Lots of reading; not much blogging….2014/2015 update

Hey, dear readers!  Yes, I just thought I would step away for a few minutes and then, wow!  It has turned into a four month hiatus.

But Livritome was never far from my thoughts.  I love my blog home and I’m now dashing around, opening the windows and brushing off the cobwebs.

I’ll admit that I’ve been struggling through a dry spell in my Guardian list reading.  I was doing well, spending the last part of October and early November finishing up the E.M Forster titles with A Passage to Indiapassagetoindia.  I enjoyed it, but didn’t find it as accessible as a some of his others, especially, Howards End.  I didn’t like many of the characters, and the brutality of the racism and hatred was so oppressive that I couldn’t work out a message I could walk away with.  The point seemed to be the complete random tragedy of stupid people who are careless with others’ lives.  I was lost by the spiritual aspects of the book as well.  So, not really a book for me, though I thought about it for quite a while afterwards.

I immediately jumped into another Guardian title, Riddle of the Sands.  I chose this one randomly from the list and was excited by the possibility of another book I would love that I didn’t know about before following the Guardian list.

mysteryUnfortunately, this didn’t work out.  I’ve been struggling with this book for weeks and have repeatedly crept away to read other, more interesting things….and I think I am about to hoist the white flag and declare surrender and not finish this book.

I know this is supposed to be the first spy novel, and I know this book inspired a young Winston Churchill to do everything he could to build up the English navy, and I’ve even read up on the author, Erskine Childers, who was a pretty fascinating and complex guy.  But every time I open this novel I feel like I am as fogged in as the two main characters out there, snooping-around in their yacht on the German coast.

Sad.  My first DNF for a Guardian title.

So, what else have I been reading?  Tons.

redqueenI lapped up Phillipa Gregory’s the Red Queen.  Phillipa’s always got some sort of trilogy or series or something going on with English royalty — goodness this lady is inexhaustible.  The Red Queen was about Margaret Beaufort, a true nut-case if this book is at all factual and the mother of the Tudor dynasty.  Guilty pleasure stuff — break out the chocolates.


I’ve also been feeding my love of medical history with two books, one a relative light weight and the other a superb book —

InfluenzaInfluenza 1918 was a quick read that could have used a better editor — had some repetitions throughout.  Because the 1918 epidemic is a personal obsession, I know that this book was written to accompany the PBS documentary on the same subject.  So, some illusions to individuals that seem strange in a stand alone book work when you know they were highlighted as “personal interest” stories in the documentary.  But if you hadn’t seen the documentary I don’t know how this would work for you.

GhostRegarding another epidemic, this one a cholera outbreak that decimated a London neighborhood in the mid-1800’s was Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map.  This is simply one of the finest books I’ve read in some time.  It’s about a brilliant doctor, John Snow, who makes a connection between cholera and contaminated water — well before germ theory.  Snow was a fantastic, original thinker and maybe the first person who used data and visualization to convince policy makers that action was needed.  His famous “ghost map” (I’ve actually seen a copy at the Walters Gallery in Baltimore Md!!!!) was a depiction of the deaths at each address and their relationship to a local pump.  But this book is about much more — it focuses on cities and what makes them livable or not.  It is also about social networks and what makes one person drink from a pump here (or live here, or have these friends but not others….) or not.  Fascinating stuff.

DissolutionI’ve discovered two mystery writers I’ve enjoyed — one is C. J. Sansom, who writes about Tudor England and whose protagonist is a hunchbacked lawyer who works for Thomas Cromwell.  The first one is about the dissolution of the abbeys and religious houses during Henry VIII’s reign and is called, appropriately, Dissolution.  A bit lengthy but good enough for me to want to check out the next title in the series.

WoodsA good friend turned me onto Tana French and her police procedurals set in present day Dublin.   The first one, In the Woods centers around the killing of a young girl in the same vicinity where two young children disappeared about 15 years earlier.  The investigative team that sets out to solve the murder have as many secrets and mysteries themselves as the murder they are trying to solve.  Very well written, with compelling characters and some dark twists.  Yes, I’ll be back for more.

Ok, that’s it for now.  Thanks for sticking with Livritome!

E. M. Forster’s Howards End

Howardsend Howards End

E. M. Forster

I read this in a compilation published in 1993 by Gramercy Books, New York, NY.  Also contains:  A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread.  Howards End is approximately 236 pgs.

Originally published in 1910.

Other books I’ve read by Forster:  A Room with a View .  I still need to tackle Forster’s masterpiece, A Passage to India, which is the last Forster I need to read on the Guardian list.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge.  Family and Self Titles.

Forster gives us three families and uses them to illustrate several themes.  The heart of the story revolves around the intellectual and well-off Schlegals.  The Schlegals are comprised of the main character, the steady and clear-sighted Margaret who is the eye of the storm in this book, and her emotional and head-strong sister, Helen.  They have a younger brother, Tibby.  The Schlegals are involved in a variety of warm-hearted and intellectually exciting  pursuits and social circles.  They are also about to lose their London home to a developer and must find a new one.  Surrounded by books, with deep memories of the past both in England and with relatives abroad in Germany, the Schlegals represent the intelligentsia.  Money is plentiful for the Schlegals but they are not really interested in money.  This is a very feminine tribe; brother Tibby is sort of an after-thought.

The second family, the Wilcoxes are up and coming capitalists.  Pater familias Henry Wilcox made his fortune from his investments and business ventures in Africa.  Sons Paul and Charles are following in his footsteps.  His quiet wife, Mrs. Wilcox, is a representative of the older gentry and her family home, Howards End, is the center of key action in the novel.  The Wilcoxes are interested in pursuing money, houses, and cars; they move fast and they represent progress and action.  The Wilcoxes are a masculine, striving group whose feminine members are quietly repressed:  daughter in law Dolly, for example, is depicted as a simpleton and the mysterious Mrs. Wilcox is a cipher and connection to an agricultural past.  Mrs. Wilcox forms an attachment to Margaret Schlegal and her deathbed wish that Margaret inherit Howards End has ramifications that will echo throughout the lives of all the characters.

The last family, Lawrence and Jacky Bast, represent the lower classes.  Lawrence is a clerk in an insurance company and Jacky has an unsavory and questionable past.  They struggle along in a tacky apartment but Lawrence is a quietly striving person who wants more out of life.  Lawrence’s strivings bring him into accidental contact with the Schlegals — and that connection will have catastrophic consequences.  Both Lawrence and Jacky seem lost and disconnected in their world and Forster shorthands poverty for squalor and helplessness.  Jacky, for example, is the slutty “lost” woman who drags down an innocent young man.  Lawrence is weakly gullible and the action he takes based on a thoughtless remark about the stability of his insurance company by Mr. Wilcox —  filtered through the emotionalism of the Schlegals — results in the book’s climax.

Forster weaves the lives of these three disparate families together in a way to illustrate a couple of broad themes:  the loss of the natural life and the encroachment on nature by urban sprawl, second:  the failure of human beings to “connect” and be able to value, help and understand each other in order to realize their true potential and last, the differences between men and women.  It is interesting to see that while women appear to be under the thumbs of their men — Forster actually gives them the upper hand.  For example, Margaret who appears to be a complacent and subservient wife, actually leads all the characters — male and femaile —  towards the book’s resolution.  Even  Jacky, merely by showing up at the right place and time, exerts her own kind of control over imperious Mr. Wilcox.  Finally, the mysterious Mrs. Wilcox, and her doppelganger, Mrs. Avery who insists on making Howards End a living home despite the Wilcox’s vision to close it up lead us to the final realization that nature has the power to heal all wounds and bring us home in the end.  This is the ultimate power of Howards End, as Margaret realizes towards the novel’s conclusion:

She forgot the luggage and the motorcars, and the hurrying men who know so much and connect so little.  She recaptured the sense of space, which is the basis of all earthly beauty, and starting from Howards End, she attempted to realize England….

Realizing England, I believe, was Forster’s shorthand for seeing that all his characters come to grip with a right balance, or connection, between nature and urbanity, and that all of earth’s people are allowed to grow to their full potential.  This “realization” certainly is not achieved in Howards End, but Forster helps us, like Margaret, attempt to reach it.

A great read, which I’m grateful for the Guardian list in pushing me to complete.  What next???

“A view? How delightful a view is!” E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View

A Room with a View

E. M. Forster

Originally published in 1908.  One of Forster’s earlier novels, published before his first major success, Howard’s End and well before his masterpiece,  A Passage to India.   I haven’t read either of these yet but they are both on the Guardian list.

The version I read was part of a compilation published in 1993 by Gramercy Books.  It also contains Howard’s End and Where Angels Fear to Tread.  Approximately 150 pages.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  Love Titles.

Phew.  At first I thought I had run into my first Guardian 1,000 reads that I really didn’t like.  The story of a young middle class English girl who almost marries the wrong man is so full of obnoxious characters that I thought I wouldn’t be able to stomach it.

First of all, the girl herself, Lucy Honeychurch,  is so self-centered and clueless that you want to shake her.  She is completely stifled by her conventional and stultified family and friends.  The plot of the story is simple:  Lucy travels to Italy with a hysterically repressed older gentlewoman-cousin.  She meets a variety of equally parochial English folks who are barricaded in their pension hotel and only venture out with the safety of a guide-book or with fellow-English travelers.  These are all people who could travel around the world and never see a thing because their minds and hearts are closed to anyone different from themselves.

But Lucy and her cousin run into two original and free thinking characters:  a father and son, who immediately insist on changing rooms with them because the older gentleman hears the two ladies complaining that their room lacks a view.  This overture throws the chaperone cousin into a tizzy but she accepts despite her horror at this incredibly unconventional offer.

Throughout the rest of the book, the concept of a “view” comes up time and time again to symbolize how open to others, differences and new ways of thought an individual can be.  The father and son have a view but they can give it away happily because they are already in possession of open and generous hearts.  Other characters are blind to the views around them — despite how glorious the sights may be — because of their conventional and bigoted opinions.  Or for others, like Lucy’s mother, the view represents a privileged way of life:

“Very well.  Take your independence and be gone.  Rush up and down and round the world….Despise the house that your father built and the garden that he planted, and our dear view– and then share a flat with another girl.”

Lucy returns from Italy and gets engaged to a horrific prig — Cecil Vyse.  By the way, some of the names in the book are wonderful — Honeychurch elicits thoughts of sweetness and spiritual life.  A kindred spirit who helps Lucy understand herself is Rev. Beebe — and I wondered if he is meant to be the bee to her honey.  The horrible fiance, Vyse, wants to trap Lucy in a vice-like grip of conventionality and mean spiritedness.  Another character who urges Lucy to see and live more sports the surname, Lavish.  Fun stuff.

Coincidentally, the free-thinking father and son return to England and rent the villa near Lucy’s family home.  As Lucy gets closer to the son, she begins to question the view she thought she had of her future life.

So, what view will Lucy choose: the prescribed and unchanging view of her parents, the closed wall of her fiance and his clique, or the free independence of seeing the world anew and being open and loving to the opportunities it presents?  I had a fun time finding out the answer, although I can’t say the ending was a big surprise.  This wasn’t one of my favorite Guardian Challenge titles, but I’m certainly glad I read it and I know it has changed my view as well.