Saturday, December 27, 2014

December reading: The Oxford book of Ghost Stories, Are Women Human? A Jane Austen Education, Aesop's Fables, Dear Donald, Dear Bennett, Arthur Rackham

It's the end of the year and I have six books to review.   I have to drive to Florida tomorrow and I want these books shelved.  So here's a synopsis of each one.

The first one is a biography of one of my favorite illustrators.  I have a collection of fairy tales, Aesops's Fables and also an edition of Dicken's A Christmas Carol, illustrated by Rackham.  I read in his biography that C.S. Lewis loved him so I splurged and bought this book because of all the large prints of his illustrations.  Rackham illustrated Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland plus numerous fairy tales and other stories of the fantastical.  He often caricatured himself as a goblin or other weird and wonderful character in the illustrations he painted.  This book gives the usual biographical information:  where he was born, grew up, got educated, who he married, what children he had and how his career developed. 

In Dear Donald, Dear Bennett we have the letters of the two men who founded the book publishing company, Random House.  Donald Klopfer joined the Air Force and served overseas.  Bennett Cerf stayed home and ran the business while maintaining a constant correspondence with his partner and friend throughout the war.  The letters take place during WWII and show the profound affection and friendship these two had for each other.  The homesickness and concern for safety is only glimpsed and immediately laughed off but show the real concern and love these men had for each other. Through all the joking, jibing and detailed accounts of how their books were selling we learn a lot of about shrewd business acumen and how professionals were able to maintain a life long friendship while building a publishing empire during dark years.

Aesop's Fables are famous and after rereading them I appreciate why.  These stories are mostly told through animals but the morals are perspicacious.  The brief stories use a couple of formulas.  An animal, often a predator like a wolf or fox, tries to trick a goose, sheep or other potential prey to come into reach so they can devour them.  Of course they don't admit that.  They coach it in terms that indicate they "care" about them and wish to help them.  Depending on the story, the animal doesn't buy it or is deceived.  Each way a moral is told at the end.  Another type of story is one where might makes right whether you like it or not.  This is often illustrated through a lion who demands his unfair share of the spoils, even if another animal has worked for it.  If the weaker animal protests, he's killed.  This isn't moral, just an observation of life.  Another type is an animal acting foolishly by thinking too highly of himself, only to be humbled.  This edition is beautifully illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

This is mostly a delightful book.  William Deresiewicz intertwines his own life story and how his view of life and relationships were altered by reading the novels of Jane Austin.  He left his angry, pretentious "I'm an angst filled college student who only reads Vonnegut, Mailer, and any other dark, modern realist type author" attitude and began to emulate the charm he saw in the characters of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Northhanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.  He came to understand that true love isn't a feeling but an act of the will and the fruit of a committed relationship, that what really counts isn't the loud and bombastic but in the little details of the every day, that real friendship can't be qualified by a bank account, glamor, sophistication or living in a cosmopolitan city. He studies each character in the novels and shares his own insight, which I enjoyed reading.  My only complaint is that he doesn't understand the important role sex has as the final and ultimate act of intimacy that defines marriage.  He delegates it to something on the same level as table tennis and insists that if Austen were alive today she probably would too.  So as charming and witty as I found his writing I wonder if he truly got Austen after all.

  This is an old favorite that I've read countless times for the past twenty years.  It's been a cold, rainy December so what better than to curl up with a hot cup of tea or coffee and read?  This anthology spans about a hundred and sixty years.  Some stories are scarier than others but all are flavored with the English culture-whether Victorian, Edwardian, WWII, or more modern.  They offer a nice spooky experience -whether on the English countryside in a haunted house or in the city being stalked by a murdered victim the protagonist thought he had left behind in his past.  Authors included are Sir Walter Scott, J.S. Le Fanu, F. Marion Crawford, Bram Stoker, Henry James, H.G. Wells, W.W. Jacobs, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, E.F. Benson, W. Somerset Maugham, John Buchan, Edith Whaton, Walter de la Mare and an especially disturbing psychological one by Charles Willams.  These aren't the only authors but probably the best known if you're a ghost, vampire or horror story connoisseur. 

And finally, a short work by Dorothy Sayers. 
Sayers was the only woman admitted into the Inklings and was great friends with C.S. Lewis.  She is mostly known for her Lord Wimsy Detective Stories and her translation of Dante's Inferno

This was a great book which contains two essays that Sayers gave concerning how women are viewed by both men and women.  The biggest thing I got out of her commentary -which is filled with rapier wit I might add- is that both male chauvinism and militant feminism have got it wrong because they insist on classifying women as a gender rather than as individuals.  I love music, art, math, engineering etc..because I'm a person who does so, not because I'm a woman.  There's interests and abilities I share with women, but there's many things I also share with men. In some ways Sayers is obviously speaking from a bygone time viewpoint.  The modern man wouldn't dare speak outside the politically correct dictates that today's culture imposes on him.  And personally I'm sick of being viewed as disadvantaged or as a victim because I'm a woman.  I find that just as demeaning and limiting as old fashioned chauvinism.  Until our work is seen as good work and not women's work (i.e. women's literature, women's art, a woman doctor, a woman scientist) women haven't really overcome bias.  

 Sayers also pointed out something I had not previously considered.  That men have stolen much of women's work because a lot of what is in the context of professional business was originally organized in the home (think the Proverbs 31 woman).  Business transactions, organizing agriculture, managing households became paying jobs outside the home, leaving women little else but cooking and cleaning.  Those things can be dull, although the raising of children never can be if you put your heart in it.  But I'm with Dorothy Sayers, I celebrate my life-not as a women but as a child fearfully and wonderfully made by God. 

That's it for this year.  I'll see you all in the next.  Have a wonderful holiday and many blessings to you all for the upcoming year!


  1. This is some great looking bunch of books Sharon.

    A Jane Austen Education looks particularly interesting. Though not nearly as dramatic with me, over the course of my life I have experienced something similar in the course of my reading. For a long time I often gravitated to harder edged, somewhat cynical writers. As I got a little older I really came to appreciate writers like Jane Austen who convey a kind of wisdom in their portrayals of everyday human relationships.

    Safe and happy travels to you.

    Have a Happy New Year Sharon!

    1. Hi Brian! You would enjoy A Jane Austen Education. I think you should also read Sayers' Are Woman Human since your are currently reading feminist literature. Have a wonderful and blessed new year!

  2. Hi Sharon;
    I'm envious of you in the profile photo, it looks like a lovely day in Texas as we gear for a chilly and snowy day in Connecticut.
    Mike Draper

    1. Hi Michael. Actually it's pretty cold here in Texas as well although I daresay not nearly as cold as you are in Connecticut. Take care and have a wonderful New Year!

  3. Hi Sharon:
    What email would I use to send you an eBook of my new novel in hope that you will review it?
    Mike Draper


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.