28 February 2020

Book Beginning: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Book Beginnings is a weekly meme hosted by Rose City Reader. We share the first sentence (or so) of the book we are reading, along with our initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

The Writer, an old man with a white mustache, had some difficulty in getting into bed. The windows of the house in which he lived were high and he wanted to look at the trees when he awoke in the morning. A carpenter came to fix the bed so that it would be on a level with the window.

Since I live in Ohio now, I thought it was time I read this famous book from a son of Ohio. Rather than a regular novel, it is a series of connected stories. I don't have any idea what it's about and I'm looking forward to finding out.

26 February 2020

Industrial Poverty

Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life
Elizabeth Gaskell
Penguin, 1986 (first published 1848)
487 pages

"Mary Barton" tells the story of four Manchester families, but ultimately it's the story of the industrial poverty in Manchester, England, during a period that later came to be known as the "hungry forties". During the 1840s bad harvests, economic depression, and other issues led to severe poverty and hunger for the working class in Manchester, the heart of England's Industrial Revolution.

Mrs. Gaskell gives a very realistic portrayal of the impoverished workers and their families as they struggled to survive in squalid slums: very little clothing, shacks that were damp and drafty, little firewood for heat or candles for light, almost no food, children starving to death or freezing to death. Her scenes of everyday life are quite detailed and quite often grim. In this urban realism style she also shows us the prisons, courts & lawyers, the hostile relationship between workers and factory owners, and the nascent trade union movement.

The main plot follows the lives of two families of mill workers, John and Mary Barton and their daughter Mary; and their friends George and Jane Wilson, son Jem, and George's sister Alice. Another family is also important, young Mary's friend Margaret Jennings and Margaret's grandfather, Job Legh. All three families are beset by poverty, disease, and death during the story. A fourth family is less talked about but pivotal to the plot: the wealthy mill owner John Carson, Mrs. Carson, and their son Harry.

In the first half of the book we see the extreme conditions in Manchester's poor neighborhoods and learn about the grievances of the workers against the mill owners. It's mostly the story of John as he becomes more and more bitter about his life and joins the trade union. A murder happens and the second half of the book is the tale of young Mary's efforts to prove the man she loves is innocent of the crime. The first half is taken up with lots of atmosphere and the plight of the poor. Then, having established the background, the rest is more of a murder mystery. There is a happy ending for some of the characters, although it involves a rather contrived plot device, pretty much a deus ex machina.

Like many other Victorian novels, it is long with a complicated plot. Is has lots of those long, involved sentences that were in vogue then, the type that require re-reading to understand. But it was not difficult to read and I enjoyed the story. Mrs. Gaskell was very gifted in the way she wrote about the characters' feelings. Sometimes I had to take a break because I was so caught up in the story and was anxious about what would happen next.

Luckily this large book does not have a cast of thousands like some. I found it easy to keep track of who was who, unlike in Anthony Trollope's "Can You Forgive Her" when I had to draw family trees to follow the many characters. Because the British historical background is pertinent to understanding the story, I was happy to have an annotated edition that explained the cultural references which are opaque to us today.

Elizabeth Gaskell is a writer that is perhaps overlooked by today's readers of classic novels, and I think that is a mistake. This was the first of her six novels and was very well-written. She also wrote a biography of her friend Charlotte Bronte, which The Guardian named one of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time in 2017.

The is my entry in the 19th Century Classic category for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge and it's also part of my reading for the 2020 Mount TBR Challenge.

21 February 2020

Book Beginning: Stuff Brits Like by Fraser McAlpine


Book Beginnings is a weekly meme hosted by Rose City Reader. We share the first sentence (or so) of the book we are reading, along with our initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Let us start this preposterous journey in the most British way imaginable: with a series of meandering apologies and caveats. I don't know what it is about a book like this, but it seems you can't make huge, sweeping, lawn-mower generalizations about the likes and loves of an entire nation without slicing up the odd precious and unique orchid here and there, and for that, I am truly sorry.

Subtitled "A Guide to What's Great About Great Britain", this book consists of many very short chapters, each a humorous essay on some topic near and dear to British hearts. As an avowed Anglophile but recently returned from a vacation to England, I know I'll enjoy this book. And it could be useful before I visit that sceptered isle again.

15 February 2020

Recently Read

Once again I am joining Quick Lit, a monthly meme on the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog. The creator is Anne Bogel, who explains that Quick Lit is where "we share short and sweet reviews of what we’ve been reading lately on the 15th of the month". So today I'm offering reviews of 2 novels and 2 novellas.

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
Little, Brown and Company, 2012

This was a selection for my library book club, and not something I would have picked up on my own. However, I did like it, especially the poetic style of the prose. Powers was in the army in Iraq and this story is about a young man serving in Iraq in 2004, presumably somewhat autobiographical or at the very least realistic. It is more about the soldiers' reactions and mental states and not a glorification of war's carnage. The short chapters have dates and places noted but are not in date order, which is a bit confusing as you try to piece together the story of Private Bartle's struggle to stay alive. It's a book that stays with you.

The Prodigal Tongue by Lynne Murphy
Penguin, 2018

I'm an Anglophile as well as a word- and language-lover, so the full title of this book drew me in immediately -- "The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English". I loved it, but have struggled about how to review or summarize the contents. Yes, it's about differences in vocabulary, but also of mindset and culture. For instance, I never knew the Brits thought so ill of American words and expressions.

So here's the publisher's blurb:
Professor Lynne Murphy is on the linguistic front line. In The Prodigal Tongue she explores the fiction and reality of the special relationship between British and American English. By examining the causes and symptoms of American Verbal Inferiority Complex and its flipside, British Verbal Superiority Complex, Murphy unravels the prejudices, stereotypes and insecurities that shape our attitudes to our own language.
With great humo(u)r and new insights, Lynne Murphy looks at the social, political and linguistic forces that have driven American and British English in different directions: how Americans got from centre to center, why British accents are growing away from American ones, and what different things we mean when we say estate, frown, or middle class. Is anyone winning this war of the words? Will Yanks and Brits ever really understand each other?

Murphy also writes the language blog Separated by a Common Language: Observations on British and American English by an American linguist in the UK. Her very active and interesting Twitter account is @lynneguist . The book also has a blog: https://theprodigaltongue.com/ .

Ethan Frome / Summer by Edith Wharton
Borders, 2006

Having enjoyed "The House of Mirth" and "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton, I  decided to read a lot more of her works. This book contains two of her novellas, the well-known "Ethan Frome" (1911) and "Summer" (1917). Both stories take place in tiny New England villages near the end of the 1800s and show the hardships, poverty, and stifling culture of those rural outposts. In both stories people who feel themselves different than the rest try to escape but fail. Wharton makes you care about her characters, flaws and all. I liked the writing style, but these tales are somber and quite sad in the end.

I've owned this book for quite a while, so now it's part of my 2020 Mount TBR Challenge.

14 February 2020

Book Beginning: Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker

Book Beginnings is a weekly meme hosted by Rose City Reader. Share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

I was in the rocking chair giving our six-month-old Bug her late afternoon bottle.

I bought this novella because I had read Baker's first one, "The Mezzanine", which I liked. Wikipedia says that earlier book "created the genre of digressive, annotational metafiction for which Baker is best known". Basically he concentrates on the minute details of everyday life in a stream-of-consciousness style. I expect this book to be a fun, interesting read.

10 February 2020

Black or White in 1920s America

Quicksand / Passing
Nella Larsen
Rutgers University Press, 1995  (first published 1928, 1929)
246 pages

I discover some of my very best reads from book blogger reviews, and this book is no exception. Of course I don't know who it was, but here's a general "Thank you!" to all who are avid readers and bloggers.

This book contains two novellas written by a woman who was an acclaimed novelist of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Appropriately (and accidentally) February is Black History Month.

In "Quicksand" the main character, Helga Crane, shares some biographical details with the author. Both are half Black and half Danish. Both grow up in Chicago with a White stepfather who doesn't like that they are half Black. Both lived in the deep South, Harlem, and Denmark. Larsen's life story is a bit sketchy, but it does not follow Helga's exactly. Their shared experiences, though, do mean that Larsen could easily draw her characters and their milieu realistically.

During the story, Helga moves from somewhere outside Atlanta to Chicago, then Harlem in New York, Denmark, and back to Harlem. She never feels she belongs anywhere, with Blacks or Whites. She seems rather aloof and has no close friends. She also doesn't know what she wants; a few years after she gains an objective and thinks she is finally happy, she become dissatisfied and restless again.

The plot thus far seems believable to me, but it then takes a dramatic turn which I found totally unconvincing. Helga has a sudden, intense religious conversion during a gathering she happens upon at a low point in her life. She makes another impulsive move, ending up in rural Alabama, impoverished, ill, unhappy again, and basically "barefoot and pregnant".

I can accept that she might have a deep religious conversion, but not the degradation she subjected herself to afterwards. She had always been so fastidious, cool and analytical, ambitious, a lover of nice things, semi-fluent in Dutch. Maybe I don't understand such a conversion because I've never experienced one.

The second story, "Passing" is much shorter but very interesting. Two Black women who were childhood friends meet accidentally in Chicago. One leads a conventional life, married to a Black doctor with two children. The other one is married with one child but is passing for White; even her White husband doesn't know the truth. And he is a rabid racist.

I enjoyed both novellas with their detailed descriptions of people and places, evoking life in the 1920s in America and Denmark. Both stories highlight the experiences of Black women in Black society and in White. The depiction of the characters' inner lives is captivating and vivid. On the back cover the publisher writes:

As noted in the editor's comprehensive introduction, Larsen takes the theme of psychic dualism, so popular in Harlem Renaissance fiction, to a higher and more complex level, displaying a sophisticated understanding and penetrating analysis of black female psychology.

I highly recommend reading both of these novellas, which are often published together in one volume.

The is my entry in the Classic by a Person of Color category for the 2020 Back to the Classics challenge and it's also part of my reading for the 2020 Mount TBR Challenge.


Nella Larsen
Black History Now: Black History Biographies from the Black Heritage Commemorative Society

Passing, in Moments: The uneasy existence of being black and passing for white.
Words by Mat Johnson
Topic Magazine

06 February 2020

Book Beginning: What's Your Pronoun? by Dennis Baron

Book Beginnings is a weekly meme hosted by Rose City Reader. Share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Pronouns are suddenly sexy. They're in the air, on the news, all over social media, generating discussion pro and con. Or at least one pronoun is: the third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun. Yes, the pronoun without sex is suddenly sexy.

I think it was when I read this intriguing blurb from the publisher that I decided to look at this book:
The book, based on forty years of empirical research by renowned linguist Dennis Baron, tells a history that delves not only into our current environment but also into past attempts to come up with gender-neutral and nonbinary pronouns -- from generic he to singular they to coined words like ze and hir and hizzer.

Ze? Hizzer? A must read!  And I don't think this book will disappoint, because when leafing through it, I discovered the last chapter is called "A Chronology of Gender-Neutral and Nonbinary Pronouns" and it is 60 pages long! The first 1-2/3 pages are text, but the rest is dated short paragraphs with lists of gender-neutral pronouns, starting in 1770.