Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Nine - Black Beauty - Part Two

Anna Sewell
From The Tack Room - A City of Horses

Black Beauty: The Autobiography Of A Horse is so much more than the autobiography of a horse. It speaks of social injustice, human kindness and cruelty, political activism, and daily life both in the English countryside and in London during the latter half of the 19th century. Anna Sewell wrote from a religious point of view and believed that every man and all of God’s creatures were worthy of respect. A good person is one who treats all creatures well; a bad person is one who does not. The bad person could simply be ignorant or could be such a slave to fashion that he must unnecessarily restrict the horse’s movement by adding a contraption keeping the horse’s head up rather than letting him move naturally. Sewell is big on the platitudes, but a little platitude never hurt me. (I like mine with lettuce and tomato.)

Black Beauty’s mother taught him be a good horse and never kick or bite. He was always to be a good servant to his master. Throughout his life, Black Beauty gave and gave and gave all he had. (It is so The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.) For his loyalty and effort, all Black Beauty asked in return was to be treated with kindness and a bit of consideration by someone who understands horses and the things they need to keep them well and safe. Sometimes he was not fortunate enough to have such a master.

Black Beauty enlightened me on the proper treatment of horses. I’ve never really liked horses, but I suspect that is because I’ve never really given them a chance. I went horseback riding at stables when I was young, and we even owned a horse once when we lived in the country. I was 14-15 and the horse didn’t like me any more than I liked him. I suspect now that one of the problems was that I didn’t know how to properly ride or guide a horse. If I were to try again I would like to learn to do it correctly.

I'm not sure I want to try again, though. As a dog/cat person, my basic problem with horses is that I've never understood how you could have a close relationship with a creature that could kill you. But what do I know? I have friends who are in love with their horses; one friend says her horses nuzzle her when she approaches them. Black Beauty taught me that horses are caring creatures and long to perform the work for which they were bred. How is that different from a working dog such as an Australian Shepherd? Terriers like to dig because that’s what they were bred to do. This book taught me to let go of my equine prejudice. Not that I’ll ever, like, get into dressage or anything.

From Chapter 6--

I was quite happy in my new place, and if there was one thing that I missed it must not be thought I was discontented; all who had to do with me were good and I had a light airy stable and the best of food. What more could I want? Why, liberty! ... to gallop, to lie down, and roll over on our backs, or to nibble the sweet grass.
I'm with Black Beauty on that one. I love liberty, too. And rolling over on my back in the grass, of course.

Chapter 12--

Master said, God had given men reason, by which they could find out things for themselves; but he had given animals knowledge which did not depend on reason, and which was much more prompt and perfect in its way, and by which they had often saved the lives of men.
The above passage reminds me of everything I've ever read by Jack London.
Chapter 38--

Several times after that the same gentleman took our cab. I think he was very fond of dogs and horses, for whenever we took him to his own door two or three dogs would come bounding out to meet him. Sometimes he came round and patted me, saying in his quiet, pleasant way, "This horse has got a good master, and he deserves it." It was a very rare thing for any one to notice the horse that had been working for him. I have known ladies to do it now and then, and this gentleman, and one or two others have given me a pat and a kind word; but ninety-nine persons out of a hundred would as soon think of patting the steam engine that drew the train.

So you see it’s quotes like that last one that made me realize I had been as unenlightened as most of the people in Black Beauty’s world. Of course, I don’t live in a world in which horses are used for daily work, at least not within my view. But I suspect that even if I did I wouldn’t look on them in the same manner in which I look at a pet. And that is simply my own insulated little worldview. I resolve that the next time I see a horse I shall treat it with kindness.

Of course, I could go for a very long time without seeing one, so it’s a safe promise to make, really.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book Nine - Black Beauty - Part One

After finishing this book, I'll have to postpone doing a proper post on it. I'm emotionally drained! I had no idea it would affect me this way. I've been sobbing. And before you laugh, yes, it is the autobiography of a horse, but it is written in such a caring and considerate manner. It's truly lovely.

Great first line --  "The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it."

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Book Eight - Birdsong - Part Six

I awoke early this morning with a burning desire to watch “My Boy Jack,” a movie my friend Matt sent me last year. It’s about Rudyard Kipling’s son who fought in WWI. Obviously, I haven’t been able to get Birdsong off my mind.

John Kipling was missing and “presumed injured.” I know there are “missing” in every war, but I also know from reading Birdsong that many were listed as missing because the shells had blown their bodies to bits. They couldn’t tell the families with any certainty that their sons were dead because there wasn’t enough left of them to identify.

After hearing that his son was missing, Kipling immediately continued working with the War Propaganda Office where they decided how much of the facts to release to the British people. He carried on with his work because he had to. I mentioned in this post that in my experience, men seem less able to face death and dying than women. The women carry on with the work of caring because they have to.

But I was wrong, wasn’t I? Women do it on a one-to-one scale but in this movie Kipling did it for the entire British fighting force. He had to. There must be people to face the facts like that even when their own sons are “presumed injured.” It must be done.

And this is what I love about reading. It transports me to a different time and place and allows me to feel what others have felt. It educates me far beyond the scope of my little speck of existence on this vast planet.

The War Memorial Elizabeth visits near Albert, France is the Thiepval Memorial. The known dead have graves; the arches and columns list the names of those who were never found.

From The Great War 1914-1918: A Guide to WWI Battlefields and History of the First World War

The next two images are from the Thiepval Memorial page of


Final quote (probably) from Birdsong, this from page 227 upon reading the roll call after an horrendous battle--
Names came pattering into the dusk, bodying out the places of their forebears, the villages and towns where the telegram would be delivered, the houses where the blinds would be drawn, where low moans would come in the afternoon behind closed doors; and the places that had borne them, which would be like nunneries, like dead towns without their life or purpose, without the sound of fathers and their children, without young men at the factories or in the fields, with no husbands for the women, no deep sound of voices in the inns, with the children who would have been born, who would have grown and worked or painted, even governed, left ungenerated in their fathers’ shattered flesh that lay in stinking shellholes in the beet-crop soil, leaving their homes to put up only granite slabs in place of living flesh, on whose inhuman surface the moss and lichen would cast their crawling green indifference.
Thank you, Sebastian.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Eight - Birdsong - Part Five

Sebastian Faulks
From his official site
Wow. This is a powerful book and it profoundly affected me. Rather than A Novel Of Love And War, I would subtitle it A Novel Of Frailty And Resilience. There are so many stories in this book, so many lives affected by both choice and circumstance. But isn’t that what lives are, choice and circumstance? In this book there are tales of great human suffering, great human triumph and the effects of both.

Throughout the book there is birdsong in unforeseen places and at unexpected moments. It is a lovely little thread running through the book – a metaphor for both entrapment and freedom. I stumbled upon this picture--

From the National Library of Scotland’s digital library
“Canaries which have been rescued from amidst the ruins in shelled areas”
The explanation given at the time the photo was published says, “Well known for their fondness of animals, this image shows British soldiers checking up on the health of some canaries who were found in residential areas that had suffered heavy shelling.” Well, yeah, um, they're fond of animals and stuff but there’s also the fact that they used canaries underground to check for the presence of deadly gas. The birds felt the effects much more quickly than humans and served as a warning. Canaries saved lives. But I understand propaganda for the homefront.

I could quote many passages because so many passages touched me. But here are a few which are indicative of the spirit of the book.

From 1917, page 362--
There was no alternative but for men to go blind round each corner. The fate of the first two or three was a good indicator to those who followed. Stephen watched the men go on madly, stepping over the bodies of their friends, clearing one fire-bay at a time, jostling one another to be first to the traverse. They had dead brothers and friends on their minds; they were galvanized beyond fear. They were killing with pleasure. They were not normal.
We do this to them. We send them to war to be killing machines and when they come back we expect them to turn it off. Kill! Don’t kill! Why do we continue to do this when we know what it does to them and to the lives of everyone they touch? Twenty years after the end of WWI, what did we do? We began again. Men who had been turned into animals sent their sons for more of the same. One story near the end of the book included Levi, a German soldier who happened to be a Jewish doctor. Levi volunteered to fight for his homeland and he survived WWI. What do you suppose happened to him and his children during WWII?

From 1978 Elizabeth, pages 247-8--
She felt a little presumptuous. Having lived to the age of thirty-eight without giving more than a glance to the occasional war memorial or dull newsreel, she was not sure what she now expected to find. What did a “battlefield” look like? … Would history be there for her to see, or would it all have been tidied away? Was it fair to expect that sixty years after an event—on the whim of someone who had shown no previous interest—a country would dutifully reveal its past to her amateur inspection?
Elizabeth saw that battlefield and its memorial. And this, I think, is my job: to remember, to visit the battlefields, to be kind to veterans, to do what I can to preserve and honor their sacrifices. When I was on a plane last month there were several young men in telltale camouflage. After giving his standard lecture, the flight attendant said, “And as always, we want to thank our men and women in the military for their service.” We applauded in agreement. It was a small thing, but life is mostly made up of small things. The big things don’t come around very often, do they?

There is a town in England (or maybe it’s a village, I can never keep it straight) called Wootton Bassett. Each time a soldier is “repatriated,” (his dead body brought home) the route passes through this town. When this happens, the people of Wootton Bassett line up to pay their respects. They do this one small thing. One person in this small English town once stood in silence as a coffin passed and others followed. This is what it takes.

I have to believe in the power of good over evil. I have to believe that love can conquer hatred… even though the world offers scant evidence of this. If there is one overpowering lesson of this book it is that the human spirit can triumph where there is hope. I have to believe in this hope.

I must end with this passage. It was near the end of the war, page 403--
We are not contemptuous of gunfire, but we have lost the power to be afraid. Shells will fall on the reserve lines and we will not stop talking. There is still blood, though no one sees. A boy lay without legs where the men took their tea from the cooker. They stepped over him.
I have tried to resist the slide into this unreal world, but I lack the strength. I am tired. Now I am tired in my soul.
Many times I have lain down and I have longed for death. I feel unworthy. I feel guilty because I have survived. Death will not come and I am cast adrift in a perpetual present.
I do not know what I have done to live in this existence. I do not know what any of us did to tilt the world into this unnatural orbit. We came here only for a few months.
No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand.
When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them.
We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings.
We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book Eight - Birdsong - Part Four

Since I didn’t set out to create a traditional book review blog, I’ve been writing about what I read as I read it. I may want to rethink that, as I fear I did Sebastian Faulks a great disservice in criticizing his narrator in the beginning of this book. Part One was set in 1910, Part Two in 1916, and in Part Three we skip to 1978. I believe I see where we are going. I’m getting great detail about a new character, Elizabeth, her life, her surroundings, her choices and her motivations. I suspect there is a reason Mr. Faulks didn’t provide that at the beginning for those two particular characters. I should have remembered how incredibly difficult it is for a writer to withhold information at the beginning of a novel! The best books always leave the reader with wonderful discoveries to make along the way, and we cannot make those discoveries if the beginning contains huge signposts.

I suspect there is a part of me that sees each novel as its own entity; I seem to forget the lessons past books have taught me. But I kind of like it that way. Each book is a new experience and I can live in a different world while I am in its pages. The experiences I have on a French battlefield in 1916 have little to do with the experiences of a 12 year old in an Irish manor house, or so it seems at the time. Reading is an activity set in the present, wherever the present happens to be.

As proof that Sebastian Faulks does indeed understand a woman’s perspective, I offer the following from page 235 of my Vintage International edition--

Lindsay had also been through a phase of inviting unattached men when Elizabeth went to visit. For two or three years the previously settled threesome would be augmented by a variety of single men, desperate, divorced, drunk, but more often merely content to be as they were.
Can I get an Amen from anyone who has endured serial set-ups from self-proclaimed well meaning friends who "only want to see you happy” as if there could be only one route to happiness and that is marriage and procreation? As Elizabeth says, “I think I need to know why.”

OK, so maybe I went a little Bridget Jones in that last paragraph. The point is that I’m really enjoying the character of Elizabeth. On the 60th anniversary of the 1918 armistice--

There were interviews with veterans and comments from various historians. Elizabeth read it with a feeling of despair: the topic seemed too large, too fraught, and too remote for her to take on at that moment. Yet something in it troubled her.
I get that, Elizabeth, I really do.

One of the book's locations: 

La Grand Place
Circa 1916
From New Cumnock Parish Church in East Ayrshire

The Grand Place
From the National Library of Scotland’s digital library
“The French town of Bethune was considered an important strategic location for its rail and canal links. It was nearly captured by German forces after heavy bombardment in April 1918.”

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Eight - Birdsong - Part Three

There are my men going mad under shells. We hear nothing from our commanding officer. I sit here, I talk to the men, I go on patrol and lie in the mud with machine guns grazing my neck. No one in England knows what this is like. If they could see the way these men live they would not believe their eyes. This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded.
The above is from page 145 of my Vintage International version. This book is about WWI. I have to admit I've never focused much on WWI. I've spent lots of time reading about WWII. I love the old movies and music and stories. I had to read All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque in high school and I remember being shocked by the description of men who kept running after their feet were blown off. That image has remained with me; it's similar to the image from the last scene of A Rose For Emily by Faulkner. (Ick.) But both scenes stayed with me because of the emotion they evoked.

Whenever I read a book about war my reaction is always one of gratitude. It is difficult to read the gory stuff, but war is gory. Reading the reality is a way to remember. It feels insufficient simply to dedicate one day of the year to honor these people who gave their lives so that we – generations of people they would never know – could be free. How did they do that? What possessed them? What kept them going?

This book is doing a good job of answering some of those questions. It provides just enough information about individuals to give a glimpse into why they enlisted and how they continued to fight. It also does a good job of describing the horrors of war, particularly the mustard gas used as a weapon in WWI. One scene set in a medical tent demonstrates how badly the wounded long to die, how difficult it is for the medical personnel to care for them, and how fervently their less seriously wounded comrades hope their wish comes true. Death is merely relief from misery. 

Books about war also remind me that whatever we may think we know about ourselves, our virtue, or our morality, all of that goes out of the window when we’re fighting for our lives. It’s easy to become smug in our nice little suburban or city homes and forget that even now our soldiers are in harm’s way. Why? There is always that lingering question. Yet where is the boundary? Where is it set and when should it move? Should we have let Hitler continue? Of course not. Does that mean anyone less evil than Hitler should be allowed to continue? Where is that line?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Book Eight - Birdsong - Part Two

I’m trying to keep an open mind about this book. I’m enjoying it, but like Anna Karenina this one includes a woman becoming involved in an extra-marital affair with scant explanation for why she does so. The explanation for why this man pursues the married woman is that he’s obsessed. Oh! That explains everything! Just say he’s obsessed, dude, since we all know exactly what that means. I could have done with more evidence of his internal struggle rather than simply being told he’s obsessed, but that’s just me. The same goes for the woman. She’s a buttoned-up proper French woman one moment and an adventurous lover the next, all ooh-la-la.* Seriously? Oh, there were a couple of “reasons” given but these characters haven’t been fully explained. Perhaps that is coming. At this point, however, I dislike the conclusions made by the narrator.

The subtitle of the book is A Novel Of Love And War and part one was all love; thus far part two is all war. I’m not sure whether it’ll go back and forth like that throughout the novel, but as a long-term strategy love and war don’t generally go together very well. I suspect this one is mostly about war, and war is a man’s world so I’m not sure when Miss Ooh-La-La will return. But I suspect she shall do so.

There are moments that are just right and these are the things I enjoy about this book. For example, here’s evidence that some things don’t change. Does this sound familiar? The beginning of the book is set in 1910--
I can’t bear these folk tunes you hear so much of these days… When I was a young man it was different. Of course, everything was different then… give me a proper melody that’s been written by one of our great composers any day. A song by Schubert or a nocturne by Chopin, something that will make the hairs of your head stand on end!
And here is another description that I particularly like; she happens to be the elderly relative of the man from the above quotation. “Her reputation as a person of patience and sanctity was based on her long widowhood and the large collection of missals, crucifixes, and mementos of pilgrimage she had collected in her bedroom…”

Also, there is a peanut butter stain on page 105 which I inadvertently left for the next owner of this book. Just thought I’d mention it.

*If you are unfamiliar with the ooh-la-la phenomenon you may want to check out Pepe LePew on You Tube. You won’t regret it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Book Eight - Birdsong - Part One

I knew nothing about this book until I opened it. As I turned to the title page, I noticed that the last owner of this book left a little gift – two tiny leaves pressed into the spine. How lovely! Upon closer examination, I realized the little gift may not be leaves at all but some sort of droppings. I removed them with a Kleenex. Was someone trying to be ironic by leaving bird poop in Birdsong?

The author, Sebastian Faulks, also wrote Charlotte Gray. I haven’t read Charlotte Gray but I tried to watch the movie (gave it my 30 minute rule and didn’t finish it).

Here we go on another literary adventure! I love this time before I start reading a book... it is full of the promise of a great story and characters I love. Don’t disappoint me, Sebastian.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book Seven - Artemis Fowl - Part Two

Loved it loved it loved it! It was wonderful! Solid, quick-paced plot full of surprises, multi-dimensional characters and an ending I never would have guessed. I love to be surprised by the plot of a book. I loathe reading an ending in which a brand new character is suddenly introduced to resolve the crisis.

One thing I was probably wrong about was classifying the book as YA. It is actually probably considered a children's book. I don't pay much attention to these categories since I suspect they are used mostly for marketing purposes and tend to have little to do with how much I will enjoy the book. In this case I suspect Colfer wrote it for the 8-12 year old set. He is very careful not to use curse words and that is definitely not indicative of YA lit. There is also a sweet, magical revelation near the end that must be meant for children, but I loved it too. "You're only young once, but you can be immature forever," that's what I say.

There are at least seven books in this series and I will definitely read more. Thanks, Eoin, for a lovely time.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Seven - Artemis Fowl - Part One

I knew nothing about this book when I picked it up. It happens to be YA fantasy and I'm all over those, so I'm enjoying it. But seriously, the guy's name is Artemis FOWL yet I didn't recognize the surname as a clue that either the book's subject is poultry or the surname is a homophone. I don't believe it's a spoiler to tell you that the latter is true in this case -- the prologue gives us that much information. This young man has some serious issues.

But don't we all? I mean, his parents did a number on him for sure, but then their parents probably did a number on them, too. Actually we know the grandparents and all the greats- had issues since we know about the foul generations of the Fowl family. I'm about halfway through and wondering how on earth (or where) it's going to end.

Lovely quote--
Yes, but that was five hundred years ago, and you were no spring bud then, not to put too fine a point on it.
Of course I can't read "Not to put too fine a point on it" without thinking about the fabulous TMBG song "Birdhouse in Your Soul." And it's particularly appropriate in this case since Artemis is ultra-nerdy. Because of that I really want to like him, but he'll have to overcome his Fowl nature by the end of the book.

By the way, the author's name is Eoin Colfer, with Eoin pronounced like "Owen." Lest you become impressed by my knowledge of Irish Gaelic, honesty compels me to report that I pronounced it in my head to sort of rhyme with "Eeyore" until my British linguist friend Matt told me it's Owen.

Internationally, phonics only goes so far.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Watership Down Revisited - Part Two

Finishing this book early on a warm Sunday morning gave me a renewed longing to live on a farm in the English countryside. It is clear that the author was intimately familiar with the setting and with human nature. The fact that the characters are rabbits rather than humans is enchanting.

I love many characters in this book, but Hazel is my favorite. Hazel is a great leader. Is it because he is the cleverest rabbit? No. The biggest? No. The best fighter? No. Hazel is none of these, but Hazel is a great leader because he understands that for the group to survive and prosper he must effectively utilize all of his resources. He asks each rabbit to employ his own unique talents. Each rabbit knows that his gift is appreciated. Hazel even embraces those gifts that he does not understand; he is not afraid of the unknown. He has great courage and trust. He asks none to do what he would not do himself. He is loved by his followers.

And by those who read his story.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Watership Down Revisited

When I started rereading this book I loved so much when I was younger, I  worried that I wouldn't feel the same about it any more. I wanted to love it all over again. And I do! I still love the characters (never met better rabbits anywhere and that includes Harvey*) and I still love the story. Life is preventing me from flying through it the way I would like but I'll get there.

Here's a brief example of Richard Adams' insight and descriptive magic, from page 176 of my Avon Books edition--

The full moon, well risen in a cloudless eastern sky, covered the high solitude with its light. We are not conscious of daylight as that which displaces darkness. Daylight, even when the sun is clear of clouds, seems to us simply the natural condition of the earth and air... We take daylight for granted. But moonlight is another matter. It is inconstant. The full moon wanes and returns again. Clouds may obscure it to an extent to which they cannot obscure daylight. Water is necessary to us, but a waterfall is not. Where it is to be found it is something extra, a beautiful ornament. We need daylight and to that extent it is utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms...
Indeed it does, sir. And so do beautiful books like this one.

*Shocking, I know.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Thorn Birds Miniseries

I couldn't finish the first disc. Barbara Stanwyck played Mary Carson, and while she looked so very Big Valley that I kept expecting her to say, "Nick! Heath! Jared! There's a fire in the barn!" she was also very creepy in her lust for Father de Bricassart. She was beyond cougar; she wanted to devour him, ick. I gave it 30 minutes, and that's my standard for a movie. I'll give a book 100 pages and a movie 30 minutes and if I'm not entralled, I move on. Life is too short, and to quote The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, "Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books."