Dickens plus Austen = Gaskell?

elizabeth-gaskellI had never read Elizabeth Gaskell’s work before.  After reading her 1855 novel North and South, I have decided that this 19th century English writer is a cross between Jane Austen (especially Pride and Prejudice) and Charles Dickens (especially Hard Times) because of her combination of social critique, romance, and light satire.

Like Dickens, Gaskell is concerned in her novel with portraying the harsh effects of the industrial revolution on so many people.   Margaret Hale, a young woman in her late teens, is the daughter of a clergyman.  She is not as beautiful as her cousin Edith but people admire her because of her dignity and intelligence.    She grew up in the South of England partly in the  beautiful village of Helstone and partly in London.  At the beginning of the novel, Margaret discovers that she has to leave her beloved Helstone parsonage and move north to Milton, an industrial city (based on Manchester).  Her father is moving the family because he has some dissenting views from the Church of England and no longer feels he can remain a clergyman in good conscience.  (If Gaskell explained what these dissenting views were, I missed it.  Why keep them a secret?)

Margaret and her mother nearly have a nervous breakdown because of the move.  One would think nothing worse had ever befallen a soul than having to move homes to a new town. Margaret finds Milton lamentable at first.  A large, bustling, dirty industrial town with bad air, it has none of the charms of her beloved Helstone or the sophistication of London.  It also lacks the “right” type of people—gentlemen and their families.  Instead, it is full of industrialists and people who are in trade.  Margaret looks down her nose at all such people.

She begins to soften her stance towards Milton when she makes some new friends—some people who work in the mills.  However, by getting to know the “hands,” as they are called, she learns how deplorable the conditions are for them.  She learns that one young woman is dying at age 18 because of breathing in so much cotton.  She also learns how hard it is for the “hands” to make ends meet with the money they make and she sympathizes with them when they go on strike.  It is Gaskell’s sympathetic portrayal of the “hands” and her critical view of industrialism that reminds me most of Dickens.  (Apparently, Dickens was her editor, so this resemblance is perhaps not surprising.)

North and South reminds me more of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when it comes to her characters and her wit.  Margaret meets mill owner (and self-made man) John Thornton when she first comes to Milton.  He is attracted to her, but she looks down on him for not being a gentleman. (She has both the pride AND the prejudice.) Later, she disapproves of him because of the way he treats his workers.  The two characters remain sparring partners for most of the novel.  Gradually, though, we see both of them changing and growing (for the better) into more mature and complex selves.   Creating strong central characters who change in a realistic way throughout the narrative is one of Gaskell’s strengths.  I also enjoyed the way she gently but realistically created characters with glaring weaknesses: her mother is self-pitying, her father is weak, and Mrs. Thornton is, frankly, a witch.   The novel is not a comedy, but some of the scenes with these flawed characters interacting together were quite amusing.

Although I admired Gaskell’s critique of industrialism and her creation of characters, I did not enjoy the book as much as I had hoped I would.  This was partly, I think, because of her long-winded writing style.  She could have cut out a couple of hundred pages with no harm to the story.  I also wondered why certain aspects of the novel were included.  Why the story of the brother in exile?  Why the proposal from Mr. Lennox?  The worst part, though, was the last half or so of the novel, in which people were dropping dead like flies.  I found that such melodrama ruined the impact of the story.

I neither loved nor hated the novel.  I thought it was OK.  I know that a lot of people love it, though, so if it sounds like your cup of tea, I encourage you to go for it.

 

This is my post for “19th century classic” in the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate

Back to the Classics 2017

I am reblogging Books and Chocolate’s Back to the Classics 2017 Challenge.  This is my way of announcing (for posterity) that I hereby join this challenge.  Bring. It. On.
Are you in?

It’s back! Once again, I’m hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.  I hope to encourage bloggers to discover and enjoy classic books they might not have tried, or just never got around to reading. And at the end, one lucky winner will receive a $30 (US) prize from Amazon.com or The Book Depository!

Here’s how it works:

The challenge will be exactly the same as last year, 12 classic books, but with slightly different categories. You do not have to read 12 books to participate in this s

  • Complete six categories, and you get one entry in the drawing
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries in the drawing
  • Complete all twelve categories, and you get three entries in the drawing

And here are the categories for the 2016 {I think she means 2017} Back to the Classics Challenge:

1.  A 19th Century Classic – any book published between 1800 and 1899.

2.  A 20th Century Classic – any book published between 1900 and 1967. Just like last year, all books MUST have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify. The only exception is books written at least 50 years ago, but published later, such as posthumous publications.

3.  A classic by a woman author.

4.  A classic in translation.  Any book originally written published in a language other than your native language. Feel free to read the book in your language or the original language. (You can also read books in translation for any of the other categories).

5.  A classic published before 1800. Plays and epic poems are acceptable in this category also.

6.  An romance classic. I’m pretty flexible here about the definition of romance. It can have a happy ending or a sad ending, as long as there is a strong romantic element to the plot.

7.  A Gothic or horror classic. For a good definition of what makes a book Gothic, and an excellent list of possible reads, please see this list on Goodreads.

8.  A classic with a number in the title. Examples include A Tale of Two Cities, Three Men in a Boat, The Nine Tailors, Henry V, Fahrenheit 451, etc.

9.  A classic about an animal or which includes the name of an animal in the title.  It an actual animal or a metaphor, or just the name. Examples include To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, The Metamorphosis, White Fang, etc.

10. A classic set in a place you’d like to visit. It can be real or imaginary: The Wizard of Oz, Down and Out in Paris and London, Death on the Nile, etc.

11. An award-winning classic. It could be the Newbery award, the Prix Goncourt, the Pulitzer Prize, the James Tait Award, etc. Any award, just mention in your blog post what award your choice received.

12. A Russian Classic. 2017 will be the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, so read a classic by any Russian author.

And now, the rest of the rules:

  • All books must be read in 2017. Books started before January 1, 2017 do not qualify. All reviews must be linked to this challenge by December 31, 2017. I’ll post links each category the first week of January which will be featured on a sidebar on this blog for the entire year.
  • You must also post a wrap-up review and link it to the challenge no later than December 31, 2017. Please include links within your final wrap-up to that I can easily confirm all your categories. Also, it is OK to rearrange books to fit different categories in your wrap-up post — for example, last year I originally planned to use Journey to the Center of the the Earth in the Fantasy/SciFi/Dystopian category, but then I decided to count it as an Adventure Classic. Most books count count toward several categories, so it’s fine if you change them, as long as they are identified in your wrap-up post.
  • All books must have been written at least 50 years ago; therefore, books must have been written by 1967 to qualify for this challenge. The ONLY exceptions are books published posthumously.
  • E-books and audiobooks are eligible! You may also count books that you read for other challenges.
  • Books may NOT cross over within this challenge. You must read a different book for EACH category, or it doesn’t count.
  • Children’s classics are acceptable, but please, no more than 3 total for the challenge.
  • If you do not have a blog, you may link to reviews on Goodreads or any other publicly accessible online format. For example, if you have a Goodreads account, you could create a dedicated list to the challenge, and link to that with a tentative list (the list can change throughout the challenge).
  • The deadline to sign up for the challenge is March 1, 2017. After that, I will close the link and you’ll have to wait until the next year! Please include a link to your original sign-up post, not your blog URL. Also, make sure you add your link to the Linky below, NOT IN THE COMMENTS SECTION. If I don’t see your name in the original Linky, YOU WILL BE INELIGIBLE. If you’ve made a mistake with your link, just add a second one.
  • You do NOT have to list all the books you’re going to read for the challenge in your sign-up post, but it’s more fun if you do! Of course, you can change your list any time. Books may also be read in any order.
  • The winner will be announced on this blog the first week of January, 2018. All qualifying participants will receive one or more entries, depending on the number of categories completed. One winner will be selected at random for all qualifying entries. The winner will receive a gift certificate in the amount of $30 (US currency) from either Amazon.com OR $30 worth of books from The Book Depository. The winner MUST live in a country that will receive shipments from one or the other. For a list of countries that receive shipments from The Book Depository, click here.

So what are you waiting for? Sign up at the linky below! I’ll be posting my list of possible reads for 2017 in the next couple of days. Happy reading!

“Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance

J. D. Vance’s grandmother (“Mamaw”) was tired of her husband (“Papaw”) coming home drunk night after night. Fed up, she told him that if he came home drunk again, she would kill him. One week later, Papaw came home drunk.  Vance tells us in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy that,

“Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest.  When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life. Miraculously, Papaw survived the episode with only mild burns” (43-44).

jd-vance-hillbilly-elegy-life-in-holler

This depiction of violence in hillbilly culture is nothing new.  Poor white people (a.k.a. hillbillies, rednecks, white trash, trailer trash, po ‘buckra—with their propensity towards violence and addiction–have long been fodder for humor in American popular culture.  The butt of countless jokes, poor whites have been featured over the years in TV shows ranging from The Beverly Hillbillies to Honey Boo-Boo.  At first glance, it might appear that Vance’s book is one more example of derisive humor at this group’s expense.  However, this is not the case.  Despite their failings, Mamaw and Papaw are the heroes of Vance’s memoir.  A graduate of Yale Law School, Vance claims he owes his successful rise out of the rustbelt to his violent, deeply flawed, yet fiercely protective grandparents.

J. D. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio—a rust belt town that at one point was prosperous because of the local steel mill, Armco. His family moved there in the 1950s from Jackson, Kentucky, and he refers to himself and his entire family as “hillbillies.” Although they no longer live full-time in the mountains, Vance claims, his clan still proudly bears the marks of a distinct Appalachian culture.  Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s attempt to analyze this culture in order to explain why his people are suffering so much today.

Students of creative nonfiction should note that Hillbilly Elegy is an example of CNF that combines both the personal (memoir) with the public (sociological study of a particular demographic). Vance writes about his family in order to make a larger point about what it is like to grow up in a downwardly mobile subculture.  Vance explains that “Though I will use data, and though I do sometimes rely on academic studies to make a point, my primary aim is not to convince you of a documented problem.  My primary aim is to tell a true story about what that problem feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck” (8).

Knowing that Hillbilly Elegy was an attempt to explain the problems of the white working class, I expected this memoir to be a tale of economic hardship for people who want to work hard, but simply cannot find employment; a tale of good, solid, morally upright folk who, through no fault of their own, simply cannot catch a break.  I was wrong.  Vance does mention briefly the devastating effects of the decline of good-paying factory jobs.  However, he argues that the decline of good factory jobs is only part of the problem.  The other problem, he asserts, is cultural.  To be blunt, he suggests that many of the “hillbillies” with whom he grew up suffer because of their own laziness, short-sightedness, prickly sense of honor, and tendency to blame others for their own problems.  As he states, this book “is about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible.  It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it” (7).

Vance explains that his grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw) grew up in the Appalachian mountains in a subculture known for his honor, fierce loyalty to family, and violence.  They moved to Ohio when they were still young, and Papaw found a good job at the local steel factory.   His grandparents lived a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle—at least, economically.  They never really developed mainstream, middle-class values.  They brought with them, though, their hillbilly lifestyle (complete with violent responses to any perceived slight), which they passed on to their own children.

Vance’s own parents were divorced when he was very young.  His mother went through a revolving door of relationships with men and eventually became addicted to drugs herself.  By his own reckoning, Vance would have been lost without the solid home base of his Mamaw and Papaw.  Despite their many shortcomings, they did provide him with a solid work ethic, a respect for education, and a stable home.   These things, Vance believes, are what helped him to succeed and what so many of his peers were lacking.

In some ways, Vance’s memoir reminds me of Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.   Like Vance, Karr wrote about being raised in a hard-scrabble, working-class town in a deeply dysfunctional family.  Interestingly, both Karr and Vance recount memories in which their mothers try to kill them.  Karr, however, is less analytical.  She does not attempt to draw conclusions about the socio-economic group into which she is born.  Vance does.  For me, this attempt to combine memoir with socio-ethnic-economic analysis is both the strength and the drawback of Hillbilly Elegy.  I found Vance’s cultural analysis compelling and insightful.  He painted the portrait of a culture in pain, but did not pretend that the pain was all inflicted from the outside (globalization, immigrants, the government, or whatever).  This was refreshing.  On the other hand, I found his book less effective at portraying characters as individuals with unique personalities and motivations.  He does not have Karr’s gift at creating a strong voice or plumbing the depths of individual psyches.

Overall, I found Hillbilly Elegy excellent as an insider’s view of a particular sub-culture (rust belt hillbilly/working class white), with both its strengths and weaknesses.  Given Trump’s unexpected victory, some political pundits have been urging democrats to pay more attention to working class whites and their concerns.  Vance’s memoir is a good place to start.

 

Richard III: Dastardly Devil or Propaganda Victim?

Josephine Tey, Daughter of Time, published 1951.  Mystery novel.

Josephine_Tey_april_1934_6

Josephine Tey was one of the pen names of Elizabeth MacKintosh.

 

“Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.”  -Francis Bacon

I first learned of England’s King Richard III when I studied Shakespeare in college.  In Shakespeare’s play Richard III, readers learn that Richard, who ruled England from 1483-1485 was a nasty piece of work who reveled in villainy:  “And thus I cloth my naked villainy / With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ; / And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

Shakespeare emphasizes the physical deformity of the hunch-backed Richard, suggesting that his moral deformity is a natural result of his abnormally curved spine:  “And therefore, — since I cannot prove a lover, / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, – / I am determined to prove a villain, / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”   Since nobody could love a cripple such as himself, Richard mused that he might as well rejoice in evil deeds.

Richard III, I learned, deserved such opprobrium because he had ordered the murder of his two nephews, Edward and Richard, who were aged 12 and 9 at the time.  Twelve-year-old Edward was supposed to be protected by Richard until he was crowned as the King of England.  Instead, Richard declared himself as king and the two boys—Edward and Richard—disappeared forever.  It was believed by many that Richard had ordered the murder of the Princes in the Tower in order to assure his own reign.

Such dastardly deeds surely could not go unchecked, and Richard III did not reign for long.  There were two rebellions against him.  The second one, led by Henry Tudor, resulted in the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.  After his death, Henry Tudor became King Henry VII.   Richard III’s reputation as evil incarnate became as firmly entrenched as the Tudor dynasty.

Josephine Tey, however, who lived from 1896-1952 was suspicious of the prevailing belief that Richard was the murderer of the princes.  In her detective novel Daughter of Time, she set out to prove that Richard was innocent of the murder of his two nephews.

Daughter of Time is a fascinating hybrid; it is a detective novel but also a work of historical inquiry.  The main character of the novel is detective Alan Grant.  Grant is stuck in a hospital bed for an extended period of time, and he is bored out of his mind.  His friend Marta suggests that he might pass the time by investigating a historical mystery.  She brings him portraits of historical figures, knowing that he enjoys studying faces.  When she shows him a portrait of Richard III, Grant becomes intrigued.  He does not believe this to be the face of a person who could have murdered his nephews.

Grant then begins to investigate the historical record, trying to figure out how it was determined that Richard was the murderer.  Using the investigative skills that made him successful as a detective, Grant starts with easily available historical books and moves on to records found in the British Museum (thanks to his assistant Brent Carradine.)  The readers learn, along with Grant, how flimsy the evidence for Richard’s villainy actually is.  Instead, Grant believes, the evidence points much more strongly to Henry VII as the real murderer of the princes and the truly villainous king.  Tey makes a convincing case that the Tudors deliberately set out a vicious campaign of propaganda to smear Richard III’s reputation in order to solidify the Tudor dynasty.

I am not a historian and I am not equipped to make an informed verdict on what happened to the missing princes in the tower.  I did, however, find Tey’s novel fascinating for its investigation of how history is made.  She suggests that once a propaganda campaign succeeds in creating a historical “fact,” the “fact” is repeated throughout the generations with few people questioning its veracity.  Hundreds of years after the historical events occurred, it becomes extremely difficult to figure out what actually happened.

Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, however, succeeded in undermining the established “truth” that Richard III was a villainous murderer of children.  According to this article in the New Yorker, Tey’s mystery novel “sparked mass interest in Richard’s redemption.”  Recently, in fact, Richard’s bones have been discovered and he has been given a proper burial (one he did not receive in his day.)  Click here for more information.

I highly recommend Daughter of Time to readers interested in English history and in how history is made.

If you have read the book or know more about Richard III, I’d love to hear your perspective.

This blog post is my Pre-1500 entry for the When Are You Reading Challenge?  

Literary Pairings: Ng and Grenville

I would like to think that in the present climate of the United States, a brilliant Chinese-American man would not feel so painfully isolated, while a brilliant woman would not have to forego her medical career.

celeste ng
Celeste Ng

We learn from the first sentence of Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You that Lydia, the beloved teenage daughter of Marilyn and James, is dead.  We do not, however, know how or why she died.  In order to understand what caused her death, we need to discover not only Lydia’s history, but also the history of her parents—and grandparents, too, for that matter.  As much as we Americans might like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals who create our own identities, our own lives, Ng reminds us that it is not so easy to escape our family histories.  That is true even if we are not aware of them.

Everything+I+Never+Told+You+-+Celeste+Ng

Lydia’s father James Lee is the son of impoverished Chinese immigrants who toiled ceaselessly to provide a good education for their son.  Their efforts pay off and James earns a Harvard Ph.D. in American history.  His academic success, however, is overshadowed by his lifelong feelings of isolation; he can never escape his feelings of inadequacy at being friendless, at never fitting in.  Because of these feelings, he desperately wants his children to be popular and feels personally stung when he notes their lack of social acceptance.

Lydia’s mother Marilyn has different yearnings.  She is a lovely, blond, white woman who blends into her landscape seamlessly.  She does not want to blend in, though.  She grew up in the 1950s, when women were bred to be cheerful homemakers.  (The present-day of this novel is set in 1977.) To make matters worse for Marilyn, her mother was a home economics teacher who thought Betty Crocker was a goddess.  Lydia, however, was a brainy woman with scientific leanings.  She fervently wanted to be a medical doctor and was on track to becoming one.  Her plans changed, though, when she became pregnant her junior year of college and dropped out to marry James and raise their children.  As Lydia became older, Marilyn funneled all of her frustrated ambitions into Lydia, determined that Lydia would have the medical career she was unable to achieve herself.

Ng’s portrayal of the mostly pain these characters carry in their hearts is touching and sad.  What makes the pain even worse (from my perspective) is that they remain unspoken.  It seems that Marilyn is unaware of her husband’s profound sense of isolation and intense yearning to fit in.  Conversely, James seems unaware of how unhappy Marilyn is to be living as a housewife instead of as a doctor.  These misunderstandings baffle me to a certain extent.  Do these two people never talk to each other?

It seems significant that Ng chose to set this novel in the late 1970s instead of the present day.  I would like to think that in the present climate of the United States, a brilliant Chinese-American man would not feel so painfully isolated, while a brilliant woman would not have to forego her medical career.  Does that mean the family would be happier overall?  Or would there just be different problems?

The conflicting desires of husband and wife remind me a little bit of the married couple William and Sal Thornhill of The Secret River.  (Click here to see my previous post about it.)  The Secret River is set in the late 1700s, when England sent convicts to what is now the country of Australia.  William was one of those convicts sent to Australia and was accompanied by his wife Sal and their children.  Sal wanted to get out of Australia and back to England as soon as they possibly could and let William know that in no uncertain terms.  He agreed that they would go back in five years.  Sal literally counted off the days until their return.

In the meantime, though, William fell in love with a piece of land and saw in it the beginning of a new future for his family, one in which he could hold his head up high in society, rather than being held down by his class status.  He never wanted to return to England and secretly hoped that Sal would change her mind.  Although Sal was clear on her desires, William was more circumspect about his hopes that she would change her mind.  In the end, William got his way, and the family stayed in Australia.  Sal became resigned to her fate, but I’m not sure how happy she was about it.  I know that Grenville wrote a sequel to The Secret River, but I haven’t read it yet.  I am curious to find out the longer-term repercussions of these basic conflicts between these two strong individuals.

Overall, I loved both of these novels and recommend both of them.

Do you think the problems faced by James and Marilyn are relics of the past?  Or is this story just as likely to occur today? 

What should a couple do when the two people have such strongly divergent basic desires, such as where to live?

For more information on Celeste Ng, click here.

For more information on Kate Grenville, click here.

This is my 1960-1979 entry in my When Are You Reading? challenge.

 

 

Tipping My Hat to Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters. Photograph: Murdo Macleod Murdo Macleod/Murdo Macleod
Sarah Waters. Photograph: Murdo Macleod Murdo Macleod/Murdo Macleod

Sometimes I go through periods when I can’t find anything to read in my leisure time that is really captivating. That happened to me a few weeks ago.  Nothing seemed to “click.”  Desperate for something to grab my attention, I even turned to a best-selling thriller with no literary merit whatsoever. This thriller was appalling in its lazy, clichéd writing style and the way it wallowed in violence against women, seemingly because it sells books.  I regret reading it, but that’s what literary desperation will do to you.

Then Sarah Waters came in to my life and I was saved!  Waters is a Welsh writer well-known for her novels set in Victorian England and featuring lesbian protagonist, such as Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet.  I had never read her before, but after reading The Paying Guests and The Night Watch, I plan to read all of her works.

Paying Guests

The Paying Guests is about a young woman named Frances who lives in genteel poverty with her mother in post-World War I London.  I often associate the 1920s with a frenzied atmosphere of parties and pleasure-seeking—the so-called “Jazz Age.”  However, the tone is quite different in Waters’ novel, with its focus on reduced circumstances and austerity.  Frances has lost her brothers and her father in the war (the father due to illness), and with the death of her debt-ridden father, the family’s economically comfortable lifestyle was gone forever.

In order to help pay the bills, Frances and her mother take in two boarders the “Paying Guests” of the title. Len and Lily Barber are a young married couple trying to create lives independent from their families.  Frances becomes fascinated with this couple and her relationship with them changes her life forever.

I don’t want to give too much away in this post.  Part of the pleasure for me in reading this novel came from watching unexpected relationships develop.  I’ll just say that there is love, sex, secrets, and violence—the novel is certainly not lacking in plot developments.

What I most enjoy about Waters, though, are two things: her portrayal of complex characters with nuanced psychological observations, and her minute attention to period detail.  In particular, I admire Waters’ subtle portrayals of the way characters negotiate class and gender expectations and boundaries. Waters is an academic by training who does extensive historical research before writing her novels, and it shows.   I truly felt like I was in that house with Frances, desperately trying to make it—and herself–look clean and respectable with almost no money.  I also think Waters is superb at showing the after-effects of World War I on individual characters and on London as a whole.  Her characters are exhausted, but because of the seismic shocks that shattered English society, they also have the opportunity to reinvent themselves in ways they could not do before.

Night Watch

The second novel by Sarah Waters that I read is called The Night Watch.  This was written earlier than The Paying Guests, and was also about the effects of war on English society.  This war, however, is World War II.  The Night Watch focuses on the stories of four main characters– Kay, Helen, Viv, and Duncan—during and after World War II.  The complex characters and minute attention to period detail that I enjoyed so much in The Paying Guests are in this novel as well.  We learn about the love affairs of these characters (three of whom are gay) as well as their attempts to find meaning and identity while their city is being destroyed by war.

The structure of The Night Watch is unusual.  It is set in three different periods:  1947, 1944, and 1941.  Rather than starting with 1941 and moving forward, Waters starts the novel in 1947 and moves backward.  Readers are introduced to the main characters after the war is over.  We do not yet know their stories, but we know that they are emotionally wounded, living lives that are pale imitations of what they had once hoped for.  As the novel progresses, we learn more about the characters’ back stories and what brought them to their sad present circumstances.

I appreciate what Waters is trying to do with this backward technique.  However, because of it, I was not quite as engaged with the characters as I had been with The Paying Guests.  The combination of several different characters with the lack of “grounding” made it harder to connect with them.  Some reviewers have noted that a second reading of the The Night Watch is required to really appreciate the power of this work.  That makes sense to me, and I will probably do that.

Overall, I recommend Sarah Waters to anyone who is interested in finely drawn characters (many of whom are marginalized because of their sexuality), richly imagined period detail, and honest portrayals of erotic attraction.

(This post is my European entry in my Around the World Reading Challenge.)

 

My Arbitrary and Unreliable List of Good Books

I have read a lot of books in my day.  And yet, I sometimes find that if somebody asks me to recommend a good book, I go blank, like a deer in the headlights.  It seems like the “search” function of my brain goes on overload and then shuts down.  Or something.  This post is an attempt to remedy that problem.

On this list are novels that I personally found to be page-turners.  They made me want to stop doing whatever else I was supposed to be doing so that I could finish them.  I want to emphasize that being a page-turner is not necessarily the same thing as having high literary merit.  There are other books that deserve more praise and are worth re-reading and discussing.

Another disclaimer is that I have almost certainly forgotten some other books I have loved because that’s just the way my memory is (not) working lately.

So, here are a few novels that I have read in the last year or so that I really enjoyed.  I am too lazy to describe what they are about so I’ll provide links to Amazon instead.

Life after Life, Kate Atkinson.  Amazon link.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn  Amazon link.

The Girl on The Train, Paula Hawkins  Amazon link

The Signature of all Things, Elizabeth Gilbert  Amazon link

Cutting for Stone Abraham Verghese  Amazon link

Defending Jacob, William Landay  Amazon link

Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver  Amazon link

The Given Day, Dennis Lehane  Amazon link

The Piano Teacher Janice K. Lee  Amazon link

How to be a Concord New Englander in 10 Easy Steps

Central Concord
Central Concord

Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town
Sarah Payne Stuart
Nonfiction, Penguin 2014

Perfectly MiserableSarah Payne Stuart

A few months ago, I spent a day visiting Concord, Massachusetts. Concord was settled by Puritans in 1635 and “is America’s oldest continuously inhabited inland town” (Stuart 10).   While there, I developed a serious “crush” on the town.  I was infatuated by its idyllic charm, its beautiful old homes, its literary legacy, and its hundreds years of American history seeping out of every crevice.  I wondered what it would have been like to grow up in Concord; surely it would have been wonderful, right?

I was delighted, then, to discover not long afterwards Sarah Payne Stuart’s Perfectly Miserable: Guilt, God and Real Estate in a Small Town.  Her nonfiction book is in part a memoir of her growing up in Concord, leaving it as a young adult, and then coming back to raise her own children. The most important element of her decision to both leave and return to Concord has to do with Stuart’s complicated relationship to her mother.  The book is also about some of the famous previous inhabitants of Concord–especially Louisa May Alcott and her family. Mostly, though, her book is about Concord and the quirks of the proud Concord residents.

I am not sure how well all the different strands of Stuart’s book work together; at times it seemed as if she was trying to juggle too many different topics.  I enjoyed reading about all of them, though, and I enjoyed Stuart’s sharp, witty writing style. I think my favorite parts of the book, though, are her many pithy insights on what it means to be a New Englander.

So, dear readers, if you are like me and plan to be reincarnated as a Concord resident, here are the rules you need to learn:

  1. You have to be convinced that you are a wretched sinner, but also, simultaneously, better than everybody else.    As Stuart writes, New Englanders live with  “the creeping certainty that you are a bad person.”   At the same time, you are secretly convinced that you are better than other people.  In this way, you “are like your Puritan forefathers who loathed themselves on the one hand, and thought they were above everyone else on the other” (9).
  2.  You have to have impossibly high expectations of others, and, especially of yourself. “New England is an unforgiving place.  Like the adored but disapproving mothers who populate it, it grips its children in the vise of its impossible expectations” (10).
  3.  Although you may not like these impossibly high expectations, you are not allowed to complain about them. Stuart notes that, “The Puritans bottled up their complaints and made ‘griping’ a punishable offense” (10). Concord still lives by these rules, if not legally, then psychologically.
  4.  If you are woman living there today, you should be an industrious, no-frills, no-nonsense type of woman, preferably one dressed in L. L. Bean.  Concord is populated by “matrons of steel. . . no-nonsense women of indiscernible ages out walking their dogs, slickered and zippered against the promising weather, huffing disapproval as they go.”  Stuart also notes that “This is the first town I have lived in as an adult where most of the women, rich and otherwise, don’t work for a living. They are nicer, less pretentious than at the tony private pre-school of my friends in Cambridge. . . And yet I am far more frightened of the bustling, competent Concord mothers who have become the leaders of the elementary school, rising like cream to the top of the parent groups, as they had once risen in their professions (77).
  5.  You must be industrious at all times, even if you have nothing to do. “One of the goals of the Concord matron of my mother’s generation was to stand monument to the fact that, though never idle, she did not work for money—to prove in my father’s parlance, that she was a lady.  A feeling of accomplishment was important for a lady, as long as what you accomplished was ephemeral, like running a booth at the church fair or finishing a spring clean of a house.” (17)
  6.  You must be nice to everybody. “My parents were, in terms of their tribe, “well-bred,” as only a New Englander or a Southerner could be—meaning they were nice to everyone and especially nice to the cleaning lady.
  7.  You should be artistic, but not in a professional way. You should not expect to sell your work to anybody who does not know you.  “Since the days of May Alcott, the ladies of Concord have been sketching and painting with the clear-sighted purpose of finishing the picture to put it in a show in order to sell it to one another.  Almost every one of my mother’s peers was an artist.” (19)
  8.  You should make sure you never have too much fun because it is not lady-like. For example, Stuart’s mother gave up amateur acting because “the high she felt when she acted interfered with the person she felt she should be—a New England lady who kept herself in check.” (20)
  9.  You can drink alcohol in excess—but only for an hour a day.    Happy hour was “the one time they were allowed to relax with impunity, and…only the Protestant could drink so deeply and limit it to an hour (31).
  10.  You must be really messed up about money. This is probably the most important criterion for being a true Concord resident.  Stuart devotes a significant amount of space to explaining how Puritanism affected New Englanders’ relationship to money, even today.  There are so many contradictions in this ethos that I had a hard time understanding it, to be honest.  Here are a few of her quotations to illustrate:
    • “For New England Protestants, appearances are everything: they must look like they have money (and therefore clearly belong to God’s Elect), and yet they must seem to care nothing for it.  At the root of the tangled New England neurosis is a deep respect for the money it loathes.
    • The anxiety that Puritanism produced about money still shakes my hometown. By the time I was growing up, moralistic conflict about money had pretty much taken the place of religion.  I don’t remember if my parents ever used God in a sentence when I was little, but I certainly heard plenty about the value of a dollar on the one hand, and money as the root of all evil on the other.  As a result, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going. . . I don’t know whether I want people to think I’m rich or I’m poor; frugal, extravagant, or generous.  I feel miserable when I spend money and sad when I don’t.  (109)
    •  Money and one’s attitude toward it is so intrinsic to the New Englander’s identity that it is nearly impossible for him or her to have objectivity toward it. As moths to the flame, old-moneyed Yankees are drawn to bemoaning their lack of money even in front of, say, the person who cleans their house.  Having money was nobody’s business, in this complicated culture, but not having it (as long, of course, as you actually did have it) was a subject suitable for any audience.   So, if I understand correctly, a good New Englander will have inherited wealth, which makes him or her feel superior to the rest of the crowd. However, he or she will feel guilty both for having this inheritance and for this feeling of superiority over others, so he or she will try to hide the wealth from others. The one exception to this rule is that the Concordian needs to buy as big and beautiful a house as possible—but then to keep it as threadbare as possible on the inside.
      •  A large house wasn’t just permissible in the Protestant ethic, it was a sign of election.” (22)
      • So the one luxury the old money permit themselves is a well-proportioned house in the right part of town, big enough to allow its owners to complain that they can’t afford to live there. The bedroom floors are ice cold with a strip of thin, fraying carpet for one’s feet to land upon from the tall, creaky inherited bed (with its original mattress); the towels are balding with hanging threads; the ceilings are high, and the temperatures low in the winter and stifling in the summer; the food is plentiful, but plain and predictable, a rotation of meals handed down from generation to generation.  But the houses—one gasps at the sight of their pillars and the breadths of their front halls.”  (22)

OK, I need to stop right here.  My Concord fantasy is now over.  While I still think the town is charming, I would find it really hard to live by some of these rules.  Being nice to other people is great.  Not selling any of my artistic or literary output works well for me since nobody seems inclined to buy them anyway.  However, as much as I like L.L. Bean, I find these stern, industrious Concord matrons scary.  I do not believe in being busy just for the sake of being busy. (I work because I need the money and I enjoy my profession.)  And the money part is just too complicated for my simple Midwestern brain.  If I had a lot of money, I would spend it.  If I had a big, old, house and money in the bank, I would certainly furnish it and decorate it to my heart’s content.

I guess I’m just not a Puritan at heart, much less a lady.

One of the many Concord houses I lusted after.
One of the many Concord houses I lusted after.

P.S.  This is my first North American entry for my Reading Around the World Challenge, 2015.  I chose it because it is not only written by an American author, but also because it is about a uniquely American subject.

IT’S MONDAY! WHAT ARE YOU READING?

Sheila at Book Journey hosts a weekly meme in which we share what we are reading that day.  Ideally, we will get ideas from each other on some intriguing titles we hadn’t heard of before.

Shop Class

I am reading Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford.  In this book, Crawford makes a strong case that we as a society have gone in the wrong direction by steering young people away from skilled trades and into four-year colleges to become “knowledge workers.”  He believes that many office workers (what he calls “knowledge workers”) often feel a sense of meaninglessness because we have lost the connection to the material world.  Instead, he thinks more people should be encouraged to experience the intrinsic satisfactions and cognitive challenges of skilled manual labor.

He emphasizes that he is not speaking in his book about rote assembly-line work, but about skilled workers such as electricians, carpenters, and mechanics.  In fact, he point about that skilled tradespeople often experience more cognitive stimulation than many “knowledge workers,” whose work has  become more and more rote over the years.

I think Crawford makes a strong case, and I completely agree with him.  I think it is misguided to insist that everybody is better off with a four-year college degree or to believe that manual trades are somehow “less” than “white-collar work.”  I think this argument needs to be made more often, so that more people get the message.

My main critique of Shop Class as Soulcraft has to do with the style in which it is written.  Although Crawford has worked as a mechanic and electrician, he also has a Ph.D. in Political Philosophy. This book is written by a philosopher, which gives it depth and richness, but also a certain inaccessibility.   I have nothing against academics in the humanities (being one myself), but I do wish he had tried harder to remove the “academic-ese” from his book so that it could reach a larger audience.

To give you an example of what I mean, here is an example of his style:

Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things rather than the art of persuasion, practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on against fantastic hopes aroused by demagogues, whether commercial or political.  Plato makes a distinction between technical skill and rhetoric on the grounds that rhetoric “has no account to give of the real nature of things, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them.”  The craftsman’s habitual deference is not towards the New, but toward the objective standards of his craft.  (18)

Couldn’t he have gotten his ideas across in a more accessible style?

Despite my reservations about his academic style, I do appreciate what Crawford is doing in this book.

What are you reading?