The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather (American classic)
“In this powerful portrait of the self-making of an artist, Willa Cather created one of her most extraordinary heroines. Thea Kronberg, a minister’s daughter in a provincial Colorado town, seems destined from childhood for a place in the wider world. But as her path to the world stage leads her ever farther from the humble town she can’t forget and from the man she can’t afford to love, Thea learns that her exceptional musical talent and fierce ambition are not enough.”
I’ll confess that I was surprised when I read this book and found that one-third of it chronicles Thea’s childhood. I expected it to be more about her professional life and, by the time I finished the book, was glad it wasn’t. I thought that the life she led as an opera singer was dreary and that many of the people connected to her at that stage of life were shallow. I found satisfaction, however, in the fact that Thea, herself, recognizes that the professional world she lives in runs on false values. I loved her assessment of it in this conversation she has with a friend of her youth: Continue reading
Lady in Waiting
Lady in Waiting, by Rosemary Sutcliff (historical)
“Handsome and gifted, Walter Ralegh was a star even in a court of brilliant men ruled by one of the greatest monarchs of all time, Elizabeth I.
“Ralegh held position and power, and was loved by the Queen, but his dream was to conquer new lands for Elizabeth, to find El Dorado.
“Bess Throckmorton was one of the Queen’s Maids of Honour.
“Shy and retiring, her dream was to capture the heart of the proud and restless Ralegh, in whose life it seemed she would always come second.
“But when Elizabeth dies and James I comes to power, Ralegh’s fortunes take a dramatic turn . . .
“Once a beloved courtier, he becomes a disgraced prisoner.
“And his dreams of reaching El Dorado seem to be forever out of reach. ”
I began reading this book in August, when I was preparing to go to the Outer Banks in North Carolina with my family. No trip to the Outer Banks is ever complete for me until I make a visit to Roanoke Island, the site of the first English colony in America, which was organized by Sir Walter Ralegh. Reading a novel about his wife Bess Throckmorton seemed fitting. Continue reading
When I saw that one of my favorite LibriVox readers recorded The Scarlet Pimpernel and two of its sequels, I decided to listen to them. The Scarlet Pimpernel isn’t great literature, but it’s fun, and I’ve been in the mood for light reading. Continue reading
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Volume 1 and Volume 2, by Mark Twain (American classic)
“Regarded by many as the most luminous example of Twain’s work, this historical novel chronicles the French heroine’s life, as purportedly told by her longtime friend—Sieur Louis de Conté. A panorama of stirring scenes recount Joan’s childhood in Domremy, the story of her voices, the fight for Orleans, the splendid march to Rheims, and much more. An amazing record that disclosed Twain’s unrestrained admiration for Joan’s nobility of character, the book is matchless in its workmanship—one of Twain’s lesser-known novels that will charm and delightfully surprise his admirers and devotees.”
Joan of Arc’s fascinating holy life, combined with Mark Twain’s superb storytelling, make Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc the most compelling, uplifting novel I’ve read in a while. With this novel, Twain accomplishes what I believe is a difficult, if almost impossible, feat for an author—he makes a holy person both believable and accessible. At the other end of the spectrum, his evil characters are also just as real and believable—horrifyingly so. Moreover, all of his characters, both fictional and historic, are unique and interesting. With his phenomenal insight into human character, Twain helped me understand how so many real people—both commoners and aristocrats—could have believed that a seventeen-year-old peasant girl had been visited by angels and called of God to deliver France from English bondage. Continue reading
The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames), by Émile Zola (French classic)
“The novel tells the story of Denise Baudu, a 20-year-old woman from Valognes who comes to Paris with her younger brothers and begins working as a saleswoman at the department store Au Bonheur des Dames. Zola describes the inner workings of the store from the employees’ perspective, including the 13-hour workdays, the substandard food and the bare lodgings for the female staff. Many of the conflicts in the novel spring from each employee’s struggle for advancement and the malicious infighting and gossip among the staff.
“Denise’s story is played against the career of Octave Mouret, the owner of Au Bonheur des Dames, whose retail innovations and store expansions threaten the existence of all the neighborhood shops.”
I found The Ladies’ Paradise to be interesting on several levels and incredibly thought-provoking. My thoughts went down a couple of different lines while reading this novel, both figurative and literal, and I’ll try to capture some of both lines in this post. The figurative one gave me a glimpse of Babylon that was unsurprisingly—yet disturbingly—modern. In this description of The Ladies’ Paradise from Chapter 9, Zola compares the department store to a church or temple: Continue reading
Shirley, by Charlotte Brontë (English classic)
“Written at a time of social unrest, [Shirley] is set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, when economic hardship led to riots in the woollen district of Yorkshire. A mill-owner, Robert Moore, is determined to introduce new machinery despite fierce opposition from his workers; he ignores their suffering, and puts his own life at risk. Robert sees marriage to the wealthy Shirley Keeldar as the solution to his difficulties, but he loves his cousin Caroline. She suffers misery and frustration, and Shirley has her own ideas about the man she will choose to marry.”
I really wanted to like this book and began it with that intention, and by the time I finished it, I did like it—I just didn’t love it. I think the reason was because it never completely captivated me. Brontë begins the novel by describing many minor characters in detail, and I had difficulty understanding which characters the story would follow, which made it all seem rather pointless to me in the beginning. As the novel and its underlying themes unfold, it does become just as much about a community of people as it does the lead characters, which gives at least some purpose for the detailed descriptions of the secondary characters. Structurally, this novel begins with a community in turmoil and ends as that community begins to come out of the turmoil. This struggle is mirrored on an individual level with several of the characters, in particular Caroline Helstone and Robert Moore. This observation from Chapter 20 puts into words what I believe is the overall theme of the novel: Continue reading
Fathers and Sons, trans. by C. Garnett
Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev (Russian classic)
“At the novel’s center stands Evgeny Bazarov, medical student, doctor’s son, and self-proclaimed nihilist. Bazarov rejects all authority, all so-called truths that are based on faith rather than science and experience. His ideas bring him into conflict with his best friend, recent graduate Arkady Kirsanov, with Arkady’s family, with his own parents, and eventually with his emotions, when he falls helplessly in love with the beautiful Madame Odintsova.”
In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev writes about a society undergoing profound changes, one much like ours. For that reason, the novel feels very modern and pertinent to me. Like nineteenth-century Russia, we too have members of the older generation declaring that their ways are correct, and we have members of the younger generation trying to destroy the old institutions, and we have those of both generations working to reform the old institutions, and we have members of both generations who, in accepting or rejecting particular ideals, invite the scorn of others. In all of this conflict, much—if not most—of what is published is meant to support one point of view and undermine all others. Continue reading
Kenilworth, by Sir Walter Scott (Scottish classic)
“In the court of Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is favoured above all the noblemen of England. It is rumoured that the Queen may chose him for her husband, but Leicester has secretly married the beautiful Amy Robsart. Fearing ruin if this were known, he keeps his lovely young wife a virtual prisoner in an old country house. Meanwhile Leicester’s manservant Varney has sinister designs on Amy, and enlists an alchemist to help him further his evil ambitions. Brilliantly recreating the splendour and pageantry of Elizabethan England, with Shakespeare, Walter Ralegh and Elizabeth herself among its characters, Kenilworth (1821) is a compelling depiction of intrigue, power struggles and superstition in a bygone age.”
The tension between possessing a title of nobility and being noble in mind and heart lies at the center of Kenilworth. From the beginning of the novel, Scott portrays the former suitor of Amy Robsart, the gentleman Tressilian, as possessing nobility of mind and heart. We first meet Tressilian at an inn, where he is seeking information about the whereabouts of Amy on behalf of her father. His features have a “meditative and tranquil cast,” and he is “dressed with plainness and decency, yet bearing an air of ease which almost amounted to dignity, and which seemed to infer that his habit was rather beneath his rank.” While he is at the inn, the proprietor makes this observation about Tressilian to his nephew Michael Lambourne, who ends up in the employ of the story’s villain, Richard Varney: Continue reading
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Children’s classic)
“Born in India, the unattractive and willful Mary Lennox has remained in the care of servants for as long as she can remember. But the girl’s life changes when her mother and father die and she travels to Yorkshire to live with her uncle. Dark, dreary Misselthwaite Manor seems full of mysteries, including a very special garden, locked tight for 10 years. With the help of Dickon, a local boy, Mary intends to uncover its secrets.”
The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (American classic)
“Built over an unquiet grave, the House of the Seven Gables carries a dying man’s curse that blights the lives of its residents for over two centuries. Now Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, an iron-hearted hypocrite and intellectual heir to the mansion’s unscrupulous founder, is attempting to railroad a pair of his elderly relatives out of the house. Only two young people stand in his way–a visiting country cousin and an enigmatic boarder skilled in mesmerism.”
As soon as I learned that The Secret Garden would be on my book group’s schedule for 2015, I thought it would be nice to re-read The House of the Seven Gables also and comment on both novels. On the surface, these books appear quite different, but I knew they were similar in at least one respect—both stories show gardening as being an activity that nourishes both the body and spirit. By the time I was finished reading the books, I realized that they are even more similar than I had remembered; they both address the healing of emotionally diseased individuals and families in old manor houses that symbolically take on the sickly qualities of the families that inhabit them. One of the characters in The House of the Seven Gables describes this relationship between the families and their generational homes: Continue reading
Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens (British classic)
“A body is found in the Thames and identified as that of John Harmon, a young man recently returned to London to receive his inheritance. Were he alive, his father’s will would require him to marry Bella Wilfer, a beautiful, mercenary girl whom he had never met. Instead, the money passes to the working-class Boffins, and the effects spread into various corners of London society.”
Our Mutual Friend details corruption and falsity in those “various corners of London society” to such a degree that a glimpse of Zion didn’t come easily to me as I read it. In this Babylon-like society, the altruistic mingle with the mercenaries, and distinguishing between them isn’t always simple. One thing that Dickens does well in this novel is show how these types exist at all levels of society and that it is possible for a person to change—sometimes for the better and, just as often, for the worse. Continue reading