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Search tags: era-19th-century
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review 2018-07-15 11:48
How are the Mighty Fallen...
The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy

I haven’t tackled Thomas Hardy since my high school syllabus, but what a treat I had been denying myself. Various maxims spring to mind from this book (‘you reap what you sow’; ‘no man is an island’; ‘what goes up…’) emerging from the chronicled life of Michael Henchard. From very humble beginnings as a twenty one year-old hay-trusser, the main character is hard to like. He is deeply flawed on a number of levels and yet it is surprisingly fascinating to bear witness to the harsh fate which inexorably catches up with him.


As early as the first chapter, Hardy deliberately seeks to discomfort the reader, when a drunken Henchard sells his wife (Susan) and newborn child (Elizabeth-Jane) for five guineas. Notwithstanding his subsequent sense of shame and self-imposed repentance in the sober light of day, this repugnant act haunts his private life and has the attendant potential to also scupper his subsequently crafted image as the first citizen of Casterbridge.


Fast forward eighteen years and the reappearance of Susan with their now adult daughter offers the chance to make amends, but the intervening years have generated an inevitable trail of complications and though circumstances have changed, Henchard’s tempestuous nature has not. Yet, it is the tension between the social norms of English society at the time and Henchard’s earthy country perspective which is a constant source of friction. The mayor has risen to the gentrified classes a ‘self-made’ man, to be partially shackled by upper class expectations. In some ways Henchard is courageous, proud and willing to withstand public opprobrium, but he is also ruthless, manipulative and selfish, a powerful man used to getting his way (undoubtedly another key adage of the story is that ‘with power comes responsibility’).


In any event, this book is a beautifully written, unsentimental fiction, which transports the reader to a pre-industrial Wessex, by no means a bucolic idyll, but rather a class-ridden, male-dominated site of incessant struggle. Nevertheless, the characters are masterfully constructed and Hardy manages to marshal the reader’s emotions from outrage and anger through to triumph and pity, as the label of ‘victim’ seems to alight, at different times, across the cast of characters. A thoroughly absorbing read.

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review 2018-06-22 19:42
Two Tocks before Midnight, The Agora Mystery Series 1 by Clay Boutwell
Two Tocks before Midnight: A 19th Centur... Two Tocks before Midnight: A 19th Century Historical Murder Mystery (The Agora Mystery Series) - Clay Boutwell
Two Tocks before Midnight, The Agora Mystery Series 1 by Clay Boutwell begins in 1889 in Boston. It is an intriguing book and I gave it five stars because it kept my interest from start to finish.
 
"I can't even say with certitude that the events of that date occurred exactly as I remember them. As time passes, so do the minute and myriad details; rough edges are made smooth and the inevitable romanticizing of the past plays havoc with true fact."
 
Thomas, a club member who arrived later was suspected of being the killer.
 
"He had become emotionally upset--as would I, had I been accused of murder unjustly. But if he truly was the murderer, the truth had to be fleshed out before another victim could be killed."
 
I received a complimentary Kindle copy in an Amazon promotion. That did not change my opinion for this book.
 
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-06-14 14:48
Gaskell Does Austen -- With a Twist
Cousin Phillis - Elizabeth Gaskell,Joe Marsh

Facially, the story is your basic Austen setup with the sole difference apparent at first sight that the narrator is a male observer of the events (which incidentally is unusual for Gaskell, too) and

there is no HEA -- the ending is open.

(spoiler show)

 

However, this wouldn't be Gaskell if she were content with just copying another author's formula and giving it a little spin.  Here, that spin is women's education: Anybody who has read North and South and My Lady Ludlow knows that Gaskell was a proponent of general education, including and in particular the education of those left by the wayside; the urban and rural poor and women of all classes.  Compared to these two books, as well as other Gaskell stories addressing the social ills of her time (e.g. Ruth -- ostracization of single motherhood and Mary Barton -- social and judicial prejudice against the working poor), Cousin Phillis at first blush comes across as somewhat more of a cautionary tale, and might be taken to suggest that there can be too much of a good thing:

 

The heroine is exceptionally well-educated for her time, which, in 19th century rural England, was apt to work against her prospects in marriage: No matter how beautiful the young lady is (and Phillis is, plenty) and no matter how much her future husband would have prospered financially from the union (and he would), most men -- including educated men like the novella's narrator, who is an engineer -- would have expected their wives to look up to them, not be their superior.  Thus, Phillis is vulnerable to the attentions of a charming colleague of the narrator's, who easily matches her in education and knowledge and seems to thoroughly welcome their exchange ... until, that is, he accepts a new position in Canada

(ostensibly on a two-year contract, but notwithstanding his violent protestations of his love for Phillis upon his departure, he marries a French Canadian lady within months of his arrival there).

(spoiler show)

 

The novella reads very much like a straight, nonjudgmental rendition of a tale of first love disappointed and innocence lost; this

and the fact that it ends with Phillis's marital prospects unresolved and her by no means an old maid (the plot covers roughly the span of a year, and Phillis is barely out of adolescence when it begins)

(spoiler show)

might suggest that this was all that Gaskell wanted to say ("sad but true, well-educated women don't have an easy time finding a husband").  But there is no criticism of Phillis's father for "burdening" her with a "too much" of education; indeed, the young narrator is gently scolded by his own father for shying away from Phillis himself on those grounds, and throughout, her education is shown as a perhaps unusual but decidedly admirable thing.  So what remains is the impression of a delicately-woven tale ... which ultimately might perhaps have resolved a bit more than it actually does, but that, apparently, simply was not Elizabeth Gaskell's intention.

 

With this read, I finally get to check off the letter "G" in the Women Writers bingo.

 

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review 2018-06-02 18:36
Organizing for Mission and Growth: The Development of the Adventist Church Structure (Adventist Heritage Series)
Organizing for Mission and Growth: The Development of Adventist Church Structure - George R. Knight

Throughout the history of the Seventh-day Adventist history there has been a constant question “To organize or not to organize, and if so how?”  Organizing for Mission and Growth is the third book of the Adventist Heritage Series written by Adventist historian George R. Knight.  In covering over 170 years in fewer than 190 pages, the book covers the struggles to first organize then restructuring and then reinvigorating the church so as to achieve its mission to spread its end time message.

 

The Sabbatarian Adventists out of the Millerite movement were small and disorganized across New York and New England, but their former denominational experiences and theological beliefs in the evils of organization forces the rising leaders of the group to do much of the work themselves particularly James White.  While White himself initially was against organizing and “making a name”, the essential one-man operation that he was preforming led him to reexamine scripture and rethinking his anti-organizational ideas becoming a strong advocate for the organizing of the denomination so much so that he refused to become its first president.  But as the decades past and the church grew, the strengths for church structure for a small number of believers over the breath of half a nation became detriments as membership grew and expanded worldwide leading to crisis that brought about restructuring at the beginning of the 20th Century.  However, the divide in ideas about how to restructure causes nearly a decade of drama before it was resolved.  Yet throughout the 20th Century the organization of the church was tweaked and reinvigorated with innovation on several levels but in the 21st Century many have begun questioning the extent of how much administration is needed compared to the previous 100 years.

 

Unlike what he was able to cover in A Brief History of Seventh-day Adventists, Knight goes in-depth on how Seventh-day Adventists got their name and how they structured their denomination’s organization and the debates for and against as well as how it innovated.  Knight does not go in-depth over the entire course of the 155 year history of the General Conference, but he focuses on what needs to be in-depth like James White’s struggle to found the denomination and later the 1901-3 restructuring of the denomination by A.G. Daniels and others against the efforts by A.T. Jones and others who wanted a much decentralized organization (congregationalism).  Yet the events of 1901-3 also had a theological element that while touched upon was discussed more in A Search for Identity, another Adventist Heritage Series book focused on the development of Seventh-day Adventist theology.  This limited focus created a very strong book that gave the reader a clear history of its topic without going down various rabbit holes.

 

Although Knight intended Organizing for Mission and Growth to be the third of a seven book series related to Adventist heritage, however for over a decade it has been the last he has written.  This fact does not take away how important this and other Adventist Heritage Series books for Seventh-day Adventists who are interested in the history of their denomination, it’s theological beliefs, and it’s organizational structure as they are the primary readers Knight aims for.

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review 2018-05-28 23:27
FROM HAPPENSTANCE, LOVE
Miss You - Kate Eberlen

4:57 PM EST. A few minutes ago, I finished reading this novel, my eyes brimming with tears. I am now basking in an afterglow of quasi-orgasmic satisfaction, for this was a story that spoke to my heart and mind, captivating me throughout its 433 pages.

The story begins in Florence (Italy) in August 1997. Two young ladies from the UK - friends from childhood - are nearing the end of a summer holiday before each will embark on different paths. Tess, who had recently received her A-levels, has secured a place at University College in London. Her close friend, "Doll" (her full name is Maria Dolores O'Neill), is set to be a beautician. "Doll" is the lively, engaging, vivacious, ballsy sort of friend who is a nice complement to Tess who is deeply sensitive, quietly resilient, a bit naive about some of the ways of the world, with an abiding passion for art and literature. 

Then there is 'Gus' (short for Angus) who is also in Florence at the same time. He is with his parents. Together they are the picture of the staid, self-contained English family. Gus is the dutiful son. But inwardly, he is uneasy and anxious given that he will soon be going to London to study medicine, to become more independent and learn who he really is. While exploring the city on his own, Gus has a chance meeting with Tess. It was a fleeting, awkward encounter for both of them - as such meetings between 2 people can be, especially if there is a sudden, mutual attraction. 

Sometime later, Tess and Gus meet a third time near the Ponte Vecchio. Gus was standing in line for ice cream when "... I'd felt a tap on my shoulder, and there she was again, smiling as if we'd known each other all our lives and were about to go on some amazing adventure together." Tess then informs him about "this brilliant gelato place just down Via dei Neri where you can get about six for the price of one here!" In response, Gus tells Tess that "I don't think I could manage six!" Ruefully, he then confesses to the reader that "[m]y attempt at wit had come out sounding pompous and dismissive. I wasn't very good at talking to girls." I could totally relate to Gus when you find yourself unexpectedly in the presence of a person who is singularly attractive to you. But you're at a loss for words in a vain attempt to both impress and ingratiate yourself with that person. Opportunity lost. In Gus' case, he "stared at [Tess] like a moron with sentences jostling for position in my head as her smile faded from sparkling to slightly perplexed before she hurried off to catch up with her friend." 

Each succeeding chapter follows the paths made by both Gus and Tess over the next 16 years. Gus tells his developing story in one chapter in a given year that is followed by Tess sharing with the reader the ups and downs in which she found herself in that same year. Most of Gus' life is clouded over by the tragic death of his older brother, who is clearly the apple of his parents' eyes. Tess returns home and is soon engulfed by a family tragedy that will seismically alter the trajectory of her life. And yet, through the passing of years, the reader is witness to how chance or Fate may bring together or keep apart 2 people perhaps destined for each other.   Example: Gus attends in July 2013 a Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park (London), where "[a]bout six people in front of me, I noticed a tall woman tracking the ephemeral silvery-white image as it floated over her head, her expression as innocently delighted as a child gazing up at a circus trapeze artist, her lips syncing with the words of the song. Almost as if she had sensed me watching her, our eyes met, her mouth stopped moving and time stood still. Then the butterfly flew away and her face merged back into the darkness."

The ecstacy and the agony. Both Gus and Tess became real people to me the more I read this novel. And as I said earlier, once I read the last sentence, I wanted to cry. But felt embarrassed to do so, though I was alone in my apartment. (I wonder if the author of "MISSING YOU" has received any offers to auction off the rights for a movie adaptation. If so, this novel could be made into a really good movie - provided the mistakes are avoided that bedeviled the movie adaptation of David Nicholls' novel, "One Day".)

Suffice it to say, "MISSING YOU" is a winner.

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