Sunday, February 24, 2013

NORTH AND SOUTH by Elizabeth Gaskell ✰✰✰✰

With her novel North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell, a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens, attempted to take on many of the same themes that he addressed in his own novels.  However, if you have tried and found Dickens to be daunting, don’t let that put you off Gaskell.  I would class her work as something of a cross between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, although I found her prose somewhat easier to read than Austen’s, and I would call her social philosophizing “Dickens lite”.

The novel is set in 1850s England, originally in the south, both in London, where Margaret Hale was raised with her cousin Edith, and in the quiet country parsonage home of Margaret and her parents, where she returns to live after Edith’s marriage.  However, Margaret’s father comes to the decision that he can no longer in good conscience continue as a minister, and so he gives up his living and moves their family to the manufacturing town of Milton, in the north of England.  Here the reader is introduced to many new characters on both sides of a clearly written social divide, laborers and masters, as Margaret and her family struggle to adapt to the drastic changes in the viewpoints between the northerners and their own southern way of seeing things, and as the Hale family wrestles with trying to find their own social standing in this new society.  As the novel progresses bridges are built, between people of different classes, between men and women, and between a grieving man and his enemy’s children.

Character development was the absolute high point of this novel for me.  Characters who began proud and inflexible slowly evolved into something utterly changed, but in such a way that it was completely believable.  Other characters remained true to form, and yet that seemed right for them.  I felt that Gaskell picked her evolving characters well.  I also loved the plot: there was romance, a social message, a couple of legal entanglements, and a great deal of suffering (which was realistic for the era and place).  At the end of viewing the mini-series my kids were ticking off on their fingers all the characters who died, and ultimately they decided that given how many of them there were they could put up with the main characters at least getting to kiss in the end!  Kids not being into the “kissing parts” you know! :-)  Very generous of them.

What cost the book its fifth star was a very slow beginning-it took me almost a hundred pages to get into the story.  However, in the book’s defense, it might have been the mood I was in when I read the print version, because when I listened to the audio it did not strike me as being quite as tedious as my initial impression. 

In addition to reading this novel in print, I also purchased a copy of the audio book.  The Clare Wille narration had come recommended to me, but when I listened to a sample on Audible I found the sound quality to be very poor-rather tinny sounding.  Since there was another version available from one of my very favorite narrators, Juliet Stevenson, I unhesitatingly went with that one and can recommend it without reserve to all listeners.  Each voice was differentiated; Mrs. Thornton was given a wonderfully in character, lower tone; and the northern accents were spot on and distinctive among the classes.

I also highly recommend the BBC mini-series to all who have read Gaskell’s work.  Fine performances are turned in by Daniela Denby-Ashe (Margaret Hale), Sinead Cusack (Mrs. Thornton), and Brendan Coyle (Nicholas Higgins), but Richard Armitage does no less than breathe John Thornton to life out of the pages of the novel-an absolutely masterful performance.  

Whether you choose the print or audio, follow this one up with the mini-series; it does take some liberties, but the characters are very true to the novel, and it is just a wonderful way to round out your Gaskell experience.  Invite your family to join you-all of my kiddos watched the movie and enjoyed it.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson ✰✰✰✰

Ruth and Lucille experience a rather severe lack of parenting, losing first their father, who abandons them, then their mother, who after leaving them on their grandmother’s porch proceeds to drive off a cliff (no spoiler-this is on the back of the book).  Unfortunately for them, their situation doesn’t greatly improve.  Despite her love of them, the grandmother’s advanced age shortens her time in their lives and soon leaves them in the care of two aged great-aunts, who, feeling out of their league, and not the least interested in raising two young girls, track down, post-haste, the girls’ transient-living (for that read a nice way to say “hobo”) aunt and prevail upon her to return to her hometown and do her duty by her sister’s daughters.  Within a day of the aunt, Sylvie’s, return, the elderly aunts decamp, leaving the young girls abandoned to her less than exemplary, if willing, care.

Through beautiful prose Marilynne Robinson paints a picture of two sisters who come to see in their aunt a picture of who their mother might have been, and some of the demons that might have haunted her.  It is clear that Sylvie is mentally unstable, and the narrator of the tale, Ruthie, seems to feel and show some leanings in that direction as well.  As the story progresses, Lucille craves normalcy and strikes out on her own to find it, but Ruth loyally cleaves to family and the memories that surface for her of her own mother when she is with Sylvie.

There are so many gorgeous quotes in this book, but here are a couple examples:

“To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow.  For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it?”

“There is so little to remember of anyone-an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.”

This is a lovely work, laden with pathos; you watch these two young lives slowly spiral downward, and you ache for them.  I highly recommend reading it in one undisturbed sitting (it is a fairly short novel-a little over 200 pages), allowing the complete flow of the narrative to spin.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee ✰✰✰✰✰

This is my third time reading this outstanding modern classic. My first trip through was in my teens, and I was most taken with young narrator Scout’s first person account of her small town depression era life as a lawyer’s child in Alabama, as she weathers not only the spite of the members of the white community, but also the outright dangers, as her father takes on the defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman.  I enjoyed seeing how Scout and her brother were raised by an entire community of people, both black and white.
Later, I read the book as a young adult, and I saw more clearly the social issues which the book highlighted.  There was the obvious racial issue, of what would happen when a black man in the 1930’s found himself in a compromising situation with a white woman, and it was his word against hers, but many other issues struck me as well.  I noticed issues such as feminism beginning to take hold in characters such as Miss. Maudie in her independence and in Scout herself.

This read, being much older and a parent myself, the overriding theme for me was that of parenthood, and so I enjoyed following Atticus, who is the lawyer featured in the story and the father of the story’s narrator, and Calpurnia, who is the family’s black housekeeper and nanny to the children.  These two, through some truly harrowing experiences, show great wisdom.  Atticus often expresses doubt in his own decisions as a parent, but I for one think that he is spot on.

When I read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, I said that I felt that Jean Valjean was one of the most honorable men in all of literature.  I think that Atticus Finch is another.  In a time in America’s history when a white man could scarcely be found to speak behind a closed door in a black man’s defense, Atticus Finch dared to stand in a court of law and speak for a black man against a white man, revealing that man to be a liar and a fool.  When his community spit on him and his children and came at them with clenched fists, he and his children kept their heads up and their hands loose, and in so doing took the higher ground and set an example that startled and shamed and got the message across.

I won’t tell you, of course, the outcome of the court case.  For that you must read the book. You will most likely pick up this book for the social issues, but it is the characters that you will never forget.  This is not the book to reach for if you are wanting stunning prose or an original plot.  It is about character’s that you will dwell on and issues that will swill in your brain long after the book’s cover is closed.