Category Archives: Classics

Barracoon

Barracoon, by Zora Neale Hurston, is one of the most powerfully written books I’ve ever read.  It is the account of the life of one of the last slaves brought to America on the slave ship, the Clotilda. Hurston conducted extensive interviews with Cudjo Lewis, née Kossula, and learned the heartbreaking story of his early life in Africa, his capture and sale to the slave traders, his brutal experiences as a slave, and his life after emancipation.

As Kossula tells Hurston, he shared his life with her out of a desire to be known and remembered: “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’”

from the Zora Neale Hurston website:

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation’s history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo’s firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.

In 1931, Hurston returned to Plateau, the African-centric community three miles from Mobile founded by Cudjo and other former slaves from his ship. Spending more than three months there, she talked in depth with Cudjo about the details of his life. During those weeks, the young writer and the elderly formerly enslaved man ate peaches and watermelon that grew in the backyard and talked about Cudjo’s past — memories from his childhood in Africa, the horrors of being captured and held in a barracoon for selection by American slavers, the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage packed with more than 100 other souls aboard the Clotilda, and the years he spent in slavery until the end of the Civil War.

Based on those interviews, featuring Cudjo’s unique vernacular, and written from Hurston’s perspective with the compassion and singular style that have made her one of the preeminent American authors of the twentieth-century, Barracoon masterfully illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it. Offering insight into the pernicious legacy that continues to haunt us all, black and white, this poignant and powerful work is an invaluable contribution to our shared history and culture.

This man’s story is heart wrenching, but the book is absolutely amazing. Zora Neale Hurston told the story using of his own words, in dialect. Being familiar with her other books, I knew that my first experience with reading Barracoon should be to listen to the audiobook, then read the book. I strongly advise this way of experiencing the story. You should also know that you cannot read or listen to this story without being deeply moved, without it changing something inside you. It is such a profound testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Hurston spent many months with Kossula, grilling him with questions and recording his long, detailed memories. They became friends, and she ends the book with their parting.

It was a very sad morning in October when I said the final goodbye, and looked back the last time at the lonely figure that stood on the edge of the cliff that fronts the highway. He had come out to the front of his place that overhangs the Cochrane Highway that leads to the bridge of that name. He wanted to see the last of me. He had saved two peaches, the last he had found on his tree, for me. When I crossed the bridge, I know he went back to his porch; to his house full of thoughts. To his memories of fat girls with ringing golden bracelets, his drums that speak the minds of men, to palm-nut cakes and bull-roarers, to his parables. I am sure that he does not fear death. In spite of his long Christian fellowship, he is too deeply a pagan to fear death. But he is full of trembling awe before the altar of the past.

“But he is full of trembling awe before the altar of the past…”

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

 

 

I also chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “WANDERLUST: Reading the States,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each of the 50 United States. This book took place in Alabama.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving, is the perfect story for an autumn day! I’d never read it before, just watched the animated Disney version of the story, so I’m so glad I finally read it! (I liked it better than the movie!)

There’s so much more to the story than the movie, but the plot line is essentially the same. What I missed by only seeing the movie was Washington Irving’s beautiful descriptions of the Sleepy Hollow area of New York State, and his humorous insights into human nature and village life.

Not far from this village, perhaps about two miles, there is a little valley, or rather lap of land, among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail or tapping of a woodpecker is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquillity.

 

The story was published in 1820 and is still a favorite “Halloween” read. It is an early thriller and plays on the local legends and scary stories of a phantom, a Hessian soldier’s ghost, who rode around the woods at night without his head which had been blown off in war.

The main characters are Ichabod Crane, Katrina Van Tassel, and Brom Van Brunt (nicknamed Brom Bones by the villagers).

Ichabod Crane was the local schoolmaster. He “was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weathercock, perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

Brom Bones was the local bully. “Brom Bones and his gang!’ The neighbours looked upon him with a mixture of awe, admiration, and good will; and when any madcap prank or rustic brawl occurred in the vicinity, always shook their heads and warranted Brom Bones was at the bottom of it.

Katrina Van Tassel, was “the daughter and only child of a substantial Dutch farmer. She was a blooming lass of fresh eighteen, plump as a partridge, ripe and melting and rosycheeked as one of her father’s peaches, and universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations.

Both men, of course, were smitten with her, but only one of them would be able to win her favors. The rivalry of Ichabod and Brom plays out in a terrifying way in the woods surrounding Sleepy Hollow.

This was such a fun read for my Readers Imbibing Peril – XVI challenge! It would be fun to read aloud in while sitting around a campfire at night, or in front of the fireplace on a stormy Halloween night.

 

 

It is also a wonderful old classic story that I read for my 50 books in 5 years with The Classics Club.

 

 

The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran

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For many of us who are around my age, The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran, was a guide and an inspiration in our early adulthood years. My husband and I used his passage “On Marriage” as part our wedding ceremony. And we took Gibran’s wise insights “On Children” to heart when we began our family. Some of my other favorite topics he wrote about are “On Love” and “On Joy and Sorrow.”

I pulled the old book off my shelf the other day and reread it, and was once again inspired by its wisdom. If you’ve never read it, you might find a cozy reading spot and a quiet, uninterrupted afternoon, and treat yourself to the beautifully-written and thought-provoking wisdom of Khalil Gibran.

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Khalil Gibran was born in Lebanon in 1883. He immigrated to the United States with his mother and siblings in 1895. The Prophet was published in 1923 and became a best selling book that has been translated into over 100 languages. He died at the very young age of 48, and is buried in Lebanon.

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

 

 

  I also chose to read this book for my personal challenge, Wanderlust,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each country of the world. This was a book written by a Lebanese/American author, so I am counting it for the country of Lebanon.

Joseph Conrad Nailed It

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My husband has long admired Joseph Conrad’s writing. Conrad’s stories are both powerful and profound, and his writing is impressively beautiful, especially considering that English was not his first language. Byron’s old, yellowed copy of Heart of Darkness sits on our coffee table these days rather than on the bookshelf.

So I wasn’t surprised the other day when Byron asked me to read a quote from Conrad’s, Lord Jim. He had just run across the quote in his handwritten reading notebook, copied down from his reading of the book in 2018, and told me that the quote described what having terminal cancer is like for him. He said that Conrad nailed it. It is heart-wrenching to read, but I’m glad that he shared these really deep emotions with me, through the words of one of his favorite authors.

I decided to share this quote with you, because I think it perfectly demonstrates a big part of why we read — to find those nuggets of truth that explain, give an understanding of, or put into words what we are going through in life at the moment.

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, Chapter 2

There are many shades in the danger of adventures and gales, and it is only now and then that there appears on the face of facts a sinister violence of intention—that indefinable something which forces it upon the mind and the heart of a man, that this complication of accidents or these elemental furies are coming at him with a purpose of malice, with a strength beyond control, with an unbridled cruelty that means to tear out of him his hope and his fear, the pain of his fatigue and his longing for rest: which means to smash, to destroy, to annihilate all he has seen, known, loved, enjoyed, or hated; all that is priceless and necessary—the sunshine, the memories, the future,—which means to sweep the whole precious world utterly away from his sight by the simple and appalling act of taking his life.

A Mystery Short Story

A Christmas Tragedy, by Baroness Orczy, was a fun and interesting short story I listened to for the Readers Imbibing Peril-XVI reading challenge. The very first audiobook I listened to (some 40 or so years ago!) was Baroness Orczy’s, The Scarlet Pimpernel. I loved that story and her writing, so I knew this would be a good choice for a quick mystery to read for my “Peril of the Short Story”.  And I did enjoy this classic who-done-it.

from the publisher:

A Christmas Eve party at Clevere Hall ends in tragedy when the host is found stabbed to death. Major Ceely certainly wasn’t short of enemies, but who hated him enough to commit the crime?

Baroness Emma Orczy (1865-1947) was an Hungarian-British author who is known for her popular series of books starting with The Scarlet Pimpernel. That series was groundbreaking in terms of introducing a hero who specialized in disguises and appeared to be just a bit of a dolt in his daily life. Sort of a Clark Kent of that time. She also created the character of Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, who was one of literature’s first female detectives.

Her books are fun to read, ahead of their time, entertaining, and are well worth reading.

I read this book for the Readers Imbibing Peril – XVI challenge.

 

 

It was also one of my choices to read 50 books in 5 years for The Classics Club.

 

Sunday Reading

…painting by Robert Panitzsch (Danish artist, 1879-1949)

I came across this painting by the Danish artist, Robert Panitzsch, and loved the feeling it gave me. It describes beautifully my Sunday afternoon reading mood!  The book open on the chair would be my current read: A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry. And I would be taking just a brief break to make some more tea. How lovely to read in such a room with sunshine, open window, potted plants. The perfect Sunday afternoon!

Classics Club Spin #26


It’s time for Classics Club Spin #26!”  Here’s how it works for members of The Classics Club.

At your blog, before Sunday 18th April, 2021, create a post that lists twenty books of your choice that remain “to be read” on your Classics Club list. (Click here to see my list of 50 books to read in 5 years.)

This is your Spin List.

You have to read one of these twenty books by the end of the spin period.

On Sunday 18th, April, 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 the 31st May, 2021.

Please check back here soon to see which of these books I will be reading for this new Classics Club Spin!

  1. Night, Elie Wiesel
  2. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred D. Taylor
  3. The Gaucho Martin Fierro, José Hernández
  4. The Living Reed, Pearl S. Buck
  5. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
  6. The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen
  7. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
  8. Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell
  9. The Living Reed, Pearl S. Buck
  10. The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
  11. A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry

  12. The Living Reed, Pearl S. Buck
  13. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
  14. The Living Reed, Pearl S. Buck
  15. The Book of Tea, Kazuko Okakura
  16. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
  17. The Living Reed, Pearl S. Buck
  18. Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope
  19. The Living Reed, Pearl S. Buck
  20. Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village, Ronald Blythe

Letters to a Young Poet

Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke, is a gem of a book. It consists of ten letters written to a young man who wrote to Rilke for advice on how to become a successful poet. These ten letters revealed the heart and soul of Rilke himself, and all were full of wisdom about finding what you are passionate about in life and living true to that vision.

Rilke’s first response to the young poet was to tell him that he should not look outside himself for advice…

Now (as you have permitted me to advise you) I beg you to give all that up. You are looking outwards, and of all things that is what you must now not do. Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing were denied you. This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write? Dig down into yourself for a deep answer.

As the correspondence between the two men continued, the conversations became even more heartfelt, and were beautiful exchanges about life and living, growing and becoming, as both an artist and a human being.

In one of the early letters, Rilke recommended an author he admired and suggested the young poet read those works. I loved that sharing a favorite book was important to him, and his explanation of how that book had touched his life was quite wonderful…

Get hold of the little volume called Six Tales by J. P. Jacobsen, and his novel Niels Lyhne, and start with the first story in the former book, which is called Mogens. A world will come over you, the happiness, the wealth, the inconceivable greatness of a world. Live for a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them. Your love will be repaid a thousand thousandfold, and whatever your life may become,—will, I am convinced, run through the texture of your growing as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments and joys.

One more nugget of gold about Life:

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”

This book is a little treasure that I will return to many times because his beautiful writing and his wise words touch my heart.

I chose this book for my 50 books in 5 years for The Classics Club.

 

The Call of the Wild

I think I must have first read The Call of the Wild, by Jack London, in high school, and it’s been ages since then, so I put it on my Classics Club list and reread it. Of course, with more life experience since my first time reading it, I found it to be much more profound and powerful than I remembered. The writing is beautiful, and this story of survival is very moving.

From the publisher:

The Call of the Wild is a novel by Jack London published in 1903. The story is set in the Yukon during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush—a period when strong sled dogs were in high demand. The novel’s central character is a dog named Buck, a domesticated dog living at a ranch in the Santa Clara valley of California as the story opens. Stolen from his home and sold into the brutal existence of an Alaskan sled dog, he reverts to atavistic traits. Buck is forced to adjust to, and survive, cruel treatments and fight to dominate other dogs in a harsh climate. Eventually he sheds the veneer of civilization, relying on primordial instincts and lessons he learns, to emerge as a leader in the wild.

A favorite quote (that shows the beauty of Jack London’s writing):

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.
This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad in a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.

As I reread it, the storyline came back to me. It’s such a powerful story of survival, betrayal, loyalty, trust, the brutality of civilization and the savage beauty of nature. I remembered the cruelty and the kindness, so it had made a strong impression on me. But as I said before, with a lifetime between first reading it and now, I understand the depth of the story much better at this age. So, if you read it in high school and haven’t revisited it since then…it’s a beautifully written book that will touch your heart and leave you thinking.

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

 

 

I chose this book to read for my personal challenge, “WANDERLUST: Reading the States,” an effort to read books that are from or take place in each of the 50 United States. This book took place in Alaska.

Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes

When Robert Louis Stevenson was in his late 20’s, he set out on a journey that he hoped would provide material for writing a book. It was a hiking journey of approximately 120 miles through the Cévennes Mountains of France, but it was not a solo hike.  He took with him a companion — a donkey he named Modestine. He wrote of his adventures in his book Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes.

From the publisher:

In twelve days, from September 22, 1878, until October 3, 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson walked from Le Monastier to St. Jean du Gard in the Cevennes. His only companion was Modestine, a donkey. He traveled as his fancy led him, stopping to sleep whenever occasion offered. One morning after a night’s sleep out of doors Stevenson scattered coins along the road upon the turf in payment for his night’s lodging.
Modestine, the donkey, demanded that her owner exercise all his ingenuity. At first he loathed her for her intractable differences of opinion displayed concerning the rate of travel to be maintained. Repeated blows seemed not to influence her until he learned to use the magical word “Proot” to get her moving.

If you have read some of his other books, like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, or his book of children’s poems, A Child’s Garden of Verses, you know he is a wonderful writer and storyteller. This was one of his early works, but he already had the power of description and fun storytelling, so it is an enjoyable recount of his travels. It actually became a very influential book in the genre of travel writing.  Traveling with a donkey also provided a fair amount of comic relief for the reader, although I’m sure it was massive frustration for him as a traveler!

Since our travel is so restricted these days due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was fun to walk alongside Robert Louis Stevenson through these mountains in France. There were times when I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed being with him, though, because he appeared to be a bit of a curmudgeon, but I would love to retrace his route with my husband as my walking companion! Many people do just that!

 

An Excerpt from the Book:

Night is a dead monotonous period under a roof; but in the open world it passes lightly, with its stars and dews and perfumes, and the hours are marked by changes in the face of Nature. What seems a kind of temporal death to people choked between walls and curtains, is only a light and living slumber to the man who sleeps afield. All night long he can hear Nature breathing deeply and freely; even as she takes her rest, she turns and smiles; and there is one stirring hour unknown to those who dwell in houses, when a wakeful influence goes abroad over the sleeping hemisphere, and all the outdoor world are on their feet.

He captured the people and the times very well, described the outdoor experience beautifully, and there was plenty of adventure (such as convincing Modestine to take a short-cut up a steep hill!) to keep you reading through this short book.

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