Sunday, November 21, 2021

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding

When I heard that the Dickensians! group on GoodReads was reading The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, by Henry Fielding, for their side read for the Fall, I instantly knew which book I was going to read for the Back to the Classics 2021 challenge in the humorous or satirical category.

I read the book roughly 40 years ago and watched the Albert Finney/Susannah York movie a number of times over the years, so I knew the basic plot line and characters. What I had forgotten was how incredibly long-winded the narrator could be. I decided to listen to a Audible version and I am very glad that I did because the reader did such a good job with all the various characters, including the narrator, that I fear I would have succumbed to scanning sections if I had been reading instead of listening.

I did enjoy the book, although I think I am one of the few in GoodReads group read who did. I found it funny and interesting and loved seeing how Fielding's immensely popular novel influenced Dickens in particular, who reputedly loved the book and read it many times. It's bawdy and irreverent and completely different from the Victorian and Regency-era novels that I tend to choose for my classic reads.

I think Tom Jones' roots can be found in A Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan, published 71 years before Tom Jones was published (1749). Tom is very much like Christian in that he journeys both metaphorically and literally from rascally adolescence to maturity and his reward is the wonderful Sophia Western, rather than the Celestial City. Along the way, he is beset by all manner of setbacks and misfortunes, but the goodness of his heart ensures that he ultimately conquers lust as well as the lying, cheating, devilish characters who take advantage of him for their own selfish aims.

There's also some scenes in which Tom Jones reminds me very much of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, where Sophia is being pressured to marry a rich man and she and her maid (playing the role of the nurse) figure out a way to escape from the situation.

And then, it was fun to see how Tom Jones and Fielding influenced Dickens, from the wonderful names like Squire Allworthy and Mr. Thwakum to the complex and convoluted story full of mistaken identities (much like Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and his other comedies and romances) and serendipitous coincidences.

The narrator's humor is dry but his observations on the facade of society are pointed. I found him funny, but he did digress quite a bit.

Glad I reacquainted myself with this classic that plays such a big role in the canon of western literature. I did watch Part I of the most recent adaptation (1997) when I was half way done with the book, and now I am off to the library to pick up Part II.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Nonfiction November: Be the Expert...Louisa May Alcott

For week 3 of Nonfiction November, the focus is Be The Expert/ Ask the Expert/ Become the Expert and is hosted by Veronica at The Thousand Book Project

First of all, I can in no way, shape, or form claim to be an expert on Louisa May Alcott. I never read Little Women until only a few years ago, and she is not even in my top 10 favorite authors. But, I find her life absolutely fascinating and I appreciate how she lived her life, her values, and her determination to succeed.

A couple of years ago, I read just about everything I could get my hands on about LMA and can recommend the following books - I've linked to the blog posts about each book and provided excerpts from those posts to spare you from actually plowing through them looking for nuggets.


 Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, by Harriet Reisen

I came away from this bio with a renewed admiration for LMA--her courage, her wit, her fortitude, and her talent.  She struggled with identity, but in the end, was able to accomplish what she set out for herself.  Truly a remarkable person.

Marmee and Louisa, by Eve LaPlante 

I really enjoyed the book and felt that LaPlante did a superb job in defending her premise that the relationship between LMA and her mother, Abigail May Alcott, was the most important in her life and was fundamental to her success as a writer. I also thought LaPlante did a good job of putting their lives into historical context, and I learned a lot of social history about the nineteenth century. 

Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, by John Matteson

Coming into the book, I knew enough about A. Bronson Alcott to know that I thought he was a selfish crackpot who endangered his family's health and well-being to pursue his experiments in communal living. However, I had no idea what an innocent, well-meaning selfish crackpot he was until I read this book. Like his daughter, Louisa, I ended up forgiving him because his heart was so clearly in the right place, even if his ideas and capabilities fell fall short of the mark.

Civil War Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott 

LMA only served as a nurse for three weeks, but this brief service changed her life profoundly.  Of this time, she said that she was rarely ill before it and never truly well afterwards. She had contracted typhus at the hospital and was treated with a compound containing mercury, which wreaked havoc on her body and most probably shortened her life.  On the other hand, her time as a nurse on her own in a city far from her Concord home during the war broadened her vision and deepened her perspective.


Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Now that I've finally read Little Women, I was able to read the Little Women chapter in Erin Blakemore's The Heroine's Bookshelf, which explores the trait of ambition and the character Jo. I found Louisa May Alcott's story so sad as compared to the magical world she created in Little Women, but then that is par for the course when it comes to fictional worlds created by beloved authors.

Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan

It didn't occur to me to want to read John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress until last year when I finally read Little Women. The March sisters play-act Christian's pilgrimage from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, and they attempt to shoulder the burdens life deals them with Christian as their model. Only whilst reading Little Women did I fully realize what an impact The Pilgrim's Progress has had on western literature.

Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens

I first read Pickwick Papers roughly 40 years before I read Little Women and have read it several times since then so when the March sisters play Pickwick I actually knew what they were doing and thought it great fun. Reading what LMA clearly loved is another way to understand what made her tick.

March, by Geraldine Brooks 

March is a novel in which the main character is Mr. March, the father of Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth March and husband of Marmee, literature's archetypal mother, in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.  

I really think I would've enjoyed March much more if Brooks hadn't leveraged Little Women.  Her main character still could've hailed from Concord, MA, still could've rubbed shoulders with Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, still could've been an abolotionist, but needn't have been saddled to Marmee and the girls from Little Women.  There's just too much baggage and it weighs the story down with doubt and assumptions and inevitable dissappointment. 

The Other Alcott, by Elise Hooper 

For some reason I didn't blog about this novel about Mae Alcott, Louisa's youngest sister and the model for Amy in Little Women. I actually really liked it and want to reread it soon. I am one of the few people who actually like and sympathize with Amy and reading about Mae just intensified the belief that LMA really threw her sister under the bus with her Amy. It turns out that Mae was a very talented artist who died young and LMA raised her daughter. I loved reading about the art world in Paris in the latter part of the 19th century.


Little Women - the March family 

Blog post on how the mother/daughters are the heart and soul of this family and how every character is actually part of the family.

Visiting Concord 

Travelogue which includes a visit to the Alcott home, Orchard House, in Concord, MA as well as the cemetary where LMA is buried.

From my 2012 visit to Orchard House


Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Nonfiction November: Fiction/Nonfiction Book Pairing

This week's topic is hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, and it is a topic near and dear to my heart: books that go together. 

One of my favorite nonfiction books this year was A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell, and one of my favorite novels of 2020 was Code Name Hélène, by Ariel Lawhon. Both books were about female spies during WWII who helped the French Resistance. Both were absolutely riveting. While Code Name Hélène was a novel, it was based on the life of a real person.

Here's what I wrote about A Woman of No Importance back in August: 

This is one of the best books of 2021. Could not put it down. Virginia Hall was incredible--brave, passionate, capable. She persisted. Despite a prosthetic leg. Despite the old boys network. Despite the Gestapo, betrayals, and red tape, she really, truly helped liberate France and end WWII. This is non-fiction at its finest. I started out listening to an audio version but switched to print because there are a lot of names and locations and organizations to keep track of, but a truly marvelous read. 

And here's my blurb about Code Name Helene:

I read a few reviews from other bloggers and felt this would be good. WWII, set in Marseille and the Dordogne region of France, French resistance - premise great! To be honest, during the first half I was not sure I would love it--the main character, Nancy, was a bit too perfect (beautiful, brilliant, brave, etc) but I was totally engrossed in the second half and couldn't put it down. Then, I read the afterword and learned that it was based on a real person who did all these extraordinary things.

Another nice matchup is the nonfiction book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II, by Liza Mundy and The Rose Code, by Kate Quinn. The nonfiction is about Americans and The Rose Code is about their English counterparts working at Bletchley Park, but these two books go very nicely together and help to put the role women played in winning the war into much sharper focus. 

Side note - I loved The Rose Code so much that I listened to it a second time on a road trip. And there's a TV series under development based on the book!

Here's what I wrote about The Rose Code last spring: 

I loved the characters of The Rose Code, from socialite Osla who dated the future Duke of Edinburgh and who was based on the real-life Osla Benning to working girl Mab from London's East End to mousey Beth, and how they grew and developed and matured. The Bletchley Park setting was fascinating (now on my must-visit list) as was the process of code breaking. I loved reading about how the various departments contributed to the whole, mostly without the cogs in the machinery having an understanding of what role their cog played. Final note--the best part of the book is the last third. Reads like a thriller!

I do tend to read about a subject, whether that be code breaking and spies during WWII, or War of the Roses and Tudor history, or Italy, or Northumberland, or whatever else strikes a chord, so the matchups are usually not hard for me to make!

Hope you are all enjoying Nonfiction November.


Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Nonfiction November Week #1: My Year of Reading Nonfiction

Wow, it's been a long time since I participated in a month-long reading blogfest, but Nonfiction November really appealed to me this year.

Week 1 is hosted by What's Nonfiction? and this week's prompt is to take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions: 

  • What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?
  • Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? 
  • What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? 
  • What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?  
I read 19 nonfiction books so far this year, in two broad categories and one very specific one. I've highlighted in green my favorite in each category, although everything except the Charles Dickens' Pictures from Italy was either a 4 or a 5-star read.

Obviously, I love to read history and this was my year for WWII code breaking, in both fiction and non-fiction, and I have a couple more nonfictions in this category on my Nov/Dec short list.

Most recommended: The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson - this is history that I was never taught in grade school, junior high, high school, or college...and it is a shame it has taken me this long to learn what happened in the US during my own lifetime!

I love to read about books and find new titles and interests and rabbit holes that I can lose myself in over the next year. That's why I am participating, why I bother to blog, and why I love chatting with other bloggers.

History, Archeology

  • The Regency Years: During Which Jane Austen Writes, Napoleon Fights, Byron Makes Love, and Britain Becomes Modern, by Robert Morrison
  • The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss, Gabriel Stoian (Translator)
  • The Year 1000: What Life Was Like At the Turn of the First Millennium, by Robert Lacey, Danny Danziger
  • Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II, by Liza Mundy
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson
  • Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, by Thomas Penn
  • Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson, by Paula Byrne
  • The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction, by Eric Rauchway
  • A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell
  • Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King, by Mike Pitts
  • Pictures from Italy, by Charles Dickens
  • Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year, by Carlo Levi, Frances Frenaye (Translator)
  • La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, by Beppe Severgnini, Giles Watson (Translator)
Nature, Birding, Memoir
  • Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder: A Memoir, by Julia Zarankin
  • What It's Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing—What Birds Are Doing, and Why, by David Allen Sibley
  • Birds, Beasts and Relatives, by Gerald Durrell
  • Emily Dickinson's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet, by Marta McDowell
  • This Is the Fire: What I Say to My Friends About Racism, by Don Lemon
  • My Place at the Table: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris, by Alexander Lobrano

Sunday, October 31, 2021

RIP Roundup

I had a particularly good RIP this year, one might say I had a RIP roaring time! I completed six and a half mystery books in Sept/Oct and had a marvelous time doing so.

Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson - #4 in her Jackson Brodie series, I loved this, of course, as the setting (north of England and Scotland), the characters, and the writing are all superb. Very interesting with an unresolved ending. I am hoping Tracy Waterhouse surfaces in this next book.

A Tiding of Magpies, by Steve Burrows - #5 in his Birder Murder mysteries. These are always interesting with good characters and good settings.

The Guest List, by Lucy Foley - absolutely terrific. All the hype wasn't far off the mark, and I really enjoyed this page-turner. Definitely channeling Lord of the Flies in this variation on the classic locked room mystery with all the suspects and victim being on an island off of Ireland. Now, I am eager to read Foley's next book, The Hunting Party.

The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves - #1 in Cleeves latest series. Really enjoyed it--Matthew Venn shows great promise as the starring detective with plenty of family baggage for the long haul. Love the small town setting and the bird references.

Thornyhold, by Mary Stewart - I'm a Mary Stewart fan and Lark of Lark Writes recommended it as terrific, and it was! A wonderful good witch story with romance and magic wrapped in a comfortable package. 

Jane and the Waterloo Map, by Stephanie Barron - my JASNA bookclub has invited the author to our November meeting and so I wanted to read one of her more recent books in the Jane Austen mystery series. This was enormously fun with a spunky Jane and I enjoyed her visits to Carleton House (this is during the time when she was reviewing proofs of Emma) and the mystery itself and the characters it involved were all interesting. I love maps and watercolors, so this was just all around perfect.

Final book, half way finished, is Witch Elm, by Tana French. This might actually be the best read of the season--so good. I really cannot predict how it is going to work out.

Happy Halloween!


Sunday, October 24, 2021

Christ Stopped at Eboli

Every year I try to read at least one book by an Italian author to help me better understand the country and its history. I love to visit Italy, and I think this enriches those visits.

This year I chose Christ Stopped at Eboli, by Carlo Levi, on the recommendation of my friend, Maxene. The good news is that it was written in 1947 and so qualifies for the 2021 Back to the Classics challenge, and I'm putting it in the Classic by a New-to-You Author.

This is a non-fiction account of the year that the author spent in exile in the southern most region of Italy. Levi was a painter from Turin whose political activities in the 1930s earned him the wrath of the fascists who were coming to power in Italy during that time, and the punishment for these activities was banishment to a remote and rural village in mountaneous Lucania, now known as Basilicata. I think this is equivalent to the Soviets sending Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Siberia.

The title of the book comes from a saying that means that the civilizing affects of Christianity didn't make it to the southern most region of Italy--in other words, Christ and Christianity didn't affect the region of Italy south of the town of Eboli. The world in which Levi lived for a year was one of abject poverty, where the people were not only treated as feudal serfs but they saw themselves as almost less than human. Despite no money, no jobs, no industry, and farming that failed year after year because the crops were inappropriate for the landscape, the tax burden was never lifted and the people had to slaughter their precious goats, depriving their families of much needed milk, to pay their taxes. 

Levi was not only a painter but had some medical training and the village adopted him as their doctor. But, of course, Kavkaesque bureacracy got in the way and he was forced to stop treating the villagers. At one point, Levi created a plan to combat the ever-present malaria, but this too was quashed. Punishing Levi by further restricting his activities was more important than promoting the health and well-being of the residents of this region.

While many parts of the book and Levi's experiences were tough to read about, the writing as translated by Frances Frenaye was exquisite, and I really did enjoy reading about the various villagers and how Levi became a part of their lives and he became a part of theirs. At the end, when Levi is granted amnesty along with other political exiles, the villagers beg him not to leave but to stay and marry the village beauty because if he leaves he will never return.

This was an exceptioinally good book. It not only gave me perspective on the conditions in Italy between the world wars, but it also demonstrates in very real terms why so many people from this region immigrated to the US and Canada.

There is a film version from 1979 that received a BAFTA in 1983. I always say that I am going to watch the film version of books I enjoy, but maybe this time I really will!

Friday, October 15, 2021

Emily Dickinson's Gardening Life

The birthday and holiday season is upon us and I have made it a personal goal to read all of the books that I received last year for my birthday and Christmas before I get more!

To that end, I finally finished my slow read of Emily Dickinson's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet, by Marta McDowell. My son gave this to me last year for Christmas and I started it in July, at the height of my gardening year.

As you might expect I absolutely loved it. It follows the seasons and maps them beautifully to the course of Dickinson's life, with plants and gardening as the focus from her early springlike school days to her wintry final reclusive days. 

The book is packed with illustrations--photos of the places she lived, then and now, as well as beautiful paintings and sketches of flowers, trees, shrubs, berries, seeds, and so forth. 

It is also sprinkled generously with her poems the reference her plants and gardens. I hadn't actually read many of her poems before, apart from the ones that are quoted regularly, so it was a treat to read them in the context of what inspired her to reach for a certain metaphor and what she did with it.

In addition to learning about the plants Dickinson and her family, brother and sister as well as parents, grew in Amherst, MA, I was really interested in reading about her life. For example, she was lifelong friends with Helen Hunt Jackson, author of Ramona. Her relationship to her sister and her brother and his family reminded me a lot of Jane Austen and her relationship with her sister and the families of her brothers.

The final chapter is all about the Emily Dickinson Museum, which includes both The Homestead, where she lived, and The Evergreens, next door where her brother and his family lived. You can definitely count on seeing a Travelogue from me, hopefully next year, when I get a chance to visit.

There is also a lengthy appendix that details all of the plants mentioned in the book. Confession: I did not read this part but plan to use it as a reference guide as it is beautifully done with detailed descriptions and images.

This was a delightful way to get to know Emily Dickinson, poet and gardener, sister and friend. A lovely addition to my gardening book collection.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Digging for Richard III

I am a Yorkist. In my garden, I prefer red roses to white ones, but when it comes to the War of the Roses, I wear a white rose. When I was in York in 2017, after finishing my Hadrian's Wall trek, I got a pair of white rose earrings in the York Minster gift shop and I wear them a couple of times a week.

So, when my sister gave me her copy of Digging for Richard III: The Search for the Lost King, by Mike Pitts, I dropped everything and read it. Of course, I already knew the story of how the Richard III Society, with Philippa Langley leading the charge, commissioned the University of Leicester to help them search for the grave of Richard. What I didn't know was that the archeologists at UofL were focused on excavating the Greyfriars friary church, which was demolished during the reign of Henry VIII, and that finding Richard's grave was considered the longest of long shots.

In addition to reading about RIII and the War of the Roses and the Tudor propaganda machine, I absolutely loved reading about how the archeologists approached their task, the techniques and methodology, the scholarship involved, and the practical, financial realities of a project like this. This book very much tells the story of the discovery of RIII's remains from the point of view of the archeology team rather than the RIII Society, which is fine because Philippa Langley's movie about the project does the opposite. It's good to hear both sides of a story like this.

Next trip to the UK will definitely include a stop in Leicester so that I can visit the King Richard III Visitor Centre and the Leicester Cathedral, where RIII was reburied in March, 2015. In the meantime, I will content myself with rereading Sharon Kay Penman's fabulous Sunne in Splendour and Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time. I may even rewatch The White Queen, but you won't catch me sitting through another production of Shakespeare's The Life and Death of Richard III.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

R.I.P. XVI - Readers Imbibing Peril


Not being much for horror, I usually focus on indulging in mysteries and supernatural stuff during the annual R.I.P. spooky reading challenge. This year is the 16th or XVI running of the spooks and here's my lineup for R.I.P. XIV:
  • The Guest List, by Lucy Foley - I've been wanting to read this for awhile, and I picked it up at the cute indie bookstore when I was up in Steamboat Springs a couple of weeks ago.
  • Thornyhold, by Mary Stewart - it's been way too long since I read anything by Mary Stewart, who is always good for a spinechilling tale.
  • Jamaica Inn, by Daphne du Maurier - again, too long since I indulged in a DDM story.
  • A Dance of Cranes, by Steve Burrow - I recently finished book four in the Birder Murder mystery series and am eager to see what happens next!
Speaking of mysteries, I am thoroughly enjoying Only Murders in the Building, starring and produced by Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez. It takes place in NYC and is so much fun, especially the all-star cameos. I think everyone wanted to have a piece of this show.

Sunday, September 05, 2021

Travelogue: Labor Day - Birding in Steamboat Springs

I've been reading Steve Burrows' Birder Murder mystery series for a few years now and so when I happened to see that he was a special guest speaker at this year's Yampa Valley Crane Festival, I suddenly knew what we were doing this Labor Day weekend.

Four days in beautiful Steamboat Springs (which I hadn't visited in probably 12 or more years) with day trips north and west to track down migrating Sand Hill Cranes. A few years ago, we went to Kearney, NE for the spring SH Crane migration and were expecting to see fields with 1000s of birds as we saw in Kearney. Not so for the fall migration, where the lovebirds (they mate for life) head south in small family units and are much more difficult to find.

Carbo-loading for the long trip south

The first day we did a pontoon boat excursion on Steamboat Lake and saw a couple of cranes as well as pelicans and a Black Tern (mostly white, but then common bird names are almost always misleading) and various other water fowl. 

Crane and pelican sharing the same shore

We then headed back to Steamboat for Steve Burrows' talk, which was exceptionally good. Nice dry humor as befits a Birmingham-born writer. He talked about birding in Canada and Asia and the genesis and evolution of his Birder Murder series. Newsflash: a TV series (joint Canadian/UK production) is in the works for release next year. And, he is working on book 7, with a contract for books 7, 8, and 9. I'm currently reading book 5, A Tiding of Magpies, and picked up book 6, A Dance of Cranes. I suspect this title put him on the short list of guest speakers for the Crane Festival!

Day 2 involved an early morning trip to the ghost town of Mt Harris where the museum curator from Hayden gave a talk on the leveled former coal-mining town while birding guides helped the group find some amazing birds, including a gorgeous Golden Eagle, a flotilla of 36 Common Mergansers cruising the Yampa River, and a dogfight between a Magpie and a Cooper's Hawk. 

How many mergansers does it take to fill a river?

Today we decided to sleep in and got a late start (9 am) after breakfast and tracked cranes on our own, with surprising success. Plus we visited the Yampa Valley State Park for a lovely walk along the river, and then searched high and low for a lunch place that was open (on Sunday) and not fast food. We ended up at the Yampa Valley Brewing Company with sandwiches from the local market and a couple of glasses of their own Sand Hill Crane Red.

Adult Osprey feeding two juveniles who clearly should be fending for themselves by now.

Speaking of food, we have had spectacular luck with our dining choices in Steamboat. Here are my favorites should you venture this way.

Besame - Latin tapas with great ambiance, first rate--my favorite way to eat, share small plates

Table 79 - also a winner for dinner, with ice-cold Prosecco to start

Salt and Lime - tacos for lunch, yummm

Creekside Cafe and Grill - absolutely great breakfast, lattes, benedicts, corned beef hash, yes, please!