Book Review: Hard Times

In Charles Dickens’ book, Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind is a member of Parliament who also runs a school. His philosophy of education emphasizes pure fact: no fancy, no imagination, not even any morality. He discovers one poor student in the school Sissy, who can’t seem to learn her facts. When he goes to talk to her father, he discovers that her father had worked in the circus but has mysteriously left. So he offers to take Cissy in to help care for his near-invalid wife if she promises never to return to the circus.

Gradgrind’s own children have been raised according to his philosophy at home. Both his oldest two, Louisa and Tom, are rather bored. The implications of their education play out differently for each of them.

Gradgrind’s close friend, Josiah Bounderby, is a blustery self-made man who boasts of his rise from “street kid” to a successful banker. He eventually takes on Tom as an apprentice and married Louisa. Louisa has no love for Bounderby, but as her father presents the facts of the case, marriage seems reasonable.

In another area of town lives Stephen Blackpool, one of what Bounderby calls “hands”—common workmen. Stephen was 40, but “looked older, but he had had a hard life” with seemingly all thorns and no roses. “He was a good power-loom weaver, and a man of perfect integrity” though not particularly intelligent.

Eventually Stephen’s path crosses that of the other characters and reasons for his hard life become known. His refusal to go in with the unionists gets him in trouble with them and Bounderby. When he leaves to find work elsewhere, he’s framed for a bank robbery.

Usually when I start a classic novel, I get some background information about it first. I didn’t this time: I just let the story draw me in. I wondered who would advocate a “just facts” education and why. After reading the book, I learned that a philosophy called Utilitarianism was going around at the time. You can read more about it at Wikipedia if you’re interested. Louisa’s path follows that of the son of one of Utilitarianism’s advocates, who felt he was emotionally stunted as a result of his upbringing. Tom’s maturity and character was stunted, too, but in a different way. Perhaps it’s better to say he was more warped than stunted.

The two most highly moral, compassionate, and common-sense characters, Sissy and Stephen, were not raised in this philosophy, and eventually they show some of the others a different way. Some of the characters end up sadder but wiser, “making .. facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope, and Charity.” Dickens almost portrays all the poor as virtuous and the rich and powerful as corrupt, but he makes the characters complicated enough that they don’t fall into stereotypes. As he often writes not only for social awareness, but for social change, he appeals to the reader that “It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not.”

This is the shortest of Dickens’ novels and the only one not to have any scenes in London. This is his tenth novel and, like most of his others, first appeared in serial form. He infuses the story with his characteristic humor, pathos, and memorable characters and descriptions and keeps the reader thinking long after the book ends.

I listened to the audiobook, nicely read by Peter Batchelor, and read parts on the Project Gutenberg copy online here.

Book Review: The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood

Legends of Robin Hood have been floating around since the 14th century. Scholars debate whether early ballads and stories were based on a real person. In his earliest versions, Robin was just a crook, sometimes short-tempered, according to Wikipedia. He did not rob from the poor, but he didn’t give to them, either. Some of the aspects we know of Robin survived from the earliest stories; others were added or adapted over the years. Wikipedia details Robin’s history and variations.

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was the first version written specifically for children by Howard Pyle in 1883. This is the version many films and later aspects of the story are based on.

In this story, Robin is a yeoman, which seems to be a type of middle class between peasants and aristocrats (other versions cast Robin as a nobleman). He first becomes an outlaw by shooting an arrow at someone who shot at him first, subsequently killing the man. This man happened to be related to the Sheriff of Nottingham, who thenceforth became Robin’s enemy.

As Robin hid out in Sherwood Forest, others soon came to join him. Some who were poor and hungry had killed the king’s deer and fled the law. Others had goods and land confiscated by the king and had nowhere else to go.

To support themselves, Robin and his “merry men” stopped rich travelers and “invited” them to feast in Sherwood Forest, then demanded payment of them. In some cases, Robin divided up the money gathered in this way into thirds, keeping a third for his men, a third for charity, and giving a third back. Robin justified this theft because he figured those he robbed had either gotten their gain unfairly or, like wealthy clergymen, were keeping for themselves what they should be giving to others.

The poor loved Robin because he helped many of them. The classes that Robin robbed from, obviously, did not.

This book details many of the well-known stories about Robin—his first bout with Little John, his altercation of Friar Tuck (someone not in the earliest legends), the archery match in Nottingham where Robin went in disguise. Maid Marian in mentioned but never appears. Other stories I had not heard of were included as well, like how Robin met and helped Allen-a-dale to free his beloved from an arranged marriage, Robin’s deadly run-in with villain Guy of Gisborne, the recruitment of Midge, the Miller’s Son, and other tales.

The book came to a very satisfying end, until it got to the epilogue, where Robin’s death by betrayal is told.

There is an odd mention of “Cain’s wife had never opened the pottle that held misfortunes and let them forth like a cloud of flies to pester us.” That sounds like a convoluted version of Pandora’s box. And I chuckled at his phrase because a former pastor used to say it, and I didn’t know it came from this book: “There is many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip,” meaning plans don’t always work out like we hoped. Maybe it was a common saying that Pyle incorporated.

As I first started listening to the audiobook, I wished I had known of and read this book to my boys. The more I heard, though, the more I wrestled with whether that would have been a good idea or not. There’s something appealing about this version of Robin, “honest … in his own way”: someone who stands up for the little guy, who “never harmed harmless man,”  rights wrongs, bests the foolish and evil. But I could never condone vigilantism, for many reasons. And many differences in the book are solved by fighting. Plus there are copious amounts ale, beer, and the like consumed. If we had read the book as a family, we would have had to stop and discuss a lot of issues along the way. Setting aside those objections, though, the rest was fun.

There are many film version of Robin, but the only one I ever saw was the animated Disney one. I’ve seen the character in some shows like Once Upon a Time and Shrek.

I listened to the audiobook superbly read by Christopher Cazenove in a voice and accent perfect for this type of tale. Project Gutenberg has a version online here.

I read/listened to this book for the Back to the Classics challenge, but I am not sure which category to place it in yet. It would fit in two or three. I’ll wait til I read some others and then see where to place this one.

Have you ever read this version of Robin Hood? What did you think?

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Back to the Classics Challenge Wrap-up 2019

btcc reading challenge 2019

Karen at Books and Chocolate hosts the Back to the Classics Challenge. She came up with categories and we come up with a classic at least 50 years old to fit each category. She also gives away a prize – a $30 gift card to Amazon.com or The Book Depository. You get one entry for the prize drawing for six categories completed, two entries for nine categories completed, and three entries if you complete all twelve.

The classics I read this year were (titles link back to my reviews):

A.19th Century ClassicThe Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860)(Finished 7/15/19)

B. 20th Century Classic (published between 1900 to 1969): How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn (1939) (Finished 3/20/19)

C. Classic by a Woman AuthorA Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1905)(Finished 2/14/19)

D. Classic in Translation (written originally in a language different from your own): Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss (Finished 11/23/19)

E. Classic Comic Novel. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (1836)(Finished 5/20/19)

F. Classic Tragic Novel. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847)(Finished 6/12/19)

G. Very Long Classic (500 or more pages): Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (Finished 9/11/19)

H. Classic Novella (250 or fewer pages): The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott, 150 pages. (1849)(Finished 6/23/19)

I. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean). The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington. (1918)(Finished 9/24/19)

J. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia). Moby Dick by Herman Melville. (Finished 10/28/19)

K. Classic From a Place You’ve Lived. The Gilded Age by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner (Finished 12/16/19)

L. Classic Play. King Lear by William Shakespeare. (Finished 12/28/19)

Karen likes for us to compute how many entries we earned: I read all twelve, so I have three entries.

I enjoy this challenge because it broadens my horizons. I would not have read some of these books if not for this challenge. I have not seen anything yet about this challenge for next year, and I’m sorry that it looks like it won’t continue. But I’ll keep reading classics. Someone has said that a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. These books still speak today.

Do you like to read classics? Have you read any of these?

Book Review: The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today is not one of Mark Twain’s more well-known books. It’s the only one he wrote with a collaborator, Charles Dudley Warner, who was also a friend and neighbor. The story goes that their wives challenged them “to write a better novel than what they were used to reading.”

But this book is distinctive for an additional reason: its name became applied to the era after Reconstruction until the 1900s. According to this site, “American economy grew at its fastest rate in history” during this period. Such a rise gave way to more industrialization and a class of sudden and ultra-wealthy citizens. “The period also was marked by social movements for reform, the creation of machine politics, and continued mass immigration.” according to the same site.

Twain’s and Warner’s novel satirizes much that was characteristic of the era. But the story itself focuses on a few individuals.

The Hawkins family is poor but decent, located in Obedstown, TN. The family patriarch, Si, has bought 75,000 acres of Tennessee land. It’s not worth much at present, but with the expected changes on the horizon—the expansion of the railroad and discovery of coal for fuel—Si expects some day the land can be sold for a fortune and provide for his children.

In the meantime, their old friend Eschol Sellers has written to urge them to come to Missouri for the wealth of opportunities there. Mrs. Hawkins supports her husband’s decisions, but following Sellers has not boded well for them in the past. He means well, but he always comes up with grand schemes that never quite work out as expected.

On their way, they acquire two more children by adoption who have been newly orphaned. Their fortunes go up and down—mostly down. Si is tempted to sell the Tennessee land several times, but holds out. The older children venture out to work and help the family.

Parallel to the Hawkins and Sellers story is that of two friends, Harry and Phillip, who set put to make their fortune by becoming civil engineers for the railroad. Harry seems like a more refined version of Sellers, but Phillip is earnest and wants to truly learn the job.

The young men eventually cross paths with Laura Hawkins, the adopted daughter who has grown into a fascinating beauty. Henry is smitten. Laura is not unkind, but neither is she interested in Henry. Phillip is also in love with a girl who wants to become a doctor and isn’t interested in committing herself to a relationship.

Laura has an unfortunate relationship with a man who swept her off her feet and encouraged her to elope. When he gets tired of her, he confesses that he was already married and therefore his marriage to her was a sham. He leaves her. Laura changes as a result, becoming more calculating and ruthless.

Sellers, Laura, and Washington Hawkins end up in Washington DC in a grand scheme to get Congress to buy the Tennessee land to establish a college for Negroes. The book’s authors seems to believe that there is not a sincere, uncorrupt senator or representative, and we see a lot of the machinations of the political process: “The chances are that a man cannot get into congress now without resorting to arts and means that should render him unfit to go there.”

Some of the characters end in tragedy. Some are singed by circumstances but wiser in the end. A couple receive a hard-won happy ending.

Some sections are autobiographical. Twain’s biography says that his father had his own version of Tennessee land that always seemed to hold out hope for a good future, and his brother was killed in a steamboat accident similar to the one that orphaned Laura. One section of the book describing Phillip has a footnote that his life to that point mirrored Warner’s.

I understood how the book’s title could be applied to the era. Of course, the era wasn’t named the Gilded Age at the time Twain and Warner wrote. So, though they were satirizing the times, I think they also might have been pointing out the futility of so many individuals in the story who were seeking after the next great elusive thing instead of settling down and working hard for their goals and livelihoods.

Though this book is satire, it also has some wonderfully sweet and poignant moments.

The book kind of dragged in the middle for me, with the young men’s relationships and everyone’s schemes not going anywhere. But it picked up again in the end, with some parts being riveting.

There are a few “damns” in it. The portrayal of black people was probably accurate to the times but is condescending and insensitive in places.

Eschol Sellers’ first name is different in some versions because a real Eschol Sellers showed up and protested after the book was first published. Sellers was based on a cousin of Twain’s who was influential in his father’s land deal.

A few of my favorite quotes:

He . . . was not wanting in courage, but be would have been a better soldier if he had been less engaged in contrivances for circumventing the enemy by strategy unknown to the books. It happened to him to be captured in one of his self-appointed expeditions, but the federal colonel released him, after a short examination, satisfied that he could most injure the confederate forces opposed to the Unionists by returning him to his regiment.

There are many young men like him in American society, of his age, opportunities, education and abilities, who have really been educated for nothing and have let themselves drift, in the hope that they will find somehow, and by some sudden turn of good luck, the golden road to fortune. He was not idle or lazy, he had energy and a disposition to carve his own way. But he was born into a time when all young men of his age caught the fever of speculation, and expected to get on in the world by the omission of some of the regular processes which have been appointed from of old. And examples were not wanting to encourage him.

Whatever her thoughts may have been they were unknown to Philip, as they are to these historians; if she was seeming to be what she was not, and carrying a burden heavier than any one else carried, because she had to bear it alone, she was only doing what thousands of women do, with a self-renunciation and heroism, of which men, impatient and complaining, have no conception. Have not these big babies with beards filled all literature with their outcries, their griefs and their lamentations? It is always the gentle sex which is hard and cruel and fickle and implacable.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Bronson Pinchot. He did an amazing job with the nuances, inflections, and numerous accents. One nouveau riche character is Irish but has traveled in France and changed her last name to a French pronunciation. Bronson nails an Irish accent trying to sound French as well as a variety of Southern accents.

This book first came to my attention when I was searching for a book set in TN for the “Classics from a place you have lived” category of the Back to the Classics challenge. As it turned out, only parts of the book take place in TN. But many of the main characters are from TN, and the “Tennessee land” is almost a character itself, so I am hoping this book will still qualify.

Have you ever read this book? What did you think?

Book Review: The Swiss Family Robinson

Finding a good translation of Swiss Family Robinson is not as easy as one would think.

The book was written by a Swiss pastor, Johann David Wyss, and originally published in 1812. Wyss wrote the story for his sons to teach about spiritual and family values, industriousness, and wise uses of plants and animals. One of his sons edited the book and one of them illustrated it (both named Johann, like their father, but with different middle names).

After that, the book passed through multiple hands which translated and added to or deleted from the story. I listened to an audiobook version and scanned a Kindle version which were alike at the beginning but had different characters and scenes in the second half.

The story, as I am sure you know, involves a family of two parents and four sons shipwrecked on an island somewhere in the East Indies. The family name is not Robinson: their last name is never mentioned. The book is styled somewhat after Robinson Crusoe: he is even referred to often in the book.

Their first order of business is to get as much as they can off the ship before it sinks and to find suitable shelter. They are able to gather some food from the ship, but then need to search the island to see what they can find.

Fortunately, the father has a wealth of knowledge of botany. He knows the scientific names of plants as well as their uses.  One book I read recently said ministers of a certain era were expected to know a lot about botany. That may be the case here, or it may have just been an interest of Wyss’, or he may have crammed as much as possible into the story as a teaching tool.

They also get acquainted with the fauna as well as the flora. They use some animals as food and tame others to help them in their work.

The first half of the book details how they discovered the resources of the island and made a place for themselves. The only real danger they run into is a pack of jackals.

At the end of this section (what I think is the end of the original book), the family is content on their island and want to remain there. They’ve constructed various building projects and have plans for a sawmill and other industries. The father’s only concern is that his children will be alone when he and his wife pass on.

In the version I listened to, the father then espies a vessel at sea after about four years on the island. He meets a couple of men from the ship and gives them the journal he has kept. The men were exploring the island to see if it was suitable for the ship to land. They plan to put their people on boats and bring them in the next day. But a storm drives them out to sea again, and the family fears they ship is lost.

There’s a lot more drama in the second half: a couple of serious injuries, a massive storm, encounters with “savages” from another island. They discover a European missionary and a widow with two daughters on this island. The ship they had encountered was not lost at sea, but eventually made it home, along with the father’s journal. Another ship comes back to find them, and then decisions are made as to their future.

In the Kindle version, which happened to be the Kingston translation and is apparently more well known, the time jump in the second half is closer to ten years. The family discovers a girl who has been shipwrecked, Jenny Montrose. Eventually a ship comes looking for her, and decisions have to made about everyone’s future.

The first part is interesting, but a little dry, since the only action is discovering certain plants and animals, building a couple of different homes, handling whatever problems come up. The second half drew me in more since there was more action.

The four boys’ personalities are well-drawn and distinct.

Christian values form a major part of the story. The father corrects the children in various ways (especially in manifestations of pride). The family prays together, keeps Sunday set apart, applies Christian principles to life. One example, when they first discover the sailors on the ship have left them behind:

See how those on whose skill and good faith we depended have left us cruelly to our fate in the hour of danger. God will never do so. He has not forsaken us, and we will trust Him still. Only let us bestir ourselves, and each cheerily do his best. Who has anything to propose?

All in all, it was an enjoyable story. It was written for young people, but I wonder how it reads for young people now.

Near the end, the father in the story writes:

And my great wish is that young people who read this record of our lives and adventures, should learn from it how admirably suited is the peaceful, industrious and pious life of a cheerful and united family, to the formation of strong, pure and manly character.

You’re probably familiar with the 1960 Disney film version (which added pirates to the mix). We saw it ages ago, but I’d like to see it again some time now that I’ve read the book. There have been various other film versions as well. When my children were young, we saw a cartoon series version from the viewpoint of a daughter.

Besides Wikipedia, a couple of interesting articles about the book are:

I read this book for the Classics in Translation category of the Back to the Classics challenge.

Have you ever read Swiss Family Robinson? What did you think?

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Book Review: Moby Dick

According to Wikipedia, Herman Melville wrote to his publisher that he was working on “a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries, and illustrated by the author’s own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooneer.” That book was Moby Dick, based on a real whale named Mocha Dick.

Unfortunately, the book did not do well during Melville’s life time. Interest in it was renewed at the centennial of his birth, with many then praising it.

One of literature’s most famous opening lines, “Call me Ishmael,” may indicate that Ismael is not his real name. On the other hand, most of the characters go by one name, first or last, so maybe Ishmael sets the precedent right off the bat. Ishmael is not a full-time seaman. He is a schoolmaster who gets a hankering to go out to sea sometimes when land life gets too much for him. He’s a loquacious narrator, telling minute details of the story, giving several examples of a concept, and going into teacher mode to describe whaling practices, features of the whale, whales depicted in art and why the artists get them wrong, etc. etc.

Ishmael starts off making his way to Nantucket to look for a sailing vessel. He explains that instead of going to sea as a passenger who has to pay, he goes as sailor who gets paid for the voyage. The inns are crowded, so he has to share not only a room, but a bed with a stranger. He’s mortified to discover in the middle of the night that his bedmate is a cannibal, Queequeg. But eventually the two become fast friends.

They are hired for the Pequod, a whaling vessel, by the owners. They don’t meet the captain yet, as he is recovering from an illness.

Even before they set sail, foreshadowings abound that something dire might happen. The preacher in Nantucket gives a sermon about Jonah and a strange man calling himself Elijah gives cryptic warnings.

The sailors meet the three mates with vastly different personalities. Starbuck, the first mate, is 30, thin, serious, pious, a bit superstitious, courageous but not foolish. The second mate, Stubb, was “happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air; and while engaged in the most imminent crisis of the chase, toiling away, calm and collected as a journeyman joiner engaged for the year. Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests.” It was quite funny to hear how Stubb both scolded and encouraged his crewmen when they were in the thick of capturing a whale. The third mate, Flask, was “short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious concerning whales, who somehow seemed to think that the great leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered.”

We don’t see Captain Ahab until chapter 28. He’s described as grim with grey hair and a scar down one side of his face. He had lost one leg and replaced it with a prosthesis made of whale bone. Later he tells the crew that he had lost his leg in a battle with a legendary white whale named Moby Dick, and his main mission is finding and exacting his revenge on the whale.

As the Pequod meets up with other boats (which meetings are called gams), Ahab has no interest in chatting with the other captains about anything except whether they’ve seen Moby Dick.

If you’re at all familiar with the story, you know the voyage doesn’t end well.

Ahab’s mission is more of an obsession. Though Starbuck tries to talk Ahab out of his vengeance, Ahab won’t listen.

When Melville is telling the story, it’s as exciting, riveting, and hard to put down as anything I’ve ever read. But interspersed between story incidents are detailed explanations and Ismael’s thoughts about everything that could possibly be connected with whales and whaling. Wikipedia cites various theories about the reasons behind the book’s layout. Some of these side excursions are interesting, some boring. With some, you wonder if the narrator is writing tongue in cheek, like when he posits that perhaps St. George’s dragon was actually a whale. He wonders what the stuff the whale spouts is made up of and muses:

He is both ponderous and profound. And I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts. While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.

When he comments that pirates think themselves above whalers:

I should like to know whether that profession of theirs has any peculiar glory about it. It sometimes ends in uncommon elevation, indeed; but only at the gallows. And besides, when a man is elevated in that odd fashion, he has no proper foundation for his superior altitude. Hence, I conclude, that in boasting himself to be high lifted above a whaleman, in that assertion the pirate has no solid basis to stand on.

Ishmael comments on his own storytelling:

So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a profound ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the natural verity of the main points of this affair.

Like a lot of older books, this one has some Christian overtones. But I wouldn’t call it a Christian book. Ismael calls himself a Presbyterian, but I disagreed with Ishmael when he felt that joining in with Queequeg’s worship of a little idol he carried around with him was doing unto his neighbor as he would want his neighbor to do to him—not with all that the Bible says about idols. Starbuck is probably the closest to a genuine Christian. Ahab is full-out blasphemous.

I listened to the audiobook superbly read by Frank Muller. When the narration first started, I was disappointed Muller didn’t give Ishmael and craggy old sea-dog kind of a voice. But then I quickly realized that voice would not have been right for Ishmael as an educated man who was not a full-time sailor. Muller does give that kind of voice to Ahab, though, to great effect. Muller did all the voices and inflections well, and I am thankful I experienced the book with this narration.  I also read some parts online via Project Gutenberg here.

I read (or listened to) Moby Dick for the Back to the Classics Challenge category of a “Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia).” Moby Dick covers a lot of territory—in fact a beautifully illustrated map is here. But a great chunk of the plot takes place in the waters between those continents.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Book Review: The Magnificent Ambersons

Booth Tarkington won a Pulitzer prize for The Magnificent Ambersons, set in Indiana in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

One one level, the story focuses on Georgie Amberson Minifer, only grandchild of the great Major Amberson. “His grandfather had been the most striking figure of success in the town: ‘As rich as Major Amberson!’ they used to say.” The town was proud of the Major, and his mansion was the big finale when people took visitors on a tour. But Georgie was considered a “princely terror” who felt his entitlement even as a child. Many people looked forward to the day when Georgie would “get his comeuppance.”

As a reader, I began to look forward to the same thing and wondered how it would come about. I also wondered if it would be the ruin of him or the making of him. Even though Georgie is not a likeable character at first, one does feel sorry for him during his “comeuppance.”

On another level, the book masterfully conveyed the changes of the times: the advent of the automobile, which many considered just a fad at first; the growth of the little town into a big city with the problems that kind of growth can bring; the decline of “old families” and their pedigrees and the rise of industrialism and entrepreneurship.

But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can’t have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that the spiritual alteration will be bad for us.

The city was so big, now, that people disappeared into it unnoticed, and the disappearance of Fanny and her nephew was not exceptional. People no longer knew their neighbours as a matter of course; one lived for years next door to strangers—that sharpest of all the changes since the old days—and a friend would lose sight of a friend for a year, and not know it

A big part of the first chapter describes the various ways the rich distinguished themselves in fashion, facial hair, architecture, and such. It was an enjoyable observation of changing styles. I found it interesting that the term “hand-me-downs” came not from getting clothes that had belonged to someone else, but from getting them “off the shelf” rather than specially made from a tailor: “Trousers with a crease were considered plebeian; the crease proved that the garment had lain upon a shelf, and hence was ‘ready-made’; these betraying trousers were called ‘hand-me-downs,’ in allusion to the shelf.”

It took me just a bit to get into the story, as it begins with a heap of description. One thing I most appreciated about Tarkington’s writing was his skill in conveying things to the reader through Georgie’s eyes that Georgie himself missed. For instance, various people comment on his father not looking well, but Georgie thinks he looks just as he always did—and then Georgie is surprised to find out his father really is ill. Georgie’s fairly young throughout the book, so he’s forgiven for a bit of immaturity. But his lack of understanding other people or situations comes more from his exalted view of his own opinion.

Gossip can be a problem for anyone, but it’s a partuclar bane for the rich and famous. I found the advice Georgie’s uncle George gave him worth consideration:

In this town, naturally, anything about any Amberson has always been a stone dropped into the centre of a pond, and a lie would send the ripples as far as a truth would.

“Gossip is never fatal, Georgie,” he said, “until it is denied. Gossip goes on about every human being alive and about all the dead that are alive enough to be remembered, and yet almost never does any harm until some defender makes a controversy. Gossip’s a nasty thing, but it’s sickly, and if people of good intentions will let it entirely alone, it will die, ninety-nine times out of a hundred.”

People who have repeated a slander either get ashamed or forget it, if they’re let alone. Challenge them, and in self-defense they believe everything they’ve said: they’d rather believe you a sinner than believe themselves liars, naturally. Submit to gossip and you kill it; fight it and you make it strong. People will forget almost any slander except one that’s been fought.

Nobody has a good name in a bad mouth. Nobody has a good name in a silly mouth, either.

I also found especially interesting the Major’s thoughts when he knows his time is coming near:

The Major was engaged in the profoundest thinking of his life. No business plans which had ever absorbed him could compare in momentousness with the plans that absorbed him now, for he had to plan how to enter the unknown country where he was not even sure of being recognized as an Amberson—not sure of anything, except that Isabel would help him if she could. His absorption produced the outward effect of reverie, but of course it was not. The Major was occupied with the first really important matter that had taken his attention since he came home invalided, after the Gettysburg campaign, and went into business; and he realized that everything which had worried him or delighted him during this lifetime between then and to-day—all his buying and building and trading and banking—that it all was trifling and waste beside what concerned him now.

For those who would want to know, the book has a few objectionable elements: a smattering of bad words and taking the Lord’s name in vain, the condescending view of “darkeys” and a couple of uses of the “n” word, and one character visiting a medium. That character (not Georgie) said he wasn’t superstitious, only believed what the medium said for about ten minutes, and realized he had inadvertently supplied her with information enough for what she told him. But the incident was a major turning point in his attitude, and I was disappointed Tarkington used it to bring that about.

Wikipedia says, “In the 1910s and 1920s, Tarkington was regarded as the great American novelist, as important as Mark Twain.” I’m nor sure why he’s not read as much today. I’m thankful I chose this book for the Classics from the Americas category of the Back to the Classics challenge. I enjoyed Tarkington’s story and insights very much.

I mostly listened to the audiobook read by Peter Berkrot, but I read the last few chapters in the free Kindle version because I can read faster than the narrator does, and I wanted to finish it. It’s also online free through Project Gutenberg. There are a couple of movie versions of the book, but I haven’t seen any of them.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: Anna Karenina

I had no interest in reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy for years. I knew it was about a woman who committed adultery, and I figured it would be pretty soap-opera-ish and probably a bit racy.

But Tolstoy did not seem given to raciness in any of his other books that I’d read. Then Carol’s review made me think perhaps there might be more to the story than I’d thought. So I decided to give it a try for my Classic in Translation choice for the Back to the Classics challenge.

The novel has one of literature’s most famous opening lines: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Anna doesn’t actually show up until several chapters in. The book opens with her brother, Stepan (also called by his nickname, Stiva, or his last name, Oblonsky, or his full name. All the characters have three polysyllabic Russian names plus nicknames, so it’s a little hard to sort them out at first. But once we get to know them, it’s easier.) Stiva has cheated on his wife, Dolly, who has found out. Stiva doesn’t think adultery is wrong and doesn’t see himself at fault, but he’s sorry he has hurt Dolly. His sister, Anna, is on her way to try to reconcile her brother and his wife.

Anna is described as beautiful, bright, charming, and eager. She doesn’t gloss over Stiva’s behavior, but she asks Dolly is she loves him enough to forgive him. Dolly had been contemplating leaving, but decides to forgive Stiva and stay.

Dolly’s sister, Kitty, has two suitors. Levin is the better man, but he’s socially awkward and lives in the country (and the society people can’t fathom what on earth one does in the country. Later, visitors seem to view time in the country as a holiday, while Levin works almost nonstop.) Count Vronsky is handsome, dashing, well-off, and in the highest society, so Kitty is swept away with him and refuses Levin’s proposal.

But Vronsky has no desire to marry, ever. He has enjoyed Kitty’s affections, but he’s had a string of romantic attachments, thinks marriage and husbands are stupid, and has no plans to settle down—until he meets Anna.

They meet at the train when Vronsky’s mother is coming in on the same train with Anna when she comes to see Stiva and Dolly. Anna and Vronsky are instantly attracted to each other, so much so that at a ball when they dance, Kitty knows Vronsky is lost to her.

Anna resists the attraction at first. Her situation is almost an anatomy of falling into temptation. She was not truly happy in her marriage, but as far as we know, she wasn’t entertaining thoughts of adultery until she met Vronsky. She’s disturbed by the strange attraction and knows it’s not right. When she gets home, some of the sheen is rubbed of the joy she had anticipated in getting back to her son, and all her husband’s faults stand out. Vronsky follows her. She has three groups of friends, and instead of avoiding Vronsky (“making no provision for the flesh“), she hangs out with the group he’s likely to be part of. Eventually, she succumbs. Though she’s ashamed and guilty, she continues to the point of leaving her family to be with Vronsky. Gradually her heart and conscience harden, but her thinking and personality become unstable.

Despite the lack of morals in her set of friends (almost everyone in the society group has an affair going or someone knowingly kept on the side), Anna is an outcast. One source said it was because her affair was out in the open while others kept theirs hidden. There’s also some inequity in that Vronsky can go out in society, but Anna is snubbed.

There are several major characters, but Levin’s story takes up as much of the novel as Anna’s—maybe more. His story runs in the opposite trajectory. He’s said to be based on some extent on Tolstoy. He had faith as a child, but lost it in college and now does not acknowledge himself to be a believer. He’s a landowner and tries to do his best by the people who work for him and who are dependent on him. But he gets frustrated when the peasants won’t agree to new methods or equipment. Though he thinks deeply, he gets lost in the intellectual arguments of his brothers and others. He eventually marries, but doesn’t find home life the bliss he thought it would be. He and his wife argue a lot. But they talk things out and work through them. His lack of faith begins to bother him after his brother dies, and his spiritual journey is a major part of the book. As Anna moves away from stability and happiness, Levin moves toward them.

There are so many layers in this book, it’s hard to sort through what to share. There are multiple discussions about marriage and family, society and city life vs. rural life, affected, hypocritical religion vs. true change of heart, the politics of the day.

Tolstoy does a masterful job painting his characters and helping us understand them. There are so many interesting little insights into people’s motivations and actions. For instance, Anna’s husband, Karenin, is a public official known for Christian values. Yet he fails to do the most Christian thing required of a husband: love his wife as Christ loved the church. His first notice that something is wrong is when Anna is not as attentive to him as she used to be. He only asks that she not bring Vronsky to the house and that she maintain decorum. He may think that he’s being magnanimous by yielding to her desires, but he shows he only cares about appearances. Early on, Anna says things like, “If only he’d fight for me.” His most profound religious moment comes at a crisis when he realizes he needs to forgive her. Yet even then he struggles between what he feels led to do and the “force” that drives him, the opinion of society.

One source I consulted said Anna is a pioneer feminist fulfilling her self-determination. But I don’t think Tolstoy writes her that way. He’s not saying, “Poor girl, society is being so mean to you for making your own choices.” Though he points out the foibles and hypocrisies of society, he portrays Anna as genuinely wrong and self-destructing because of it.

For all the free-thinking society talk of immorality, thankfully there are no sex scenes, and nothing explicit is said or shown.

I’ll warn you that if you look for information about this book, Anna’s end is spoiled rather ruthlessly. That was frustrating to me because I had no idea how she ended and hated finding out when I had barely started the book. After that I tried to steer clear of looking at other sources until I finished reading the book.

I primarily listened to the audiobook nicely read by Maggie Gyllenhaal, but I also read parts of the Kindle version. I wish I had known earlier that the Kindle version translated the frequent French phrases. I lost a bit in the audio by not knowing what was said in those moments. But Maggie brought a lot of emotion and thoughtfulness to the narrative, so I am glad I experienced that.

I’ve seen in several places that Anna Karenina is a major contender for best novel ever written. I don’t think I’d put it on that level. But it’s a rich book that gives one much to ponder.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss by George Elliot (pen name for Mary Ann Evans) is her second novel, published in 1860. The Floss in the title is the river which powers the mill. The mill is owned by a Mr. Tulliver, having been in his family for several generations.

Tulliver has two children, Tom and Maggie, and most of the novel’s action revolves around them. Tom is not very academic, but he’s bright in other ways. He’s pretty sure of himself, doesn’t much question whether he’s in the right, and lives by a rigid moral code.

Maggie, by contrast, is bright, affectionate, and impulsive. She’s continually misunderstood by everyone except her father, who always takes up for her and lovingly calls her “the little wench.” Her mother just thinks she’s naughty. Her coloring is darker than what’s regarded as beautiful in that day, at least by the proud Dodson family her mother comes from. Her impulsiveness gets her into trouble, even when she’s trying to do the right thing. For instance, once her aunts were all telling her mother she should do something with Maggie’s mass of hair. So Maggie goes into another room and cuts her hair herself — which horrifies the Dodson sisters. But Maggie’s no saint, as evidenced by pushing her pretty, petite, perfect cousin, Lucy, into the mud when Tom plays with Lucy instead of Maggie. Maggie especially seeks Tom’s love and approval:

Her brother was the human being of whom she had been most afraid from her childhood upward; afraid with that fear which springs in us when we love one who is inexorable, unbending, unmodifiable, with a mind that we can never mould ourselves upon, and yet that we cannot endure to alienate from us

As the children grow up, Mr. Tulliver loses a law suit that he has fought for years, plunging the family into financial ruin and himself into poor health. Tulliver blames the lawyer of his opponent, a Mr. Wakem, for his troubles and declares he’ll never forgive him. He makes Tom write in the family Bible “you’ll remember what Wakem’s done to your father, and you’ll make him and his feel it, if ever the day comes.”

Both children drop out of school to come home and help.

They had gone forth together into their life of sorrow, and they would never more see the sunshine undimmed by remembered cares. They had entered the thorny wilderness, and the golden gates of their childhood had forever closed behind them.

Tom finds a position, works hard, and engages in some trading on the side. Maggie, leafing through some of the few books they have left, comes across one by Thomas a Kempis urging a defeat of self-love by self-denial. She takes this attitude to an unnatural extreme.

One day she runs into Mr. Wakem’s deformed son, Philip, whom she had met years earlier when he was in school with Tom. Philip had developed something of a crush on her and wants to see her. Even though she thought her father was wrong in his attitude toward the Wakems, she can’t defy him. But she can’t be unkind to him, either. Philip convinces her to walk with him in an out-of-the way area and also convinces her that her self-denial, even of the pleasure of good books, is unnatural and extreme. They spend about a year meeting in private, talking about books and other things — until Tom finds out and harshly rebukes them both.

After her father’s death, Maggie takes a position away for a few years, and then comes back to town. Her mother now keeps house for her sister’s widower, Lucy’s father. Lucy wants Maggie to experience some rest and enjoyment and asks her fiance, Steven Guest, to come over for some singing and to bring his friend — Philip Wakem. Maggie explains that she can’t see Philip, but then Tom consents for her to do so in that setting. Phillip loves Maggie, but Tom has said if she chooses to marry Philip, he’ll cut ties with her.

Maggie and Stephen find themselves oddly attracted to each other. They try to fight it, mainly for Lucy’s sake. Maggie wonders if her life will always be miserable.

We can’t choose happiness either for ourselves or for another; we can’t tell where that will lie. We can only choose whether we will indulge ourselves in the present moment, or whether we will renounce that, for the sake of obeying the divine voice within us,–for the sake of being true to all the motives that sanctify our lives. I know this belief is hard; it has slipped away from me again and again; but I have felt that if I let it go forever, I should have no light through the darkness of this life.

My thoughts:

Eliot’s great strength is getting the reader inside her characters’ heads. One source called this “psychological realism.” In the first few chapters the minute play-by-play action of everyone’s thinking is a bit much: I think Eliot refines this to a better balance in later books. But the thoughts and interactions do establish everyone’s character and set us up for what’s to come.

This book is said to be somewhat biographical. Maggie’s circumstances were different from Eliot’s, but they were alike in having morally upright brothers who disapproved of their actions. Neither was considered physically attractive (at least in childhood – Maggie was deemed a striking as an adult). Both were intelligent, though Eliot received much more education. Both grew up in rural villages with an evangelical upbringing. Eliot turned away from the faith as an adult but “she had respect for religious tradition and its ability to maintain a sense of social order and morality” according to Wikipedia.

I’ll forewarn you that the book has a sad ending. Conflicts are finally resolved, but in a tragic way. When I first began to suspect the book might be headed that way, I was dismayed and hoped I was wrong.

The sad ending made me wonder what the point of it all was. Some sources suggest one aspect is the struggle between destiny and choice. Some characters and situations seem drawn toward and inexorable conclusion, but, in Maggie’s case, she valiantly fights against temptation and does what she considers the right thing. Then she’s persecuted by society worse than if she had succumbed. Another source suggested that dealing with small-town persecution is another theme.  Perhaps the similarities between Maggie and Eliot were Eliot’s way of venting. Some say it’s a book about growing up.

Though this book will never rival Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda as my favorite Elliot books, and though I didn’t like the ending, I’m still glad to have read it. Her rich characterizations, depiction of rural life, and delving into the deepest of her characters’ thoughts all make for good reading.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Laura Paton. I esocially liked the way she portrayed two of the aunts: the imperious, self-appointed head of the Dodson clan, Sister Glegg, and the gloomy hypochondriac, Sister Pullet. I also read several chapters and a few other section in the Kindle book. This book is my 19th Century classic for the Back to the Classics challenge.

Have you ever read The Mill on the Floss? What did you think?

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Book Review: The Inheritance

In 1996, two professors going through Louisa May Alcott’s letters and journals discovered a previously unknown and unpublished manuscript. The Inheritance was Louisa’s first novel, written when she was 17. Neither the professors nor anyone else could find any other information about the novel. There was no record of it having been submitted for publication and rejected. Maybe Louisa just wrote it for fun or for her family. After the novel’s discovery, it was published in 1997.

The heroine of the story is Edith Adelon. She was discovered as a poor orphan in Italy by Lord Hamilton, who took pity on her and brought her home. There she became a companion to Hamilton’s daughter, Amy.

As the story  opens, Edith is a young woman and Amy is a teenager. Edith teaches Amy “music, painting, and Italian, and better lessons still in patience, purity, and truth,” but she’s not exactly a governess. However, she is regarded by Lady Hamilton as “poor and lowborn,” and as such, she is not allowed to mingle with “noble” guests as an equal (p. 17). Lord Hamilton died years before. Amy’s older brother, Arthur, her mother, Lady Hamilton, and her mother’s niece, Lady Ida complete the household. A friend, Lord Percy, comes for an extended visit and the young siblings learn his background: he and his brother had loved the same woman, and once Percy found out, he stepped back for his brother’s happiness. “Careless of the wealth and honor that might be his, he prized far more the purity and worth of noble human hearts, little noting whether they beat in high or low.” He visited the “poor and suffering” and still kept a hope that he “might win a beautiful and noble wife to cheer life’s pilgrimage and bless him with her love” (p. 13).

Ida hopes to attract Percy’s attention for herself, but when she sees him favoring Edith, Ida’s latent jealousy comes to the surface. Between Ida’s verbal jousts, another visitor’s ignoble intentions, and a betrayal of her kindness, Edith has her hands full.

Yet there is a secret to Edith’s background that none of them knows. But will it be revealed or suppressed and forgotten?

The story is only 150 pages and has elements of both a Gothic novel and what were called sentimental novels. It’s a very sweet story, but a little overdone in places. Edith is too good to be true. Descriptions such as this one abound: “With an angel’s calm and almost holy beauty, Edith bore within as holy and pure a heart–gentle, true, and tender” (pp. 12-13). Likewise, Percy’s “calm, pale face and serious eyes are far more beautiful than mere comeliness and grace of form, for the pure, true heart withing shines clearly out and gives a quiet beauty to his face, such as few possess” (p. 5).

But even though Louisa’s writing is understandably not as mature as her later works, and the characters are a little two-dimensional, I thought it was very sweet and a good effort on Louisa’s part for her age then.

Several years ago I saw a film version of The Inheritance which I enjoyed immensely. It must have come out not long after the book was published. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but it kept to the main points of the book. A few exceptions: it has Lord Hamilton as still living for most of the film; shows Lady Hamilton as warm and friendly whereas she is described as cold and haughty in the book; and it has Edith loving and racing horses, which was not at all in the book. I’m looking forward to seeing the film again some time now that I’ve read the story.

Thankfully Tarissa, who hosts the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge, told me about the Internet Archive, which loans copies of books that have been photocopied page by page. It’s not quite the same as an e-book, but once I figured out how to make the page fit my iPad mini, I read it quite easily. I’m glad to know this service exists! The edition I read included a lengthy introduction by the two professors who discovered this manuscript, Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy.

I’m counting this book as my Classic Novella (250 or fewer pages) for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved and Booknificent)