Monday, September 3, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston

"When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then, after that some angels got jealous and chopped him up into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine."

I happily chose Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for the 2018 Back to the Classics category “Classic by a new-to-you author”.   As my online friend Kathy pointed out in her excellent review at Reading Matters, readers have Alice Walker to thank for reviving interest in Hurston’s work in the mid-1970s.  

According to the Afterword by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the Harper Perennial Modern Classic that I read (pictured), Hurston was the preeminent woman writer of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s. Gates suggests that her work fell into obscurity by the late 1950s and early 1960s possibly because her writing did not reflect the politics of other African Americans artists and thinkers of that era.  Gates goes on to compare Their Eyes Were Watching God with Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. I’ve not read that novel, but I was reminded of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening because Their Eyes Were Watching God is, in my opinion, primarily about one woman’s attempt to break free of societal constraints put upon her sexuality and her ambitions.  The book does indirectly address racism, but it is incidental to the rest of the narrative.

First published in 1937, the story is about Janie Crawford who is raised by her grandmother. Nanny was born into slavery and has a conservative view about marriage and wants Janie to marry the older, financially stable Logan Killicks.  But Janie at 17 has a more romantic view of marriage and what adventure life can offer her, if she is willing to chance it.  Eventually she gets her opportunity and without giving too much away, I think that this is ultimately a very positive and life affirming book, even if there are struggles along the way.

The dialogue is written entirely in dialect while the narrative is in standard American English. This does take some getting used to and it would have been much easier to read if Hurston hadn’t imitated phonetic pronunciations quite so often. On the other hand, while I read the print version, this book in audio would be pretty amazing.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Back to the Classic Challenge 2018: The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Possibly my favorite category on the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate is to read a book from the 19th century because I love Dickens and Trollope and look for any excuse to read them.  This year I chose The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, published in 1841.   

According to the introduction by Norman Page of the Penguin Classic edition that I read, The Old Curiosity Shop was not intended to be serialized but rather was meant only be a short story about the inhabitants of a  London curiosity shop related by the fictional Master Humphrey  in a periodical titled “Master Humphrey’s Clock”.   But Dickens’ reading public didn’t want short stories narrated by Master Humphrey; they wanted a novel about Little Nell and her Grandfather from the shop.

And so the author obliged them by writing a story about Little Nell and her Grandfather’s quest to escape the clutches of the evil money-lender Quilp.   Quilp tries to mastermind their retrieval with the help of the obsequious lawyer Samson Brass, Brass’ sister Sally (who may be a villainess but is still a better lawyer than Samson though not allowed to practice due to her gender), and Nell’s ne’er-do-well  brother Fred.  Tangentially allied to this side is also Fred’s drinking buddy Dick Swiveller.  On side of righteousness is Nell and Grandfather’s former servant Kit who is thrown out of a job when they leave London but who regains his fortunes and finds support in the most unlikely corners. As usual, Dickens loves writing about coincidences and chance encounters. Most of his novels in my experience couldn’t happen without them!

As often is the case with Dickens’ novels, the bad guys are the most interesting characters. Little Nell honestly does not have any personality other than her saintliness.  My favorite character was Dick Swiveler. As his last name suggests, he is able revolve or pivot and his character arc, while only a small part of the novel as a whole, was most interesting to observe.

I only have two more Dickens' novels to read: Dombey and Son and Barnaby Rudge.  I would rate The Old Curiosity Shop on the lower end of my personal list. While all Dickens novels revel in sentiment, I personally found that this one was particularly obvious in its depiction of good vs. bad.    This observation should be taken with a grain of salt, however, because essentially I adore Dickens and think he is a genius. His least successful effort is well worth reading in my opinion and The The Old Curiosity Shop was wildly popular in its time.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

This title was recommended to me by blogger Kathy at Reading Matters in her review of The Witch of Blackbird Pond.  In that review, Kathy mentioned that Johnny Tremain was a a children's classic  in which the child protagonist was allowed to be imperfect, which made for a more complex and ultimately more fulfilling reading experience. 

So imagine my surprise and joy when I discovered that I actually had a copy of the book! I am not sure how I obtained it. It might have actually belonged to one of my siblings and just migrated to me. The copy I read does not have the Newbery stamp in gold foil on the front (unlike the pictured version in this post ) and it is priced at only $3.50, so it must have been first purchased sometime in the late 70's/early 80s.   

I agree with Kathy that Johnny is an interesting and realistic character. He is not idealized and he does not always make the "right" decision.  His arrogance gets him into trouble more than once. But he is also quick thinking and loyal which earns him friends and support when he most needs it.

For a book aimed at 12 year olds written 75 years ago, I thought the story was pretty gripping reading it as an adult now!  Only the last chapter sort of loses the plot a bit.  I was a little disappointed that the book completely sidesteps the issue of slavery but I guess that is not uncommon for a book written in the 1940's. 

The story takes place on the cusp of the American Revolution in Boston. Johnny becomes involved with many of the key players in that conflict, such as Paul Revere and John Hancock and he also takes part in certain events like the Boston Tea Party. There were quite a few names that I had to google; if I learned about them in elementary school, I have since forgotten.  

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen on the blog Books and Chocolate for the "Children's Classic" category.  

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!