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Thoughts on: The flame trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley

24 Aug

This is a story about a European family and how they settled in a farm in Thika, Kenya in the 1910s. It ends with the start of the First World War. It revolves around their day to day activities; starting a coffee farm from nothing, getting labour from the native population, interactions with their European neighbours etc. They get to learn the customs of the Kikuyu and the Maasai and to understand as well their legendary enmity.

I found interesting the sheer will power to settle in a place unknown, the readiness to take on adventure for livelihood and not for sport “by the horns” so to speak all in order to further the interests of their country or empire. In a similar way, the readiness with which, once war is declared, they leave everything gained to have the honour to fight for their country.

The book is very well written; the descriptions are superb, even poetical. At some point, it seems like an encyclopedia of flora and fauna. Towards the end of the book, I noted some of the birds and plants/trees mentioned. Birds: kingfisher, stonechats, babblers, mouse birds, swallow, whydah, harrier, blacksmith, finch and sunbird. Plants/trees: leleshwa, cedar tree, juniper, acacia, red oat grass, orchid, starlings, geraniums, weaver tree and delphinium. How long would have been the list if I had started from the very beginning!

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Wives and daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

23 Aug

wives and daughtersWives and daughters tells the story of Molly, the daughter of Mr. Gibson, the local doctor in a small village. Her father is a widower, and Molly has since childhood, been very close to her father.

When her father discovers a love letter destined to Molly by one of the young men he has in training, he makes a rather rash decision to marry. The woman of his choice is known to be elegant; and she accepts his proposal because she would not have to work again.

The scene changes with the arrival of Molly’s step-mother and her daughter, Cynthia. By this time, Molly is trying hard to be good and to think about the welfare of others, as she had been advised by Roger Hamley, a young man who becomes her friend.

She will need all the stamina she can muster to face her step-mother’s whims and selfish streaks as well as Cynthia’s intriguing love affairs, not to mention the village’s gossip. These are her words at some point in the story:

“I daresay it seems foolish; perhaps all our earthly trials will appear foolish to us after a while; perhaps they seem so now to angels. But we are ourselves, you know, and this is now, not some time to come, a long, long way off. And we are not angels, to be comforted by seeing the ends for which everything is sent.”

Wives and daughters is a very long book, more than 700 pages. However, the plot comes out smoothly without precipitation; it is a joyous and engaging read.

The Scarlet Pimpernel

29 Apr

We seek him here, we seek him there,scar
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?—Is he in hell?
That demmed, elusive Pimpernel.

(A verse about the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel)

This is an adventure novel that reminded me of The count of Monte Cristo.

Lady Blackeney is 24 years old. A Frenchwoman, she is married to an Englishman, Sir Percy. She has only one brother, Armand.

The book is set in the French revolution, when the French sent hundreds of aristocrats to the guillotine each day. A mysterious English nobleman, the Scarlet Pimpernel, with his friends, (the league of the scarlet pimpernel) is helping the estranged French nobles cross the channel to find a safe haven in England.

Chauvelin, the French agent, is desperately looking for the Scarlet Pimpernel. He confronts Marguerite (Lady Blackeney) and shows her a letter incriminating her beloved brother Armand, proving that he is in league with the Pimpernel. Chauvelin offers to trade Armand’s life for her help against the Pimpernel. Contemptuous of her seemingly witless and unloving husband, Marguerite does not go to him for help or advice. Instead, she passes along information which enables Chauvelin to learn the Pimpernel’s true identity.

Later that night, Marguerite finally tells her husband of the terrible danger threatening her brother and pleads for his assistance. Percy promises to save him. After Percy unexpectedly leaves for France, Marguerite discovers to her horror that he is the Pimpernel. He had hidden behind the persona of a dull, slow-witted fop in order to deceive the world.

Desperate to save her husband, she decides to pursue Percy to France to warn him that Chauvelin knows his identity and his purpose. But the weather is too rough to cross over to France.  She must wait. Will she arrive in time? Will she be able to find her husband? What if Chauvelin strikes first?

I think that one can only fully appreciate the drama by reading the Scarlet Pimpernel.

The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

22 Apr

51HVp1aHbQL__BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX240_SY320_CR,0,0,240,320_SH20_OU01_”Franklin’s is one of the greatest autobiographies in literature, and towers over other autobiographies as Franklin towered over other men.” –William Dean Howells

”The most widely read autobiography ever written by an American. It has served many Americans as it may have served Franklin – to define what it meant, what it had meant, and what it ought to mean to be an American.” –Edmund S. Morgan, emeritus professor of history, Yale University

These are two editorial reviews, and high as they may sound, it was definitely hard sailing for me to finish this book. First, 18th century American English is not one of my strong points, and neither do I have appreciation for American history, as yet. Second, it is coupled with the author’s observations about literature, philosophy, religion, civil life and what not.

The author begins by describing his life in Boston, then he moves on to Philadelphia where he works for a printer, one Samuel Keimer. He then goes to England after befriending some prominent political figures, and works for yet another printer.

After his return, he started his own printing-house, and a debating club called the Junto. He basically was a pioneer in many projects: fire brigade, police force, the University of Pennsylvania etc. By the way, he also found time to conduct scientific experiments on lightning and at some point was the postmaster general of the USA.

A truly outstanding man, to say the least.

The Autobiography itself was written in three different times: 1771 in England, 1783-83 in France, and 1788 in America. If Franklin meant to complete it, he died before he got the chance.

The last chronicle of Barset

12 Apr

149789This is the last of the Barsetshire tales. It is so hard to keep flipping the pages knowing that at some point, one will flip for the last time. Many of the characters are already familiar: The archdeacon and his family, the bishop of Barchester and his wife Mrs. Proudie, the humble abode of the perpetual curate at Hogglestock, the Framleys etc. The clergy of the Church of England is Trollope’s specialization.

The story centres on the alleged theft of a cheque of £20, by none other than the Rev. Josiah Crawley. Everyone is keen to unravel or take advantage of the mystery. Old family rivalries are renewed, friendships are strengthened, and lovers find comfort in each other and hope for the best. It is indeed a trying courtship between Major Grantly, whose sister married a Lord and Grace Crawley, whose father has been accused of stealing the cheque of £20.

John Eames, who we left heartbroken in The small house at Allington for his unsuccessful bid for Lily Dale, makes a final effort to win the lady of his dreams. I must admit that I expected things to go differently. Why can’t Lily learn to forget the past i.e. to forget Adolphus Crosbie’s jilt and agree to live her life and not dwell on what could have been?

As for Crawley, how sweetly the reader relishes his triumph on Mrs. Proudie. She is absolutely domineering, she is the bishop. But here comes a pauper, almost disgraced in the face of men, who is able to tell to her face what everyone thought about her all along! The ending in this regard is no surprise, but it is dramatic.

antt

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)

Anthony Trollope had this to say about the book:

I regard this as the best novel I have written. I was never quite satisfied with the development of the plot, which consisted in the loss of a cheque, of a charge made against a clergyman for stealing it, and of absolute uncertainty on the part of the clergyman himself as to the manner in which the cheque found its way into his hands…. I have never been capable of constructing with complete success the intricacies of a plot that required to be unraveled.I agree it is well written. I could hardly keep down the book. Both Trollope and some of his later critics have considered The Last Chronicle to be his greatest novel. I am no literary critic, but among his books, I like Doctor Thorne best.

Are there any Trollope fans out there?

Review: The picture of Dorian Gray

10 Apr

5297 When I finished reading the book I thought: Did I just read a book about ugliness? Did I just read a book about inner ugliness, which is worse? I felt like throwing up. The question I asked myself, and I still do is: why was this book written?

Dorian Gray is a beautiful fashionable young man whose is idolized by his friend Basil, a painter. Through Basil, Dorian gets to meet Lord Henry, a fact that Basil regrets bitterly. The book is all about Lord Henry’s influence on Dorian who ultimately “sells” his soul for eternal youth and beauty.

The picture of Dorian Gray was obviously written for a purpose. In fact, it is Oscar Wilde’s only novel. Much can be said about it in the literary sense: themes of beauty, art, friendship; symbols such as the painting and the yellow book etc. Much has been said about its connection with the author’s life. I wonder if I am not making things worse be still saying something about it.

Try as I can, it is difficult to forget the book. There are the almost hypnotizing phrases that issue from Lord Henry’s mouth that leave one dumbfounded. True, Lord Henry is Dorian’s corrupter, but it is amazing to see Wilde’s argument put so beautifully together. Lord Henry manages to convince him to live his life according to his maxim of pleasure, pursuit of art etc.

As Dorian goes from bad to worse, there is almost no hope for him. The reader would like to stop reading; the stench of foul things is perhaps too much to bear. It seems as though the book is a glorification of the pursuit of pleasure at whatever cost.

However, I don’t think that that is the reason for the book. In the last chapter, there is this sentence: It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the youth that he had prayed for. But for those two things, his life might have been free from stain. His beauty had been to him but a mask, his youth but a mockery. What was youth at best? A green, an unripe time, a time of shallow moods, and sickly thoughts. Why had he worn its livery? Youth had spoiled him.

Youth. A mystery. A gift. A curse perhaps? Each one makes it what they would. But as far as the book is concerned, I can breathe easily. The sentence quoted above restored the hope that I had almost lost.

Review: Callista by John Henry Newman

8 Apr

4635826This is one of the books that I would re-read any time of the year. Set in Proconsular Africa, it tells the story of third century Christians. It revolves around three characters: Callista, a Greek decorator of sculptures, Agellius, a farmer and a Christian and Caecilius, the persecuted bishop of Carthage. It tells of the clash between paganism and Christianity.

Callista, unsatisfied with an empty life and with the pagan culture surrounding her, seeks for the truth. She is attracted by the beauty of Christianity, but considers it too good to be real. Agellius tries to woo her, but Callista sees his real motive: he takes advantage of her curiosity of his religion to gain her for himself rather than for his God. Juba, Agellius’ brother is scornful of his Christianity and together with his uncle, tries to make Agellius “come back to his senses”.

A chain of events then follows: the plague of locusts that leave the city of Sicca devastated, the possession of Juba, the arrest of Callista on the charge of Christianity and the implementation of the edict of the Emperor Decius regarding the Christians: christianos ad leones (Christians to the lions). Will Callista be set free or will she be killed, even though she is not a Christian? Will she convert before it is too late, and if so, who will help her? All this drama waits for the reader.

The review in Goodreads says: Far from being tied to the past, Newman’s novel challenges the assumptions of the modern reader in unexpected ways. More perhaps than his major works, Newman’s fiction reveals the contours of his imaginative life, the range and power of his prose writing, and the wider literary culture which he so often subordinated to his higher vocation or the demands of controversy. Callista’s picture of the Christian venture of faith, so close to Newman’s own, and the setting in his beloved church of the Fathers in Roman North Africa, make it one of his most characteristic works. Callista is an important text for understanding Newman’s lifelong vocation as a Christian apologist, and the importance for him of the early Church.