thoughts on books: the woman in white

This wonderful book by Wilkie Collins was published in 1860 and is an early mystery novel. It plays with structure and presentation by having different chapters narrated by or focusing on the various main characters. The story was gripping and fascinating; the characters were very well-drawn and compelling.

A young art teacher goes to provide lessons to two young women, but passes a woman in a white dress on his way there. He finds out that the woman has escaped from an asylum but also that she is from where he is going. Without giving anything away, there is intrigue on multiple levels, greed that leads to criminality, and an examination of the vulnerability of women and their position in society. The story relies on the relative importance of social class, demonstrated by the nobility and wealthy getting away with things that would be impossible for someone in the middle class. I had a visceral response to this – the frustration of seeing how people used their influence and power for their own gain.

The story highlights the importance of growing up in a family and the importance of having a home where people care about you … and how quickly it can go away. This is particularly harrowing for women, give the lack of autonomy for women in Victorian life. It is all too easy to take advantage of their lack of power and freedom – to the point of having them committed to an asylum where they can just “disappear”. The reliance on the kindness of not only strangers but relatives as well is troubling and frightening. It may be easy to say that it wouldn’t happen today, but one only has to look at human trafficking, countries ruled by dictators, and the vulnerability of immigrants to see how easy it is to make someone disappear. Sadly, we don’t even have to look that far – women go missing every day – we often don’t hear anything about them, especially if they are women of color who don’t capture public attention.

There is a sinister feeling in The Woman in White that is gripping and moves the story along. I felt uneasy as I read the book and wanted to intervene. It’s a challenge to discuss mysteries without giving anything away … and I would rather people read the book rather than hear things from me. My view is that it is really a wonderful book that takes the reader on an interesting journey that will make you think and cringe and grasp at hope for a happy ending.

thoughts on books: children’s books

It’s always interesting to re-read books from your childhood. Will they still have that magical quality? Have I grown too cynical or “sophisticated” to enjoy them again? A couple of books still hit that sweet spot. I re-read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (and Through the Looking Glass) by Lewis Carroll and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery a few years ago and they were lovely.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was a fun book. It was the perfect book to read on the train on the way home from work. I read this one on my kindle, but anyone paying attention would have known that it was a fun book – I smiled all the way home. The dialogue, including numerous puns, was delightful. It was also fun “hearing” Alice try to process what was happening to her. The celebration of imagination in this book is a lovely counterpoint to my usual adult working world.

The characters in the book are a mix of odd and familiar and the situations Alice encounters remind us that we may not be able to solve everything or win every game. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable sometimes – it’s how we grow. And speaking of growing, Alice’s height is all over the place, reminding us that sometimes we are too big or too small, sometimes we’re the biggest and sometimes the smallest. It’s all okay. That’s what happens when you take risks and go someplace new. Alice takes lots of risks – sometimes without meaning to – and finds herself in difficulty. She learns to trust herself and find her way out of danger. For Alice, it was all a dream, but for the rest of us, it’s a nice little escape to a crazy place!

The Little Prince is a charming, delightful and beautiful little story of how a little prince visits multiple planets in an effort to better understand the universe and the adults whose puzzling behavior often baffles children. The little prince learns many lessons along the way and the reader gets to revisit childhood and innocence. Like Alice, he has an adventures and starts to view things differently.

The prince falls in love with a rose and meets a king, a lamplighter, a businessman, a geographer, and many others. From the geographer he learns about more places, including Earth, which is where a pilot has crashed his plane – he is the narrator of the prince’s story. The narrator and the prince are explorers seeking to learn new things and accepting what they learn. The prince sees that the adults he meets are often close-minded, which is sad to him. He learns about relationships and about responsibility, with the most important relationship with his rose and his responsibility to her because he loves her. She is unique and, even when he sees a field of roses, he realizes he loves his rose the best. As the prince leaves to go home, he joins the stars in the sky.

These books are hard to describe because they are so imaginative. They sound silly, but the reality is that both have profound thoughts that help us all (of any age) think about things differently. It’s important to do that at times – to take a step back from real life and breathe and thing about a magical place with characters that we don’t meet everyday but who bring a new experience for us to image.

With Thanksgiving Day approaching, wouldn’t it be nice to take a little time down a rabbit hole or to a different planet. That way, we can appreciate what we have and explore something new.

thoughts on books: the first circle

The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (published in 1968) is a truly remarkable book. The story plays out over a few days in December 1949 in Moscow. Although I loved One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I had not read one of the tomes by Solzhenitsyn (e.g., The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 or Cancer Ward), so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I knew this was set largely in a prison, so was prepared to read about a lot of physical pain, starvation, and so on. What I got was different … and so much more.

Continue reading

thoughts on books: the bell jar

I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and really loved the book – though in a sad way. I have read novels that dealt with mental illness, as well as (auto)biographical accounts, and even non-fiction. This book really touched me. The initial impact of this book in 1963 must have been something to see! It is easy to forget or minimize how influential some books (or movies or art or TV shows) were – the “first” is groundbreaking but after a while what was new becomes part of life. It seems now that just about everything is discussed in the public arena, so the impact of mental health discussions being taboo seems a bit strange.

Continue reading

thoughts on books: of mice and men

I have read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men twice and both times thought it was an amazing story. In many ways, it seems to be a nearly perfect story in terms of construction and balance – the major themes of the story can be viewed through multiple characters and circumstances, and the beginning-middle-end all form a cohesive snapshot of people at a particular time, in this case during the Depression. Everything is so beautifully and clearly described that it’s easy to picture it all unfolding. It is a quiet and often lonely story about men whose voices were often not heard.

Continue reading

thoughts on books: to kill a mockingbird

From the first time I read it at about age 10, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee has been one of my favorite books and I have given it a 5/5. What makes this book special to me is getting to know Scout and the relationship between Scout and Atticus. It’s like visiting an old friend. Yet, this book has come under criticism now because of how it deals with racism. I’m of mixed feelings about some of the criticism. It would be interesting to reread it now after the recent focus on systemic racism and view it from a different perspective.

Continue reading

thoughts on books: the master and margarita

Great book! I’m not sure how I first heard about this book, but I seem to be drawn to the Faustian story of selling one’s soul to the devil – not sure what that implies about me. I also enjoy Russian literature – there is something very rich in best of Russian novels. When I read Mikhael Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in 2014, it was the second story about Stalinist Russia I had read within a couple of months (Animal Farm was the first), so I was primed. While The Master and Margarita is a novel, it is based on the experiences of the author and represents a commentary on the oppression experienced by creative people in 1930s Moscow.

Continue reading

thoughts on books: war & peace

Yep, I went there. What can one say about War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy? The scope and length of the book was enormous – my version was spread across three books! I have to give this one a 5/5.

The characters were interesting and multidimensional … and numerous … and had two or three names of the following flavors: full formal name, shorter formal name, traditional nickname or individualized nickname. As with Russian novels, making sure you can follow the character names is important! In addition to the epic story about Russia in the early 1800s and their dealings with the French, each of the main characters also undertook a journey – many of which were as gripping as that broad international struggle.

Continue reading

thoughts on books: slaughterhouse-five

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five was one of those books that I put off reading – maybe the title scared me off. When I finally read it in 2014, I ended up rating it 5/5.

I really loved this book – it’s fascinating to see Billy Pilgrim’s life story unfold as a series of vignettes at several points in time. The time-travel element contributes to the sense of both coping with the reality of everyday life and processing the horrifying memories of war – in this case the destruction of Dresden in WWII. It took Vonnegut years to get this book together and the only way that he could tell his story was through this character and this method of storytelling. It’s a book that is, on one hand, an absurd and fantastic journey, and on the other hand, is painfully poetic memoir.

Continue reading