of research Butler did for her books.  There were even some of her library slips for books she checked out for background information (the woman kept everything!).

If you have never read any Butler and are interested, I recommend starting with  Kindred , a standalone novel about a modern African-American woman who time travels to antebellum Maryland and which is considered by many to be her finest book.

I am so very glad I made the effort to go.  Of course, while we were there, we did take a stroll around the gardens (despite the triple digit heat) and looked at some of the permanent exhibits and had lunch.  If you are ever in Southern California, the Huntington is well worth a visit.

One of my favorite parts is the library in the original Huntington mansion.  I wouldn't want a room quite this formal. But the size!  

This is  a picture of the Lily Ponds, just one of the many gardens on the over 100 acre estate. 
And a picture from the desert garden, more conducive to Southern California weather.


Friday, June 23, 2017

Back to the Classics Challenge 2017: Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

For the 20th Century Classic category of the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 hosted by the blog Books and Chocolate, I read James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, which is a twofer for me, since it is also included on the Modern Library’s 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century, which I am slowly making my way through. 

After reading this book, I can see why Baldwin’s writing is revered and the Modern Library included him on their list. This was a very immersive and intense read.  It is written in an almost rhythmic way and as other readers have noted elsewhere, Baldwin uses the cadence of Pentecostal preaching to great effect; it is kind of mesmerizing.   When I finished the book, I had a real urge listen to the title hymn which remember learning elementary school, so I youtubed a version of it.

There is very little story, rather Go Tell it on the Mountain is a character study and largely based on Baldwin’s own childhood and family.  There is young John (a stand in for Baldwin), who has just turned 14, his overburdened mother, his abusive lay-preacher father and his father’s bitter older sister, Aunt Gloria.  Baldwin gets in to the heads of each character, giving the reader an insight into their history, their psyche and their motivations, for better or for worse. 

I think there are a lot of take-aways from a book as rich as this one, but for me I appreciated the insight into the black experience in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, when slavery was still a living memory for some and for the role the church and religion can play in one’s life; how it can be a solace and a balm for some and a vindication for self-righteousness for others.  

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE 2017: Gothic or Horror Classic

For the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge category “Gothic or Horror Classic”, I actually have two books to post about.

The first book is The Monk by Matthew Lewis, which was published in 1796 and it fits pretty much all the criteria of a classic Gothic novel:  virginal maidens, evil clergy, wholesome heroes, bandits, dark forests, haunted castles, monasteries with secret passages…check, check and check.  This title would actually also work in the horror category I think with its depiction of the supernatural, persons buried alive, putrid corpse, etc.. But I didn’t really like it. It was all too ridiculously over-the-top for me to really enjoy.  Which isn’t to say it won’t be someone else’s cup of tea! I suggest anyone interested check out some of the five star reviews on Goodreads for a second or third opinion. I also think, if readers enjoyed The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, they might like The Monk as well, although The Monk is much more salacious and violent. 

My second book I adored, but I don’t think it really falls under the Gothic rubric. It is No Name by Wilkie Collins which was first published in 1862.  Instead, it is a pretty good example of a Victorian sensation novel which draws from the Gothic tradition, but is its own special sub-genre and most certainly includes aspects of Victorian social realism, in my opinion.   This is the fourth book by Wilkie Collins that I have read and while No Name doesn’t quite knock off The Woman in White from its top spot in my mind, it does come pretty close.
The story starts off idyllically with the Vanstone family, mother, father and two daughters, happily and comfortably ensconced in the English countryside. The older daughter, Norah, is quiet and obedient, but her younger sister Magdalen is a firecracker: impetuous, manipulative and fairly spoiled.  

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, since I personally prefer to go into books knowing as little as possible. However, I will say that Norah and Magdalen are disinherited from their father’s fortune due to a legal technicality and are thus forced to fend for themselves in the world with only their loyal former governess, Miss Garth, to aid them. 

Norah obediently accepts her fate and determines to eke out a living as a governess or similar but the passionate Magdalen is determined to regain the fortune which she feels was stolen from them and she will stop at nothing to achieve her aims. And when I write, stop at nothing… I mean it.  There is almost no length that she will not go to which must have scandalized some Victorian readers.  The joy in reading this book for me was Magdalen’s transformation from a petulant teen to a vengeful Fury.  I also adored the antiheroic Colonel Wragg, Magdalen’s partner in con-artistry, and their attempts to cross, double cross and triple cross anyone who stands in the way of their goals.  The plotting and characterization in this No Name made it enormously satisfying to read.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Back to the Classics Challenge 2017: Less Than Angels

For the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 (hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate) for the category “Classic by a Woman Author” I decided to go with Barbara Pym’s Less than Angels, which was first published in 1955.

Less Than Angels more or less revolves around the lives and loves of a handful of anthropology students and their lecturers in 1950’s London.   I write “more or less” but really it is so much more.  One could consider Tom Mallow, the anthropology grad student who comes back to London after two years of field work in Africa to write his PhD dissertation to be the main character and the plot to be how he handles the three women who love him.   However, in my experience with Barbara Pym novels, plot is really secondary to the characters and the small world they inhabit within the wider macrocosm of London. Pym worked for an anthropological society in the 1950’s and 60’s, so not only does she understand her subject matter, but she also very purposefully observes academics and the middle class as if they were anthropological subjects in their “native habitats”.

Less Than Angels is the third Pym title I have read and I particularly enjoy her  understated style and subtle humor. One of Tom’s love interests is Deirdre Swann, anthropology undergraduate who is uncertain of her choice of study. Deirde lives at home in the London suburbs with her mother, older brother and Aunt Rhoda.  I loved Rhoda, who sneaks around at night correcting her sister’s housework like refolding towels or setting out the juice glasses for the next morning’s breakfast.  Another favorite minor character is the Swanns’ neighbor, Mr. Lydgate, semi-retired from the colonial service, who sometimes sits at home in his study with an African mask over his head, wishing he were back there. “He often thought what a good thing it would be if the wearing of masks or animals' heads could become customary for persons over a certain age. How restful social intercourse would be if the face did not have to assume any expression--the strained look of interest, the simulated delight or surprise, the anxious concern one didn't really feel.

Were it not for the internet, I doubt I would have ever encountered Pym’s work. I first heard about her from Thomas at the blog Hogglestock in 2011.  She is definitely one of those lesser known writers who inspire profound love and devotion when she connects with the right reader.