Category Archives: Classics

The Spectator Bird

The Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner, was published in 1976, and received the National Book Award for Fiction in 1977.

From the publisher…

Joe Allston is a cantankerous, retired literary agent who is, in his own words, “just killing time until time gets around to killing me.” His parents and his only son are long dead, leaving him with neither ancestors nor descendants, tradition nor ties. His job, trafficking the talent of others, has not been his choice. He has passed through life as a spectator, before retreating to the woods of California in the 1970s with only his wife, Ruth, by his side. When an unexpected postcard from a long-lost friend arrives, Allston returns to the journals of a trip he has taken years before, a journey to his mother’s birth­place where he once sought a link with his past. Uncovering this history floods Allston with memories, both grotesque and poignant, and finally vindicates him of his past and lays bare that Joe Allston has never been quite spectator enough.

Throughout much of this story, Joe is a grumpy old man. At seventy, he has many physical aches and pains but he carries some heavy emotional aches and pains as well. Pain of any kind can certainly make a person grumpy and color one’s outlook on life. Dealing with the changes retirement brings is also quite challenging, and in Joe’s case presents itself in depression. Retirement puts one at a distance which is both welcome and a big challenge. I remember hearing my father say about retirement, “It’s amazing how quickly you are forgotten in the workplace.” Joe seems to be sitting on the sidelines, even more a spectator than earlier in his life, not sure of what he wants to do with his life at this point.

“Maybe because the bush tits are doing what I thought we would be doing out here, just messing around, paying no attention to time or duty, kicking up leaves and playing hide and seek up and down the oak trunks and generally enjoying themselves.

Joe also continues to grieve for the loss of his son and only child, Curt, who died in a surfing accident (Joe thinks it was possibly a suicide). He has not been able to let go of the guilt he feels about this troubled relationship with his son, and he questions himself every day.

“Do I hate the thought of Curt’s death more because he never fulfilled himself, or because he never fulfilled me?

Joe struggles with the aging process and grieves for the losses and irrevocable changes time brings, and he is also struggling to redefine meaning and purpose at this later stage of  life.  As he and Ruth share an old journal from a trip to Denmark they took many years earlier, they rediscover some important and defining moments in their marriage. It becomes clear that the most important thing is his relationship with Ruth, and that their marriage, with the easy (and difficult)  companionship of so many years, with what Virginia Woolf calls the “daily-ness” of their relationship, is the strength that guides him through each day and through the rest of his life. His realization of that is a tender and romantic notion, a notion that is also true in my own life experience. Wallace Stegner describes it beautifully.

“The truest vision of life I know is that bird in the Venerable Bede that flutters from the dark into a lighted hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark. But Ruth is right. It is something — it can be everything — to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle.”

I read this book for The Classics Club. It is the first book I have read by Wallace Stegner, but will not be my last. I admit I’ve been a little intimidated to read him before now. I have some personal connections to him, and he has always loomed as a larger-than-life figure to me, so I think I was simply afraid to try him out. This book started out slowly for me, and I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but his “big ideas” really touched my heart, his literary references amazed me, and his beautiful “way with words” have all made me a real fan.

Crooked House

Last week I finished reading Crooked House, by Agatha Christie, but it’s been such a busy week and weekend, that I’m just now getting around to posting about it.  I’ve read many of Agatha Christie’s mysteries over the years, starting with And Then There Were None when I was in the 5th grade many, many years ago! I’ve read quite a few since then with Miss Marple as the detective, a number with Poirot,  and one or two with Tommy and Tuppence. And, happily, there are still a lot of them I can look forward to reading!  Crooked House is a stand alone novel, not part of one of her series, but is a very enjoyable mystery to read!

From the Agatha Christie web site, here is a synopsis of the story:

A wealthy Greek businessman is found dead at his London home… The Leonides were one big happy family living in a sprawling, ramshackle mansion. That was until the head of the household, Aristide, was murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection. Suspicion naturally falls on the old man’s young widow, fifty years his junior. But the murderer has reckoned without the tenacity of Charles Hayward, fiance of the late millionaire’s granddaughter…

In this book, I was particularly struck by Christie’s chilling description of the mindset of a murderer:

“What are murderers like? Some of them,” a faint rather melancholy smile showed on his face, “have been thoroughly nice chaps.”

… “Murder, you see, is an amateur crime. I’m speaking of course of the kind of murder you have in mind–not gangster stuff. One feels, very often, as though these nice ordinary chaps, had been overtaken, as it were, by murder, almost accidentally. They’ve been in a tight place, or they’ve wanted something very badly, money or a woman–and they’ve killed to get it…

…”But some people, I suspect, remain morally immature. They continue to be aware that murder is wrong, but they do not feel it. I don’t think, in my experience, that any murderer has really felt remorse…And that, perhaps, is the mark of Cain. Murderers are set apart, they are ‘different’ — murder is wrong– but not for them — for them it is necessary — the victim has ‘asked for it,’ it was ‘the only way.'”

Crooked House was one of Christie’s own favorites of the books she wrote:  “Writing Crooked House was pure pleasure and I feel justified in my belief that it is one of my best.”

I chose to read this book as one of my 50-books-in-5-years for The Classics Club.

 

Spinning

I joined The Classics Club earlier this week and have immediately found a fun way to pick my first book to read from my list of 50-classics-to-read-in-5-years. Every so often, the club has a special event called the “The Classic Spin.” It works like this:

Choose 20 books from your list of classics TBR and post that list on your blog before March 9th. On Friday, March 10th, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by May 1, 2017. 

So here is my first Spin List.  It should be fun to see which number (and which book) is chosen in the “spin” on Friday! That’s where I will start my five year classics journey!  I’ll return to this post on Friday and highlight the book chosen.

Classic Spin #15:

  1. Rose in Bloom, Louisa May Alcott
  2. The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad
  3. The Railway Children, Edith Nesbitt
  4. A River Runs Through It, Norman McClean
  5. Arabian Nights and Days, Naguib Mahfouz
  6. Persuasion, Jane Austen
  7. Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne
  8. The Chosen, Chaim Potok
  9. A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir
  10. The Haunted Bookshop, Christopher Morley
  11. A Room With a View, E.M. Forster
  12. The Moorland Cottage, Elizabeth Gaskell (started on 03.10.17)

  13. Ask Me, William Stafford
  14. The Spectator Bird, Wallace Stegner
  15. Travels With My Aunt, Graham Greene
  16. The Ramayana, Bulbul Sharma
  17. Crooked House, Agatha Christie
  18. The Gaucho Martin Fierro, José Hernández
  19. The Measure of My Days, Florida Scott-Maxwell
  20. Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in the CIty, Italo Calvino

 

The Classics Club


Why haven’t I joined The Classics Club before now? I’ve been interested in it and thought about doing it for years! I lurked around their web site… started my own private reading challenge of 50 books à la The Classics Club but without joining… read lots of classics…  But I was afraid of not being able to finish the commitment I would make because I’m just awful at finishing challenges these days.

But, this morning I read a post by Melissa @Avid Reader’s Musings, and was so inspired by the fact that she just posted her last review and finished her 5-year challenge with The Classics Club! Congratulations, Melissa!  I wish I had simply joined 5 years ago when I first heard about it and was both fascinated by and fearful of it. Five years goes by quickly and I, too, would be finishing my last book from my list of 50 classics. So no more hesitating. Inspired by Melissa, I have decided to just go ahead and join. I am proud to become a member of The Classics Club!

My list is a mix of novels, short stories, and poetry, a combination of adult and children’s literature. Many of these books are already on my bookshelves or on my Kindle. My goal for completing my reading of these books is March 2022!  That sounds so far away, but I know that five years goes by in a flash. And what pleasurable reading years they will be!

  1. Rose in Bloom, Louisa May Alcott
  2. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
  3. Death Comes For the Archbishop, Willa Cather
  4. The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad
  5. The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
  6. The Railway Children, Edith Nesbitt
  7. Death Be Not Proud, John Gunther
  8. Neuromancer, William Gibson
  9. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
  10. A River Runs Through It, Norman McClean
  11. Arabian Nights and Days, Naguib Mahfouz
  12. Persuasion, Jane Austen
  13. The Rainbow and the Rose, Nevil Shute
  14. Around the World in Eighty Days, Jules Verne
  15. The Chosen, Chaim Potok
  16. The Solitary Summer, Elizabeth von Arnim
  17. A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir
  18. The Book of Tea, Kazuko Okakura
  19. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
  20. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
  21. The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett
  22. Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  23. This Star Shall Abide, Sylvia Engdahl
  24. The Story of an African Farm, Olive Schreiner
  25. The Haunted Bookshop, Christopher Morley
  26. A Room With a View, E.M. Forster
  27. The Moorland Cottage, Elizabeth Gaskell
  28. A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry
  29. Kokoro, Natsume Soseki
  30. Kinfolk, Pearl S. Buck
  31. Ask Me, William Stafford
  32. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Kate Douglas Wiggin
  33. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  34. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
  35. The Spectator Bird, Wallace Stegner (read March 2017)
  36. Travels With My Aunt, Graham Greene
  37. The Ramayana, Bulbul Sharma
  38. Kindred, Octavia Butler
  39. The Sussex Downs Murder, John Bude
  40. The Lost Prince, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  41. Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston
  42. The Unicorn and Other Poems, Anne Morrow Lindbergh
  43. Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
  44. Crooked House, Agatha Christie (read March 2017)
  45. Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson
  46. Two on a Tower, Thomas Hardy
  47. The Gaucho Martin Fierro, José Hernández
  48. Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, Eleanor Perenyi
  49. The Measure of My Days, Florida Scott-Maxwell
  50. Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in the CIty, Italo Calvino
  51. Sophocles: The Three Theban Plays
  52. Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway
  53. The Sea Runners, Ivan Doig

 

Little Women

 

img_2517Thanks to Adam @roofbeamreader, I reread Little Women in January for his Classic Book-a-Month challenge 2017. I loved this book when I first read it as a young girl. I am the only girl in my family, with three terrific brothers, but I longed to have sisters. The four March sisters became my surrogate sisters.

A few years ago, I read Louisa May Alcott‘s first book, Flower Fables. I liked it, and loved her writing, but was put off by the heavy moralizing and “teaching of lessons.” I understood that that style of writing was very common in those days and made complete sense in lieu of her background, as well. But she was a young developing author in that first book and by the time she wrote Little Women, she had much more life experience as well as writing experience. Although there was still the “teaching of moral lessons” inbedded in the storytelling, she did not come across as being nearly as didactic as she had in the Flower Fables. Indeed, I was struck this time by her compassion and understanding of human nature. She is a supreme writer and a wonderful storyteller, in my estimation. Her story of the March sisters is timeless despite being set in a specific period of time.

I chuckled and I cried, again, as I read this lovely book. I ruminated on how much it had impacted my life, how much of Jo I identified with and absorbed at a young age, because it was Jo who captured my heart and imagination even though I loved the other sisters, too.

I’m so glad I reread this classic novel this month! (Thank you, Adam!) It would be a lovely project to read all her books — all the ones I didn’t read when I was growing up and rereading all the ones I did!

madamealexander-littlewomen

Madame Alexander’s Little Women dolls…which I always wanted when I was growing up!

Currently Reading: March

 

img_2512On a trip to the library today I picked up two books that I think are very important right now. The one I started first is March, by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell.  It is the first volume of a three part autobiography in graphic novel form. I’m already caught in the first volume and look forward to reading all three.

The second book I checked out and will read next is 1984, by George Orwell. When I first read it in high school it seemed so impossible (thank goodness!) and the year so far away. Not in today’s America, though. How sad to say that it seems chillingly timely right now!

Click here to read a NY Times article about 1984.

1984

 

A Classics Challenge

cbam2017

I used to take on a lot of reading challenges, but I’ve almost completely stopped doing them. Even though I love the planning process, I haven’t been very successful in the last few years at finishing those lofty plans, so I’ve just stopped signing up for them. However, my friend, Adam @roofbeamreader is doing a classics book-a- month challenge this year, and he has some books on the reading list that I really want to either read or reread. So…here I go. I’ll give it my best shot and see how many of his classics list I can finish this year. I may not finish all of them, but I know I will enjoy the ones I DO read!

The List:

  • January: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • February: The Three Theban Plays by Sophocles
  • March: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  • April: Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • May: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  • June: The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
  • July: Paradise Lost by John Milton
  • August: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
  • September: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  • October: Angels in America by Tony Kushner
  • November: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • December: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
little-women

New Year’s Day morning…knitting and listening to Little Women. Delightful!

Holiday Tales

holidays

A few years ago, I started a new reading tradition for myself. On November 1st, I begin to read books and stories about the holidays. A simple tradition but one that has brought much joy to my reading.

This year I started with an old classic published in 1897: Holiday Tales: Christmas in the Adirondacks, by W.H.H. Murray. I’d never heard of it before, but I’m glad I discovered it because it was a lovely beginning for this season’s reading. The book was free for my Kindle, and can also be read online as part of Project Gutenberg eBooks. It contains two stories about an old trapper named John Norton who lives in a cabin deep in the Adirondacks.

The Dismal Hut

The Dismal Hut

The first story, called How John Norton the Trapper Kept His Christmas, is about how he helps a neighbor, a woman with three children living in a dismal hut in the woods. They are starving and destitute, almost completely without hope. The Old Trapper had just started to put together a basket of food to take to them when a large crate is delivered to him from his son who had moved to a city far away. The crate contained warm clothing,  foodstuff, and other things needed to help the neighbor woman, whom the son had met on his last visit. With Old Trapper’s kindness , the caring generosity of his far distant son, and the help of the old friend who delivered the crate, they bring Christmas and renewed hope to the little family living in the “dismal hut.”

Ah, if some sweet power would only enlarge our hearts when, on festive days, we enlarge our tables, how many of the world’s poor, that now go hungry while we feast, would then be fed!

The second tale, John Norton’s Vagabond, is of another Christmas when John Norton decides to invite everyone in the woods, including the “vagabonds,” to his holiday dinner. The Old Trapper believes strongly that Christmas is a time for “forgivin’ and forgittin’,” so he invites even those men that have stolen from his traps. It’s a humorous story, but with the most important, albeit simple, messages.

Ah, friends, dear friends, as years go on and heads get gray–how fast the guests do go! Touch hands, touch hands with those that stay. Strong hands to weak, old hands to young, around the Christmas board, touch hands. The false forget, the foe forgive, for every guest will go and every fire burn low and cabin empty stand. Forget, forgive, for who may say that Christmas day may ever come to host or guest again. Touch hands.

With it’s poignant reminders of what the holidays are all about, with stories of kindness and caring, this was a very enjoyable book to start my holiday reading.

W. H. H. MURRAY, THE MURRAY HOMESTEAD GUILFORD, CONN.

W. H. H. MURRAY,
THE MURRAY HOMESTEAD GUILFORD, CONN.

50 Years Ago…

CatcherintheRye

In 1964, I started keeping a little red and black record book with the titles and authors of the books I was reading. I was faithful to that record book until recent years when I transferred my reading list to a spread sheet and then into LibraryThing. I still love to go back to my record book, however, to see what I read 5 years ago, or as I did this morning, to see what I read 50 years ago today!

That book was The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. The photo above is of my hubby’s copy — his favorite book, well-worn and well-loved and still on our shelf after all these years. I didn’t love the book the way my husband did. I thought it was terribly sad and depressing, and I never reread it. Perhaps, after 50 years of life experience and a lifetime of reading, I should read this timeless book again and see what I think?

The book begins:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.