Books I Read in the Second Half of 2017

July:

Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, by Jane Hawking — An autobiography largely about the challenges of life with a severely disabled spouse. In addition to these challenges, Jane Jones (after her divorce from Stephen Hawking, Jane married Jonathan Jones — I imagine she used the name Hawking on her book for its recognizability) also had the struggles that come with having a genius for a husband (he was, among other things, a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author) and her autobiography is also, to some extent, a defense of her own mental capabilities, which were not insignificant.

The author’s work to care for her family and give her children as normal a life as possible is admirable. She faced overwhelming difficulties and yet continued to persevere despite great discouragement. The fact that she did become discouraged and depressed is not surprising. It is unfortunate that, as a Christian, she looked for comfort from another man. Her indignation at her in-law’s suggestion that her third child might not be their son’s falls a little flat when she does eventually commit adultery.

Travelling to Infinity is an updated version of the author’s book Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen. Time changed her perspective of those years to a certain extent and she changed her book accordingly. Among other things, the new book ends with her again being on good terms with her first husband, Stephen Hawking. Since I read the book, Stephen Hawking has died (January 8, 1942 – March 14, 2018).

I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust, by Inge Auerbacher — A short autobiography covering the time the author spent as a child in Germany during the rise of the Nazis and then in the Terezin, or Theresienstadt, concentration camp in Czechoslovakia during World War II. At one point during her imprisonment there, the Red Cross visited and, in a propaganda film, the Nazis presented the camp as a model Jewish settlement. In preparation for this, parts of the camp were cleaned up. “Some people were given new clothing and good food to eat. A few children received chocolates and sardine sandwiches just as the commission walked past them. I was not one of the lucky ones.” The book is interspersed with poems by the author.

My Louisiana Sky, by Kimberly Willis Holt — A novel for young adults. Twelve-year old Tiger Ann Parker (I love her name!) lives in a small town with her mentally challenged parents and her grandmother. The story isn’t exactly a “coming-of-age story”, as it doesn’t follow Tiger to adulthood, but it does focus on her growth as a person — her values, her relationships, the way deals with the death of her grandmother, &c. I enjoyed the novel. I did find the ending a bit too sweet (not quite the word I want — perhaps a better one would be “self-indulgent”?), though.

The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham — I was expecting this book to be, at least partly, a love story between a man and his wife. It is not a love story. The story is about Kitty, the wife, and her growth as a woman. She begins as a spoilt young woman, who marries a boring (to her, at any rate) young doctor, Walter, to prevent her younger sister from getting married before her. She soon begins a love affair with a more exciting and experienced, but also married, man, Charlie. When Walter discovers the affair, he agrees to divorce Kitty (or, rather, allow her to divorce him) if her lover will agree to divorce his wife and marry her. Kitty quickly discovers that Charlie has no commitment to her and that Walter realized this from the beginning. Walter then takes Kitty to a cholera-infested place in China, where he works tirelessly among the sick. It is here that Kitty’s growth really begins, as she learns how better to judge people and how to be a useful person herself, not merely living for her own gratification. Her husband eventually falls ill with cholera and dies. She returns to England where she is taken in by Charlie’s wife. Although she has nothing but contempt for Charlie now, he is able to seduce her once more. Disgusted with herself, Kitty returns to her father a stronger person and dedicates herself to him and to giving her child (she discovered she was pregnant before the death of her husband, though unable to tell him whether or not he was the father) a better upbringing than she had.

While I do not recall the novel being overly graphic, it does go into enough detail with Kitty’s sexual desires to qualify it as an adult novel. I was disappointed that Kitty, although learning better judgment, continues to view her husband as petty for being bitter about her adultery and to think that it didn’t really matter. (He had his own set of issues, but that doesn’t excuse her.) Another issue I found unpalatable was Kitty’s views on the appearance of the Chinese babies she, under the direction of some French nuns, is allowed to help care for. These aside, it was an interesting novel.

The Chosen, by Chaim Potok — A novel about the friendship between two Jewish boys, Reuven Malter and Daniel Saunders. The story is told by Reuven, who attends a modern orthodox school and wants to become a rabbi. Danny is, on the other hand, from an ultra-orthodox background and wants to become a psychologist. Together they grow up and face the aftermath of the Holocaust in America and the struggles of Zionism (a subject on which their families take opposite sides). Danny’s father only talks to him when they study the talmud together. Though he is only supposed to study talmud, Danny sneaks to the library where Reuven’s father anonymously recommends literature to him, something he is able to take great advantage of, despite his limited time there, because of his photographic memory.

I actually had no idea what the storyline of The Chosen was before I read it. Perhaps that was a good thing as, although the bare storyline may sound a little dry, the book was fascinating.

August:

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, read by Ruby Dee — A story in which the heroine, the very beautiful Janie Crawford, goes through three husbands, finally finding love with the third. Her first husband was a much older man she was coerced into marrying by her grandmother for the sake of security and protection. Although her husband is fond of her, he doesn’t communicate that to Janie, instead treating her more like a housekeeper who doesn’t do enough around the farm. As a result, she runs off with the more flashy Joe Starks. (Apparently the process of running away qualified as a divorce, hopefully for Janie’s husband as well as herself — either that or she commits bigamy.) Joe is an ambitious man who builds a general store in a small town which quickly begins to grow. He is very successful and is soon elected mayor. However, he basically treats Janie as a trophy wife, is very controlling of her, and publicly criticizes and humiliates her. When she finally lashes back at him, his pride is so hurt he refuses to see her again. He soon dies, leaving Janie a rich widow. She eventually meets and falls in love with a younger man, Tea Cake. Janie leaves the town and the two get married. Tea Cake and Janie truly love each other, treat each other as equals, and are happy.

Though of her three husbands, Tea Cake was the only one to really respect her, he certainly isn’t perfect. Beating your wife (even if you aren’t really hurting her) is not an appropriate way of showing your possession, I don’t care if you are jealous or not. Though Janie finally finds the love she has dreamed of, the story has a sad ending.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie, translated from the French by Ina Rilke — A novel about the power of stories. In the process of showing this, the book shows also the importance of choosing carefully the kinds of stories one fills one’s head and life with. Like The Painted Veil, I would categorize this as an adult novel.

September:

The Teacher’s Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts, by Richard Peck — I’ve read this before. This time, I read it aloud to some of my younger siblings who found it hilarious, of course!

The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende, translated from the German by Ralph Manheim, read by Gerard Doyle (Tantor Audio, 2012) — I read somewhere that this was a book about the art of storytelling. It turned out to be a long fantasy novel for children. Some of it was interesting, some of it was boring. I think it went on too long — rather a danger with a book having the word never-ending in its title! The main character is Bastian Balthazar Bux. He is a fat, fearful little boy who loves books. He begins reading a special book whose story turns out to be happening as he reads. The story concerns a boy named Atreyu who is sent on a mission to find the one person who can save the life of the Childlike Empress. Unsurprisingly, this person turns out to be Bastian. When Bastian enters the story he is reading, he saves the Childlike Empress by giving her a new name, which I thought was an interesting concept. The author had a lot of interesting ideas, but I think they fizzled out at the end. Also, the book felt like a string of stories: one would end and I would have to get interested all over again in a new one. Some of the stuff towards the end about stories vs reality and lies and such was ridiculous. Honestly, I probably only finished reading this because I had it on audiobook along with a long, quiet job scrubbing wallpaper glue off walls.

October:

Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, translated from the Italian by William Weaver — “Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.” That is one of my favourite quotations from Invisible Cities. It is an intriguing novel, but that has nothing to do with the plot, because it doesn’t really have one. Nothing really happens beyond Marco Polo describing cities to Kublai Khan. Part of its interest comes from its structure and the names of the cities.

I didn’t always appreciate the view of women presented. Still, one of my favourite cities, I think, was Zobeide, along with Thekla. Even better than the descriptions of cities, though, I most enjoyed the intermittent conversations between Marco Polo and the emperor. The quotation above is from one of these conversations. So is the following:

I have also thought of a model city from which I deduce all the others …. It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions. If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of abnormal elements, we increase the probability that the city really exists. So I have only to subtract exceptions from my model, and in whatever direction I proceed, I will arrive at one of the cities which, always as an exception, exist. But I cannot force my operation beyond a certain limit: I would achieve cities too probable to be real.

An Accomplished Woman, by Jude Morgan — Once in a while, I end up reading some Jane Austen novel continuation, re-write, or imitation. I am almost invariably disappointed and this time was no exception. An Accomplished Woman is set during the Regency period and obviously borrows characteristics and situations from Jane Austen’s novels, but without her wit, consistency, and good sense. The heroine, Lydia Templeton, is every bit as self-deluded as Jane Austen’s Emma Wodehouse, but without her cleverness, despite that apparently being the quality everyone ascribes to her. She is very fond of drinking, though, which perhaps accounts for her mental confusion. Still, if you want a harmless novel to read that doesn’t rely too heavily on logic — perhaps when one is in bed with a head cold — you could do worse.

November:

Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook, by Shel Silverstein — A book of the author’s poems published posthumously. As the title suggests, the book is full of spoonerisms. Some of them are better than others. I think my favourite was “Runny Bakes a Tath”:

“Runny had to bake a tath
Before they’d sive him gupper.
He got so tungry in the hub,
He ate the rat of mubber.
He chewed his dubber rucky up,
He gulped boap subbles, too.
But what upset his mamma most
Was shrinking the dampoo.”

Runny Babbit’s mamma sometimes has to leave him “Rittle Leminders” like: “Stop faking maces”, “Rean up your cloom”, “Hash you wands”, “Don’t mew with your chouth full”, “Don’t sight with your fister”, “Use your slapkin not your neeve”, “Don’t nick your pose”, “Take those looks to the bibrary”, and “Shake a tower”.

December:

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen, read by Johanna Ward — As I have an entire blog devoted to Jane Austen’s novels, specifically Mansfield Park, I won’t say anything about the novel itself here except that it is about the greatest novel ever. (I might be slightly biased by the fact that it is my favorite novel.) However, I will say that Johanna Ward read it beautifully! I think that, of all the audio renditions of Mansfield Park I have listened to, this is my favourite — despite the fact that Ms. Ward inexplicably referred to Edmund Bertram as Edward the first time he was mentioned.

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Paintings: “Claude Monet (The Reader)” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and “The New Novel” by Winslow Homer (1836-1910).

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