Tag Archives: literature

Steinbeck’s small world

A high fog covered the sky, and behind it the moon shone, so that the forest was filled with a gauzelike light. There was none of the sharp outline we think of as reality. [Tortilla Flat]

Book cover design depicting several male workers, a woman in a dress, and several dogs of different breeds on a neighborhood street

They are novels in that each one is a series of connected stories, occurring chronologically. Put together they only equal the length of one shorter-than-average novel. But in Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, there’s more heart, and soul, than just about anything before or since.

Light in tone and small in scope, these short works capture everyday humanity, its strengths and weaknesses, to a T, because that’s what Steinbeck did better than anyone. Together they paint a true to life picture of the Monterey that Steinbeck knew as a young man.

They should be read consecutively, Tortilla Flat and then Cannery Row. Tortilla Flat, set in the squalid outskirts of Monterey, charts the friendship and fates of a group of young men bonded by their mutual lack of opportunity and ambition. Cannery Row is the industrial shoreline of Monterey, and its inhabitants reflect all the earthiness of any Depression-era factory town or village. The reader begins to feel like Monterey is a place they know and understand.

The stories should be read with appreciation for Steinbeck’s language: spare, vivid, poetic, every word a key to something. The characters’ speech is unadorned, natural to the place, time and class of the speaker:

“He ain’t going to be what you’d call tender,” said Hazel. “You’d have to cook him about two weeks to get him tender. How old about do you judge he was, Mack?”

“I’m forty-eight and I ain’t as tough as he is,” said Mack.

Eddie said “How old can a chicken get, do you think—that’s if nobody pushes him around or he don’t get sick?”

“That’s something nobody isn’t ever going to find out,” said Jones. [Cannery Row]

Steinbeck wrote some weightier books, far more serious and larger in scope. But these two short works are American gems, they say so much so sweetly about what we’re capable of as simple human beings.

Apparently, when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 there was criticism of the choice. I will never understand how that could be. While taste is a subjective matter, when you weigh the stories, the strength of the characters and their lives, along with the richness of the prose, I cannot see another writer more deserving of the award. In my school of thought, Steinbeck is the Dean of American writers.

Recently read The Magnificent Ambersons

First I read The Plutocrat (see prior post)and now The Magnificent Ambersons. I have spent my whole life (until recently) ignorant of the genius of Booth Tarkington. Am I solely to blame? Why didn’t English teachers and professors lecture me upon his deeply American (and Midwestern) wit and wisdom? Why didn’t friends or family members fold his books into my eager little hands? Why didn’t kindly librarians lead me to the correct shelf midway between Steinbeck and Twain and tell me that Tarkington is the third and central pillar of American letters?

Why? I don’t have time to worry about why, I have thirty-three Tarkington novels to read before my body or my brain turn to mold. Maybe reading them will work like an antiseptic and delay the moldering process.

 

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Erasers, by Alain Robbe-Grillet

The row is broken only at the perpendicular, identical crossroads, leaving just room enough to slip between the piles of ledgers and adding machines.

BOOK? . . . The Erasers, by Alain Robbe-Grillet (1953)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Nouveau Roman. Absurdist and/or realist mystery

ABOUT WHAT? . . . This is a murder mystery. But IS IT a murder mystery? And if it IS a murder mystery, WHY is it a murder mystery? And eventually, finding no answers, you die of frustration. When you read a story by Robbe-Grillet there will be things that you will never quite be sure of. He will tell you things and show you things and you will want to believe them, even if they don’t make sense because he never actually explains the things that he shows and tells. But if you find yourself believing certain things other things will make you think that you were a fool to believe the first set of things and that there are an infinite number of sets of things that you might want to believe in except that there could only be one set of things. Or could there?

On a slightly more literal level, the story is about a political murder in a port city of post-war Flanders. A government agent arrives in the city and investigates the murder. At least he SEEMS to be investigating the murder. And he SEEMS to be a government agent. Or does he? Sorry, strike that. Force of habit. Anyway, one thing is definite: he’s not a very efficient investigator. He spends a whole day wandering the streets of the port city, which are like a labyrinth (in college we read Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth. I remember liking it because of its mysterious strangeness. That’s all I remember). He finally manages to track down all the witnesses but the manner in which he does that leads to an illogical, nerve-racking climax. Or does it? Now cut that out, Chuck! Okay, you’re right, strike that, too.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Uhhhhh. Life is a mystery? Yeah, the book is absurdist and questions reality. It uses experimental style and structure. He creates a cold bleak mechanical world. Even the people are strange and mechanical, going about their lives as though they have no personal will. This was his first novel, the beginning of a groundbreaking career in literature and film.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Uhhhhh. Depends on your mood and your personality. Maybe not. But I’m glad I read it.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . The universe is expanding. In case you need something to make you feel less lost after reading Robbe-Grillet.

“Mother, dear, don’t fuss over me . . .”

Almost one hundred years ago, this was the young Englishman’s declaration of independence from The Mater:

I don’t really want to have my bed choked with hot-water bottles whenever I sneeze, and be given whiskies and lemon last thing; or to have my suits forever reft away to be cleaned, and all that. If I want a whisky I can ask the butler for it . . .”

Ann Bridge, Illyrian Spring (1935)

You Rang M Lord.jpg

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini

“When we know all of whatever it may be, we can never do anything but forgive, madame. That is the profoundest religious truth that was ever written.”

Scaramouche 1923 movie poster.jpg

BOOK? . . . Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini (1921)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Historical fiction, Adventure, Romance

ABOUT WHAT? . . . The French Revolution, what else? Andre-Louis Moreau (aka Scaramouche) is the kind of hero that silent movies were made about in Hollywood in the 1920’s. (That was even before the word “movie” was coined—they were called “photoplays” at that time.) There are also villains, swordplay, and beautiful damsels. There is rapier-like wit on the part of Scaramouche himself (he’s really a very clever guy), and his tongue keeps getting him in trouble in situations that would probably blow over if he held his tongue. He’s not the kind of guy to hold his tongue, though, or to make nice to bad guys just to avoid bloodshed. Hence, a very exciting, romantic novel written in stunning prose by Sabatini, who was only half English and spoke several other languages.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Nothing deep or significant, except that it does a good job of describing some of the chronology of the French Revolution and the complexity of the class struggle, from maybe a little more conservative point of view than we normally see.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Yeah, it’s very well written and conceived, the plot is twisty and tangly.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . It would be weird if the novel was translated into French: a French translation of an English novel about the French Revolution?

Truth is “Stranger” than . . .

Albert Camus, gagnant de prix Nobel, portrait en buste, posé au bureau, faisant face à gauche, cigarette de tabagisme.jpg

It may sound like the LAST thing you’d want to read right now, but in a weird way it could be the feel-good novel of the year. The Plague, by Albert Camus, is the story of a major city under siege by a deadly virus. Set in Oran, Algeria, in the 1940’s, it’s a graphic portrayal of a city suddenly infested with Bubonic Plague, strictly quarantined and cut off from the rest of the world. With little outside help, the city and its stunned residents must cope with the unreality of their situation alongside its very real threat to their lives. With contagion and corpses around every corner, the moral fiber of the populace is tested to its limits.

La Peste book cover.jpg

As in all his major writings, Camus questions the fundamental nature of life and death. As hard as it is to define those questions, the answers are even more elusive. But The Plague is a beautiful, yes beautiful, frightening and inspiring study of human nature in all its imperfection. And while we all want to escape, somehow, from the sadness and fear that right now bombard us from every direction, perhaps a deep dark look into the mirror of literary fiction is a truer escape, one that might comfort us longer and reflect a bit of light upon our path.

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Plutocrat, by Booth Tarkington

” Upon the wine list the General discovered a red Beaune, a dear lost love of his, he said—and not only said, but copiously proved by wearing his lost love’s colours, ere long, as his own complexion.”

BOOK? . . . The Plutocrat, by Booth Tarkington (1927)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Romance, but tempered somewhat by a jaded irony

ABOUT WHAT? . . . A 1920’s Atlantic Ocean voyage and North Africa land tour embarked upon by a young playwright named Laurence Ogle (I had a high school math teacher named Miss Ogle. Probably doesn’t mean anything). Well, for Laurence Ogle, this is a case of first love. They are barely out of U.S. waters before he is unwittingly smitten by a co-voyager, a Frenchwoman roughly a decade beyond his years, but what young man cannot relate to Ogle’s puppy-like helplessness, to the torment, the humiliation, the splendor of his infatuation? Ogle is not a simple character but, seeing only her loveliness, he discovers much more complexity in Madame Momoro’s nature than he is equipped to understand. The most obvious obstacle for Ogle is the gregarious Mr. Tinker, who seems to be everywhere that he, and Madame Momoro, happen to be. A ship can be like a prison when there is a ruggedly-handsome Midwestern plutocrat on board who can’t be avoided. Even North Africa can feel pretty small.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . This book illustrates the difference between realism and romance. Not in literature. In life. Guess which one wins in the end. And guess what the book is really saying about class distinctions in America. And guess how many reversals of fortune you will encounter in its pages. And guess what mysteries will be presented and puzzled over. And guess how many other things you will see in the characters and the plot that I did not see.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Uh-huh. Very funny, in parts, but that’s just the icing on the cake. There is sophistication, artistry and astuteness. The Plutocrat is a mislaid American gem of a novel, obscured and overshadowed by Tarkington’s other books only because it is not of very epic proportions. But you don’t find writing like this every day. Hardly ever, nowadays.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . I’m gonna get me some more books by this fella Tarkington because I probably shouldn’t even be writing little Two-bit reviews until I make sure I know what I’m talking about.

“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.

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Man With the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren

“The great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing, nothing at all, in the one land where ownership and virtue are one. Guilt that lay crouched behind every billboard which gave each man his commandments.”

Book? . . . The Man With the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren

What kind? . . . Novel

Be more specific . . . Literary fiction, realism, social issues, urban, slum fiction, anti-establishment, muckraking

About what? . . . Chicago, post-WWII, poor working class Polish neighborhood. A back-room poker dealer named Frankie Machine. Crooked cops, tough times. And brown stuff that nowadays we call Opioids.

Nelson Algren, 1956

Significance? . . . Some of the sharpest, smartest street-vernacular dialogue ever. How he did it I’ll never know. Characters are developed as well as you could ever ask for. Story gives you goosebumps, if you really think about it. Whitman-like eloquence, especially his use of similes comparing the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings with their surroundings. A great Chicago book, right up there with The Jungle, Sister Carrie, Native Son, and Saul Bellow’s stuff which I really haven’t read much yet.

So should I read it or what? . . . Hey, you’re not puttin’ that rap on me. Sure it’s fairly long and full of poetic language, and may be a little outdated in style and the way he weaves characters’ dreams into it. But Nelson Algren was a great writer and led an interesting life himself. Maybe his life and his books are a chance you don’t want to miss out on. What kind of gambler are you, when the chips are down?

You got anything else to add? . . . Well, it’s not easy to find his books. They don’t seem to be very common in libraries. Online, they’re expensive, even used ones. Probably mostly out-of-print. He was once very well-known, but then was sort of forgotten by time. Making a slow comeback, I think. That’s a good bet.

“A Cottonwood Stand” is now an AUDIOBOOK . . .

FRIENDS —

Actor Michael Butler Murray does such a beautiful job narrating my novel “A Cottonwood Stand” that, as an AUDIOBOOK, it comes alive in ways I never expected. For those of you who have already read the book in paperback or ebook, I simply want to express my deep gratitude to both of you. . .

BUT IF you have never listened to audiobooks, I would be honored if “A Cottonwood Stand” were your first selection! HERE is the link to an upcoming blog tour and other information about the new audiobook, where it is available, etc. :  https://audiobookwormpromotions.com/a-cottonwood-stand/

OR here is where you can find it directly on Audible: http://cottonwood.press/audiobook

Thank you!

A book we can all learn from. . .

It’s clever and smart and creative in every way. Inspiring for all ages.

Operation Frog Effect, by Sarah Scheerger (https://www.sarahlynnbooks.com/) is a beautiful portrayal of young hearts and minds trying their best to cope with life’s problems and do the right thing when faced with hard choices. The novel is a “novel” look into the private thoughts of eight young students in a progressive classroom who are torn by conflicting friendships and rivalries. Each of these bright young people must overcome their self-concerns, along with family issues, to forge a cooperative culture in which together they can learn, solve problems, and even make a positive difference in their school district.

Click to download Sarah Scheerger's author photo

With deep insight into adolescent psychology, Scheerger has created a sweet, enriching surprise for any middle grade reader who sits down on the family room couch, puts their feet up on the coffee table, opens the colorful cover of Operation Frog Effect, and beholds the story that leaps from its amazing pages.

Almost 500 pages but worth it

The Bailiff’s wife looked at him as if half expecting that he was about to ask her for something, whereupon the soul within her receded like a star, far out into the frozen wastes of infinity, and only the cold smile remained on earth.

Halldór Kiljan Laxness 1955.jpg

Independent People, by Halldor Laxness (Nobel Prize winner, 1955), is one of the foremost sagas of rural family life. It is the life and times of Bjartur, an Icelandic peasant who becomes a landowner and a human metaphor for mankind’s struggle against nature, hunger, and human evolution itself. Written and translated with such poetic realism, the book makes its reader feel like an honorary Icelander—and not a city-dweller but a citizen of the endless, inhospitable moors.

Sisterhood

Two fine feminist novels from two of the Bronte sisters. Both novels extraordinarily ahead of their time and written with that Bronte elegance of prose that is practically unmatched. And both novels relatively unknown, or at least unappreciated. And my reading both of them within a six month window (and usually within six feet of a window) was unplanned and unexpected. But I am quite unsorry.

Shirley was the novel that Charlotte Bronte (I don’t have those two little dots) published next after Jane Eyre. Naturally Shirley was a bit overshadowed by her older “sister”. And she was a less romantic novel, and less cohesive and way less compelling. Well, Charlotte had just lost a brother and two sisters to illness, which should account for some shortcomings in her written work product. But Shirley was, I think, a more feminist novel than Jane, which is saying something. Shirley, the title character, was a strong-willed independent and outspoken woman. Caroline was her friend, and Caroline was quiet and cautious. But not a pushover. They shared a romantic interest, Robert. Guess which one won. I’m not telling. You have to read the book. That’s not a heavy burden, it’s a beautiful novel, with plenty of themes besides feminism: friendship, love, political and economic struggle, human decency. It deserves to have the Bronte name on it.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was one of Anne Bronte’s novels (Anne was the youngest sister), and the title character could possibly be called the Mother of Modern Feminism. I don’t have the historical facts to back that up, that’s just my gut feeling about how amazing this book was for its time. The reason I got the book from the library is that my sister and brother-in-law loaned us a DVD of the movie and I wanted to read the book first. We haven’t watched the movie yet. Maybe Thursday. Anyway, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall should have made Anne just as famous as her sisters, but it didn’t. It has romance, but that’s not the main thrust of it. It’s really a social and psychological study of three characters, this time two men and one woman. The romance isn’t triangle shaped, it’s a line. Helen, the woman in the middle, is the Tenant. And, though she doesn’t know it, for my money she’s a heroic feminist of the first order. The reason she doesn’t know it is that she’s too busy dealing with the Victorian male chauvinist system and a husband whose character was inspired by the dissolute life and death of Branwell Bronte, Charlotte and Anne’s only brother.

I haven’t mentioned Emily. I read her book in college. Even though this little essay doesn’t give equal time to her book, I don’t think we have to feel too sad about where she stands in the halls of literature. She’s right up there with her sisters.

It makes the world go round

The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye.

We are pawns and puppets. We are pawns of economic forces, we are puppets of misery and want. In his groundbreaking novel Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser writes about American capitalism and what it does to its subject citizens. We are pawns and puppets, we make choices but our choices are determined by capitalism and the steel grip it has upon our shoulders. We have basic urges that control us, we want what we see that others have, we want what we admire, what we think we need. We want things we cannot have, and once we obtain them they no longer matter to us. We worship idols, we are impressionable as lambs.

Dramatizing the power that money, or want of money, exerts over us, Dreiser’s novel, published at the dawn of the 20th Century, was one of the early American novels written from a working class perspective and focused upon the class struggle. Following in his footsteps were books like Jews Without Money by Mike Gold, A World to Win by Jack Conroy, Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell, and the works of Steinbeck and John Dos Passos.

The story that Dreiser employs to dramatize his political theme is a love triangle—a young woman named Carrie and two established gentlemen. This sounds conventional enough in many ways but from Dreiser’s angle the love affairs are seen as economic more than romantic. They illustrate how the class struggle shapes our most intimate feelings, usually without our being aware. Dreiser takes us on a rags to riches and riches to rags journey. The bare plot sounds like melodrama, but it’s actually realism. The narration gives us in tiny detail all the circumstances motivating our three lovers, and even some of the minor characters. And, among those motivators, money is paramount.

Some of Dreiser’s prose may sound a bit stiff to our ears, and his characters’ frequent streams-of-consciousness tend to flow for many paragraphs. But his dialogue contains the rich, quirky vernacular of the times, and helps to counterbalance the above imperfections. There is great power in Sister Carrie, and its relevance as a working class novel is no less obvious today than in Dreiser’s own time.