book review

Back to The Classics: Two Years Before The Mast

My parents taught me well to check if a book was abridged before reading it and reading an abridged version of Two Years Before The Mast was one of the few mistakes I made in that department as a young reader.  Even in the ridiculously cut-to-size adaptation I fell for, the story entranced me, took me worlds away from my ordinary life and even my usual imaginary worlds.

That’s one thing this classic sea story is: a full immersion in a lost world, the world of sailing ships.  It is still far from my typical reading fare but so interesting that, once I started, I picked it up every chance I got.  It’s the first hand account by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. of two years he spent as a sailor, to save his scholar’s eyesight.

Those two years involved huge physical risks, narrow escapes, storms at sea.   They involved mundane chores: scrubbing decks, mending and sewing, laundry.  Dana saw the pre-Gold Rush coast of California, visited the missions, observed a wedding there, a funeral.  We see through his eyes sailors’ dances, we hear the sailors’ songs and drawn-out calling of the ropes.  Of particular interest to me was the prized place of letters and books in the lives of men at sea.  Letters and newspapers were read and re-read.  Ships traded books when they met each other.  Dana reads aloud to his fellow sailors and during a particularly tedious time of high vigilance in icy seas recites memorized facts, Scriptures, and poetry to combat the oppressive boredom.

I was struck too by the function of the Sabbath in the largely secular lives of the sailors.  Dana speaks of the powerful boost to morale and renewed hope he gained during his first on-shore day of liberty, how critical such days of rest are to men living with routine deprivations, steady hard work, and, in this case, bad feelings between officers and crew after a traumatic outburst of injustice from the captain.  We get to see as well the customs of Catholics, at sea and in California, from an outsider’s perspective. Catholic ships take liturgical days of rest more seriously.  They arrange their sails for mourning on Good Friday of Holy Week.

I saw analogies between the sailors’ life answering to bells, seeing only a limited group of people for months at a time, and working together without being allowed to speak, to the lives of prisoners, and especially to the monastic life.

Dana’s two years off from school became a defining event in his life.  It is for those two years that interrupted his projected career and the book he wrote about them that we remember him today.  His book preserves for our national memory scenes and people and an entire way of life that would otherwise be forgotten.  It is worthy of its classic status.

 

Mrs. Aldertree

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3. Woman Author: Rumer Godden’s Battle Villa Fiorita

Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden My first Rumer Godden. A revelation. This book is staggeringly beautiful and true-- in its joy and deep melancholy.

One of  Godden’s great strengths is she doesn’t get in the way of a good story. Whenever I read a book by her I feel thrown into another world from the first page. The Battle of Villa Fiorita was no exception; I was transported to Italy. Finding myself in the middle of high drama was confusing at first. It was difficult to keep track of the characters and what was happening, but by chapter three (or four) I was well acquainted with the characters and a lot of the backstory. The result of this immersion was a fascinating read, a plot that moved forward and an interesting development of characters.

Villa Fiorita is a story about marriage and children, and yet it begins with divorce. Fanny has left her husband and their three children to be with her lover, Rob. The couple have fled to the Villa to begin their new life together. The Novel begins with two of Fanny’s children: Hugh (14) and Caddie (12), describing the Villa Fiorita.  I always find Godden’s portrayal of children to be refreshing and surprising. Godden gives them a certain amount of autonomy without making them simply little adults. Hugh and Caddie have sold their possessions, plotted their escape and  traveled to Italy on their own to fetch their mother. They are waging war against the couple. Later on, Pia, Rob’s daughter from his late wife, joins the battle with a fierce child-like independence.

We keenly feel Hugh’s and Caddie’s intrusion as they observe and are shocked by the intimate details of  their mother’s and her lover’s daily living habits. Godden is able to focus on the small details to show the depth of the problem of infidelity: their mother’s scarf, his driving gloves, his cigarettes by their bedside. Pia (a Catholic) is also appalled by the adult’s behavior. Her arrival ushers in ancient codes and the tension between Protestantism and Catholicism. In the novel children are at once the blessing and the safeguard of marriage.

The story is also a coming of age story for Hugh, Caddie and Pia. They are all faced with a loss of innocence; they must confront their own desires, their own sexuality. Divorce has prematurely thrown them into the adult world.

Godden successfully shows the absurdity of divorce while remaining sympathetic to the entangled characters. Regardless of Fanny’s wishes for remarriage, the marriage bond cannot be broken by mere desires; she knows that she and Rob are play acting.

This is not simply a cautionary tale, it is more a study than a lesson. Much like Henry James’ The Bostionans, Godden’s The Battle of Villa Fiorita is exploring  the most salient and peculiar point in it’s society, in this case – divorce.

Towards the end of the novel we know that her marriage will never be the same, even if reconciliation takes place; so much harm has already been done and it is the children who suffer and who heal. As I read on and the pages diminished I began to think that reaching a satisfying ending would be impossible, but as one review stated so perfectly: “The ending is unimaginable until it arrives, and then appears inevitable. Splendid.”

Another Godden novel to treasure and share.

 

1. 19th Century Classic Henry Esmond

Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray was the book I chose for the first category, the 19th century classic.  I read Vanity Fair more than a decade ago, for comps. I didn’t love it but I found much to appreciate. Re-reading Jane Eyre with my daughter last month, I was intrigued that Bronte dedicated the book to Thackeray.  I was further intrigued to discover that Thackeray’s personal favorite among his books was Henry Esmond.

What a different world Henry Esmond opens before us.  I’d just finished a much more recent historical novel, The Wild Swans by Bridget Boland, set in the same period, when I finally sat down with Thackeray’s book.  I was soon turning pages quickly. The book is set during the English Restoration, a historical period, that, except for the novel I’d just finished, was a complete blank for me.  Thackeray largely filled in that blank, with the complexities of politics, the atrocities, euphorias, treacheries, and absurdities of war, and the mirroring world of the day’s letters and literary men.  Into this world, Henry Esmond is born, with a stigma on his birth. In this world, he grows up, learns Latin from a Jesuit, is accepted into a family related to him, is educated at Oxford, goes into the military.  But the main interest of the story is the human relationships. The main drama is the drama of love. Though famously softer than Vanity Fair, Henry Esmond is not really more romantic. Rather we see the long term bearing that character has on destiny.  Framed as the narrative of an old man writing for his descendants an account of his younger days, a man who even as a boy was something of an “old soul,” its digressions have the quality of wisdom literature (a genre I love), and the whole can be described as “an intellectual reflection upon passion” — with a sudden reversal of the weaving at the end that shows all the knotted threads, the repeated stumbles, humblings, failures, all the colors that have been present all long in a completely different light — something satisfying and resplendent.

Wonderful bringing of history to life.  Timeless but jarring look at human relationships in all their often lacerated complexity.  I’m glad that this one didn’t pass me by.

Spot A Dog

Spot A Dog by Lucy Micklethwait is one of my favorite early readers. It’s an amazing book because it combines: early reading skills, famous art, the classic game of  I spy, and dogs! The text itself is simple but it is elevated by diverse pieces of art by various famous painters, the juxtaposition is perfect. Another interest is added by the hunt for man’s best friend. My children love looking for the dogs hidden in plain view, the search gives them a chance to rest from the labors of reading and it deepens their appreciation for art.  Little details and depth are slowly realized as they  search the paintings: a bee on a flower, a fly,  a sleeping cat, a dappled dog!  The domestic touch can be surprising.

-Mrs. Karl T. Cooper, Jr.

 

Tasha Tudor’s Garden

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Tasha Tudor’s Garden written by Tovah Martin, lavishly photographed by Richard W. Brown and featuring Tasha Tudor’s famous watercolors, is one beautiful book. The book is astonishing, you’ll feel transported to Tasha Tudor’s home and her garden.

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But what I found most endearing was it’s practical tone, for it’s more than a tour to dazzle the senses and leave you feeling an inadequate gardener indeed, it’s instructive. What’s her secret to those towering foxgloves?

Bernideen's Tea Time Blog: "OPEN HOUSE": Wintertime Means A Stack Of Garden Books

 Simple, manure tea.

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 This intimate and yet practical book will make you feel as if you have discovered the secret garden itself – but is that any surprise?

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-Mrs. Karl T. Cooper Jr.

Art Study Rubens: St. George and the Dragon

 

We Use Time Life Library of Art Books for our Art Studies:

These books are perfect for picture study, I love using them! Each term we study a new artist and I bring out a new art book for our studies. It’s nice to bring the books out one at a time, instead of having them always available, the change seems to spark more interest in the term’s artist. I only have one left at my etsy shop but they are also available on amazon

 

Quick Bedtime Stories For Toddlers

Here are some books I turn to when bedtime is running late. I enjoy reading them and they are always well received.

Pat the Bunny

Pat the bunny is such a classic. One that I did not grow up with and was happy to discover with my first toddler. It’s an Interactive book that maintains a certain simplicity and elegance. Children love it and it’s fun to read. My favorite page is the little book within a book.

Time For Bed

A sweet rhyming goodnight story. Peaceful and soporific. Jane Dyer’s illustrations are beautiful.

 

Little Donkey Close your eyes

Another rhyming goodnight story, this one is by the beloved Margaret Wise Brown. It is similar to Time for Bed in it’s lulling verse and tender illustrations. A cozy read.

Each Peach Pear Plum

Here’s another interactive book, it’s an eye spy in verse. The rhyming makes it easy to read out loud and children love finding the different fairy tale characters on each page.

Fierce Bad Rabbit

Beatrix Potter’s Fierce Bad Rabbit a concise cautionary tale of a very naughty rabbit a bedtime story for when brevity is key.

-Mrs. Karl T. Cooper, Jr.

A Bedtime Shadow Book

I stumbled across this book today at a local thrift store. When I opened it up I knew  I had found that perfect gift for my girls. I’ve never seen a book like it with its window illustrations designed to cast shadows on the wall as you read. I quickly bought it  along with some glow in the dark flashlights -Yes, glow in the dark flashlights!-The story line itself, although short, is rather sweet and among the light and shade you will find fireflies, a skunk, a night owl, a raccoon, a  girl and a cat.

-Mrs. Cooper