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.