A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle
As you all know, I’ve been feasting on Madeleine L’Engle’s fiction this CBR. I haven’t read any of her nonfiction yet, so when I found A Circle of Quiet at Goodwill, I was excited to pick it up and see how her memoir “voice” differed or compared to her fictional persona. As it turns out, it was a good thing that I’ve read as much of her fiction as I have—she mentions it quite a bit in her journals and nonfiction work.
A Circle of Quiet does not focus on one specific event or period in L’Engle’s life, but rather a series of thoughts and ideas that she strings together as they become relevant. Drawn from her journals, L’Engle reflects on her career and her life in her home, Crosswicks, as part of a community. She discusses her writing process and her life progression, as an actress and then employee, then wife, mother, and writer. She examines the multi-year process of submitting A Wrinkle in Time for publication and the sting of multiple rejections before finally getting a publisher—and then the Newbery Medal.
L’Engle is crisp in her assessment of fiction, Christianity, and a variety of other life philosophies. She is funny and thought-provoking at the same time. There’s a part where she discusses the time she and her husband accidentally went to a burlesque, and it is hysterical. At the same time, she brings it around to a point she makes about fiction, which is really quite neat. I found myself laughing, but I also found myself nodding in agreement several times. L’Engle died in 2007, but so much of what she wrote and said is relevant for 2016. If you like writing about writing or her other work, then you should most definitely check this one out.
The Bridge over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle
For years, I’ve heard a lot about the film adaptation of The Bridge over the River Kwai, and I was interested in reading the book before seeing the film. I found an old paperback copy at a yard sale and decided to give it a go, I don’t know how many years ago. Thankfully, now is its time. And I have made an indent in my stack of unread books.
The novel focuses on a prisoner-of-war camp in what was formerly known as Siam during World War II. One of the prisoners is Colonel Nicholson, who is a perfectionist and insists upon doing his job to the best of his abilities. He chafes at what he sees as the incompetence and cruelty of the Japanese in the camp, and he sees an opportunity to save his men and protect them. He asks to oversee a project—building a bridge over the Kwai River in order to help ship materials and resources for the war. At the same time, an Allied group of spies catches wind of the project and determines to impede progress on the bridge-building. These two plotlines collide and create the explosive conflict at the novel’s end.
To put it mildly, I did not care for this novel. It’s chock full of stereotypes and generalizations that made it a product of its time. Even knowing that it is dated, I still did not think the demonizing of East and aggrandizing the West served the novel’s themes well. And I did not understand the end. Is it supposed to convey the effects of Stockholm Syndrome? The downfall of pride? Either way, I’ve read better World War II novels, and I don’t need to revisit this one. I am, however, interested in seeing how the movie adapts the book.
Watch for a Tall White Sail by Margaret E. Bell
Back in elementary school, I would flip through the back pages of my reader, because the excerpts I read for class always left me wanting more. I read Barbara Gilbert’s A Dance to Still Music, Marguerite Henry’s Mustang, and many others, as a result. Then, there were recommended books that the editors suggested if I liked the offered choices. Among them was Margaret E. Bell’s Watch for a Tall, White Sail. I thought the title sounded intriguing. It was out of print, so I discovered it on Amazon Marketplace and then didn’t read it for years. Hello, 2016, year of Reading the Books I Own.
The novel focuses on Florence Monroe, a teenaged girl in 1880s Victoria, BC. Her father has established a salmon saltery in the wilds of Alaska and has requested the whole family’s presence to help him run the business. While Florence’s mother and younger sister are going to live in the family home in town, she is being asked to help run the homestead with the brothers. Florence is at first shocked by being asked to grow up so quickly, but rises to the task. In the foreground is the handsome and brave young captain, Beldon Craig, whose ship brings news and supplies, as well as an object of admiration. Whether Florence and her brothers can tackle the winter, though, remains to be seen. It’s going to be a year of heartbreak and triumph for her family.
This is a wholesome and sweet little novel. While it might seem a little too saccharine for some, it certainly has a romantic and innocent appeal. It’s kind of like The Blue Castle in that it’s got the simplicity of a nice love story. I’m not saying this to be condescending—I read this at a moment where I needed a fairly simple story with a little romance, and I enjoyed it greatly.
Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf
I took a Virginia Woolf seminar as an undergrad ten years ago in the spring, and it proved to be enlightening and a catalyst for my career in twentieth- and twenty-first century fiction. We read 9-10 full-length works, including Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves, and The Years. I also read Orlando and Night and Day on my own and liked them both immensely. I’ve been meaning to read Between the Acts for several years, but it’s been hard to track down. The Chancellor, good man that he is, found it and got as a Christmas present for me a few years back. I decided to take it with me as part of my Christmas reading stack, and I am so delighted by the discovery of this new-to-me Woolf.
Just as in Mrs. Dalloway, Between the Acts takes place in a day. This novel focuses on the Oliver family as they prepare to watch a theatrical production take place on their property. Bartholomew, the patriarch, his widowed sister, his son and heir, and his daughter-in-law all reflect on their lives, that production, and their relationships to each other. Isa, the daughter-in-law, receives particular attention, as she wonders about her marriage to her husband Giles, and his relationship to Mrs. Manresa, who is infatuated with him. The play itself also focuses on the history of England throughout the centuries and reflects on the heritage of Britishness.
If you’re already part of the Woolf pack (thanks to my professor for that term!), you will likely enjoy this book. I don’t know that this is the place to start if you’ve never read Woolf, though. If you want to try out Woolf, I would go with To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
I remember my sister reading this book in high school and her English teacher being nervous because of the sexual content. I found this book on sale at my university bookstore and then just never read it for years. And now, with reading-from-the-shelves project underway, I’ve finally been able to check it off my list. This book was kind of a head-scratcher for me, though. Let’s dig in.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover is infamous for its explicit sexual content (at least, back in the time of its publication). It focuses on Constance Chatterley, a woman who has married a noble paralyzed by his time in the war. Included in his paralysis is complete sexual dysfunction. Clifford is open to Connie having a discreet affair with a man of high birth and producing a child to give him an heir. So naturally, Connie has an affair with the estate’s gamekeeper instead. She discovers her sexual appetite, even as she contemplates the strictures of class and money that endanger her social standing and render her vulnerable to a restrictive and heteronormative world.
Having to organize my thoughts with this book was difficult for me. On the one hand, I appreciate that D.H. Lawrence delved into the female psyche and explored her sexuality as an existent component. On the other hand, there was still so much male-centered narrative and description, that it felt laughable. Lawrence’s psychological exploration of Connie’s sexuality still felt very Freudian. So…I don’t know how I feel about this book. I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think it’s a keeper for the shelves.
Fences by August Wilson
The Chancellor, as a high school English teacher and aficionado of mid-to-late twentieth century American drama, is more well-versed in plays than I am in most time periods. When he heard that August Wilson’s Fences was being turned into a film with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (also known as The Queen, can we just give her a damn Oscar already???), he freaked out. And then he was startled when I confessed that I had never read or seen it. So he put it into my hands and I devoured it in a winter evening.
The play focuses on Troy Maxson, a middle-aged black man who is facing his oldest phase in a world he no longer recognizes. His wife, who is younger, and his son have hope where he does not, and his eldest son has not recognized his true potential. Troy’s distrust of America, after continually being crushed and discriminated, manifests itself in his behavior. He, meanwhile, is angry and scared at the new world that seems to be emerging, even as his wife and son seem to embrace its potential. To say any more would be a spoiler, but it is both rich and tragic in its scope.
This play is an excellent character study, just as it examines and interrogates the idea of the American Dream. This is a play that would work excellently well at either the high school or college level, and it takes a specific look at the American Dream from an African-American perspective. It’s a multi-cultural text, it’s an American text, and it’s also a twentieth-century text. You don’t have to be a teacher to enjoy it, either. I think you can get a lot of insight from it. I hope the new film will be just as good! Also, let’s start a Viola Davis for Oscar Go Fund Me, yes?
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
I distinctly remember when the Everest disaster of 1996 took place. The newspapers covered the drama that unfolded over the days and weeks, and when Reader’s Digest published an excerpt of Into Thin Air, I devoured it. I have never been one for outdoorsy activities, and absolutely was not a climber. Yet there’s something about the way Jon Krakauer writes that makes you feel like you are right in the midst of the disaster. He connects you to the individuals involved, he tells their stories, foreshadows the disaster and flashes back to key events, to make you feel like you have become swept up in the tragedy and drama.
Into Thin Air is the story of a news reporter sent to write about the commercialized expeditions to Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest peak, which turns tragic in the face of a routine blizzard on the mountain. As part of an expedition called Adventure Consultants, led by Rob Hall, Krakauer reports on the process that takes you to Everest and the careful procedures set in place to keep clients safe. He develops the controversy of people either skilled or unskilled, as well as the usage of bottled oxygen on the slopes. And then he prepares you for the inevitable tragedy that unfolds on the mountain over the course of hours.
It’s not a spoiler to say that people die on the mountain, because Krakauer himself hints at it several times throughout the beginning of the book. But it’s tragic, nonetheless. People make a series of small choices that seem inconsequential in the moment, but turn out to be staggering. Krakauer himself struggles with the choices that he made and has had to make peace with the decisions that he made on Everest. His postscript for later editions of the book also responds to claims made in Anatoli Boukreev’s book The Climb. It’s a fascinating and difficult story, one that ultimately asks us to examine how we interpret events and make decisions, just as we build narratives around people and then judge them by our own standards of interpretation.