Christopher Isherwood wrote the fictional "Mr Norris Changes Trains" based on his experiences in Berlin in the early 1930s. He left England to work inChristopher Isherwood wrote the fictional "Mr Norris Changes Trains" based on his experiences in Berlin in the early 1930s. He left England to work in Berlin as an English tutor since Berlin was much more liberal toward homosexuals. The character William Bradshaw (named after Isherwood's middle names) acts as a narrator and an observer in the book.
Mr Norris, based on Isherwood's friend, Gerald Hamilton, is a charming, nervous, middle-aged man whose lifestyle is supported by conning people, selling secrets, and other criminal activities. He's a bit of a comical, prissy figure with a wig that has a tendency to sit off-center. He has regular appointments with Anni, a woman with tall boots and a whip.
William meets Mr Norris on the train to Berlin, and they become good friends. Mr Norris introduces William to a group of people who engage in drunken, sexual partying. He also involves William with the Communist party leaders in Berlin. This was a difficult economic time in Germany. The Nazis were gaining power with their efficient brutal organization. The political scene is viewed through the eyes of the young, politically naive William.
The book is engaging with its entertaining, well-drawn characters. It is also a historical look at a changing Germany as the Weimar republic was ending. ...more
"A Question of Upbringing" is the first book in a series of twelve volumes of "A Dance to the Music of Time". The book is narrated by Nicholas Jenkins"A Question of Upbringing" is the first book in a series of twelve volumes of "A Dance to the Music of Time". The book is narrated by Nicholas Jenkins, Anthony Powell's alter ego, who acts as an observer of the world of Great Britain's upper class and upper middle class. Nick has a dry satirical way of looking at everything going around him. He includes references to art and literature in his descriptions. The book revolves around Nick's attendance at schools similar to Eton and Oxford (where Powell was educated), as well as a language-immersion summer in France in the early 1920s.
The name of the twelve volume set is based on Nicholas Poussin's painting, "A Dance to the Music of Time". The artwork depicts four classical figures, named for the four seasons, dancing in the round. In "A Question of Upbringing", we can see individuals moving in and out of each others' lives as if they were also dancing to the music of time. We meet schoolmates, their family members, housemasters, and acquaintances of Nick Jenkins and already see relationships changing by the end of the book. I'm looking forward to spending more time with these characters in the second book....more
Sasha has been sent to Paris for a few weeks by a British friend who is worried about her. She is drinking heavily and medicating with a sleeping potiSasha has been sent to Paris for a few weeks by a British friend who is worried about her. She is drinking heavily and medicating with a sleeping potion in a seedy hotel room with a view of the alley. In a stream-of-consciousness telling, Sasha thinks back about her unhappy marriage, the death of her baby boy, her abandonment by her husband, and her unsuccessful attempts at employment. In the 1930s women were very dependent on men and had few opportunities.
Sasha is hit by memories of earlier times in Paris everywhere she goes. The middle-aged Sasha attempts to brighten her mood by buying a new dress, a new hat, and dying her hair ash blond. But these purchases cannot stop her despair, or bring back her youth. Sasha is psychologically in a downward spiral.
"Good Morning, Midnight" is well-written, but very sad and depressing. The vulnerable, lonely Sasha is a heartbreaking main character. Quite a few French expressions are used throughout the text which helped set the Parisian scene, but might be difficult for some readers. The story seems to have some semi-autobiographical elements since Jean Rhys was an alcoholic who also had unhappy marriages, suffered through the death of a newborn son, and went through a destitute time in Paris....more
4 1/2 stars. Wuthering Heights is not only a story of a passionate love between Heathcliff and Catherine. It also shows jealousy, revenge, and a longin4 1/2 stars. Wuthering Heights is not only a story of a passionate love between Heathcliff and Catherine. It also shows jealousy, revenge, and a longing to possess. In the late 18th Century in stormy Yorkshire, Mr Earnshaw returns from his travels with an orphan boy, Heathcliff, who he adopts. He and Catherine Earnshaw both possess dark, wild spirits as children, and eventually fall in love. He is resented by Catherine's brother, Hinley, because Mr Earnshaw seems to prefer Heathcliff to his own son.
After Mr Earnshaw's death, Hinley is the master and mistreats Heathcliff, forcing him to work as a laborer. Catherine chooses Edgar Litton, a wealthy, socially prominent gentleman to marry instead of the penniless Heathcliff who also loves her. Heathcliff leaves the area and returns as a rich man, and wrecks revenge and abuse on two generations of Earnshaws and Littons. We see upper class people lose their money, and poor Heathcliff becomes a wealthy landowner. Victims become victimizers, and abusers become the abused.
But the wild and passionate Heathcliff and Catherine both need each other to feel whole and complete. Even after her death, Catherine's spirit cannot rest. The demonic Heathcliff will not feel whole until he is united with Catherine in death.
The servant Nelly tells the tragic story of the family to a tenant, Lockwood, and he incorporates it into his diary with his own observations. Bronte's use of two unreliable narrators--Nelly and Lockwood--makes one wonder about the truth of the story. The flashbacks keep the reader in suspense. The atmosphere is very Gothic and sometimes gets a bit melodramatic. The characters are haunting and tragic.
Although she was an isolated daughter of a minister, Emily Brontë must have been a keen observer of human nature. Like characters in Wuthering Heights, members of Bronte's family died of consumption and her brother turned to alcohol and drugs. She also lived on the wild moors of Yorkshire, the setting of the novel. During her lifetime the Industrial Revolution was causing changes in social classes, a theme which also runs through the book. The world lost a great British writer when thirty-year-old Emily Brontë died in 1848.
Howards End is an old, red brick country house in Hertfordshire where the lives of people from different classes intersect. The Schlegels are culturedHowards End is an old, red brick country house in Hertfordshire where the lives of people from different classes intersect. The Schlegels are cultured, idealistic, upper class siblings living on their inherited funds. The Wilcoxes are a materialistic, wealthy family who run a business with connections to West Africa. The Basts are poor with Leonard earning a modest living as a clerk, but trying to improve himself with exposure to books and culture.
This book was published in 1910, four years before the start of World War I. England is a prosperous country, but there is no economic safety net for people who have lost their jobs. London is entering a new age, tearing down old buildings to put up modern new flats. England is portrayed as a colonial power, shown through the Wilcoxes who run the Imperial and West African Rubber Company. The Schlegels are half-German, and we see them appreciate German musicians and philosophers, and the beauty of the German mountains, as well as their English heritage.
Women were not treated equally in post-Victorian times, and there are mentions of women's suffrage movements. Henry Wilcox is a conventional head of the household, and his son Charles is an especially aggressive, domineering man. The book portrays Margaret and Helen Schlegel as independent females with strong opinions. Their inherited money, however, makes it much easier since they are not financially dependent on a man. Women are also treated very differently when sexual indiscretions are involved.
Howards End is where people of different genders, social classes, and economic classes interact. Margaret acts as a bridge between the idealistic intellectuals and the pragmatic materialists. She asks her husband to "only connect" on a personal scale. In the same way, England is made up with various classes of people trying to connect with each other in the early 20th Century. 3 1/2 stars, rounded up to 4....more
Leo Hertzberg seeks out Bill Wechsler after he buys one of his paintings, starting a lifelong friendship between the two men. The lives of their two fLeo Hertzberg seeks out Bill Wechsler after he buys one of his paintings, starting a lifelong friendship between the two men. The lives of their two families become entangled in this story about relationships, love, and loss.
Leo, an art historian, is the narrator looking back on the last twenty-five years in a book divided into three sections. The first part sets us in the New York City world of artists, academics, and intellectuals. There are beautiful, detailed descriptions of Bill's art and Violet's research on hysteria and eating disorders. The two families live in the same building, and their young sons, Matthew and Mark, become friends.
Part two begins and ends with tragedies. Some relationships struggle to survive because grief overwhelms the people. Friends offer needed emotional support. The Wechslers' son Mark is a troubled boy, an unrepentant liar with surface charm. He falls under the spell of an installation artist, Teddy Giles, who creates art about sadistic violence.
The third section of the book changes its tone into a psychological thriller as Leo and Violet try to save Mark from being completely drawn into Teddy Giles' world. It was fast-paced and exciting, although a multi-city trip to the Midwest seemed a little over the top.
As the title suggests, the older Leo has told us what he had loved--friends, family, art, and intellectual ideas. The journey was sometimes heartbreaking, but always complex and fascinating.
"The Piano Teacher" is a look at relationships involving control, submission, and psychological manipulation. Erika, a piano teacher in her thirties,"The Piano Teacher" is a look at relationships involving control, submission, and psychological manipulation. Erika, a piano teacher in her thirties, still lives with her domineering mother in a love/hate relationship. Her mother controlled her every move as a child, shutting her off from other people, and demanding endless hours of musical practice daily. Although Erika was technically proficient, her emotions were too shut down to ever achieve greatness in interpreting the music.
Erika's small attempt at rebellion is to buy beautiful dresses that she never wears. If she comes home late from work, her angry mother punishes her by tearing up one of her dresses. Erika is sexually repressed, sneaking away to peep shows, and spying upon lovers in the woods. She uses a razor to cut herself since self-mutilation is a way for her to feel.
Walter Klemmer, a young engineering student at the university, is taking piano lessons from Erika, a strict teacher. He's a popular ladies' man who chases Erika while she initially resists his advances. After she spells out what she wants in a relationship, the novel spirals down into darkness, anger, violence, and despair.
The author, Elfriede Jelinek, was also an accomplished musician in Vienna, a child prodigy who was pushed relentlessly by her mother. Vienna is known for its fine musicians, and excelling at music was prized. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004.
This is a difficult book to rate. Jelinek is a talented, often lyrical, writer. The three main characters--Erika, Mother, and Walter--are unlikable, but darkly fascinating. Although there are many sexual scenes, the book is not romantic or erotic since sexuality is just another controlling tool in the psychological arsenal. I'm giving this disturbing novel four stars because it was well written, but I wouldn't describe it as an "enjoyable" book. ...more
During the Stalin regime, people were sentenced to hard labor for the flimsiest reasons. I wondered why the author focused on just one single day in aDuring the Stalin regime, people were sentenced to hard labor for the flimsiest reasons. I wondered why the author focused on just one single day in a grim labor camp since the prisoners usually had long imprisonments of eight to twenty years. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is in his eighth year of a ten year sentence. Conditions are horrible with inadequate food, warm clothes, and heat in frigid conditions. But he cannot think of the future because his prison term could be extended if the authorities brought him up on another charge. Shukhov can only think about the present--how can he survive for one more day?
Shukhov is a hard-working mason and carpenter who sometimes gets an extra bread ration for his good work. He tries to savor every bite of bread and spoonful of soup since there are no other pleasures in life. To keep his feet warm he pads his boots with rags. He knows how to work the system, taking on extra little jobs, like mending clothes or holding someone's place in line, in exchange for a cigarette or a few bites of bread. With the guards, it's important to fly under the radar because an argument might land him in a freezing cell--and almost certain death from hypothermia, pneumonia, or tuberculosis. So Shukhov lives in the present.
"There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail....Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days....The three extra days were for leap years."
The author had been imprisoned from 1945 to 1953 for criticizing Joseph Stalin in letters to friends. Solzhenitsyn based this book on his experiences at a labor camp in Karaganda in northern Kazakhstan. Premier Khrushchev, who denounced the excesses and abuses of Stalin, allowed the publication of the book in 1962....more
"Franny" and "Zooey" are a short story, followed by a novella, about the two youngest children of the Glass family. They were originally published sep"Franny" and "Zooey" are a short story, followed by a novella, about the two youngest children of the Glass family. They were originally published separately in "The New Yorker" magazine. Franny visits her boyfriend Lane for a college football weekend. Lane is very superficial, a social climber concerned about appearances. Franny is depressed, and feeling cynical about people who she considers phonies. She is thinking of dropping out of college, and quitting her acting career. As she is undergoing a spiritual crisis, Franny keeps repeating a "Jesus prayer" that is in "The Way of the Pilgrim" book.
In the "Zooey" novella, Franny has come to the Glass family home in Manhattan. She seems to be in the process of a nervous breakdown--crying, chain-smoking, and refusing to eat. Her mother asks Zooey to talk to Franny. Zooey says that he and Franny are "freaks" because their two oldest brothers introduced them so early to various philosophical and religious ideas. The precocious Glass siblings were also stars of a radio quiz show at a very young age. Zooey talks Franny through her spiritual crisis until she finds peace.
There are autobiographical elements in these Salinger tales. He had a breakdown after going through the horrors of World War II. In the 1950s, Salinger experienced his own spiritual crisis, and was interested in both Buddhism and Hinduism. He withdrew from society and led an isolated life in New Hampshire. The Glass children are very intellectual and philosophical like Salinger himself. The short story "Franny" was well-written, and had some ideas in common with "The Catcher in the Rye." "Zooey" was interesting, with some dark humor, but could have been edited down a bit....more
3.5 stars Edith Wharton shows us the world of the upper class in 1870's New York. This elite group had very rigid rules of behavior, social rituals, fa3.5 stars Edith Wharton shows us the world of the upper class in 1870's New York. This elite group had very rigid rules of behavior, social rituals, fashion, and entertaining. There is an element of hypocrisy that existed in some of its members behind their conservative moral exterior.
Newland Archer, a wealthy young lawyer, is engaged to May, an innocent young woman who follows society's moral code. But Newland is very attracted to May's cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, who has separated from her philandering husband. Ellen, who has spent many years in Europe, has a more artistic sensibility and shocks her staid relatives with her bohemian ways. Society, as well as these three main characters, plays a part in the resolution of this love triangle.
Very detailed descriptions are given of the homes, manners, and lifestyles of the upper class New Yorkers during the time that Wharton was a young woman herself. While this makes the book important historically, it weighed down the first half of the novel. The second half of the book picked up the pace of the plot.
Each of the two women, especially May, seemed more complex than Newland realized. He was dealing with his own feelings of being constrained by society, but also had a strong sense of duty. Society was changing by the time Newland's children were adults with many more opportunities for freedom and self-expression.
Take a Trip: Part of this novel was set in Newport, RI, where the very wealthy vacationed in the summers. The mansions have been beautifully preserved, and their tours offer another glimpse of this element of society. The conspicuous consumption is almost overwhelming. Newport is an especially scenic and interesting getaway....more
Gustav von Aschenbach is a middle-aged, successful writer who has lived a very controlled, cerebral life. He feels that a break from his scheduled lifGustav von Aschenbach is a middle-aged, successful writer who has lived a very controlled, cerebral life. He feels that a break from his scheduled life might help his writing, and travels to Venice. He sees a beautiful Polish boy named Tadzio at his hotel, and compares him to a classical Greek god. Although he never touches or speaks to Tadzio, Aschenbach becomes totally infatuated with the beautiful boy, watching him play on the beach and eventually following him through the streets of Venice. His writer's block disappears as his mind gives way to passion. Aschenbach learns that a cholera epidemic is sweeping over Venice. He has to decide if he should leave the city and warn Tadzio's family about the disease, or stay because he cannot bear the thought of being away from Tadzio.
This is a well-constructed novella with symbols of death, aging, and desire foreshadowing future events. Aschenbach imagines a discussion of beauty between Socrates and his young student, Phaedrus, to justify his own feelings. There are references to Greek mythology in describing his dreams, as his life goes from the discipline of an Apollonian existence to uncontrolled Dionysian sensuality. The novella builds from a calm start to an overwhelming obsession to a tragic conclusion. The story is semi-autobiographical based on a trip that Mann and his wife took to Venice, where Mann became intrigued with a young Polish boy visiting the resort. Mann expanded on the idea to write "Death in Venice."...more
The novella, The Little Prince, tells of the encounter between an adult and his inner child, the little prince. It can be appreciated by both childrenThe novella, The Little Prince, tells of the encounter between an adult and his inner child, the little prince. It can be appreciated by both children and adults on different levels. The pilot narrator crashes in the Sahara, and sees a tiny golden-haired boy, the little prince, who had come from a far asteroid where he had lived with a single rose. Their conversations are part fantasy and part philosophical--thoughts about the superficial world of adults who lack the imagination and open-mindedness of children. The prince, who is confused about his feelings for the rose, meets a fox who tells him his secret about love: "One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye."
The fable was written during World War II when the author had escaped from German-occupied France to the United States. Like the little prince, the author was in exile. The little prince came from an asteroid where baobab trees were threatening to take over the area, suggesting how the Nazis were attempting to get a hold on our planet. The author also drew from his real experience of crashing in the Sahara in 1939 when he and his co-pilot were in an air race, and where he experienced hallucinations due to extreme dehydration. The story is illustrated with charming watercolors depicting the little prince. This is still a popular book, translated from the original French into many languages, and enjoyed by readers of all ages. ...more
It's a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, starting as she sets out in the morning to buy flowers for a party, and ending as her par3.5 stars
It's a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, starting as she sets out in the morning to buy flowers for a party, and ending as her party guests are leaving that night. The book is written in a stream of consciousness so the reader learns about the characters' feelings about the present, past, and future, moment by moment. Throughout the book, Big Ben and other London clocks sound the hours. Clarissa reads Shakespeare's words from "Cymbeline" about death in a book in a shop window early in the book, foreshadowing things to come.
The book was written after the devastation of World War I. Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran suffering from PTSD, sees hallucinations of a good friend who died in the war. One of Septimus' doctors will be attending the party later. Woolf and her husband published Freud's works, and Woolf had been treated unsuccessfully for bipolar disorder and depression. She shows that the medical and psychiatric doctors of the time were inept and unfeeling to people with mental illness.
Clarissa, a charming high society hostess, invites about twenty people to her party. We learn about her youth, her past loves, and her marriage as she shops in the morning. Was she happy in her marriage to Richard, or should she have married Peter who still loves her? We also see England's social structure through the eyes of many characters. There is a contrast between Clarissa's life, and the lives of working women.
I appreciated Woolf's writing which was often very beautiful, and her thoughts about the Great War, mental illness, and society. Her stream of consciousness writing gave impressions of past, present, and future which melded into a complete idea. I admire Woolf for trying a new style of writing, and might enjoy it in a short story of a few pages. But I found it difficult to concentrate on her stream of consciousness writing for a whole novel. There are other styles of writing that I prefer reading....more
In Foe, Susan Barton is set adrift in a rowboat after a mutiny on a ship sailing from South America to Lisbon. She lands on an island where Cruso andIn Foe, Susan Barton is set adrift in a rowboat after a mutiny on a ship sailing from South America to Lisbon. She lands on an island where Cruso and Friday had been cast away years ago. In Coetzee's retelling of the Robinson Crusoe tale, Cruso is content with his simple life on the island. Friday has been transformed from a Caribbean to a black African whose tongue had been cut out by slave owners. The three castaways are rescued after Susan has spent one year on the island, but Cruso dies on his way back to Europe.
Susan wants to write their story so she contacts the author Daniel Foe to turn her narration into a book. But Foe wants to tell a different story about Susan than the one she thinks is important. Susan is also disturbed about Friday's lack of a voice. Although Friday has been liberated from slavery, he cannot ever really be free with no voice. The theme seems to be that the oppressed and disadvantaged have been silenced, and lost the authorship of their own stories.
J.M. Coetzee was writing in 1986 in South Africa where communication problems and cultural differences existed between the black Africans and white colonialists. The original Crusoe story was a fictional autobiography and adventure story with 17th Century ideas about colonialism, gender, and slavery. Coetzee has updated the tale by adding a woman narrator, an African servant, and a 20th Century outlook. ...more
During the time of the Gautama Buddha, Siddhartha goes on a journey in India to experience spiritual enlightenment. He lived as an ascetic with a lifeDuring the time of the Gautama Buddha, Siddhartha goes on a journey in India to experience spiritual enlightenment. He lived as an ascetic with a life of self-denial for years. Then he lived a life of pleasure, learning the art of love from Kamala, acquiring possessions, and gambling. He then renounced that materialistic life, and took up a simple life as a ferryman. Siddhartha felt that every person must learn spirituality from their own complete experiences. As Siddhartha listens to the river, he feels connected with everything in the world in a timeless fashion. The story was an interesting look at Eastern philosophy.
Spirituality seems to have played an important role in the author's life. Hermann Hesse was raised in a missionary family and educated at a Pietist (Lutheran) seminary in Germany as a child. Later in life, he studied Eastern philosophy and wrote "Siddhartha."...more
Published in 1981 during the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, Nadine Gordimer imagines a civil war where blacks overthrow whites. It's a fictiPublished in 1981 during the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, Nadine Gordimer imagines a civil war where blacks overthrow whites. It's a fictional time of terrible violence where whites have to go into hiding to avoid being killed in Johannesburg. The Smales, a liberal white couple with three children, have employed July for fifteen years as a servant. They have treated him well so he takes the family to his rural black village to keep them safe.
In the village, a master/servant role reversal occurs where the Smales are now totally dependent on July for everything--their hut, their food, even their lives. July slowly loses his subservient attitude, and the Smales feel powerless and vulnerable. Having the keys to the vehicle, a yellow bakkie, symbolizes who has the power. In addition, the Smales had the problem of not understanding the language and culture of the village. Of course, July and other blacks had been experiencing the reverse problem when they went into the cities to work for English-speaking whites.
The ending was ambivalent which disappointed me in the sense of not having closure. But it was probably a very fitting and realistic ending for that time in South Africa. No one knew what the racial tensions would bring while ending apartheid.
7/14/14 Rest in Peace, Nadine Gordimer. The 90-year-old Nobel Prize winning author, known for her books about racial tensions in apartheid-era South Africa, has died....more
Irma Seidenman had been living under a false identity as a Polish officer's widow in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. She is recognized by a former acquaintance,Irma Seidenman had been living under a false identity as a Polish officer's widow in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. She is recognized by a former acquaintance, and is arrested for being a Jew. A group of Polish people set up a plan to rescue her.
The interconnected chapters of the book are each devoted to a particular character or incident. Together, the stories give a composite picture of the people in Warsaw during World War II, and a glimpse into the future for them. The well-written book had complex characters thrust into difficult, often tragic, situations.
In many ways, Poland--situated between Germany and Russia--was also a character in this book. "Was this country merely the territory for foreign armies to march across, the land behind the front lines, the strip of ground between them?....The outpost of the free world, squeezed in between tyrannies."
The author lived through that period of history himself. He was educated in the underground university mentioned in the book. After participating in the Warsaw Uprising against the Germans in 1944, he was sent to a concentration camp. After he was released, he was very active politically in the Solidarity movement....more
Toni Morrison has written a lush, earthy story, set in a segregated area of Ohio, about the black experience between 1919-1965. Nel, who has a very trToni Morrison has written a lush, earthy story, set in a segregated area of Ohio, about the black experience between 1919-1965. Nel, who has a very traditional childhood, becomes the best friend of Sula who lives in an unstructured environment. When they become adults, Nel got married, had children, and stayed in her hometown. Sula went away to college, and had affairs with many men, following the path of her sensual mother. Sula returned to her hometown after ten years, became the source of gossip because of her loose ways, and deeply hurt Nel. This is a story about female friendship, and about what constitutes good and evil.
The book is also a portrait of a small, vital black community facing hardship. The black men in the town have to deal with discrimination in hiring with even the government construction jobs closed off to them. I enjoyed Toni Morrison's complex characters and gorgeous writing. ...more