Gilead

The Reverend John Ames has lived in the small town of Gilead in Iowa nearly all his life. His father was a preacher and both grandfathers. Born in 1880 It’s now 1956 and he’s an elderly man knowing he doesn’t have long to live. So he begins to write a letter to his seven year old son ‘to tell you things I would have told you if you had grown up with me, things I believe it becomes me as a father to teach you.’

In a voice that is calm and authoritative the Reverend Ames tells his son about his life and beliefs about his friends and family and perhaps most beautiful of all, he describes their present life, the everyday happenings in their little family of three.

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Summer

‘It was the beginning of a June afternoon. The springlike transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village, and on the pastures and larchwoods surrounding it.’

Seventeen year old Charity Royall lives with her adoptive father in the small town of North Dormer in New England. Born into a community of outlaws who live in the surrounding mountains, Lawyer Royall brought her down into the valley town when she was five years old and named her Charity ‘to keep alive in her a becoming sense of her dependence’. She knows she’s lucky but she feels stifled by the quietness of the town and increasingly disturbed by the behaviour of her guardian. So she takes a job in the library to save money for her escape, when suddenly one day the library door opens and Lucius Harney a young architect from New York arrives and sparks begin to fly.

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The Female Man

Four women in four intersecting time lines. Jeannine is a 29 year old librarian living with her cat in 1969 but the Great Depression is still going on, hers is still a world where her goal is to marry and have a home; Janet is a police-officer from the future utopian planet of Whileaway, where only women have survived a plague and Joanna is the author Joanna Russ, a fired up angry feminist in 1969.

When Janet arrives on Broadway at two o’clock in the afternoon in her underwear she becomes an instant celebrity and Joanna who is fascinated by her goes to a parade given in her honour – picked out of the crowd she gets into Janet’s car. Sitting in the back seat is Jeannine, having been found at a Chinese new year festival, terrified she puts her hands over her ears repeating to herself ‘I’m not here, I’m not here’ but she is there and then the three find themselves on Whileaway.

And then Jael arrives, the shadowy dark side of the future. She comes from a future where the battle between the sexes has divided into two armed camps – Womanland and Manland. Manland constructs its own women from weakling men and Womenland has pretty mindless men who are wired into their high tech houses, objectified males. A ‘rosy, wholesome, single-minded assassin’ it’s she who has got them together because she needs their help to win the war.

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The House of the Seven Gables

What an odd book this is! It starts with a good story – at the end of the seventeenth century in a New England town, Colonel Pyncheon, a local dignatory decides he wants the land that Matthew Maule has built his cottage on. Met with opposition the Colonel flexes his political muscles and has Maule hanged for witchcraft. But the imposing house he builds on the site is said to carry a curse and bad luck seems to haunt future generations.

At the time of the novel Hepzibah Pyncheon is the custodian and shares the ‘heavy hearted old mansion’ with her lodger Holgrave, a young believer in radical reform . Clifford, her brother arrives home from prison carrying the mark of a person whose youth has been stolen from him and then Phoebe a young distant cousin arrives, as lovely as fresh air and blossom. The possibilities seemed set for a thrilling tale in a gothic setting.

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Seize the Day

New York 1956. Wilhelm Adler a 44 year old living temporarily in the Hotel Gloriana is on his way to breakfast with his father, a permanant resident of the hotel that is home too many elderly retirees. As the elevator sank and sank and the great carpet billowed and the curtains drape like sails, Wilhelm can sense that this is a day like no other. ‘The waters of the earth are going to roll over me.’

Told in the third person by an omniscient narrator and through Wilhem’s own thoughts and flashbacks, Bellow deftly interweaves pathos and humour to track Wilhelm’s fall from a respectable middle management lifestyle. He’s been fired from his job, is separated from his wife and children and is now on the brink of financial disaster, this is his day of reckoning before he drowns in despair.

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The House of Mirth

New York 1905. Lily Bart is unfathomably beautiful. Elegant and graceful she’s welcomed at all the fashionable parties. but while she’s from a good family, her father was ‘ruined’ and now an orphan she must live with her aunt who gives her just enough pocket money to keep up appearances but doesn’t quite cover the expenses of her social calendar. At 29 Lily knows the only answer is to marry well.

The society in which Lily moves is an aristocracy that owes as much to European culture as to wealth, a society that mirrors the world of Edith Wharton’s. And it’s through Lily’s eyes and experience that Wharton sets out to satirise the world in which she felt so trapped. The tight knit group of friends that form Lily’s set, are governed by rules. The year is divided between town and country with weekend house parties de rigueur. Husbands provide the money and their wives adorn and delight, with an edge of malicious indifference.

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The Portrait of a Lady

Lydia Touchett is a wealthy American who divides her year between homes in Italy and England and every now and then visits her old family home in Albany; which is where she finds her orphaned niece, sitting reading a book amongst a jumble of old furniture, and asks her if she would like to accompany her to Europe.

So, in 1870, Isabel Archer arrives at Gardencourt, the Tudor house set some 40 miles outside of London, with lawns sloping down to the River Thames at ‘the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon’. There she meets her uncle, cousin Ralph and his friend Lord Warburton.

Isabel is sensible and kind, full of enthusiasm and fun – all in all she’s a hit. Young men fall in love with her and their sisters adore her, her erstwhile suitor Caspar Greenwood follows her over from America in hope, but Isabel values her independence and has no time for marriage, at least not until she’s travelled and seen some of the world. Gentle Ralph is one of those who love her and before his father dies persuades him to leave a part of his fortune to Isabel. He wants to see what such a spirited character will do given financial security and that action provides the catalyst. Now a wealthy young women Isabel is able to make her own choices.

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The Sound and the Fury

My first Classics Club read for the year and I’ve managed to read and review my spin title before the January 30th deadline! Unfortunately that’s the end of the good news. I came to this having no idea what to expect and got a bit of shock and will come clean at the beginning by saying that I haven’t read this in a linear, read every word kind of way.

The gradual disintegration of the Compson’s, an old family from the American South is told through four fractured narratives, using stream of consciousness, flashbacks and inner monologues. There were times when I was completely lost, I didn’t know who was who, whether they were male or female, family or friend or stranger, grandparent or child. But I did feel a sense of dread in the heap of broken images.

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The Bell Jar

It’s 1953 and 19 year old Esther Greenwood has arrived in New York for a months work on a fashion magazine. One of 12 girls who have won a placement through a writing competition, it’s a month of all expenses paid and ‘piles and piles of free bonuses’, there are successful people to meet, finger bowls to learn how to use and plenty of advice about their complexions. They all live together in a women only hotel with cocktails and parties and Buddy Willard and Doreen lounging about in a peach silk dressing-gown.

‘I was supposed to be having the time of my life’

Of course it’s all just a matter of filling in time before getting married, what a ‘dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A’s’, thinks Esther who yearns to write and travel.

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Love Medicine

medicineThe Kashpaws and the Lazarres, the Nanapushes and the Pillagers and the Morrisseys. Love Medicine is a series of interrelated vignettes that follow generations of Ojibwe families, loosely chronologically, from 1934 to 1984 and their interconnected lives on a fictional reservation in North Dakota

It opens in 1981 when June Kashpaw dies, frozen to death in a snowstorm on her way home to the reservation, it’s her spirit that propels the narrative and is woven through every story as the river of memories flows, often meandering, running in and out of each other. Continue reading “Love Medicine”