Friday, November 6, 2009

Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton

Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934) by James Hilton is a look back at the career of an English schoolmaster named Arthur Chipping. Mr. Chipping first arrived at Brookfield as a young teacher in 1870. Through his care and commitment, he changed the lives of his students, who gave him the nickname Mr. Chips. Arthur is briefly married to a charming woman named Katherine, who dies in childbirth. Over time, Mr. Chips is known for his solitary, bachelor life.

After more than forty years teaching, Mr. Chips retires in 1913. During the war, he’s asked to return to work at the school, and following the war, he returns to retirement. The book is a reflection on his life and career, his brief marriage, the profession of teaching, and the isolation of growing old.

Purchase and read books by James Hilton:

Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton Lost Horizon by James Hilton

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Lantern in her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich

A Lantern in her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich

A Lantern in Her Hand (1928) by Bess Streeter Aldrich is a story of maternal sacrifice and pioneer life. Abbie Mackenzie is full of dreams to be a lovely woman like her grandmother. She has a beautiful voice and dreams of singing and playing music on the stage. She wants to write something and make her mark on the world. As the story plays out, it's painful to watch Abbie put away and sacrifice her dreams one by one.

Purchase and read books by Bess Streeter Aldrich:

A Lantern in her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich Song of Years by Bess Streeter Aldrich

Saturday, March 4, 2006

Not Now, but Now by M.F.K. Fisher

Not Now, but Now by M.F.K. Fisher

Not Now, but Now (1947) is the sole novel written by M.F.K. Fisher, who is best known as a food writer. The book has four main chapters, each telling a story set in a different time and place that all feature the same character named Jennie. Jennie seeks conquests, wealth, and adulation. She corrupts those around her, bringing them pain and destruction. A recurring motif is Jennie’s reptilian accessories, symbolizing both her evil nature and the way she can shed her skin. She can slither out of one time and place to form a new life for herself in another.

M.F.K. Fisher described the book saying, "To my mind it is really not a novel at all... It is a string of short stories, tied together more or less artfully by a time-trick. The female Jennie appears everywhere, often with heedless cruelty or deliberate destruction to her docile associates, and then slips away in her little snakeskin shoes..." It’s a curious and very different type of story.

Purchase and read books by M.F.K. Fisher:

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Notes on a Prison Wall by Nicholas Catanoy

Notes on a Prison Wall by Nicholas Catanoy

Notes on a Prison Wall is a memoir by Nicholas Catanoy that was published in 1994. In this volume, Catanoy remembers being a young cadet in Romania and his imprisonment by the invading Russians. The book is a collection of poems, poem fragments, quotations, and reflections. Catanoy was one of the few prisoners to survive the imprisonment, and he escaped random executions three times. His collection of quotes and poetry is profound and makes one consider the senseless cruelty of war.

Purchase and read books by Nicholas Catanoy:

Notes on a Prison Wall by Nicholas Catanoy Modern Romanian Poetry edited by Nicholas Catanoy

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (1992) tells the story of John Grady Cole. Sixteen-year-old Cole and his friend, Lacey Rawlins, cross the Rio Grande from Texas into Mexico on horseback. Along the way, they meet another young man, Jimmy Blevins, who joins them on part of their journey south. Eventually, Cole and Rawlins work on a ranch, and Cole falls in love with Alejandra, the ranch owner’s daughter.

At first, I found reading the novel frustrating because of the lack of quotation and apostrophe marks for contractions. The post-modern, stripped-down style was difficult to read. Luckily, I did not put down the book before the half-way mark, and eventually McCarthy’s writing style grew on me.

There is a profound change in John Grady Cole from the beginning of the story to its end. I enjoy coming-of-age stories, and I thought this was an excellent one. Cole is directed by the women around him (his mother, Doña Alfonsa, and Alejandra) while struggling with the ethics of his actions and lack of action. Compared to his expectations, it’s sad what Cole finds along his journey, and it’s surprising that he’s not jaded at the end of the novel. He still loves life, and he’s still in search of more.

Purchase and read books by Cormac McCarthy:

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, the Crossing, Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera is one of the world’s best-known stories. The tale was first serialized in the French newspaper Le Gaulois from 1909 to 1910. Leroux based his story partly on real-life events and rumors surrounding the Palais Garnier, the opera house in Paris. Leroux’s story was famously adapted as a silent film starring Lon Chaney as the Phantom in 1925 and as a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1986.

Although I was familiar with the story, having seen the silent film numerous times, Gaston Leroux’s storytelling held my attention and captivated me even though I knew the ending. I found the novel inventive and unique. The story combines elements of gothic storytelling, horror, romance, mystery, and comedy.

The Phantom of the Opera is set in the Paris Opera House, which Leroux describes as a many-storied, maze-like building full of hidden secrets. The building is the perfect home for the solitary Phantom. Leroux narrates the tale as though he is a reporter, piecing together facts he has collected to tell the Phantom’s story. He uses evidence from interviews, memoirs, and diaries to tell the story of what really happened. The structure and pacing of the tale create an exciting and suspenseful narrative. Leroux’s style is so convincing that I was left questioning whether parts of the story were true after closing the book.

Lobby Card for Carl Laemmle's 1925 Silent Film Adaptation of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera Starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin

In reading the novel, I was surprised by its humorous tone. For some reason, I assumed that the book would be serious, and that the silent film made the story more melodramatic and humorous for the screen. The silent film and later adaptations were overall true to the novel. For example, I thought the "Angel of Music" and "Punjab lasso" scenes were invented for the film, but both are present in the novel. Likewise, some of the elements I found especially unbelievable and cheesy when I watched the 2004 film version of The Phantom of the Opera were portrayed directly from the book. I realized that the adaptations have been quite loyal to the novel, capturing the suspenseful, strange, and supernatural aspects, the humor, the sense of mystery and spookiness, and the overall darkness.

Nevertheless, the characters in the novel are more complex than they are often portrayed. Erik, the Phantom, is a puzzle. He is part madman, part angel, and part man—a character who is tragic, disturbed, heroic, generous, and criminal. He is all these things at once, and as a reader, I both despised and pitied him without fully understanding him. Christine is more cunning than innocent, but the story is never told from her perspective. The Viscount Raoul de Chagny is more ordinary than the other characters, but his childhood memories and attachment to Christine give Raoul some substance.

I truly enjoyed reading The Phantom of the Opera. Even if you have watched multiple adaptations, don’t let that keep you from reading the book too.

Purchase and read books by Gaston Leroux:

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux