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A Place Apart

Travel writer, Dervla Murphy is known for boldly flinging herself across the globe and opting for the most inconvenient transport forms to encounter cultures that pique her curiosity. In A Place Apart, Dervla takes her trusty bicycle Roz up to Northern Ireland. Written in the 1970s, when the “Troubles” or terrorism, if you’re not fond of euphemisms, was running high, Dervla examines the complexities of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The result is an encounter with a people who confound and amaze her as much as any.

I had oversimplified the issues of Northern Ireland and thought that it was simply a conflict over religion. Religion wasn’t the cause and the conflicts weren’t between just two groups. There weren’t two sides. There were several. Both Catholics and Protestants had several subsets.

I was impressed by Murphy’s chutzpah as she’ll enter a pub where she’s marked as an outsider and regarded with suspicion, yet she’ll tough it out to get people to open up and share their opinions and insights. I will note though that most people were welcoming and saw the value in sharing their point of view and experiences.

The violence people suffered was shocking. Fathers shot dead while watching TV in their living rooms. Children shot. Families on all sides suffered and no place was safe.

While things have changed for the better in Ireland, which gives hope for all conflict zones, our world still has spots where death and violence are an everyday occurrence.

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His Excellency

son-excellence-eugene_rougon_gallimard19th century novelist Zola shows us more of the machinations, betrayals of French politics in his sixth published story in the Rougon-Marquart cycle, Zola depicts the greed, manipulation and ugliness of French politicsthrough His Excellency: Eugene Rougon. When the story begins title character Eugene Rougon has fallen from his lofty government job. He’s resigned to take some heat off the emperor and hopes this action will be rewarded. Soon Rougon meets Clorinde, a beautiful, flirtatious troublemaker. She’s much younger and spends her days tantalizing the rich, powerful men who’re happy to waste their days gazing at her in her boudoir as she poses for a portrait and rambles on. She’s not the brightest light, but we all know how little that matters when it comes to powerful men.

It’s uncertain who Clorinde’s father is. Both she and her mother are gadabouts from Italy. It’s whispered that she’s the illegitimate daughter of  an aristocrat, who’s introduced as her godfather. Right. Clorinde is all appetite, appetite for power, like Rougon, whom she sets her cap for. She could have any rich, powerful man, but she goes for this old bachelor. Despite being attracted to Clorinde, Rougon knows they’re no good for each other so he marries another more sensible wife and convinces Clorinde to marry a rich, malleable man who’s gotten a government ministry. Clorinde goes along, but vows to get even. And after many years she does.

It was interesting to see this greedy crowd of relatives and old friends who hang on to Rougon to get political favors that make them rich. The minute Rougon closes down the favor-trough they’re out to get him led by Clorinde. Rougon’s fortunes go up and down as the story progresses. I enjoyed the realism and even enjoyed disliking the corrupt hangers on and, of course, Clorinde, who had no good qualities or no uncorrupted qualities. This book would make a good movie.

Fr. Laurence, Why?

For my online book club we read Romeo and Juliet, which my students are now reading as well. Once I get to Act 4, I want to just ask Friar Laurence why on earth he thought this plan with Juliet taking a sleeping drug would work. Why not tell her parents, Friar? Since she’s already consummated her marriage to Romeo, wouldn’t the Capulets and the Montagues have to make the best of things?

The Friar even tells Paris he doesn’t like the hasty marriage to Juliet. That’s a great start. Just tell the truth or if he’s such a coward, tell the parents they have to wait a certain amount of time after Tybalt’s death to marry. Then have them tell the truth. One of them would get the courage to.

I realize Shakespeare took the story from another source, a poem by Arthur Brooke and he saw that it had a lot of powerful elements, but there are some glaring mistakes in the plot.

Chicago: City on the Make

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Nelson Algren blew me away with his powerful poetic prose in Chicago: City on the Make. I expected it to be a novel, but it isn’t. It’s a prose poem essay that packs a lot of history and observation into very well written essays on the city. Written in the 6o’s, Chicago: City on the Make brought old Chicago, one that’s grittier and livelier to life. Algren’s Chicago was getting softened up, suburbanized almost when he wrote the book. Now downtown at least is like a lot of cities, though the neighborhoods are quite individual.

The book’s a must-read for people who know the city and want to learn more. The 50th Anniversary edition that I read has a lot of good annotations, but there were some references that weren’t covered that I had to use Bing to find.

Half-way through the book, I emailed a friend who teaches a unit on Chicago in her high school urging her to add at least a few chapters from the book to the class reading list.

Here are a few quotations from a book that’s full of great passages:

“Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

“…a city that was to live by night after the wilderness had passed. A city that was to forge out of steel and blood-red neon its own peculiar wilderness.”

“It’s the place built out of Man’s ceaseless failure to overcome himself. Out of Man’s endless war against himself we build our successes as well as our failures. Making it the city of all cities most like Man himself— loneliest creation of all this very old poor earth.”

A Worrier’s Guide to Life

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Full of comics simply drawn and clever, A Worrier’s Guide to Life is a fun, quick read. It is a little on the negative side, but so much of American humor is sarcastic or snarky, so I’m used to it, though I’ve become less so. Nonetheless Correll is clearly perceptive and funny. Her simple drawings have charm. It’s a book to get at the library for a quick read.

The Fortunes of the Rougons

What a crazy family! Well, that’s not quite right. They aren’t outright crazy, they’re just greedy, selfish, venial social climbers for the most part.

Emile Zola’s 20 novel series, Rougons-Macquart, begins with The Fortunes of the Rougons, which I’ve relished. I’m on determined to read all 20 books about the two sides of a family descended from Adelaide Fouque whose legitimate son spawns the Rougon side of the family and whose two illegitimate children are the start of the Macquart side.

Set in provincial France, the story opens with two young lovers, Silvère and Miette, marching with hopeful revolutionaries participating in a coup d’état led by republicans trying to wrest power the elites who’ve neglected the needs of the working class.

The story shifts back a generation to Adélaïde Fouque, who marries Rougon, a gardener, and they have a son Pierre. When Rougon dies Adélaïde takes a lover, Macquart, who’s a drunk and something of an odd ball. With Marquart Adélaïde has two illegitimate children, Antoine and Ursule. Antoine and Pierre are particularly at odds with each other especially after Pierre fools his mother into giving him control of her money.

This first book sets the stage for struggles and troubles to come as I’m seeing in the second book, The Kill. Zola’s style moves fast and I find learning about the French history of the Second Empire.

Eight Feet in the Andes

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Dervla Murphy’s travels are always absorbing and often humorous. I’ve read her Eight Feet in the Andes thanking God I’m not on this four month trek with a mule and a 9 year old (who’s amazingly patient, uncomplaining and intelligent). I wouldn’t be able to stand all the bugs, the 25 mile hikes up worn out trails that barely hug the mountains, the eating just ship’s biscuits and canned sardines for days till the next town which could be a week away.

Yet I find the book enthralling. The Murphy’s encounter people with histories and cultures I’d never heard of, some are amazingly hospitable and some are very cold and aloof. I love how Murphy tells it like it is. She doesn’t glorify all the native cultures or demonize all the mestizos. Each encounter is related as objectively as is humanly possible.

I’ve also learned so much about the Spanish and the Incas, how they clashed and how that affected numerous ethnic groups who were in the way. I’ll add a few good quotations later in the week, God willing, as it’s time to return to my end of term grading.

The Moonstone

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Told by a several different narrators, all with different personalities and motives, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone entertains from start to finish. It begins with a family’s black sheep bequeathing a large, expensive jewel, the moonstone of the title, to his niece Rachel. The moonstone originally was a sacred jewel in India and three former Brahmans have come to England to get it back no matter what.

Rachel receives the moonstone on her 18th birthday when many have gathered for her party. She flaunts the stone all night and then puts it in a cabinet in her bedroom. During the night it’s stolen. Who did it? The Indian jugglers, who came by out of the blue? One of the servants–particularly the maid who had been caught stealing by her previous employer? Or a guest who’s in need of money? It could be anyone and Collins keeps the surprises coming chapter after chapter.

I enjoyed the humor and how the story was as much about the personalities of the characters and their relationships as it was about finding the culprit who took the cursed moonstone. I will soon read another Wilkie Collins’ story, that’s for sure.

North and South

In June my online book club read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Since I’v seen the BBC series, I knew I’d like it, but I really liked it more than I expected. North and South has been billed as a Pride and Prejudice with social issues thrown in. That’s not a bad quick summary of the novel.

Briefly, it’s the story of country girl, Margaret Hale getting uprooted from her lovely pastoral Helstone and plucked down in gritty, smoky Milton a factory town in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. There she comes to know both the Higgins family, who work in the mills and whose daughter is sickened due to the horrible conditions in her mill and the Thornton’s whose grown son owns a major mill.

Gaskell’s got a light touch so the story’s not overwhelmed by the social issues, yet in her lifetime, many readers criticized her for siding with the workers to the degree that she did.

I liked the characters Gaskell crafted and the even-handed debates they had on labor relations. As you might guess, Margaret and Mr. Thornton are polar opposites for most of the story, yet develop an attraction. While that’s nothing new, Gaskell handles the relationship well, so you’re pulled in.

The story moves a long and contains several quotations that I’ve marked.

A good read, indeed.

King Coal

By Upton Sinclair, who always takes the side of the underdog and shows people how hard and unfair life was for the lower classes in his time (i.e. early 20th century), King Coal is about a well-to-do college student, who leans to the left politically. His older brother and friends tell him that all the news and complaints of poor treatment of coal minors is hog wash. He decides to spend his summer as a miner.

He takes on the clothing of a working man and goes to North Valley where he gets work in a mine. He has no idea how much worse things were than he imagined. He makes friends with the workers, lives amongst them and sympathizes with them. He gets the same bad treatment. He faces the same problems – high rents in the mining housing, bad food at the canteen, exorbitant prices at the general store. When he helps the men organize and request, not a union, but someone to check that the coal loads are weighed right, he lands in jail. The judge is in bed with the mine owners. Upon release he’s followed and when a reporter prints his story . . . well, on and on it goes, injustice upon injustice.

The story is compelling and Sinclair creates likable characters a few that middle class and progressive wealthy folk would take to. It’s still a relevant story and should be read in history classes. If I taught history, I’d have some students read this, others read The Jungle and others read Oil! and then compare notes.

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