Category Archives: book review

Middlemarch

Posted by Mike

It’s a comedy and a tragedy. The author’s subtle humor is seen on every page. She is generally making delicate fun of her characters’ very human frailties and foibles. George Eliot.jpgBut she displays a sensitivity to their feelings and private anguishes that reveals her own broad awareness of the varieties of human physical and emotional predicaments. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) published Middlemarch in 1871, but the incidents in the novel took place in a provincial English country town in the 1830’s.

Middlemarch has an ensemble cast of main and secondary characters; and unless it is read straight through, the reader might have the difficulty I had of being able to place exactly where Mr. Brooke or Mr. Trumbull and others fit into the tangled web of family, social, business and other relationships. Despite this, the main characters show up regularly enough that the reader can get at least their relationships reasonably clear. For me, in long narratives of this sort, I become personally involved in the hopes, affairs and entanglements of the characters, wishing for the best, while knowing that the author has the guiding hand, not Providence, and that resolutions remain with the author and not with my feeble desires and expectations.

I will say that the writing is complex. On virtually every page there are extended passages that I needed to reread if I were to understand the author’s meaning, and there were times that even then I wasn’t sure. Her frequent use of triple negatives and multiple qualifiers often left me gasping for clarity. But ultimately the charm of her style overcame my frustration–to the point that I suspect I have begun to incorporate elements of Evans’ obscurity into my own writing!

The novel is complex, brilliant, sensitive, and true to humanity at least as I see it today in my section of the provinces 150 years later.  Despite the author’s frequent but subtle mocking of the naiveté of her characters, her own humanity and sympathy for them as frail mortals struggling with the immensities of life is evident.

One of these characters is Dorothea. Of  her the author writes:   “…the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Evans is saying here that all of us whose lives are not particularly distinctive but who work at being decent human beings, despite what might be our baser inclinations at times, also contribute in our own small way to the betterment of the world. What a hopeful epitaph, for me and perhaps for you, too.


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Andy Catlett

Andy Catlett Early Travels

Andy Catlett Early Travels

Posted by David

For anyone who has family that has lived in rural America in the past century, Andy Catlett Early Travels by Wendell Berry is a story about you. It’s all of our story. I think particularly of my dad because Andy, who this is written about from an older man’s perspective, would have been born in the same year, about 1936. This story is simple and spans only a few day’s time. A ten year old boy travels to both of his grandparents’ homes not 12 miles away from his own house. What makes this visit important was that he did it alone.

Andy first travels to his Dad’s parent’s home on a tobacco farm in rural Kentucky, where they still drive wagons with horse teams. His travel is then contrasted by a visit to his mom’s parent’s house in a nearby town. Mostly it’s a timeless story about people living in early 20th Century America and who we’ve become. We listen to the talk of people in their homes, barns and street corners from the perspective of Andy, who is going through his right of passage. It harkens in me my right of passage trip, when I traveled away from my parents when I was 11 to visit my friend’s grandparent’s farm in Virginia. Although that was in 1982, forty years after Andy’s travels, there were similarities. Rural America was chugging along with diesel with by then, but the people still sat around in the stillness of the evening and talked. I suppose that still happens today in places where the TV’s not on. Even in 1982, the memory of that old way was still strong. The grandmother was still canning her garden food with parrafin.

Wendell also talks about fossil fuels and WWII and how they so fundamentally changed life in America. He talks about the old slow world that has been replaced by a new fast world. The book itself slowed me down, certainly as intended. Wendell acknowledges something that I foresee also, that the old bygone world has a character that isn’t altogether lost and actually will be returning strong soon, albeit in a different form. We are presently on the cusp of a new era, one that will replace the new fast world, because cheap fossil fuels are almost gone. I look forward to slowing down despite all the difficulties that will arise with the coming shift.

It’s already happening in our country and will continue to do so each day. I recall seeing bits and pieces of that coming world when traveling South America over ten years ago. I remember hiking into a National Park in Chile and watching two young men with ropes wrestle a three-foot diameter couch-sized chunk of hardwood down the forested mountain trail. The rain and mist had muddied up the trail which helped the big log to slide. They were exhausted but bound to get their prize to market. On the same trip, I remember seeing a donkey pulling a chassis of maybe a VW beetle down the road. It’s already happening and closer to home than we might be aware.

After reading Wendell’s book, my wife and I were discussing it. We both long for a return to that slower life, but why? We know it’s not ideal and cloaked with it are a host of different problems than we have today. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s about relationships. In Andy Catlett’s travels, he witnessed people working together in the barns, chatting together in the towns and in the homes. Modern technology hadn’t yet consumed relationships as it has under the influence of petrol. People’s hands touched. The sound waves of their voices directly stroked the hairs of others’ inner ears. Despite the fight it will take to get there, we’re going back, whether we like it or not.

Some compare our petrolium-based industrial society as a train about to wreck with destiny. I say we won’t make it that far. We may just run out of fuel and slowly, surely roll to a stop in a great vast wilderness. We’ll help each other off the train, some faning their faces from the heat of the midday sun. Some will stumble off half-drunk and have to deal with a bad hangover without the help of asprin. The children will jump off the train not knowing the difference and start playing with sticks and chasing jackrabbits. But most importantly we’ll start talking again and telling stories together. And finally after all these years we might just learn to listen to what others’ hearts have been telling us.

Consider listening to Andy and see what his heart has to offer you.

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