The Cove by Ron Rash

The path slanted downward and the shadows deepened. She felt like she was wading into dark water, with little in the gloaming to anchor her to the world. Then she heard the flute, faint and far off, a sound she’d followed up the creek to its source three months ago…Follow it a while longer, Laurel told herself.

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In Ron Rash’s The Cove, Laurel Shelton has lived in the cove outside of Mars Hill, North Carolina her entire life. After her parents died and her brother Hank was conscripted to Europe during World War I, she lived there by herself. Now, though, Hank has come back from the war with only one hand but a diligence to make things good. It’s at this time that a stranger makes his way into their lives.

Rash expertly combines the beauty of the cove with its darkness and Laurel’s intense fear of loneliness. The loneliness is intensified by the fact that the people of Mars Hill superstitiously consider the cove to be filled with evil spirits and are afraid Laurel is a witch.

At the cove’s entrance, a tree has colored glass, bottles and cans hanging from it – an attempt to ward off these evil spirits or at least keep them inside the cove. The occasional mention of this tree reminds me that the plot of this story is not a new plot. It reminds me that human beings continue to fear that which they don’t understand or that which is different from themselves. They also continue to judge an entire group of people for the actions of a few.

The novel begins with a prologue set forty years after the events of the story. A human skull is found in an old well in the cove. Underlying the entire novel is the question to whom does the skull belong. It provides a wonderful mystery to the entire story.

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I enjoyed this novel and am now reading Rash’s collection of short stories Something Rich and Strange. I’m enjoying his short stories even more than the novel.

The Sun Also Rises

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

“Yes.” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

After reading Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises for the third time, I found that the ending still gets me. When it comes to romance, I’m a sucker for ambiguous less-than-happy endings. The unrequited passion between Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley encompasses all of the post-World War I disillusionment of the 1920’s – the war being the reason they are not together.

Reading it this time around, I was well aware of the personal nostalgia I feel for the novel. I read the novel when I was a sophomore in high school and while it was not the first Hemingway novel I read (that would be For Whom The Bell Tolls which I read the summer before tenth grade), it was the one that made me a solid fan of his writing. Up until tenth grade, I was mostly a science fiction and fantasy reader (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) but reading Hemingway, and The Sun Also Rises specifically, was the first time I realized there could be something more than plot that intrigues me about a novel – such as simply how the author puts words together or what they say or don’t say.

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As well as noticing what I have always liked about the novel, certain things jumped out at me as “new”. In my previous readings, I didn’t realize how much humor Bill Gorton provides with his joking and sarcasm. His every line is a good chuckle. And then I stumble on this little lecture given by Bill to Jake. I didn’t remember it, either:

“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes.”

At the time of writing this, perhaps Hemingway didn’t include himself in the group of expatriates with whom he would become associated? Perhaps he found reason to criticize them with this little jab? Close to a century later, though, it’s almost as though he is lecturing himself through Bill Gorton – a small example of life imitating art.

I was prompted to read The Sun Also Rises again in preparation for reading Lesley M. M. Blume’s recent book Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Look for another post about it sometime in the near future.

 

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Up there in that part of the City – which is the part they came for – the right tune whistled in a doorway or lifting up from the circles and grooves of a record can change the weather. From freezing to hot to cool.

Coming in at 229 pages, Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz is not a long novel; however, it took me a long time to read it.

But was it ever worth the effort!

Initially set in New York City in 1926 during the Harlem Renaissance, Jazz begins with a noir feel when a young girl is murdered by her older lover and his wife disrupts the victim’s funeral.

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While Morrison moves the narration between various points of view and the setting from different time periods and locations, the City is always there as well as the new type of music that has old people fearful of the young kids that are jumping around to it.

It’s not difficult to figure out when a character is telling their part of the story.  But there is a mysterious “I” that seems to be a higher narrator controlling the other narrators as the other narrators tend to have their parts with quotation marks. Is this narrator God? A ghost? The author herself as Creator? The City? Jazz? I don’t know but I think this mystery has something to do with the creative process:

You would have thought everything had been forgiven the way they played. The clarinets had trouble because the brass was cut so fine, not lowdown the way they love to do it, but high and fine like a young girl singing by the side of a creek, passing the time, her ankles cold in the water. The young men with brass probably never saw such a girl, or such a creek, but they made her up that day.

After finishing the novel, I jumped around the internet to see what others thought about this unknown narrator. A few came up with an idea that they thought obvious. While I might disagree with the obvious part, they could be right. I don’t want to give it away to anyone who has not read the novel. I will say that this idea, in a manner of speaking, is related to the creative process. One has to read the novel to the very end to come up with this conclusion, though.

After reading Jazz, I’ve come to another conclusion. I’m not going to worry about how many books I read this year. I plan to read at least a few more of Morrison’s novels and if they are like this one, I will simply take my time.

I highly recommend this novel!

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God has been on my radar for a long time. In spite of it being on numerous “best” lists and outside of it having an African American female protagonist, I admit I didn’t know much about it. I didn’t know about it’s history, it being banned and even out of publication before being published again in 1978 (per Amazon.com).

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As I read it, I slowly realized that Hurston’s elegant narration combined with the  “dialect” of the characters’ conversations provided a beautiful friction to the entire story. At the beginning, the difference seems jarring; however, by the end, both styles morph into each other and provide a masterful way in which to tell the story of Janie Crawford.

In a nutshell, Janie works her way through three husbands to find the power she has within herself. All kinds of interesting characters weave themselves in and out of the story and tell stories themselves. While reading the novel, it was easy to think there was no definitive structure to the narrative. But when all was said and done, it took me by surprise that the novel was more or less a five act play. Acts 1 and 5 stood as bookends of Janie returning to Eatonville, Florida after marrying her third husband. Acts 2, 3 and 4 each centered around Janie’s husbands.

The theme of racism is buried in the story though the theme of sexism is much more prevelant. I love the way Hurston simply tells Janie’s story with real people and real situations and lets the effects of these evils play out without preaching or teaching.

In the form of a hurricane, Hurston makes the specific universal. The fact that this “act of God” wreaks havoc on everybody, male or female, black or white – nobody is special, nobody is better – pulls any reader into the human condition:

It is so easy to be hopeful in the day time when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands.

 

Watership Down

Rabbits do not name the stars, but nevertheless Hazel was familiar with the sight of Capella rising; and he watched it now until it stood gold and bright in the dark northeastern horizon to the right of the farm.

Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down is about rabbits. It’s about rabbits the way War and Peace is about Russia.

In spite of character names like Hazel, Strawberry, Dandelion, Bigwig and Blackberry, this novel does not suffer from a case of cuteness. In fact, it’s been on numerous banned book lists because of the violence in a story that appears to be aimed at children.

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In reading Adams’ introduction, he indicates that, while his intention was to have rabbits that would talk and think, he purposely didn’t make them do anything physically that actual wild rabbits couldn’t do. I have nothing against stories with anthropomorphic animals, but I found Adams careful attention to the natural details of rabbit life intriguing and they fit the purposes of his story remarkably well.

Adams uses nature as a major theme but not just as in the “natural” world although that plays an important role, too. The individual nature of the rabbits comes out loud and clear usually when they need to go against their nature. In the end, the rabbits discuss the evil General Woundwort as not being natural which results in his viciousness. At the same time, the rabbits on their journey to a new home find they need to react differently than they might be inclined to react. For example, when the rabbits are in a group as danger approaches, their instinct is to scatter. Hazel, the leader of the the group, has to come up with a way to keep them all together.

Adams emphasizes the rabbit’s bravery as they must move away from their natural instinct of fear in order to set up a new warren (home) on Watership Down. This concept of home becomes beautifully realized as Adams uses imagery of female rabbits with their young nestled well into the earth. This idea of safety, warmth, belonging all go hand in hand with Adam’s adventurous tale.

Throughout the travels, during times of rest, it was common for the rabbits to ask for a story from Dandelion and Dandelion usually gave them another tale of El-ahrairah, who might be considered a folk hero or perhaps even a religious figure to the rabbits. Of these stories, my favorite involved the Black Rabbit of Inle:

“Now, as you all know, the Black Rabbit of Inle is fear and everlasting darkness. He is a rabbit, but he is that cold, bad dream from which we can only entreat Lord Frith to save us today and tomorrow. When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit is not far off.”

The novel asks some interesting questions. Does setting up a community of freedom involve conquering fear or living with it? Does a totalitarian government begin with fear and end with attempts to extinquish it at all costs?

This story reminded me of a line from one of Bruce Springsteen’s more recent songs – “Fear can take a God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust”. The gods and devils in Watership Down turn out an awesome story.

 

 

 

 

The First Half of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Last Christmas I was a bride, with a heart overflowing with present bliss, and full of ardent hopes for the future – though not unmingled with foreboding fears. Now I am a wife: my bliss is sobered, but not destroyed; my hopes diminished, but not departed; my fears increased, but not yet thoroughly confirmed…

Usually when I post about a book half way through, it’s because it’s either exceptionally long (like War and Peace) or it’s taking exceptionally long for me to read it. The latter is the case with Anne Bronte’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

I confess I had not heard of Anne Bronte until I started reading her sisters’ novels. I have no idea whether she felt left out in the Bronte family but I didn’t want to do that a century and a half later.

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The first part of the novel is told in the form of letters from Gilbert Markham to a friend in which he describes his involvement with the mysterious Helen Graham, his neighbor and the novel’s title character.  Gilbert and Helen are both fascinating characters. Helen is the more intriguing simply because we know so little about her. We know she seems to have been hurt by someone and has a maturity beyond her years. The fact that she is making a living as an artist in a society where women didn’t make a living outside of marriage makes her even more interesting.

I also find Gilbert a great narrator as one who will defend Helen to the utmost without giving one iota about what his community thinks. Granted, it’s not difficult to determine that there are things about Helen of which Gilbert is not aware – nor is the reader. As the result of what I have the feeling is a huge misunderstanding, Helen finally gives Gilbert her diary to read.

That leads to the next part. Helen writes about her courtship and ultimate marriage to Arthur Huntingdon – a scoundrel that Helen is bent on changing. I don’t condone Arthur’s behavior by any means but the contrast between the Helen that Gilbert knows and the naive Helen that is married to Arthur is almost jarring.

At the halfway point of the novel, I think there is still more to be revealed about Arthur and Helen’s marriage and what circumstances might be responsible for the added maturity of the Helen that eventually moves into Wildfell Hall.

I’ll keep reading.

George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

I’ve enjoyed reading Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte and Louisa May Alcott this year but based on what I’ve read, in my humble opinion, the Nineteenth Century Female Author to beat all Nineteenth Century Female Authors is George Eliot. I felt this way after I read Silas Marner back in 2013 and immediately went out and bought The Mill on the Floss. I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to read it but I’m glad I finally did. I can’t wait this long to read more of Eliot’s work.

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From the beginning, Eliot’s own narration drew me into the story and I knew she wouldn’t disappoint:

Ah, my arms are really benumbed. I have been pressing my elbows on the arms of my chair, and dreaming that I was standing on the bridge in front of Dorlcote Mill, as it looked one February afternoon many years ago. Before I dozed off, I was going to tell you what Mr and Mrs Tulliver were talking about, as they sat by the bright fire in the left-hand parlour, on that very afternoon I have been dreaming of.

As I’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking about this novel since I finished it, the one thing I come up with as to why she is my favorite of the above mentioned authors is that her narrative and characters are so subtle and nuanced and yet she’s able to realistically surprise the reader by having characters respond in ways one wouldn’t have expected.

Like the heroines of the other authors, Eliot gives Maggie Tulliver an intelligence and strong will that pushes against and surprises her family and society, usually to their disappointment. Her brother Tom treats her in a less than noble manner while children but the reader (and Eliot herself, I believe) has to give a little admiration to Tom as he makes a tireless and ultimately successful endeavor to win back their lost family property and respect. The chorus of arrogant Aunts on Maggie and Tom’s mother’s side constantly chide Maggie for her nonconforming ways but eventually stand up for her when Tom feels he needs to banish her from the family.

As she develops a wonderful friendship and almost-romance with the shy and deformed Phillip Wakem, Maggie surprised me by getting caught up in the ways and words of the dashing Stephen Guest. Even Stephen Guest doesn’t fit the mold of “mean rich guy”; he reminds me more of Laurie in Little Women.

Then there is the finale that is arguably anything but subtle and nuanced. I firmly believe that many stories are worth reading even if one knows how they will end and The Mill on the Floss is one of them but I won’t reveal the ending. However, I couldn’t help feel that Eliot had given hints (subtle ones) along the way of how the story would wrap up. It was kind of like a literary de ja vu.

I’ll just say that of the three men between which Maggie’s devotion is torn, the one she ends up with is a fascinating choice.

What are your thoughts about George Eliot? Which of her novels have you read and how would you compare her to other popular Nineteenth Century Female British authors?