Sunday, June 05, 2011

Reading by Numbers


This is the second in a series of entries highlighting some of the books from my library based on the existence of a number in the title. Here are some of my favorite books with Two in the title. They include fiction, an historical memoir of two family members, and an adventure memoir of two years at sea.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

In Charles Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities, the beautiful Lucy Manette marries Charles Darnay, the descendant of an aristocratic French family denounced by the revolutionaries, among whom are the memorably evil fanatic Mme. Defarge. Lucy, as wife to Charles, is able to withstand the separation from him while he is imprisoned awaiting apparent doom buoyed by her love for him. In many respects Lucy remains a cypher, not unlike some of Dicken's other fictional women, perhaps in part because, unlike Esther Summerson in Bleak House, we never are allowed to share her thoughts. Fate and death intervene in the world created by Dickens with the express intent to mirror history. The novel succeeds in rendering the horrors of the French Revolution in brilliant fictional style.

At Swim Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill

This very Irish novel by Jamie O'Neill was a sometimes frustrating, but ultimately wonderful book to read. The combination of a luscious prose style and interesting love story combined to provide for an enjoyable experience for this reader. The main characters came alive over the course of this long novel. However, both the difficulties I had with the dialect and confusion over the events (not being that expert in Irish history of the World War I era) detracted from my overall enjoyment. At the heart of the novel is the love of two boys, Jim and Doyler, for each other and, for me, the particularly moving relationship of Jim with his father, Mr. Mack. I was at another disadvantage in my ignorance of Catholicism which also impeded my appreciation of the story.
Nonetheless the book captured me as I'm sure it has other readers, with the passion of the characters and use of language that was truly inspiring.

Two Adolescents by Alberto Moravia 

Moravia's novel is a portrayal of the sexual awakening of the thirteen-year-old title character of Agostino. In it we find disobedience and a disagreeable but perceptive story of a different crisis of adolescence. 
However, Two Adolescents is really a pair of novelettes, Agostino and Luca, each precise in the portrayal of different personalities and their coming of age. Moravia is well endowed with two qualities which do not often come together in equal proportions: he is both an extremely vigorous, sharply realistic storyteller and a shrewd, searching psychologist. Though written in colloquial and rather graceless prose, his work has a strongly distinctive individuality. It is this that makes the stories of these two boys so vivid. Sensitive and cloistered Agostino finds the shock of love difficult to bear, much less understand. His crisis leads to knowledge without the wisdom that, hopefully, will come with age. Luca is more sophisticated, his introspection and focus on thinking, again without achieving wisdom, leads him in a different direction, yet no less dangerous. The pairing of these two stories in a short novel provides an intriguing exposition of the difficulties of adolescence in an extreme setting. 

Two Years Before the Mast Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Richard Henry Dana tells the story of  his trip, subtitled "A Sailor's Life at Sea",  in the brig Pilgrim out of Boston in 1834.  Only 19 years old, the Harvard student signed on as a deck hand.  For the next two years he experienced a sailor's rugged life, traveling around Cape Horn, visiting Mexico's California territory a full 15 years before it became a U.S. state, and returning home in 1836. The Pilgrim was 'a swearing ship', in which the brutal and choleric Captain Thompson imposed his discipline by bad language, and the Sabbath, normally a kind of token rest day for the crew, was never observed, except by the black African cook reading his bible all day alone in his galley.  Apparently Captain Thompson was from the same mold as Herman Wouk's Captain Queeg.  
The everyday details of his journey are surprisingly vivid. On their first week at sea, they spot a pirate ship, and must outrun it on a moonless night. Dolphins follow the ship as it heads for Cape Horn. The Captain's patience is tried by a lazy first mate who refuses to watch for icebergs. And when a man falls overboard, the captain must assure the crew that a thorough search was conducted.  It is an exciting story made interesting by the well-educated young man who chose to go to sea as a shipmate 'before the mast' rather than a cabin passenger in the officers' quarters.

Two Lives: A Memoir  by Vikram Seth 

Two Lives: A Memoir is the story of the two lives of the title, but it is very much more and that is why I enjoyed reading it. First there is the story of Shanti Behari Seth, an immigrant from India who came to Berlin to study in the 1930s, and Helga Gerda Caro, the young German woman who became his wife. Secondly we have the introductory section (Part One) that introduces the author, Vikram Seth and his schooling in England (and later the United States) which precipitated his close relationship with Shanti, his grandfather's brother, and Helga. Thirdly the author leads the reader on a voyage of discovery of the background of Shanti and Helga and in doing so discusses some of the darker events of the twentieth century for they were survivors of that violent era. The combination of memoir, family reminiscence and history makes this a unique memoir. It is a welcome contribution to the literature of this era and the human drama that makes it memorable.

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