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.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Back to the Classics 2017: Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

I have often heard readers say that Dickens was “paid by the word” and that is why his novels are so long, but I don’t think that is true.  I am fairly sure it has been documented elsewhere that due to his enormous creative energy, he was often working on various projects simultaneously.  So the “wordiness” and extraneous stories are likely due to little time devoted to laying out the plot beforehand in combination with the serialized nature of the publications.  

I mention this because I noted that in the over 900 pages in the Penguin Classics edition of Nicholas Nickleby that I read, at least two story lines could have been cut without hindering the plot in any way.  Of course, this is neither here nor there if you love Dickens as I do and one of such plot lines concerning the proud, solidly lower middle class Kenwigs family was one of my favorites.  Probably inserted mostly for comic relief, Mr. and Mrs. Kenwig are determined that their children will do better than they have, “She will be a treasure to the man she marries, sir,’ said Mr. Kenwigs, half aside; ‘I think she’ll marry above her station, Mr. Lumbey.” says papa Kenwigs about his eldest daughter Morleena.  In fact, the family has pinned all of their hopes on Morleena inheriting her great uncle Lillyvick’s modest “estate”. Lillyvick is a water rate collector only slightly higher up the social ladder but unmarried and therefore heirless. 

The main story line concerns the eponymous Nicholas who has to fend for his mother and younger sister when his father’s death leaves them penniless.   The family appeals to their rich yet miserly uncle Ralph , who has little sense of familial duty  or affection and pawns them off as cheaply as he can.  Nicholas is sent to work as an assistant to the brutish school master Wackford Squeeres  in Yorkshire where he befriends the poor, abused Smike.   Meanwhile, back in London, sister Kate Nickleby’s situation becomes more and more precarious and she has no one to turn to since her mother is self-absorbed and useless and her uncle uncaring and selfish.  Eventually Nicholas leaves Yorkshire under bad circumstances with Smike in tow, which firmly cements his Uncle Ralph’s hatred of him. The rest of a book is a winding account of Nicholas’ trials and travails as he seeks his own fortune and tries to protect those closest to him while battling his uncle’s dastardly plans to bring him to ruin.

One thing that set this title apart from other Dickens novels I have read is the character of Nicholas himself. He is quick to anger and to react, which gets him into trouble often.  I agree that Dickens’ female protagonists are generally pretty sketchy, but his male protagonists are also often fairly passive. In comparison to David Copperfield say or Pip from Great Expectations, Nicholas was anything but passive.   I also think that this book was particularly keen in terms of class consciousness and the arbitrary accesses and barriers it engenders. Not only do we have the Kenwigs and their aspirations, but there are also the social climbing Wititterlys who are Kate’s employers for a time, not to mention Mrs. Nickleby who is a complete snob. 

I read this book for the category of A 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classic Challenge  2017 hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate. Of the eleven Dickens titles I have read so far, this one will definitely be considered one of my favorites.  It has all the qualities I love about Dickens:  adventure, romance, compassion, sentiment and a sense of humor. In additional to the aforementioned Kenwigs family, I also adored the character of John Brodie, the bluff and generous Yorkshireman who comes to Nicholas’ aid more than once.

Monday, April 24, 2017


 [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.