Category Archives: The Classics Club

Classics Club Spin #17

It’s time for another “Spin” with The Classics Club! I am enjoying my reading of the classics I chose for my 5-year reading plan even though I’m running behind on writing my reviews. It’s a very enjoyable, non-pressured challenge, so if you are wanting to read more classics, you should join up!

Here’s how the “Spin” works:

Choose 20 books from your list of classics TBR and post that list on your blog before March 9th. On Friday, March 9th, 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 April 30, 2018. 

So here is my Spin List.  It will be fun to see which number (and which book) is chosen in the “spin” on Friday, and I’ll return to this post then to highlight the book chosen.

Classic Spin #17:

  1. Rose in Bloom, Louisa May Alcott
  2. A River Runs Through It, Norman McClean
  3. Arabian Nights and Days, Naguib Mahfouz 

  4. The Chosen, Chaim Potok
  5. The Haunted Bookshop, Christopher Morley
  6. A Room With a View, E.M. Forster
  7. Death Be Not Proud, John Gunther
  8. Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  9. Travels With My Aunt, Graham Greene
  10. The Ramayana, Bulbul Sharma
  11. The Gaucho Martin Fierro, José Hernández
  12. The Measure of My Days, Florida Scott-Maxwell
  13. Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
  14. The Lost Prince,  Frances Hodgson Burnett
  15. The Story of an African Farm, Olive Schreiner
  16. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
  17. The Solitary Summer, Elizabeth von Arnim
  18. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
  19. The Book of Tea, Kazuko Okakura
  20. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith

A Very Easy Death

A hard task, dying, when one loves life so much.

A Very Easy Death, by Simone de Beauvoir, is a beautifully written, powerfully emotional account of her mother’s death and her own emotional journey through her mother’s illness and death.

At age 78, her mother fell and broke the top part of her femur. She was hospitalized and during examination, the doctors found that she had cancer. It was a highly aggressive sarcoma, and her illness and decline were rapid. Simone and her sister, Poupette, spent most of their time at the hospital with their mother throughout that time, and Poupette was there the night she died.

This is a story that so many of us have gone through with a parent or loved one. Because the journey through illness and decline is a familiar one, I was acutely aware and appreciative of the honesty with which de Beauvoir shared their story — the story of two daughters in the process of losing their mother, and of their mother’s struggle to LIVE while dying.

Before reading the book, I thought that the term “an easy death” meant that the person didn’t have to suffer very much before dying. My family used that term about my father’s passing. He didn’t suffer long with his illness, and we were so grateful for that. But that is not what de Beauvoir meant by “an easy death.”  On the contrary, her mother suffered terribly before she died, but she had her daughters with her throughout the decline, and they helped her, advocated for her, and shared courage together in facing the inevitable. That was a luxury that de Beauvoir felt many people don’t have at the end of their lives.

With regard to Maman we were above all guilty, these last years, of carelessness, omission and abstention. We felt that we atoned for this by the days that we gave up to her, by the peace that our being there gave her, and by the victories gained over fear and pain. Without our obstinate watchfulness she would have suffered far more.

She and her sister were with her mother constantly during her illness, so de Beauvoir also describes the very painful reality a loved one faces in going through the agony of cancer.

…In this race between pain and death we most earnestly hoped that death would come first.

…Friday passed uneventfully. On Saturday Maman slept all the time. ‘That’s splendid,’ said Poupette to her. ‘You have rested.’ ‘Today I have not lived,’ sighed Maman.

…Nothing on earth could possibly justify these moments of pointless torment.

And she poignantly details the final aloneness of death.

…The misfortune is that although everyone must come to this, each experiences the adventure in solitude. We never left Maman during those last days which she confused with convalescence and yet we were profoundly separated from her.

All the way through this book, I thought of my own mother.  Simone de Beauvoir’s mother was 78 when she died, which seems so young to me from my vantage point now. I am incredibly fortunate to still have my mother who is 98 years old and still very much alive and well! But she and I are also very aware that time is getting short, which gives a special aura to every conversation, every visit, every moment we share. She and I talk about the end quite often, and our shared hope is that it is quick and painless. I live 800 miles away from my mother, so I know it is possible I won’t be with her when that time comes, to help ease her final journey, and that is hard for me.

Nothing prepares any of us for death. Even if fighting a terminal illness, Simone de Beauvoir said: “A hard task, dying, when one loves life so much.” Her mother clung tenaciously to life:

What touched our hearts that day was the way she noticed the slightest agreeable sensation: it was as though, at the age of seventy-eight, she were waking afresh to the miracle of living.

And on the finality of death itself, de Beauvoir said:

There is no such thing as a natural death: nothing that happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question. All men must die: but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.

Simone de Beauvoir was a gifted author and influential existential philosopher. This was the first book I read by her, but I am very anxious now to read more of her work. I was so impressed with the beauty of her writing and with her deeply thoughtful honesty. With this book, she has touched my heart and mind like no other author has done in a long time.

Simone de Beauvoir with mother and sister…

This was a book that was on my list of 50 books to read for The Classics Club, and was also on my TBR Pile Challenge list.

The Rainbow and the Rose

As many of you know from my past blog posts, I love the stories of Nevil Shute. He describes things beautifully and doesn’t hurry through the telling. He takes care to build very human characters in interesting and believable situations that reveal their best qualities. His male characters are decent, kind and hardworking. His female characters are intelligent and hardworking, as well. I enjoyed reading The Rainbow and the Rose for exactly those reasons.

Nevil Shute was an aeronautical engineer, and his passion for planes and flying is in many of his books, including The Rainbow and the Rose. This story is about a pilot and a younger man he taught to fly some 30 years earlier…

That year we had a terrible July. I was sitting there one evening half asleep, listening to the radio and the wind outside and the rain beating on the window. The seven o’clock news was just coming on, and I stayed to listen to that before going in to tea. I sat dozing through all the stuff about Egypt and the Middle East, and all the stuff about the floods along the Murray. Then there came a bit that jerked me suddenly awake. The announcer said something like this:

‘It is reported from Tasmania that a pilot flying a small aeroplane upon an errand of mercy crashed this afternoon on a small airstrip on the west coast. The pilot, Captain John Pascoe, was attempting to land to bring a child into hospital, Betty Hoskins, aged seven, who is suffering from appendicitis. There is no practicable land route to the Lewis River and all communications normally take place by sea, but no vessel has been able to enter the river for the last ten days owing to the continuing westerly gales. Captain Pascoe is reported to have sustained a fractured skull.’

I was a bit upset when I heard this news. We all knew Johnnie Pascoe because for a time Sydney had been one of his terminals and he still passed through now and then. The world of aviation is a small one in Australia. But I knew him better than anyone, of course, because I had known him off and on for thirty years, ever since he taught me to fly in England at the Leacaster Flying Club.

That begins an intriguing story of how the main character attempts to rescue both the sick little girl and his seriously wounded pilot friend/mentor. This is an unusual story because the main character identifies so closely with his friend, and under the stress of repeated rescue attempts,  the two characters merge. It’s really quite intriguing how NS wrote this story. I liked it very much.

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

Classics Club Catch-Up

One of the nicest things I did for myself in 2017 was to join the Classics Club and set a goal of reading 50 classics in five years. (Click here to see my list of books chosen, and click on the graphic above to be transported to the Classics Club web site.) I am so glad I finally joined, and I’ve been happily reading some of the wonderful books from my list of 50. I have not, however, been very diligent about getting my reviews written! So in the next few weeks, I will be posting those missing reviews from my 2017 classics reading.

When the sun is shining and the temperatures are mild enough for me to spend time outdoors, I simply don’t spend as much time in my digital world. 2017 has been a year of gardening, walking long distances, and of soaking up vitamin D.  That’s my excuse anyway for my slow posting of reviews. But it is time to “catch up” with my responses to the classics I’ve read, and to continue on with my very enjoyable reading of the classics.

Forthcoming reviews:

  • The Rainbow and the Rose, by Nevil Shute (completed in April 2017)
  • Around the World in Eighty Days. by Jules Verne (completed in June 2017)
  • Persuasion, by Jane Austen (completed in December 2017)
  • The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad (Completed in December 2017)

Classics read and already reviewed this year:

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April Reflections

“Puddle” by M.C. Escher

April flew by so quickly this year! We continued to have record-breaking rains here in the Pacific Northwest throughout the month, but the temperatures moderated and there were days when we could finally get out in the garden and start cleaning up after such a long winter. Hubby and I spent two days in Silverton, Oregon, enjoying the early Spring beauty of the Oregon Garden and a short, but beautiful visit to the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival.

My reading time slowed down but April was a good reading month anyway. I completed 8 books and a knitting project! My favorite book this month was the science fiction novella, Binti!  It was so well written and enjoyable, and I loved spending some time out of this currently crazy world. I enjoyed listening to another audiobook in Craig Johnson‘s Walt Longmire mystery series. And I loved reading more poetry during this National Poetry Month!  I also read and reviewed three books for The Classics Club, books chosen from my 50 books in 5 years list.

I always love April, and the beauty of the spring flowers and blossoms is wonderful after the darkness of our winters here. May will be a busy month, including a road trip to visit my 97 year old mother and many more days to spend outdoors in the garden and on long walks around town, but I’m looking forward to my May reading, as well.

 

Around town…

The Moorland Cottage

The Moorland Cottage, by Elizabeth Gaskell, begins with a lengthy and beautifully detailed description of the countryside location of the cottage where Maggie Browne and her brother, Edward, grew up.  Before you meet the characters in this story, you walk into their world along a country path. By the time you arrive at their moorland cottage, you have a very clear idea of their place in the world.

If you take the turn to the left, after you pass the lyke-gate at Combehurst Church, you will come to the wooden bridge over the brook; keep along the field-path which mounts higher and higher, and, in half a mile or so, you will be in a breezy upland field, almost large enough to be called a down, where sheep pasture on the short, fine, elastic turf. You look down on Combehurst and its beautiful church-spire. After the field is crossed, you come to a common, richly colored with the golden gorse and the purple heather, which in summer-time send out their warm scents into the quiet air. The swelling waves of the upland make a near horizon against the sky; the line is only broken in one place by a small grove of Scotch firs, which always look black and shadowed even at mid-day, when all the rest of the landscape seems bathed in sunlight…

…With something like the sudden drop of the lark, the path goes down a green abrupt descent; and in a basin, surrounded by the grassy hills, there stands a dwelling, which is neither cottage nor house, but something between the two in size. Nor yet is it a farm, though surrounded by living things. It is, or rather it was, at the time of which I speak, the dwelling of Mrs. Browne, the widow of the late curate of Combehurst.

Mrs. Browne is a grieving widow. Her daughter, Maggie is a gentle, kind soul, while her son, Edward, is a coddled, cowardly and cruel boy. Mrs. Browne dotes on her son while treating Maggie as a subservient, worthless female. Maggie’s is a cruel and harsh upbringing, but there is a strength in her that remains undamaged by the harsh conditions of her childhood. Her gentle spirit is recognized and appreciated by others, and in particular by another family, the Buxtons, friends of her late father. The Buxtons are well-to-do and privileged neighbors. The story is really about these two families, their likes and differences, and their connections over time.

I wasn’t sure at first if I would like this book very much, but I was quickly captured by Maggie’s kind spirit and her resiliency. The view of women’s lives through the lens of Mrs. Gaskell’s writing is sobering. Women had few rights. Men provided the living for the family and controlled all the money. If the head of the household was not a good provider (or a good human being), that living could be very difficult for the women. Most woman of Maggie’s class were not educated and often the big life decisions (who to marry, in particular) were made for them by the male(s) in charge.

Although it was hard to hear the stories of Maggie’s childhood and the inequality and cruelty with which she was treated by her mother and brother, I totally loved the core of strength that Maggie had that kept her kind and hopeful despite the meanness of her situation. And I loved the woman she became over time, thanks to the loving care of the family servant, Nancy, and the kind connections to the Buxton family.

From the publisher:

Growing up in Yorkshire, the daughter of a deceased clergyman, Maggie Browne is encouraged to devote herself to her brother, Edward, upon whom their widowed mother dotes. Through the example and guidance of her mentor, Mrs Buxton, Maggie learns that self-sacrifice is the key to living a fulfilled life. How much personal happiness will she forgo in the name of duty and devotion to her brother? This novella depicts the struggle of a strong-minded Victorian woman, torn between her dreams and her duty towards her family.

I ended up loving this little book that told the story of a young girl who became a lovely young woman despite living in a time and culture that did not value women very highly. But in the language of today, “she persisted!”  I haven’t read very much by Elizabeth Gaskell, but I’m going to remedy that and enjoy more of her work.

I chose to read this book as one of my 50-books-in-5-years for The Classics Club. It was also my first “Spin” book!

The Unicorn and Other Poems

 

One of the special books on my bookshelf is The Unicorn and Other Poems, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I bought this book many, many years ago, and revisit it often to read the poems that touched my heart when I first read them and now have special meaning in my life. They express so eloquently many of my own inner feelings and thoughts, and so have become treasures for me.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh was the wife of the famous aviator, Charles Lindbergh, who was a hero to many. After finding this book of poetry, and then reading all of AML’s diaries and fiction, she became for me the real hero in the family. She was a gentle soul, but with a tremendous inner strength, forged partly through tragedy. She lived an amazing life traveling all over the world with her husband, and she became a pioneer aviator herself. She was intelligent and introverted, and a beautiful writer. Her books, North to the Orient and Listen! The Wind told fascinating stories of their world travels. Her diaries and letters were her way of processing life as it happened.

“I must write it all out, at any cost. Writing is thinking. It is more than living, for it is being conscious of living.”

In her wonderful book, Gift From the Sea, she “shares her meditations on youth and age; love and marriage; peace, solitude and contentment as she set them down during a brief vacation by the sea.” (words from her daughter, Reeve).

But as I said before, it is her poetry that really touches my heart. One of my favorite poems in this book is called “Bare Tree.” I loved it the first time I read it, but it is even more meaningful to me at this age and stage of life, so I love it now in a whole new way.

BARE TREE

Already I have shed the leaves of youth,
stripped by the wind of time down to the truth
of winter branches. Linear and alone
I stand, a lens for lives beyond my own,
a frame through which another’s fire may glow,
a harp on which another’s passion, blow.

The pattern of my boughs, an open chart
spread on the sky, to others may impart
its leafless mysteries that I once prized,
before bare roots and branches equalized,
tendrils that tap the rain or twigs the sun
are all the same, shadow and substance one.
Now that my vulnerable leaves are cast aside,
there’s nothing left to shield, nothing to hide.

Blow through me, Life, pared down at last to bone,
so fragile and so fearless have I grown!

I chose to reread this book as one of my 50-books-in-5-years for The Classics Club. It’s a book I have re-read many times in my life and each time I read it, I love it even more.

Kidnapped

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, is one of my favorite adventure stories, so I had high hopes for liking his book, Kidnapped, equally as much when I chose it as one of my Classics Club reads. We have a lovely copy of the book, with those wonderful illustrations by N. C. Wyeth, that’s been sitting on our shelf for years, so I read it eagerly but I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Treasure Island.

But in all fairness, it was a different kind of story from the pirates adventure of Treasure Island. This book is a work of historical fiction with characters that were actual people involved in an important part of Scottish history, so even without the pirates there was a lot of intrigue. I thought the beginning  and the ending of the book were quite good and definitely kept me interested.  The story slowed down a bit too much in the middle for me, perhaps because I didn’t know much about the history that inspired this story. The idea that this story could possibly drag a little in the middle seems strange considering the rip-roaring description on the title page.

 

I may have to give it another chance at some time because I really like the other books I have read by Robert Louis Stevenson. He’s a wonderful writer and storyteller, so perhaps it just wasn’t the right time for me to read it. That happens to me sometimes and, when I reread the book later, I love it. Does that ever happen to you?

 

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

The Railway Children

Illustration by Inga Moore…

Somehow I missed reading the books of Edith Nesbit as I was growing up. I would have loved them! Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to make up for missing them in childhood by gifting myself an E. Nesbit read every so often. That’s my way of making the pleasure last longer and I won’t run out of her books so soon!

My most recent Nesbit pleasure was to listen to the audiobook version of The Railway Children narrated by one of my favorite narrators, Virginia Leishman. What a fun way to spend some rainy hours indoors! And I would highly recommend it for families on road trips!

Publisher’s summary…

Father has suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. Now Mother has moved Roberta, Peter, and Phyllis from London to an old English country house. Missing the hustle and bustle of the city, the children are ecstatic to find that their new home is near a railway station. Making friends with both the porter and the station master is great fun. So is waving to a kindly old gentleman who rides through on the 9:15 every morning. When mother gets sick, it is he to whom they turn for help. And later, when a fortunate twist of fate returns their father to them, they are surprised to find the old gentleman involved once again.

Written by an unconventional woman whose friends included H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, this classic has been popular since it was first published almost 100 years ago. Virginia Leishman’s enthusiasm translates these adventuresome children into heroes for modern listeners.

Public Domain (P)1999 Recorded Books

As with all the Nesbit books I have read so far, the main characters are very nice, bright children who have great imaginations, love stories and outdoor play, and who change the world around them with what is called  “loving kindness” in the book. Oh how I wish I had read this book to my students while I was still teaching! The modeling of loving kindness is so important in today’s world…and how better to teach the idea than to read this beautiful story to young people and let them love those railway children and their adventures, and make those connections themselves.

illustration by C.E. Brock.

 

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

The Spectator Bird

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

From the publisher…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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