A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines

This book was first published in 1993 and is again part of the Boy’s school reading.

Set in the sugar plantation area of Louisiana, around 1940s.  It’s about the last days of Jefferson a young black man convicted of a murder he did not commit and the growing relationship with Grant Wiggins a local black school teacher.

During the trial Jefferson’s defense lawyer portrays Jefferson as sub-human, no better than a hog.

“Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”

Jefferson’s godmother who raised him goes to visit Wiggins and says:

“I don’t want them to kill no hog,”  she explains, ” I want a man to go to that chair on his own two feet.”

At first Grant doesn’t want to do this, but Tante Lou, who he lives with is close friends with Emma Glenn and firmly persuades him to take this on.

He has to humiliatingly beseech the sheriffs cousin, as does Emma Glenn who has worked for the family all her life, stubbornly states what she wants and that she is owed this.

I always think of tobacco plantations when I think of the South, but Ernest Gaines grew up in the sugar plantation area of Louisiana and this is where several of his books are set.  Drawing on his childhood experience growing up there.  His books are powerful and moving.  Well worth reading, you truly breath the humid air,  feel the holding onto the tiny shred of pride that is left to them.

Several of his books have been made into films and are well worth watching.



False Dawn, by Edith Wharton

An interesting read, but it will be the last of Edith Wharton’s books that I will read for a while.  This reading too was from an original book, from my library, copyright 1923.

This was possibly the only book of hers that I had a small glimpse of where it was heading, not completely.

Halston Raycie a millionaire and head of the family, lives on Long Island Sound.  There is a wife and three children, two girls Sarah Anne and Mary Adeline, fresher replicas of the lymphatic Mrs. Raycie. and a boy Lewis.

The boy Lewis is about to be sent to Europe for the Grand Tour, which all gentlemen of his era embarked upon to round off their education and turn them into men. 

The dream, the ambition, the passion of Mr. Raycie’s life, was (as his son knew) to found a Family; and he had only Lewis to found it with…

With a view to this founding of a family it was Mr. Raycie’s great desire that Lewis should acquire, while in Europe, some old master pieces of artwork to establish a Raycie Art Gallery.  To this effect he was given $15,000 a great deal of money back then.

“Where is our Byron – our Scott – our Shakespeare?  And in painting it is the same.  where are our Old Masters? …”

Lewis is in love with his poor orphaned cousin Beatrice, nicknamed Treeshy.  She grew up in Italy a country he will visit.

On his European Tour, Lewis meets a young Englishman while staying in an inn, at the foot of Mount Blanche and they spend an enjoyable evening and day together.  They discuss many things and he encourages Lewis to visit certain not well known chapels, while in Italy and look at the paintings.

His eyes had been opened to a new world of art. And this world was his mission to reveal to others – he, the insignificant and ignorant Lewis Raycie.

“Oh, but it’s not a Carlo Dolce; it’s a Peiro della Francesca, sir!’  burst in triumph from the trembling Lewis.

His father sternly faced him.  “it’s a copy, you mean?  I thought so!”

“No, no; not a copy; it’s by a great painter … a much greater …”

Needless to say papa Racie was not enamoured of the unknown artists who’s paintings Lewis had brought back to the States.  Within a year, with the disgrace of the much acclaimed collection coming from Europe, Mr. Raycie was dead and his wife too.  Leaving Lewis, who married his sweet heart Treeshy, a small allowance of $5,000 per year, in contrast to the millions left to the girls.

Eventually by an insignificant cousin, Lewis was left a small house in New York City, where he decided to show his art collection, now he could actually show these wonderful paintings.  It never caught on.

Fast forward about eighty to a hundred years, the time of the automobile.  A hither to unknown collection of a now famous artist has come to light.  It’s been gathering dust in an attic all these years.

I wouldn’t race out to get this book.  But it’s a short easy read, and Edith Wharton is a time honored American author.


The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I read this book a while ago, it was part of Boosul Boy’s summer school reading and since I had not read it and The Scarlet Letter is an American classic, I wanted to read it.

I’m rushing to get this in and another review for my final round up on book reading for 2010.

My first misconception was that the Scarlet Letter was a written letter,  it was in fact an embroidered A on Hester Prynne’s clothing.  A for adultery.  First published in 1850. the setting is the early days of the Massachusetts Puritan Colony.

It’s a story of adultery, guilt, open and hidden sin, and how this psychologically effects one.

Arthur Dimmesdale is the minister and secret father of Hester’s child Pearl, he struggles with conscience and his own weakness.  Roger Chillingsworth, Hester’s husband from Europe, revenges himself on the frail psyche of Dimmesdale.

Who was made the stronger of the two?  Hester or Dimmesdale?  Throughout the story it is as if Hester grows and has drawn strength from the public knowledge of her adultery, where as Dimmesdale is shrinking day by day, because of his tormented conscience.  Chillingsworth’s revenge eats himself up, as he physically becomes older and wizened.  Pearl who is released from all bounds of society by being rejected by society, has a clear childlike sight into situations that even adults cannot see; as society has boxed their thinking, blinkered their eyes.

 This is a must read for everyone.  It’s more than a tale of Puritanical New England, but delves deeper into society how it moves and thinks, and what it means to live outside the accepted bounds of society.

Exerts from the book which have such depth:

…yes these were her realities all else had vanished.

…as if her heart had been flung into the street to trample on.

…sufferer should never know the intensity of what he endures.

…occur but once in a lifetime … she might call up the vital strength that would have sufficed for many a quiet years.  She could no longer borrow from the future to help her through the present.  Tomorrow would bring it’s own trial with it; so would the next day, and so would the next …

…than to hide a guilty heart through life … to add hypocrisy to sin.  and would that I might endure his agony as well as mine.

Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied …, that she was banished and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere,…

Hester Prynne was able to make a living with her beautiful needlework.

…gorgeously embroidered gloves, were all deemed necessary to the official state of men … even while sumptuary laws forbade these … to the plebeian order (from the Latin, lower class, peasant)

The child’s attire, was distinguished … by a fantastic ingenuity, airy charm.

It is probable that there was an idea of penance in this mode of occupation.  She had in her nature, a rich, voluptuous Oriental characteristic, … a taste for the gorgeously beautiful, … Woman derive a pleasure, incomprehensible to the other sex, from the delicate toil of the needle.

“Pearl” as being of great price, … purchased with all she had, … her mother’s only treasure.

The child could not be made amenable to rules … Above all the warfare of Hester’s spirit, at that epoch, was perpetuated in Pearl.

… the mother felt like one who has evoked a spirit, but, by some irregularity in the process of conjuration, has failed to win the master word, that should control the new and incomprehensible intelligence.

Such passages, such writing and formation of words.


Fragments, Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters By Marilyn Monroe

Fragments is a collection of typed letters, poems and thoughts, written in journals, notebooks and on hotel and personal stationery.  Through which you get a deeper glimpse into the untold Marilyn Monroe.

When she died in 1962 her personal effects were left to Lee Strasberg, in turn when he died in 1982 his young wife Anna Strasberg inherited this large and uncatalogued collection.

On one side of the page is a photo copy of her actual writings and on the other a printed version, in case you can’t understand her writing and also some additional inserted words where needed, but you know they aren’t Marilyn’s.

If you’ve always loved Marilyn Monroe and thought that there was more to her then the dumb blond, then get this book.


Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome is an American Classic and required reading at High School, at least in this area.  It’s also been made into a film several times.  So I think probably everyone knows the ending of the story.  I do think it is one of Edith Wharton’s better books.  She began this short novel while in Paris as an exercise in French, around 1911.  It is based on her long residence in the Berkshires, during which time she had come to know well the aspect dialect and mental and moral attitude of the hill people.

Wharton’s novels and novellas that  I have read so far have had an outside narrator to run the thread of the story and Ethan Frome is no different.  As the other books I reviewed, Madame de Treymes. New Year’s Day and one I will review False Dawn are all set in High Society, Ethan Frome is set in poor rural farming New England.

“That’s my place”, said Frome, with a sideway jerk of his lame elbow; and in the distress and oppression of the scene I did not know what to answer…

“The house was bigger in my father’s time;  I had to take down the ‘L’ a while back,”

I saw then that the unusually forlorn and stunted look of the house was partly due to the loss of what is known in New England as the “L”;  that long deep-roofed adjunct usually built at right angles to the main house, and connecting it, by way of storerooms and tool-house, with the wood-shed and cowbarn.  Whether because of its symbolic sense, the image it presents of a life linked with the soil, and enclosing in itself the chief sources of warmth and nourishment, or whether merely because of the consolatory thought that it enables the dwellers in that harsh climate to get to their morning’s work without facing the weather, it is certain that the “L” rather than the house itself seems to be the centre, the actual hearth-stone of the New England farm…

I like the above passage because the house seems to represent their life, the core has been torn away from it.

In happier times when Ethan’s father was alive he went to engineering college, but after his father died he had to come home to run the farm.  His mother fell into a long illness and a distant cousin Zeena came to nurse his mother through her illness.  It was said that if his mother had not died in winter, he may never of married Zeena but he did.  She was about seven years older than him, and not long after getting married she herself sunk into a long time illness. Zeena either needs to be nursing, or be nursed.  Early on they had wanted to sell the farm and move to town, for Ethan to pick up on his studies, but they could not sell the farm.

Zeena had always been what Starkfield called “sickly,”..

So indeed it was an isolated stark life at Starkfield Farm. You feel the hardness of life. The fact that they are trapped, both Zeena  because a woman has to be married to have protection and basically just a place to live and Ethan who cannot sell the farm and resume his studies.

Zeena decides that she needs help and invites her cousin Mattie Silver to come and live with them.  Her parents have died and she has run out of visiting all the family.  It seems a good arrangement for both.  Mattie has not been brought up to cook and clean and these come hard to her, plus the fact that she did not arrive in the best of health.  But in the country she begins to bloom.

Zeena has taken note of  Mattie and Ethan’s growing closeness and makes remarks that one day Mattie will leave and marry, as Denis Eady has taken an interest in Mattie.

“I guess you’re always late, now you shave every morning.”

That thrust had frightened him more than any vague insinuations about Denis Eady…

Ethan looks after Mattie’s interests, picking her up from the village dance.  Watching other young couples going coasting.

“There was a whole lot of them coasting before the moon set,” she said.

Zeena takes note of all this and arranges for Mattie to leave and another girl to come and nurse her, turning Mattie out on her own to fend for herself.  Ethan is stunned, angry and helpless.

Coasting is sledding.  There is a special hill with a giant elm half way down the run; which has to be navigated around, it is dangerous, but still all in the village go coasting.

Here is the stage.

It was a shy secret spot, full of the same dumb melancholy that Ethan felt in his heart.

“Matt! You be quiet!  Don’t you say it.”

“There’s never anybody been good to me but you.”

“Don’t say that either, when I can’t lift a hand!”

On the slow drive to the train stop, they decide to take a coast, the one they had promised to take but never had.

He laughed contemptuously:  “I could go down this coast with my eyes tied!”  and she laughed with him, as if she liked his audacity.  Nevertheless he sat still a moment, straining his eyes down the long hill for it was the most confusing hour of the evening, the hour when the last clearness from the upper sky is merged with the rising night in a blur that disguises landmarks and falsifies distances.

Earlier in the book you think that Ethan may just run off with Mattie, as there is mention of a man in the area who did just that.  But Ethan is a man who knows his duty.

It’s an interesting read, well written.


New Year’s Day, by Edith Wharton

After having read three of Edith Wharton’s books; I now realize she had a certain style of taking you down one path dead ending your thinking and totally re-arranging it again.  All three books which I have now read, Ethan Frome; which I still have to write up on, Madame de Treymes and now New Year’s Day, all follow this pattern.

Published in 1924 I am again reading from an original copy from the library.  As you can see from the above photographs.

It starts of with a New York family at the turn of the twentieth century gathered together in New York City for New Year’s Day.  The narrator at that time a boy of twelve.

“…the New Year’s Day ceremonial had never been taken seriously except among families of Dutch descent, and that that was why Mrs. Henry van der Luyden had clung to it…”

Across the street a fire breaks out in The Fifth Avenue Hotel, all the family rush to the window, laughing and making unpleasant remarks about the people rushing out, when they see Lizzie Hazeldean with Henry Prest.

“It was typical of my mother to be always employed in benevolent actions while she uttered uncharitable words.”

“The hotel, for all its sober state, was no longer fashionable.  No one, in my memory, had ever known any one who went there; it was frequented by “politicians” and Westerners,” two classes of citizens whom my mother’s intonation always seemed to deprive of their vote by ranking them with illiterates and criminals.”

Lizzie Hazeldean is worried that she has been seen coming out of the Hotel, she walks home to find out that her invalid husband Charles has gone out to see where the fire was.

“Mistress and maid exchanged a glance of sympathy. and Susan felt herself emboldened to suggest;  “Perhaps the outing will do him good,” with the tendency of her class to encourage favoured invalids in disobedience.”

Lizzie is distort that possibly even her husband saw her coming out of the Hotel.  She goes up to her bedroom.

“It was a rosy room, hung with one of the new English chintzes, which also covered the deep sofa, and the bed with its rose-lined pillow-covers…”

Later Charles comes home but has not changed in his manner towards her at all.  They sit and have tea together.

“She had been one of the first women in New York to have tea every afternoon at five, and to put off her walking-dress for a tea-gown.”

Charles urges her to go to a dinner that evening although he is too ill to attend.  She does and so does Henry Prest, they exchange words and part, although not until she has been snubbed by Mrs Wesson.

“It was the first time in her life that she had ever been deliberately “cut”; and the cut was a deadly injury in old New York.”

Lizzie gets home from the dinner, Charles comes into her room and they share a close intimate moment until his illness takes over and within two weeks he is dead.  After which Lizzie goes to Europe for six months to be with a newly married father.

Lizzie Hazeldean’s humble beginnings reminded me a tad of Becky Sharpe, Vanity Fair.  Lizzie’s father had been a vicar of some repute in New York City, but had fallen with some scandal and taken himself and Lizzie off to Europe, to grow up.  Here as a young woman she was befriended by a Mrs Mant, who often did good works, but didn’t know how to follow though on them.  So having brought Lizzie back into New York society she didn’t know what to do with her.  Right at the time when Lizzie sees that she has no means and no friends in comes Charles and using her beauty, perception and whit, within a week they are engaged.

This is the stage for the book and if I told you anymore I would give the plot away, if you could say there was a plot.  But there is a distinct twist in where this goes.

Do read it, it is a novella so will not take long to read.