A Review: Far from The Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd (Penguin Classics)

Far From the Madding Crowd was an elaborate Victorian valentine of a book. Having only read Tess before this out of Hardy novels, I did not expect the gentleness and forgiveness that the characters in Far From the Madding Crowd find among their fellow human beings. But I certainly see in shadow here the more chiseled tragic lines of the later Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Three features of Hardy’s writing in Far From the Madding Crowd especially impressed me. The first is the agricultural, pastoral, and wild settings of the story, the weather in the woods. I used to read some books for this kind of thing alone. There was a time later when I had no use for it. In this first reading of Far From the Madding Crowd though these were possibly my favorite parts. I copied passages about sheep-shearing, about the oat harvest, about a lightning storm. In the opening pages, the cold, distant, anciently named and charted fires of the constellations enthralled me. Hardy venerates the antique customs that characterize and ennoble the works and days of country dwellers, even the mentally dense ones. The country setting must be the reason for the novel’s title. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the beauty of the countryside does nothing to cancel a jot or iota of human misery. But it is a constant tantalizing reminder of the earthly paradise so close in human vision, so absolutely remote from human fallenness. Here at least some of the characters live in a degree of harmony with nature, of philosophy and religious faith.

Hardy also gives rein to an unexpected spirit of playfulness in Far From the Madding Crowd. He draws little diagrams now and then which seem to be just for fun. The men in the taverns have amusingly ignorant conversations. A horse stops chewing and looks up while a man makes Bathsheba a passionate declaration of love. Even at moments most intense for the characters, Hardy will step back in the narrator with a cool or amused observation on their humanity.

And then there is what you could call the Gothic element, the melodrama. Certain plot elements are actually ridiculous but constantly redeemed by Hardy’s sly sense of the ridiculous. That sense of humor however doesn’t cancel out the chilling quality of some of the situations. In one chapter, there is a horrible “gurgoyle” in the church architecture that, though inanimate, behaves with spite and vengeance. There are other examples in the novel of a bad magic or imp of perversity at work. Not to mention a freaky (but very humanely portrayed) case of mental derangement.

I have to say something more about religion in the novel, after glancing at it above. You know that beautiful poem of Hardy’s “The Oxen.” In this novel, I get the same sense of complex respect for religious faith and even a hint of that child-like hope that “it might be so.” Even as he tears apart the religion of the establishment and the theological gymnastics of “simple people.” There is a recognition in the plot of prayer’s power to transform a moment of crisis. And the love story, of course, is redolent with Christian allegory (or at least allusion).

It may be that Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a better book than this one. It may be that this is a more real and generous book than Tess. It may also be that Hardy is better in poetry than in fiction. My juries are out on all those questions but I found Far from the Madding Crowd to be a special and thoroughly effective novel.

-Mrs. Aldertre

Back to The Classics Catch-Up

The end of the year is drawing near and I find myself rushing to finish my challenge. How many books do you have left?

Death Comes to the Archbishop By Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop (Vintage Classics)

I was anticipating a more plot driven novel but this is a beautiful episodic book; each chapter complete on it’s own and yet connected to the others. It is descriptive, nevertheless, the language remains sparse, sharp, and clear. I was struck by it’s almost cinematic clarity. It is a book of places, a portal to both the old and new world.

“He was overcome by a feeling of place.”

“Either a building is part of a place or it is not. Once that kinship is there, time will only make it stronger.”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a candid coming of age story. It follows Francie Nolan as she grows up in urban America.  Set in Brooklyn, this is another novel of place:

There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly . . . survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.

It is also about the power of the imagination and education. These life-changing gifts shoot up in ordinary places yet Betty Smith portrays an everyday sacredness to them a type of grace poured out:

“The library was a little old shabby place. Francie thought it was beautiful. The feeling she had about it was as good as the feeling she had about church. She pushed open the door and went in. She liked the combined smell of worn leather bindings, library past and freshly inked stamping pads better than she liked the smell of burning incense at high mass.”

The theme of a meritocracy is at the center of the novel as well:

“A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the bootstrap route has two choices. Having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for those he has left behind him in the cruel up climb.”

We watch Francie, like the tree, rise from the filth and toward the sun.  But we know it wasn’t through her own efforts. She is able to rise up through sacrifices, her grandmother’s, her mother’s, even by her alcoholic father’s love and her scandalous Aunt’s clever schemes. Yes, Francie Nolan grows and is able to overcome poverty but we are always reminded of her roots, her yard, her family, her city and the ordinary graces amongst the pain:

Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard.

Brooklyn was a dream. All the things that happened there just couldn’t happen. It was all dream stuff. Or was it all real and true and was it that she, Francie, was the dreamer?

. . . It meant that she belonged some place. She was a Brooklyn girl with a Brooklyn name and a Brooklyn accent. She didn’t want to change into a bit of this and a bit of that.”



An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde

An Ideal Husband (Dover Thrift Editions)

I love Oscar Wilde; his works are descriptive, funny, and plot- driven. An Ideal Husband is filled with Wilde’s eye for detail and oh, so quotable wit!

Lord Goring: I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about.
Lord Goring: To love oneself is the beginning of a life long romance.

Wilde’s plays are extremely entertaining in fact, the confusion which ensues in his plays are quite Shakespearean. But don’t let the charm and humor fool you, like Shakespeare Wilde has heavier themes at play. Themes of  honor, integrity,  corruption, sin and redemption.

“It is not the Perfect, but the imperfect, who have need of love.”


Lord Goring: Everything is dangerous, my dear fellow. If it wasn´t so, life wouldn´t be worth living.


Sooner or later we all have to pay for what we do.

An Ideal Husband is a short play (just 80 pages) but every page engaging. I was quickly whisked away into high society and impressed with how much of societies’ problems were divulged within simple conversations:

Lord Goring: “But no man should have a secret from his own wife. She invariably finds it out. Women have a wonderful instinct about things. They can discover everything except the obvious”

Mrs. Cheveley: “I suppose that when a man has once loved a woman, he will do anything for her, except continue to love her?”

Mrs. Chevely: “How you men stand up for each other!”
Lord Goring: “How you women wage war against each other!”

The play was a treat to read and especially interesting  to re-visit after reading his Fairy Tales last year*

*which are exquisite, perfectly sad and yet perfectly uplifting. They echo the gospels’ good news of redemption and everlasting life.

Mrs. Karl T. Cooper, Jr.


Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

This very long book took me a long time to read: I began toward the end of June and finished at the very end of August. There can be no other book like it, a multi-faceted whirlpool of history and personal reflections: on history, theology, friendship, love, marriage, tradition, beauty, food, textiles, the landscapes and peoples of what was then Yugoslavia. It’s complex, not to say complicated, and Rebecca West changes registers on the least twinkle of inspiration. 1150 pages and not one was boring. In fact, it was, at
the risk of sounding narcissistic, as unfailingly interesting as reading my own old notebooks. I think because of the extraordinary intimacy of the narration.

Here are some themes:


of Yugoslavia, of course. There are long passages devoted to specific events, persons, or epochs. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand early in the book. The life and fate of an assassin, as told to the author by his sister, an intimate portrait of them both. The Karageorgevitches, the Obrenovitches — dynasties of rulers. The battle of Kossovo. And many more.

The genius of Eastern Christianity

As a Roman Catholic, I was frustrated by West’s failure to see that there is in Western Christianity a different manifestation of the same genius. But what she sees in the East is really there and really splendid. Her comments on Orthodox art, architecture, and above all, liturgy — the spirit of the liturgy — are charged with the Christian mystery, as encountered by one apparently not religiously committed.


Rebecca West has been called a feminist. Everywhere she goes she notices the women and makes judgments and observations on the male-female dynamics, whether the women seem happy, whether their talents are exercised and valued, how they dress. It’s all fascinating and much of it far from the feminist orthodoxies of today. “A chalice filled with a rich draught of tradition”: she sees this as one of the best things a woman can be.


West has a wonderful insight into tradition and how inheriting a noble tradition (she mostly looks at the tradition of Byzantium as it survives in the Balkans, but also at strands of Jewish and Muslim tradition) can make a people who are materially poor rich
nevertheless, in a deeper way. Related to this is her sharp distinction between imperialism (she critiques empire but doesn’t absolutely condemn it) and nationalism (which she sees as deeply related to the fullness of human life). What she does condemn, absolutely, is Nazism and fascism. She doesn’t seem to see Communism as a serious threat or to take other people very seriously when they do (an error common in the historical moment).


All along the way, we get little glimpses into Rebecca West’s relationship with her husband who is travelling with her. They banter with each other, they extend small courtesies, they sympathize, they analyze their experiences and the people they travel with and meet on the way. Chief among their companions is Constantine, a poet, a government official, Serbian, Jewish, married to a German. When his wife Gerda joins the group for part of their travels, we get a portrait of a much less happy marriage — and a portrait of the blindness and evil afoot in Germany.


In many ways, the book is the story of Rebecca and her husband’s friendship with Constantine, which begins so brilliantly and ends with strain almost amounting to estrangement. Constantine himself is a man of contradictions, someone waiting perhaps to resolve into the paradox he is called to be.


Rebecca West is exquisitely attuned to the all the little paradoxes that make up the authentic texture of beauty. She finds the paradox in the ancient bridge, in the movements of water, in the wildflower. It’s one of the many things that kept me reading,
this series of gentle surprises, linguistic and aesthetic. And while she plays with these little paradoxes, she struggles with a great one. It’s only in the epilogue that she takes the leap and resolves it. I was afraid of how it was going to end as I turned those last pages. But I wasn’t disappointed!
My teeth chatter as I seek to wrap up this review. It’s as if, in writing all this about Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, I’ve revealed, somehow, more than I fully intended. I will end by saying that I loved this encounter with a lively mind (and breath, heart beat,
foot step) and I’m now eager to meet the same mind, the same person again, in her works of fiction.


-Mrs. Aldertree

The Power and The Glory

“The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of Christians.” – Tertullian

The Power and The Glory by Graham Greene is a must read. This is one of Greene’s “Catholic” novels (he disliked the term Catholic novelist). The book is set in Revolutionary Mexico; The government has outlawed Catholicism and rounded up and martyred priests, who must now celebrate Mass in secret.

The story follows a “Whiskey Priest” on the run. His pursuers think he is the last priest left in Mexico. The priest continues to serve his flock albeit imperfectly. He is often drunk and interiorly praying the authorities would finally catch him to end his misery. 

Greene has an unlikely and brilliant sense of humor; I found myself laughing as I read about this dark post-apocalyptic world.  It seemed to be an ingenious mixture of “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and Walker Percy’s “Love in The Ruins.”

Greene is at once accessible and insightful and avoids sentimentality when it comes to religion. Although it deals with death, martyrdom, damnation and salvation the book isn’t morbid or preachy. Green simply captures the internal struggle to avoid evil and do good, to love God and neighbor, to become a saint.

The Power and The Glory reminds us that we are called to work out our salvation in fear and trembling and yet we must also trust God to perfect our imperfect love. Near the novel’s end the priest reflects on his need for salvation: “It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful,”  The world, “needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.” The whiskey priest knows that he is the half-hearted and the corrupt. He is keenly aware of his habitual sins, his mortal sins (still unconfessed) and continually prays for salvation knowing he is undeserving. The empathy we feel for the Whiskey priest becomes a sign of hope for us. We too are half-hearted and corrupt. This empathy is what fills the plot with hope, and gives the end an uplifting tilt, despite the Post- Apocalyptic landscape.

Mrs. Karl T. Cooper, Jr.





How We Eat

A Quick Book Review for “How We Eat With Our Eyes and Think with our Stomach

I cook a lot. Everyday for a family of 7. Our grocery bill is long and expensive. I thought reading about the psychology of food might help me provide healthier options, curb their ferocious appetites, bring more joy and less drudgery to the daily chore . . . ahem . . . delight of feeding a family. It did help slightly in this regard. I learned: red plates can curb appetites, music can influence the way we taste our food, why we don’t always feel full when we are, and fun but useless trivia like who buys the most milkshakes and why. It was a quick and engaging read but not groundbreaking.

-Mrs. Karl T. Cooper, Jr.

Back to The Classics Novella: The Mountain Lion

The Mountain Lion By Jean Stafford:

The Mountain Lion

I don’t want to write a long review of this one.  I am counting it for my novella in the Back to the Classics challenge.  It is on the long side for a novella: 230 pages. I have a second-hand paperback that I picked up at a thrift store about four years ago.  If it hadn’t caught my eye, I doubt I would have heard of it. It languished on my shelf for quite awhile as it was. I was afraid of it. Much of my life, I’ve had a fear of animals.

Jean Stafford was a Catholic woman and this book was first published in 1947.  So, very much calculated to interest me when I brought the book home and looked more closely.  The pages of my copy are aged and mellowed to a honey.

The main characters of the book, Ralph and Molly Fawcett, brother and sister, also begin with a fear of animals.  That they are afraid of cows, but would never admit it, is one of the first things we learn about them. Molly never outgrows a deep, unreasoning fear of snakes.  They are afraid of horses but they face that and become skilled riders, acting on a desire deeper than fear. Then there is the mountain lion, shuddered at by Molly, loved and hunted by Ralph.

This was the best new book I have read all year.  At one point, there is an extended reflection by one of the characters on the color gold.  This book was gold, all the way through. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to stop and copy a sentence, a paragraph, but was too eager for the next one.

I’ve recently read Out Stealing Horses and Peace Like A River.  Books treating the spell of the American West, books with horses, guns, sibling relationships, and fathers.  All those thematic currents carried into The Mountain Lion. They were all good books. But this was the best of the three.

You will love, without pitying, the hating and hated Molly.  I didn’t even pity Ralph, even at end, but I hope you love him too.  The book is charged with the increasingly anguished and complicated love between the two of them.  Charged. It is tensely luminous, like a mountain lion.

-Mrs. Aldertree

More Early Chapter Books

My 9 yr old still needs lots of reading practice but she’s out grown the early readers. It’s hard to find engaging books at this level but here are a few more we’ve enjoyed reading together:

Diva and Flea by Mo Willems illustrated by Tony Diterlizzi

A funny little chapter book with great illustrations on every page. It has everything my 9 yr old loves in a book: cats, dogs, lovely illustrations, short chapters and easy to read type.

Cobble Street Cousins by Cynthia Rylant

These are a cute series they have nice illustrations on nearly every page and nice short chapters. They are quiet, innocent stories about the three cousins’ daily adventures.

Gooney Bird Greene by Lois Lowry

These are a funny series! They also had some themes on writing and poetry which my 9yr old liked since she loves to recite and read poems.

More Early Chapter books you might enjoy. 

-Mrs. Karl T. Cooper, Jr.


Giants In The Earth

Giants in the Earth
by O. E. Rolvaag

After finishing Kristin Lavransdatter, I knew I wanted to read Giants in the Earth from my challenge list next.  Like Kristin Lavransdatter, Giants in the Earth was originally written in Norwegian. The author, a Norwegian-American, worked closely with the translator.  It also turned out that Giants in the Earth, the first volume of a trilogy, is, like the individual volumes of the Kristin trilogy, not really a book that stands alone.

Giants in the Earth is about a family travelling West and settling in Minnesota after emigrating from Norway.  They are homesteaders, like the family in the Little House series. Readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder will recognize some of the landmark events that she describes: the long winter, the grasshopper plagues.  Like Laura and her family, Per and his neighbors twist straw to burn when other fuel gives out. Giants in the Earth doesn’t have the fascinating, layered detail of either the Little House books or Kristin Lavransdatter though.  Its style is much sparer, more impressionistic. And my impression of the pioneers’ task in this novel was that they had to more or less terraform their own planet, parts that had not been inhabited except by nomadic Indians. The soil is rich, the wheat grows like magic. But the prairie strikes back in unexpected ways. The author draws attention to the pioneers’ unanimous testimony that there was no animal, bird or insect life in the plains as they found them — until the spring mosquitoes appeared. In this blank slate of a world, with its sublime skies and sun effects, Per sees irresistible opportunity and his wife Beret sees a totally alien existence on the edge of an abyss.  The spare style reflects her deep experience of impoverishment.

Reading Giants in the Earth directly after Kristin Lavransdatter, the impoverishment was glaring.  Leaving an Old World culture to build society from scratch was not the only crisis that brought the Norwegian immigrants to their reduced state.  Between the world of Kristin and the world of Giants in the Earth, the Reformation made most of Sweden Lutheran, scouring the spiritual landscape of the people of its sacramental richness.  Toward the end of Rolvaag’s novel, a minister comes to establish a congregation in the young Norwegian-American community. We see him sweating over a spiritual responsibility that no man can take upon himself in his preparations for a Communion service.  When we were still going to a Presbyterian church, I remember watching the sweat roll down the temples of our Scandinavian minister as he said the words of institution over the unleavened bread, the juice. Reading Rolvaag, I was reminded of the mental anguish and spiritual travail I witnessed then.  The minister in his book has no small degree of human wisdom and compassion. On one level he is able to alleviate Beret’s desperate situation. But he leaves her in the grip of a spiritual confusion that eats inward and influences others around her. The book leaves her and her family in a poignant and unresolved state of crisis.

The lack of resolution at the end of the book makes it clear to me that Giants in the Earth is not meant to be read apart from the other two (much less published) books in the trilogy.  I am newly re-fascinated by the pioneer stories that absorbed me in childhood and Rolvaag writes compellingly so I doubt the year will pass before I seek out the later installments of his saga of the prairie. 

-Mrs. Aldertree

The House of The Seven Gables

So far, for my 2019 Back to The Classics Challenge, I’ve read House of The Seven Gables, The Power and The Glory and the first two Volumes of Kristin Lavransdatter. (I hope to finish The third volume this Feb.)

  1. 19th Century Classic:


I found The House of The Seven Gables By Nathaniel Hawthorne a hard book to get into. The language was rather dense and the plot slow moving. But Hawthorne pulled it together nicely in the end. I was pleasantly surprised by the quick clip the ending took-  it was gothic, romantic, and filled with symbolism. In the end it left me wanting to read “The Scarlet Letter.”

-Mrs. Karl T. Cooper, Jr.

Reader’s Notes

The Mistress of Husaby (Kristin Lavransdatter, #2)

I just finished the second volume of Kristin Lavransdatter and I’m having a hard time picking up the third. The first two volumes were absorbing, beautiful, and sad. Their wide sweeping action reminded me of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and I want to read on; to know more about these people, their lives, their souls, and yet I know the third one must be about endings so I leave my book on my nightstand for later.