The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen because it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2002. I must admit that when I saw the thickness of the book I almost gave up on it before even opening it, it’s 653 pages long and it was a paperback that I borrowed from the library. I find thick paperbacks really awkward to read. My history with these James TBM winners hasn’t been all that great, but I really liked this one and I don’t really know why I did, because there are so many aspects of it that I really dislike in a book, such as it not having any really likeable characters. Most of them are quite objectionable but at times they all have moments of decency in them and I suppose that made them very human, it’s such a well observed book as far as people and families are concerned I think.

The elderly matriarch Enid Lambert lives in a bit of a fantasy world as far as her three grown up children’s lives are concerned, she’s happy for her friends to believe that they are all successful and everything is hunky dory in their lives. The truth is she hardly ever sees them and is struggling on her own with her husband Alfred who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. All she wants is for her two sons and her daughter to come home for a few days over Christmas – and maybe her daughter-in-law and grandsons too. She wants to have a last family Christmas in the home that they’ve grown up in, then maybe she will be able to sell it and move to somewhere more practical to live in. Alfred is losing his grip on reality, possibly because of the medication he is on.

The trouble is that the adult children’s own lives are a mess, and the more the reader discovers of their childhoods the easier it is to see why they have grown to be such broken and selfish adults whose lives are falling apart.

There were so many scenes in this book that rang bells for me, such as the fight over a child who hates the food he has been given for dinner and is forced to stay at the table until he has eaten it all. That reminded me of a woman I knew who did that with her son – but the outcome there was much more dramatic than the scene in this book!

There’s no doubt that Enid has always been unhappy in her marriage and she punishes them by cooking food she knows that her husband in particular hates. She had married Alfred because he was tall and well-built and he earned good money, but she was never going to be able to stop scrimping, that was just her nature, and she was always comparing her life-style with her friends and neighbours who had husbands with lower moral standards financially than Alfred had. But with a stock market crash on the horizon – will that matter?

Surprisingly the book’s ending is fairly upbeat as most of the characters get a second crack at life, hopefully having learned from their past mistakes.

It seems that there are lots of people who hated this book and gave up on it, but there are also lots who have given it 5 stars on Goodreads. I think I’ll give it 4 stars, mainly because it should have been shorter by 150 pages or so, but I understand that most readers nowadays like a big chunky book because they feel like they’re getting their money’s worth, publishers should just make slim volumes cheaper.

Aunt Jo’s Scrapbag volume 6 by Louisa May Alcott

I recently finished reading Aunt Jo’s Scrapbag volume 6 by Louisa May Alcott. It’s a collection of short stories so it’s obviously a mixed bunch of tales and as always with these things some are better than others, but they were all worth reading. I read it on my Kindle and downloaded it, free from Project Gutenberg here.

L.M. Alcott was a woman ahead of her time. From her writing in these short stories she was obviously anti-slavery but also anti-caged birds and anti-whaling. While reading The Whale’s Story I experienced one of those strange moments when I saw that the tale was being told by a Right whale (deceased) from Greenland. Just a couple of hours earlier I had been reading an article about how a very rare Right whale had been spotted very far from where it should have been. Until then I had never even heard of Right whales!

You can read a wee bit about Alcott’s life here.

An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott 20 Books of Summer

An Old-Fashioned Girl cover

An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott was first published in 1870, but six chapters had been published in a magazine the previous year.

It’s the story of Polly who is the teenage daughter of a rural church minister and his wise and sensible wife, money in that family isn’t plentiful, so when Polly travels to Boston to visit her friend Fanny she finds herself in a situation she hasn’t been in before. Fanny’s family is a wealthy one, living in a grand house with servants. Material things are obviously very important to them, but when compared with Polly’s family and upbringing Polly can see that the money and easy life hasn’t made Fanny’s family happy. In particular Fanny’s mother is immature and lacking in any common-sense, her children are argumentative and spoiled spendthrifts. Fanny’s father sees Polly’s kindness and warmth as being a good influence on his family, but really he’s just a provider of money as far as they’re concerned. Fanny’s mother reminded me in some ways of Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, she shrieks and takes to her bed when she gets bad news and evidently only married her husband for his money.

This book covers several years, taking Polly and Fanny into their early 20s. Polly is determined to be independent, she’s working as a music teacher to help her brother get through college financially. Teaching small children turns out to be much more difficult than she thought it would be. There’s romance of course and it’s quite obvious how things will end up for Polly. She’s determined to marry someone that she loves rather than ‘an establishment’. I thought of Lizzie Bennet and Pemberley!

This was an enjoyable read, I know that if I had read this book when I was a youngster I would really have identified with Polly, and not being a wild consumerist or interested in designer labels, make-up and nail bars I still do identify with her really. I found this book to be a bit too preachy and just a wee bit too sentimental, but that was the fashion of the time. I don’t think there’s a sequel to it, which is a shame, I would have liked to read more about Polly as she aged.

Thanks for sending me this one Jennifer.

I read this one for 20 Books of Summer.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn cover

I feel that I might be close to being one of the last females in the western world to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. The blurb on the front of the book says: Poignant, moving, triumphant – in the bestselling tradition of Angela’s Ashes. I find that really bizarre as this book was first published in 1943 and Angela’s Ashes was published in 1996 and is so much more depressing and frankly distressing than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

The setting is the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn where the Nolan family is living a hand to mouth existence, being held back by the alcoholic father who is ruled by his need for alcohol but otherwise is a decent father and husband, greatly loved by his family despite his weakness. The book begins in 1912. Katie and Johnny are a young married couple. Katie married Johnny mainly because he had been her friend’s boyfriend and she liked knowing that her friend had still wanted him, she liked winning him but it wasn’t long before Katie realised that she had taken on a big problem and she realised that she would have to find work with a home as part of the deal as paying rent was going to be a problem. She can’t rely on her husband to come home from work with his wages. To add to their problems in no time Katie and Johnny find themselves the parents of a daughter and son.

Francie is the young daughter who along with her brother Neeley and their mother manage to cope with the poverty and often go hungry when Papa loses his job due to his drinking. He’s a singing waiter (who knew?). Papa has charm though and he’s a popular character, I think Francie inherited his charm. She’s a bookish little girl and her favourite place is the library, despite the fact that she doesn’t get much in the way of encouragement from the librarian. She can hardly wait to get home with her books where she sits out on the fire escape to read them, hidden from the neighbours by her tree. I loved Francie and how she matures in this book but there are other great characters in it too, people that I was happy to spend a lot of time with as this book has 487 pages.

To me there’s a vast difference between this one and Angela’s Ashes as in that one the mother is just as bad as the father is and she just spends her time drinking and smoking while her children die of starvation or suffer from terrible health problems that could be easily dealt with by a doctor. However Katie is the opposite, she’s hardworking and resourceful, but she isn’t able to hide that she loves Neeley much more than she loves Francie and Francie has to take second best all the time. This is how it was back then, in fact it was how it was when I was growing up in the 1960s/70s. Boys in families were treated like kings and the daughters were the maidservants. I hope it’s different nowadays!

I read this one for The Classics Club and I think I’ll probably give it five stars on Goodreads.

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

The Song of the Lark cover

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather was first published in 1937 and it’s a chunky read at 581 pages. I’ve read quite a lot of books by Cather, I think this is the seventh and it’s the one that I’ve least enjoyed. It begins well with the setting of Moonstone, a small town in the American West where Thea Kronberg is one of a family of seven children, their father is a local Methodist minister and there’s some rivalry between them and the local Baptists. The blurb on the back says that it’s a Cinderella story – but who is the Cinderella character – certainly not Thea.

From the beginning it’s obvious that Thea has been singled out as the special daughter of the family. She’s pretty and blonde, everybody’s favourite. The local piano teacher thinks she has talent and she has to spend lots of time practising the piano, but eventually it’s her voice that she concentrates on and when she’s old enough she moves to Chicago to take lessons there.

Along the way Thea makes friends with various men. She’s one of those females who gets on much better with men than with other women. Everything leads to Thea’s eventual fame and fortune of course, but it’s at a cost to everyone else. She is completely focused on her career. She only went back to Moonstone once after leaving home, and didn’t even go there when she knew that her parents were dying. Her mother who had been so happy to put Thea up on a pedestal died thinking that having a family wasn’t really worth the bother. But Thea’s upbringing made it almost a certainty she was going to be a selfish diva.

There are a few mentions of the other daughter of the Kronberg family – Anna, the younger girl. She is the true Cinderella. Whilst Thea was getting all the attention poor Anna was the one doing all the housework that Thea was too special to do. Anna is portrayed as a bit of a fanatical Christian, but maybe she was hoping to get some attention and love from her father the minister. She was never going to be loved by her mother. Anna is seen as being embittered, but who wouldn’t be under those circumstances? She drops completely out of the book about half-way through. I want to know what happened to Anna who was so neglected by everyone.

Apart from that the book is just far too long, it really drags in the middle and could have been doing with being cut by about 200 pages. However as ever there are some lovely evocations of the countryside although Chicago is more of a shadowy place so you don’t get much of an idea of what it was like.

I read this one for The Classics Club.

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck

The Red Pony cover

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck seems to have been published originally in book form in 1937, but the first four chapters – or short stories were published in magazines earlier in the 1930s. It’s a slim volume at just 120 pages and the last story is called Junius Maltby and features a man who is a bit of a dreamer, a reader and a philosopher which isn’t helpful if you own a farm and should be working in the fields.

Anyway, back to The Red Pony tales and these were not at all what I expected. The writing is lovely as you would expect and obviously Steinbeck knew horses well, but really the reality of living on a ranch could be brutal at times and he didn’t sugar coat the way of life, so this one isn’t for people who want to avoid what can be the harsh realities of working around livestock.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

The Pearl cover

The Pearl by John Steinbeck was first published in 1947 and my copy seems to be a first edition, not that I bother about such things, it cost me all of £3. It’s a very slim volume, so I read it in no time at all – a bedtime read.

It begins early in the morning in a shack in Mexico where Kino, a pearl fisher, and his wife Juana are just waking up. They have one child, a son called Coyotito, the centre of their lives, so when he is bitten by a scorpion they’re panic stricken.

They have no money to pay for a doctor and hope that Juana’s swift action in sucking out the poison will save the child. But Juana still wants to go to the doctor to make sure, the doctor isn’t much better than a quack and he’s not interested in helping the child of peasants who don’t have money to pay him.

Kino is desperate to find a large pearl, thinking that that would solve all of their problems, but when miraculously he does find a huge pearl it brings out the worst in just about everybody around him.

This is a story about greed and envy which was apparently based on a Mexican folk tale. It’s not exactly uplifting and I can’t say that I really enjoyed it much, in fact it’s quite depressing, but no doubt it’s quite realistic in its portrayal of human character.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden cover

East of Eden by John Steinbeck was first published in 1952 and it was high time that I got around to reading it. I suspect that everybody who is a keen reader already got there long before I did, it’s probably a set book in many schools. I’ve read a lot of Steinbeck’s books and have never been disappointed and sometimes I absolutely love them, East of Eden comes into that category. It’s 714 pages and I read it in three days as I could hardly put it down.

The setting is the Salinas Valley in Northern California and Steinbeck said about East of Eden: “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years.” He further claimed: “I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”

I must admit that the title East of Eden didn’t mean anything to me but it is of course from the Bible, Genesis – where Cain was told to go East of Eden after he killed his brother Abel and a version of that story is repeated throughout the book. The main story takes place from the beginning of the 20th century until just after World War 1 but does dip back to the 1880s at times. Mainly it’s about good and evil and how some people are just bad right through to the core whilst others are aware of their weaknesses and fight against their instincts. Many of the characters are from Steinbeck’s own family or neighbours.

As ever Steinbeck’s descriptions of the surroundings and his insight into the human condition, good and evil are a treat to read and I’ve always been slightly puzzled that he apparently didn’t have any Scottish blood in him as those are traits that are particularly prominent in Scottish literature – think Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and many others.

Steinbeck’s maternal family – the Hamiltons – feature in the book and much is made of them coming originally from Ireland and their fierce Presbyterianism, so that solved my problem of how Steinbeck could seem so Scottish – because he was obviously of Scottish descent although somewhere along the way they forgot about going to Ireland from Scotland. Maybe when people migrate more than once it’s easiest to only recall the most recent past. As the Hamiltons were Protestants then it’s likely that they were amongst the Scots who were encouraged by the British government to settle in northern Ireland in an attempt to keep those Roman Catholic Irish people down.

Anyway, all the Scottish elements of writing are in his books, but wherever his talent sprang from he was a great writer and after reading Travels with Charley I came to the conclusion he was a great human being too. If by any unlikely chance you haven’t read any of his books – you should definitely give him a go.

I read this one for The Classics Club.

The Classic Spin – Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

I’ve just realised that I’m a day late doing this post for the Classics Club Spin number 11, particularly annoying as I finished reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row about a month ago. The book was first published in 1945 but the setting is Monterey, California during the Great Depression.

Cannery Row is a street full of sardine canneries, as you can imagine it isn’t the most salubrious of places. It’s smelly and the local workforce is mainly single men who need their comforts so there’s a local brothel which is owned by Dora Flood. She seems to be propping up the whole community as she is so heavily taxed on the whorehouse earnings. She takes great care of her girls, a madam with a heart of gold.

Lee Chong owns a grocer shop, he’s ever on the lookout for a business opportunity but at the same time he’s very easy going and is owed a lot of money from various customers. When a group of local men led by Mack hear that Lee Chong has become the owner of a warehouse they decide that it could be the perfect home for them. When they suggest to Lee Chong that they move in there he thinks it is best to go along with their wishes as otherwise they will probably destroy the warehouse anyway. The guys are well known troublemakers, not so much because they’re evil but they are so immature and stupid that even with the best of intentions everything they do ends in trouble for other people. Mack and the guys have evolved the prefect life/work balance for themselves, only working enough to be able to pay for their immediate needs and dodging work otherwise.

Doc is a marine biologist and lives just across the road from the grocery store. He lives by gathering marine specimens and sending them to various universities to be examined, as well as carrying out experiments himself. He’s also seen as being the local medical man although he’s unqualified, and he’s happy to patch people up when they need it.

Mack and the boys get it into their heads that it’s about time that they showed Doc their appreciation of him and they plan to give him a surprise party. You just know it’s going to be disastrous.

I really enjoyed Cannery Row, it’s funny and has a cast of likeable characters. It’s also a very quick read, just a novella really, but now I want to go on and read all of Steinbeck’s books. I’ll have to add them to my Classics Club list.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is one of those books that I was pretty certain I had read as a youngster, but recently realised that I hadn’t, so I rectified it fast. In fact my copy of the book is in a volume of Steinbeck which contains this one and Cannery Row. I got Cannery Row in the Classics Club spin, so more on that one early next month.

Of Mice and Men is a quick read, just a novella really, it was first published in 1937 and the setting is close to Soledad and the Salinas River, California. It’s the American Depression and is based on Steinbeck’s own experiences of being a bindlestiff in the 1920s, a sort of itinerant farm worker.

George and Lennie are travelling towards their next job on a farm, they’ve had to leave their previous one due to a misunderstanding involving Lennie and a young woman. Lennie is a big man who has the mind of a small and simple child and it gets him into trouble, especially as he doesn’t have any idea of just how strong he is.

George is really Lennie’s carer, trying to stop him from getting into trouble, no easy task. Lennie loves to feel soft things, and he had a piece of velvet which someone had given him to stroke, but sadly he lost it. A teeny mouse was fulfilling his tactile needs, but due to having no idea of the fragility of a mouse and what his manhandling it will do to it, it isn’t long before the mouse is dead. Lennie just can’t understand it.

When they reach the farm where they have some work, they’re looked on suspiciously, it’s unusual for men like them to travel around in pairs, they’re usually loners, and it’s thought that George might be taking advantage of Lennie and taking his pay from him. It’s not true of course, although they both share a dream to own some land and a home of their own. They have it all planned out. They begin to get to know the other workers and Lennie is ecstatic when he is given a pup from a newly born litter on the farm – oh dearie me!

This is a sad tale, you know it’s just not going to have a happy ending and Lennie ends up suffering the same fate as an ancient farm dog.

Of course, Steinbeck took the title Of Mice and Men from the Robert Burns poem – To a Mouse

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men gang aft agley. The best laid schemes of mice and men go often awry/askew.