Musings on the Start of a Season

I was bent over a potter’s wheel yesterday, inscribing my initials and the year on a pot (Vase? Cup? Curio that just sits in a box or gathers dust in the corner for years? To be determined…) when I realized that my brain still hasn’t really caught up to the reality that this year is 2019. Which means next year is 2020, a number that somehow seems important, even if only for its neat repetition. It’s odd this flow of time, how dates can both seem so near and so distant. I was trying to remember when I read J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” and had to flip through my “books read” lists all the way to 2012. Twenty twelve! Surely it can’t have been that long—I still remember it well. In contrast, I have read several books in the past year, where turning the final page, it’s felt as if it was years ago when I started the books—not in a negative way, but rather a feeling brought about by the growth and changes in the characters that made me somehow feel as if I had grown and changed as well. A strange sensation, one that usually requires me to put some space between one book and the next.

And real time seems fickle as well, somehow. Days that pass by too quickly while weeks stretch on forever, time playing games with us, taunting, teasing.

I didn’t realize I’d gone nearly a month since last posting. But it makes sense—how many weekends has writing blog posts pushed to the bottom of the to-do list of late? Even on my recent “staycation” there was always something that seemed of more interest.

It’s a fine line. To stay “busy” enough that I feel I’m making progress on all my many (many – I perhaps need to develop a more limited focus…sigh) projects, but not so much as to be overwhelmed. To have something to look forward to that unexciting time might pass, but to embrace the current moment that the desired event might stretch out forever.

Some days I think I’ve found it. It was a fine—wonderfully full without being overwhelming—weekend even without today’s (US Memorial Day) holiday off. Of critical importance for me is shuffling the “must dos” to early in the day that they might be out-of-the-way so that it feels as if much more time is open for the things of interest. A hard lesson for a life-long procrastinator to learn.

Oddly enough, despite my fondness for timing to deadlines, I’ve finished my current Classics Club spin read already. (Fingers crossed I get my act together enough to post on it by Friday!) It’s been an excellent reading month, in fact—after months of finishing nothing, I finished three other books and started another two.

And at long last I finished my sweater as well. Started over a year ago (March 2018), this one fits best yet…but I’m not eager to pick up any new projects with seams for a while! Besides, summer—and summer weather fast approaches, when reading is a more suitable pastime. I envision lazy afternoons on the back screened porch, lemonade in one hand and book in another. I have a tentative “hope to read” list for the coming months. It’s unrealistically long, of course, but it’s time to make some progress on the TBR list and the library pile.

Then of course there’s Cleo’s readalong. Encouraged by my May progress, I’ve signed up to join in on her June journey through C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves.  It’s sitting here beside me; perhaps I will get started this afternoon. Or perhaps I’ll pick up the mystery immediately beneath it. Or any one of the various books scattered around, tempting me to their pages and the stories within.

This weekend marks the unofficial start of summer and so it seems to mark the start of a new season of limitless possibilities—here’s hoping it brings many good ones!

Completed: The Woman in White

Is anyone as shocked as I am to find out that it’s the end of April already? I’m really not sure where the past month went. And alas, my reading seems to have vanished with it–despite a readathon earlier this month, I haven’t finished a single book since mid-March. Guess what my plan is for May? But at least I still have a small pile of drafts to post here–it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, even if I also wrote these up over a month ago. Sigh.

Cover: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins
England, 1859

I was determined to finally read The Woman in White last autumn as a suitably seasonal read, and although I only write it up now, I did more or less succeed in reading it during the appropriate season.

I’ve long been a Collins fan, having found The Moonstone unputdownable when I read it in high school, but somehow or another I’d never managed to read his other famous mystery. While I didn’t fly through it the way I did The Moonstone (a fault, perhaps, of me as a reader), I found is surprisingly engaging considering that the mystery seemed slight, with much of the outcome well-foreshadowed.

It is a story told through the narration of several different pens, and it begins with a long section of narration by Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher who firsts meets the mysterious woman in white on his way home one night. In his recollections, he seems unexpectedly affected by the brief encounter, though perhaps this is to be expected when only days later he discovers a strong physical resemblance between the woman and one of his new pupils. The idea of a woman in white conjures up the idea of a ghost, and indeed, this flesh-and-blood woman proves to have a sort of ghostly presence throughout the rest of novel, turning up again and again, whether in person or in conversation. The mystery of her past and her present will prove to have unexpected ramifications for the remainder of our cast of characters.

And yet, it does not seem at first as if the existence of this mysterious woman should have any true impact. Walter is to teach Laura Fairlie and Marion Halcombe drawing in the months before Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival Glyde. The marriage was sanctioned by Laura’s father shortly before he died, and there seems nothing sinister in the arrangement, at least not at first. But time, money problems, and Laura’s unfortunate affection for Walter, will prove that all is perhaps not as it first seems with Sir Glyde or his friend Count Fosco.

No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace–they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship–they take us, body and soul, to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?

An early example of the mystery genre, The Woman in White remains a classic of the form. It is full of suspense and mystery and memorable characters, none of whom are extraneous to the plot. And although it sits well with the realm of Victorian sensationalist novels, I found it surprisingly feminist–it seems that Collins was not a fan of the institution of marriage, or at least the ways it could harm women. It is not merely that he gives us Marion, a strong, intelligent woman, but the undercurrent of criticism of the limitations which Laura faced as a married woman, unable to control her destiny. And although Laura may at first appear to be the prototypical Victorian lady, she has her own sort of inner strength as well, disturbed though it may be by her husband’s harsh treatment.

Suspenseful and full of great characters–Count Fosco is a fascinating study–it is no wonder that The Woman in White endures. I imagine I could read it again and get something yet different out of it. Now I’ve only to wonder why it took me so long to read it in the first place?

And the Spin is…

Lucky number 19!

Sir Gawain first page 670x990

It never fails – the book that I get for a Classics Club spin is never one of the ones I had my fingers crossed for–or even one that the comments discuss! No one mentioned Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at all – apparently not very popular? Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of my own, so it’s translation selection time. As I’ve been doing some quick research, I’m becoming more excited about this title, though–can’t wait to have it in my hands!

Did you spin? Are you looking forward to–or dreading!–your selection?

Happy reading!

Classics Spin #20

Question Mark - cover place holder

So there’s another Classics Spin? And I still haven’t finished my book from the last spin? And there’s a pile of library books still waiting to be finished?

Well, sign me up, of course!

It’s a mark of my consistent bookish optimism that I keep signing up for the spins, but there’s just something so irresistible about letting a “roll of the dice” decide my next read – at least, when dozens of other readers are playing along! And so, I present my semi-randomized list of twenty:

  1. Carson, Anne, translator – An Oresteia (Greece, 5th century BCE)
  2. Poe, Edgar Allan – Tales of Mystery and Imagination (U.S., 1830s-40s)
  3. Radcliffe, Ann – The Italian (England, 1797)
  4. Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de – Three Exemplary Novels (Spain, 1613)
  5. Gaskell, Elizabeth – Cranford (England, 1853)
  6. Brontë, Anne – Agnes Grey (England, 1847)
  7. Anonymous – The Epic of Gilgaesh (Sumerian, c. 2150-1000 BCE)
  8. Huxley, Aldous – Brave New World (England, 1932)
  9. Wright, Richard – Native Son (U.S., 1940)
  10. Baldwin, James – Go Tell It on the Mountain (U.S., 1953)
  11. Cather, Willa – Death Comes for the Archbishop (U.S., 1927)
  12. Anonymous – Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)
  13. Camões, Luís Vaz de – The Lusiad (Portugal, 1572)
  14. Bolaño, Roberto – 2666 (Chile, 2004)
  15. Bromfield, Louis – The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
  16. Woolf, Virginia – Mrs. Dalloway (England, 1925)
  17. Lawrence, D.H. – Sons and Lovers (England, 1913)
  18. Wharton, Edith – The House of Mirth (U.S., 1905)
  19. Anonymous – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (England, 14th century)
  20. Anonymous – Nibelungenlied (Germany, 13th century)

I’m most hoping for The Farm (#15) as I’d like to read it this spring. Or there’s Gilgamesh (#7) which is one of those library books that I should be reading anyways… But really, I won’t complain (I don’t think…) if I get any of these.

Any favorites you hope I get?

Happy spinning!

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Cover: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Penguin cloth bound edition)Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy
England, 1891

I can’t believe tomorrow’s the first of April already. I really don’t know where the first three months of this year have gone (although I can tell you that they were cold, gloomy, but fortunately with not too much snow). But I’ve barely read anything–judging by the number of books finished so far. Hopefully the arrival of spring (err…off-and-on–it snowed last night, just a dusting) will prompt more reading?

Some of it could be what I’m reading, too. I’ve been attempting to read the first Harry Potter novel in Spanish, which is, of course, much slower going for me than it’s English counterpart. (But I’ve been learning, too: I didn’t know there were two words in Spanish for where we would say ‘owl’ – and they apparently mean different owls!) And I’ve been oh-so-slowly making my way through The Iliad–it’s simply proving a slow read for me, much the way Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Tess of the D’Urbervilles were for me last year.

I’ve seen a number of articles/listened to a number of stories about how the Internet has changed the way we read—that people don’t sit and read for long periods of time, that our eyes and minds wander, that we don’t think as deeply. I’m beginning to wonder if that mightn’t be true for me—it certainly took long enough for me to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles: nearly five months, and it’s only 398 pages in my copy. Nor do I remember such difficulties finishing classics when I was in high school (including reading Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge), before I had ready access to the Internet and its distracting influences. Of course there’s also option b, which came to me the other night as I was shifting in my reading chair yet again: in high school I could sit for hours on end in one position before I noticed a crick in the neck or a stiffness of the back. No such luck today!

But to Tess itself.

I believe it to be one of Hardy’s better known novels; it is the story of an initially naïve young woman (barely more than a girl at the start) and the trials of her life, starting from the time an amateur historian misguidedly informs her father that he believes the family of descended from the ancient D’Urberville line. It spans a number of years, and both highs and lows, but all following along a trajectory that is seemingly determined for Tess–though the narration makes clear several “if-only” moments–from the moment her father learns of his grand ancestry.

There is so much to unpack in the novel, and the more I think on it, the more I am convinced that it needs, if not more than one reading, at least a closer reading than I gave it. There is the analysis of character: of how Tess differs from her family and companions and so suffers in ways they might not, of how Angel Clare succumbs to a morality that seems at odds with his stated religious views and which Hardy apparently condemns, and so causes further suffering to Tess and pain to himself. It is a pastoral novel, and setting and scene undoubtedly play an important part in the atmosphere and the experience of reading the novel, but reading superficially as I did, I miss any significance, any connection to plot or revelation of character.

And most interestingly to me on this first read (I feel as if I will someday be pulled back), there is Hardy’s social criticism. I recently read Wilkie Collins’ suspense-thriller The Woman in White, and am fascinated that these two well-remembered Victorian male writers seemed to have the same criticisms for the institution of marriage and the suffering of women at the hands of men. They were not of a time that the 21st reader might think of as progressive, and yet it is clear that they were observers and critiquers of the social ills that British Victorian ease and prosperity did not alleviate or prevent. (And now my brain seeks to go down a rabbit hole – thinking of Dickens and Gaskell as well – and these are only the authors I’ve read; I imagine there are others.) This illustrates the attraction of literature for the acute observer of society, but what I find most fascinating is the idea that these books, critical of their times as they were, are the ones that survive. Is it the condition of great literature that it illumines our greatest flaws, individually and socially?

I found it hard to enjoy Tess–even for a reader who is better equipped to enjoy the prose and the pacing of the story than I am, it is perhaps difficult to say “enjoy” of an ultimately tragic novel–but as I think over it more, I find myself drawn back, in a way. There will certainly be more Thomas Hardy in my reading future. I only hope I can do him more justice going forward.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Cover: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna ClarkeJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Susanna Clarke
2004, Britain

He wished he had stayed at Hurtfew Abbey, reading and doing magic for his own pleasure. None of it, he thought, was worth the loss of forty books. (Ch. 29)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been on my shelf, and my to-be-read list for quite some time. It sounded just my thing: a tale of two magicians, set in Regency England. A sort of Harry Potter-Jane Austen mash-up. It took me some time to get to it, however, as I find so often with books I own rather than books I’ve borrowed.

It is a deliciously slow read, not the brisk jaunt through magic and manners that one might expect of a genre novel. Rather, it unfolds its tale gradually, taking us from York and the Society of Magicians–more a social dinner group, than anything–to the bustle of London, the battlefields of the Iberian Peninsula, the remote English countryside, and beyond. As the story opens, neither title character is anywhere in sight, and one wonders at first if the first magician we encounter, John Segundus, will perhaps morph into one of the titular characters. He is rather our introduction to this magical world–someone who believes in magic, but doesn’t know how to yet do it himself. It is not long, however, before Mr. Norrell comes on the scene and so begins the long, winding build-up to the great climatic battle of magic and wits. All in good manners and taste, of course.

There is an interesting tension in the world that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell inhabits, between a reality that impresses upon the reader the idea that this is almost a pure historical fiction tale–the Regency era is rendered so fully–and the wonderous magical environment overlaid upon the history. King George III and the Duke of Wellington are characters, but so are the magical Raven King and the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. More fully rounding out the depth of the invented world are the delightful footnotes, complete with (fictional) citations to historical and magical books, telling tales of the (fictional) history of English magic and folklore.

I found Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a delightful and immersive, if slow, read (though how much of that is one me?), and I could see myself returning to its magical world again. After reading it, I watched the BBC miniseries adaptation, and was equally charmed, though I really see the TV series as a complement, rather than replacement for the novel.

Completed: Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle

Cover: Many Waters by Madeleine L'EngleMany Waters
Madeleine L’Engle
(1986, US)

Dennys raised his face to the stars, and their light fell against his cheeks like dew. They chimed at him softly. Do not seek to comprehend. All shall be well. Wait. Patience. Wait. You do not always have to do something. Wait. Chapter 12

There were over two decades between the publication of A Wrinkle in Time and Many Waters, the fourth book in the loose “Time Quintet.” And in a way, it feels it. The magic that I felt with Wrinkle and its second sequel, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, seems to be gone.

The ties between Many Waters and the earlier books are by way of the Murry twins, Dennys and Sandy, who compared to the rest of the Murry family, are “normal” and more skeptical than their siblings: Meg and Charles Wallace may believe in unicorns, but they don’t. And yet it is these two who, whether through accident or divine intervention, find themselves in a pre-flood world, sharing a tent with (Biblical) Noah’s father, Lamech, and befriend Noah, his wife, his sons and their wives, and his daughter, Yalith. The Genesis story doesn’t give names to the women, nor does it tell us if Noah had daughters–or any other living family, for that matter–and so this becomes an interesting exploration of a familiar story: what is the story of the unnamed women? What would it have been like for Noah and his sons and their wives to know that others they loved and cared for would die in a devastating flood? What if Noah had a daughter?

It is a strange book, in a way. One part Bible story retelling, one part fantasy, one part sci-fi time-travel – I’m not sure what to make of it. There seems a disconnect between fleshing out the story of Noah and his family, pre-flood, while also introducing unicorns and manticore of later European story-telling and adding in time-traveling boys from centuries later.

Additionally, while the earlier novels seem to focus on the emotional growth of the main characters–learning to defeat darkness by overcoming their own flaws or learning to love and share love–here, it seems that the twins’ story is more about their sexual awakening rather than any emotional growth. Indeed, the sexuality seems so frank, that I would be inclined to classify this as YA, while still thinking of the earlier novels as mid-grade books. Though, to be fair, I first read this in elementary school and anything that might have been more “grown up” went straight over my head!

I was a bit disappointed in this novel compared to the earlier books–I was hoping for more of the magical world I found in A Wrinkle in Time. I still have one book left in the series, but knowing that it was written after this last one, I admit, I’m approaching it with a bit of trepidation – will it be a return to form, or will the magic be gone?