Classic Children's Literature · Reading

Completed: The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle

Cover: The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle The Arm of the Starfish
Madeleine L’Engle
US, 1965

In terms of the order of events in L’Engle’s wider story universe, The Arm of the Starfish is not the next book after A Wrinkle in Time. That would be A Wind in the Door (1973). But in terms of publication, The Arm of the Starfish was the second, and on a whim I decided that I would read all of the books, not just in the Time Quintet but in the Poly O’Keefe stories as well, in the order of publication. (This does have the negative consequence of delaying my return to my TBR list by a bit, but only a bit. I’ll be back in TBR-land shortly!)

Despite only three years between publication, The Arm of the Starfish seems a world away from A Wrinkle in Time. Not only is this because the two returning characters–Meg O’Keefe (née Murray) and Calvin O’Keefe are now married adults with seven children, but because unlike A Wrinkle in Time, The Arm of the Starfish seems much more grounded in the world we the readers know–there are no fantastic beings, no otherworldly travels, no giant evil IT to defeat. Indeed, the evil in this book is only too human–but surely as destructive and enticing for all that. The only element that really sets this novel in the realm of science-fiction is the depiction of Dr. O’Keefe’s science experiments involving starfish regeneration.

Our protagonist in The Arm of the Starfish is Adam Eddington, a young, but clearly intelligent and destined-to-be successful, man who is spending his last summer before college working for Dr. O’Keefe in his Portuguese island-based lab. However, things start to go awry before Adam even lands in Portugal, from the fog-delay at the airport to his mysterious encounter with the young beauty, Kali, to the airplane’s diversion to Madrid and Adam’s first encounters with Canon Tallis and Poly O’Keefe (the oldest of the O’Keefe children). Entrusted with seeing Poly safely to Lisbon and her father’s arms, Adam finds himself trapped in a larger conspiracy when Poly disappears from the plane and no one on board seems inclined to believe Adam’s story of her very existence.

While the Time Quintet books are more firmly in the realm of science-fiction, exploring cosmic concepts and universe-wide battles of good and evil, The Arm of the Starfish sits closer to the thriller genre, always steering towards a final, dangerous, confrontation. Its themes are of the darkness that lust for power or money or prestige can drive one to and of the small battles of individuals, both within themselves and against others.

Although a very different reading experience, diverging as it does in both style and story from its predecessor, The Arm of the Starfish, like Wrinkle, centers around a young protagonist with faults and self-doubt, whose failings sometimes may frustrate the reader, but who learns from his mistakes and grows over the course of the novel. In turn, the reader learns from Adam, and from his struggles.

My one piece of discomfort with The Arm of the Starfish was its portrayal of a native village on the fictional island of Gaea. L’Engle’s native characters feel as if they venture a little too close to stereotype (along the lines of “noble native”) for comfort, although they are only ever seen in a positive light. Also—and I admit here, I don’t know anything about actual Portuguese islands—the village, and its inhabitants, seemed more like something I would expect to read of in the South Pacific or Latin America than off the coast of Portugal. Stereotype or not, it threw me off mentally, every time it was described. In contrast, L’Engle’s depictions of Lisbon felt (and again, I can’t speak to personal experience) as if they were written by someone who has seen Lisbon in person.

All-in-all, a fast-paced enjoyable book, though perhaps not as enchanting as the better-known A Wrinkle in Time.

 

Reading

Completed: Murder on the Orient Express

Cover: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha ChristieMurder on the Orient Express
Agatha Christie
(1934, England)

I don’t usually reread mysteries. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever reread a mystery before this. But last November, when I saw the Kenneth Branagh adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express in the theater (which I rather enjoyed, although David Suchet will always be my favorite Hercule Poirot—and that mustache! I almost didn’t watch this version just because of Branagh’s mustache!), I realized that I didn’t really remember the original novel all that well and was curious how closely the film aligned to its source. (Answer: rather closely, actually. There were some nationalities of characters changed, I assume to accommodate the actors in the roles, and the film added some material, especially after the final reveal. But on the whole, faithful.)

I must not have been the only one with the idea in mind, as it took a few months before a library copy was available. (And then a couple more to write this. Sigh. Must really get better at prompt blogging.) But then I found myself very happily ensconced in Christie’s world. Although I already knew the “who” of this “who-done-it,” this proved no detriment to enjoying the story. It was a delight to watch Poirot work, to see how the pieces fit together, to watch the lies spun—knowing they were lies, and why—, to simply sit a spectator in this particular setting so foreign from myself. For as dark as murder mysteries can be—even the “cozy” mysteries, when one thinks about it, are stories of the dark side of human nature—there is something about the world of Christie, whether visited via Poirot or Miss Marple, that I find akin to my favorite comfort food. I think it is in part a visit to an era past (here, I may be accused of romanticizing, perhaps) and rules and manners that are so far removed from those of today—or at least, from my experience—that is is a sort of time-travel, as well as a mystery. And there is also, of course, the reassurance that the criminal party will get their just due in the end. So unlike the messiness of reality, where there is so often little assurance that justice will be served. It has been many years since I really spent much time with the “golden era of detective fiction,” but really, between this one and Crooked House, I find myself thinking that it’s past time to continue my re-acquaintance with Christie and to finally meet some of her contemporaries. After all, it’s not like I don’t have a list to start from

The Classics Club

Classics Spin 16: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cover: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (Penguin Classics ed)Cold Comfort Farm
Stella Gibbons
(1932, England)

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living. (Ch 1)

The problem with satire: if you haven’t read the books that a novel is satirizing it is difficult to get the joke. Not that a novel mayn’t be enjoyable on its own, but there’s certainly an added depth when the source material, if you will, is known. Herein lies my challenge with Cold Comfort Farm. I don’t know that I have read any of the novels Gibbons pokes fun of. Indeed, other than the obvious references to DH Laurence (character Mr. Mybug is a fan), I don’t know that I could even point to what novels she satirizes. Clearly, rural romances, but what and by whom I don’t know. Granted, I’m not terribly familiar with the literature of the 1920s, but I wonder if perhaps, much the way many of the “horrid novels” Austen gently pokes fun of in Northanger Abbey have vanished from common knowledge (save by way of Austen), the books Gibbons gently attacks are also mostly forgotten?

Regardless, my lack of knowledge only means a lack of depth of appreciation for Cold Comfort Farm. Indeed, I do not believe a foreknowledge of rural romances essential to enjoyment of the story at hand–nor even to laugh aloud at times at the absurdities there-in. The overarching plot is easily summarized: Flora Poste finds herself orphaned and with insufficient funds to live on her own in the city, so she decides to descend (with their permission, of course, form must be followed) upon rural relatives she has never met and “tidy” their lives–lives which, it turns out, are very much in need of tidying.

I found I rather like Flora. There is something so no-nonsense about her that is appealing. True, the accusation made to her by one of her city friends that she is a “busy-body” is not wrong, but she is so charming about the whole proceedings that no one seems to mind.

Each of the characters in the novel–from Flora to farmer Ruben to nature-child Elfine to preacher Amos to mad Aunt Ada Doom, among many others–is  clearly a type. It is here that I begin to see the edges of the satire. I don’t need to have read the other novels to recognize the types, nor to see Gibbons begin to subvert them, as we watch Flora’s interactions with–and meddling with–the others begin to bring out (or create) additional facets of their personalities. Between this and the absurdities of the storyline, Cold Comfort Farm turned out to be not only very diverting, but by the end of the novel, absolutely page-turning as I just had to know how it would all turn out–despite being very sure, given the genre, that all would be well! Perhaps at some point I will have to return to Gibbons’s work–either one of her later novels or perhaps, after searching out and reading some of her targets, a reread of this one.

Read from my Classics Club list as part of the 16th Spin. Hey! I both read AND posted on it by the deadline for a change…!

Reading

Completed: Crooked House by Agatha Christie

This is the front cover art for the book Crooked House written by Agatha Christie (First Edition)Crooked House
Agatha Christie
(England, 1949)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read an Agatha Christie. High school, in fact. But when I chanced upon a trailer for Crooked House, I couldn’t help but be intrigued—it referred to Crooked House as Christie’s most “twisted tale.” Having now read it, I’m more inclined to continue to think And Then There Were None as the more “twisted” of her novels. However, the mystery itself does indeed prove that the titular setting of much of the action is well named, and not merely for its physical appearance.

The victim is family patriarch, Aristide Leonides, and the cast of suspects his household: largely family, both by blood and marriage, but also including a former nanny and a tutor. Over the course of the novel, it appears at any given time that all occupants may have quite a suitable motive to wish Aristide dead—but which is the real killer?

This is the question that narrator Charles Hayward sincerely wishes to know the answer to, for Aristides’ granddaughter Sophia will not consent to marry Charles unless the mystery is solved, so concerned is she by who might actually be the responsible party, and that a dark cloud might hang permanently over the family.

I confess that, although Christie laced Crooked House with plenty of clues as to the identity of the killer, I never did stop to think about it long enough—or perhaps pay close enough attention!—to discern it for myself. But that did not prevent my thorough enjoyment of the fast-paced mystery, or my appreciation for the clever way in which Christie lays it all out both for Charles and for us while also hiding just enough that we can choose to stay surprised if we wish.

Read as a classic crime story for Back to the Classics.

L'Engle · Misc · WeeksEnd Notes

Mid Week’s Notes

March Crocus
Early spring Crocus

I can’t believe we’re over halfway through March already! (Although the cantankerous weather and stubborn bulbs prove it so.) This year has been so busy–every week I add “write blog post” to my to do list and more often than not it gets shifted to the next week. And I’ve been even worse about keeping up with reading other’s posts. Hopefully I can get back to that here soon…

Looking towards Cuyahoga River and downtown Kent on a snowy day
My view today

On the other hand, the reading’s been mostly good. There was the Olympic lull in February, which I expected, but otherwise, the reading pace has been faster than last year. I guess that’s what happens when I start the year with children’s literature and classic mysteries! But I’m also eager to start my title for the current Classics Club spin, Cold Comfort Farm. (Aside: surprisingly, no one pointed out that I only listed nineteen titles instead of the standard twenty! That’s what happens when I write a drive-by post on my lunch break…) I want to finish up a couple library books first, and then it will be back to the classics, as well as my year of Madeleine L’Engle.

Speaking of which, my mom and I went to see A Wrinkle in Time opening weekend and quite enjoyed it. It’s not entirely the same as the book–which I could tell from the trailer–but I felt they kept the characters true to those in L’Engle’s novel.

*Slight movie spoiler* I was a little disappointed that Aunt Beast (and her planet) were not included, though I’m guessing that’s mostly about movie length *end slight movie spoiler.*

It did seem to me, however, that the Camazotz scenes were not as effective as in the novel. This might be one of those instances where it’s difficult to convey ideas on screen as well as on page. It also occurred to me to wonder–while IT was visualized in a way I found very appropriate to the spirit of the novel, was this representation understandable to someone only coming to the story via the film? Maybe it doesn’t matter; after all, even as readers we all approach the same material differently. But all-in-all, I’m quite glad I saw this and the first half, especially, was magical.

Clay pot

I’ve also been continuing to enjoy an activity I first took up last fall–pottery classes. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen my Instagram posts of partially-finished ceramics. (Instagram is also a newer endeavor – I’m simplerpastimes there as well–no bookish posts as yet, but I’m sure some day…) After about 18 weeks of classes I’m finally starting to be able to make the clay do what I want instead of the other way around. Victory! (And such a good thing I’m doing this for fun and not a grade–that would have been way too much stress in my life!)

Add in work and work-related events, and that’s pretty much been life lately – busy, fun, trying not to get over-committed (a fine line some days). If only I could figure out how to be two places at once, I’d be all set!

Happy reading!

The Classics Club

Another Classics Spin

Question Mark - cover place holder

Well, I’m getting slightly better at this – for the 16th spin, I managed to finish the book and post on it after the spin deadline but before the new spin…so that’s progress, I suppose! Regardless, seeing another spin around, I thought it would be worthwhile to let chance pick one of my spring reads. This is mostly my list from the last spin, with some additions from my 2018 TBR Challenge list.

And you, are you spinning?

    1. Brontë, Anne – Agnes Grey (England, 1847)
    2. Huxley, Aldous – Brave New World (England, 1932)
    3. Gibbons, Stella – Cold Comfort Farm (England, 1932)
    4. Gaskell, Elizabeth – Cranford (England, 1853)
    5. Cather, Willa – Death Comes for the Archbishop (US, 1927)
    6. Austen, Jane – Emma (England, 1816)
    7. Hardy, Thomas – Far From the Madding Crowd (England, 1874)
    8. Ellison, Ralph – Invisible Man (US, 1952)
    9. Austen, Jane – Lady Susan (England, 1794)
    10. Wright, Richard – Native Son (US, 1940)
    11. Grey, Zane – Riders of the Purple Sage (US, 1912)
    12. Tolstoy, Leo – The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Russia, 1886-1912)
    13. Bromfield, Louis – The Farm (US, 1933)
    14. Wharton, Edith – The House of Mirth (US, 1905)
    15. Wilde, Oscar – The Picture of Dorian Gray (Ireland, 1891)
    16. Faulkner, William – The Sound and the Fury (US, 1929)
    17. Wells, H.G. – The Time Machine (England, 1895)
    18. James, Henry – The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories (US, 1878-1908)
    19. Trollope, Anthony – The Warden (England, 1855)
Reading · The Classics Club

Completed: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cover: Mary Barton by Elizabeth GaskellMary Barton
Elizabeth Gaskell
England, 1849

Poverty. Murder. Alcoholism. Political disenchantment. Class strife. Wealth inequality. Opiate abuse. Domestic violence. No, Mary Barton is not set in the troubled 2010s, though at times it felt as if it would fit within the current conversation, proving only that while we may have come some ways since then (the dire poverty and starvation scenes are, I hope, more extreme than any currently found in Europe or the US), we are still troubled by many of the same challenges that have plagued humanity throughout our history.

He had hesitated between the purchase of meal or opium, and had chosen the latter, for its use had become a necessity with him. He wanted it to relieve him from the terrible depression its absence occasioned. (Chapter X)

Gaskell’s debut novel, Mary Barton does not appear to me to be as well-known as several of her others. Nor do I believe the writing to be a prime example of top-notch Victorian literature (based on my limited knowledge/experience; I may be off-base!), though Gaskell was clearly a keen observer of character. But it seems an important novel nonetheless, as it presented to her Victorian middle-class readers a vivid picture of the lives of the working poor, people whose desperation they were perhaps otherwise unaware of.

And when I hear, as I have heard, of the sufferings and privations of the poor, of provision shops where ha’porths of tea, sugar, butter, and even flour, were sold to accommodate the indigent,–of parents sitting in their clothes by the fireside during the whole night for seven weeks together, in order that their only bed and bedding might be reserved for the use of their large family,–of others sleeping upon the cold hearthstone for weeks in succession, without adequate means of providing themselves with food or fuel (and this in the depth of winter),–of others being compelled to fast for days together, uncheered by any hope of better fortune, living, moreover, or rather starving, in a crowded garret, or damp cellar, and gradually sinking under the pressure of want and despair into a premature grave; and when this has been confirmed by the evidence of their careworn looks, their exciting feelings, and their desolate homes,–can I wonder that many of them, in such times of misery and destitution, spoke and acted with ferocious precipitation? (chapter VIII)

Set in the mill town of Manchester, 1839-42, Mary Barton centers largely around the story of Mary, a young, sometimes naïve seamstress, and her millworker, unionist father John, as well as pieces of the lives of their friends, the Wilsons (George and Jane, their son Jem, George’s sister Alice and her foster son Will), and Margaret Jennings and her grandfather Job Legh. John has grown embittered by the hardships of his life, including the deaths of his young son, and later, his wife in childbirth. A secondary thread of the novel follows his descent from a decent, hardworking man, to a man poisoned by his hate for “the masters.” But the real story is that of Mary’s romantic entanglement with Harry Carson, the son of one of the millowners, the devotion of Jem Wilson to her nonetheless, and the consequences of their respective interactions. Unlike the love triangles of fluffier novels, this is a story that seems doomed only for despair.

Indeed, much of the novel is dark. The poverty of the millworkers—especially in times when work was scarce—was keen. Mortality was high. It seems a depressing sort of novel, yet Gaskell provided notes of hope throughout, whether the kindness of friends or complete strangers or the positive and cheerful attitude of another. And the through line of romance balances the political aspects of the story. It is clearly a political story, one that resonates over 150 years later, but it is also an entertainment, though one that illuminates a world that may be far different than the reader’s own. Somehow Gaskell balances these competing interests seamlessly, only dipping into the maudlin or overly-coincidental at select times. In the end, a satisfying read.

Some quotes:

“Working folk won’t be ground to the dust much longer. We’n a’ had as much to bear as human nature can bear. So, if th’ masters can’t do us no good, and they say they can’t, we mun try higher folk.” (Chapter VIII)

Besides, the starving multitudes had heard, that the very existence of their distress had been denied in Parliament; and though they felt this strange and inexplicable, yet the idea that their misery had still to be revealed in all its depths, and that then some remedy would be found, soothed their aching hearts, and kept down their rising fury. (Chapter VIII)

“Aye, dear; being patient is the hardest work we, any on us, have to do through life, I take it. Waiting is far more difficult than doing. (Chapter XII)

Then uprose the guilty longing for blood!–The frenzy of jealousy!–Some one should die. He would rather Mary were dead, cold in her grave, than that she were another’s. (Chapter XIV)

…he beset Mary more than ever. She was weary of her life for him. From blandishments he had even gone to threats–threats that whether she would or not she should be his; he showed an indifference that was almost insulting to her everything which might attract attention and injure her character. (Chapter XV)

“It’s not much I can say for myself in t’other world. God forgive me; but I can say this, I would fain have gone after the Bible rules if I’d seen folk credit it; they all spoke up for it, and went and did clean contrary.” (Chapter XXXV)

(I started Mary Barton for The Classic’s Club’s end-of-the-year classic spin. Alas, I both underestimated the length of the novel and started it too late to successfully finish by the December 31 deadline! Part of my Classics Club list.)