Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: ANTIGONE by Sophocles

Original Publication Date: 442 b.C.

Genre:  Play, Tragedy

Topics: family, moral tales, women


Review by : Patty @ A Tale of Three Cities



A shortish play that forms part of the Theban plays, together with Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone is a tragedy, as many of Sophocles' plays, but with a slight twist:  here the main character is a woman, a woman defying the limitations of her gender at the time, a woman ready to accept the consequences of her actions.

Her father is dead, her brothers are dead, and Antigone is now left alone with her sister Ismene.  But while Ismene is the typical fairy creature, Antigone is a boyish creature (she reminded me of Joan of Arc), wishing to go beyond the rights given to her gender.  But her uncle Creon, who is now king, will not allow for this.  She is to marry his son, Antigone's cousin, Haemon and do great things for Thebes.

Antigone, however, has different views.  Her brothers died a vicious death, trying to kill each other for the throne of Thebes.  Creon only buried one of the brothers, Eteocles, leaving the second to rot in the elements - something against the customs of the time.

While this is a compact play, there is a variety of themes across the story:  should the family / moral values supersede those imposed by the establishment in the city? for whatever reasons, Creon has banned the citizens from covering Polynices and has even warned anyone with severe punishment.  Still, Antigone cannot let this deter her from her sacred duty towards her family.  Not only that, she's willing to accept her punishment and she will even go against her sister, who's trying to reason with her. 

 But therein comes the second theme:  that of blind arrogance.  Both Antigone and Creon believe their side of the story the correct is.  The difference between them is that Creon becomes so consumed with his anger towards the "insubordination" of Antigone, that he orders his guards to keep a close leash on both sisters so that they... behave like women again!

But the biggest theme must be the curse of the house of Oedipus.  All three of the tragedies are very detailed on the misfortunes that befall on the last remaining members of the family, Antigone and Ismene.  They cannot escape:  ever since the glorious victory of Oedipus and his marriage to Jocasta, disaster has remained in this house, "eating up" its members one by one.    But the play also makes a case for love:  Haemon tries to make Creon see reason and not bury Antigone alive and even hints at a possible suicide if Creon doesn't change his mind.  

While by today's standards all this would be considered overwhelming and irrational, it is the purpose of this tragedy to show that humans have limited capabilities, their emotions can be destructive and only the fate dictated by the gods should be their guiding light. The only way to convey this message is to exaggerate and present all the horrible results if humans do not abide.
Even the end reads like a list of lessons learnt:  pride can be damaging, wisdom is welcome, obedience to gods compulsory and most important of all:  there is no purpose in violence...



Download Antigone by Sophocles at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Monday, March 25, 2013

Thoughts: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA by Gaston Leroux

book cover Original Publication Date: 1909 (French); 1911 (English)

Genre: gothic

Topics: opera, love, mystery

























Review by heidenkind:

In the labyrinth under the Paris Opera, an impish yet dangerous "ghost" reigns. Sure, he's killed a few people, but all he wants is to be loved!

The Phantom of the Opera was a reread for me (or read-listen, since I downloaded the audiobook from Librivox. Read by my favorite narrator, Ralph Snelson, fyi). I first read it in high school and it's honestly one of my favorite novels. Erik has to be one of the greatest characters in fiction. Yes, it is BIG with the drama (it takes place in an opera, what do you expect?), and one of my friends on FaceBook called it pulpy, but I don't think it's pulpy--it's more sensationalistic. Like The Woman in White, only shorter and French.

Anyway, The Phantom was definitely due for a reread, as I'd forgotten a lot of things since I last read it. For example:


  • I totally forgot Raoul and Christine were childhood sweethearts. That was sweet. It kind of made me like Raoul for a few chapters, until...
  • I realized Raoul is actually a BAZILLION TIMES more annoying that I remembered him being. Uhg, he is SUCH a douche. Christine can't do anything without him going into a pity spiral and he cries at the drop of a hat. I honestly don't know how Christine can stand him. I guess being a vicomte and (I guessing) rich is a plus, but still. Not worth it.
  • Of course, her other choice is the Phantom, who let's face it is a bit of a psycho. I'd forgotten just how creepy Erik can be sometimes. His letters to the Opera managers (who are hilarious, by the way) read like something Jack the Ripper would write, and his default response to any difficulty seems to be either torture or killing. But when he's not being creepy, he's totally awesome! And then he just inspires pity, which is never a good basis for a relationship.
  • I love the framing in this novel. Usually framing annoys me, but in The Phantom of the Opera it really helps make this outlandish story somewhat plausible.
  • The Persian--I remember really liking him when I first read the book, but this time around I was kind of annoyed with how he took Raoul's side. Why you got to hate like that, Persian dude?
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical adaptation of this book is really good. REALLY good. I bet you five bucks he read this book back to front as a kid so many times he knows it by heart. Of course, I still like the book better, because I like books, but still. Good job on that!
  • In high school, I remember being frustrated with the ending, but seeing it as inevitable and recognizing that Christine and the Phantom could have never been together. Now, I'm not so sure. It's really the worst ending ever because no one gets what they should have, and only douchey Raoul gets what he wants. You know that saying, if you love someone let them go? I guess we know who really loved Christine now, don't we?


Anyway, this is a good book. You should all read it!




Download The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Friday, March 22, 2013

Review: THE CARD by Arnold Bennett

Original Publication Date: 1910
Genre: Fiction, Humorous
Topics: English, town, social class, gender relations

















Review by : Liz Inskip-Paulk (http://ravingreader.wordpress.com/)


Subtitle: A Story of an Adventure in the Five Towns.

This novel has a similar feel to the humor of Jane Austen – class-based, omniscient POV, wicked humor. Denry Machin, the protagonist, aims to be “The Card,” which is (in this context) another name for the man about town and sort of ‘Big Man on Campus” idea despite being a lower class and thus socially challenged...

Starting with his early days as a young student, he found himself to be clever and willing to take advantage of any situations which could help him, and it’s this willingness (and his slightly “flexible” ethical attitude) which moves him up the financial and social ladder of this industrial northern town. He’s not an evil man – just a bit ethically “gray” and very ambitious and quick to grasp the lay of a situation.

Machin, son of washerwoman and currently an apprentice clerk for a small local business, illicitly adds his name to the invitation list of guests to the upcoming ball of the new mayoress. This signals just the beginning of his climb up the local social ladder, and Bennett describes him thus:

“The thrill of being magnificent seized him, and he was drenched in a vast desire to be truly magnificent himself. He dreamt of magnificence and boot-brushes kept sticking out of this dream like black mud out of snow ..”
And when he is at this big ball, the social event of the season, he stands on an upper level, waiting for the ball to start:

"Then he went downstairs again, idly; gorgeously feigning that he spent six evenings a week in ascending and descending monumental staircases, appropriately clad. He was determined to be as sublime as anyone… There was a stir in the corridor, and the sublimest consented to be excited.”
Denry has high social aims and although not devious, somehow ends up climbing the social ladder through odd means and coincidences. He is exceedingly impulsive trying to impress people (and successfully for the most part). In one situation, Denys offers to buy a house from a local woman from whom he is collecting rents but he has no money to do this. By doing so, he puts himself into a financial crisis, and immediately knows that he has got carried away with things, but has no idea how to remove from this situation. However, he couldn’t help himself:

But, as always when he did something crucial, spectacular, and effective, the deed had seemed to be done by a mysterious power within him, over which he had no control”
And yet somehow, it seemed to work out one way or another in Denry’s favor as the plot continues. This is a light-hearted read with little serious social commentary, and it doesn’t try to be anything else. It takes Denry from the modest clerkship of a local businessman to the vaulted expensive hotels of Switzerland in a way that is quite believable and also unpredictable.
 
As the other townspeople say in the novel, “What has Machin done now?” and it’s the same for the reader as you follow Denry’s meteoric rise. However, it’s not without incident and it’s not without mistakes, and yet somehow, Denry ends up landing on his feet.

If you’re after a fun read, then this would be a good fit. It’s quite short, it’s well written, and it’s humorous.   Wiki says that there is a 1952 movie of this book (U.S. title The Promoter) with Petula Clark and Alec Guinness which could be quite fun to compare.


Download The Card by Arnold Bennett at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review: THE STORY OF MY LIFE by Helen Keller

book cover Original Publication Date: 1902

Genre: autobiography/memoir

Topics: women, education, hearing, blindness




















Guest review by Liz Inskip-Paulk (http://ravingreader.wordpress.com/):


To ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL
Who has taught the deaf to speak
and enabled the listening ear to hear speech
from the Atlantic to the Rockies,
I dedicate this Story of My Life.

This is the autobiography of the young Helen Keller, written when she was 22 and a student at all-female college Radcliffe. Although this is the writing of a young person (and with the weaknesses associated with that), this is a passionate reading experience that describes life for a woman who was hearing- and sight-impaired at the turn of the twentieth century in the U.S... It’s an amazing story of obstacles overcome at a time when even women who had few physical challenges were limited in scope with regard to education and career. The fact that Helen Keller did all these things with the physical obstacles that she had makes it even more admirable.

When Helen was 19 months old, she contracted “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain” (perhaps scarlet fever or meningitis?) which led to her losing her vision and hearing. She had been able to see and hear before, but now she couldn’t, and this sudden isolation lead to Keller developing behavioral problems, and many in her family felt that she should be institutionalized.

When she was 6, her mother read Dickens’s travel writing called “American Notes”, and found out about the successful education of another blind/deaf young girl. Her parents sent her to Baltimore to see a famous doc there who had treated this other girl, and he then introduced her to Alexander Graham Bell (working w deaf children at the time and inventor of telephone). Through Bell, the family learned about a good school of the blind, and there, the family was put in touch with Anne Sullivan, who was also sight-impaired and who would become Helen’s governess and companion.

Proficient in a handful of different languages, well read, eloquent – this is all amazing because she was hearing-impaired and sight-impaired. Not to say that people who have those are stupid or inadequate, but saying that I can only imagine that learning esoteric subjects as Greek and maths must have been even more of a challenge if you can’t see what’s going on (the symbols, alphabet etc.) . (How to describe an algebraic formula, for example, using spelling in the palm of your hand??) I could both see and hear and had a formal education, and I still had problems with algebra and geometry…

Written in her second year at Radcliffe at age of 22, Keller’s writing reflects her youth and she has worries that are typical of most college students: finals and tests, how to sort out the never-ending new information that you learn every day, wishing to hang out with your friends instead of having to take the extra time to listen your text books being read out loud… There is absolutely no sense of self-pity although she is very honest about getting grumpy and frustrated every now and then (as one does).

Here is a quotation about how Keller feels going to college at Radcliffe:
Before me I saw a new world opening in beauty and light, and I felt within me the capacity to know all things. In the wonderland of Mind I should be as free as another. Its people, scenery, manners, joys, tragedies should be living, tangible interpreters of the real world.

However, she missed having time to reflect during her undergrad years: “One goes to college to learn, it seems, not to think... When one enters the portals of learning, one leaves the dearest pleasures – solitude, books, and imagination – outside with the whispering pines…” and it’s tough to concentrate on the information being taught as there is so much so fast (as it was being translated into manual language spelled into her hands by teacher Anne Sullivan). Keller writes that she “cannot make notes during the lectures because my hands are busy listening…” What a great description, don’t you think?

Her attitude is fabulous. For example, here is a quotation from her about her early college experience:
For, after all, everyone who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better, I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory.

Books were extremely important to Keller as they helped her to learn what other people learned through sight and hearing. The first book she remembers making an impact was Little Lord Fauntleroy which was spelled out on her hand, one letter at a time. When she reads a good book, “My physical limitations are forgotten—my world lies upward, the length and the breadth and the sweep of the heavens are mine!”

Keller was the first deaf/blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, and as she became older, became more politically involved campaigning for women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism, birth control supporter and other causes. She played an instrumental role in founding the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Helen Keller International organization which funded research on blindness and awareness of that.

In 1964, Helen was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the U.S. highest civilian honors, and in 2003, Alabama honored her (born in AL) on its state quarter.

As was the time, before her political opinions were known, much was made of her courage and intelligence in media; once it became known that she supported “radical” (for back then) left causes, then it seemed that people focused more on her disabilities and used them to discredit her. (The more things change… )

A good read about a fascinating experience faced head-on. It’s good to be reminded of how good life can be sometimes.


  • Random aside #1: Keller is credited with having introduced the Akita dog breed to the U.S. after a visit to Japan in 1937.
  • Random Aside #2: Alexander Graham Bell’s mother had been hearing-impaired and had learned to play the piano despite not being able to hear. His grandfather was also interested in elocution and speech correction. His father designed Visible Speech technique which helped hearing-impaired people communicate more easily. Born in Scotland, but his family moved to the US for health reasons where his father taught for a while at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes [sic]. His father was unable to accept the job for a long period of time, so the school offered the position to son Alexander, whose interest was piqued by voice transmission and thus was born in a roundabout way and in collaboration with Thomas Watson, the telephone.


So - now you know…




Download The Story of My Life by Helen Keller at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|UPenn Library|GirleBooks

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Review: THE AGE OF INNOCENCE by Edith Wharton

book cover Original Publication Date: 1920

Genre: general fiction

Topics: love, society, tragedy





















Guest review by Ash (http://bookletsgo.wordpress.com/):

Blogging about certain books can be a challenge at times and I believe this is one of those times. Deemed as one of the best classics in English Literature, The Age of Innocence throws light on the late 1800′s upper-class society in America..particularly the New York society. I came across this book through a lot of sources but one that particularly struck me was a review by Danielle.

The novel opens with an Opera theater where all of the New York’s elite are watching a play. Newland Archer, the hero of this story is looking out for his fiance May Welland when he spots her seated beside her infamous cousin, Countess Ellen Olenski. Rumors are astrife that the Countess is in NY recouping from a disastrous marriage to a Polish Count. Even so, the New York society condemns her decision and shows it quite boldly. At first, Archer takes it upon himself to show his support to May and her family for sheltering the countess but he finds himself in love with Ellen Olenski who also finds herself returning the affections. And then May who is all the while docile and quiet, decides to prepone the wedding, and Archer finds himself married to May Welland. This doesn’t put a dent on Archer's affections until May makes a decision that changes the course of the story. Describing this plot any more wouldn’t do any justice for its a very difficult to blog on this particular title.

Archer is torn choosing between what society approves vs. what his heart desires. Although his first impression of May is that she meets the Society’s standards and his in every way, he gradually realizes that May and many women like her were groomed to be perfect, ignorant of any independent thoughts or opinions. Ellen is a complex character who seems to be a misfit both in NY and in Europe. She struggles the most trying to fit in with the NY society which scorns her every decision pushing her to the brink of moving back to Europe. For me, May was perhaps the most complex of all characters...She is first introduced as a docile well-bred lady and as a reader, you'll be taken in by it all. Watch out though, for she does have some tricks up her sleeve.

Edith Wharton comes from an upper-class family herself and so her insights into New York old society’s rules and customs are well highlighted in every chapter. Whereas Europe has more liberal code of behavior and independence in thought, NY society condemns any semblance of independent thought or action. So long as a man conducts his affairs in secret and silence, he is exempted from the scorn and rejection by the society whereas a woman is literally shunned. This is another point that is brought out by Ms. Wharton. And then there are the usual theatrics associated with the society when people meet at an Opera or a Ball or a dinner. The novel has many other characters painted to life who add spice to the otherwise quiet plot but its best to explore them through the book then through a blog. For those who don’t want to read the book, I recommend the film featuring Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer.


Download The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton at Project Gutenberg|Librivox|GirleBooks

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Discovering Books On Librivox

librivox gif

A lot of people ask me how I find time to read so many old books (I would call them classics but most of them are just old). Honestly, 80% of the classics I "read," I actually listen to on audiobook, and the vast majority of those audiobooks I download from Librivox.

If you're not familiar, Librivox publishes audiobooks of works in the public domain you can download for free. I've written about why I find Librivox more browser-friendly than Project Gutenberg before, but I also use Librivox a lot because I find it really convenient to listen to snippets of books while I'm doing routine tasks around the house or driving on errands. Since I only read one or two books at a time, audiobooks are a great way for me to balance two novels at once.

The problem with Librivox is that the quality of the audiobooks can be hit-or-miss. It's 100% volunteer, so some readers are professional and others could use some practice. This can make people shy away from trying their audiobooks; but I stumble across awesome audiobooks on Librivox all the time, and if you follow some basic guidelines (developed by myself through experience) you can make better choices in downloading books.

1. Start with short stories. Librivox has tons of short story collections, and they're a great place to start out. After you listen to some short stories, you'll probably come across a narrator or two that you really like. When that happens...

2. Look up the narrator you like and download all their stuff. Most narrators stick to particular subjects or genres, so this is a great way to discover books you might not have heard of before.

3. Books with multiple narrators are generally to be avoided. I've done the multiple narrator thing, and it's tough, even when you're enjoying the book. Right now I'm at the point where I simply won't download a novel with more than one narrator. It's better to have an okay narrator reading an entire book than a mix of excellent, okay, and not-that-great narrators together for one book. The latter makes it really difficult to follow the thread of the story.

4. Always download the latest version of a book. Sometimes you'll search for a book and come up with multiple recordings for it. ALWAYS download the latest. Chances are someone decided to create a new version because they thought the previous one was an insult to their literary sensibilities.

5. To find new books: Browse the list of recently cataloged books or just randomly search for keywords. Librivox used to have a list of the most popular downloads, but I can't find that link now. You can also try to find recs online. I like to check out GoodReads groups dedicated to audiobooks.

6. To make your life easier: In iTunes, highlight all the tracks in your audiobook, right click, go to Get Info>Options, and select Equalizer Preset>Spoken Word, Media Kind>Audiobook, Remember position>Yes, and Skip when shuffling>yes.

Questions? Comments? Have you listened to any audiobooks from Librivox you really liked?




This post originally published on Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Guest Post: BLACK BEAUTY by Anna Sewell

book cover Original Publication Date: 1877

Genre: "autobiography"

Topics: animals, children, the golden rule






















Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk (http://ravingreader.wordpress.com/):

A book of four distinct parts, this was Sewell’s first and only novel and was written in the final years of her life. Various sources report that more than 50 million copies have sold worldwide, but despite that and despite the fact that I was/am a huge animal-lover, I wasn’t that into horsey books and hadn’t ever read this one.

And this is a very horse-y book with a heavy message of treating horses (and thus, by extension, all animals) well. In return, they will treat you well. Absolutely nothing wrong or dated about that message.

So – this is the story of Black Beauty, a horse who is relating his life and adventures in very short chapters. It’s written rather simply with basic sentence structure and although it’s Victorian in age and spirit, I think young and fairly confident readers would do fine with it today. (It’s also good to keep in mind that Sewell did not write this as a “children’s book”, but more of a tool to bring attention to animal mistreatment.)

I quite enjoyed this read and was pulled into the story, although I do imagine that should I have read this when I was a child, I would have been haunted by the description of the death of Ginger, one of Black Beauty’s horse friends. I also would have felt awful reading how badly horses and other animals were treated by cab drivers in industrial London and by farmers who only work to the bottom line, and it would have been quite likely for tears to have been involved for this particular reader at some point.

Not a fabulous read, but not a bad one, by any means. I always enjoy a good animal-based book, and this had a happy ending which was a relief. (I was unfamiliar with the narrative arc of the story and so wasn’t sure whether to expect a fatal ending or not. Thank goodness it all ends up ok for Black Beauty, although I hope I didn’t give you a spoiler about that if you haven’t read it.) However, fair warning in that there are some hard-to-bear descriptions of animal cruelty earlier in the story.

So – pretty good and if I was a horse-mad child, I would have been interested in reading this during my childhood. I went through my Pullein-Thompson horse book stage and also read lots about fell ponies and mine ponies, but just not this one.

Warning to sensitive animal-lover readers: be aware – if you’re sensitive about animal treatment, this will not be an easy read, but it is historically accurate. Thank goodness times have changed for the most part.




Download Black Beauty by Anna Sewell at Project Gutenberg|GirleBooks|Librivox

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Review: THE SECRET HOUSE by Edgar Wallace

book cover Original Publication Date: 1917

Genre: mystery/thriller

Topics: blackmail


















Review by heidenkind:

The Secret House might be the weirdest book I have ever read. And you know I reads me some weird books.

I'm not even going to attempt to give a summary of this book because if I did, it would be five hundred words and not make a lick of sense. Basically The Secret House is about a blackmailing scheme that this SUPER odd editor of a gossip magazine has going (he wears a veil and disappears into secret passages in his office), and his sectary, "the adventurer" Poltavo, who's cool with cashing in on that. As for the secret house, it would be more accurate to say it's a house OF secrets rather than a secret house. It's full of secret passages and has more elevators than an Otis factory.

There are several similarities between The Secret House and The Green Rust. One, it's a weird book. Two, it starts with the death of an old guy who just happens to be rich and wants to pass on his monies to a beautiful young woman who has to chose between two men: an honorable hero-type bloke and a super-sketchy foreigner. Unlike in The Green Rust, however, I didn't care at all about the hero-type guy, although there were a lot of statements by him and other characters that made me wonder if Edgar Wallace wasn't a bit of a feminist.

No, the only character I cared about in The Secret House was Count Poltavo (he became a count at some point, whatever, it happens), to the point where I pretty much convinced myself he was the hero of the book. I mean, I knew there was a 99% chance he was actually the villain, because he's Polish. And Poland is adjacent to Germany, so he's practically German and therefore most definitely a bad guy, per Wallace Logic. But I was really kind of hoping he wasn't the villain, because he was awesome. Wallace kept calling him an "adventurer," and there was definitely an Indian Jones-ish, take-no-prisoners, think-my-way-out-of-this-situation-because-I'm-super-clever-and-dashing sensibility to him. Except Wallace was using the term adventurer as an insult. AND THEN THE ENDING HAPPENED. LIKE OMG WTF? It was so ugly and horrible and I don't... I can't even... WTF?!@

Spoilers about the ending because I need to get it off my chest (highlight to read): Poltavo is captured by some stealery dudes and electrocuted to death. Like in a straight-up electric chair. Did you ever see Dead Man Walking? It was kind of like that. HORRIBLE. And then the men who killed him didn't see any retribution for it and everyone was like "Oh well."

Anyway. I might have said I liked The Secret House if it wasn't for the ending, but since the ending WAS so bad and I wish I could buy myself some brain bleach and write Wallace an angry letter, I don't recommend it.



Further Reading:





Download The Secret House by Edgar Wallace from Project Gutenberg|Librivox|Amazon

Monday, March 4, 2013

Guest Post: SEVENTEEN by Booth Tarkington

book cover Original Publication Date: 1914

Genre: satire

Topics: love, teenagers, small towns















Review by Liz Inskip-Paulk (http://ravingreader.wordpress.com/):

Having seen Booth Tarkington’s name mentioned in various places over the interwebs, I thought I would delve into his work and see what it was like. Somehow in the Lucky Dip of choosing, I ended up with this volume (written in serial form in 1914), and it was a fun little jaunt into earlier times and the mind of a young man who is deeply in puppy love with a visiting girl up the street.

With an omniscient PoV to enable the reader to see all, Tarkington has done a good job of satirizing the importance of one’s First True Love when you’re young, and all the complicated situations that are fraught with disaster as one tries to navigate that. Your parents are awful. Your little sister is a continual embarrassment. Your friends are rivals and the world is out to humiliate you at every turn. Oh, how we probably all remember these days regardless of which gender we are…

William S. Baxter is almost 18 and lives with his parents in a small town in Iowa. He has a young sister who is uninhibited with regard to his “secret” crush and joyfully young in her approach to the world and to her elder brother. William is a typical teenager, it seems, for he regards the world around him guardedly and is very over-reactive to life and its trials. (How important things seemed back then when you’re in the midst of teenaged emotions!)

Tarkington has a good eye for teenaged angst, especially the more-innocent angst of the early 20th century: the glance that a girl (and the one you love) was loaded with meaning, your friends were everything to you, and your parents were just impediments to your social stature (although well meaning at the same time).

So William is in love with visiting Miss Pratt who has a small white dog that she carries everywhere and who speaks in baby talk all the time. Miss Pratt is also very pretty and fully aware of the social powers that she carries with the local pack of teenaged boys who cluster around her all the time. This pack of young men consists of William and his friends and the existence of Miss Pratt throws their small world into confusion: they are both rival and friend to each other…

Although this volume does not really have any deep meaning to it, it’s a fun and light-hearted satire of Young Love in Small town America during a more innocent time. (And – it must be said – it was also a lot funnier than I had anticipated.) It also reminded me of other “Prairie writers” such as Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis et al. although not sure if they overlap time-wise and they are a trifle more serious, and his humor reminded me of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer (although they were published much earlier).

Tarkington, however, was a writer of his times which means that there are some frequent cringe-inducing descriptions and dialogue of African-American help especially the Baxter family’s handyman called Genesis. It’s not surprising to read when one views in a historical context, but it still creates a jarring read to come across this so smoothly integrated into an otherwise really good book.

Outside that, I enjoyed the read. Tarkington had a great sense of humor that came through in his portrayal of Willie and his tormented love life that summer. Tarkington ended up being quite a prolific writer and was named by Publisher’s Weekly as “the most significant contemporary American author” in 1921. Additionally, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize two times, once in 1919 for The Magnificent Ambersons and once in 1922 for Alice Adams, neither of which I have read but I think I own the earlier book. I’ll need to check the bookshelves….



Download Seventeen by Booth Tarkington at Project Gutenberg|Librivox