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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.

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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.

The small house at Allington

30 Mar

Anthony Trollope remains one of my favourite authors. The small house of Allington is the second to last of the Barchester series, and a good read. I like Barchester Towers and Doctor Thorne more, nevertheless, The small house at Allington has been satisfactory. Published in 1862, it came out in book format two years later.

I particularly like the way it begins: “Of course there was a Great House at Allington. How otherwise should there have been a Small House?” Mrs Dale and her daughters Lily and Bell live at the Small House. The squire, the girls’ childless uncle, lives at the Great House.

Lily Dale, on meeting Adolphus Crosbie, tells her sister Bell (Isabella) that he is a swell. He is a London man, who knows what to say to everyone, more apt to shine in a ballroom than in a tête-à-tête. Lily is dazzled, and Adolphus as well of her purity. By the time he discovers that she has no fortune, he is engaged to be married. Will he keep his word, even after spending the last week of his vacation in Courcy Castle, where the Lady Alexandrina is?

The coming of age of John Eames is so funny. John is a long time friend of the family, and the admirer of Lily. He has written thousands of poems in praise of her, of which she has not seen even one. Will his friendship with the earl of Allington help him extricate himself from Amelia Roper, whom he cannot tell to her face that he does not love her?

Adolphus Crosbie is an interesting character. He takes leave of his betrothed swearing that he will be true to her, but soon changes his mind before the week is out. Isn’t it ironical that on his wedding day, he finds himself thinking about Lily, even with the Lady Alexandrina by his side? Perhaps he deserved it. Perhaps he did not deserve Lily Dale. He loved and let go, because he preferred to live in poverty –with- the- appearance- of- wealth rather than abject poverty. Poor man! It is no wonder the last words of the author concern him:

“As for Adolphus, he had taken his little vessel bravely out into the deep waters, and had sailed her well while fortune stuck close to him. But he had forgotten his nautical rules, and success had made him idle. His plummet and lead had not been used, and he had kept no look-out ahead. Therefore the first rock he met shivered his bark to pieces. His wife, the Lady Alexandrina, is to be seen in the one-horse carriage with her mother at Baden-Baden.”

The reader gets the last laugh.

This book is a swell, and Anthony Trollope is one hell of a swell!

Review: The African child by Camara Laye

10 Aug

Perhaps this is the second best written African book that I have read recently, after Alan Paton’s Cry the beloved country. Set in Guinea, Laye takes us on a fun-filled, nostalgic journey into his boyhood life in one of the villages in his country. The result is something special; portraying the African community in the pre-colonial era.

 He presents the customs and beliefs of his people in the context of the day-to-day life as seen through his eyes. His approach endears the reader to the boy’s parents and his friends and his life in general. He alternates his home as a child between his home in Kouroussa and his grandmother’s home in Tindican. He goes to school, watches the fields with his friends, participates in the harvest, etc.

At fifteen, he undergoes the rite of circumcision, the sign of entrance into manhood. After this, he acquires his own hut.

Thereafter, he goes to Conakry for technical studies, befriends Marie, who becomes his girlfriend. He goes back home for his holidays. He wins a scholarship to study in France, extremely sad to leave all that he loves behind.

Published in 1954 as L’Enfant Noir and appearing in English the following year, The African child is a great read. It is considered one of the best novels to come out French-speaking Africa.

 

Follow your heart by Susanna Tamaro

17 Jun

 

This is what appears on the book jacket:

An elderly Italian woman, driven by fear of her encroaching death, decides to write a long letter to her grand-daughter in America. In some ways it is a love letter; in others, a confession. Above all it is a bequest of advice for life from an old woman at last brave enough to acknowledge that she has too long submitted to convention and kept hidden her feelings. She relives everything that has happened to her, teaching her grand-daughter that the one important journey in life is to the centre of ourselves to that point where we can gather the courage to follow our hearts.

Before reading it, I asked around if any of my friends had read it. A few had started reading it, but stopped. That made me determined to find out what was wrong with it. As I was reading, everything was OK; I just had to cast away the feeling that the lady’s letters are the typical things that old women would like to say to their grand daughters. I concentrated instead on the events of her life and her decisions, and how these shaped her life afterwards.

In the end, I didn’t really enjoy it. I would skip over the advice parts  and read  what she really did. Which is not much: sad childhood, cold parents, uneventful marriage, housewifery and all that, her daughter and their bizarre relationship.  Instead of doing, things just happened to her. Then she tells her grand-daughter: I messed up three lives with a lie, don’t you follow in my footsteps. Pretty hollow, I think and unconvincing. Besides, it has a pessimistic tone that I don’t like.

If I were to say something positive about it, this would be it: remember the popular saying that life is not a rehearsal and that other people’s mistakes are our lessons too (at least they would tell us in primary school).

I hope that other books in my summer 2012 reading list will be better, if not,  I could change my list!

Now to The Woman in White…