Category Archives: The Classics Club

The Country of the Pointed Firs

During my junior year in high school, we were required to read Sarah Orne Jewett‘s, The Country of the Pointed Firs. I remember that it was a “quiet” book, but I don’t remember much else about that reading of it. It must have struck a chord within me, though, because when I was putting together my list of 50 classics to read in 5 years for The Classics Club, I put it on my list. I’m so glad I did!

I bought both the book version and the audiobook so I could both read and listen at the same time. At first, the audiobook almost put me to sleep and I thought I wouldn’t be able to listen to that particular narrator. I was wrong. I’m so glad I listened to it because it was such an authentic reading of the book, Maine accent and all!

The Country of the Pointed Firs, written in 1896, is a series of stories, vignettes, of a small town on the coast of Maine. There isn’t much of a plot, but the vignettes are all interconnected stories of the inhabitants of the village. Through those interconnected lives, you get a real feeling for the tough gentleness of the villagers, the strength they share, and the struggles they faced with that climate and way of making a living from a rugged ocean.  With her beautiful and honest language, Jewett captured a time gone past and created a deep sense of place.

I found the book very nostalgic, quite profound in its simplicity and direct storytelling. I was most moved by the story of the brokenhearted Joanna, abandoned by the man she loved, who withdrew from the life around her and lived alone for the rest of her life on a small island off the coast. The island became her hermitage, and the townspeople watched over her from afar, respecting her decision to withdraw but helping her out in whatever little ways she would accept.

My high school self appreciated the beauty of Jewett’s writing, but my seventy-year-old self deeply appreciates so much more. It is a book that you must read slowly, you cannot be in the hurry of modern life. You must read each word, because the dialect is just as important as the story itself. And you must take the time to let the sense of place and the timeless LIFE within this book soak in.

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

 

Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a delightful children’s book written by Booker Prize winning author, Salman Rushdie.

from the publisher:

Set in an exotic Eastern landscape peopled by magicians and fantastic talking animals, Salman Rushdie’s classic children’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories inhabits the same imaginative space as The Lord of the Rings, The Alchemist, and The Wizard of Oz. In this captivating work of fantasy from the author of Midnight’s Childrenand The Enchantress of Florence, Haroun sets out on an adventure to restore the poisoned source of the sea of stories. On the way, he encounters many foes, all intent on draining the sea of all its storytelling powers.

Haroun’s father, Rashid, was a master storyteller and his stories were much in demand by everyone, but especially by politicians. One day, however, his wife left him for a man with no imagination at all, and Haroun, angry and upset about his mother leaving them, shouted to his father, “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” From that moment on, Rashid’s stories disappeared.

Haroun wanted to get those words back, to pull them out of his father’s ears and shove them back into his own mouth; but of course he couldn’t do that. And that was why he blamed himself when, soon afterwards and in the most embarrassing circumstances imaginable, an Unthinkable Thing happened.

And from that moment on…Haroun seeks a way to find out what happened to those stories, and how to get them back from the Sea of Stories. Adventure after adventure follows.

One of my favorite quotes from the book:

He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different colour, weaving in and out of one another like aliquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and Iff explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each coloured strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all the stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories; so that unlike a library of books, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was much more than a storeroom of yarns. It was not dead, but alive.

This book is a delight to read! The word play and the language of it all are brilliant and fun. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a story more and laughed out loud at so many puns and clever ways of describing things. I hope my son will read it aloud to our grandboy because I know they’d both love it.

Salman Rushdie dedicated this book to one of his sons after being apart for a long period of time. He also wrote Luka and the Fire of Life, and dedicated that book to his other son. I can’t wait to read that one next!

 

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

The Red Pony

The Red Pony, by John Steinbeck, is a novella in four stories about a young boy growing up on a ranch near Salinas, California. The boy, ten-year-old Jody Tiflin, lives with his father, a strict and harsh disciplinarian, and his mother, who is strong and understanding, and one ranch hand, Billy Buck.  All of them work hard to make a living from the ranch.  It is good, honest work, and they are good people, but life is harsh.

Although just a young adolescent, Jody has to grow up quickly. He has to carry his own weight in terms of chores and help on the ranch, and he is constantly learning. In the first story, he is given a beautiful red pony and it is his responsibility to care for her and keep her well and safe. He relies on Billy Buck to guide him and teach him everything he needs to know about his pony. One day, when Jody has to be in school all day, Billy Buck tells him that he can let the horse stay out in the field for the day. Jody questions him about the weather because the pony shouldn’t be outside in the rain. Billy reassures him that it won’t rain. Unfortunately, it does rain and after spending most of the day outside in the elements, the horse gets sick.

Jody must face life’s challenges head on, but he is resilient, imaginative, and still very much a young boy (collecting frogs on his way home from school and putting them in his lunchbox, to the dismay of his mother). When his grandfather comes to visit, his imagination is captured by the stories he tells Jody of leading a wagon train westward.

Jody lay in his bed and thought of the impossible world of Indians and buffaloes, a world that had ceased to be forever. He wished he could have been living in the heroic time, but he knew he was not of heroic timber. No one living now, save possibly Billy Buck, was worthy to do the things that had been done. A race of giants had lived then, fearless men, men of a staunchness unknown in this day. Jody thought of the wide plains and of the wagons moving across like centipedes. He thought of Grandfather on a huge white horse, marshaling the people. Across his mind marched the great phantoms, and they marched off the earth and they were gone.

Although I read this book a long time ago, this re-read was like reading it for the first time. I remembered that it was sad, and that it wasn’t a children’s story. But I hadn’t remembered how beautifully written it was, and that John Steinbeck was an extraordinary storyteller. I must revisit more of his books!

 

I read this book as part of my year-long celebration of turning 70 years old. The movie version of this book was released in 1949, my birth year.

 

 

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

The Outermost House

In my reading notebook from long ago, on a page with notes I took while reading a book by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, there’s a sentence I wrote down that says, “Who is Henry Beston?” I love discovering new-to-me authors by finding references to them from other authors. In those days there was no Google to instantly look him up. I took a trip to the library to find out who he was and what he wrote. Then I had to track down his book, read it, and finally understand more fully why A.M.L. admired him and his beautiful little book, The Outermost House. After forty-five years, I just reread it and found it even more beautifully written than I remembered.

Henry Beston served as an ambulance driver during World War I. After the war, he began a  writing career. He spent a great deal of time on Cape Cod, and in 1925, he drew up the design for a small getaway cottage for writing. He called it “the fo’castle.”  It was built near Eastham, on the outermost spit of land against the Atlantic Ocean. When it was finished, he went out to stay for a few weeks. Those few weeks turned into a year of solitude and writing. The Outermost House is a memoir of that year of solitude and his observations and descriptions of that “elemental” area that bring it to life for the reader. As I read it I could hear the waves, I could  picture the shore birds, I could feel the wind and the storms. I slowed myself down from the busy-ness of the holidays so that I could read it word by word and enjoy the beauty of those words chosen so eloquently to bring to life a sense of place.

His book was instrumental in, or inspired, the establishment of Cape Cod as a National Seashore in 1961. Unfortunately, although his little house withstood many storms and an everchanging coastline (it was moved inland twice to preserve it), the severe winter storms of 1978 washed it out to sea.

I loved rereading this book. I loved learning more about the life of Henry Beston. And now I would very much love to spend some time on Cape Cod.

Some favorites from the book:

…The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach. I have heard them all, and of the three elemental voices, that of ocean is the most awesome, beautiful, and varied.

…The sea has many voices. Listen to the surf, really lend it your ears, and you will hear in it a world of sounds: hollow boomings and heavy roarings, great watery tumblings and tramplings, long hissing seethes, sharp, rifle-shot reports, splashes, whispers, the grinding undertone of stones, and sometimes vocal sounds that might be the half-heard talk of people in the sea.

…We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

“Biographical Snippets” by Jessica Ellen Monk :  Click here to read her full summary of Henry Beston’s life.

  • Born June 1, 1888, Quincy MA
  • Served as an ambulance driver in WW1 – 1915
  • Began a writing career after WWI
  • Had “the Fo’castle” built in 1925
  • Spent much of the next few years there in solitude
  • The Outermost House published in 1928
  • Married Elizabeth Coatsworth in 1929
  • Donated Fo’castle to the Audubon Society in 1959
  • Died April 15, 1968
  • Fo’castle washed away by a storm in 1978

 

 

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

Death Comes for the Archbishop

“During those last weeks of the Bishop’s life he thought very little about death; it was the Past he was leaving. The future would take care of itself.”

Death Comes for the Archbishop is my favorite book written by Willa Cather so rereading it for my Classics Club challenge was a pleasure. It’s such a beautifully written book. It is an historical fiction, based on the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy, who served as the first Archbishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and of his friend, Joseph Projectus Machebeuf.

From the publisher:

There is something epic–and almost mythic–about this sparsely beautiful novel by Willa Cather, although the story it tells is that of a single human life, lived simply in the silence of the desert. In 1851 Father Jean Marie Latour comes as the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico. What he finds is a vast territory of red hills and tortuous arroyos, American by law but Mexican and Indian in custom and belief. In the almost forty years that follow, Latour spreads his faith in the only way he knows–gently, although he must contend with an unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness. Out of these events Cather gives us an indelible vision of life unfolding in a place where time itself seems suspended.

The character of Father Latour was of a gentle, caring, intelligent and introverted man. This man’s personality was in stark contrast with the rugged western landscapes and the “wildness” of the west at that time, but he showed courage, perseverance, and kindness toward all through the experiences of his life.

But Jean, who was at ease in any society and always the flower of courtesy, could not form new ties. It had always been so. He was like a very few. To man’s wisdom it would have seemed that a priest with Father Latour’s exceptional qualities would have been better placed in some part of the world where scholarship, a handsome person, and delicate perceptions all have their effect; and that a man of much rougher type would have served God well enough as the first Bishop of New Mexico. Doubtless Bishop Latour’s successors would be men of a different fibre. But God had his reasons, Father Joseph devoutly believed. Perhaps it pleased Him to grace the beginning of a new era and a vast new diocese by a fine personality. And perhaps, after all, something would remain through the years to come: some ideal, or memory, or legend.

The stories of the Archbishop’s interactions with the Mexican and Indian peoples and their cultures were poignantly and honestly told. The political problems of both cultures with the American government were complex, but reflecting towards the end of his life, the Bishop said, “My son, I have lived to see two great wrongs righted; I have seen the end of black slavery, and I have seen the Navajos restored to their own country.”

Cather’s  descriptions of New Mexico are exquisite. She uses her words as if a painter and the visions she creates in our minds are full of color and emotion.

“The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still, — and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!”

I do love this work of art and the artistry of Willa Cather. Reading this book fills me with sunshine and deep emotion. I am in awe of her mastery of language.

“Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!”

I read this book as one of my 50-books-in-5-years for The Classics Club. It was also a book on my list for my personal reading journey, “May Sunshine Light Your Day.”

 

 

The Door in the Wall

The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite de Angeli, was published in 1949 and received the Newbery Medal for excellence in American children’s literature in 1950. It is a book I remember reading and loving when I was ten or eleven.  And as a school teacher, I used it for a novel study when I taught my 6th Grade unit on the Middle Ages. It’s a wonderful story and teaching tool for that period of history, and for that age group.

The story takes place in the 14th century, and Robin, who comes from a noble family, is expected to become a knight.

Ever since he could remember, Robin had been told what was expected of him as son of his father. Like other sons of noble family, he would be sent away from his mother and father to live in the household of another knight, where he would learn all the ways of knighthood. He would learn how to be of service to his liege lord, how to be courteous and gentle, and, at the same time, strong of heart.

Robin’s father was away fighting in a war, and his mother was called to serve as a Lady-in-Waiting to the queen, so Robin was supposed to start his long training for knighthood. However, before he could leave home, he and the servants that were caring for him while his parents were gone became ill. Most of the servants died, and Robin was left alone, ill and forgotten. A kindly monk, Brother Luke, heard that a child was left alone and came to help him. He nursed him until he was well, but the illness left Robin extremely weak and without the use of his legs. The story of his recovery and of how he overcame his limitations both physically and emotionally is what makes this book a wonderful read.

Brother Luke was a kind and gentle teacher and caretaker. He and the other monks took Robin underwing, and taught him to read and to do many things for himself.

“Always remember that,” said the friar. “Thou hast only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it.” “I will remember,” Robin promised, but he wasn’t sure that he knew what Brother Luke meant to say.

“Whether thou’lt walk soon I know not. This I know. We must teach thy hands to be skillful in many ways, and we must teach thy mind to go about whether thy legs will carry thee or no. For reading is another door in the wall, dost understand, my son?”

The language of the book is challenging for young readers, but the story is compelling and captures the reader. The history and culture of that period of time are masterfully presented and it’s a wonderful immersion into Medieval daily life.

But my favorite thing about the book is that it focuses on what is really meaningful in life, then and now. It’s a story about overcoming adversity and learning to understand and accept one’s own strengths and weaknesses. It shows the importance of doing one’s best and being open to opportunities that help you find an enjoyable and meaningful way to give back to the community. And it’s a story of a boy learning how to embrace life, despite the difficulties he faces daily. It’s a story full of wisdom, and our classroom discussions about the ideas in the book were wonderful. 

None of us is perfect. It is better to have crooked legs than a crooked spirit. We can only do the best we can with what we have. That, after all, is the measure of success: what we do with what we have.

A wonderful read and highly recommended!

This book was on my list of 50-books-to-read-in-five years for The Classics Club. It was also on my list of Birth Year Reading, a personal challenge.

Currently Reading: My Spin Book

I’m up early this morning (thanks to the sounds of a squirrel in the attic) and so decided to start my book for the Classics Club Spin #19. The Spin number was just announced this morning and that number was #1. I made a large cup of tea and am starting Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, which was the first book on my Spin list.

Americanah is the perfect book for me to read at this point in time because this book, (along with her book, We Should All Be Feminists) was chosen by the Multnomah County Library for the Everybody Reads 2019 in Portland, Oregon!  Discussions start in the various libraries in January, and she will be speaking in Portland in March. Unfortunately for me, that event is already sold out. But how serendipitous that this was my book chosen to read at exactly the right time!

Don’t know what we’ll do about the squirrel in the attic, though…

The Haunted Bookshop

 

The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley, has been described as “a love letter to booksellers”, and I agree with that. It’s also just a fun “entertainment,” to quote Graham Greene. As well as many interesting thoughts about the importance of books to individuals and to the nation, and many fun references to books and more books, the story also contains suspense and romance, and a lot of humor. It is not, however, a ghost story. The bookshop is haunted not by ghosts, but by the “ghosts of great literature.”

It is the sequel to Parnassus on Wheels, a book I loved. This one didn’t capture me in the same way, but I did enjoy it, as will anyone who loves books and bookshops. I highly recommend it!  Start with Parnassus on Wheels, though, and then move on to enjoy this one.

from the publisher:

“When you sell a man a book,” says Roger Mifflin, protagonist of these classic bookselling novels, “you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue — you sell him a whole new life.”

Some favorite quotes from the book:

Never argue with customers. Just give them the book they ought to have even if they don’t know they want it.”

You see, books contain the thoughts and dreams of men, their hopes and strivings and all their immortal parts. It’s in books that most of us learn how splendidly worth-while life is.

Books are the immortality of the race, the father and mother of most that is worth while cherishing in our hearts. To spread good books about, to sow them on fertile minds, to propagate understanding and a carefulness of life and beauty, isn’t that high enough mission for a man? The bookseller is the real Mr. Valiant-For-Truth.

“Of course one can’t help loving one’s country,” he added. “I love mine so much that I want to see her take the lead in making a new era possible. She has sacrificed least for war, she should be ready to sacrifice most for peace. As for me,” he said, smiling, “I’d be willing to sacrifice the whole Republican party!”

 

Click here to see a Wikipedia list of the book references included in this book that made it so much fun.

 

This book was one of my choices for The Classics Club.

 

Classics Club Spin #19

Hooray! It’s time for another Classics Club Spin!  This Spin will be a little different from previous spins. To add more fun to the challenge, this list should include some of the “chunksters” we have on our lists. We will have until January 31, 2019 to finish our spin book! The spin number will be announced on November 27, and at that time I will return to this post and highlight in red the book I will be reading for this fun November-through-January spin. Here is my list of 20 books selected from my master list of 50 books to read in 5 years.

Happy reading to all the spinners!

  1. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

  2. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
  3. The Sea Runners, Ivan Doig
  4. Travels With my Aunt, Graham Greene
  5. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
  6. Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
  7. Middlemarch, George Eliot
  8. The Story of an African Farm, Olive Schreiner
  9. Neuromancer, William Gibson
  10. Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset
  11. A Room With a View, E.M. Forster
  12. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
  13. Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston
  14. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  15. The Solitary Summer, Elizabeth von Arnim
  16. Death Be Not Proud, John Gunther
  17. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
  18. A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry
  19. The Outermost House, Henry Beston
  20. This Star Shall Abide, Sylvia Engdahl

…painting by Peter Ilsted (1861-1933)

Dipper of Copper Creek

Lithograph by Joseph Wolf, 1867

Dipper of Copper Creek, by Jean Craighead George, is part of her American Woodlands Tales series, a very interesting set of books for young people about the animals that live in the American woodlands. I love this series, and have read several of the books already. You learn so much about nature and about those individual animals from her stories. And I enjoy her beautiful descriptions of the woodlands.

The entire land had suddenly come into bloom. It was not the bloom of the lowlands, a season for the avalanche lily, the iris, the buttercup, the columbine, lupine, sun flowers, asters, and goldenrod. It was an upsurging of all of this at once. The days and weeks were not long enough for separate seasons: they were short, so that each subseason telescoped the others.

Each story also includes a variety of human beings and their interaction with and impact on the woodlands environment. In Dipper of Copper Creek, the story of the Dipper family is complemented by the coming of age story of a young boy spending the summer with his aging grandfather, a miner still living a very simple life in the woods. Both stories give you an honest look at the connectedness of all life in the woods. I think these would be wonderful stories to read and discuss in homes and in classrooms. They are kind tales and gentle reminders of the important environmental issues of our time.

 

This book was one of the books I chose to read for my 2018 TBR Pile challenge!