The Marne, Edith Wharton (1918)

Whither thou goest will I go, thy people shall be my people…” Yes, France was the Naomi-country that had but to beckon, and her children rose and came.

Edith Wharton had been living in France for many years when WWI began. Like many in Europe, Wharton was frustrated and angry at America’s reluctance to enter the war and The Marne was written in response. The main character, Troy Belknap, is her voice against this hesitation, a call to save what she has come to love. This is a very emotional Wharton that I have not seen before. Through Troy, whose yearly visits to France with his parents, has  given him a love for the country, there is something very personal that Wharton brings to this story.

Troy is very young when he first summers in France. His parents arrange a tutor for him in all the subjects that interest him and every year he sees this same tutor, Paul Gantier. As he grows older, his friendships and enjoyment with his studies grow. It is an easy life of long motor drives, sightseeing, archaeological trips and the lovely sights to stoke a precocious imagination.

As the family travels each summer they often stay in the same hotels and inns and Troy has become very attached to one particular family and looks forward to seeing them every year. He has an insatiable urge for knowledge and getting the most out of his summers in France. He calls France, “his France.” His love for the country is deep in both the past and present, loving history as well as attentive to the people he meets wanting to know their story. He is devastated the summer the Germans begin their march toward Paris when his tutor has to leave him to fight. He is too young to go himself and is angry that the US has not stepped in.

His family, like many foreigners, are stranded once the fighting begins. Some are able to get to England, but find the same issue there. Wharton does not hold back her contempt at the utter narcissism that they feel their plight should be taken into consideration above all others-“…We’ve really spent enough money in Europe for some consideration to be shown us…” For the first time in their lives they are asked to think of others and rather than see where or how they could help the country they use for status and reputation at home, they are indignant they aren’t taken into consideration first. Troy is outraged at their egotism spends as little time as possible with them.

The misery of feeling himself a big boy, long-limbed, strong-limbed, old enough for evening clothes, champagne, the classics, biology, and views on international politics, and yet able to do nothing but hang about marble hotels and pore over newspapers, while rank on rank, and regiment on regiment, the youth of France and England, swung through the dazed streets and packed the endless trains—the misery of this was so great to Troy that he became, as the days dragged on, more than ever what his mother called callous, sullen, humiliated, resentful at being associated with all the rich Americans flying from France.

Once back in New York City a sort of ‘one-upmanship’ is occurring with these same people who complained that they were not given priority in leaving, but are now telling anyone who would listen about their privations and hardships.

“The tragedy of it—the tragedy—no one can tell who hasn’t seen it and been through it,” Mrs. Belknap would begin, looking down her long dinner table between the orchids and the candelabra; and the pretty women and prosperous men would interrupt their talk, and listen for a moment, half absently, with spurts of easy indignation that faded out again as they heard the story oftener. As more of the once stranded civilians return home they have fresh tales to tell and Mrs. Belknap finds herself out-storied, out-charitied, and out-adventured. She is pushed aside to make room for others, people want something newer….

As soon as he turns 18, Troy returns to France as an ambulance driver. And one day he is met on the road by a truck load of American soldiers. America has finally joined with France and England against Germany! “There they went, his friends and fellows, as he has so often dreamed of seeing them, racing in their hundreds of thousands to the rescue of France; and he was still too young to be among them, and could only yearn after them with all his aching heart!”

But at the last moment, one of the trucks stops and a young man calls out to him to hop in the truck, “come and help!” And just like that Troy, without a moment’s hesitation, leaves the ambulance and becomes a soldier. As the truck rolls on he is given some instruction, though he is also filled with guilt about leaving his position. At the first battle he is wounded and brought to a field hospital. Regaining consciousness it turns out that was the great Battle of the Marne. The Allies had pushed back the Germans and the advance on Paris has been checked! But the oddest thing happened. Troy’s wound was severe and in semi consciousness he saw Paul Gantier, the young man who had been his childhood tutor, lift him up until he felt himself floating. Regaining consciousness at the hospital, the medics told him that his rescue had been incredible, but that no one knew his rescuer, not his name or where he had gone to. And then he just disappeared. A stunned Troy held his tongue-his tutor had died near the beginning of the war….


Published in 1918 with battles still raging, this is more a book about the attitudes at the home front than the war itself. And with the war still on, this book is published as a type of propaganda, guilt propaganda if there is such a thing, I would call it. And perhaps not directed at middle America, but to those of the upper classes who can make a difference, the ones who call the shots and who supposedly love France.

Wharton wrote another novel about the war and a few nonfiction. I will get to those at some point and will be interested to see if they are as passionate.

There had never been anything worthwhile in the world that had not had to be died for, and it was as clear as day that a world which no one would die for could never be a world worth being alive in.

Every stone that France had carved, every song she had sung, every new idea she had struck out, every beauty she had created in her thousand fruitful years, was a tie between them that all civilization was bound up in her, and that nothing that concerned her could concern her only.

For France was his holiday world, the world of his fancy and imagination, a great traceried window opening on the universe. And now, in the hour of her need, all he heard about him was the worried talk of people planning to desert her!


Title: The Marne
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Macmillan and Co., Limited
Date: 1918
Device: Kindle
Pages: n/a

The Poor Little Rich Girl, Eleanor Gates (1912) Classics Club Spin #29

I’m seven today,” Gwendolyn went on, “So I am going to walk. I haven’t walked for a whole, whole week. ” “You can lean back in the car,” said Nurse Jane, “and pretend you’re a grand little Queen!” “I don’t WANT to be a Queen. I want to WALK.” “Rich little girls don’t hike along the streets like common poor little girls.” “I don’t WANT to be a rich little girl…I don’t want to be shut up in the car this afternoon…” The Nurse gave a gasp of smothered rage, “Do you want me to send for a great black bear?”

This is a tough little read. Published in 1912 and considered a children’s classic I am hard pressed to understand why anyone would give or read this to a child. A common enough trope-the rich child who has all the material comforts, except attention from her parents and no agency over daily life-yet, the book is one long horror story of psychological abuse and emotional neglect of this precocious, compassionate 7 year-old girl.

Stuck all day in her nursery, Gwendolyn imagines herself a princess imprisoned in a tower. The wealthy neighborhood houses provide hours of creative mind-play in which she sees the faces through windows and imagines these strangers as her companions on sea bound journeys or, in another scenario, a loving safe home where her parents are always with her and she is “blissfully free of those whose chief design it was to thwart and terrify her-Miss Royle, Jane, [and] Thomas,” who are her governess, her nurse and the house footman, respectively.

Gwendolyn’s father is always at work and her mother is society-obsessed leaving the child in the care of these servants who take every advantage to abandon their duties toward the her, exploiting her childhood innocence and empathy to those in the world of whom she sees through her nursery windows. Gwendolyn longs to play with other children, to play outside, to walk and experience the world. Her wishes become fears as each servant in turn tells her she can’t go to visit her father as there are bears in the street, she can’t take a walk as there are kidnappers hiding to snatch little rich girls. The worst is when they threaten to call the doctor if she misbehaves, because she has memories of the awful tasting medicine she’s had in the past, awful enough that it is a big fear against calling the doctor when she gets sick which, later in the book, will have devastating consequences.

There is some comic relief, though. One of Gwendolyn’s endearing qualities is that she takes everything said to her literally. The use of everyday sayings, colloquialisms and idioms perplex her as she tries to figure out which foot is the best to put forward when visiting her parents in the dining room, or fearing that bee in her mother’s bonnet and how it got there. She is scolded over and over for being silly when asking about the little bird that tells things to people or why her German teacher is called Miss French.

A tragedy occurs when Gwendolyn becomes feverish after a day of crying because she wants to see her parents. She is so anxious and mentally confused that Nurse Jane calls the doctor for something to calm her. Jane gives her a spoonful of the medication, but becomes distracted when Gwendolyn takes it and doesn’t believe her when she says she swallowed it. So Jane makes her take another spoonful. This pushes Gwendolyn into an hallucinogenic overdose in which she meets all the fears the servants have scared her with: bears, doctors, policemen. But also in a way that helps her get over these fears as she finds resolution in this dream-like adventure.

She recovers and the neglect and abuse are revealed to her parents, but I was very glad to reach the end of the book.

Am I too sensitive? This book bothered me so much with the abuse going on for half of it without relief, that if the Classics Club Spin gods hadn’t chosen this book for me, I believe I would have dnfed it.

Now Gwendolyn,” whispered Jane, leaning down, “put your best foot forward.” “But Jane, which IS my best foot?” “Hush your rubbishy questions….” Gwendolyn glanced down at her daintily slippered feet. With so little time for reflecting, she could not decide which one she should put forward. Both looked equally well.

In each of the houses across the wide river she often established a pretend home. Her father was with her always; her mother, too—But her household was always blissfully free of those whose chief design it was to thwart and terrify her—Miss Royle, Jane, Thomas; her teachers; also, policemen, doctors and bears.

I tell you that if you run about on the street, like poor children do, you’ll be grabbed by a band of kidnappers.” “Are kidnappers worse than doctors?” “Worse than doctors! Heaps worse.” “Worse than—than bears?” “Kidnappers carry knives—big curved knives.” “Worse than a—a p’liceman?” “Yes, the kidnappers would take you and shut you up in a nasty cellar where there was rats and mice and things and”—Gwendolyn’s mouth began to quiver.


Title: The Poor Little Rich Girl
Author: Eleanor Gates
Publisher: Duffield & Company
Date: 1912
Device: Hardcover
Pages: 244

Challenges: The Classics Club, Mount TBR

April 2022 Wrap-Up

April turned out to be a very good reading and blogging month, due to the health issues I discussed in a March post that are being addressed. My left foot is permanently damaged and I have to walk with a cane, but the pain has diminished greatly with a foot binder and I can walk very well. This is a big relief. I am hoping to try trail walking soon. I finished the skin cancer protocol and after a wait of three months (end of June) I will see if the treatment worked or if I’ll need surgery. My scoliosis will be addressed in October. Thank you for all the words of support and encouragement. I think I am turning the corner in accepting the things I have to live with and the new ways to incorporate some slowing down in my life.

I started April off with the John Steinbeck novel, Cannery Row. Short, but wonderfully character driven, I hope to read the sequel soon.

Zoladdiction gave me reason to take down Pot Luck from my shelf and I was kind of obsessed with it. I may have to read another Zola before next April.

April’s installment of the Narniathon continued with The Horse and his Boy on the calmgrove website. Such wide ranging thoughts on this book in the comment section. I found much to enjoy and ponder in this, my second reading.

Spring struck me abruptly and I couldn’t help but go to Abbie Graham for some deep words of wisdom.

My cynicism of Earth Day ended up with a challenge to myself to find an action to take.

My tentative reading plans for May include:

The Poor Little Rich Girl, by Eleanor Gates that I should have finished by April 30th for the Classics Club Spin. Oops….

An Old-Fashioned Girl, by Louisa May Alcott. I have not read anything by LMA since Little Women several years ago.

Edith Wharton. Not certain which title, but I am about half way through her published work.

I hope to finish Dawn Light: Dancing with Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day, by Diane Ackerman. Early morning and the stirring of life has become a magical time for me. Ackerman is a poet with how she writes about dawn.

Dara Horn’s, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present has such a grabbing title. She asserts, “Jews are “loathed in life, and loved only when they are safely dead.” This is so provocative, but believable to me. I have to see where she goes with this.

This is all I know for now. I have more books I am eager to try from my library trip at the weekend.

Snowy Egret at the Santa Ana River Photo by Laurie Welch

May has always seemed a little emotionally unpredictable to me. It’s a little Spring, but not quite Summer. In school years it was the end before the beginning, we just wanted it to be over! So there is an energy, but it’s not very stable. Who knows where the month will take us? Wherever, I hope it’s a good, healthy and satisfying one for All!

The Horse and His Boy, CS Lewis (1954) #Narniathon21

I’m a free Narnian.”
We’re free Narnians.
He was a free Narnian horse.

“I have been longing to go to the North all my life.” “Of course you have. That’s because of the blood that’s in you. I’m sure you’re true Northern stock.”

For a series of books written for children CS Lewis sure doesn’t sugar-coat childhood. He tackles bullying, the separation of families by war, the betrayal of siblings against each other and in this one child slavery, physical abuse and forced marriage, just to name a few. In The Horse and His Boy, there is less magic and playfulness and more realism. Lewis is telling a different kind of story here, where Aslan is mostly absent and Shasta and Aravis, the main characters, are on their own. In previous stories, the children knew they were on a mission for Aslan. This time, however, both have never even heard of Aslan and only find out later he has been guiding them from the beginning. But in the moment, their desire to escape, their plans and strategies have been due to their own will and wits.

Lewis also uses a different storytelling technique in this novel than he does in the others. In all the other books he is the creator of all the fantastic beasts, the flora and fauna and other beings. In this novel, he borrows the Calormen from a known culture, who are based on a middle eastern country, or tribe, or people, and sadly, are full of all the stereotypes one could imagine. At present, he has been rightly criticized and perhaps should have rethought this, however, I believe the story is still a good one and should be taken in the context of the time he was writing during which Asia and the Middle East were rather mysterious to the West.

When the story begins we meet Shasta, who as a young child was found drifting in a boat and is now the property of Arsheesh, a poor fisherman. Shasta is beaten regularly at Arsheesh’s whim. There are days when Shasta wants to escape and feels a pull to the North. Arsheesh is only too happy to turn him over to a Calormen nobleman who wants to buy him and while awaiting his fate in a stable Shasta finds that one of the horses can talk. Bree is a Narnian Horse belonging to this man, although he has kept his identity secret, and is treated cruelly, which both realize will be the same fate for Shasta. The two contrive a plan to escape to Narnia. On the road they meet another escapee from these lands, Aravis who is fleeing an arranged marriage. She is riding her horse, Hwin, who also happens to be a Talking Horse from Narnia.

The four team up, but it is a perilous journey and the children are challenged by the desert, ghoulish imaginings in the night, stalking, by what seem to be many lions, in which Aravis is wounded and an army trying to stop them that also wants to capture Narnia.

While this is very much an escape story, it is also a story about freedom and identity and about discovering who you really are and in remembering who you are. “I am a free Narnian,” says Bree repeatedly. Though long captured he hasn’t forgotten he is a noble war horse from Narnia and he is a free horse, belonging to no human.

Excuse me, Tarkheena [Aravis]…We’re free Narnians, Hwin and I, and I suppose, if you’re running away to Narnia, you want to be one too. In that case Hwin isn’t your horse any longer. One might just as well say you’re her human.

Shasta has always been attracted to the North (where Narnia is located), not the South even though southern travelers often come to sell fish and have great stories to tell. He knew who he was, before he was aware of it. And in a fairly obvious twist of fate it turns out Shasta’s identity is more than that of a common Narnian citizen.

And what to make of this Aslan? Though largely absent throughout the book when he appears he is often distant, distracted and removed. In a very different relationship with the main characters in this book than in previous novels, he is allowing them their journey without micromanaging the details. I believe this is a conscious shift in the message Aslan brings up to this time between what it means to be a child with all the hands-on guidance those ages entail to the next stage when you go out in the world and experience it through what you have been taught so far, including the making of mistakes. And with this new stage is the responsibility you accept for these mistakes, as Aravis learned when she experiences the consequences of a selfish act made against someone more vulnerable and much less socially powerful.

“It was I who wounded you,” said Aslan. Do you know why I tore you?”….The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like.”

That is harsh. But a very good example of a true understanding of an “eye for an eye,” which is not the same punishment, but a fitting punishment.

And then there is this passage that seems very odd, but I connect it to the idea of identity. This is Aslan’s response to Shasta when he meets him for the first time and asks who he is.

“Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again “Myself,” loud and clear and gay: and then the third time “Myself,” whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all round you as if the leaves rustled with it.

It sounds like Aslan is trying to justify himself to more than Shasta. I would like to know what anyone else makes of this?

Suffice to say that I have no idea how I would have responded to this book as a child, but as an adult I feel like I am on a journey with these books as a whole. Almost like exoterica and esoterica, that is, you can read them as delightful adventure stories, but there is the deeper, hidden messages that take time to decipher. In fact, I had a thought as I was finishing this up that this whole story is reminiscent of the Old Testament and the Israelite’s journey out of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land-Shasta was found floating in a boat like Moses in his basket, Shasta is more than even he thinks he is again like Moses, Aslan is a fearful and often cold entity, the Calormen lands are in the desert. To plumb for another time?!!

“I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear of the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”

“By the Mane.” “Thanks be to the Lion.” “By the Lion’s Mane.” “By Aslan.”

Bree and Hwin lived happily to a great age in Narnia and both got married but not to one another. And there weren’t many months in which one or both of them didn’t come trotting over the pass to visit their friends at Anvard.

The discussion for this book will take place on April 29th, hosted by Chris at his blog Calmgrove. If you have read this book or are interested in what others have to say, please take a look at Chris’s post and the comments section.

Earth Day 2022: Is it Still Meaningful?

The Boulder Family, Mission Trails, San Diego, CA.
Photo by Laurie Welch

When I looked at the calendar this week and saw that Earth Day was coming I rolled my eyes. “The environment” has become so political in the United States trying to save the planet feels more like an exercise in futility than in creating any kind of actionable measures. I am certain mine weren’t the only rolling eyes this year.

Still, I love Nature. I do what I can in my little corner of California with my recycling of plastics and aluminum cans and the lessening of their use in general. I buy in bulk when available, pick up other people’s trash on hiking trails and try to be conscious of the overuse of packaging calling it out in emails to offending companies. But like most people I am not consistent and I over consume and waste when it is not convenient. I don’t want to be a pessimist when it comes to the environment throwing up my hands with a tsk tsk “no one else is doing anything,” but it is painful to listen to politicians, especially the religious ones who should know better, ignore the sacredness of the land in favor of its destruction for “human progress.”

In the Hebrew Bible God is active in Creation. It is a conscious, well-thought out plan that creates this world which is both “good” and “very good.” When the first human is made God gives him the responsibility (Genesis 1:28) to rule over the beauty He has made. Many translations of this passage use the word “subdue” to indicate that Adam and successive generations can rule in whatever manner they want over the land. But the Hebrew word for subdue, kavash, is mistranslated in this context meaning to subdue an enemy as in a military situation. In the JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translation of the Hebrew Bible it uses the words “master it” (the earth) and “rule the fish of the sea…” I see the words masters and rulers as benign; the person doing the mastering or ruling is what makes their administration good or bad, life sustaining or destructive.

In fact, the world could never exist, would likely die, if we subdued Nature or had dominion over it in the modern way we use those words. We use them like we are superior over Nature, but we learn every time we kill off a species of animal that another species relies on it and now it is endangered or when we ruin air quality with pollution or a waterway with poisonous runoff endangering people that we can’t subdue the land, but must understand how it works and honor the process. Mastery implies this: we master something to understand how to work with it.

Pollution, defilement, destruction of habitats in all its forms would make life on Earth impossible. So, subduing it, subjugating it, enslaving it makes no sense and is definitely not Biblical. And it is not just a belief in the God of the Bible that tells of this remarkable Creation. Biology, science, the Big Bang acknowledge a well-planned, well-thought out planet. In fact, it is probably the one thing where the religious, the scientifically-minded and atheists can agree!

Which brings me back to my original thoughts on this Earth Day. If I don’t want to eye roll any longer and if I think “doing something” is still important, what do I do?

I have an idea. It came up in an article I read that referenced the way Nature returned to cities during the first year of the pandemic when most everyone across the planet was in lockdown. It’s a radical step, a very great lifestyle change but if sustainable it might be worth working toward. It would take the whole of human kind to make it successful and I am still thinking through participation: A Sabbath day for Creation. Or, a once a week day off from technology, electricity, fossil fuels and the like to give the planet a rest from human meddling.

I don’t know if I am optimistic enough to trust in a process that asks me to bow out of the busyness of life once a week for a full day. But I believe the environmental crisis is real and I have to do something more than recycle. A weekly sabbath/rest might be it. I am going to take it seriously and find out.

And God saw all that He had made, and found it very good.

Pot Luck (Pot-Bouille) Émile Zola (1882) #zoladdiction22

There were two great cracks running right through the paneling on the ceiling, and in one corner the paint had peeled off and was showing the plaster. “You see, these kinds of houses are built for effect. The walls, though, aren’t very solid. The house was only built twelve years ago, and they’re already cracking. They build the frontage of very fine stone, with all sorts of sculpture, give the staircase three coats of varnish, and touch up the rooms with gilt and paint; that’s what impresses people and inspires respect. But it’s still solid enough! It’ll last as long as we will.”

Pot Luck or Pot Bouille is the 10th (in order of publication) of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, although it works fine as a stand-alone novel. The narrative is fast paced with a large cast of characters. The action takes place in late 19th century Paris mainly in a newly constructed apartment building. This translated title is different from and not as fitting as some others-Restless House, and Piping Hot-are more appropriate.

The occupants are professional men and their families trying to keep up a veneer of respectability, though reality reveals the sordid opposite. The corruption centers on their amorous relationships either how to get one, how to get rid of one, how to make sure your daughter has a decent one and how to hide your adulterous affair from your spouse and the neighbors even though everyone already knows not only who you are seeing, but the schedule of your liaisons. Even the maids and cooks have improper relationships of their own, often within the building with a member of one of the “respectable families.”

Most of the book is told through the life of Octave Mouret who has come to Paris to seek his fortune and find love among the millions and is the newest resident of the apartment on the Rue de Choiseul. He’s assumed an easy go of it with the ladies, but is rebuffed more than once. When he finally marries it is with the idea that it is a business arrangement with the widow of the owner of the shop called, the Ladies’ Paradise, where he has been assisting. Throughout the book scandal after scandal has erupted throughout the Rue de Choiseul and shaken the building to its foundation, yet at the end, through attempted suicides, unwanted pregnancies, deaths, births and marriages the apartment building is still standing and will go on hiding the residents’ secrets within its crumbling walls until it presumably, literally and figuratively, can no longer stand.

I very much enjoyed this book, even though I didn’t find one likeable character or see compassion in anyone’s story. This is an expose of a society that flaunts honesty and decorum as shown through the conscious actions and awareness of a specific group of people. Every character acts on their most base, greedy and narcissistic impulse, even the ones who fain ignorance. Yet, they are all human beings living in a world that almost forces one to live corruptly not only to succeed, but to merely exist. And for that it is a page turner if only to see it to the end, wondering what will be learned, what will be overcome and will at least one person claw their way out?!


Thanks to Fanda and her yearly celebration of Émile Zola through her #zoladdiction reading challenge, I was encouraged to pick up a book I’ve had on my shelf for ages. Also, Brona of Brona’s Books wrote an insightful post on Zola that includes some detail about Zola’s purpose for the Rougon-Macquart cycle that I found very helpful.

If you are interested in joining in this year’s Zoladdiction or learning more about it, Fanda’s blog is full of Zola trivia, posts and biographical information.

The priest, utterly overcome, fell to his knees. It seemed as if God was passing over him…tortured by the terrible thought that perhaps he was a bad priest. Oh Lord! Had the hour come when the sores of this festering world would no longer be hidden by the mantle of religion? Was he no longer to help the hypocrisy of his flock, nor always be there, like some master of ceremonies, to regulate its vices and follies? Should he let it all collapse, even at the risk of burying the Church itself in the ruins? Yes, such was his command…and he felt consumed by utter impotence and disgust.

That’s good riddance, sir! We can breathe freely now because, upon my word, it was getting positively disgusting! It’s like a great weight off my back. In a respectable house like this, you see, sir, there shouldn’t any women, least of all working women.

It had always been his dream, ladies who would take him by the hand, and help him on in business. Their images kept returning and mingling in his mind with relentless insistence. He did not know which to choose, as he strove to keep his voice soft and his gestures seductive. Then, suddenly, exhausted, exasperated, he gave way to his brutal inner nature, to the ferocious disdain of women that lay behind his air of amorous devotion.


Title: Pot Luck
Author: Émile Zola
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics
Date: 1882
Device: Trade Paperback
Pages: 377

Challenges: The Classics Club, Mount TBR, Back to the Classics, #zoladdiction22

The First Fruits of my Garden

Near the Pier, Huntington Beach, California. Photo by Laurie Welch.

We’ve had several days of heat after this long cool winter. I am not sure what Spring will look like this year if we just go from winter into summer. But suddenly, we have peeled off hats and gloves and fleecy coats and are now bare-legged as we look toward the sun. I think this is a rite of Spring in California—the day you shed your thick clothes and break out the shorts and sandals—in one day winter is over!

It is also amazing to look around and realize Nature is doing just the opposite—She is busy adding clothes to her barren trees and flower-bearing bushes. And vegetable gardeners are seeing lots of movement in the ground as the energy of new life manifests through shoots and buds poking about the dirt. Celebrating this life-brimming time is also to be grateful to be alive to see another season. Happy Spring!

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

Radishes usually come first—radishes—small, round, and red. When I take them from the ground into which I had placed only seeds, and tie them in small bundles, I quite understand why those other gardeners had to give their first fruits to God. It is impossible to use one’s first radishes and lettuce and beans merely for food. Later in the season the wonder of these growing things may lessen, but on that first day a garden is a miracle, and something of it must be given to God. I envy those ancient farmers. I wish that I, too, might find some high altar whereon I might make my offering to the God of Gardens.

And yet, I have neighbors who like early vegetables. Very early in the morning, while the morning-glories are yet on the fences, I make bundles of red and green. I call over a backyard fence and lift high my offering, and the gods accept my sacrifice.

There is something that celebrates itself within me in The Day of the First Fruits of My Garden. It is a song of joy for created things—joy that a seed planted in the ground will bring forth its fruit in its season; that a dream entrusted to the soil of a human heart will bring forth its harvest of an hundred fold.
~Abbie Graham, Ceremonials of Common Days, 1923

Cannery Row, John Steinbeck (1945)

“It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding, and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

Cannery Row is a neighborhood in the town of Monterey, California, a somewhat seedy, but bustling area known for its fish packing plants, bordellos and flophouses and a motley crew of mostly down on their luck ne’er do wells. This curious amalgam of characters also includes a gopher who is looking for a mate to settle down with, a mad scientist with a heart of gold, a proud madam and her bevy of ladies of the evening and a Chinese jack-of-all grocers to name only a few. The story is not told in linear fashion: each character is briefly mentioned in the first few pages, then each successive chapter is devoted to an individual character while the others are in supporting roles, then that character will be a support in another character’s story and so on. A little chaotic, a little confusing which is exactly what life is like for these residents of Cannery Row.

Real life Monterey is located on the central coast of California and has a long history. Native peoples flourished until the Spanish explorers arrived in the 17th century bringing occupation, disease, violence and “religion.” The Spanish were supplanted by the Americans in the 19th century who pushed west from the Midwest and the East and joined by immigrants from every nation; they were all looking for a new, rich and independent life.

Steinbeck chose to concentrate this novel not on the professionals or respected members of society, but those at the edge, the ones who may still be dreaming of the life that first brought them here, but who are, in reality, just scraping by. The pace of life is slow and stagnant, like wading through a thick slippery sludge with much of the good life impossible to hold onto. The characters treat each other like family, however, and their fortunes and losses are shared. The town, too, is alive and sensitive as the vegetation and animal life are verdant or dying with the ebb and flow of human fortunes.

The brilliance of this novel is in the depth of wisdom, hard won, by these otherwise “uneducated” characters who ruminate so profoundly on the raw disappointments that fill most of their days. Yet, even at their lowest, there is some optimism in the coming light, whether it be a birthday party for Doc, enough whiskey or beer for Mack and the boys to enjoy for a night or something new to examine in Lee Chong’s store.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream….[How can these] be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book—to open the page and to let the stories crawl in it by themselves.

And that is exactly what Steinbeck did.

Monterey is a city with a long and brilliant literary tradition. It remembers with pleasure and some glory that Robert Louis Stevenson lived there. Treasure Island certainly has the topography and the coastal plan of Pt. Lobos.

What can profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals? Mack and the boys avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned, and trussed-up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the-town, thieves and rascals, bums. Our Father who art in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys. Virtues and graces and laziness and zest. Our Father who art in nature.

Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and change it for you to a kind of wisdom. His mind had no horizon—and his sympathy had no warp. He could talk to children, telling them very profound things so that they understood. He lived in a world of wonders, of excitement. He was concupiscent as a rabbit and gentle as hell. Everyone who knew him was indebted to him. And everyone who thought of him thought next, “I really must do something nice for Doc.”


Title: Cannery Row
Author: John Steinbeck
Publisher: Penguin
Date: 1945
Device: Trade Paperback
Pages: 196

Challenges: The Classics Club, Mount TBR

Update on Me and The Classics Club Spin #29

Medical problems have kept me out of the blogosphere. My trifecta of chronic problems reared their ugly heads in unison and I have been down for the count-the bones in my left foot are deteriorating and the pain is excruciating, my scoliosis is getting worse, and I am being treated for my 7th skin cancer. Concentrating on writing has been difficult, which is frustrating as I was on a blogging run before this all went down. Nothing is curable, but all are treatable. And this is the first basal cell carcinoma that I have not had to have surgery for as it was caught in the superficial stage, which is amazing as I have the scars to prove the other 6, but the treatment-a topical skin cancer protocol-keeps me out of the sun for 6 weeks. Yikes….

But what got me up and into my desk chair? The Classic Club Spin! I had many false starts in previous years only completing a few, but I completed the last one on time and I didn’t want to end the winning streak 🙂 So here goes, with my list.

In case anyone reading this doesn’t know what a Spin is or the Classics Club go here for more information. Basically, once you have your list of classics you choose 20 and number them in a list. The Spin gods will choose a number on March 20th and you will read the book that corresponds with that number and post a review by April 30th. Ooo, that’s very doable…and I’m talkin’ to you, Laurie.

I decided to put some of my chunksters on this list since we have a long time to read. My preferred choices are Little Dorrit, Vanity Fair or Madame Bovary. Good luck to everyone participating!

Willa Cather
1. My Antonia (1918)
2. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)

Clarence Day
3. Life with Father (1935)

Charles Dickens
4. Bleak House (1852)
5. Little Dorrit (1857)


Fyodor Dostoevsky
6. The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

George Eliot
7. The Mill on the Floss (1860)

Gustave Flaubert
8. Madame Bovary (1856)

Elizabeth Gaskell
9. Mary Barton (1848)
10. North and South (1854)

Eleanor Gates
11. Poor Little Rich Girl (1912)

George Gissing
12. The Odd Women (1893) K

William Dean Howells
13. The Rise of Silas Lapham (1884)

George Meredith
14. The Egoist (1879)
15. Richard Feverel (1859)
16. Diana of the Crossways (1885)

L.M. Montgomery
17. Emily of New Moon (1923)

Edith Nesbit
18. The Railway Children (1906)

Sir Walter Scott
19. Ivanhoe (1819)

William Thackeray 
20. Vanity Fair (1847)

The House at Tyneford, Natasha Solomons (2011)

Julian dipped a sprig of parsley in the pot of sweet charoset…I popped it into my mouth and swallowed the sticky mixture of apples, cinnamon and wine. He bathed a second piece of parsley in the salt water and gave it to me, watching as I ate. My mouth stung with salt, and I tasted tears and long journeys across the sea.

Dorchester

This historical novel takes place in Tyneford, a small Dorset village just before World War II. Lived in by generations of the Rivers family, the home has become a shell of its former self with only Squire Rivers and his university-age son Kit as family residents.

Mrs. Ellsworth, the housekeeper has been with the Rivers since Kit was an infant and the butler, Mr. Wrexham, has directed the running of the home for decades. Both are professionals of the old school where tradition, loyalty and duty to the family outweigh any personal inconvenience. The silver is polished, fires are lit and rooms are cleaned that are no longer occupied, daily duties are scheduled and performed by staff with strict adherence to custom and routine. Any slight deviation to the “way we have always done things” just will not do, as does any slight against the family by outside forces, including the war.

Against the backdrop of this well-oiled machine comes Vienna-born Elise Landau, the newest parlor maid, hired as the need arose after turnovers with the younger staff. Elise has no experience in service and has, in fact, lived just the opposite as the doted upon younger daughter of a well-known opera singer mother and author father. But life has turned on the Jews of Vienna and her parents, like others, have been kicked out of their professions by the authorities and are finding it hard to make ends meet. Elises’s mother has encouraged her to leave the country, to answer requests for parlor maids and lady’s maids in England where it will be safer. Elise’s older sister, Margot and her husband are leaving for California where her husband has been hired by a university. Their parents, Julian and Anna, are waiting for their own visas, so they can leave for New York City where they have been promised a new life.

As the family disperses, the hope of reunification keeps them going. Margot is safe in California and Elise has made it to Tyneford. But their parents linger, now squeezed out of their home by the government and made to sell their possessions to buy food. Elise has a terrible time of it at the beginning juggling this new life of constant physical work against the emotional pain of family separation. Cleaning fireplaces, polishing silver, learning how to wait on guests at meals are steep learning curves for her; she knows she must succeed though, because she cannot go back home. But she finds herself living in a liminal state, especially when Kit entertains his friends. As the same in age, back in Vienna she would be entertaining not waiting on guests. The months pass and she is often excruciatingly slow to catch on, she has the support of Mr. Rivers who is sympathetic to her situation. And who incidentally has enjoyed her father’s novels which he has on his library shelves.

Many story lines flow through this novel and they weave in and out of each other with sadness as well as joy. The stability of tradition that Tyneford has enjoyed for generations is changing as war looms ahead. The house is commissioned by the military as a base for WAAFS and then soon for the military itself as is the whole village. Each person will deal with this new life in their own way as the ties that bound them to the land are taken out of their control.

I enjoyed this novel, though the resolution of Elise’s situation did not work for me. Still, one of the interesting parts of the novel is in the descriptions of the rites and practices of Tyneford village that center on its fishermen and their fishing traditions and the unity of actions they take to prepare against a German invasion. This aspect of the novel is a nice contrast to the upper class features of life at the main house.

In the corner of the yard, Burt and Mr. Wrexham were stringing odd-shaped stones along a fine piece of rope. The stones were large, misshapen pebbles with a hole in the centre where they had been worn away by millennia of tides. The brothers carried the stones over to the Lugger and fastened the line around the bow,…so that the stones dangled in a loop at the front of the boat. “Witch stones, ter stop witches catchin’ a lift.”

The day disappeared in a whirl of dust and exhaustion. I cleaned four guest bedrooms but none of them seemed to be in use, and they held a musty stench of neglect despite their daily airings. At five o’clock I descended the back stairs to the servants’ hall and tea. A long table had been set for supper, and Mr. Wrexham sat at one end and Mrs. Ellsworth at the other…A faded sampler nailed above our heads proclaimed the dreary motto WORK AND FAITH, while the wall was studded with little brass bells, each corresponding to a label: STUDY, DRAWING ROOM, MASTER BEDROOM and so forth.

Our boy ‘as gone ter sea

An’ sails o’er the green waves-o.

Bright ‘ee were an’ fair and young.

‘Ee has no grave, no grassy mound

Jist the green waves-o.

We’ll hear ‘is voice in the gulls

An’ in the smashin’ of the tide

But we’ll see him no more.

Fer our boy ‘as gone ter sea

An’ sails o’er the green waves-o.

“They sing this when a fisherman is lost at sea.”


Title: The House at Tyneford
Author: Natasha Solomons
Publisher: Plume
Date: 2011
Device: Trade Paperback
Pages: 355

Challenges: Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, European Reading Challenge