Monday, April 24, 2017

THE ROSEMARY TREE BY ELIZABETH GOUDGE




 [Elizabeth Goudge (1900 – 1984)]

 Today, April 24, is the birth date of the author Elizabeth Goudge and in honor of this, Lory at The EmeraldCity Book Review is celebrating the life and works of one of her favorite authors by inviting other bloggers to read and review Goudge’s works along with her own reviews.  I had never read any books by Goudge previously, so I was curious and decided to join in.
I was tempted to read Green Dolphin Street (two sisters both in love with the same man in a historical setting) because it seemed to be a saga on par with say Gone with the Wind or Forever Amber but ultimately I opted for The Rosemary Tree because it was shorter and since I got a late start, time was of the essence.


The Rosemary Tree centers on the Wentworth family living in the mid-1950s in Devonshire, England.  John Wentworth is the awkward and forgetful, yet devout vicar of the village of Bellemaray, but should by rights be the squire, as he is the last male issue in the Wentworth family, which goes back as far as Elizabeth I as the local landowning gentry.  Instead, his great aunt Maria lives alone in the manor house.  This situation is resented by John’s wife Daphne, who married him very much on the rebound of a failed love affair.   John’s former nanny, Harriet, lives with John and Daphne and their three children.  Initially she came to stay as a housekeeper but it now so plagued by arthritis that she is wheelchair bound and only able to view the world from her bedroom window at the vicarage.

The story goes on to incorporate two teachers from the private school attended by the Wentworth children and a mysterious man who seemingly ends up in the village by accident but is soon befriended by both John and his Aunt Maria.   As for plot, there really isn’t one: the Wentworths’ marriage is troubled, the girls’ school is a misery for the teachers and the students and the mysterious stranger has a secret past and a secret connection to one of the other characters.  The book is far more concerned with the psychological make-up of the characters and what makes them tick and in particular how we humans can help our fellow humans heal and grow with compassion and communication.

The book heavily references The Secret Garden and Don Quixote and is infused with Christian mysticism and the concepts of redemption and second chances. What I think I liked most about it was that it showed how our actions can positively touch others and just how interconnected we are despite our best efforts to think we can live in isolation.  And while the book does have clear religious overtones, I think I can be read by anyone.  Its message of connection and forgiveness can be appreciated by a reader of any creed  or belief system. 
 



Friday, April 14, 2017

The 1951 Club: The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein



 But as the middle of the country filled in on the map, it filled in red. The infected areas stood out in ruby lights now, for the wall map studded with pins had been replaced by a huge electronic military map...”  No, this is not a quote from the recent U.S. Presidential elections, but rather from Heinlein’s 1951 novella The Puppet Masters , a story about the U.S. being invaded by parasite slugs from outer space.

I read this book for the 1951 Club hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.  I have never participated before (there have been similar events in the past featuring different years), but the 1951 Club is a reading week during which bloggers are encouraged to read a book/books that were published in the featured year and then post about them, thereby giving the participants an interesting  and fun overview of that window of time.

 Since I had already read many of the more popular titles that I found listed on the internet for 1951 AND I am really trying this year to get to more of the books I already own, I chose to read this Heinlein classic work of science fiction.


This is the third Heinlein title I’ve read and it does not age well at all. Whereas the square jaw, gung-ho “let’s kill some bugs” tone of Starship Troopers still works today (for me at least), I wonder if The Puppet Masters would be read at all any more if it didn’t have Heinlein’s name on it.  I do appreciate that Heinlein was trying in his way to push the boundaries of race and gender and there are women and minority characters in positions of power in the book. But he also has lines like this, “Listen son, most women are damn fools and children. But they’ve good more range than we’ve got. The brave ones are braver, the good ones are better- and the vile ones are viler.”  Oh dear.

But it was fun to read in a certain, pulpy way.  The protagonist is a kind of James Bond type of character who works for an ultra-secret government agency which has to first convince the President and Congress that there is even a threat at all before they can mobilize a defense, part of which is convincing the population to walk around naked (or nearly so) to show that they do not have an alien-parasite attached to them.  
Unsurprisingly for a book by a U.S. author of this era, there is also some unsubtle Cold War propaganda  included such as, “I wondered why the [aliens] had not attached Russia first; the place seemed tailor-made for them. On second thought, I wondered if they had. On third thought, I wondered what difference it would make.“ In fact, if this book has any hidden depths at all, it is probably in its depiction of one’s panic at losing one’s individuality and/or control over one’s own destiny which certainly ties into much of the West’s fears  of communism of at that time.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Back to the Classics 2017: The Red and the Black

I chose The Red and the Black for the category of “Classic in Translation” for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate .

First published in 1830, The Red and the Black reminded me of Crime and Punishment in its psychological excavation of the human mind and the conflicting emotions present in one person.  But I appreciated Dostoyevsky’s novel much more, although I can’t exactly pinpoint why.  My feelings about The Red and the Black may be akin to how some readers really hate Wuthering Heights and its tortured, unpleasant lead characters.  In the introduction written by translator Roget Gard in the Penguin edition that I read, he suggests that like Jane Austen’s Emma, Julien Sorel, the hero of The Red and the Black, is a creation that perhaps only the author can truly love and appreciate.  

First, let me say that I enjoyed Emma and Wuthering Heights.  And I am glad to have read The Red and the Black. I do understand that no one in this novel is actually supposed to be particularly sympathetic to the reader, but I didn’t find any of main protagonists particularly interesting either. Another stumbling block for me was the (now) historical setting. While the Penguin edition that I read pictured above did have excellent notes by Roger Gard, Stendhal clearly expected his readers to be familiar with 1829 French politics and the then recent restoration of constitutional monarchy after the upheavals of the French Revolution and the First Empire. Had I a better understanding of the historical nuances, I think I would have understood more of the book’s satirical aspects.

The story is about Julian Sorel, the son of a carpenter in a village at the foot of the Jura Mountains. His father and his brothers abuse him for wanting more than the life of a mill worker.  Julian is physically very attractive and actually crazy smart (has an eidetic memory) but he is not well educated academically nor is he socially adept, which is a big drawback for an ambitious man in hyper-class conscious 19th century France.  He first believes his only way up and out of the peasant class is through the Catholic Church but he resents the fact that under Napoleon I, had he been born a mere 30 years earlier, he could have distinguished himself militarily despite his plebian background. Julian has almost a literal Napoleon complex, although his “shortcoming” is not his height but his shame about his origins.   

As the book progresses, the reader sees how Julian achieves and fails to achieve his ambitions. I think what made him maddening to me as a character is that he is basically a prick. He does stuff, like seduce the wife of his employer, not because he loves her but because HE CAN.  Who doesn’t know people like that today?  So I think my real “complaint” is that the book is too well written really. This is a realist novel which feels very modern; fashion and politics have changed some in the almost 200 years since the book was written, human nature has not.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

BACK TO THE CLASSICS 2017: DRAGONWYCK BY ANYA SETON



A delicious sensation of comfort lapped around her, enfolding her as softly as did the immense bed. The sheets were of linen so fine that they felt like silk and they were also scented not with lavender but with rose petals and verbena”. 
 
That is a description of Miranda’s first night at Dragonwyck, but it also made me think of the satisfaction one gets from reading a good gothic romance:  comforting yet indulgent.  Miranda is a young woman living in 1844 rural Connecticut who dreams of a sweeping romance that she secretly reads about in novels. In her heart, she feels she is destined to more than the hard life of a farmer’s wife. When her distant relation, Nicholas Van Ryn, invites her to his estate, Dragonwyck, located in the Hudson valley, Miranda senses this is the escape she has waiting for; the door to the life she deserves.
 
Since  Dragonwyck is a gothic romance in the tradition of Mary Stewart or Daphne Du Maurier, the reader soon discovers, as Miranda meets her cousin and sees the estate, that this will be no Cinderella story.  Nicholas is both charming and sinister and Miranda feels herself drawn to him, despite the fact that he is married and far, far above her station socially. 
 
In addition to being a traditional gothic novel, Dragonwyck is also a historical novel which highlights not only better known events such as the Mexican-American war, but also (to me at least) more obscure occurrences such as  the Astor Place Riots in New York City.
 
I learned in the afterword written appropriately by the doyenne of historical fiction, Philippa Gregory, that Dragonwyck, first published in 1944, was only Seton’s second novel, which I think shows a bit. It was a fun read and I was compelled to turn the pages. However occasionally I found the insertion of historical events and persons to be a little awkward and the plot could have used more polishing in places. I do think, however, that Seton excels in characterization. Miranda was believably naïve yet ambitious and Nicholas is completely mesmerizing and chilling with qualities that seemed almost vampiric at times.
 
I read this for the Romance Classic category in the 2017 Back to the ClassicsChallenge at the blog Books and Chocolate and I chose it because of Lark's intriguing review. I could have also put it in the Gothic Novel category but since straight up romance is not my favorite genre (and I have read all of Austen’s novels), I thought this would be a good compromise! The above picture is actually from the movie, which I have not seen. For me, casting Vincent Price as the handsome Nicholas Van Ryn doesn't work!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

BACK TO THE CLASSICS 2017: ONE DAY IN THE LIVE OF IVAN DENISOVICH BY ALEXANDER SOLZHENITSYN

My first completed read for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017 hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate is for the category A Russian Classic. I read the very short (139 pages in the Signet paperback edition that I read) One Day in the Live of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  I had read Solzhenitsyn’s The Cancer Ward many years ago and thought it was fantastic and One Day in the Live of Ivan Denisovich also did not disappoint.
 
Like the title indicates, this is the recitation of one man’s day, from when he wakes in the morning to the time he goes to sleep, as an inmate of a Soviet prison labor camp in Siberia under Stalin’s regime.  It is both horrific and absurd in its depiction of life in the gulag and the lengths that one must go to to survive.  From the moment he wakes, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is calculating how to make the most of opportunities, from cadging tobacco off of better-off inmates, to rejoicing over an extra three ounces of bread at dinner.  Who’s the zek’s [prisoner] main enemy? Another zek. If only they weren’t at odds with one another – ah, what a difference, that’d make”.  
 
There are hierarchies among the prisoners and hierarchies among the guards that must be observed; internal prison politics that must be respected; opportunities must be quickly assessed and taken advantage of, often at another’s expense and all this while living in inhumane conditions, under-fed, overworked and with little protection against the sub-zero temperatures.  But what makes this book fascinating, however, is Ivan Denisovich’s practical and accepting attitude toward it all and his small moments of joy and satisfaction over small pleasures and victories. The simplicity and matter-of-fact quality of the narrative belie the brutal and inhumane environment to which the prisoners are subjected.
 
Even though the book is fiction, Solzhenitsyn did actually spend 11 years in a Siberian forced labor camp, so this is really a true-to-life dystopic novel of sorts. Apparently, the book was not suppressed in the USSR (my book has an introduction, a forward AND an afterword!) but  was actually used by Khrushchev as part of his anti-Stalin campaign when it was first published in 1962.

Monday, January 16, 2017

THE TOURNAMENT OF BOOKS 2017

Happy New Year all!  It is going to be a while before I get around to reading my first book qualifying for the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge because I am trying to read as many books from the 2017 Tournament of Books shortlist as possible . 

I have been following the TOB since 2013. I found out about it when the blogger Citizen Reader mentioned Wil Wheaton’s judgment in favor of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. I admit, I was mostly intrigued at the time by the name of Wil Wheaton. While I loathe Wesley Crusher, I am a big Star Trek fan (but I don’t know if I am a trekker or a trekkie, the distinction is lost on me, so maybe neither) and I bear the actor no ill-will for the terrible Gary-Stu he played as a child in the 1990s.  

But I digress.  For those of you unfamiliar with the TOB, it is set up like NBA play off brackets and takes place in March just like the play offs. The entire thing happens online. The judges (usually writers themselves) read the two books from their assigned bracket and determine which one will move forward. Color commentary is then provided by the TOB organizers, although there are also occasionally guest commentators.  Then there are the comments from the peanut gallery, ie the bookternet. And that’s where it can get bloody! But usually in a good way. I don’t comment. I can use the excuse that since I am on the west coast, once I am off work and ready to rumble, everyone else is in bed. But really it is because I don't feel sharp enough to keep up with the crowd - and they are razor sharp. Next to the fabulous commentary, I love the access to the transparency of the judgments. Unlike other “legit” book prizes (the Pulitzer, the Booker, the Nobel, etc.) I get to read exactly why the judge chose one book over another, which is always interesting.

So below is a list of the shortlist with notations on which ones I have already read and which ones I can readily get from the library.  Will a little luck I will be able to have at least 10 of the books under my belt come March so I can follow along better.  

Have any of you read any of these or are they on your radar? Do any of you follow the TOB? 


No
TOB 2017 SHORTLIST
AVAILABLE?
1
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
READ
2
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder *
LIBRARY
3
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
LIBRARY
4
Moonglow by Michael Chabon
READING CURRENTLY
5
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue *
READ
6
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

7
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
LIBRARY
8
The Nix by Nathan Hill
LIBRARY
9
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
READ
10
High Dive by Jonathan Lee
LIBRARY
11
Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet
LIBRARY
12
The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan*

13
Version Control by Dexter Palmer
LIBRARY
14
Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter

15
Mister Monkey by Francine Prose

16
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
READ
17
Black Wave by Michelle Tea

18
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
READ
*play in round

Monday, December 19, 2016

BACK TO THE CLASSICS CHALLENGE 2017

Its official! Karen at Books at Chocolate is graciously hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge again.  Below is a list of the 2017 categories with some of my potential titles:

A 19th Century Classic – I will probably read a Dickens’ novel. I only have a handful left: The Old Curiosity Shop, Dombey and Son, Nicolas Nickelby, or Barnaby Rudge.

A 20th Century Classic –I will definitely choose something from the Modern Library’s 20th Century best of list. I still have 30 of those left to read.   Just based on books I already own, possible choices might be Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald or the Wings of the Dove by Henry James.

A classic by a woman author – I am totally spoiled for choice on this one but I think I might make it The Professor’s House by Willa Cather because I so loved My Antonia which I read in November of this year.

A classic in translation – Again, there is a lot to choose from in this category, but I think I would like to try Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant or if I end up reading Le Rouge et Le Noir by Stendhal, that would also fit.

A classic published before 1800 – This would provide me with an opportunity to read something from ancient Greece or Rome. Maybe Metamorphoses by Ovid? I really have no clue and might need to think on this one a while longer.  

A romance classic – I am going to see if my next  planned Trollope will fit here…either Phineas Finn or The Way We Live Now .  All the Trollope I have read thus far has had a strong romantic plot (or two or three), so I suspect either book will work for this category.   However, I may read Dragonwyke by Anya Seton since I recently purchased a used copy on the strength of a review over at Lark Writes and which appears to be a more traditional romance in the vein of DuMaurier.

A Gothic or horror classic – I am definitely going for gothic over horror and I have two contenders: The Monk by Mathew Lewis or The Castle of Otranto by Walpole. Actually, both were published in the 1700s so they could also work for #5 in a pinch.

A classic with a number in the title – I might re-read Slaughterhouse 5 since I only read it the one time. But I am also considering The Three Musketeers by Dumas Pere or One Hundred Years of Solitude (published in 1967 it JUST squeezed by at being 50 years old in 2017)by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

A classic about an animal or which includes the name of an animal in the title – I might read The Yearling. I can’t remember if I read it as a child or if I just saw the movie. I will be sure to have tissues handy. I am sure it will make me weep (again).

A classic set in a place you'd like to visit – At first I was going to choose a literary location…but I have already read all the Barsetshire books by Trollope and the Miss Marple books by Chrstie and those are the only two fictional places I can think off the top of my head.  So perhaps I will read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay in this category (another squeaker first published in 1967) which is set in Australia .

An award-winning classic -  I would like to read The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever  which won the National Book Award in 1958. This is another book that is also on the Modern Library’s 20th Century best of list, so  if I complete it, it is a twofer.

A Russian Classic  There is an off chance that I might read War and Peace in 2017, but if not, I also would like to try The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol OR if I am pressed for time, A Day in the Life of  Ivan Denisovich by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, which is under 200 pages.


I look forward to staring the New Year with one of the above mentioned titles.  I will definitely also be checking out the sign-up page regularly to see other bloggers’ choices.