Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Inherit the Wind - Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee

For the Back to the Classics 2021 challenge, for the Play category I decided to pick something from the 20th century and settled on Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, which premiered in 1955.

The play is a fictionalized version of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial (aka The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes), which took place in 1925. John Scopes was charged with teaching evolution in his high school science class, which was illegal in Tennessee at the time. The prosecution was led by William Jennings Bryan (3-time presidential candidate and a big voice in the early 20th century), and the defense was led by Clarence Darrow, a prominent lawyer who embraced controversial cases.

In their notes on the play, the authors point out that the play "does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre. It is not 1925. The stage directions set the time as 'Not too long ago.' It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow."

I would add to could be today.

They have changed all the names of the characters, slightly. With Matthew Harrison Brady in the role of Bryan, Henry Drummond as Darrow, Bertram Cates as Scopes, and E.K. Hornbeck as H.L. Menken, who covered the trial for the Baltimore Sun. There is a love interest, a bombastic preacher, sniveling local politicians, and kids in the crowd.

After reading the play, I'm interested in reading about the real trial -- I know the bare facts, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, which he never paid.

The play basically portrays Brady (and by extension, Bryan) as a charlatan--a big man in love with himself and the sound of his voice, a politician and orator who needs his ego to be constantly fed, who is loathe to share the stage with anyone, and who adopts causes that he thinks will appeal to the "common people."  Drummond/Darrow, on the other hand, is portrayed as more complex. While he fights fiercely to demonstrate how the law that Cates/Scopes violated was a bad law (outlawing the teaching of evolution), in the end he shows himself to be a religious man. He is able to separate his personal beliefs from his understanding of his job as a lawyer. Brady, on the other hand, exploits the prejudices of the "common man," assuming a mantle of piety that hides his driving force of self-interest. Finally, Hornbeck/Mencken is portrayed as an opportunistic cynic who gets his comeuppance. I have no respect for Mencken, so this made me smile.

There is no question that Drummond is the hero of the play, and that the political climate of the 1950s (reactionary, McCarthyism) helped inspired the playrights in the same way it motivated Arthur Miller in his play, The Crucible.

The first movie version of the play starred Spencer Tracy as Drummond and Frederic March as Brady. I still haven't seen it and really want to find the time as it is a seminal movie. There have been three other film versions, and it looks like a number of very successful recent productions. I would love to see it on the stage.

The play's title is from Proverbs 11:29: "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart." 

There is a lot to think about in the play, especially in light of the recent war on science and the very real consequences when individuals and communities opt for prayer over masks and vaccines. 

I would also like to read The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, another collaboration by this writing team.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Big Book Summer Challenge

Summertime and the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy's rich and your ma is good lookin'
So hush, little baby, don't you cry

Time to bring out the big books because summer isn't summer without the Big Book Summer Challenge, hosted by Sue at Book by Book.

I'm looking at some vacation days, lazing around, reading me some good big books.

Target books:
  • Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Dynasty and the Fifty Years that Changed England, by Catherine Bailey (non-fiction, 451 pages) - strongly recommended by my brother Mark and sister Frances
  • Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, by Thomas Penn (non-fiction, 448 pages) - received at Xmas, eager to read
  • Into the Wilderness, by Sara Donati (fiction, 876 pages) - literally been on my shelf for a decade!
  • Lionheart, by Sharon Kay Penman (fiction, 684 pages) - next in the Plantagenet series
It turns out that I have a number of books that I am also planning on reading this summer that are just shy of the 400 page mark. But no matter, reading isn't a competitive sport and this challenge simply inspires me to take a second look at my TBR shelf and pick a couple that do fit that bill that I was planning on reading at some point!

Hope you all have a safe and bookish summer. Now, if it would only get warm. We had a cool Spring in Colorado, and now I am in Maine, wearing a fleece every day and hoping to see the sun.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Writers and Lovers and Impossible Lives

Even though I usually read multiple books at one time, I try to limit myself to one per genre. Not so earlier this month when I was reading both Writers and Lovers, by Lily King, and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, by Andrew Sean Greer.

Both were about young women who were struggling on multiple fronts--dealing with loss, betrayal, ambition, family drama, depression, and self worth. Okay, so that fits virtually every piece of modern fiction, but still I was a bit concerned that I wouldn't be able to keep the two story lines straight.

Turns out, it wasn't that big a problem because Greta bounces between three parallel universes (a rather inventive form of time travel), and Casey (the protagonist of Writers and Lovers) was just so darn compelling.

I ended up really loving Writers and Lovers despite its rather dull title. While Casey struggled with the usual set of issues, and writing about writing is always a bit of a gamble, King made Casey so interesting and lovable that it didn't matter. It's not that I could relate to her, but I sympathized with her, admired her grit, and loved how her inner goodness was able to shine despite the junk she had to deal with. I especially loved her interaction with the two little boys, sons of one of her beaus, which showed her to be such a lovely person at her core.

I had a few issues with the Greta Wells novel and ended up only giving it 3 GoodReads stars. It wasn't the parallel universe thing--I love time travel and willingly suspend my disbelief on a regular basis--it was more that I didn't really like Greta very much and I never really got a good handle on the rest of the characters--her twin brother, his lover, their aunt, her lover/husband (depending on which world Greta was in)--while they were all described in detail, they never became real for me, hence I ended up not really caring that much about what happened to them. 

It's interesting to contrast the two novels and my ho-hum reaction to one versus my wholehearted embrace of the other. I think it ultimately comes down to writing. It's not enough to have a good story, the author has to be able to show the depth of the main character and that means authentic dialogue and authentic action-reaction. I felt like Greer wanted to make a point about what it meant to be gay in America in the 20th century, whereas King just wanted to tell Casey's story.

Both novels were set in the not too distant past. Writers and Lovers is set in the 1990s, and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is set (initially and off and on) in the 1980s, during the height of the AIDs epidemic. Does that make these actually historical fiction? It's a bit weird to think about, but I think so. While reading the Greta Wells novel, I did find myself looking up dates related to when AIDs became known and remembering the scariness of those times. I don't discount the point Greer was making, I just wish I liked his novel better.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Spring Potpourri

I can hardly believe that I haven't posted in over a month, and I had been doing so good up until April. All I can do is claim the usual -- busy at work, lots of family stuff, trying to get the garden in, yada, yada, yada. But even though I haven't been posting, I have been reading and logged some great books.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson - I put this book on my TBR list shortly after it came out in 2010, but only got a copy of it last Xmas. It was absolutely wonderful, epic, in fact. I really never knew about the migration of African Americans from the South to the North, Midwest, and West, so this was basic history for me. 

Wilkerson did a marvelous job of providing appropriate background, contextual information alongside of the stories of the three people she profiled in detail, Ida Mae Gladney who ended up in Chicago, George Starling who ended up in NYC, and Robert Foster who ended up in LA. At times the narrative read like fiction, but it was all the more poignant knowing that these were real lives, real heartache, real danger, real courage that was being chronicled and preserved. 

Wilkerson's latest book, Caste, has been getting a lot of buzz, and I fully intend to read it, hopefully sooner rather than later.

The Dog Master: A Novel of the First Dog, by W. Bruce Cameron - really enjoyed this fictional, imaginative account of how the first wolf became a dog. Set thirty thousand years ago, between ice ages, it's the story of three tribes, the Kindred, the Wolfen, and the Cohorts. At first, I found it a bit forced but surrendered to the willing suspension of disbelief and enjoyed Cameron's characters and how they lived, hunted, loved, married, raised their families, fought, and dreamed. And, of course, I loved the wolves, and the sweet wolf puppy who was the first dog. The novel ends with the narrator asking, "what comes next?" Smells like a sequel to me.

Edge of Eternity, by Ken Follett - this is book three in Follett's 20th century trilogy, and it covers the Cold War and Civil Rights, from the end of WWII to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I love Follett's historical novels--they have everything, history, interrelated, multi-generation family sagas, and a peephole into the room "where it happened." 

Acqua Alta, by Donna Leon - I'm rereading Leon's Guido Brunetti series set in Venice, and this was an excellent reread. A bit of archeology, a bit of opera, a bit of the Brunetti family at home, and a lot of navigating the streets and canals of Venice. 

La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, by Beppe Severgnini - I absolutely loved watching the CNN series with Stanley Tucci eating his way through Italy, and in the Milano episode he spent some time with Beppe Severgnini, who he described as a first-rate commentator on Italian culture. Being a fan of all things Italian, I decided to read something by him. It is a short book and one that I read slowly, just a few pages a night. It's interesting, amusing, tongue-in-cheek some of the time, and quotable much of the time.

The Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II, by Liza Mundy - definitely a 5-star non-fiction book. I loved reading about the women, the various methods of code breaking, what life was like in the US during WWII, and how impactful was the work they did. I think this book would make an excellent mini-series, either as a documentary or as the basis for a fictionalized drama. 

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Giant - Edna Ferber

I had meant to read So Big, the novel that won Edna Ferber the Pulitzer Prize, for the Back to the Classics challenge but while procuring a copy I got sidetracked (Squirrel!) by Giant and decided to read it instead. I knew I wanted to read something by Edna Ferber because I absolutely loved Showboat as a teen and read it a few times, and I think she is one of those forgotten 20th century authors who deserve a place in the pantheon. Not sure why she is rarely read anymore--her writing is strong, her stories and characters are strong, and she is thoughtful and insightful.

On to Giant. All I knew about Giant was that it was set in Texas and was made into an iconic movie starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, who died before the film was finished and so his final speech was dubbed by another actor.

Okay, now really onto Giant. Leslie is a Virginia blueblood, attractive, smart, witty. Jordan (aka Bick Benedict) is a Texas rancher whose lineage goes back to the Alamo days, and Jett Rink is a surly cowhand on Bick's ranch who strikes oil. Leslie marries Jordan, and Jett falls in love with her.

Leslie works hard to become a good Texas wife - she learns to live with the heat, the dust, the food, the socializing, the braggadocio, the family squabbles - and she succeeds. She manages her husband and wins friends and allies that take the edge off her homesickness for Virginia and the home and family she left behind.

The story spans the 1920s to the early 1950s - both world wars play incredibly minor roles in the story, but civil rights and racism do come to figure prominently. Giant is essentially a story about Texas as seen through the eyes of Leslie, the outsider.

Ferber has an interesting style in that she teeters on the edge of stream of consciousness by dropping commas and stringing together thoughts and things that would normally be punctuated. I found it effective and interesting.

I'm interested in finally watching the movie, but coming in at over three hours, I will probably have to wait until I retire to put together sufficient time to watch it!

And I still want to read So Big and Cimarron and maybe reread Showboat.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Eustace Diamonds - Anthony Trollope

I really enjoyed most of The Eustace Diamonds, the 3rd book in Anthony Trollope's Palliser series, and was happy in the assumption that I was reading another 5-star Victorian novel, and then I got to the stereotypical anti-Semitic characters (Mr Benjamin, the jeweler, and Mr Emilius, the preacher) and my heart sank.

You cannot say that Trollope was simply a product of his times and forgive him. The Eustace Diamonds was published serially from July 1872 to February 1873, 35 years after Charles Dickens gave the world Fagin in Oliver Twist and was taken to task for that stereotypical character. Knowing that the Holocaust was but 50 years away and knowing how stereotypes were used in hate-driven propaganda drives home the point that words matter and novelists have responsibility and accountability for their words and stories.

Apart from this glaring problem, The Eustace Diamonds is a bit of a mashup of Thackeray's Vanity Fair and Phineas Finn, the Palliser novel just preceding this one. The narrator acknowledges that Lizzie Greystock is cut from the same anti-heroine cloth as Becky Sharp - like Becky, Lizzie is attractive, seductive, selfish, manipulative, and really amoral. Despite all this, I found myself rooting for her a bit because like the other anti-heroine Scarlett O'Hara from Gone With the Wind, she is a prisoner of society--she has to marry in order to have the protection of a man who can represent her interests. Even though she is pig-headed and willfully ignorant of the law, there is an undercurrent of feminism that I latched on to. But seriously, Lizzie is a hard character to sympathize with much less like.

For most of the novel, Lizzie manipulates and exploits the good nature of her cousin, Frank Greystock, whose story is remarkably similar to that of Phineas Finn. Both are sons of clergyman with parliamentary ambitions that their meagre incomes cannot support. Both are tempted to marry for money so that they can live up to their potential. Both are torn between the love and devotion of a poor but virtuous maiden and their own ambition. I was a bit surprised that Trollope would replumb this same story line again in the next book in the series.

The discussion of the ownership of the Eustace diamonds was interesting. Are they heirlooms that cannot be given away or can the current head of a family dispose of his property as he wants to? The novel feels like it is documenting some fairly major shifts in English society with regards to primogeniture, individual rights versus societal conventions, and upward mobility. 

I found the story of the diamonds and the several attempts to steal them fascinating, with shades of the great caper stories that I love to read. Like I said, this should've been a 5-star novel. But, it's not.

This is my 19th century novel for the Back to the Classics Challenge - 2021.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Hadrian's Wall - 2017 Travelogue

Somehow the post in which I had collected all my posts on my Hadrian's Wall west-to-east walk in 2017 has vanished. So here it is, sort of recreated. My husband Jeff and I walked the wall in 11 days with a layover day mid-way. We took our time, visited all the museums along the way, and had one of the best trips of our life.

It was one of the best things I've ever done, and I'm eager to do another long-distance walk. I think St. Cuthbert's Way to Lindsfarne might be next. But then, I would love to do another walk along the Wall.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Potpourri - What I've Been Reading

It's time once again for Potpourri - a look at what I've been reading but haven't gotten around to blogging about yet.

And now, in the order read...

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss - a biography of the father of French novelist Alexandre Dumas. Despite loving the various adaptations of The Three Musketeers, I've never read anything by Dumas and really knew nothing about him before I read this book. In a nutshell, Dumas modeled many of the heroes of his novels on the life of his father, who was a black swashbuckler from Santo Domingo. The illegitimate son of a French count, Alexandre the father emigrated to France as a teenager, joined the army and rose to be a general in the Republican Army, fighting with Napoleon and was imprisoned for several years when he was captured by the Spanish. Not only was this a fascinating life to read about, but I was also very interested to discover that the early years of  the French Revolution were characterized by less racial prejudice than the rest of Europe and definitely the US.

One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News, by Kate Atkinson - books 2 and 3 in the author's Jackson Brodie series, I listened to both back to back because I just couldn't stop after book 2. Atkinson is one of my favorite authors these days and these are remarkably well-written, thoughtful mysteries. Set in Scotland and northern England, I love the settings, the plot, and the interesting, side characters. I actually think every book in the series gets better, which is really saying something.

The Night Portrait: A Novel of World War II and da Vinci's Italy, by Laura Morelli - this ticked all the boxes for me -  Nazi confiscation and the Monuments Men recovery of Europe's art during WWII and the fictional backstory of the creation of da Vinci's painting of Portrait of a Lady with an Ermine. Three main characters - Cecilia Gallerani, the subject of the portrait and the Duke of Milan's mistress, Edith, the young German art conservator who is enlisted to procure art masterpieces for Goering and Hitler, and Dominic, an American soldier assigned to help the Monuments Men recover the stolen art after D-Day. The writing is a bit wobbly (the narrator uses too many cliches for my taste) but the story and characters are great.

The Fortunate Ones, by Ed Tarkington - a riff on The Great Gatsby, an interesting story about how a poor boy and his single-parent mother are befriended by the upper echelon in Nashville in the early 21st century. Definitely an interesting story and well-written, and it was fun to track the parallels with Gatsby.

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 - a beautiful oversized hardbound book that my darling son got me for my birthday back in November. I read it slowly - only a page or two a night - but I enjoyed it immensely and intend to keep it handy to dip into whenever the mood strikes. Beautiful illustrations and chock full of interesting facts. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Painted Veil - W. Somerset Maugham

First and foremost, Somerset Maugham is an exquisite writer. His prose has an elegant simplicity that is so moving and powerful. 

Written in 1925, the same year as The Great Gatsby, I found myself comparing the main character, Kitty, with Gatsby's Daisy. Cut from the same thin, wispy, pretty cloth, they share a shallowness and a weak will along with a loveliness that gets them into trouble. It is their ticket and their burden. 

Along the same lines, Charlie Townsend, the cad of the story, reminds me so much of Tom Buchanan in Gatsby as well. Handsome, philandering, selfish--a person who smashes things up and then retreats back into his money or "vast carelessness." 

Obviously, the parallels I saw between Kitty/Charlie and Daisy/Tom are my own retrospection and  thinking about the world of the 1920s--post Great War, post Victorian, post Edwardian, imperialistic.

The Painted Veil takes place in Hong Kong and a cholera-stricken village in mainland China, with bits and pieces in London. Narrated in the third person, this is Kitty's story--her journey from a London debutante to the wife of a doctor first in Hong Kong and then in mainland China and then back to London for the reckoning. 

It wasn't until Kitty and her husband Walter arrive in the village that I started marking passages. The scenes in Hong Kong are stifling, but scenes in the village are breathtaking.

The morning drew on and the sun touched the mist so that it shone whitely like the ghost of snow on a dying star. Though on the river it was light so that you discern palely the lines of the crowded junks and the thick forest of their masts, in front it was a shining wall the eye could not pierce. But suddenly from that white cloud a tall, grim, and massive bastion emerged. It seemed not merely to be made visible by the all-discovering sun but rather to rise out of nothing at the touch of a magic wand.

There were times that I felt so frustrated with Kitty, wanting her to be a heroine that I could admire, but that's not fair. Maugham gave me her story, shabby in parts and shameful in others, but one in which Kitty does grow in self awareness so that by the end she can declare to her father that she wants her unborn child, whom she believes to be a daughter, "to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person , independent of others because she is possessed of herself, and I want her to take to life like a free man and make a better job of it than I have."

This is such a marked contrast to Daisy Buchanan who could only wish for her daughter to "be a fool- that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool," that I have to say that perhaps Kitty is a heroine I can admire after all. 

The title is from the opening lines of a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which is actually a pretty good synopsis of the story:

Lift not the painted veil which those who live

Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,

And it but mimic all we would believe

With colours idly spread,—behind, lurk Fear

And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave

Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.

I knew one who had lifted it—he sought,

For his lost heart was tender, things to love,

But found them not, alas! nor was there aught

The world contains, the which he could approve.

Through the unheeding many he did move,

A splendour among shadows, a bright blot

Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove

For truth, and like the Preacher found it not. 

There's another poetry reference that I particularly liked--it's from Oliver Goldsmith's An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog. Remember, "the dog it was that died."

The only other work by Maugham that I've read is Cakes and Ale, ten years ago. Now I'm inspired to read The Razor's Edge, which I've owned for years but never read, and Moon and Sixpence. Not sure I have it in me to read Of Human Bondage though. And the movie version? I always say I'm going to watch the film adaptation of books but rarely actually get around to it. But, maybe this time...

Yep, another book for the Back to the Classics Challenge - 2021, in the category twentieth century classic.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Martin Chuzzlewit - Charles Dickens

Martin Chuzzlewit is basically a story in search of a hero, with a gallery of rogues and some exceedingly dreary scenes. Dickens wrote
A Christmas Carol in the midst of writing this serialized novel, and the basic premise of a grumpy old man redeeming himself is played out in Martin Chuzzlewit but in a much more circuitous way than in A Christmas Carol.

There were a few characters that I loved - Mark Tapley and John Westlock and Tom Pinch, once he grew a spine - but there were so many that were simply bad company, including both Martins until near the end.  Mr. Pecksniff makes my skin crawl, Jonas Chuzzlewit rivals Bill Sykes as a villain, Cherry and Merry Pecksniff and the various Chuzzlewit relations are all deplorable, and a little of Sairy Gamp goes a long way. The back of the book I read claims that this is Dickens's "comic  masterpiece." I really wouldn't put it in the category of comedy. I found it mostly leaden with a few bright spots.

As I knew he would be, Dickens was unrelentingly hard on the Americans that Mark and Martin the younger encountered in the US. I can appreciate that Dickens had lots of issues during his own first visit to the US, but he really beat the topic to death. I can recall only one decent American among the dozen or so that figured in the story, and it became quite tedious. It was clear that Dickens had an axe to grind, and I was so relieved when Martin and Mark returned to England, and the real story resumed.

I will say, though, that there is some good writing and more descriptive passages than I remember seeing in the earlier novels, so I think Martin Chuzzlewit marks somewhat of a transition in Dickens's evolution as a writer. However, I think the serialization approach to writing a novel presents problems that revising and editing and cooling off would have mitigated. 

Not sure this one will make it on to the reread pile, but now I have only two Dickens novels left to read for the first time, Barnaby Rudge and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

As you might have guessed, this book qualifies for the Back to the Classics Challenge for 2021, in the "new-to-you by a favorite author" category.

There is a 1994 BBC mini-series that I may watch to see how the screenwriters dealt with the novel. I think Julia Sawalha (aka Lydia Bennet) is perfectly cast at Merry Pecksniff.