Tag Archives: literature

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

” I think the Church Catechism has a good deal to do with the unhappy relations which commonly even now exist between parents and children. That work was written too exclusively from the parental point of view; the person who composed it did not get a few children to come in and help him; he was clearly not young himself, nor should I say it was the work of one who liked children. . .”

Samuel Butler by Charles Gogin.jpg

BOOK? . . . The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler (1903)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Realism/Satire

ABOUT WHAT? . . . This is a multigenerational family saga of 19th Century rural England, but it’s much more than just a story about a family’s historical struggles. The family is a typical one full of ordinary people who make the parish church their means of livelihood and the foundation of their self-identity. But, despite their ordinary lives, the insights Butler gives us about such families are extraordinary.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Thanks to its eloquent narration and its depiction of the traditional way the older generation raises and instructs the younger generation, The Way of All Flesh is one of the great novels exposing the cruelty of strict religions and other hypocrisies. The book dared to say things rarely, or never before, said about established religion and Victorian morals. The book was monumental in its impact on modern thinking. It was a work of humanist philosophy that used a fictional story as its vehicle.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Maybe. . . The plot is slow but it’s a slow-motion slap in the face. The characters are unremarkable but that’s how Butler needed them to be, and they’re as well-drawn and real as a portrait on a wall. The dialogue is sparse and the prose is unadorned. But Butler’s message is full of sympathy and kindness.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . . The finished manuscript sat in a drawer for twenty years until Samuel Butler gave it to a friend and as a dying wish asked the friend to arrange for it to be published, finally. It was published a year after Butler’s death.

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence

” The bruise was deep, deep, deep…the bruise of the false inhuman war. It would take many years for the living blood of the generations to dissolve the vast black clot of bruised blood, deep inside their souls and bodies.”

BOOK? . . . Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Romance plus philosophical and social themes

ABOUT WHAT? . . . An illicit and potentially scandalous love affair, described in intimate detail, and the emotional conditions leading up to it. The book portrays the sadness and emptiness of the generation that fought and endured World War I. It offers only a glimmer of hope that people so emotionally damaged can find fulfillment in their lives. Clifford, Lord Chatterley, who is left paraplegic from the war, physically personifies the emotional numbness that torments Connie, Lady Chatterley, and leaves her feeling that something is missing from her life and life in general.

The novel also describes the ugliness, the misery of modern industrial society, and laments the loss of pastoral beauty. At the same time the book deplores British class structure, which persists despite the social and economic upheaval all around it.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Most people think of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a daringly sexual book that offended large segments of the public. Unlike other books (by Updike, Roth, Irving, etc.) that unfortunately add sexual content merely to shock or titillate, Lawrence’s novel is rich in sex because sex is a symbol and a symptom. It is there to convey serious feelings that matter to the characters. It is described with wondrous respect, and the love scenes place women and men on the same plane, in terms of desires and feelings.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Maybe. It may not be a great novel, standing head and shoulders about others. But it’s a very good one, with memorable characters, a lot of remarkable prose and deep disturbing thoughts about men, women, life, love and sex.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . Nope. I said what I gotta say.

A short story that somehow choked me up

I’m reading some stories by Guy de Maupassant and they’re all excellent but one in particular put a lump in my throat. It’s called “Mademoiselle Fifi” and it’s set during the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71), when Maupassant was about 20. He wrote it a few years later. That war actually changed Europe forever, because it prompted Prussia and various smaller German states to become a unified Germany. There is something very astute and foreshadowing in the story regarding the events that were eventually to shake Europe in the 20th Century. I don’t get the sense that Maupassant was anti-German per se, but simply that he was anti-war and anti-cruelty in any form.

You can read, online, the very edition of the story that I got from the library. The link is below this photo of the author as a young man. How often do you get to read a story with such distinguished credentials: story by Guy de Maupassant, translation by Mrs. John Galsworthy, and preface by Joseph Conrad! . . . .

Guy de Maupassant fotograferad av Félix Nadar 1888.jpg

https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=inu.32000007503560&view=1up&seq=145

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . “Lady Audley’s Secret”, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (pub. 1861)

“Circumstantial evidence,” continued the young man, as if he scarcely heard Lady Audley’s interruption—”that wonderful fabric which is built out of straws collected at every point of the compass, and which is yet strong enough to hang a man.”

BOOK? . . . Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (pub. 1861)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . “Sensation” fiction, early detective novel or mystery

ABOUT WHAT? . . . An unarguably beautiful young woman (with a “Secret”) who marries into a wealthy English family, one of whose members, an idle bachelor solicitor named Robert Audley, is roused into amateur sleuthing by his unflagging loyalty to a childhood friend in trouble. Not surprisingly, Robert cannot help his troubled friend without boldly piercing the Lady’s veil of secrecy.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Lady Audley’s Secret was a popular novel in the early days of the detective or mystery genre (what they referred to as sensation fiction). Wilkie Collins was a better known contemporary of Braddon, although Braddon’s books were very numerous and successful. One of her mentors was Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton (“It was a dark and stormy night.”).

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Yes, in terms of pure enjoyment it ranks high on my recent reading list. It’s an excellent detective novel. It does not deal with social issues or deep themes, it’s just for entertainment. But, its style, construction and characterization are on a par with many well-respected Victorian authors who concerned themselves with weightier matters.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . The one oddity about the book is its frequent disparagement of women: both by the narrator and the protagonist. Certainly these critical views of women were not the views of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. My hunch is that she incorporated this attitude into the novel either as a sort of private joke, or as a way of appeasing male readers and reviewers who, in those days, often harbored strong prejudices against women writers.

Can Toni Morrison describe Spring? Oh, I think she can manage to find the words. . . .

What can beat bricks warming up to the sun? The return of awnings. The removal of blankets from horses’ backs. Tar softens under the heel and the darkness under bridges changes from gloom to cooling shade. After a light rain, when the leaves have come, tree limbs are like wet fingers playing in woolly green hair. Motor cars become black jet boxes gliding behind hoodlights weakened by mist. On sidewalks turned to satin figures move shoulders first, the crowns of their heads angled shields against the light buckshot that the raindrops are. The faces of children glimpsed at windows appear to be crying, but it is the glass pane dripping that makes it seem so.

Toni Morrison, Jazz

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . “The Last Frontier”, by Howard Fast

“He thought of his long line of troopers as a blue, steel-studded whip.”

Howard Fast.jpg

BOOK? . . . The Last Frontier, by Howard Fast

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Historical fiction, Western fiction, realism, social issues

ABOUT WHAT? . . . The fateful, heroic 1878 trek of Dull Knife’s starving band of Northern Cheyenne from the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) northward toward their ancestral homeland, while an entire country and its army demonized and pursued them.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Published in 1941, when the world was paying too little attention to racial extermination in Europe, the book was a reminder of past genocides even in this land of “freedom”.  The 1964 movie “Cheyenne Autumn” was inspired in part by Fast’s book, but also by Mari Sandoz’s novel which gave its general plot and its title to the movie. The movie was one of the first big films to portray Plains Indians in a sympathetic light.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Yes, if you have any interest in the Old West, the pioneer days, and the tragic situation of the Indian tribes in the late 1800’s.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . Howard Fast wrote some pretty impressive books, including among his several dozen novels, The Immigrants, Spartacus, and The Dinner Party. He was skilled at weaving history with fiction, and his writing style is more eloquent than many who write historical fiction.

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

“I could never work out whether we were to view religion as a life-insurance policy or a life sentence.”

Book? . . . The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

What kind? . . . Novel

Be more specific . . . Literary fiction, realism with some mystical elements, social issues, historical family saga

About what? . . . American Baptist preacher and his wife and daughters go to the Belgian Congo in 1959 to do missionary work in the “heart of darkness”, the dense interior jungle of central Africa. Their experiences highlight the political and cultural conflicts that began with European colonization centuries earlier and continue to plague Africa today.

Significance? . . . A beautifully constructed historical family saga, about a subject that most readers know too little about (me included). Characters are developed brilliantly. Apt and memorable metaphors. A vivid exposé against colonialism in general and evangelical religion in particular, this is a story that had to be written. Fortunately, it was written by an author with depth, eloquence and heart.

So should I read it or what? . . . Sure it’s fairly long, but, weaving history, politics and family turmoil into a cohesive story, I believe it is the best historical family saga I have read.

You got anything else to add? . . . Kingsolver’s book The Bean Trees is a very good novel, worth reading if you want something shorter, simpler and lighter than her masterpiece The Poisonwood Bible.