Monday Morning Poem: The Old Stone House

by Walter de la Mare

Nothing on the grey roof, nothing on the brown

Only a little greening where the rain drips down;

Nobody at the window, nobody at the door,

Only a little hollow which a foot once wore;

But still I tread on tiptoe, still tiptoe on I go,

Past nettles, porch, and weedy well, for oh, I know

A friendless face is peering, and a still clear eye

Peeps closely through the casement

as my step goes by.

Monday Morning Poem: Autumnal Sonnet

by William Allingham

Now Autumn’s fire burns slowly along the woods,
And day by day the dead leaves fall and melt,
And night by night the monitory blast
Wails in the key-hold, telling how it pass’d
O’er empty fields, or upland solitudes,
Or grim wide wave; and now the power is felt
Of melancholy, tenderer in its moods
Than any joy indulgent summer dealt.
Dear friends, together in the glimmering eve,
Pensive and glad, with tones that recognise
The soft invisible dew in each one’s eyes,
It may be, somewhat thus we shall have leave
To walk with memory,–when distant lies
Poor Earth, where we were wont to live and grieve.

Modern Lit: Our Picnics in the Sun, by Morag Joss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Our Picnics in the Sun is a quiet, deeply introspective book, one which, for the first half, creates the impression that it is little more than a slice of life tale. The focus is the life that Howard and Deborah Morgan have tried, quite unsuccessfully, to build for themselves by living in tune with nature in a tumbledown cottage on Exmoor, aptly called Stoneyridge.  Their son Adam, now grown, rejected his parents’ philosophies, and decamped as soon as possible for a job that could provide him with all that was missing from his childhood. A picture of this family’s strained relationship is related alternately by husband, wife, and son. Howard emerges as a virtual dictator with iron clad ideals, and Deborah as his often unwilling minion. They are as poor now as when they so hopefully set off on their life together so many years ago.

Then, while practicing yoga in the pig shed, Howard suffers a stroke. He survives, and Deborah is left to care for him alone. While this gives her somewhat more autonomy, the couple is more poverty stricken than ever, and she can’t possible manage the house, chickens and sheep along with her patient, who can speak only with halting difficulty. From this point forward, the novel turn from prosaic to masterful. The depiction of Deborah’s struggles as caretaker is brilliant, restrained yet so vivid that the reader can feel what she’s feeling. When Adam fails to return home for a long awaited birthday celebration, her anguish is palpable. This may be one of the most effective evocation of loneliness ever written. Rescue comes in the form of a visitor,  a young man by the name of Theo, whose neediness is immediately evident to Deborah and provides an outlet for her frustrated maternal urges.

As the second half unfolds, there is a growing sense of isolation and a vague sort of menace. The moors, upon which the eponymous picnics took place, are a splendid metaphor for the reality of the Morgans’ existence. Suspense builds, although there are no overt threats of any kind. But Deborah, encouraged by Theo, begins to question all the choices she has made. The memories that she recounts are striking, especially the one she most painfully regrets. Perhaps the novel’s conclusion shouldn’t be so startling, but I never saw it coming.

Its darker overtones notwithstanding, Our Picnics in the Sun is  lovely and memorable, lyrical in many places and dramatic. It will linger in my mind for a long time.

The Classics: The Hand of Ethelberta, by Thomas Hardy

Ethelberta Chickering grew up determined to raise her status in the world, and when the son of the house where she served as governess proposed marriage, she agreed with alacrity. Her mother-in-law is snooty, but when Ethelberta is suddenly widowed while on her honeymoon, she takes the young woman under her wing. When the old lady dies, Ethelberta’s sole means of support is gone, and, frantic about losing her social position, she determines to marry as soon as possible. Granted the use of the family townhouse in London, Berta recruits her entire family, bumpkins all, to pose as her servants until she can snag herself as husband.  She is young, beautiful, and conniving, and has no trouble attracting suitors. The plot thickens.

This is far from Thomas Hardy’s typical moralistic, tragic tale of woe. Subtitled “A Comedy in Chapters”, the novel is not funny in the modern sense of the word,  there are some remarkably droll moments. Rather, it lacks his signature tragic ending. But one of the themes prevalent in most of his work concerns problems of sexuality and marriage, and that is the case in Ethelberta. It also focuses upon Victorian restrictions upon women, and social inequalities, and some critics characterize him as an early feminist in his leanings, which seems to be the case here. Ethelberta is not a vacuous woman, but one torn between her dread of returning to her humble origins and her genuine concerns for the welfare of all the members of her family.  While she does have her flighty side, so do her male acquaintances, and she is determinedly singleminded. Romantic love is a notion that she rejects;  although she is powerfully attracted to Christopher Julian, an impoverished music teacher, she never considers him an acceptable match. In her pursuit of what she views as happiness, she is not unlike many of her modern contemporaries.

Hardy, of course, writes in a 19th century style, with 19th century sensibilities, which in places becomes tedious. But his books revolve around timeless themes, and Ethelberta is no exception. As for the ending, for Hardy, it’s a surprisingly happy one.

 

Modern Lit: Rooms, by Lauren Oliver

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Already well known as a successful writer of young adult novels, Lauren Oliver ventures into the adult market with  Rooms.  Long estranged from their wealthy husband/ father, the Walkers return to their former home in upstate New York for his funeral. Each of them has brought a parcel of personal struggles along with their baggage, and in the days before the service, long buried memories bubble up to the surface, compounding their distress. Only one of the family, teenaged son Trenton, realizes that they are not alone in the house; two of the former residents, now long dead, have failed to move on.

The stories and circumstances of each of the six main characters are told from their own points of view in a series of alternating vignettes. These play out within a specific room in the house, which accounts for the book’s title. These people are all interesting in his/her own right, and each is emotionally distanced from the others, locked in their own misery. Each is preoccupied with thoughts of their own deaths, and not merely because of the funeral. Their depression is palpable, and it’s easy to see why the ghosts have yet to move on. For me, the most compelling characters are Trenton,  and the shades of Alice and Sandra, who were each in early middle age when they died.  Yes, their capacity for denial and repression is strong, but these three have cracks in their armor into which slices of honesty keep filtering. Perhaps that is why Trenton senses, hears, and sees faint manifestations of the spirits, especially when they comment  between themselves (sometimes humorously) about the Walkers.

One of the most popular songs of 2014 is Let It Go, from Disney’s Frozen.  One of the recurring tropes in Rooms is the phrase, “You’ve got to learn to let go.” This is a lesson that everyone absorbs during the last quarter of the book, in greater or lesser degrees, as they are forced by a series of unexpected shocks that turn what they thought they knew upside down,   to confront the truths that are holding them in misery. Yes, there is reason to hope, even though none of us can entirely know another.

Historical Fiction: Martha Peake, by Patrick McGrath

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

English author Patrick McGrath has been hailed as the master of the neo-gothic, but he prefers to describe himself as the creator of “stories of love and madness”.  I haven’t read his other novels, which have generally been highly acclaimed, but having devoured Martha Peake, I can say that the gothic and romantic certainly blend seamlessly here. Told by two unreliable narrators, decades afterward, Martha’s tale plays out in four  18th century settings, each equally dark and threatening. Harry Peake makes his first appearance in  Cornwall, where he’s a good looking, hard drinking smuggler who loses his wife and most of his family in a fire that he caused. His own injuries have left him a bitter, hulking hunchback. He removes with his one loyal daughter, Martha, to London,where, crazed by guilt and grief, Harry tries to expiate himself through humiliation, by displaying his spine nightly to strangers in a seedy bar room. He draws the attention of macabre anatomist Lord Drogo, who employs his own personal resurrection man and displays misshapen human bones at his mansion in the marshes.  Martha, who loves her father dearly, becomes terrified about what Drogo might have in mind for Harry. When an unspeakable calamity befalls her, Martha has no choice but to flee alone to America, which is on the brink of revolution.  But she can’t forget her father, who was alive when she fled, and the choices she makes as a result will make her a symbol of  the revolution itself.

The extremes of grotesquery and madness are there, along with injustice and poverty, sordid backstreets, crumbling estates, and foggy cliffs, but what is also there, for those who care to look, are the issues and philosophies of the era. It may even remind you why the war for independence was fought, both the noble and the selfish reasons. To McGrath’s credit, he manages to deliver a satisfactory ending while also leaving a sense of mystery about some of the tale’s most vivid images (no spoilers, so I won’t elaborate).  Martha Peake is a finely crafted, multilayered novel, one that deserves to be savored and considered rather than rushed.

 

Modern Lit: The Fountain of St. James Court, by Sena Jeter Naslund

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

imageFor the past decade, Sena Jeta Naslund has been writing novels with distinctly literary themes, drawing on material first treated by such giants as Herman Melville (Ahab’s Wife) and A. Conan Doyle (Sherlock in Love). Now she gives a nod to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in The Fountain at St. James, or The Portrait of An Artist as an Old Woman.

There are two female protagonists in Fountain, one imaginary and the other real. Kathryn Callaghan is a 21st century novelist who has just completed the first draft of a biographical novel. The subject of that novel is famed 18th century portraitist Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, who painted highly acclaimed works of Marie Antoinette and her courtiers. Kathryn’s story takes place within a single day, as she takes stock of her life, now that she’s in her sixties and contemplating how best to spend her final years. In doing so, she learns something about how far she will go to protect those she loves.  Interspersed with Kathryn’s experience is a reading of  her new novel, told in the first person by the artist herself.

Of the two lives presented here, Vigee-Le Brun’s is by far the most momentous. As she dares to become the most pre-eminent female painter of her time, Elisabeth tells about her childhood with a much-loved father, her relationship with the Queen of France, and her flight from the horrors of the French Revolution. Along the way, she will lose the person she most loves, her daughter Julie. But to my mind, Kathryn’s story is the more compelling one, as she comes to terms with love, loss, and age,  and finds the courage to  ward off  a very real threat to the life of her own beloved son. While Elisabeth thinks of her life in visual, artistic terms, Kathryn relates hers to literature and its themes. But both spend considerable energy reflecting on the relationships that defined their work, their lives, and the choices that each made.

As a novel, Fountain is deeply contemplative rather than action-based, and as a result, lags in many places. Still, the novel-within-a novel structure is interesting, and as always, Ms. Naslund’s writing is eloquent and evocative.