Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Importance of Names

Song of SolomonSong of Solomon 
by Toni Morrison

"Milkman stood before his mirror and glanced, in the low light of the wall lamp, at his reflection. He was, as usual, unimpressed with what he saw. He had a fine enough face. Eyes women complimented him on, a firm jaw line, splendid teeth. Taken apart it looked all right. Even better than all right. But it lacked coherence, a coming together of the features into a total self. It was all very tentative, the way he looked, like a man peeping around a corner of someplace he is not supposed to be, trying to make up his mind whether to go forward or to turn back. The decision he made would be extremely important, but the way in which he made the decision would be careless, haphazard, and uninformed." (pp 69-70)

Song of Solomon is a brilliant synthesis of a mythic journey, family drama and story of origin. "When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you die." And the scribbled no-name "Macon Dead," given to a newly freed black man by a drunken Union Army officer, has stained out a family's real name for three generations, and then we meet the third "Macon Dead," called "Milkman."

This is his story, that of Macon "Milkman" Dead, heir to the richest black family in a Midwestern town, as he makes a voyage of rediscovery, travelling southwards geographically and inwards spiritually. In some respects, Milkman's story is a classic Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story about the moral and psychological development of the main character. However, Milkman is thirty-two when he finally comes of age, unlike traditional heroes and heroines of the Bildungsroman. In part, Milkman postpones his adulthood because he is comfortable as the pampered only son of an upper-middle-class family. But Milkman also resists the sense of connection and commitment to others that are required of adults. We see him thinking for himself -- questioning his place in the world:
"As the stars made themselves visible, Milkman tried to figure what was true and what part of what was true had anything to do with him." (p 75)

Through the enlightenment of this one man, his quest for identity, the novel recapitulates the history of slavery and liberation. The novel's epigraph reads, "The fathers may soar/ And the children may know their names." The importance of names and naming for Morrison's cast of characters, primarily Milkman's family, seems to exist in a name's ability to intimate or uncover hidden truths about personal identity. Morrison's use of the flight metaphor to bookend the story is brilliant as well. I found the story both entertaining and educational in the sense that I learned about a culture that was very different than my own. The differences were submerged beneath the similarities in relationships of family and friends that were like those of everyone everywhere.

View all my reviews

Friday, November 28, 2014

Brothers and Dysfunctional Relations

The Burgess BoysThe Burgess Boys 
by Elizabeth Strout

“In case you haven't noticed, people get hard-hearted against the people they hurt. Because they can't stand it. Literally. To think we did that to someone. I did that. So we think of all the reasons why it's okay we did whatever we did.”   ― Elizabeth Strout, The Burgess Boys

I have often read about dysfunctional families but this book provides one of the best examples I have encountered in some time. I previously read and enjoyed Elizabeth Strout's story-like novel, Olive Kitteridge. I enjoyed it in spite of the unlikable title character whose presence held the book together, for it was well-written and the vignettes that comprised the book were captivating.

In her follow-up novel, The Burgess Boys, Strout tells a tale of two squabbling brothers who confront their demons, their crumbling love lives and a hate crime case that thrusts them back to their Maine roots. The titular boys of this story are Jim and Bob Burgess who seem to be similar in appearance; both are lawyers who have moved to New York to escape the Maine of their childhood. But under the surface they have very different personalities. Jim is a high-stress trial attorney who’s quick with a cruel rejoinder designed to put people in their place (especially his brother Bob), while Bob has been divorced and works for Legal Aid and can’t shake the guilt of killing his dad in a freak accident as a child.

The two are recalled to Maine when their sister’s son is apprehended for throwing a pig’s head into a mosque. This leads the story into a very contemporary culture-conflict between the local townspeople and a large and growing Somali minority who have recently moved into Maine. One of the supporting characters is a Somali cafe owner who is baffled by the arrogance, racism and cruelty of some of the locals. This aspect of the story serves primarily as a catalyst for growing turmoil in the domestic affairs of the Burgess Boys and their sister. The changes in their dysfunctional relationships provide the main action of the novel. It is how you read and interpret these changes that will likely determine your reaction to the novel. Jim and his wife have difficulties that, while interesting, do not depend on the crisis in Maine. Likewise, Jim and Bob's sister, Susan, had difficulties with her husband (he had left her before the events in the novel happened) and a resulting rough relationship with her son even before the incident in the Mosque. Nonetheless the story hangs together fairly well and is bolstered by Strout’s writing which is undeniably graceful and observant. She surely captures the frenetic pace of New York and relative sluggishness of Maine. But her character arrangements often feel contrived, archetypal and predestined; Jim’s in particular becomes a clichéd symbol of an over-inflated ego.

This is a novel that reminded me of the sort of story that you saw in the headlines of yesterday's newspaper, except it is not done as well as Tom Wolfe, for example in Bonfire of the Vanities or his other superb novels. That is not to suggest that Elizabeth Strout does not write with an elegant style and is able to craft an interesting novel of domestic relations.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Voyage to Remember

On this day in 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, which immediately sold out its initial print run. By 1872, the book had run through six editions, and it became one of the most influential books of modern times.

"How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! and consequently how poor will his products be, compared with those accumulated by nature during whole geological periods. Can we wonder, then, that nature’s productions should be far “truer” in character than man’s productions; that they should be infinitely better adapted to the most complex conditions of life, and should plainly bear the stamp of far higher workmanship?"
--from On the Origin of Species

One of the most influential books published in the nineteenth century, Darwin’s The Origin of Species is also that most unusual phenomenon, an altogether readable discussion of a scientific subject. On its appearance in 1859 it was immediately recognized by enthusiasts and detractors alike as a work of the greatest importance: its revolutionary theory of evolution by means of natural selection provoked a furious reaction that continues to this day. The Origin of Species is here published together with Darwin’s earlier Voyage of the ‘Beagle.’ This 1839 account of the journeys to South America and the Pacific islands that first put Darwin on the track of his remarkable theories derives an added charm from his vivid description of his travels in exotic places and his eye for the piquant detail. This Everyman's Library edition has an introduction by Richard Dawkins.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Top Ten Books On My Winter TBR

Top Ten Tuesday is sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish.  
The following are books that I am planning on reading for the next few months.  There may be others that add to or supplant some on this list.

1. The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout:  This is for our Thursday Night Book Group.  We read and enjoyed Olive Kittredge and this looks to be a good read also.

2. Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke:  This is a reread of this classic.  Our monthly SF Group selected this for December. 

3. Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges:  This is a great biography of one of the pioneers of the modern computer and more.

4. Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars:  A comic cross between Celine and Beckett, this is an expressionist masterpiece.

5. Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy: Iwill be reading a selection of his (long) short stories in January alongside the next item on the list.

6. The Short Fiction of Thomas Mann:  I plan to read and reread some of Mann's great short fiction like Tristan, Tonio Kroger, and other tales.

7. Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett:  This is a recent (2011) biography from an author who has just released a new translation of Anna Karenina.

8. The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes:  This presents the history of science in the Romantic age from Captain Cook to the first voyage of Charles Darwin.

9. The Infatuations by Javier Marias:  I have read his The Man of Feeling and look forward to returning to this great Spanish author.

10. Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard:  Described as "A searing portrayal of Vienna's bourgeosie";  I expect this to be as good as Wittgenstein's Nephew.

Some other tbr books that are not in the top ten include:  The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa;  Complexity and the Arrow of of Time edited by Charles H. Lineweaver, Paul C. W. Davies and Michael Ruse;  Breath: A Novel by Tim Winton;  and, Talking to Ourselves by Andres Neuman.


Dark Future Visions 

“As Hegel put it, only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva begin its flight. Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.” 
― Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections

Cormac McCarthy’s tenth novel, The Road, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007 and was hailed as the ‘the first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation’. It is the story of a father and son walking alone through the ravaged landscape of a burned America to the coast.

The Road is many things, it is brilliantly-written, poetic, compelling and terrible in its beauty, but there is one thing that it certainly is not, and that is a fun read. It is, in fact, heart-breaking; playing strongly on the reader’s basic human instinct to protect their young at all costs and the father’s sense of desperation, dread and isolation are almost palpable.
The book is relentlessly bleak but it is also about love and as such utterly compelling and peculiarly life-affirming. I found it to be a both inspirational and cautionary tale and rarely have I experienced such a gamut of emotions whilst reading.

At just nigh of 200 pages it is a no more than a novella by today's standards, but this is due to McCarthy’s sparse prose, where he wastes not a single word and achieves more – and says more – than ninety nine per cent of books four or five time the size.  I highly recommend The Road;  it is one of the finest books of the last century.

The Road is a recent example of a genre with a long history.  Dystopian visions can be traced back to the twentieth century with examples like "Harrison Bergeron", a satirical, dystopian science fiction short story written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.  A more famous dystopia from the first half of the century can be found in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.  Huxley's classic prophetic novel describes the socialized horrors of a futuristic utopia devoid of individual freedom.  Whether the dystopia is a claustrophobic individual vision like "The Metamorphosis" of Kafka or a future world that has been turned upside-down like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, dystopian visions often present a dark future for humankind.

One exception to the bleakness of the post-apocalyptic future is presented in The Dog Stars by Peter Heller.  In his dystopic vision you are left with the hope for a possibility of a better future.  An even slimmer glimmer of hope may be found at the end of Margaret Atwood's distinctive dystopic novel, Oryx and Crake.  I have not yet read the conclusion of the trilogy for which this is the first part, so I may find by the end that glimmer of hope no longer exists.  Whether dystopias bode for a perpetually dark future or one that leaves room for some hope they present imaginative visions that I find both tremendously tantalizing and endlessly fascinating.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  Harper Perennial, 1998 (1932).
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller.  Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.
Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin, trans. by Harry Zohn.  Schocken Books, 1969 (1950).
The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along: Week 10, Book Review

The following review represents the final commentary for the Jane Eyre read – along hosted by Maria at A Night's Dream of Books and Brian at Babbling Books.  I would like to thank Maria and Brian   for their questions and contributions.  The insights provided in the weekly discussion questions enriched my experience in rereading this great novel.

Jane Eyre 
by Charlotte Brontë

“I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”  ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

This novel continues to be one of my lifetime favorites. I have read it several times before, but this is the first time in the new century.  Many people have commented on reading this novel;  almost one hundred years ago Virginia Woolf wrote about an exhilaration she felt (a feeling which I share) of reading the opening scenes of the novel:
"There is nothing there more perishable than the moor itself, or more subject to the sway of fashion than the "long and lamentable blast."  Nor is this exhilaration short-lived.  It rushes us through the entire volume, without giving us time to think, without letting us lift our eyes from the page.  So intense is our absorption that if some one moves in the room the movement seems to take place not there but up in Yorkshire.  The writer has us by the hand, forces us along her road, makes us see what she sees, never leaves us for a moment or allows us to forget her.  At the end we are steeped through and through with the genius, the vehemence, the indignation of Charlotte Bronte." (Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, p 160)

Charlotte  submitted Jane Eyre for publication in 1846. It was rejected five times, and then she sent it to Smith, Elder, and Co., her eventual publishers. She sent it with a note that said: "It is better in future to address Mr. Currer Bell, under cover to Miss Brontë, Haworth, Bradford, Yorkshire, as there is a risk of letters otherwise directed not reaching me at present."  They agreed to publish it, and it became a huge success, and, a little more than a century later it became one of my earliest favorites, a novel that I would read and reread my whole life.  I am not sure what my original fascination was although the mystery and sinister nature of the boarding school Jane attended was riveting, and later Thornfield Hall depicted a different world.
 The story told by Jane begins as one of her suffering, first under Mrs. Reed who treats her poorly and then at Lowood the boarding school she is sent to.  Yet,  from the beginning Jane develops a strong character and excels in her studies.  She develops friendships with her classmate Helen Burns and her teacher Miss Temple.  Throughout the opening chapters I was impressed with Jane's strength of will, her love of reading, and her attention to her readers.  For as she narrates the story she frequently pauses to share a thought with her dear readers.

This novel has all the aspects of the traditional bildungsroman and that is one of the reasons I enjoyed reading it.  Jane eventually takes position as governess and it is at this point that the novel develops into a Romance for she finds a job working for Mr. Rochester teaching a young French girl, Adele Varens,  at Thornfield Hall. As Jane teaches there a while, she falls in love with Mr. Rochester, and he falls in love with her. Needless to say there are several more changes in her life as she learns of secrets from Mr. Rochester's past and encounters aspects of her own past that impact her in unexpected ways.  The story seems to be one where Jane's fate is unfolding before her and her reader's eyes, but it never grows old as Charlotte Bronte's tale seems to inhabit my being more closely than most others.  This reading impressed upon me the important use of symbols such as colors and the weather that underlined the emotional life of Jane.  From the early example of the "red room" or the continuing motif of rain, these symbols enhance the vividness of the story.  Perhaps it is the complexity of a story that starts out to be a simple romance and expands into a Gothic mystery;  it is surely magical as Charlotte Bronte is able to combine this story of the growth of a young girl with a love story that has Gothic overtones.  Ultimately it is a triumph for the individual will of our young governess-heroine, Jane Eyre.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Flying Dreamer

The Dog StarsThe Dog Stars 
by Peter Heller

“Funny how you can live your whole life waiting and not know it... Waiting for your real life to begin. Maybe the most real thing the end. To realize when it's too late. I know now that I loved him more than anything on earth or off of it.”  ― Peter Heller, The Dog Stars

Flying in an old Cessna with his dog provides consolation for Hig the narrator of this engaging story of a not too distant future time on an Earth that is slowly dying. Hig has already lost his wife, his friends, and is marooned at a small abandoned airport in Colorado with his dog Jasper and his partner and friend (perhaps) Bangley. He relates, "I took up flying with the sense of coming to something I had been meant to do all my life."

Hig introduces himself as a flying dreamer. He compares the state of the world to that described in the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament: "deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is none to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies. (Lamentations 1:1-2)

Somewhat reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the catastrophe that has turned the world into its cataclysmic state remains unnamed, but it involves “The Blood,” a highly virulent and contagious disease that has drastically reduced the population and has turned most of the remaining survivors into grim hangers-on, fiercely protective of their limited territory. Hig periodically takes his 1956 Cessna out to survey the harsh and formidable landscape. While on rare occasions he spots a few Mennonites, fear of “The Blood” generally keeps people at more than arm’s length. Hig has established a defensive perimeter by a large berm, competently guarded by Bangley, a terrifying friend but exactly the kind of guy you want on your side, since he can spot intruders from hundreds of yards away, and he has plenty of firepower to defend you.

Hig dreams of the loss of his wife, Melissa, but the one thing that keeps him persevering is the companionship of his dog. One morning, however, Jasper does not wake up. His death during the night affects Hig more than anything since the passing of his wife -- he cannot function for three days: "It is the third day. At daybreak I shift, feel him in the quilt and have forgotten and then a moment where I remember and still expect him to stir. . . And then I sob. Sob and sob. And rouse myself and carry him in the quilt curled, carry him just under the trees and begin to dig." (p 112)

During one of his flights Hig hears a voice on the radio coming from Grand Junction. Haunted by thoughts of what the voice may mean he takes off one day in search of fellow survivors. He flies alone and notes how "normal the absences" of life and sound are. He eventually lands at Grand Junction and comes across Pops and Cima, a father and daughter who are barely eking out a living off the land by gardening and tending a few emaciated sheep. Like Bangley, Pops is laconic and doesn't yield much, but Hig understandably finds himself attracted to Cima, the only woman for hundreds of miles and a replacement for the ache Hig feels in having lost his pregnant wife, Melissa, years before. He notes that it is "funny how you can live a whole life waiting and not know it." (p 215)Perhaps there is a possibility of a new life. Perhaps not: “Life and death lived inside each other. That's what occurred to me. Death was inside all of us, waiting for warmer nights, a compromised system, a beetle, as in the now dying black timber on the mountains.”

Peter Heller's narrator intersperses Beckett-like dialogue with brief yet elegant descriptions of the land, his dreams, and his melancholy longing for a warming world that is dying around him. The dystopic scenery yields to Hig's generally positive attitude once he has recovered, as much as anyone can, from his losses. I enjoyed the novel's unique mix of realistic life in a bleak apocalyptic world while experiencing the leavening effect of nostalgia for love lost and a spirit that will not be denied.

View all my reviews

Poem for Today

When Will I Be Home? 

by Li Shang Yin

When Will I Be Home?

When will I be home? I don't know.
In the mountains, in the rainy night,
The autumn lake is flooded.
Someday we will be back together again.
We will sit in the candlelight by the west window,
And I will tell you how I remembered you
Tonight on the stormy mountain.

translated from the Chinese by Kenneth Rexroth and published in One Hundred Poems from the Chinese.  New Directions, 1970.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Jane Eyre Read-along: Week 9

Welcome to the ninth week of 
the 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along,
brought to you by

Introduction:  "Jane! Jane! Jane!"

In this weeks reading Jane has been living for some time with her cousins, St. John Rivers, Mary and Diana.  One night shortly after going to bed she has a feeling that startles her and hears a voice:

"The feeling was not like an electric shock, but was quite as  sharp, as strange, as startling:  it acted on my senses as if their utmost activity hitherto had been but torpor . . .
I heard a voice somewhere cry --
'Jane!  Jane!  Jane!'  -- nothing more"

This Week's Discussion Questions for 
Chapters 34 - 38
(Questions Provided by

1.) The marriage that St. John Rivers proposes to Jane would be unconventional from an emotional point of view. What do you think about this hypothetical match? 

I agree with Jane that it is not reasonable because St John is proposing it for the wrong reasons.  Rather than professing his love he merely feels that a woman working with him as a missionary who was not married to him would create to great a stigma.  While Jane desires to help him she realizes that marriage is out of the question.

2.) In what ways are St. John Rivers and Rochester alike?
I see in both men a hard resolve to act in certain ways that represent a will that refuses to compromise or even consider alternative views.  In Rochester's case this is more understandable, but I am surprised that St. John Rivers' faith allows him to be so uncritical when reviewing his own attitudes. 

3.) Is it surprising that someone with the strength of character that Jane possesses would be so influenced by St. John Rivers as to almost accede to his marriage proposal?

Yes, it was surprising to me.  In spite of a strong will that she had demonstrated almost from the beginning of the story she almost acceded.  Not only that,  she had such a long battle within herself over his proposal.  After the second time she turned him down I expected that she would put it behind her.  I found this one of only a very few aspects of the story that disappointed me a bit.

4.) What do you think of the seemingly psychic connection that manifests itself between Jane and Rochester at a critical moment in the plot?

I think this is part of the magic that happens when two people have a true connection with each other based on love.  They may try to deny their feelings and turn away for a time, as Jane did in running off and almost starving to death;  but eventually they come together.

5.) What do you think would have happened if, upon her return to Rochester, Jane had found Rochester's first wife, Bertha, to be still alive?

I think that Jane would not have agreed to Rochester's original proposal.  However I imagine she might have worked with Rochester to find a way around the existence of Bertha as an impediment to their marriage.

6.) By the end of the novel, how has Rochester changed? 

The most important change is his realization, shared by Jane, that he can live a better life through the fulfillment of loving and living for another person.  I think that in doing this he has overcome his spiritual blindness;  this happy event is underscored by the partial recovery of his physical sight.

7.) How satisfied are you with the ending of this novel?

The book is one I have read and reread with increasing enjoyment.  I admire Jane's character and enjoy the literary quality of Charlotte's creation.  Once again, I am as satisfied as Jane and Rochester are happy.  
They have become fulfilled with their life together and with a son who has inherited Rochester's brilliant black eyes.  The reward for Jane's perseverance and the redemption of Rochester are all one could ask for.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Two Families in Western Australia

by Tim Winton

"Summer came whirling out of the night and stuck fast.  One morning late in November everybody got up at Cloudstreet and saw the white heat washing in through the windows.  The wild oats and buffalo grass were brown and crisp.  The sky was the colour of kerosene.  The air was thin and volatile.  Smoke rolled along the tracks as men began the burn off on the embankment.  Birds cut singing down to a few necessary phrases, and beneath them in the streets, the tar began to bubble." (p 125)

This amazing novel chronicles the lives of two working class Australian families who come to live together at One Cloud Street, in a suburb of Perth, Western Australia, over a period of twenty years, from the nineteen forties to the sixties. Cloudstreet is above all an exploration and celebration of life and what it means, albeit from a very particular point of view. Every character undergoes a personal journey, some longer, harder and more greatly resisted than others, though a feature of all the characters' journeys is the realization of the importance of family and belonging within it. Within this exploration is a demonstration of the nature of the relationship between family and identity, in which an individual's role within their family is considered to be of paramount importance.

Within each of the two families the character of their members blend to provide a sort of family character. Early in the story the Pickles family moves to Cloud Street. As Rose Pickles walks through the dusty empty house she thinks:
"Cloud Street had a good sound to it. Well, depending on how you looked at it. And right now she preferred to think of the big win and not the losses she knew would probably come." (p 38)
As they settle into the large house at Cloud Street the differences between the families become apparent with one demonstrating a sort of free spirit (Rose's father likes to gamble) while the other is much more disciplined through hard work and saving. The Lambs find meaning in industry and in God’s grace; the Pickles, in luck. Each family seeks spiritual guidance in its own way while trying to forget the personal disaster that, in a way, began their journey.

The novel reflects a sense of nostalgia for a time with a greater sense of family and home. For some, like myself, the nostalgia bridged the gap between the strangeness of Western Australia and my own not dissimilar family background growing up in the fifties and sixties in a small Midwestern town. Some of the characters try to break free from the routine of this life. One of these, Rose Pickles,  was willing to break free from the expectations of her family. She was a likable character from her introduction in the story, in part because she was a reader.  But I knew she was my kind of person when she fell in love with one of my favorite novels:
"Rose Pickles read Jane Eyre and decided never to give it back to the public library.  She 
scraped and rubbed to remove all signs of ownership from it, but each morning she woke to see the stamp still bright on the endpapers: CITY OF PERTH.  In the end she cut it out, but it always grew back in her mind's eye.  She took it back and her old man paid the fine.  They cancelled her membership." (p 127)
Her family could not afford many books, not even great novels like Jane Eyre.  Rose, however, is a young woman who shares many character traits with Jane;  although stealing books is not one of them.  Later in the story Rose begins dating a journalist who quotes D. H. Lawrence.  However, he is a little too racy for her.  Another character who leaves the family and returns, Quick Lamb, recognizes his place is with the family while still striving for a better life.

I think the title of the novel, Cloudstreet, is a signal of what the story attempts to convey. Think of a cloud as a symbol of an ideal, something to strive toward, and you have an idea of how the lives of the members of the two families who settle at One Cloud Street come together and grow, both individually and as families. Cloudstreet also signals the importance of place which forms a foundation for the lives of these two families. The result is an impressive saga of mid-twentieth century life in Western Australia.

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Jane Eyre Read-along: Week 8

Welcome to the eighth week of 
the 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along,
brought to you by

Introduction:  "I liked to read what they liked to read:"

In this week's reading Jane is taken in by St. John Rivers and his sisters, Diana and Mary.  They nurse Jane back to health after her journey on which she comes near starvation.  These residents of Moor House, especially the sisters, seem to be a perfect match for our dear forlorn Jane:

"The more I knew of the inmates of Moor House, the better I liked them. . . . I could join with Diana and Mary in all their occupations;  converse with them as much as they wished . . . I liked to read what they liked to read:  what they enjoyed, delighted me;  what they approved I reverenced."

This Week's Discussion Questions  
for  Chapters 29 - 33

St. John Rivers makes the following very blunt statement about Jane, in Chapter 29: "Ill or well, she would always be plain. The grace and harmony of beauty are quite wanting in those features." What does this tell you about him, especially in light of subsequent chapters?

I believe he is being honest in his assessment of her features.  He has little reason not to be so and his knowledge of their relation has not yet developed.  One may suspect that he is predisposed to overlook the true inner beauty of Jane given his dedication to the ministry and his intention to become a missionary, especially considering his later ability to overcome his passion for Rosamund Oliver and reject her.

Do you think the fact that St. John and his sisters turn out to be Jane's cousins much too coincidental?

It certainly is coincidental, but I would not consider it too coincidental.  The nature of this novel almost requires coincidences.  I am not too concerned about this coincidence above others.

Why does Bronte give Jane three more cousins, and precisely two females and one male, as with her Gateshead cousins?

Well, speaking of coincidences, it makes it rather easy for sharing her inheritance between them equally while leaving each relatively generously provided for.  

Why do you think Jane tries to convince St. John to marry Rosamond, and give up his dream of becoming a missionary?

Perhaps this is the romantic side of Jane.  She has lost her own chance with the dashing Edward Rochester and this is a way for her to see someone she respects have a life like the one she lost.  I do not believe that she appreciates the sincerity of St.John's desire to become a missionary.  However, I also find this surprising because Jane seems to find some satisfaction in teaching and mentoring as a governess.

Do you think the fact that Jane is now an heiress something that seems too 'providential', and thus, not realistic and believable?

Again, more coincidences as the providential side of nature raises its benevolent hand.  A change resulting from her distant relative was hinted, if not foreshadowed, earlier in the story when she found out she had an Uncle of whom she was previously unaware.  That this connection should prove to change her life for the better is no more unbelievable than the cruelty of Mrs. Reed in the opening chapters of her story.  I do not read this novel as an example of realism, but rather as a Gothic Romance.

Bronte dedicates many pages to describing St. John's personality. Why do you think she does this? 

St. John is developed as a representative of reason providing an alternative to the irrational Bertha at Thornfield Hall.  While he is described as brooding he also demonstrates a "mental serenity" and "abstracted nature".  Jane is puzzled by his countenance, but I attribute that at least somewhat to her more romantic notions of life.  The contrast is greatest in St. John's evaluation of his feelings about Rosamund when he says, "I experience at the same time a calm, unwarped consciousness that she would not make me a good wife".   St. John's passion is devoted to helping people and in this he also provides a valuable model for Jane whose previous encounters with men (Brocklehurst and Rochester) have proven to be neither supportive nor worthwhile.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Jane Eyre Read-along: Week 7

Welcome to the seventh week of 
the 2014 Jane Eyre Read-Along,
brought to you by

Introduction:  "I forgave him all:  yet not in words,"

In this week's reading Rochester has betrayed Jane and wounded her to the core.  But he tries to make amends, to persuade her not to leave him and Thornfield Hall.  That is not to be, but he asks, "Will you forgive me?";  Then Jane shares her thoughts with her dear readers:

"Reader, I forgave him at the moment and on the spot.  There was such deep remorse in his eye, such true pity in his tone, such manly energy in his manner:  and besides, there was such unchanged love in his whole look and mien -- I forgave him all:  yet not in words, not outwardly:  only at my heart's core."

This Week's Discussion Questions
for  Chapters 24-28

At several points both Rochester and Jane refer to each other in terms of mythical creatures and magic. Why do you think that they do this?

The questions get harder to answer, in part because our two main characters are harder to decipher.  The use of mythology on Jane's part may stem from her imagination combined with an inability to relate directly to Rochester's situation.  Perhaps that is true of Rochester as well.  They are far apart in class and station, making Mrs. Fairfax's doubts about the match seem very realistic.  Yet, here we have two lovers--at least two proclaiming love for each other--who resort to imaginary beings as referents.  One result of this is the feeling that their relationship is unreal. Perhaps that is the author's intent.

In Chapter 24 when Rochester jokingly compares Jane to a Turkish slave girl Jane becomes indignant and replies sharply to him. Does this say anything about Jane’s personality and the relationship between the two?

For this reader it confirms my belief that Jane is a very strong-willed and independent young woman; albeit a woman who is filled with doubts that manifest in some tentative reactions.  But not here, not when she feels she is demeaned by Rochester's unseemly joking manner.  His inconstant behavior suggests he may have his own doubts about their relationship.  His bravado and joking manner may be his way of hiding his true feelings.

At one point, after gazing at the damaged horse-chestnut tree, Jane gathers apples in the garden and remarks “ I employed myself in dividing the ripe from the unripe” Do you think that there is any significance to this?

Jane seems to be trying to reassure herself that there is something good (ripe) to preserve in her relationship, something on which she might focus.  In the previous paragraph she speaks to the damaged horse-chestnut tree saying,  "You did right to hold fast to each other . . . I think, scathed as you look, there must be a little sense of life in you yet, rising out of that adhesion at the faithful honest roots . . . the time of pleasure and love is over with you:  but you are not desolate: each of you have a comrade to sympathise with him in his decay." Is love and pleasure over for her and Rochester or is this a premonition, reinforced by her dreams (see next question)?

In chapter 25 Jane relates to Rochester several of her dreams. What do you make of them?

In one dream she saw a "dark and gusty night" and while wishing to continue with Rochester, "experienced a strange, regretful consciousness of some barrier dividing us."  As if this is not ominous enough she continues, "I dreamt another dream sir: that Thornfield Hall was a dreary ruin".
These dreams, following the episode in the garden seem to surely foreshadow the events of the Wedding interrupted in the following chapter.  It seems that in spite of Rochester's professions of love and offering his hand in marriage that Jane's world is coming apart, and has been ever since the ominous rending of the great tree at the end of Chapter Twenty-three.

Rochester is revealed to have perpetrated a major deception upon Jane in regards to his first marriage. What does this say about Rochester?

If there were any doubts that Rochester was not to be trusted they have been shattered by this episode.  It is difficult to fathom what he was thinking when he proposed to Jane, knowing that his previous marriage was a possible impediment even though he seems to feel this can somehow be overcome.  He said it best when he told Jane "you must regard me a plotting profligate -- a base and low rake".  Indeed!

What do you think of Jane’s decision to flee from Rochester?

I believe she feels that she has no choice.  She is fleeing from Thornfield and everything that Rochester represents.  The one person in whom she had placed her hope had deceived her and left her life in a shambles.  The question is will she be able to recover from this terrible episode.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Running Haiku

Lincoln Park
 in November

It has been a while since I was out for a Sunday morning run, and even longer since my run inspired a new Haiku.  I hope you enjoy this impression from my November run in Lincoln Park.


Color everywhere 
Abounds, covering the ground
Now hushing my sound

From "The Kingdom of Music",  2014
James Henderson