Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Days Without End
by
Sebastian Barry

Rating:

Thomas McNulty and John Cole are just boys in the 1840s when they meet under a hedge in a Missouri rainstorm. McNulty is an orphan from Ireland and Cole, from New England, has been on his own for a couple years. They know they will fare better if they stick together. A strong friendship protects McNulty and Cole during their early days as dancers in a miners’ saloon and later as soldiers in the Indian wars and the Civil War. Questions of morality, faith, and fate run through McNulty’s poetic narrative in a style like nothing else, mastered by Sebastian Barry. It’s an impressive feat that a writer can take a piece of ugly American history and throw a moving balance between love, friendship, honor and duty and the brutal violence that comes with following orders.

We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.

Together they enlist in the army, travel endless days and nights and are charged with the dirty business of clearing the western land of Native Americans. Fierce battles between their troops and tribes from the Sioux make the reader question again the senseless killings and how soldiers, many with nowhere else to go, must reconcile their actions with a need to survive.

McNulty wonders if God is looking out for him. He’s never sure.

The world got a lot of people in it, and when it comes to slaughter and famine, whether we’re to live or die, it don’t care much either way. The world got so many it don’t need to.

Somehow McNulty and Cole survive the Indian wars, but not without deep scars and their time fighting the Rebels during the Civil War presents them with many of the same moral dilemmas, especially when they come face-to-face with their enemies.

There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy, that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster.

And despite the ugly time period, the men form strong bonds with their commanders and fellow soldiers, for it is in battle that characters are formed. Bonds break, however, when unspeakable violence causes Barry’s characters to look out for themselves, the point at which the story changes from broad battles to personal struggles.

The only solace McNulty finds is in his deep love for Cole, and for Winona, their adopted Sioux orphan girl. The men in their camp and the people they meet later accept both Winona and their gay relationship, a surprisingly modern portrayal that represents one of the author’s important themes: acceptance. Through McNulty, Barry shows a complicated country of diverse backgrounds and cultures, trying only to survive, but willing to defend themselves to the death.

The end, despite violent and often hopeless events throughout the story, points to happier days, as McNulty reasons with optimism:

Life wants you to go down and suffer far as I can see. You gotta dance around all that.

McNulty’s character is a genius and eloquent storyteller, with poetic insights that explain love from all sides. I highly recommend this terrific book. While short (259 pages), you will not want to rush through it because Barry has carefully chosen every meaningful word.

I had not read anything by Sebastian Barry before this, but he is a well-known and highly respected Irish poet, playwright and novelist. He has won many awards, is a two-time Man Booker Prize finalist and has won the Costa Book of the Year prize for Days Without End (2016) as well as his 2005 novel, A Long Long Way.

On a side note, Barry relates that McNulty’s character was shaped by his teenage son, Toby, who recently came out as gay. Barry dedicated the book to Toby and says in an article from The Guardian (read here), “My son instructed me in the magic of gay life.”

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Rhett Butler’s People by Donald McCaig

rhett-butlers-people-cover
Rhett Butler’s People
by
Donald McCaig

Rating:

Great characters live on long after the final pages of our favorite books, subject to our wild imaginations.  In the final pages of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, our minds are already working on what could happen next when Scarlett vows, “I’ll think of some way to get him back.  After all…tomorrow is another day.”

For decades, we wondered if Rhett and Scarlett would get back together.  To answer our curiosity, Alexandra Ripley wrote Scarlett in 1992.  Then Donald McCaig wrote Rhett Butler’s People in 2007 and Ruth’s Journey in 2014.

Gone With the Wind has inspired other books as well, including The Wind Is Never Gone:  Sequels, Parodies and Rewritings of Gone With the Wind by M. Carmen Gómez-Galisteo; Scarlett’s Women:  Gone With the Wind and Its Female Fans by Helen Taylor; Frankly, My Dear:  “Gone With the Wind Revisited” by Molly Haskell; and the parody by Alice Randall, The Wind Done Gone.

Rhett Butler’s People is a saga of the Butler family in Charleston, South Carolina before, during and after the Civil War, and is a companion piece to GWTW.  It begins with a fateful duel of honor and jumps back to Rhett’s boyhood days on the family’s rice plantation.  It’s no surprise that Rhett is a rebel and McCaig takes the reader through Rhett’s many clashes with his controlling father, Langston Butler.  The back story ties into what the reader already knows about Rhett from GWTW and the author fills in the plot with new characters to interact with some of GWTW’s main characters, including Melanie Hamilton, Ashley Wilkes and Belle Watling.  Some new characters are Rhett’s little sister, Rosemary, school companions Andrew Ravanel and Edgar Puryear and Belle Watling’s bastard son, Tazewell.

Although Rhett and Scarlett meet under the same circumstances at Twelve Oaks, McCaig tells the story from the Butler angle and follows Rhett through his blockade running days during the war and as he meets up with Scarlett in Atlanta.  McCaig, who also wrote Canaan and Jacob’s Ladder, is a Civil War expert and, in his story, he describes the major conflicts between the north and south, slavery and the war’s impact on the southern way of life.

While no story can compare to a classic like Gone With the Wind, McCaig fills in a lot of nice details about the Butler family.  The story is at its strongest between McCaig’s original characters and the complicated dynamic within the Watling family, and less so, however, when he retells scenes from GWTW.  It’s always risky to pick up characters from another book and the author’s portrayals of Melanie and Belle, in particular, will seem a little off to GWTW fans.  In addition, Rhett’s character seems too soft and too understanding to be the swaggering, dangerous and irresistible Rhett we swoon over in GWTW.

Rhett Butler’s People is a well-told story, however, with lots of interesting side characters and plots, painting a vivid picture of the south during the war.  In addition, readers are rewarded with a wild and satisfying finish.  A fun read inspired by a great classic!

If you love historical fiction about the Civil War, check out my review of Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

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The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury
The Sound and the Fury

by
William Faulkner

Rating:

Being a busy mom and reading The Sound and the Fury is a nearly impossible combination! I did my best, however, to read and understand this difficult, but interesting book. First published in 1929, The Sound and the Fury is Faulkner’s fourth novel. It’s the story of the Compson family and it takes place in Jefferson, Mississippi between 1898 and 1928.

Reconstruction after the Civil War has left the Compsons in a daze. They no longer enjoy their prominence as southern aristocrats and they are clinging to a legacy that has lost importance in the post-war world. The father is an alcoholic, the mother a hypochondriac and the four children have their own serious issues.

The best way to make sense of The Sound and the Fury is to understand how it’s structured. The book is divided into four parts, told from different points of view. The first three parts are told by the three Compson brothers and their stories are presented in an unusual and wildly jumping stream of consciousness format, with limited punctuation and many difficult setting and storyline jumps.

Benjy’s story comes first. Benjy is an idiot manchild and he can only communicate in the most basic of animal ways. In this section, you get a vague and confusing idea of where he fits in the family and how his parents, the family servants, and his brothers and sister, Caddy, feel about him. Major things are happening in the Compson family, but it’s hard to make sense of what they are.

The second section is told by Quentin Compson, the oldest sibling. He’s a freshman at Harvard and his life is unraveling. He has an intense and confusing relationship with Caddy and he’s struggling with serious internal conflicts.

Jason’s story comes next. He’s a selfish, sarcastic and bitter man, the only sibling to stay at home, but he’s not to be trusted and easy to hate. It’s a relief to get to this part, however, because his narration is much easier to understand. The missing pieces start falling into place and you start to feel better about understanding what’s happening.

The fourth section is written in a third-person omniscient format and if you reach this part, you can congratulate yourself! This section focuses on Dilsey, the Compson family’s black cook who is the Compsons’ anchor. She’s the only one who seems at peace with her place in this dysfunctional family.

I first read The Sound and the Fury in college and remember loving the book. But I had a wildly enthusiastic professor who explained everything to our class. I can’t imagine I would have understood any of this book if I had read it on my own. Today there are lots of guides to help you through this challenging book. The two I found the most helpful are SparkNotes and Wikipedia so check those out for some reading support!

I can’t say that this is one of my favorites, but I do feel good that I read it. It’s kind of like being on the other side of doing a workout. You’re glad you did it, but there was some pain along the way!

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The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni

the caged graves pic

The Caged Graves
by
Dianne K. Salerni

Rating:

My first look at the cover of The Caged Graves, featuring a picture of a grave encased in a fancy metal cage, sent me on a two-day reading bender and I didn’t stop until I had learned the mystery behind the deaths of young Verity Boone’s mother and aunt.  This is one of the most original, entertaining and suspenseful young adult books I’ve ever read.  It’s a terrific mix of historical fiction, romance, mystery and suspense.

It’s 1867 and Verity Boone is seventeen.   For fifteen years she has lived with her cousins in Worcester, Massachusetts.   Now she’s returned to Catawissa, Pennsylvania to marry Nathaniel McClure, a boy she’s never met.  Her father, Ransloe Boone, is a stranger to her.  What kind of life awaits Verity?

When Verity discovers the caged graves of her mother and aunt on the outside of the town’s cemetery fence, she knows she won’t rest until she knows the truth about their deaths and the placement of these mysterious cages.  Are the cages there to protect the living or the dead?  Did these women practice witchcraft?  Is there a connection between these graves and a missing satchel of gold?

I love this story.  You think you know what to expect.  A little romance, a little mystery.  A nice historical fiction.  It’s much more.  From the beginning, Verity has a mind of her own.  She and Nate get off to a rocky start.  Not everything in town is as it seems.  Some friends and family members come on strong, some hold back, and their motives are unclear.  Then a new character emerges and strong temptations develop.  Strangers lurk in the darkness and Verity stumbles into danger more than once.  And just when you think you know whom to trust and where the story is headed, Salerni introduces wild plot twists that propel you to its ultimate conclusion.

In addition to the story’s suspenseful plot developments, I like how Salerni includes all kinds of references to life during these times, from everyday living and customs, clothes, food, wealth and social class, and medicine, to the realities of two American wars.  She paints a great picture of a time when marriages were often business arrangements, medical practices were still developing and included many herbal remedies and witchcraft was something to be feared.

This is a great read.  It’s fun, educational, scary, and just a little bit racy!

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“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner

a rose for emily pic“A Rose for Emily”
by
William Faulkner

Rating:

In “A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner tells the story of the reclusive Miss Emily Grierson, an old southern spinster from an era past.  In just a few pages, he shows the character of the curious townsfolk and, with only a small amount of dialogue from Miss Emily, hints at an understanding of her thinking and choices to cling to a southern life that has long passed.

I’m sure I read this story in school, but I’m finding how great it is to re-read something with the perspective of being older.  I don’t know if, back in high school, I could have appreciated Faulkner’s writing style and his ability to give the reader such a clear view of the personality of his characters.

Faulkner touches on the themes of change and death in “A Rose for Emily,” particularly as he shows how Emily and many people in the southern states resisted change after the Civil War.  Miss Emily wants to continue to live in a time when her family was part of the upper class and tries to do that by shutting herself inside, as reconstruction and northern influences surround her.  Faulkner also shows how she struggles to control the circumstances of death and decay, which play into the surprise ending, tying what seems to be just a descriptive detail into the final evidence of what she’s done.

If you have a few minutes to sit and relax, this short story is the perfect way to get a quick taste of Faulkner’s high quality literature!

william faulkner
William Faulkner

William Faulkner (1897-1962) was an American writer from Oxford Mississippi and is considered one of the greatest writers of American literature.  He placed many of his short stories and novels in the fictional Yoknapatwpha County, based on his own experiences in Lafayette and Holly Springs/Marshall Counties.  In 1949, Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature and received the Pulitzer Prize twice (1955 and 1963), for his novels A Fable and The Reivers.  In addition to these works, Faulkner is best known for his novels The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and  Absalom, Absalom!  Faulkner also wrote poetry, essays, screenplays and two stage plays.

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Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone with the Wind book cover
Gone With the Wind
by
Margaret Mitchell

Rating:

As with all great classics, I am hard-pressed to say anything original about Gone With the Wind. This is my second reading and I still love the book. If you have seen the movie, but have not read the book, read the book. There is a great deal more that will only add to your enjoyment of the story line.

Some things I did not know about Margaret Mitchell made re-reading the book all the more interesting (thank you, Wikipedia). Mitchell’s maternal great-grandfather was from Ireland and settled on a slave-holding plantation in Georgia. Her grandfather fought in the Civil War and made a lot of money in the lumber business after the war (just like Scarlett!). As a young girl, Mitchell heard a lot of Civil War stories from her relatives and visited the ruined plantations in Georgia. And, most interesting to me was that her mother was a women’s rights activist.

I think these points are important because they give you a better understanding of the characters in GWTW. And I think the most interesting point is Mitchell’s portrayal of Scarlett as a shrewd and independent businesswoman during a time when no women ran businesses or even played a role in commerce, except maybe in selling pies like Mrs. Merriwether and taking in sewing and boarders like Mrs. Elsing. (Or Belle Watling’s business. Belle’s character is also quite modern, profession aside.) Mitchell also portrays Ellen, Scarlett’s mother, as the true head of the plantation, with Gerald as a figurehead.

Although I love this book, it is difficult to read the sections about slavery and the slaves on the O’Hara plantation. The O’Haras take pride in their kind treatment of their slaves, yet their language is clearly condescending. It’s a bad part of American history and all accounts of this time-period make me very uncomfortable and ashamed.

I think Mitchell’s description of the post-war period is very good and it shows what a mess Atlanta was and how the Southern way of life known and loved by its people was forever lost. I like how the characters, particularly Melanie and her followers cling to their committees and old customs, even when the Northerners take over the city.

There are certainly many, many other points to add about the characters and the book, Melanie’s goodness, Ashley’s displacement in the new South, and Scarlett’s inability to understand and appreciate the people around her until it is too late.

I like Rhett Butler the best. He is very modern, thinking it ridiculous never to mention pregnancy and birth control. He loves children and these things make him even more appealing. You want to forget how he makes his money, his drinking and what he does over at Belle’s house because he is so likable and smooth. His flirtatious conversations with Scarlett are so fun to read, but my favorite parts are when Rhett shows his true feelings to Melanie, and sadly to Scarlett at the end.

Want more Rhett Butler?  Check out Rhett Butler’s People by Donald McCaig

How do you feel about literature that depicts shameful periods of history? Can characters on the wrong side of thinking still be good? I have trouble with this, do you?

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