Monday, October 1, 2012
September Book Reports
1. How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
I had heard of the movie that was based on this book, but I've never seen it. How Green Was My Valley is told in flashbacks as an old Welshman is saying goodbye to his childhood home. He is the fifth son in a family of five boys and three girls. His name is Huw Morgan. I called him "Hugh" in my mind, but I don't know if that is correct. (His brothers are Ivor, Ianto, Gwilym, Owen... He has a sister named Ceridwen. After I'd finished the book and tears were still rolling down my cheeks I noticed a handy pronunciation guide after the last page of the story. Ceridwen is pronounced Kerr-ed-win. That would have been helpful to know.)
This book is a slice of life in Wales during a time when coal mining peaked and then went on to destroy the valley, all during Huw's life. The reason Huw is leaving his home is because it is about to be crushed by the slag heap. Sad. In the beginning, though, are scenes of great happiness and busyness in the Morgan house. Huw's father, also Gwilym, works in the mines as do Ivor, Gwilym, and Owen (Ianto is in London at the beginning of the story). Gwilym Jr. starts a union to combat the deteriorating working conditions and he holds meetings up in the mountains at night. Huw's mother, Beth, doesn't like it, but she holds her tongue.
The first time I cried during this book was when Beth meets her daughter-in-law, Bronwen, for the first time. "Mind, my mother had never seen Bronwen or heard her voice, but I am sure she knew who it was. She put her head on one side, and put down the fork she had been cooking with, and went to the little looking-glass to take off this old blue cloth and do something to her hair... They looked at each other for a little time without speaking, and then my mother kissed her." I'm not sure why that is so touching to me. This relationship is significant for both women and I could feel how important the moment of their first meeting was by the pause Beth took.
Huw is affectionately known as The Old Man because he is serious and observant. He loves his parents and his siblings and he tries to do what is right. Sometimes successful, sometimes not. When he gets into trouble, his Dada always surprised me with his reaction. Huw is dared by a mean girl to witness the girl's mother giving birth (because Huw thought the doctor brought the babies home in his black bag). His Dada finds out about it and Huw asks if he should take off his shirt for the lashing he knows is coming. Instead his Dada says, "Listen to me. Forget all you saw. Leave it. Take your mind from it. It has nothing to do with you. But use it for experience. Now you know what hurt it brings to women when men come into the world. Remember, and make it up to your Mama and to all women." :)
Beth takes an ill-advised trip up the mountain to give a tongue-lashing to all the Union men one snowy night and she has Huw show her the way there. They got lost on the way home in the snow storm and Huw ends up saving his mother, who has fainted (I learned much later that she was pregnant at the time), in a scene that tore me up. I actually had to put down the book for a while because I couldn't see through the tears. Because of that incident, Huw is in bed for three years. The town preacher, Mr. Gruffydd, comes to see him every day. Oh! What a refreshing character, Mr. Gruffydd! If I'd been there, I would have followed him too. He preaches the gospel plain and simple and he lives what he preaches. Mr. Gruffydd promises Huw that they'll see the daffodils on the mountain top together one day. The day arrives and Mr. Gruffydd carries Huw on his back up the mountain to see the daffodils. Then he carries Huw up the mountain every day after that to practice walking. And now I'm crying again.
There is so much beauty in this book. The way Llewellyn writes dialogue is kind of amazing - there are little cadences that make it unique and poetic. The whole Morgan family are singers in the church choir, which I could somehow hear. "Hear you, then, the voice of your brothers and sisters, deep as the seas, as timeless, as restless, and as fierce. Tenors spear the clouds with blades that had their keenness from the silversmiths of heaven. Baritones pour gold, and royal contralto mounts to reach the lowest note of garlanded soprano. And under all, basso profundo bends his mighty back to carry all wherever melody shall take them. Sing then, Son of Man, and know that in your voice Almighty God may find His dearest pleasure."
My goodness. I love this book! Who cares how it ended - I appreciated the story so much it didn't matter. (Truthfully, though, the last quarter of the book was not as satisfying as the first as life begins to fall apart. It was unusual to read a book with more happiness than tragedy. Nice.) How Green Was My Valley is long and the digressions in it are many, or I would recommend it to everyone. If you can get past that kind of thing, you're in for a nice treat if you read it.
2. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
In my search for a photo to put with this book I discovered that there is a movie of it as well. (That's Rose Byrne! Anyone? She was in "Damages" and I didn't even know she was British. Why are so many Brits TV and movie stars in America?) Who knew? I'd like to watch that, I think.
I listened to I Capture the Castle on my iPod. It was very nice to have a woman with a British accent tell me a story as I folded laundry, mowed the lawn, etc. The castle in this book is a run-down affair on a deserted street in England. A family consisting of father (Mortmain), his new-ish young wife Topaz, daughters Rose and Cassandra (the narrator), brother Thomas, farm-boy (what else to call this one? not really a servant) Steven. They have no money and they won't be getting any money. Mortmain wrote a very successful novel many years ago, but he hasn't written anything since and Cassandra and Thomas suspect he's losing his mind. Rose, the older of the sisters, wants to find a rich man and marry him so they can all stop living in poverty and semi-disgrace.
The story is told through Cassandra's point of view by way of a diary she keeps to practice writing. Nothing ever happens in the castle and Cassandra is very bored and anxious about their money troubles. For funsies one night, Cassandra and Thomas dare Rose to make a wish on the devil gargoyle that is far above the fireplace mantle. As soon as she's done it, in walk Simon and Neil (Neil Simon, as I kept thinking...), brothers who are fabulously wealthy and mostly American. (Their father is English, mother is American. Simon grew up in Boston and Neil in California when their parents divorced. This is soon after WWII, by the way.) The brothers become friends, after a false start, then admirers of the whole Mortmain family. There are dinner parties, rites of Spring, forbidden dancing to Debussy, and fortunes of all are overturned.
Toward the end of the book, Cassandra is staying in a nice place where people are serving her, which is very different from what she has become used to. "I never realized before that it [luxury] is more than just having things, it makes the very air feel different. And I felt different breathing that air. Relaxed, lazy. Still sad, but with the edge taken off the sadness. Perhaps it takes the edge of joy as well as off sorrow." Hmmm - I like that.
It goes without saying that someone is going to fall in love and there will be unrequited love with two handsome and rich Americans, one beautiful sister and one smart/funny sister, and a devastatingly handsome farm boy in the mix. I Capture the Castle is kind of a modern-ish Jane Austen-type story in many ways (all good). The relationship between Rose and Cassandra is very well told and familiar to me. Jealousy, admiration, fierce loyalty, frustration, deep and unconditional love - all the best and the worst things about sisterhood. I enjoyed I Capture the Castle - I recommend it as a nice, harmless diversion with no vampires.
3. The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner
I'm not quite finished with this one - according to my Kindle I'm 80% through it, but they never account for the acknowledgements or extras they put at the end of the book, so I may be even closer to finishing. The blame goes to Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I got 31% through that one and had to stop because it was wasting my life. (It had so much promise! The swears got to me and I decided it wasn't worth it.)
The Big Rock Candy Mountain follows the Mason family from the time Elsa and Harry Mason meet just after the turn of the century in North Dakota. Harry, nicknamed Bo, is the last in a long line of pioneers but there is nothing for him to pioneer. He's always in search of the next big thing that is going to make him a pile of money. Then he'll be happy. Bo is charismatic, talented, smart, funny, generous, and somehow The Worst. His youngest son Bruce describes him thus: "Suppose I labelled him: a self-centered and dominating egotist who insists on submission from his family and yet at the same time is completely dependent on his wife, who is in all the enduring ways stronger than he is."
Elsa, on the other hand, has grown up in a religious family and she takes her values seriously. She puts up with Bo - moving every time he feels like it, holding back when he gets the family into bad and usually illegal situations. She is always perfectly loyal to him. In return, he tells her she is the noose around his neck, a bad-luck charm. If it wasn't for her and for their children, he'd be sitting on top of a pile of money, happy as can be. GRRRR! Bo's obliviousness to everyone, but especially to Elsa, has made me grit my teeth this whole time I've been reading the book. I could tell he was trouble the moment he appeared. Beware of anyone that charming, I always say. Well, now I've said it anyway. Elsa is a great character. One of the best I've ever read, really. I love what Bruce says about her, "For all her yielding and her self-sacrificing, there is something in her that doesn't give when it's pushed at. She only gives up her wishes, never herself." Ahhh. Lovely words.
Stegner's writing is something. Especially after Cloud Atlas (made into a movie with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry), which looks really bad next to The Big Rock Candy Mountain. There is a constant feeling of foreboding. I absolutely know that nothing good is going to happen for the Mason family. Bo will always choose the wrong. The dialogue in this book is fantastic. Bo talks the way my Grandpa Furniss did. When his kids are making too much noise in the car he says to them, "Open your mouth and I'll drop in a mouse." (That reminded me specifically of my Grandpa Furniss telling my Grandma Furniss, while driving, that if she pointed that finger at him again he'd bite it off.) Another favorite image is one of the boys getting some money from Bo and when he left, "He scooted out, went downstairs like a falling safe." That is EXACTLY what it sounds like when my boys slide down the stairs on their bellies.
In hunting up a photo of Stegner I discovered he is a big deal at the University of Utah. Who knew? His descriptions of Salt Lake in the book (the family lives there for a while) are really wonderful. I know many of the places he talks about from working downtown. It was fun to picture it back in the 1920s. The youngest son, who was labeled by his father a cry-baby and weak when he was young, ends up being the strongest one of all. The one who will break the cycle. The last section of the book has been through his eyes. In trying to understand his family and the feelings he has in his bones, Bruce begins writing. "I suppose that the understanding of any person is an exercise in genealogy. A man is not a static organism to be taken apart and analyzed and classified. A man is movement, motion, a continuum. There is no beginning to him. He runs through his ancestors, and the only beginning is the primal beginning of the single cell in the slime. The proper study of mankind is man, but man is an endless curve on the eternal graph paper, and who can see the whole?"
Thank goodness this book is as good as it is. The Kindle version is positively RIDDLED with errors. At least on every page and usually more than that. Periods in the middle of words, apostrophes and quotes where they don't belong, upper-case letters in the middle of a word, commas EVERYWHERE. Bah. It's like reading code. (The paperback version is more than 650 pages! I feel better about not being able to finish this in less than a week. Stupid Cloud Atlas. Seriously - do not bother with that book.)