Monday, July 2, 2018

Back to the Classics 2018: Passing by Nella Larsen

For the category “Classic with a Single Word Title” in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate I chose to read Passing by Nella Larsen.  This book had been on my list for quite a while now so I was really glad to use this excuse to get to it. Passing is one of my favorite kind of books in that it is a novella that reveals multitudes in just over 100 pages (114 in the pictured Penguin classic that I read). I am always in awe of authors that can successfully pull that off.

The story is told from the point of view of Irene Redfield, an African American who is light-skinned enough to pass as “white”, though she only occasionally chooses to do so for small things where this gives her an small advantage, such as having a glass of iced tea in a Chicago hotel restaurant that would normally not allow blacks in.   In all other respects, Irene lives what she considers to be a fulfilled life in 1920’s Harlem, NY, an active member of the growing black middle class.  However, while having her refreshing glass of iced tea one hot afternoon, she runs into an old school friend, Clare Kendry.  What Irene soon discovers is that Clare doesn’t just "pass" from time to time but lives permanently as a white woman. No one in Clare’s social circle, particularly not her white husband, knows about her true origins, which means that she has had to cut off all ties with her former black neighborhood and friends. This chance encounter brings Clare back into the orbit of Irene’s life which has both seductive and dangerous consequences for both women.

As previously stated, there is a lot packed in these pages. Clearly the construct of race and racism, both overt and internalized, is the main focus, but there’s a lot of other subtext that can be read between the lines. The introduction by Thadious M. Davis emphasized repressed sexuality between Clare and Irene which isn’t something I picked up on personally, but I did think there were interesting intimations about marrying for security and the roles one plays in marriage as a woman that one can also tease out of the narrative.   

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

The category Reread a Favorite Classic from the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate was definitely the hardest choice!  I rarely re-read, but if I "have" to, what book to choose from so many favorites? 

I ultimately decided to re-discover Wuthering Heights.  The first time I read this book I was 21 years old and my real inspiration to read it was the Kate Bush song (♫♯"Heathcliff, its me Cathy, I've come home, I'm so cold, let me in at your window...").  I am glad to have read the book so young and to have the opportunity to re-read it now 30 years later. The book portrays destructive and all consuming passion which I think as a young adult I could inhabit and even admire. Now in middle age, I see the tragedy and senselessness of it. I don't think that either interpretation is right or wrong; it is more a matter of age and experience playing into the reader's perception. And in my mind, that is what makes a classic "classic" in part: the ability of the work to engender different impressions or interpretations upon multiple readings. 

It is also so interesting to read this on the heels of Bel Ami since there isn't any likable character in Wuthering Heights either.  Even Nelly Dean, the servant telling the tale to Mr. Lockwood, is suspect in my mind.  First of all, we only have her word that what she is relating is how it happened and secondly, she does cause small amounts of harm when she withholds information from the other principals in parts of the story.  

I think that most people are familiar with the story of Heathcliff and Cathy who due to their upbringing and personalities can't live without each other but also can't, in the society and world they inhabit, live with each other.  The  result of their inability to be together as they wish leads to tragic misunderstandings, long memories and cold-blooded (or maybe fiery-hearted?) revenge. 

Upon re-reading I did not remember ANY of the second volume! Which makes me wonder if I did read it 30 years ago...I think I did but with little thought to what I was reading if that makes sense!

What I really enjoyed most upon re-reading (Note: I actually listened to most of this on audio, narrated by Carolyn Seymour) was the structure of the book and the way the narrative is framed.  Mr. Lockwood is renting Thrushwood Grange 20 years or so after the events of the book take place and the story is then related to him by Nelly over the course of a few nights. I just love the way the story is wrapped in a story which is wrapped in a story. 

Friday, June 1, 2018


UPDATE: Les Misérables One-Chapter-a-Day Read-along hosted by Nick over at One Catholic Life continues a pace! 

I have the second book “Cosette” of Les Misérables behind me which had TWO enormous hurdles: The first roadblock was the 19 chapters about the battle of Waterloo.  Normally I dislike abridged novels but honestly this section could have been cut without any sacrifice to the story at hand.  Although I am told it is an excellent depiction of the battle and the strategy therein, I am afraid its brilliance was lost on me. I have trouble reading action in books anyway. My ability to imagine spatial relationships is terrible. My biggest take away is that if it hadn’t rained when it did, it is possible that Napoleon would have been successful and European history might look a little different as a result.   

The second roadblock titled “Parenthesis“ was a screed on monastiscm and its applicability in (then) modern life.  Again, this could have been cut. It is very clearly a subject dear to Hugo’s heart but it is more of a newspaper editorial than a part of a novel.  It was more interesting to me than the battle of Waterloo, but Hugo also name checked quite a few philosophers and their ideas in this section which all went pretty much right over my head!

We still haven’t got to the digressions on the Paris sewer system which for some reason I think I am going to like. :)

Otherwise I am still enjoying the book when we are keeping to the actual story line. The action has finally moved to Paris and there have been two rather daring escapes which had me biting my nails! Next check in will presumably be mid-August.  A  bientôt mes amies!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Back to the Classic Challenge 2018: Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant

For the Classic in Translation category for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate, I read Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. I only picked up this title last year because I had planned to buddy read it with a friend. As French authors go, I was aware of de Maupassant but never felt the urge to read any of his books; Zola and Balzac cried out to me more loudly, for whatever reason. But I am so very glad I did read this book because I loved it!

Bel Ami is chock full of despicable characters but I didn’t mind that at all. The story is about a young provincial named Georges Duroy who, when discharged from the French military moves to Paris to seek his fortune.  Georges is moderately intelligent but physically very good looking. When the book opens, he is so hard up he only has enough cash to see him through one meal a day until his next payday.  His luck turns, however, when he runs into a former acquaintance from his service days in Algeria, Forestier.  Forestier is a journalist working at an upstart broadsheet called La Vie Française run by a financier who largely uses the paper to launder money and promote politicians who support his financial dealings.  Forestier gets Georges a job on the paper too and there begins, in fits and starts, Georges rise in Parisian society as he learns, often the hard way, how to get ahead.

From the outset Georges is a venial character and the embodiment of the perfect anti-hero.  He is never satisfied with what he has and is ever eyeing others who are better off, envious of their good fortune. He is ignorant of social norms and affectations and consequently often puts his foot wrong, sometimes avoiding total embarrassment only by the skin of his teeth. Georges uses people, particularly women, to get ahead with no self-awareness or sense of shame.  With every stumble Georges made I wondered if NOW was the time he would get the comeuppance he so richly deserved.  I won’t give away whether he does or not! 

Is this book a satire?  I am not sure because the behaviors and events are not exaggerated but rather all too realistic. It is very critical of Parisian society and politics without ever overtly stating so.  In some ways the plot reminded me of The Red and the Black by Stendhal which has another amoral social climber and is set in an earlier generation, but I enjoyed Bel Ami so much more!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018


For the Back to the Classics 2018 Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate I opted to read that old chestnut, The Scarlet Letter for the category “Classic with a color in the title”. 

I think I may have read an excerpt from this book in high school although I am fairly sure it we did not have to read the whole book.  In any case, the “plot twist” as it were was known to me before I started the book but I had never read the story in full of Hester Prynne, a woman living in a 17th century Puritan community who is forced to wear a red letter “A” on her clothing as punishment for having an adulterous affair.  The liaison resulted in a child, Hester’s husband is AWOL and Hester refuses to reveal the name of the man with whom she had the affair. 

I certainly can see why this title is often selected for American High Schoolers to read and write essays on.  It is relatively short, deals with America colonial history and it is chock full of potential themes for essays. But, on the other hand, it is extremely verbose and melodramatic.  It took me a comparatively long time to read 250 pages. And the prologue, which had scant little to do with the actual book, was a dull distraction for me personally. Although it was interesting to note that what Hawthorne was satirizing  about American politics hasn't changed much in the past 160+ years. 

Despite my occasional struggles with the windy prose, I did like it. It was really forward thinking for its time. In fact, I would argue for many it would STILL be considered forward thinking. Hester is a very interesting female character to have been written in the mid 19th century, strong and principled in her way.  And it was wonderfully Gothic with lots of supernatural elements that I did not expect that at all, such as scarlet letters burning in the sky.

My favorite character in the book was the love-child Pearl.  She is and isn’t a “normal” child as portrayed in the book, but she was a breath of fresh air amid the dourness of the adult charachters.  I like how she represents all that the adults in the novel could not outwardly express; she is  living embodiment of Hester's shame but also her refutation of that shame.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The 1977 Club: Quartet in Autumn

My final book for The 1977 club hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblins was Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym.  This is the fourth title of Pym’s that I have read.  I didn’t quite love it as much as Excellent Women and Less than Angels, but I highly enjoyed it nonetheless and was really glad for the excuse to read another book by her.

Quartet in Autumn is about four work colleagues in their mid to early sixties in London in the mid 1970s.  All four are solitary but not necessarily lonely.  They are: Letty, who has plans to retire to the country with her widowed friend Marjorie; Marcia who lives alone in a rather neglected row house after the death of her mother and the cat Snowy many years earlier; Edwin, a widower whose chief hobby is attending Anglican services in various different London neighborhoods and Norman, a rather grumpy fellow who likes complaining to the local council about cars that have been parked too long on his street.

Of course I have quite a few more Pym titles to read, but in many ways this book was typical Pym with its sly humor and sharp if sometimes sad observations.  Is "Pymsian" a term like Dickensian?  These four co-workers only have the slimmest connection to each other, but because their lives and orbits are so narrow, when Marcia and Letty retire, this change affects them all in subtle ways none could have anticipated.  There is a very bittersweet tinge to this novel and yet, without giving anything away, then ending is, if not hopeful, at least open-ended.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The 1977 Club: A Morbid Taste for Bones

I read a second book for The 1977 Club hosted by the bloggers Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy's Bookish RamblingsA Morbid Taste for Bones is the first Brother Cadfael mystery by Edith Mary Pargeter writing under the pen name of Ellis Peters.  Ultimately Peters wrote 21 historical mysteries set in 12th century Britain featuring amateur sleuth and monk Cadfael.  As an introductory novel I thought this was pretty good.  At less than 200 pages, Peters deftly set up the world and characters, providing a solid base for the future books.    

Cadfael is a Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey who came to the brotherhood late in life, which of course serves him well as a detective because it enables him to have knowledge his brethren and/or hoi polloi lack! In his secular life he was a soldier and a sailor and spent many years fighting in the Holy Land where he developed an interest in herbs and medicinal plants. 

In this first novel, Cadfael journeys with his Prior and a handful of other monks to Gwytherin, Wales to obtain for the broader glory of Shrewsbury Abbey the remains of St. Winefred who is buried there. Prior Robert is an ambitious man and wants to put Shrewsbury on the map, so to speak, by obtaining a reliquary.    Their goal is thwarted, however, when  local landowner Rhisart objects to the Saint’s bones being moved.  When the landowner mysteriously turns up murdered the game is afoot!  Did one of the Benedictines murder him in order to get their relics at any cost or did Rhisart have a local enemy who decided to take advantage of the controversy and take out a rival?

I really enjoyed the historical background of the story, the peek it provided into Welsh customs of the day vis-a-vis those of the English and Cadfael as a character. It is possible that there were anachronistic aspects in the book, but I didn’t notice any that took me out of the story. The mystery itself was a little weak. But considering this book is the first of 21, I can easily forgive this. 

Some of the books were adapted for television starring Derek Jacobi in the 90’s. I’ve seen bits and pieces of these, but never a full episode, but I expect they are pretty good.