Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

Mr. Lee’s memoir is set in the Cotswolds at the beginning of the 20th century following the end of WWI. The family has just moved and little Laurie is quite frightened by his new home, but quickly overcomes his initial fears thanks to his doting step sisters.

We follow Laurie as a toddler and young schoolboy into teen angst and eventual manhood and get an insider’s view of village life and those that thrive and those that fail.

Laurie only reveals his childish thoughts so we don’t get too much insight into his adult mind, but he clearly cherished his thrifty, albeit loving upbringing.

Mrs. Lee was the most interesting character. A single mother raising 8 children; 3 she bore and 5 born by her absent husband’s deceased wife. A very bright student, she was born at a time that did not place much value on education for women and married a widow who wasn’t much for fatherhood or marriage. Her positive, though often scattered, outlook kept the family going and all eight children were treated equally. Her free spirit was evident, but she squashed her true desires and focused on family.

The Uncles chapter introduces Laurie’s maternal uncles, who were all as interesting as their sister. Charlie, the forrester was the rugged one, while Tom was the ladies man and Ray built railroads, was tattooed and drank heavily. Sid was the moody bus driver who also enjoyed liquor and regularly threatened suicide.

Quotes:

Though she tortured our patience and exhausted our nerves, she was, all the time building up around us, by the unconscious revelations of her loves, an interpretation of man and the natural world so unpretentious and easy that we never recognized it then, yet so true that we never forgot it.

Nothing now that I ever see that has the edge of gold around it — the change of a season, a jewelled bird in a bush, the eyes of orchids, water in the evening, a thistle, a picture, a poem — but my pleasure pays some brief duty to her. She tried me at times to the top of my bent. But I absorbed from birth, as now I know, the whole earth through her jaunty spirit.

I say all this by way of hoping that the lies I’ve made up to get from one poor truth to another may mean something–may even mean something most particular to you, my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader, wiling to make so much of so little, more patient and more respectful of life, of a life, that the author you’re allowing for a moment to exist yet again.

Such a night of fever slowed everything down as though hot rugs had been stuffed into a clock.

Our village was clearly no pagan paradise, neither were we conscious of showing tolerance. It was just the way of it.

Cider with Mr. Lee would have to be of the “hard” kind. Perhaps we could discuss the villagers more and how and where he did his writing. I’d definitely have to get him “woke” as his encounters with Jo would be classified as sexual assault today and his casual involvement with a planned rape made me squirm.

My rating for Cider with Rosie is a 7 out of 10.

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Next up , Charles Dickens’ Bleak House

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A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White

In A Boy’s Own Story, the author documents his coming of age in the 1950’s while grappling with his homosexuality. The sexual encounters are explicit and exaggerated to ensure the reader is attentive to the prose.

Had the sexual details been omitted, it would have been just as effective in delivering the angst of the teen years and the feelings of isolation and hopelessness.

It’s easy to imagine Edmund wringing his hands as he navigates his way through family conflicts, acknowledges his sexuality and interacts with people living in their own unique ways.

Edmund’s father is a successful businessman who lives in a world all his own. He is well aware of all those that surround him, but never feels comfortable speaking openly and honestly to anyone. He is a solitary man pretending to be sociable and has not truly lived the life he was fortunate enough to have.

Marilyn, a bookstore clerk is one of Edmund’s true friends who shows him that being different is not being imperfect. The time they spend together seems to bring peace to them both.

Mr. & Mrs. Scott are two horrendous individuals who take advantage of young Edmund to feed their own sexual desires. Mr. Scott teaches Latin at a boarding school and feigns friendship with Edmund to conceal his own homosexual desires.

Quotes:

My father regarded guests as nuisances who had to be entertained over and over again.

…the imagination is not the consolation people pretend. It can even be regarded as the admission of some sort of failure.

I say all this by way of hoping that the lies I’ve made up to get from one poor truth to another may mean something–may even mean something most particular to you, my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader, wiling to make so much of so little, more patient and more respectful of life, of a life, that the author you’re allowing for a moment to exist yet again.

And so on for hours, pure ventriloquism, nausea of small talk, a discipline nearly Oriental in its exclusion of content and its focus on empty locutions, the chatter of social fear confused with yearning, for I not only feared my friends, I also wanted to make them love me.

Given the opportunity to meet with Mr. White, I would ask if his upbringing were so painful that he’d rather put pen to paper on his supposed illicit sexual encounters than divulge his family secrets. I felt cheated in that he was hiding his authentic self and using sex as a way of distracting the reader from being awares.

My rating for A Boy’s Own Story is a 6 out of 10.

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Next up , Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie

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A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

One of the most well known novels of all time, reading A Christmas Carol, at Christmas time no less, was utter joy. With so many film adaptions, I tried my hardiest to put their images out of mind and delayed viewing my favorite version (1951 starring Alastair Sim) until I completed the read.

Presented in 5 Staves, rather than chapters, Dickens chose to use this reference, a nod to the musical staff, indicating each stave was a story unto itself with a distinct end.

From avarice to benevolence, Ebeneezer Scrooge looks at his past, present and future and comes to understand that by holding on to life’s disappointments, he has cheated himself from living a joyful life. Not a moment too soon, Scrooge finally sees that joy is best shared with others.

Poor little Fan, sister to Ebeneezer, who had a heart of gold for her dear brother, but not one that could sustain the strain of a difficult labor and delivery. Had she lived, perhaps her brother’s bitterness might have been lessened.

Bob Cratchit’s extreme patience and nonjudgmental views put him in a category above most. It would be quite easy to see him as a bitter and angry man, yet he accepted his lot without complaint and seemed the wiser for it in the end.

Quotes:

Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!

The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.

The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.

I’ve made no secret of my adoration for Mr. Dickens and I won’t apologize for it. I imagine sitting at his side while he dipped pen to ink, chuckling as he did and taking no notice of me at all. All the while hoping that being in his presence alone would allow for a type of wordsmithery osmosis.

My rating for A Christmas Carol is a 10 out of 10.

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Next up , Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story

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Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor

The overarching theme of Everything That Rises Must Converge is family, mostly parents and children and seemed to demonize either the parent or the child in each of the 9 short stories, with most ending in death.

While each story was unique and very well written, I’ve decided to review my top 1 of the 9.

A View of the Woods gave me a sense of being both participant and spectator. An unusual tale of truly dysfunctional family dynamics and a man’s open disdain for most of his family, save his granddaughter.

Mark Fortune is a wealthy 79-year-old landowner who loves to taunt his family by selling off parcels of land they live near. As he realizes his life is winding down, he spends his time with his 9-year-old namesake, Mary, who he has decided will be sole heir to his fortunes.

Both Mary and her grandfather are strongly opinionated and irascible, yet have an unspoken respect for one another. They spend time together watching the sold off parcels being excavated, watching eagle eyed to ensure no minor encroachments occur.

Believing they are one and the same person, Mark Fortune finds he is terribly mistaken when he decides to sell a parcel with a view of the woods from Mary’s home, much to Mary’s extreme objection.

Quotes (from other short stories):

Julian thought he could have stood his lot better if she had been selfish, if she had been an old hag who drank and screamed at him. He walked along, saturated in depression, as if in the midst of his martyrdom he had lost his faith.

Almost any fault would have been preferable to selfishness–a violent temper, even a tendency to lie.

Still unsure I’d want to meet with Ms. O’Connor. Her overt racism prevails throughout and actually became harder to swallow with each story. Perhaps a cup of bitter tea would melt the coldness of her heart and soul and reveal her deep seated intolerance for those different than herself.

Once again, putting aside my personal feelings…My rating for Everything That Rises Must Converge is a 9 out of 10.

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Next up (and apropos of the season), Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

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Home by Marilynne Robinson

Two adult siblings return to their childhood home in Gilead, Iowa seeking refuge from their unfulfilled lives.

The first to return, Glory, has escaped from an unrequited love affair that has left her feeling ashamed and a teaching job that has left her feeling inessential. The youngest of the Boughton’s eight children, she busies herself as caretaker to her ailing father and to running the household.

Eldest Boughton, Jack, returns after a 20-year absence shrouded in enigma and carrying the burden of his youthful sins. He has not spent the last decades in repentance, but rather in and out of bars and prison and still carries more secrets he is not willing to reveal.

The family patriarch, the Reverend Robert Boughton welcomes his children back to their home. His faith has led him all his life, and as it is nearing its end, he desperately wants to ensure his son’s eternal deliverance.

Lila Ames, the young wife to Boughton neighbor Reverend Ames, is warm and compassionate and is the only character with the ability to take everything in without judgment and put everyone at ease with just a few kind words. She seemed a very unlikely match for her reverend husband, a judgmental and unsympathetic man.

Quotes:

He looked like the saddest fantasy she had ever had of the worst that might have become of him, except that he was breathing, an sweating, and a little tense under her touch.

His eyes were still reddened, and the flesh of his face looked a little like wax, or like clay, creasing deeply when he smiled. If she had not know him, she’d have thought, wistful and unsavory.

Were I given an opportunity to meet Ms. Robinson, I would steer the conversation away from religion and towards her upbringing and her writer’s workshops where I’m sure she’d have a plethora of tales to share.

My rating for Home is a 7 out of 10.

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Next up, Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge

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The Trial by Franz Kafka

While not a lengthy novel, it nonetheless took me quite some time to get through The Trial, feeling confused and disoriented, much like the protagonist questioning what was real and what was not.

Purportedly an homage to Dostoyevsky’s works, Kafka ensnares the reader into Josef K’s living nightmare in which he is being prosecuted for an unnamed crime by an unknown authority.

Referred to simply as K., Josef K. is a 30-year-old banker arrested on his birthday with no specific charges and told to report to the court with no specific time or location. His ordeal leads him to several enigmatic characters hoping for clarity, only to find himself falling further down the proverbial rabbit hole.

Dr. Huld, a lawyer recommended by K.’s uncle serves only to discombobulate and further confuse the situation while offering little to no professional advice.

Leni, caregiver to the bedridden Huld seduces K. and appears to have some knowledge of the obscure charges. Unbeknownst to K., Leni has an unusual attraction to men charged with these ambiguous legal accusations and can truly offer no guidance.

Quotes:

Despite this affirmation the painter summed it all up once more, as if he wanted to give K. something to console him on his way home. “Both have in common that they prevent the defendant being convicted,” he said. “But they also prevent his being properly acquitted.” said K. quietly, as if ashamed to acknowledge it.

As his eyesight failed, K. saw the two gentlemen cheek by cheek, close in front of his face, watching the result. “Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him.

I’d probably open my conversation with Mr. Kafka around his idol, Dostoyevsky, to put us both at ease and then discuss his writing processes. Since many of his female characters in The Trial were portrayed as sexual beings rather than women, I’d have to try to educate him on the relevance of equality.

My rating for The Trial is a 9 out of 10.

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Next up, Marilynne Robinson’s Home…

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Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

A young disillusioned WWII veteran returns to his family’s home in Tennessee, only to find it abandoned. With no plan for his future, he decides not to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps as a preacher and heads to Taulkinham to do some preaching of his own.

Hazel creates his own church: the Church without Christ. It is a church where “the deaf don’t hear, the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, the dumb don’t talk, and the dead stay that way.”

Hazel Motes is battling demons; demons from the war, demons from his Christian upbringing, and demons from his current situation. He does not fare much better in his return than he evidently fared in the war.

An unlikely ally, Enoch Emery believes he possesses wise blood that provides inborn knowledge to guide him through all of life’s quandaries. His wise blood directs him to help Motes by stealing a mummy from the zoo where he works.

A blind preacher/con man, Asa Hawks and his promiscuous 15-year-old daughter, Sabbath Lily taunt Motes who they believe is much more devout than his atheistic rantings would imply.

Quotes:

…but his eyes were what held her attention longest. Their settings were so deep that they seemed, to her, almost like passages leading somewhere and she leaned halfway across the space that separated the two seats, trying to see into them.

His black hat sat on his head with a careful, placed expression and his face had a fragile look as it if might have been broken and stuck together again, or like a gun no one knows is loaded.

…watching him with the kind of intensity that means something is going to happen no matter what is done to keep it from happening.

Not so sure I’d even want to meet with Ms. O’Connor after the recent allegations about her overt racism. Perhaps I’d first allow for some idle chatter regarding her writing process and then I’d have to get real and ask her where her hatred came from.

My (unbiased) rating for Wise Blood is a 9 out of 10.

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Next up, Franz Kafka’s The Trial

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The Diary of a Nobody by George & Weedon Grossmith

This was a welcome and pleasant surprise. I was drawn to this read after seeing an illustration from the book with the following caption; “He left the house, slamming the door after him, which nearly broke the fanlight; and I heard him fall over the scraper, which made me feel glad I hadn’t removed it.”

First presented in Punch magazine in 1888, it was later expanded to book form and published in 1892 where it was met with a tepid response.

It’s been said that ignorance is bliss, and in the case of diarist Charles Pooter, that is quite the understatement. Always just inches away from his latest catastrophe, he somehow manages to escape (somewhat) unscathed and most often with little awareness of the potential harm he has eluded.

Ne’er-do-well son Willie is his father’s antithesis, although so self-absorbed, he sometimes fails to see what is staring him right in the face. He puts on performances for his family and their neighbors with friends from his theater group that seem to bring more joy to the performers than its audience.

I’d love to meet the Grossmith brothers and would probably love to see them perform, rather than sitting down and chatting, but I’d attempt to get some insight into their sheer hilarity, both onstage and in writing.

My rating for The Diary of a Nobody is a 9 out of 10.

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Next up, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood

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Like Life by Lorrie Moore

Like LifeLike Life is comprised of eight short stories, all that left me with lingering images of isolation.  Ms. Moore captures the involuntary solitude of several of her interesting characters.

In Two Boys, Mary is conflicted over the two men in her life.  Boy Number one is married and obviously not as committed to Mary as she to him.  Boy Number two is caring and supportive, but financially unsound.  And just who is that little scamp who spits at and torments Mary???

You’re Ugly Too presents Zoe Hendricks, a troubled history professor from Illinois who travels to New York to visit her sister and attend her Halloween party.  Zoe’s introduction to Earl reveals some of the troubles she has alluded to her sister and leaves the man rather rattled.

Quotes:

Harry would leave the movie theater feeling miserable, stepping out into the daylight like a criminal, shoulders bent into coat-hanger angles, in his body the sick heat of hangover, his jacket rumpled as a sheet.

She was almost pretty, but her face showed the strain and ambition of always having been close but not quite.  There was too much effort with the eyeliner, and her earrings, worn no doubt for the drama her features lacked, were a little frightening, jutting out from the side of her head like antennae.

This is what she’d become :  a woman alone at the movies with everything in a Baggie.

After reading a recent New Yorker story by Ms. Moore, I’m not quite sure how I’d approach her.  Take for instance, the following excerpt from said story…

So sue me: I sometimes find President Trump’s voice reassuring. Not what he says. Not the actual words (although once in a while one of his “incredibles” reaches inside my chest cavity and magically calms the tachycardia). 

Read the entire story and you’ll see it was the headline/1st line that grabbed me and lured me in to the entire tale woven so neatly.  Perhaps I’d just let her do all the talking…

My rating for Like Life is an 8 out of 10.

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Next up, George & Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a NobodyThe Diary of a Nobody

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The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the BaskervillesI don’t recall who gifted this book to me, but I am truly more grateful now than I was the day I received it.  Presented as it was in The Strand along with illustrations gave me an image of readers past who, no doubt, would anxiously await each installment as viewers of today await the latest episode of a TV series (or binge it!).

A feeling of deja vu was with me through the entire read.  Could I have read this in the past or viewed one of its film adaptions?  I really did not recall doing either, yet I felt I knew Holmes and Watson quite intimately.

Sherlock Holmes is visited by Dr. Mortimer after his friend, Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead, of either a heart attack or fright.  The legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles is well known in the moors of Devon where the Baskerville family is said to be cursed by a hound from hell.

Holmes eventually agrees to investigate what he believes must have a reasonable explanation.

The ever humble Watson does Holmes’ bidding with few questions asked.  It is clear he is in awe of Holmes as he tries to impress him with his own attempts at logic, yet always seems to fall just a tad short.  Just when he seems exasperated by his mentor, Holmes acknowledges his assistance and Watson feels redeemed.

Henry Baskerville arrives from America as the remaining Baskerville heir.  He is certainly out of his element and seems indecisive about believing the legend of the hound or relying on common sense.

The man with the butterfly net, Mr. Stapleton is encountered along the moor and seems quite comfortable in the outdoors, even with the howling and precarious ground.  He is not the man he pretends to be and his plan is revealed in the nick of time.

Somehow I believe I would not be, as expected, intimidated by Sir Doyle.  Rather, I would relish sitting in his company and observing him whilst he observed me.  In reality, I’m sure I’d stumble on my questions relative to his writing habits.

My rating for The Hound of the Baskervilles is a 10 out of 10.

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Next up, Lorrie Moore’s Like LifeLike Life

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