Thursday, November 13, 2014

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Once a year The Gables Book Club reads a piece of classic literature. For this year's offing, Brideshead Revisited was chosen. Originally published in 1945, it has also been the subject of at least two film/tv iterations. I enjoy revisiting the classic literature that I may have missed or that I read as an adolescent and did not appreciate. Evelyn Waugh's novel of the adult life of Charles Ryder as he struggles to find himself and his place in the world. From a beginning prologue to the body of the book and then the epilogue, the reader wrestles with Ryder and Waugh for truths to be told.

The reader first meets Ryder as he is pulling up one camp during WWII and traveling to another outpost in England. Upon arrival, he knows the estate and the sight of Brideshead catapults him into a memoir of his time spent their as a youth. Charles was raised by his father in London after his mother died. His father seems indifferent and almost eccentric, spending very little time with Charles. Charles goes off to Oxford University where he meets Sebastian Flyte, the son of the Lord Marchmain who owns the palatial estate. They become best of friends and more importantly, drinking buddies. During the summer term, Charles spends time at Brideshead and meets the other members of the family: Lord Bridey, Julia, and Cordelia, the siblings of Sebastian and his mother Lady Marchmain.

The story that ensues details his relationships, his beliefs, and his life's journey from Oxford to his revisiting Brideshead in 1944. As with many classic pieces of literature the themes on which the author focuses are well delineated and presented. Brideshead Revisited has no dearth of such themes. With Evelyn Waugh, the reader must remember his roots as a satirist as the exploration of those themes ensues. Noteworthy are his treatments of alcoholism and the acceptance of it by the aristocracy in Post WWI England and a heavy handed examination of the Roman Catholic dogma and church. Each member of the Flyte family exhibits a different commitment to his or her faith and as such embodies Waughs struggle with his own beliefs.

Another characteristic that stands out in classic literature is the richeness of the language. I don't know if we as readers in 2012 are less intelligent or lazier than those in 1945, but to read a novel that is so infused with beautiful language is so refreshing. Page after page the reader is treated to a feast of words that flow with richness that is a characteristic of the past. 

Brideshead Revisited is worthy of a read or a re-read. It's provocative, probing, and profound.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

It never ceases to amaze me how really little I know about US history despite having had a remarkable course in high school and reading throughout my adult years. The Good Lord Bird is an almost comedic look at a snapshot of the life of John Brown, abolitionist. It is also amazing that I went to college in a town that play a prominent role in his life and the staging of his raid on Harper's Ferry and I never really understood the importance of Chambersburg. I can't tell you how many times I walked past the historical marker there. If only as youth we would have paid attention to our surroundings. 

McBride's novel opens in Kansas where John Brown becomes involved in a skirmish near Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas in 1857. He kidnaps the narrator of the novel, a black youth, Henry, whom Brown mistakes for a girl and thus becomes Henrietta. Brown nicknames him as Onion and the two are off on what is sometimes a rollicking adventure. With some of his sons, Brown's  gang travels east as he develops his plan for eliminating slavery in the country. Along the way they find an ivory-billed woodpecker that is known as the "Good Lord Bird." One of its feathers is sure to bring you a peace that will last your entire life. 

The reader sees Brown as a deeply religious man who firmly believes that with the African-American help, there may be a chance to eradicate slavery in this country. Brown is also comedic and with some of his observations will have the reader chuckle or laugh right out loud. One of the most humorous scenes is when Onion begins to have a bit of pining for a woman when s/he is staying at a whore house. Brown wants to make sure that s/he is still pure and has not "commingled" without benefit of marriage.

There are other noteworthy figures who play a prominent roll in The Good Lord Bird. Frederick Douglass is introduced in Rochester, NY when Brown goes to live with him for a couple of months. McBride does not treat Douglass reverently, but rather portrays him as an alcoholic and womanizer. These character flaws were hinted at in Transatlantic, but not nearly as blatant as in McBride's book. Onion meets Harriet Tubman, who would love to have been more involved in Brown's plot, except for being so ill. In a poignant scene she gives Onion her scarf.

For me the most interesting parts of the book came as the actual raid on Harper's Ferry was being staged. The accumulation of weapons and the working of the details were fascinating and now spur me a trip to the actual place. Although John Brown, his men, and his cause have had treatment in many fiction and nonfiction books, this one was a most memorable one for me. It had history, wonderful writing, and a human interest side. Onion is definitely a character for the ages. 

It was also a privilege to hear James McBride speak on his book, its writing and his view of our world today.

 "John Brown Historical Marker,", <> accessed 11 November 2014.