Thomas Hardy Rocks

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Lately there seems to be an unbridled avalanche of animal videos posted on Facebook, most with some teasing tag line like “This will make you cry!” or “You won’t believe what this dog/cat does!” (Okay, not just lately. It’s been like that forever, I know.) Anyway, it made me think about how easily and readily we assign human motives and personality to the actions of our beloved pets. I suspect at least in some cases we are even correct, but often we may not be. I recalled a poem by Thomas Hardy that reminds us we can also be mistaken…

Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?

Ah, are you digging on my grave,
My loved one? — planting rue?”
— “No: yesterday he went to wed
One of the brightest wealth has bred.
‘It cannot hurt her now,’ he said,
‘That I should not be true.'”

“Then who is digging on my grave,
My nearest dearest kin?”
— “Ah, no: they sit and think, ‘What use!
What good will planting flowers produce?
No tendance of her mound can loose
Her spirit from Death’s gin.'”

“But someone digs upon my grave?
My enemy? — prodding sly?”
— “Nay: when she heard you had passed the Gate
That shuts on all flesh soon or late,
She thought you no more worth her hate,
And cares not where you lie.

“Then, who is digging on my grave?
Say — since I have not guessed!”
— “O it is I, my mistress dear,
Your little dog , who still lives near,
And much I hope my movements here
Have not disturbed your rest?”

“Ah yes! You dig upon my grave…
Why flashed it not to me
That one true heart was left behind!
What feeling do we ever find
To equal among human kind
A dog’s fidelity!”

“Mistress, I dug upon your grave
To bury a bone, in case
I should be hungry near this spot
When passing on my daily trot.
I am sorry, but I quite forgot
It was your resting place.”

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Executioners and Coincidences

I think I’ve written before about how much I enjoy it when I spot common threads betwixt different works I’ve read. I’m even notorious at my book club for springing “book club trivia” pop quizzes on my fellow members. When we read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle I of course contributed, “Now, can you tell me what other books we’ve read that prominently featured dogs?” (for those playing at home, we’ve also read Call of the Wild, Marley and Me, and Travels with Charley). Or when we read Cry of the Kalahari, I was compelled to ask, “In what other books that we’ve read does at least some of the action take place in Africa?” (ha! I may have to look that one up myself now, but I know two were A Long Way Gone by Ismael Beah, and Napoleon’s Pyramids by William Dietrich). Sure, I’m probably annoying to them sometimes, but I like when your “collected readings” begin to form associations in your brain and knit together. I think it’s part of the process of becoming more literary – is it any wonder I slightly rejoice when I sense this happening?

(Above: Franz Kafka) It was quite a coincidence this past weekend when, as part of catching up on my 2011 reading project, I read two short stories back-to-back that both featured executioners. The first was Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” a disturbing tale set in an unnamed locale and featuring unnamed characters, described only by their positions (The Officer, The Soldier, The Traveller, and The Condemned Man). The second was Thomas Hardy’s story, “The Three Strangers.” This one takes place at a party on the eve of an execution in a nearby village (quite the spectator “sport” not so long ago in history). The three strangers who drop in on the party are, unbeknownst to the other attendees, all related in some way to the upcoming event. I didn’t particularly enjoy either of these stories, if you’ve got to know the truth. I’m a huge Thomas Hardy fan, but this one didn’t do much for me, other than early in the story when he describes the countryside and the home where the party is held. I don’t have much experience with Kafka (other than a passing acquaintance with the unfortunate Gregor Samsa) and found his story too twisted for my tastes.

Reading the two stories in succession, however, did get me thinking about execution and executioners and pondering how often my reading has touched on those subjects. I was shocked (shocked!) to find many instances, a lot of them from books I’ve read recently. Some examples: In my favorite Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities, the climax takes place on the guillotine stand during the so-called Reign of Terror.

Earlier this year, I read Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, where much discussion is given to capital punishment since Nikolai had witnessed a “near execution” at some point (and the author himself nearly died at the hand of a firing squad “in real life”). I could also include The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as dealing with “mass executions” (what a disgusting term!). There was also John Grisham’s The Innocent Man, a non-fiction book about a wrongly accused man who spent years and years on death row awaiting execution. There’s also Slaughterhouse Five, which includes an execution of the one POW who stole the teapot (or whatever it was). So it goes. The first book I thought of, though, was Stephen King’s The Green Mile. It at least features, with the exception of that one despicable guy (Percy?), more humane “executioners.” Maybe this is why it was the first that popped into my head.

Well, I’ve pretty much succeeded in bringing myself down now. Hopefully you’ve stopped reading by this point. 🙂 When you think about it, it’s pretty shameful that we, as a species, even have the term “executioner” as an acknowledged profession. That would be awkward to explain to an intelligent, benevolent Alien visitor to the planet wouldn’t it?

What about you? What literary coincidences have you encountered in your recent reading travels?

It’s Top Ten Tuesday!

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s top ten – in recognition of BBAW (that’s “Book Blogger Appreciation Week”) is:

” Top Ten Books I Read Because Of Another Blogger.”

I don’t always do these top ten lists, but they’re always fun and this one also is a good list to give a nod to some fellow book bloggers, so here goes…

9. Oh, yeah.  I forgot to say I only could come up with nine… This one (and the next few) are books that I don’t know where specifically I first heard of them, but I do know I read them because I learned of them within the blogging community.  So for number 9 I’ll go with Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games.  Yes, it’s intended for a little younger reader than me, and yes it’s a little out there, but it was a great story (actually a trilogy, along with the follow-ups Catching Fire and Mockingjay) and a fun, diverting read.

8. The Ubiquitous The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (book and series).  A towering best seller, I think driven by the great character of Lisbeth Salander.  I’d like to meet her.  I think.

7. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan.  Another book outside of my usual genre, but an entertaining, diverting read for me.  Here’s what I had to say last year.

6. Beastly by Alex Flinn.  I can’t remember which blog I first heard about this modern retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story.  I did download it at about the same time as my blogging colleague, Jade, at Chasing Empty Pavements though, so I’ll give her a plug.  This book became a pick in my book club as well and we all enjoyed it.  My original post about the book may be found here.

5. Under the Skin by Michel Faber.  Learned about via The Literary Nomad.  An interesting concept for a book blog, where the blogger “visits” a country by reading a book about it or taking place in it.  This book was creepy but a real page turner.  A beautiful alien (reported to be portrayed by Scarlet Johansson in an upcoming movie adaptation) picking up hitchhikers in Scotland.  How could I resist? My original post is here.

4. Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift.  I read this one because Allie at A Literary Odyssey hosted a read along.  Like other read alongs I’ve participated in, I started off with great intentions only to fall behind the schedule.  I did finish it, though, and I’m so glad I did.  I took a lot out of it that I am ‘carrying around in my head.’  Truly a classic work, and I can’t believe I waited until I was so “old” to finally get around to reading it.

3. Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy. I learned of this previously ‘unknown’ Hardy book at Chris’s blog, “ProSe.”  A great, lesser known work by one of my favorite authors with a predictably intricate plot.  Great 19th century literature!  My original post about this book was written back in November 2010.

2. After Rain by William Trevor.   Heard about at one of my favorite blogs, Ana the Imp.  Not exclusively a book blog (lots of politics and history too), but I take her book and movie recommendations seriously.  This is a collection of short stories by an recognized master of the form.  I posted about several of them this year.  Lost Ground, After Rain, and Gilbert’s Mother.  The first two were my favorites.

1. The Warded Man by Peter Brett.  Heard of through Borough of Books. My friends and I have all enjoyed this book and its sequel, Desert Spear.  We are eagerly awaiting the third book…  My praise of the book was written this past May.

Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy

Every so often we hear in the news of the discovery of a hitherto unknown masterpiece – or I should more properly say a hitherto unknown work of a master. Whether it be art, music, or literature, there is a certain magical feeling accompanying the revelation. “What? A never before released track by John Lennon? Wow. I can’t wait to hear that!” It may turn out to be unknown for a reason, but the anticipation of something “new” and wonderful from a favorite artist is always intoxicating. The thing is, for me at least, with artists who are deceased, there is naturally a finite number of their works to discover and enjoy. In the case of Thomas Hardy for example, it’s not as though we’re sitting around waiting for his next novel to be published, like we are able to do for contemporary writers.

I remember having a similar experience when I “discovered” Humphrey Bogart movies years ago and realized I was a fan. I began to devour them as soon as I could find them, but later, in a moment of panic, realized I would soon exhaust the supply – as there certainly weren’t going to be any new ones coming out. I began to ration them, saving them so that I would not “run out,” etc. What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that I would discover other chunks of art that I would feel the same way about, and would never, truly have a shortage of not yet seen/read works overall.

Now, of course, in the case of this Thomas Hardy novel, it’s not like it really was unknown. It was just unknown to me. I’d read the “major” Hardy novels (Return of the Native, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge) years ago and gained an appreciation of him. But I’m no scholar, and lazily did no research into his other work. These were probably just the books that were readily available in bookstores and were most often talked about, and I in my naïveté kind of assumed “that was it.” Then a few months ago, thanks to my lurking around book blogs, I heard of this “minor” Hardy work, on Chris’s blog, ProSe. (Very good and worth checking out, by the way).

Two on a Tower is another tragic love story from the author. It’s the story of a married but lonely noblewoman, Lady Constantine (whose husband is absent) discovering that a local young man, Swithin St. Cleeve, has surreptitiously been using an old “tower” on her property (Hardy is said to have based the setting for the novel on the actual Carborough House & Tower in Wessex, pictured above and below) as a makeshift observatory, as he plans to one day become a famous astronomer. she is smitten, but he is “an innocent” and inexperienced (a 19th century “nerd” – I was hooked already!). The reader knows immediately that the two will end up together, but in typical Hardy-esque fashion, there are many obstacles to overcome, including her being already married, and their being of different classes in a class conscious society.

I really enjoyed the book, which is one of my favorites I’ve read this year, but at the same time, I can see why it was considered one of Hardy’s “minor” works. The characters feel a little thin to me. I never really got in Lady Constantine’s corner, although I sympathized with her situation. The book feels a little like Hardy had this great plot (and the plot, with its twists and turns really is magnificent) but didn’t quite find great characters to equal it.

This is beginning to sound like a negative “review,” though, and I don’t really mean it to be that way. I recommend the book, especially if you are a fan of Hardy’s writing style and of his other works. I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

In the home stretch of Two on a Tower…

I almost finished this book yesterday, but ended up still about an hour short of the finish line when I was forced to put it down in order to run out and watch the Colts game with some friends (let’s not talk about how that went…)

This book is a lesser known novel of Thomas Hardy, who is more famous for books such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Return of the Native, and Far from the Madding Crowd – all of which I’ve also read, but many years ago. Reading more ‘obscure’ classics such as this always sets me wondering. Wondering if anyone else in the world is reading this book “right now.” Wondering how many people read this book in a given year. Wondering about all those who have read it before me, especially those who might have read it near the time it was written. As I’ve been enjoying this novel, and all the twists and turns of the plot, I cannot help but picture some Victorian Era reader sitting on a ‘window seat’ or in some salon or drawing room of the 19th century delighting at these same twists and turns that I am navigating.

Am I the only one who wonders about things like this while reading? Surely I mustn’t be… I posted earlier this year about how – after reading Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering – I later read in the non-fiction Civil War book, Company Aytch, how one of the soldiers was carrying around this same book in his knapsack, which I think is just the coolest thing ever, linking me with another reader of another time – more than a century ago.

I can’t remember exactly where I read it, but one time an author wrote about how books were like time machines. You open them up, and author (often long since dead) begins speaking inside your head. I think this is a very neat – and accurate – description of what I sometimes feel is going on when I read “the classics.”

Thomas Hardy

Progress Report

Well, here it is almost the end of October already. I’ve read most of my required reading for the month, with the exception of having the second half of Cold Mountain yet to finish. Boy, is that book ever slow going for this reader!

To divert myself, I’ve begun reading Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower. It is proving to be a great story and I can’t wait to finish it and get something written on it for my fellow citizens of Bibliophilopolis. I read all the “major” Hardy novels years ago, and am very much enjoying my reintroduction to him via this book.

Upcoming for November, I plan to read another book related to the Civil War, about the West Point class of 1846, which included several key generals in the war. I also plan to read the November selection of my primary book club – P.T. Deuterman’s Darkside. That should be an easy, diverting read for me. I also have Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns in the queue. This is a borrowed book, so I’d like to get to it soon, and I really enjoyed the other book of his that I’ve read, The Kite Runner. I’ll also have another Vonnegut title assigned by the KVML book club, but I won’t find out what that one is until tomorrow, when we meet to discuss Welcome to the Monkey House. These books, along with finishing Two on a Tower, would give me a count of five for November, one better than my par score of four, and leaving me at 46 total for the year, where I’ll hopefully be able to get my par four in December to make 2010 my most prolific reading year to date. Hurrah!

What about you? Are any of these books on your to read list? Have you read any of them already? Let me know your thoughts or suggestions for future reads..

Sent from my iPad

Progress Report

Here it is over halfway though October already, and I am pretty much on pace to get all my “required reading” done. I’ve finished Mockingjay and the collection of H.G. Wells short stories. I’ve got about ten short stories to go in Welcome to the Monkey House (Kurt Vonnegut). And am now also about 25% into Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.

The latter book is proving to be slow going for me. “It’s not my fault,” though, as I was literally 50+ pages into the book before any real action occurred. Frazier is wonderful (as he also was in the book, Thirteen Moons, which my book club read a couple years ago) at prose that is descriptive of the natural world, and I am enjoying this side of the book. The flow of book, however, is rather confounding to the reader. We keep switching back and forth between the main characters, Inman and Ada, but within their stories are several flashbacks and sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks. It’s difficult to keep the “target” in view sometimes, but I have managed to stay with it thus far – albeit at the cost of very slow reading (this is a two minutes per page book for me so far; I hate slogging through at that pace). Anyway, enough whining. I’m hoping to finish it and the Vonnegut short story collection by the end of this coming weekend, which will leave me time to focus the rest of the month on a “new discovery.”

Next up for me (and I confess I read about thirty pages into it this past weekend when I got frustrated with my progress toward Cold Mountain) is Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower. Somehow, knowledge of this book’s existence had escaped me until recently – and I count myself a Thomas Hardy fan – when I learned of it via Chris’s great blog, ProSe (Chris is another of that too rare species: the male book blogger).  His review of Two on a Tower can be found here.  I was able to download it for free to my Nook and it hasn’t disappointed in the early going. Hardy’s Return of the Native and Jude the Obscure are both among my favorite classics, with Tess of the d’Urbervilles earning honorable mention” as well. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of Two on a Tower.