Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen (1817) #AustenInAugustRBR

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….there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them….

 

Catherine Morland is seventeen when she accompanies her wealthy neighbor Mrs. Allen to Bath where her husband has been ordered to take in the healing waters for his gout. Catherine has lived a happy, physically active, carefree, but insulated life with her large family; her imagination developed through the mostly Gothic books she reads. She has never had a suitor, “never seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility,” never “having inspired one real passion….” On her first excursion away from her family and the familiarity of village life, Bath exposes her to the complex society of her peers and widens her perspective on friendship and romance, with comical, frustrating and finally, joyful, results.

I really enjoyed reading this book, although it often had me on the edge of my seat. Austen puts poor Catherine through the ringer with her gullibility and worldly inexperience. She is completely unprepared morally to doubt the sincerity of Isabella Thorpe, the first ‘friend’ she meets at Bath and was not only goaded and duped several times by Isabella and her brother John, even her brother James took advantage of her naiveté. Catherine makes all kinds of gaffes in her friendship with Henry and Eleanor Tilney and could not stand up for herself in other situations and yet, I felt myself pulling for her after each blunder and felt relieved when she found the strength of character to make her own decisions. It is a good thing this is a short novel because it was all I could do to keep from going to the back pages and skimming the end!

One of the more interesting aspects of this book for me concerned Bath as a destination, not for healing, but for socializing during ‘the season.’ When I visited Bath and toured the Roman Baths, I do not remember this aspect of its history being told to us, just that it was an important example of Roman architecture and culture that capitalized on the therapeutic properties of the water. In Northanger Abbey, I do not recall the mention of anyone beside Mr. Allen in Catherine’s sphere who went for that reason. The young people met in the Pump Room, the Upper and Lower Rooms at the “fashionable hours” for tea, for meals, to socialize and to plan trips to the theater and outings throughout the countryside. That Austen herself lived for a time in Bath explains how she created the atmosphere and the details of the variety of people who would have spent time here.

Another aspect of the book I enjoyed is the intensity with which Catherine becomes obsessed with a well-known Gothic novel, called The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe to the extent she cannot put it down eschewing social engagements and asking her friends if they have read it. Of course, they had and Isabella recites a list of other ‘horrid novels’ Catherine will enjoy after she finishes Udolpho. “…but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”* Catherine is hooked.

Austen uses the haunted house aspect of The Mysteries of Udolpho as the lens throughnorthabbey which Catherine imagines Henry Tilney’s home. After she befriends Henry’s sister, Eleanor, and is invited to their home for an extended stay, Catherine’s obsession becomes fodder for a great bit of teasing by Henry when it is mentioned they live in an abbey. Catherine is excited to think “it is a fine old place, just like what one reads about.” Henry asks her if she has a stout heart and “nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?” She is not concerned since the home has never been uninhabited for years with the family coming back unawares and without giving notice “as generally happens.” Henry leads her on with a definitive description of a haunted house:

…you must be aware that when a young lady is introduced into a dwelling of this kind, she is always lodged apart from the rest of the family. While they snugly repair to their own end of the home, she is formally conducted by Dorothy the ancient housekeeper up a different staircase, and along many gloomy passages, into an apartment never used since some cousin or kin died in it about twenty years before. Can you stand such a ceremony as this? Will not your mind misgive you, when you find yourself in this gloomy chamber—too lofty and extensive for you, with only the feeble rays of a single lamp to take in its size—its walls hung with tapestry exhibiting figures as large as life, and the bed of dark green stuff or purple velvet, presenting even a funereal appearance?

How fearfully will you examine the furniture of your apartment!—And what will you discern?—Not tables, toilettes, wardrobes, or drawers, but on one side perhaps the remains of a broken lute, on the other a ponderous chest which no efforts can open, and over the fire-place the portrait of some handsome warrior, whose features will so incomprehensibly strike you, that you will not be able to withdraw your eyes from it. Dorothy meanwhile, no less struck by your appearance, gazes on you in great agitation, and drops a few unintelligible hints. To raise your spirits, moreover, she gives you reason to suppose that the part of the abbey you inhabit is undoubtedly haunted, and informs you that you will not have a single domestic within call.

(This passage goes on, reminding me of the Haunting of Hill House and just about any horror book or movie with a haunted house I have ever seen. It can’t be a coincidence)?

Henry continues highlighting every stereotypical element of a haunted house, forcing Catherine to insist she is not afraid. And so with this conversation fresh in her mind and her obsession firmly implanted into her imagination, she is lead to her room. Where, of course, she experiences almost everything Henry just described.

However, the days pass and most of what originally scared her finds a reasonable explanation in the light of day. Though many angst-filled events conspire to keep Henry and Catherine apart, it was a relief to finally end the book knowing they would be together.

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*As I was doing a little research about this novel, I came across some discussions of that list of ‘horrid novels’ Isabella mentioned above. It was thought Austen made up the titles until they were rediscovered in the early 20th century. Valancourt Books is publishing them all in affordable new editions.

My Edition
Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Penguin Books
Device: Paperback
Year: 1817, 1972
Pages: 252
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, #AusteninAugustRBR, TBR

Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman (2017)

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The last root of the world-tree goes to a spring in the home of the gods, to Asgard, where the Aesir make their home. Each day the gods hold their council here, and it is here they will gather in the last days of the world, before they set out for the final battle of Ragnarok.

 

I loved reading this book. It took me almost a week to finish it, because it begged to be read out loud. At least that was my response. Gaiman’s well-drawn stories of the Norse pantheon are made to be recited around a campfire, in a long house, or a cozy modern living room.

Two caveats: I have never read anything by Neil Gaiman, so I can’t compare this to anything he is known for. And secondly, I have only an elementary knowledge of the tales of the Norse Gods, Ragnarok and the Norse mythological end times. As Gaiman states in the introduction, he has had a life-long interest in the Norse Gods, but this is a retelling. I don’t know how ‘purists’ have reacted to this book. But I just know his prose is vivid, deep, poetic, humorous and that I was sometimes brought to tears by it.

Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya

All the traditional stories are here, how Thor gets his hammer, Balder’s beauty, how humans were created from the spit of the norsemyth2Aesir and Vanir, Loki’s shenanigans and his final betrayal of the Gods, Freya’s constant misuse as a bargaining chip between the Gods and their enemies and the creation story of the Gods and the land, and the ash tree Yggdrasil that connects the worlds.

 

The various sections tell the stories of the conflicts between the Gods and the giants, ogres and dwarfs. At the heart of almost every dispute is Loki, who by his selfishness or disregard puts the Gods in peril. And while he begrudgingly resolves the issue someone often dies, has a body part cut off or puts Freya in the awful position of marrying someone, well, awful, so Thor can take back his hammer.

‘Freya’s Unusual Wedding’

Freya’s hands were squeezed into tight fists. The necklace of the Brisings tumbled from her neck to the floor. She did not appear to notice. She was staring at Thor and Loki as if they were the lowest, most unpleasant vermin she had ever seen.

“What kind of person do you think I am? Do you think I’m that foolish? That disposable? That I’m someone who would actually marry an ogre just to get you out of trouble? If you two think that I am going to the land of the giants, that I’ll put on a bridal crown and veil and submit to the touch and the …lust of that ogre…that I’d marry him…Get out. What kind of a woman do you think I am?

But. My hammer,” said Thor.

“Shut up, Thor,” said Loki.

“She’s very beautiful when she’s angry,” said Thor. “You can see why that ogre wants to marry her.”

“Shut up, Thor,” said Loki again.

The Gods as presented here are a sometimes bumbling, bargaining, conniving lot, full of the bravado you’d expect mythical defenders of their people to be. Though they outwit their enemies with fraternity-like pranks, mistaken identity and witty word games, in the end they step up to take the mantles of their destiny and defend their world to the end. And while there are definitely scenes of violence and questionable ethics, there are universal morals here that would benefit adults and older children alike.

Ragnarok, The Last Battle

The final section is the death-battle Ragnarok, the end of the Gods. It is vivid and personal as each God is paired with his evil counterpart as they fight and die together; Tyr and the “nightmare dog” Garm, Odin and Fenrir the Wolf, Thor and the Serpent and so on.

The end times begin with a winter that never ends, not broken by spring, summer or autumn.

This will be the age of cruel winds, the age of people who become as wolves, who prey upon each other, who are not better than wild beasts. Twilight will come to the world, and the places where the humans live will fall into ruins, flaming briefly, then crashing down and crumbling into ash and devastation….the sun in the sky will vanish, as if eaten by a wolf, and the moon will be taken from us, too, and no one will be able to see the stars any longer. Darkness will fill the air, like ashes, like mist.

There will be earthquakes and flooding as the seas rise and surge onto the land. There will be no more life in the oceans…The rotted corpses of fish and of whales, of seals and sea monsters, will wash in the waves. At this time Loki will rise from beneath the earth and lead his legions of Hel, who died shameful deaths, who will return to the earth to fight once more…determined to destroy anything that still loves and lives above the earth.

The modern parallel is striking as it must be with every age, period, epoch that shares in a similarity of end times, of doom, of uncertainty, which is why these old stories never really get old and why telling them out loud, reciting them or acting them out connects us with each other as well as with the past.

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My Edition
Title: Norse Mythology
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2017
Pages: 299
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love, What’s in a Name

 

There is More to Me than the Classics: A Conundrum

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I am wrestling with the focus of my blog. I fear I have limited myself to writing almost solely about 19th and early 20th century classic literature (which does make up the bulk of fiction that I read) and wonder if there is room for the history, pop culture and religion I also read?

The phrase relevant obscurity has always been directed at me personally, because the emphasis on the above nonfiction for most of my life made me so suspicious of fiction (I would like to write a post on that) that I am discovering classic literature for the first time. The relevance of these books and how they help me see the past and a period of history I love has added so much to my life.

IMG_4775And yet, I have been reading books on religion and spirituality since I was 12 when I was given a book on Hanukkah; that brought God into my heretofore agnostic worldview and set me on a seeker’s path of which I still walk. And the Medieval history I majored in and the American studies courses I took later still figure strongly in what I read now, though I don’t share any of that here.

 

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So, I am going to try some new kinds of posts throughout the next few months to see how comfortable I am about sharing more of my life through the various books I read, the thoughts they provoke and even some non-book-related musings, because while I have thought hard about starting another blog in addition to this one, oh man, that seems like a lot of work! But also, like many other bloggers and readers, I am multifaceted offline, so why pretend otherwise online?

 

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I would love to know if anyone else feels their blog, either by its title or focus, is too restrictive to the broader range of what they want to share?

What did you decide to do about it or are you still wrestling with it?

Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles (1981)

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But no men got killed by the enemy, not one, on United States soil…They never got here. Do you realize what that saved the American psyche from? Think how we would have felt if we’d seen Germans parading down Fifth Avenue in New York, locking up President Roosevelt, pasting up orders on buildings telling what time we had to be home, what we couldn’t read, how much we’d be allowed to eat, if anything…What if you’d seen your house blow up, with your mother inside, and your baby sister, and your little dog.

 

This is a sequel to the young adult classic, A Separate Peace published in 1959, although it is a stand-alone book and does not require any knowledge of the first book.

The story takes place at Devon School, a prep school for boys in New Hampshire, just after WWII. The war factors into both books with profound effects on the character and aspirations of the boys. In A Separate Peace military service was inevitable due to the draft and affected how the boys interacted with each other and themselves, as well as their plans for the future. In Peace Breaks Out, the graduating class is the first in many years where the young men can look forward to a ’normal’ future. But they feel cheated that they aren’t going to be able to ‘do their part’ in fighting the bad guys ‘over there,’ so instead, they fight them at school.

The school becomes a microcosm of the fear the larger world feels in the aftermath of the war over Russian domination and Nazi sympathy. A cabal develops among the boys led by the editor of the school newspaper, Wexford, who plot against German apologist Hochschwender with disastrous results.

Pete Hallam, war hero and recent alum, who has come back to Devon school to teach history and physical education sees what is happening and tries to intervene. But suspicions on both sides are impossible to break through. When a stained glass window honoring the students who fought and died in the war is broken, the damage Wexford has done to Hochschwender’s character has dire consequences.

Knowles has a gift for enfolding the reader into the life of the school through seasonal changes which dictate the rhythm and activities of the boys. I found this to be true in the first book as well. Winter especially, when it is brutally cold gives the boys little time for physical activities, but a lot of time for scheming and plotting. And like the boys in this boarding school who are only able to leave with permission, we also are forced to stay and grapple with their fear, anger and suspicion of each other.

While there are some weak plot lines, Knowles has a gift for creating memorable characters and as in the first book, that aspect is strong in the second.

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My Edition:
Title: Peace Breaks Out
Author: John Knowles
Publisher: Bantam
Device: Mass market paperback
Year: 1981
Pages: 178

Challenges: TBR

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton (1905)

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You asked me just now for the truth—well, the truth about any girl is that once she’s talked about she’s done for; and the more she explains her case the worse it looks. 

 

Though Lily Bart didn’t grow up rich, she was born into a comfortable and respectable home with relatives high on the social scale. Like most girls in this class her only purpose in life is to find a wealthy, respected husband. Lily doesn’t just have hopes this will happen, she is very good at making it happen.

But it all comes crashing down when her father makes a series of bad business deals leaving her at the mercy of relatives and friends. Her luck holds out longer than many in this situation, because her beauty and charm is sought after and admired in her ‘set’ who continue to include her in their social gatherings, weekend outings and trips abroad.

Because her future is dependent on whom she marries Lily, like all women of her class, must calculate and weigh every conversation, each action and event she makes. She becomes a keen observer of the most minute details of what is socially acceptable and there are so many! One wrong word or action, one misinterpreted conversation or negative comment against her or showing too much interest in a man or not enough, can have devastating consequences.

The Power of Gossip and Lies

When the gossip about Lily and the unfounded lies begin to run rampant, the same friends who welcomed her into their world at her father’s death, abandon her and are willing to watch her fall rather than come to her defense and risk damaging their own reputations. As Mr. Rosedale admits to her,

Mrs. Dorset…did you a beastly bad turn last spring. Everybody knows what Mrs. Dorset is, and her best friends wouldn’t believe her on oath where their own interests were concerned; but as long as they’re out of the row it’s much easier to follow her lead than to set themselves against it, and you’ve simply been sacrificed to their laziness and selfishness.

One misstep in judgment (going to the apartment of her close male friend alone) begins the downward spiral of gossip and innuendo Lily never recovers from. And her pride makes it impossible for her to fight back.

Not only has the gossip killed any prospect for marriage, the question of how can Lily then support herself must be considered. In this class system, women like Lily are born to be dependent. There is never a question about working or learning a trade. Though she tries her hand at various occupations, Wharton writes a remarkable passage of truth that Lily is conscious of:

She had learned by experience that she had neither the aptitude nor the moral constancy to remake her life on new lines to become a worker among workers, and let the world of luxury and pleasure seep by her unregarded…Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the hummingbirds’ breast?

 Wharton’s Unsentimental Pen

I have railed against Wharton for writing such depressing novels as Ethan Frome  and Summer. It isn’t that I expect a fantasy of happy endings, but Ethan Frome, Charity Royall and Lily Bart cannot catch a break from the rigid social norms they struggle against.

However, about half way through The House of Mirth I had a stop-me-in-my-tracks moment: Wharton doesn’t write depressing novels, she just writes with an unsentimental pen. She chooses to write stories about people’s fate or more precisely that they can’t escape it once an action or word sets them on that trajectory; that social norms are so rigid and a person’s duty to their class is so morally strong there is no wiggle room for escape or independence from it. For whatever reason, Wharton writes about the injustices of a system that kills passion, desire and freedom.

And was this personal? I have read many times Ethan Frome is the most autobiographical novel she has ever written. So perhaps all this thwarted desire is her personal biographical commentary.

Women as Instigators

It is horribly sad that women in the novel are the instigators of the lies and stories that bring Lily down and that her own aunt with whom she is living believes the gossip about Lily accepting unwanted attention from married men. She not only believes it, but instead of asking Lily outright if what people are saying is true, she is incensed that Lily has allowed herself to be talked about in the first place,

It was horrible of a young girl to let herself be talked about; however unfounded the charges against her, she must be to blame for their having been made.

When your own family members turn against you, what recourse do you have? And when you know fighting back is useless, how do you cope?

Bullying in The House of Mirth

While The House of Mirth is rooted in its time period, something struck me as very contemporary. Lily’s death is suspicious in terms of it being an accident or self-inflicted. But the stage was set because of the devastating effects of the bullying and meanness she was subjected to. This is the same behavior and sometimes the result many teenagers of today are forced to endure.

Lily Bart shows us the tragic outcome when this behavior is allowed to grow and fester unchecked. I think this puts to rest those critics who wonder if  classic literature should still be taught in schools.

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My Edition:
Title: The House of Mirth
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Bantam Classic
Device: Mass market paperback
Year: 1905
Pages: 317
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club, Mount TBR

 

Upstream: Selected Essays, Mary Oliver (2016)

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I am one of those who has no trouble imagining the sentient lives of trees, of their leaves in some fashion communicating or of the massy trunks and heavy branches knowing it is I who have come, as I always come, each morning, to walk beneath them, glad to be alive and glad to be here.

 

I didn’t know Mary Oliver wrote essays. I know her as the writer of many of my favorite poems and a woman in love with and who embodies the natural world.

 

Childhood

In this collection, she shares her early experiences of wandering through the woods of her Ohio childhood and the writers and poets she discovered, whose works illumined her inner and outer worlds from a young age,

As a young person, I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door—a thousand opening doors!—past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.

and her relationships with the animal, bug, bird and plant worlds of the Provincetown of adulthood, and how she created her writing life.

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

 

Whitman

As a Young Adult

In high school, she counted Walt Whitman among her ‘friends’ with whom she would skip school for the woods “with a knapsack of books.” Warned she might not graduate, her parents let her ‘go her own way.’

Down by the creek, or in the wide pastures…I spent my time with my friend: my brother, my uncle, my best teacher…Whitman’s poems stood before me like a model of delivery when I began to write poems myself….The oracular tenderness with  which he viewed the world—its roughness, its differences, the stars, the spider—nothing was outside the range of his interest….But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing….I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.

Her experiences in nature became part of her psyche, then translated into a visceral experience. It is fair to say, she is a ‘hands on writer’ as she describes an hour spent in the woods walking on all fours.

I had seen the world from the level of the grasses….I was some slow old fox, wandering, breathing, hitching along, lying down finally at the edge of the bog, under the swirling rickrack of the trees.

You must not ever stop being whimsical.

Besides Whitman, other sources of influence were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe and Percy Bysshe Shelley. She writes of their personal stories of sorrows and challenges and what fueled their creative impulse. I am always fascinated to read what one writer thinks about another and how or why they were of influence.

Of Emerson she writes. I think of him whenever I set to work on something worthy. And there he is also, avuncular and sweet, but firm and corrective, when I am below the mark.

That we are spirits that have descended into our bodies, of this Emerson was sure. That each man was utterly important and limitless, an “infinitude,” of this he was also sure. And it was a faith that leads, as he shows us again and again, not to stasis but activity, to the creation of the moral person from the indecisive person.

Of Poe: For are we not all, at times, exactly like Poe’s narrators—beating upon the confining walls of circumstance, the limits of the universe? In spiritual work, with good luck (or grace) we come to accept life’s brevity for ourselves. But the lover that is in each of us—the part of us that adores another person—ah! That is another matter….In the wide circles of timelessness, everything material and temporal will fail, including the manifestation of the beloved… This is Poe’s real story. As it is ours. And this is why we honor him, why we are fascinated far past the simple narratives. He writes about our own inescapable destiny.

 

Close Encounters

In several essays she describes encounters with nonhuman inhabitants of the spideynatural world around her: the mating and mothering habits of a female spider whose web Oliver finds in a stairwell and whose 6 egg sacs she watches as “the uncountable number of progeny have spilled” out of them; a rescued injured seagull she brought back to her house whose rehabilitation became part of the routine and pattern of her life during the several months it lived; the observation of a female snapping turtle as it struggled to lay its eggs on land against its natural predators, including Oliver, who will come back to this spot where the cache is and dig up half the eggs to scramble for breakfast. “I ate them all, with attention, whimsy, devotion, and respect.”

Poet and Literary Critic

As a writer, her word choices and phrases in these essays are as lyrical and expressive, wild and intense as the poetry she writes. I found myself reading many passages out loud envisioning the world she is describing. Her attention to the details of the flora and fauna she writes about in her poems make these essays powerful, visual and captivating to read. Here are two:

hornedowlBut the great horned [owl]…if one of those should touch me, it would touch to the center of my life, and I must fall. They are the pure wild hunters of our world….I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world….When I hear it resounding through the woods,…I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life—as, for example my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry.

She found an injured seagull on the sea shore and took it home to care for and named it, Bird:

He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not fact: this is the other part of knowing something, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief. Imagine lifting the lid from a jar and finding it filled not with darkness but with light. Bird was like that. Startling, elegant, alive. 

Finally, in a wonderful passage connecting her spirituality and the bond she has with the nonhuman beings around her, she calls them a company of spirits, as well as bodies:

I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves—we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.

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My Edition:
Title: Upstream: Selected Essays
Author: Mary Oliver
Publisher: Penguin Press
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2016
Pages: 178
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

A Domestic Tale as Wartime Propaganda: Mrs. Miniver (1939), Jan Struther


Mrs. Miniver was “more powerful to the war effort than the combined work of six military divisions.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill

What effect can a book made up of the vignettes of simple family life have on a world in conflict? Can descriptions of dentist visits, a mother/daughter shopping spree in search of the perfect doll, Christmas stocking treasures, the almost sacred responsibility of finding the right engagement planner, and feeling the joys of Spring, turn apathetic nations into a call to arms? Apparently, one did.

First published as a series of columns in The Times (of London), the Minivers are a fictional middle class family living an idyllic life in Kent. Mrs. Miniver details her life as a wife and mother to architect Clem and their three children Vin, Judy and Toby. Her days, though simple and common, are observed with a depth of wisdom and poignancy that grows as the world’s crises encroach into her life. Through all her normal activities she is aware her world is in that liminal time between the peace and stability of ordinary daily life and the upheaval of the war to come.

When Mrs. Miniver goes doll shopping with her 12 year-old daughter she wonders whether the “modern unbreakable dolls, which lasted for years, were more, or less, precious to their owners than the old china ones, whose expectation of life had been a matter of months.” On the day the family must give up their old car, she feels its loss deeply because she is a “fool about inanimate objects…She did not pretend to herself that cars had souls or even minds…No, but a car, nowadays, was such an integral part of one’s life… that it had acquired at least the status of a room in one’s house. To part from it, whatever its fault, was to lose a familiar piece of background.” As the car is driven away, she cannot bear to watch and turns on the bath tap, lathers up her ears and begins to sing at the top of her lungs.

Though her days are spent like any middle class wife and mother in child rearing, lunches, teas and weekend parties to ascribe to her a stereotypical superficiality or ignorance of the larger world, would be a mistake. And while many of her activities are light-hearted and relatable, as when she obsesses over the design and feel of a new engagement planner and purchases her second choice only to return minutes later for the one she really wants, or the annual New Year’s Eve fortune telling party where liquid lead is dropped in water to harden as the oracle device, Mrs. Miniver notices little things and ponders their power and worthiness.

But the world’s problems do encroach and she is forced to come to terms with their effect. When she takes her niece to Switzerland and the rumblings of war are apparent she experiences a moment of great universality when a little boy takes her hand to show her his rock collection, which makes her think of her own son and his “c’lection” of rocks.  She wonders at the ridiculous war talk, “when little boys in all countries collect stones, dodged cleaning their teeth, and hated cauliflower?”

As she passes a newsstand in her little village, she sees the word ‘JEWS’ plastered on the front page of the evening newspaper and winces. But she catches herself. She must not get to that point of not thinking about it. “To shrink from vicarious pain was the ultimate cowardice…it was a sin. Only by feeling it to the utmost, and by expressing it, could the rest of the world help to heal the injury which had caused it. Money, food, clothing, shelter—people could give all these and still it would not be enough: it would not absolve them from the duty of paying in full, also, the imponderable tribute of grief.”

As the prospect of war with Germany looms closer she and her family must be fitted for gas masks. And by the end of the book, the Minivers are living in their home in the country and fostering 7 children from London families to safeguard against the bombs.

The Film

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The power of the book and the release of the film version in 1942 cannot be underestimated. When the book was published in the United States in 1940, it topped the bestseller list and Jan Struther was sent on a lecture tour throughout the country.  President Roosevelt thought the film so important he ordered it rushed to theaters all over the US. As with Churchill, he believed it struck a chord and hastened America’s involvement in the war.

I have to admit I am a big fan of the film. And while it is very different from the book, its impact has been a lasting one garnering awards and placement on best and favorite movie lists. In 2009, The Library of Congress added it to its film registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant and will be preserved for all time.

Simple daily mundane routines. Family connections, community support and care for your neighbors. What the Allies fought for. What the Germans felt:

Mrs Miniver “shows the destiny of a family during the current war, and its refined powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of. There is not a single angry word spoken against Germany; nevertheless the anti-German tendency is perfectly accomplished.” Joseph Goebbels

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My Edition:
Title: Mrs. Miniver
Author: Jan Struther
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace and Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1942
Pages: 298
Full plot summary

Challenges: Mount TBR, What’s in a Name, Classics Club

Mount TBR Checkpoint #1

First Quarter Check-in with the Mount TBR Challenge

I feel so behind with everything lately! My only defense is that we had such a dreary, wet winter here in Southern California that when it was all over, I just wanted to be outside; the sun was too distracting! Fortunately, all that rain did wonders for the drought we have been in and hopefully we will continue to conserve and use water responsibly.

Though my posts are a little less, still I feel I have made progress on my TBR pile.

Bev, of My Reader’s Block and the host of the Mount TBR Challenge, has asked us to check in on our progress and has these questions for us:

1.  How many miles up your mountain/number of books have you read?
I chose the beginner’s mountain, Pike’s Peak and I am proud to say I am half way there with 6 books read, to date.

2. Complete ONE (or more if you like) of the following:
A. Post a picture of your favorite cover so far.
This is no contest. The cover art from The Bronze Bow is beautiful.

bronzebow

B. Who has been your favorite character so far? And tell us why, if you like.
Hands down it has to be Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, because of her ability to see past the hardships of her reality into something better.

3. Have any of the books you read surprised you?
I had been wanting to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and it didn’t disappoint. I loved the historical aspect of the story, a true American immigrant tale, as well as the impact the book had on the public, especially that of soldiers who carried it with them into the trenches of WWII.
And I have to say, as absolutely depressing as Ethan Frome is, I could not help but admire Edith Wharton as a writer.

This is what I have read so far:

  1. Ruth Hall (1855), Fanny Fern
  2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), Betty Smith
  3. The Bronze Bow (1961), Elizabeth George Speare
  4. Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), E.M. Forster
  5. The Land of Little Rain (1903), Mary Austin
  6. Ethan Frome (1911), Edith Wharton

With a quarter of the way to go, I will not be surprised if I make up the next mountain. Unless, of course, we get more rain 🙂

When One Bookstore Door Closes, Another Doesn’t Usually Open

This is excruciating. I am sure many of you can relate.

An incredible used bookstore nearby is closing its doors. I have been buying books there since I moved to Huntington Beach in 2009, because they have a wide and deep classics section. I remember I was shocked to see a copy of The Blithedale Romance sitting on the shelf when I thought, ‘no one will actually have this sitting on their shelf.’ Or Sarah Orne Jewett’s, The Country of the Pointed Firs. I bought my first Virago there (The Matriarch) as well as many of the books for the Reading New England Challenge of last year. I imagined buying my books there forever.

This is the kind of place where, though the shelves are bulging and recently bought books are still in boxes on the floor, the owner knows her stock. When you request a title she goes immediately to the section or reaches inside one of the boxes and pulls out the book. Yes, it IS like magic!

Like so many businesses, the bookshop owners are powerless over rises in rent and though the store does a brisk business, the new rate is higher than what makes sense. This is such a loss for any community.

camelot3
Will I find out why you write such depressing books?

My last purchase included the 1940 second edition of the 1935 two-volume set of The Esoteric Tradition by de Purucker in pristine condition, which I am thrilled to have. I also found R.W.B. Lewis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Edith Wharton and my first Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere. I was a bit overwhelmed as I walked through the familiar aisles…

 

 

 

 

 

My last book haul:

camelot

A non-science fiction H.G. Wells and a Medieval female coroner. How intriguing!

Bon voyage, Camelot Books. Like your namesake your story will remain forever in my heart!

Happy Spring from ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’-The Wind in the Willows

pan

This is one of my favorite passages from the Wind in the Willows where Rat and Mole meet the half human half god, Pan, Lord of the Wild Wood and Protector of Animals, while looking for a missing baby otter. For some reason it always reminds me of Spring, which is fitting for today. Happy Spring and Renewal of Life!

Rat and Mole are rowing their boat along a river searching frantically for Portly, the baby otter. They hear a faint piping sound drawing them forward as the forest around them begins to shimmer with a light illuminating everything around them. They moor their boat and climb onto shore.IMG_4514

“This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,” whispered Rat. “Here in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him.” Mole’s muscles turned to water as he felt the Awe upon him. It was no panic or terror…but it was an awe that smote and held him, and without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near.

…[Mole] raised his humble head; … and looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down in them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in the majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter.

“Rat, are you afraid?”

“Afraid? Afraid of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!”

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

Sudden and magnificent, the sun’s broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of the birds that hailed the dawn.

________

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows. Puffin Books (Penguin Classics), 1983, from the original, 1908. 120-126.