August 26, 2011

Reviews: Thomas Hardy: The Neglected Novels--Part II

I mentioned a week or so ago that I was in the process of reading the remaining four novels written by Thomas Hardy that I'd not gotten to before.  Hardy wrote fourteen novels over the period from 1871 through 1897.  Actually, his very first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady was completed in 1868, but was never published.  Hardy's first published novel was Desperate Remedies in 1871.  His last novel was The Well-Beloved and was published in 1897.  Of Hardy's fourteen published novels, I had read all but the following:  Desperate Remedies, The Hand of Ethelberta, A Laodicean, and The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved & The Well-Beloved.  So, I ordered the the Penguin Classics editions of these four 'neglected', or 'minor', Hardy novels and started reading.

While, after finishing all four books, I can say that it is my opinion that none of these novels quite rise to the level of Hardy's best work, i.e., Far From the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Woodlanders, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, or Jude the Obscure.  Oh, they are each quite good, well written, and have engaging plots.  Interestingly, at least to me, they are quite different from one another too.

Desperate Remedies was really a rollicking good read--a real pot-boiler of a mystery and romance.  Of all of Hardy's novels this is the one that perhaps most closely emulates some of the literary creations of Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins.  This has it all--scheming and intrigue, blackmail, illegitimacy, adultery, murder and more.  Sure it was maybe a bit rough around the edges, but that is to be expected as this was Hardy's first published novel and he was really just learning his craft.  Personally, I thought the character development was terrific in the novel, with characters that I very much liked and some that I utterly despised.  Desperate Remedies was a fun novel to read and one that I look forward to picking up again in a few years for a re-read.  If you're looking for something that's kind of edgy and mysterious, yet with a good dose of romance and set in the heart of the Victorian Era, I highly recommend Desperate Remedies.

The next book that I read was Thomas Hardy's fifth published novel, The Hand of Ethelberta.  This was very, very good!  What I loved about this novel was that Hardy's protagonist is a savvy and very street-smart young woman, Ethelberta, from a very poor family of ten children.  Without giving much of the plot away, suffice it to say that this young woman sets out to make something of herself (and also indirectly benefit the members of her family).  She is an accomplished poet, and publishes a volume of poetry that is well received by the critics (Remember, Hardy always considered himself, first and foremost, a poet).  She also is put in the position of ultimately having to find herself a wealthy husband if she is going to be able to provide for her parents and siblings.  Most of the novel is taken up with telling the story of Ethelberta's trials and tribulations in honorably finding a decent man and marriage.  All in all, I found this to be quite funny at times, and a pretty rich satire on Victorian society and the roles men and women were expected to adhere to among the upper class.  Like in many of Hardy's novels, the common folk, or 'rustics', figure prominently; so, one really does get a pretty good feel for the 'upstairs' and the 'downstairs' folks during the time-period of the novel.  Again, good character development makes this a fun book to read.  I found myself anxiously turning the page to find out what would happen next to our heroine and the other characters.  Apparently, Hardy even drew upon his wife's diaries in plotting this novel, along with material he found in the popular romances of the day, weekly magazines, and even ladies fashion journals.  The book does provide a wonderful window into upper-crust Victorian society.

Finally, I just finished the third book of Hardy's 'minor' novels yesterday.  A Laodicean is my favorite of the three I've just read.  It is a sophisticated novel with a superb plot.  Again, there's mystery, some really nasty and nefarious scheming on the part of the bad guys, and a wonderful romantic triangle involving a very wealthy and beautiful young woman and her two very poor suitors.  This novel revolves around architecture and the restoration of an old ruined castle.  Knowing what I know of Hardy's life, one can really see many autobiographical elements in the telling of this tale.  Hardy, as a young architect, spent much of his initial career in restoring old Norman and Gothic churches across Dorset, a task he seemed to thoroughly enjoy.  I found it intriguing too, that this novel, like Desperate Remedies, involve a very poor man falling in love with and courting a woman much wealthier and from the upper class.  A Laodicean is also, in my opinion, a moral treatise on the conflict between maintenance of the old way of life in rural southwest England (i.e., Hardy's 'Wessex') and the new modern age that is fast changing the landscape and people's lives (e.g., the railroad, the telegraph, new religions, etc.).  This examination of the impacts of modernity upon the people and cultures of southwest England is a theme that Hardy will return to time and time again in his subsequent novels and much of his poetry.  I highly recommend reading A Laodicean, and further recommend that you follow up by reading his very next novel, Two on a Tower.  Hardy always considered these two novels to be a diptych--and read together.

So, if you're looking for something new to read; something maybe a bit off of the beaten path and not typically read by the masses, I urge you to seek out these three rather neglected novels of Thomas Hardy (and please do throw Hardy's Two on a Tower onto the pile too).  Pull up a chair next to the window or on your porch or veranda, pour yourself a cup of nice tea, and allow yourself to enter the world of Hardy's Wessex and Victorian England.  You won't be sorry, I promise.  If you read one or more of 'em, do drop me a note and let me know what you thought of the book(s).

August 16, 2011

Thomas Hardy: The Neglected Novels--Part I

I love serendipity!  Actually, I really love the word too.  It just rolls off of the tongue, and it even sounds 'serendipitous.'  Well, I had kind of a serendipitous morning today, and I'm still grooving on it.  I was up nice and early and made the coffee, settled in on the couch to finish the tenth, and final, volume--"The Crippled God"--in Steven Erikson's magnificent "Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen" series of fantasy novels.  After drying my eyes and reshelving the book, I watered the plants and then got ready to head off to work.

I was waiting on the train platform, and noticed the station marquee was broadcasting a message.  My train to Los Angeles was going to be 45 minutes to an hour delayed because of mechanical issues.  I thought about it for a moment, and said, "What the heck?"  I headed back to the house and a nice unscheduled day off.  I immediately changed into my running togs and took off for a nice hour-long five-mile run.  By ten o'clock I was back, freshly showered, and sitting down here posting on my blog, and feeling like a million bucks!  That's serendipity--at least to me!


Okay, now that I've bored you with my 'off-the-top-of-my-head' thoughts, I want to let you know what's going on with my reading these days.  As many of you know, I am a huge fan of the works of Thomas Hardy.  Hardy is one of the great novelists of the Victorian period, and is one of the great poets of the early modern era.  While many of his novels and short stories are widely read and hugely popular, Hardy always considered himself, first and foremost, to be a poet--and I would agree wholeheartedly.  I spent much of the last year and half reading most of Hardy's fourteen published novels, his short stories, all of his poetry, and several excellent biographies.  Thomas Hardy is, without a doubt, one of my favorite authors and poets.  If you are interested, you can go back through the archives of this blog and find my many postings, thoughts and observations about all of the Hardy novels and poetical works that I devoured over the past eighteen months or so.

I just wanted to bring to your attention a few of Thomas Hardy's novels that are less well known, three of which I have yet to read.  Personally, I would include the following novels in a list of his lesser known books:
"Desperate Remedies" (1871),
"The Hand of Ethelberta" (1876),
"The Trumpet Major" (1880),
"A Laodicean" (1881),
"Two on a Tower" (1882), and
"The Well-Beloved" and "The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved" (1892)
Of the novels on this list, I've only read "The Trumpet Major" and "Two on a Tower" (which I loved, and is reviewed here).  I recently went ahead and ordered copies of the remaining books (all of them are available in the Penguin Classics paperback editions), and I am very much looking forward to reading them over the next few weeks.  In fact, I started, Thomas Hardy's first published novel, "Desperate Remedies" this morning.
So, if you're at all interested in these lesser known novels of Thomas Hardy, please stay tuned as I promise to post a review of each book as I finish it.  I am very much looking forward to finishing off my reading of Hardy's entire literary oeuvre, and seeing how these remaining lesser known or 'neglected' novels stack up against my faves like, "The Return of the Native," "Far From the Madding Crowd," "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," "The Woodlanders," or "Jude the Obscure."

August 14, 2011

I'm Baaaaack! Woo-Hoo!

Wow!  It has been a while since I added an entry to my blog--about three months!  Let me see if I can explain why.  There really has been a lot going on, and pretty much all of it good too.

Susan and I went to Florida over the long Memorial Day weekend in late-May and visited our friends Mandi and Brian in Palm Harbor, near Tampa-St. Petersburg.  We had a blast!  Ate some great food, hung out at their beautiful pool, and just generally relaxed for several days.  The weather was fabulous, and we had fun visiting the little coastal communities near Palm Harbor like Tarpon Springs and Dunedin.  I also hauled my landscape photography gear with me and managed to get out a couple of times and photograph some of the beautiful landscapes in this part of Florida.  First, I want to share the early morning view from Mandi and Brian's pool and patio area. How would you like this view with your morning coffee?  Pretty spiffy, huh?  I should mention that if you want to see a larger view of the attached images, please feel free to 'click' on it and open up the larger view. 

I also visited the John C. Chestnut Regional Park late one afternoon and early evening.  This park really highlights most, if not all, of the beautiful ecosystems found along much of the Gulf Coast of Florida.  There is a terrific boardwalk nature trail that winds its way through an amazing saw-palmetto swampy area, and then the trail traverses along the shoreline of Lake Tarpon.  I climbed one of the observation towers and captured a beautiful and tranquil sunset over Lake Tarpon.  It really was a wonderful moment!  I should mention that this part of Florida is loaded with alligators!  It was pretty cool seeing these prehistoric reptiles, in all sizes, occupying just about any body of water, no matter how small.  You surely have to be conscious of these creatures as you wander around next to the water's edge.  I'm still not sure that I'd stick my toe in ANY body of water, other than a pool (and I'd check the pool twice too!), if I lived in Florida.  Trust me, there's a lot of 'gators down there!

Susan's friend, Mandi, is an incredibly accomplished tennis player--really pretty much semi-professional caliber.  We went with her to her club and watched her play a match with one of her friends.  It was really quite inspiring and completely rekindled my life-long love affair with the game.  And this brings me to the next chapter in my 2011 summer of rediscovery.

First, a little background is necessary.  I am tall; in fact, I'm 6'3" in height.  I used to be a pretty fit and trim fellow, but you know how it is as one ages.  Over the years I just kind of let myself 'go to hell in a hand-basket.'  I went from 170 lbs., and swimming a mile several days a week, to 235 lbs. and doing absolutely nothing except eat and drink.  In the meantime, my wife Susan has been diligently trying to watch what she eats and spending several days a week working out.  As I do the lion's share of the cooking, I found that I wasn't helping her one bit.  In fact, I was surely unintentionally sabotaging all of her hard work.

Well, something just 'popped' inside me as I watched Mandi play her friend in that match of tennis in Florida.  I really was tired of looking at the mid-fifties fat guy in the mirror with a double (triple?) chin day-in, and day-out.  In the spirit of full-disclosure, I was also drinking waaay too much booze too.  I found myself knocking back a bottle of red wine darned near every night along with all of the food I was eating.  Something had to give.  Well, my bad and unhealthy habits had to give way to a different lifestyle.

I have not had a drop of alcohol since early June 2011, and it feels fantastic!  Now, I'm not saying that I won't drink again, but I'm going to (1) give myself some time to clean up my act first, and (2) then allow myself to enjoy cocktails with friends in a socially responsible and healthy fashion.  The second big thing that I've done is undertake a significant physical fitness program, and I'm having a blast sharing this part of my new journey with my wife, Susan!  I am playing tennis several times a week, running and walking on the off days, and jumping rope out on the patio.  I took several weeks of tennis lessons from one of the local pros up here in Valencia and it has made all of the difference in my tennis skill level and my entire outlook on the game as a whole.  I feel like I am in my mid-twenties again, and I have developed a ferocious topspin forehand and a pretty wicked two-handed backhand to boot!

Finally, I would say that the biggest thing I've done for myself is that I've become an inveterate user of an app on my Android HTC Inspire phone.  I use "My Fitness Pal" to faithfully record my daily caloric intake, my daily exercise routines, record my weight, modify my fitness and weight loss goals, etc.  I cannot tell you how wonderful and how important this program has been to the new me!  I use the barcode scanner on my phone to scan food items that I eat, and it tells you all of the nutritional information, serving size, and so forth for everything that you're inclined to put in your mouth.  My Fitness Pal has something like over a million food items in its database.  It is amazing to have all of the nutritional information simply pop-up after I've scanned the barcode

I currently have a goal of 1,280 calories a day, and adhering to that goal would allow me to lose about 2 lbs. per week toward my goal of about 175 lbs.  Obviously, exercise helps by allowing you to take in more calories per day.  I encourage you to look into this wonderful program--both, as an app for your phone and for your PC--if you're at all interested in helping to get a better handle on the food that you're eating day-in and day-out.  Sure it takes maybe 15-20 minutes per day to log your diary entries into the program, but its only 15-20 minutes out of your entire day!  Just think, for the very first time you are really getting a true sense of exactly what, and how much, food you are taking in, which is then counter-balanced by the exercise that you do.  It is really quite empowering.

So there you have it--an overview of my summer in just a few paragraphs!  I am still reading some wonderful books, and will be adding some reviews and thoughts about those in the near future.  I've also signed up for the next level of tennis lessons through the local parks and recreation department here in Santa Clarita.  I also bought myself a great pair of really good running shoes.  I feel like a million bucks, and I'm having a blast.  Stay tuned!