Tuesday, June 21, 2016


I chose Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple for my “Classic by a Woman Author” for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate.  This is the third title that I have read by Whipple after The Priory and Someone at a Distance, both of which I just now realize I read for the last two Back to the Classics Challenges! 

I own all three of these books in the Persephone re-issue editions. Whipple was a very popular author in her day, but fell out of favor (and print) until many of her titles were resurrected by Persephone. I believe she is currently the author with the most titles re-published by Persephone; they currently offer seven of her novels and one short story collection.

Greenbanks is primarily the story of Louisa Ashton, the mother and grandmother of a large, middle class family whom she raised in the family home of Greenbanks somewhere in northern England. The book is set in the first quarter of the 20th century and there is a very definite theme running through the book regarding the options and restrictions placed on women across the generations, since Louisa grew up very much a Victorian while her granddaughter Rachel comes of age post WWI.  While Louisa’s grown children and their wives and husbands often mystify her, she has a very special relationship with granddaughter Rachel.

There isn’t much of a plot, but it is easy for the Whipple-loving reader to become immersed in the world of Greenbanks without it because she wrote so well and her characters are so exceptionally well-drawn.  Outside of Louisa and Rachel, who are very sympathetic characters, it is worth mentioning Ambrose, Rachel’s father and the insufferable husband of Louisa’ daughter Letty. Most of the time reader just wants to slap him, but occasionally there are small glimpses into his interior and his genuine incomprehension of other people and their motives and behaviors.  I did actually feel a bit sorry for him from time to time.

I find there to be something comforting about the way Whipple writes and the kinds of stories she tells, even though she doesn’t shy away from unpleasant subjects or characters. There is a smooth quality to her writing style, if that makes any sense, that keeps me turning the pages and I very much look forward to trying one of the further 4 Whipple titles from Persephone in future. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

A Separate Peace - Back to the Classics 2016

I first read A Separate Peace as a high school freshman. I can see why this book would be placed on a high school reading list: it is short, the language isn’t too complicated and there are some obvious themes of guilt and redemption to be mined for essays.  This book screams loss of innocence/coming of age.
I didn’t remember too much from back when I first read it, over 30 years ago. On the second read I was reminded of The Lord of the Flies, just with the savagery buried much, much deeper under the surface.  

A Separate Peace is rather dark story of adolescent male friendship.   The narration is given in flashback from the perspective of Gene Forrester, who attended an all-male boarding school located in New England in the mid 1940’s, just on the cusp of the United States entering the war.  Gene is from the south and it is only just barely referenced that his background is less grand, less old-south aristocratic, than he projects to his classmates. To me, this hints at Gene having the tiniest of a chip on his shoulder.
Gene’s roommate and best friend is Phineas (Finny), who is a natural leader, charismatic and popular at the school. Again, it isn’t explicit, but I think it is suggested that Finny is from the right kind of New England Brahman family.  So in short, Gene doesn’t really belong and Phineas does, or at least this is Gene’s perception.

Gene admires Finny, but also wants to set himself apart from him and be recognized for his own merits at school. Gene suspects that Finny is trying to bring him down and sabotage him academically.  Personally, I think the book is ambiguous on whether or not there is any truth in Gene’s paranoia and since the reader doesn’t get any direct insight into Phineas’ headspace, it is hard to say if he is genuine or not.  In any case, Gene’s perceived competition with Finney over their last summer term leads to tragic results.
I re-read this title for the category “Re-Read a Classic from School” in the 2016 Back to the Classic Challenge hosted by Karen on the blog Books and Chocolate.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Grapes of Wrath-Back to the Classics 2016

My pick for the 20th Century Classic (any book published between 1900 and 1966) for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted on Books and Chocolate was The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. My completion of this title is a double whammy, since I am slowly working my way through reading all of the Modern Library's Top 100 and this book is on that list as well. This puts me at now having read 68 out of the 100.   : )

The following quote from Steinbeck about the creation of the Grapes of Wrath was included the introduction by Robert Dermott in the Penguin edition that I read: “I have done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags …” He certainly met his objective as far as I am concerned; this book wore me out and it made me mad. I admire the novel for its tenacity, but reading it was like figuratively getting punched repeatedly. There were very few light moments, such as when the two younger Joad children use a flush toilet for the first time.

It is amazing to me that the book was researched, written and published during the Great Depression; Steinbeck was writing about something that was happening in real time which gives the novel a real sense of urgency and anger I think. I can understand also why its publication was is/was controversial. Not only is it irreligious and frank about sex, it also is a call to arms politically. However, it is important to note, that regardless of how liberal this book’s politics are, there is only one brief mention of the non-white migrant farm workers of this era. This is not their story even though they must have suffered just as much. And even more discouraging is to think that the type of human exploitation explored in the novel is not something of the past, but continues to happen even now, over three quarters of a century later.

The book has an interesting structure as the longer chapters that chronologically recount the Joad family’s journey from the Oklahoma dust bowl to the alleged paradise of California is interspersed with shorter chapters that read almost like sermons or Tom Waits lyrics.  I found it a challenging read, mostly due to the content.  I had to make myself read parts of it, so I was glad of those shorter chapters because the provided a break from the downward spiral of the family's prospects as they move west.  All in all, a very powerful book which I am glad to have finally read.