Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980)

How did I ever miss this book? In 2003, the Guardian named Housekeeping one of the 100 greatest novels of all time, describing the book as: "Haunting, poetic story, drowned in water and light, about three generations of women." And I just bumped into it by accident while browsing in the library the other day. The cover caught my eye.

Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her sister Lucille, who are cared for in succession by their grandmother, two elderly aunts, and then finally their eccentric Aunt Sylvie after their mother commits suicide. Once they are under Sylvie's care, Robinson dwells on how each of the three is changed by their new life together. She also examines the effect their mother's suicide and the legend of their grandfather's bizarre death had on them.

Narrated by Ruth and set in a fictional town on a lake somewhere in Idaho, the novel is poetic and haunting, and touches on many themes: motherhood, sisterhood and families and what it means when these relationships are cut off, the juxtaposition of "normal" society with people who live on the fringe of it (itinerants, hoarders, people who live isolated lives in the mountains or in anonymous city apartments), and the characters' relationships to the natural world. Ruth, Lucille and Aunt Sylvie spend much of their time outdoors, on and around the lake, in the woods, and on the mountain. The lake, where both Ruth's mother and grandfather died, can almost be considered another character in the novel, given the impact it has on the lives of everyone and the evocative way the author writes about it.

Finely written, thought provoking and suspenseful, I can certainly understand why this book ended up on a "best of" list, but not why it took me so long to discover it.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)

I read this as part of the BerkeleyX Book Club MOOC.  Taking this online class was excellent motivation to read this classic novel, at just the right time of year.

Despite the old fashioned style and vocabulary (helpfully, the class offered explanations of archaic vocabulary for each chapter of the book), this was a quick read.  Assignments for the class and weekly quizzes, however, meant I did go back over parts of the book in finer detail than I would have if I had just been reading it for myself.

Most of you will be familiar with the plot, as I was, having seen one or more of the many film and TV adaptations that have been made of this novel over the years.  The main character, Scrooge, is visited by three ghosts in the course of a night, who show him Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future, in order to make him aware of how he is living his life, and what will happen if he does not change.

For me, the major theme of the book is that of redemption and how anyone can make a change, become a better person, and embody the spirit of Christmas more often than just one day per year.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

An exciting new online book club!

Just a quick post to share something I think is wonderful: there is a new MOOC (Massive Online Open Class) that started on the EdX MOOC platform: a year long book club/English literature class, taught by Berkeley professor Maggie Sokolik.  There will be one classic book a month taught for the next 12 months, and you can sign up for each month individually.  The class starts out now, December 2014, with A Christmas Carol, and will continue in January with Huckleberry Finn.  Here is a short interview with Professor Sokolik with more explanation about the course on the EdX blog.

I, for one, and very excited about this - not only have I not really read a lot of the great classics of English literature (having a degree in French literature), but there isn't much opportunity here in Belgium to belong to an English speaking book club.

Here is the complete list of books the course will cover:

December: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
January: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
February: Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
March: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
April: Dubliners, James Joyce
May: Dracula, Bram Stoker
June: The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
July: A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle
August: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
September: Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
October: Room with a View, EM Forster
November: Call of the Wild, Jack London

I already took one MOOC through EdX this year (The Science of Happiness) and I really enjoyed the self paced learning environment, and so I am looking forward to continuing with the BerkeleyX Book Club.

Interested?  Check it out!