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#61….Death Comes for the Archbishop

November 11, 2011

“The difficulty was that the country in which he found himself was so featureless–or rather, that it was crowded with features, all exactly alike.”

We’ll start this review with what this book ISN’T. Just so we’ll all be on the same page:

1)It isn’t fast-paced, heart-racing literature. The plot is slow and meandering, almost more of a gentle meditation than a true story.

2)There are almost no women in this book, which was weird. It’s like the Giant Sausage Party of literature.

3)So there’s no romance (or bromance, sorry) either, which is a good thing, because the main characters are Catholic priests.

4)Even though the title might fool you, this book is not really about death. At all.

So after reading the above, you might ask, what is Willa Cather’s 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop about, already? It is the story of two French missionaries, the newly bishoped Father Jean Latour and his childhood friend and vicar Father Joseph Vaillant, and their low-drama escapades to bring the Catholic religion to the Indians and Mexicans in the territory of New Mexico. The priests have their work cut out for them, as the Indians are still firmly entrenched in their mystical beliefs and the Mexicans are firmly anti-foreigners after being cheated and abused by the Spanish. Luckily Fathers Latour and Vaillant are hardy, devout, and compassionate souls, who acclimate quickly to the harshness of the New Mexican terrain and reach out to their parishioners.

I read this book for the first time back in 2009. Reading this book is really what jump started me to begin this blog, as I was reading through the Modern Library list and the title of this book caught my eye. I was not disappointed then, nor was I this time. What I love about this book is how epic it is in its non-epicness. There is plot, there is movement, there is drama, although it’s not high drama by any means. The book is really more of a character study than a true novel. We’re tempted to exalt the characters of both Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant, since they are priests. For sure both are low maintenance men of God, with few possessions and fewer vices, yet there are still some moments in the book where both men are imperfect and flawed. Cather continues to hammer at our stereotypical views of the clergy when she introduces other corrupt priests and missionaries that Latour and Vaillant encounter during their travels in New Mexico. Those guys are a bunch of dirtbags that make even the imperfect Latour and Vaillant look like saints.

Ironically, my favorite parts of the book involve women characters, who are definitely at a premium in this book. I love when the doves land on Magdalena, who (like Mary Magdalen was saved by Jesus) was saved by the French priests who rescued her from a hellish and abusive relationship. I also love when Father Latour brings Sada, a slave girl shivering in the cold, into the church to pray with him, as she is forbidden to openly practice her faith by her owners. Sada’s appreciation of the little things brings Father Latour’s sagging faith back to life during a difficult time.

It’s interesting that Cather would choose to title her book as she did, considering that maybe the last 20 pages of the book are in any way really about death. Ironically, I felt the book was not about death, but about life….. a reflection on how we live our lives day-to-day, the choices we make, the regrets we might have, and what we will leave behind us when we go, because Death will eventually come for all of us. The book is presented as a series of vignettes, jumping around in time sometimes days, sometimes decades, and not always chronicling major life events, which is why many might think Death Comes for the Archbishop is pretty weak on plot-line. Most lives, though, are like this. Admit it. It’s okay. If someone dropped in on nine random times in my life, like this book did with its French priests, it might get boring (and ugly) pretty quick (Sunday morning would be the worst. I’d be sitting around in my sweatpants, on my third cup of cold coffee, reading my Nook and arguing with my husband about when I’m going to clean the catbox. But I digress). I feel that Cather chose these seemingly random scenes from their lives to tell us more about her characters and the kind of people they were, even though the events may not have been overtly important or even interesting. The quote from the book that I opened the posting with illustrates this perfectly…a life featureless, yet crowded with features, as the hills around Santa Fe were.

I was sad to finish this book, as it was so relaxing to read every night before I went to sleep. A very peaceful and thought provoking read.

Grade: A-

#64….The Catcher in the Rye

May 6, 2011

“Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad anyway.”

A digression for a review today, folks. You all know the story.

I remember vividly my first read of JD Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye. It was the perfect time to read this book, knee deep in tenth grade angst (it doesn’t get any better than that, right?). Holden Caulfield was my hero. He thought just like I did. I hated everyone. I wanted everyone to like me. I didn’t want to grow up. I wanted to grow up NOW. I didn’t understand why people around me were in such a hurry to grow up, and everyone seemed to be doing it better than me. Everyone was ‘phony’ and obsessed with appearances. My parents might as well have been from another planet; they didn’t get it. And the crazy thing was, sometimes, even though I was old enough to drive a car and have a job, part of me still wanted to go home, have my mom make me a PB&J, and color. Maybe even take a nap.

I have to admit, when I opened this book as a grownup, Holden and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye. My first general feeling was irritation. Man, what is wrong with this kid? Can’t he just relax and have fun? My high school years were the best of my life.  Stop complaining. Stop ‘horsing around’. Do your damn schoolwork. Stop getting kicked out of schools. Be nice to people! And then I realized I was no better than everyone else Holden came in contact with during the book. 

How soon all of us adults forget what it was like to be locked in the angst of those years. There was no ballast. I could understand why Holden wanted to go back to the years where he walked through the Museum, roller skated in the park, danced on the bed with Phoebe (while smoking, no less!) and could be the general goofball that he was without the world judging him for it. Childhood, if you think about it, is so short, and growing shorter these days. When you were a kid, if you saw another kid, bam, they were your friend, regardless of how they looked, what color they were, what religion they were, or how popular they were. Kids don’t care if other kids have Hollister tshirts on. At least they didn’t when I was younger. Nowadays, they do. Trust me. I was buying designer stuff for my kid in 5th grade. And she was on the later end of the spectrum.

When I thought about my teenage daughter, the dichotomy that is Holden Caulfield actually made more sense. My daughter longs to see movies I think are too old for her, and wear shorts I think are WAY too short, yet she still sleeps with five stuffed animals and runs through the sprinkler. She’s learning how to wear makeup, but I still find rocks in her jeans pockets. Throughout the horror of her teen years, it’s the little bits of childhood I still find laying around that make me smile.

I wish all of us parents could be more like Holden, and be the catchers in the rye for our kids. I wish we could keep them from going over the cliff, or put them in one of those glass cases at the museum so they never grow up. But they do. Sigh.

Happy Mother’s Day to all you moms out there! And enjoy your kids while they are still young. 🙂

Grade: B

#62…From Here To Eternity

April 26, 2011

“All love has hate in it. Because you are tied to anyone you love, and it takes away part of your freedom and you resent it, you can’t help it. And while you are resenting the loss of your own freedom, you are trying to force the other to give up to you every last little bit of his own. Love cant help but make hate. As long as we’re living on this earth, love will always have hate in it. Maybe thats the reason we’re on this earth, to learn to love without hating.”

James Jones’ pre-WWII epic, From Here to Eternity, chronicles the rather mundane lives of two career Army men stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii a year before the events of Pearl Harbor. Both of the main characters, Sergeant Milton Warden and Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, have much in common. Both are “30-year men” meaning they have 30 year enlistment terms. Both love the Army more than anything else in their lives, and will make several personal sacrifices because of that love. Both have women troubles in their lives; Warden with his commanding officer’s wife Karen, and Prew with a beautiful prostitute named Alma. Both soldiers have a grudging, unspoken respect for each other, and both men are sensitive under their hardened Army shells. And both’s lives will be changed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, located only miles from where they are stationed.

Sgt Milt Warden pretty much runs G Company, __th Regiment, although he’s not the commanding officer. Thanks to his organizational skills and his knowledge (and care) about the men under him, he’s able to keep the company together and keep his men happy. Although a bit gruff on the outside, on the inside, Warden is a softie, who would do anything for his fellow soldiers. His advice to his superiors throughout the novel is compassionate, knowledgeable and supportive, preventing them from making rash decisions. Like the rest of the men in his outfit, Warden enjoys his spare time gambling, drinking and chasing women…and since there’s no war on, there seems to be A LOT of free time. Rather than sticking with the town prostitutes like the other men, Warden sets his sights high and dangerously, on his commanding officer’s ice-cold, proper wife Karen, who is stuck in a loveless marriage and feels de-womanized by the hysterectomy she had to have after her own husband gave her an STD. Both fall in love with each other, but the stakes are high. Karen won’t leave her husband unless Warden becomes an officer…and to Warden, becoming an officer is almost like handing over your manhood. Although he grudgingly agrees to put himself up for promotion for Karen’s sake, he doesn’t like it, which can only lead to trouble later on.

Private Prewitt was the head bugler of another company, until his commanding officer promoted another, less competent bugler over Prew. Unable to take being second place to someone less talented, Prew gives up his easy life in the Bugle Corps and asks to be sent back to straight duty, preferring the harder life of a soldier to suffering the effects of favoritism. Ironically, when Prew is sent to G Company, he will continue to suffer thanks to a different kind of Army favoritism. In addition to bugling, Prew also happens to be an amazing boxer. We see a bit of Prew’s sensitive side when it’s discovered that he quit boxing after blinding the last person he fought. Even though he knows he is going into a regiment where athleticism and participation in sports is rewarded, and in his case, expected, Prew sticks to his guns and refuses to fight for the team. This results in a type of hazing known as “the Treatment”, where, Prew is forced to do extra calisthenics and endure verbal abuse from his superiors. It’s not all horrible though. Like Warden, Prew gets out on the town with his buddies, spends all of his payday money on beer, women and cards, and meets a wholesome looking prostitute named Alma. That’s about the last good decision Prew makes for the majority of the book. After attacking one of his superiors, Prew is sent to the Stockade (the military prison) and when forced to watch the Stockade men beat another prisoner to death, Prew goes all vigilante on us and kills the man who led the beating. Knowing that he can no longer return to his unit, as he will surely be blamed for the murder, Prew goes AWOL to Alma’s house, where he hangs out and drinks and reads books until the day he hears about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This news puts Prew over the edge, because it is then that he realizes he cannot leave the Army behind.

The book was not what I would call conventionally enjoyable. If you’ve read the book, you know exactly what I am talking about. It is straightforward and callous at times, much like the life of a soldier. Even the romances aren’t warm and fuzzy. If you’re looking for mushy-gushy love stories, you won’t find one in this book. And don’t let the movie fool you. There are many major aspects of the book’s plot that don’t occur in the movie; I think the romantic angles were played up a bit for Hollywood. What for me was most heartrending was what the book had to say about men, and the relations they have with other men and women. Stuck behind the manly facade of a soldier, the men struggle to reach out to one another to avert loneliness and form friendships or talk about their feelings, and in the cases of Prew and Warden, to love women, and in the cases of Prew’s friend Pvt Angelo Maggio and another superior officer, Nathan Bloom, to be with men. Prew is drawn to the kind and friendly Pvt Salvatore Clark, who unlike most of the other men in the outfit wears his heart on his sleeve, and while in the Stockade, to the calm, philosophical bookworm Jack Malloy. Maggio is exactly the opposite…outgoing, outspoken, angry and, by the end of the book, crazy…but even he is drawn to the calm Malloy. When Warden is caught in a small act of kindness, he usually follows its discovery with denials, bluster, or a torrent of verbal abuse. It was sad to me that these men were essentially trapped inside themselves, and were all emotional islands, not unlike Hawaii.

Jones’ book, upon its publication, was a watershed work in many ways. His original manuscript had much more profanity in it than was considered socially acceptable in 1951. The book also contained many passages relating to gay sex, as I mentioned in an earlier posting on FHTE. Jones wanted his book to be published as a Book of the Month, which was a really big deal back then, and the publishers would not do it unless the bad language and homosexual references were removed, so he gave in. Since passages that were shocking half a century ago are almost old hat these days, those of you who want to check out the original format and have e-readers will get that chance on May 10, when Jones’ controversial unedited version of FHTE will be released. I’d be curious to hear from anyone who reads the full version to see if it added anything to the storyline.

Overall not one of my favorite books, but profound in its own way.

Grade: B-

Thoughts at the Halfway Point…From Here to Eternity

April 12, 2011

Things are not fun and rosy halfway through James Jones’ WWII tome, From Here to Eternity….and Pearl Harbor hasn’t even been attacked yet.

Prewitt went and fell in love with a town prostitute named Alma, whom he’s now shacked up with on weekends and has proposed to twice, but she won’t marry him because he’s ‘only a soldier’. Picky, picky. Plus he’s routinely getting his ass busted all week long by the officers in his regiment because he is still steadfastly refusing to box. They’re not starving him or beating him up or anything, but they’re not being nice either. So far Prewitt is withstanding it pretty well. Then good buddy Maggio goes off the deep end one night by beating up some MPs and gets his butt landed in the Stockade (the military jail).

Warden isn’t doing so hot, either. He gets mad at someone all the time, and I mean really mad, usually taking the form of three page-long rants where Warden just hauls off on someone, not even for a halfway decent reason. I think he is losing it, a little bit. He of course has gone off the deep end with Karen, his commanding officer’s wife, and although he thinks he’s being Mr Slick by going under the radar with her and sneaking around town, someone knows what’s going on and confronts him about it. When I last left off, the person who confronted him, who not surprisingly had also hooked up with Karen in the past, was chasing him in the dark with a meat cleaver.

There was also quite a big section devoted to ‘queers’, or the men in the town near the base who prefer other men. From what I read, it sounds like the soldiers take advantage of these men for one of two rather compelling reasons: 1)loneliness or 2)when they need money. Maggio has a friend named Hal, whom he freeloads alcohol and money from, although it’s not clear if there are benefits for Hal. Jones originally intended to include several homosexual scenes and references in the book…but publishers didn’t have the world’s most open minds back in 1951, and would not publish the book with the scenes. Only recently, the full, unedited version of the book is now available as an ebook through Open Road.  Here is a great posting on why the changes were made: http://christopher-vaught.blogspot.com/2011/04/deleted-queer-stuff-from-from-here-to.html?zx=c7609219b0108363.

Update on From Here to Eternity

April 3, 2011

Schofield Barracks, Wahiawa, HI

Since this book is a hefty 850 pages, and I am about 1/3 of the way through, I thought I would update everyone to let you know how it’s going.

From Here to Eternity is touted as a World War II book, but so far it’s different than most traditional ‘war’ books in that it describes the peacetime activities of servicemen in Schofield Barracks, located in Wahiawa, Hawaii. During the rainy season, regular outdoor exercise and drills were suspended, so the men engaged in lectures and weapons drills. To keep entertained after-hours, the men hung out, played cards, gambled, drank, and chased women (and sometimes men), usually spending (or overspending) their entire paychecks in one night on any of the above.

Robert E. Lee Prewitt is an amazing bugler, who decides to leave the easy life of the bugle corps for straight duty as a soldier after a less-talented bugler is promoted over him. Prewitt is also an amazing boxer, but after blinding someone in his last fight, has sworn off boxing forever. That’s a big problem for Prewitt. During the monotony of peacetime, the Army regiments kept adrenaline and corps morale up by competing against each other in sports, like boxing, baseball and basketball. Soldiers who participated on these sports teams were referred to as ‘jockstraps’ and were usually given preferential treatment and/or promotions more consistently than the others. The unit Prewitt transfers into is desperately seeking his help on the boxing squad, but once Prewitt makes it clear that he will not box, he seals his own fate. The officers begin to give Prewitt “the treatment”, consisting of physical and psychological punishments designed to break him and force him to reconsider boxing. Prewitt, however, holds his ground, and is so far surviving okay, even though they’re beating the crap out of him.

Like Prewitt, First Lieutenant Milton Warden is a principle-bound soldier. Although he’s second in command, he practically runs the regiment, helping out everyone from the supply room guy to the kitchen cooks. His CO, “Dynamite” Holmes, has the unfortunate propensity to promote his ‘jockstrap’ soldiers or soldiers from his previous regiment to leadership positions, even though some of them lack any leadership talent. This leaves Warden the difficulty of running the regiment with doubtful and inconsistent help, but he somehow manages to keep things going smoothly. Unfortunately, like Prewitt, Warden seems to have a taste for the dangerous, because he makes the dumb move of getting involved with his CO’s wife, the ice-cold Karen Holmes, who, it is reputed, has had affairs with many of the other officers. That just cannot turn out well for anyone.

The book has plenty of suspense. I find myself silently begging Prew to just give in and box so that he doesn’t have to suffer, but at the same time, I admire his integrity and resolve. I worry what is to come for Prewitt, and how far the military will go to break him. And I sure hope Warden doesn’t get caught with Karen. That could get ugly.

I’m baaaaaack

March 29, 2011

Alright, already. After months of letting A Clockwork Orange taunt me from my bedside table, I re-shelved it, moved on and am back at it here at Journeys. I picked up James Jones’ From Here to Eternity last weekend when I was cleaning off my bookshelves and became instantly hooked. Would love to hear from anyone else who has read it. I haven’t seen the movie either so I am excited to check that out afterwards.

Nonfiction Challenge 2011

January 2, 2011

I hope everyone had a great New Year!

I have decided to jump into the reading challenge pool on my nonfiction blog, Past as Prologue. Click on the button on the left to get the URL….check it out and sign up if you’re interested, and spread the word to those out there who might like to join up.

Time-out

December 27, 2010

Yes, it’s been a while since my last posting. I am the first to admit that I may have hit the Modern Library Reader’s Block of All Time with A Clockwork Orange. I HATE IT. Can’t get into it at all. Hate the idea of a book that has to have a glossary so that you can follow what the hell is going on. And yet I hate the idea of skipping it and moving on to the next book. Man, it sucks to have integrity!! So I am going to give myself a bit of a break and see how I feel about starting it over in a couple of weeks. I probably won’t feel incredibly different about it, but who knows. If I made it through The Ginger Man and 100 pages of Finnegans Wake, I hate to think I couldn’t put my big-girl pants on and get through this one. 🙂

I have also been inspired, thanks to some fabulous books I picked up to finish out the Birth Year Reading Challenge, to start a blog for non-fiction books too. You can visit me at that site: Past as Prologue. I really welcome your ideas and suggestions for fantastic non-fiction you’ve read, since I don’t have a list to turn to.

Hope you’re having a great holiday. And look out for A Clockwork Orange to be reviewed sometime mid-January. 🙂

The Boys of Summer

December 4, 2010

Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, 1952

About a month ago, my husband and I ran into Al Newman, one of the infielders on the 1987 and 1991 Twins World Series teams, at our local Buffalo Wild Wings. My husband recognized him immediately; I had no idea who he was. My husband was too intimidated to go over and introduce himself, but after a couple of Mike’s Hard Lemonades, I had no such inhibitions, and went over to shake his hand and strike up a conversation with him. He turned out to be a very real, genuine guy, who was coaching for one of our local high school baseball teams. His ex-wife worked for the same school district my daughter was in, and our kids were about the same age. It turned out (when my husband finally came over) that he and Al had played on many of the same fields growing up throughout Minnesota. When I asked why he wasn’t wearing either of his World Series rings, he smiled and said he didn’t like to draw attention to himself.  It was a great experience to meet him.

I think so many of us get overwhelmed by the cloak of celebrity that we forget famous people are still, in fact, people. Which is why I thought of our experience meeting Al Newman when I began to read Roger Kahn’s wonderful 1972 non-fiction book, The Boys of Summer. Kahn grew up a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan  in the shadow of Ebbets Field, and was later given the opportunity as a sportswriter to cover his favorite team during the tumultuous Jackie Robinson years of 1952-53, when baseball was just beginning to be integrated. Although he always kept his journalistic objectivity, Kahn became friends with the members of the team, and the second half of the book describes his journeys to reconnect with the different team members and their lives since they left baseball.

Kahn strove mightily and well to humanize men like Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider, who have become almost untouchable legends to baseball fans. Back then, before the lionization of athletes with Sportscenter highlights and multi-million dollar contracts, players were more like regular guys. None of the Dodgers traveled around with a posse of bodyguards or wore giant diamond earrings in their ears. In fact, almost none of the Dodgers turned out fabulously wealthy as a result of their playing days. Billy Cox, the third baseman, ended up a bartender, and outfielder George Shuba ended up working at the post office. Pitcher Carl Erskine became a stay-at-home dad for his disabled son Jimmy. Duke Snider at centerfield lost the farm he had always dreamed of after some bad investments. Second-baseman Jackie Robinson dealt gracefully with his son’s drug arrests and untimely death as well as his own health-related issues, and shortstop Pee Wee Reese was there for Kahn when Kahn’s son committed suicide. These guys were out in the real world, as real people, once their baseball days were done, faced with many of the same problems we have, with the added pressure of celebrity. Which I thought was pretty cool.

It was the parts of the book that talked about Jackie Robinson, pitcher Joe Black, and catcher Roy Campanella’s challenges of being the first black major league players, and the feelings of the team as the eyes of the world looked to see how they would handle integrated baseball that were so touching to me. The captain, Pee Wee Reese, refused to sign a petition other players had put forth refusing to play with the black players, and often publicly and genuinely showed his acceptance and affection for his black teammates both on and off the field (see the statue of Pee Wee and Robinson at Brooklyn’s KeySpan Park below the post). I was inspired by Jackie Robinson’s composure both at the plate and in the infield while angry white fans yelled racial epithets and made fun of him, and how he turned his anger into motivation to get great hits and make great plays at second base. His ability and courage changed the game of baseball forever, which is why his number has been retired for every single major league team, and players can wear it as a tribute on Jackie Robinson Day once a year.

“Thinking about the things that happened, I don’t know any other ballplayer who could have done what he did. To be able to hit with everybody yelling at him. He had to block all that out, block out everything but this ball that is coming in at a hundred miles an hour. To do what he did has got to be the most tremendous thing I’ve ever seen in sports.”
— Pee Wee Reese, on the performance of his teammate, Jackie Robinson

With the early death of his father, and the subsequent deaths of the players Kahn idolized as the years passed, he asks the important questions of what we do with our lives, and what we leave behind us when we pass away. Obviously the Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the ’50’s will always be remembered as one of the best teams in baseball, but Kahn wanted them to be remembered for more than just a pile of statistics that become less meaningful as time goes on. He wanted them to be remembered as his friends, as real men who did a brave thing that other teams may not have had the strength and foresight to do, and as men who loved their teammates and families. I loved getting to know the Dodgers, so Kahn definitely succeeded with me.

At 474 pages, and written in the same year I was born, this book counts as the last book needed to meet the Mor-book-ly Obese challenge for the Chunkster Challenge, and should also get me a candle for the Birth Year Reading Challenge. Whoooo hoooo! I was excited there were still some books from the year I was born that weren’t written on papyrus.  😉

A statue of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese outside Brooklyn's KeyStone Park

#66…Of Human Bondage

November 20, 2010

All good things must come to an end.

I finished W. Somerset Maugham’s wonderful novel, Of Human Bondage, last night. Closing the book after a month-long love affair with it, I felt satisfaction at the book’s perfect ending, and at the same time, a profound sense of loss, like an empty nester whose kids have all left for college, or the house after the holidays are over. It was a profound sense of “what do I do now?” and, “why did it have to end?”

We are introduced to Philip Carey as a small boy, snuggling with his dying mother. Orphaned days later and crippled with a club-foot, he is sent to live with his cold and proper uncle the Vicar of Blackstable and his loving aunt. Philip is sent to school, where he is of course mocked for his deformity. On a whim, he leaves school to travel Europe, against the wishes of his uncle. After travels in Germany and art school in Paris, left with very little money, he decides to go to medical school in London, like his father. Upon moving to London, he has the misfortune to meet Mildred, a slatternly, rude, cold as ice waitress, and becomes obsessed with her, although she treats him like crap and uses him for his money. Through Mildred, Philip gets in touch with his stalker-esque and doormat-esque sides, throws years of his life and money away, and even ends up having to retake exams in med school because of his obsession with her. Finally, when she runs off with one of Philip’s friends, it looks like he may be on the road to recovery. He begins to like medical school and relies on his friends to keep him sane. Mildred of course turns up broke and ho-ing herself on the street corner months later. Now that he’s officially over her, but is still a chump, Philip kindly decides she and her baby can live with him, but only as a quasi-servant. Ironically, now that his obsession with her is over, it is only then that Mildred determines to have him. When Philip again reiterates that their relationship must be platonic, she trashes his house and disappears yet again.

In the meantime, Philip, glad to be rid of her, meets up with Athelny, an extravagant, over-the-top guy who adopts Philip as part of his family. When Philip bets the small remainder of his fortune on a bad stock tip, is cut off by his uncle, and is homeless as a result, Athelny and his family take him in, and Athelny gets him a job in a department store, which although humiliating to Philip, is money in hand. When Philip’s selfish uncle finally kicks it and dies, Philip is able to return to med school and get his degree. He meets up with a crotchety old private practice doctor, who takes a liking to Philip and offers him part of his practice. Philip refuses, because it has always been his dream to travel and see Spain. This dream gets sidetracked when he falls in love with Athelny’s daughter Sally. A false pregnancy alarm causes Philip to ponder putting his dreams aside to marry Sally, but when he discovers she isn’t pregnant, decides to ask her anyway, and she accepts.

There was absolutely everything to love about this book. Philip Carey is about as human a character as I’ve ever found in contemporary literature. His struggles are real and heartfelt. You have to root for Philip, because he begins life as an underdog, motherless and deformed and derided by his peers. Anyone who’s ever wasted away over someone unreliable, unloving and unhealthy knows how Philip felt when Mildred led him on and took advantage of him. Even at the end, when the obsession has passed, he still feels a twang when he sees her, and wonders if he will ever be free of her.

The parts of the book that spoke to me the most were when Philip became homeless. None of us really know what we would do or where we would go if we had absolutely nothing. He wanders around the park, listening to the bells chime the hours, wondering what he will do for the entire day, what he will eat and where he will sleep. I was unemployed for nine months, and I felt keenly Philip’s despair at lurching between job interviews and being rejected. Philip’s friendships were also painted very realistically, and as real friendships do, ebbed and flowed and evolved with changes in his characters’ lives. After Philip’s stock loss, he drifts away from his stockbroker friend (obviously) and also another friend from art school, when he is too humiliated to face him and explain his situation. I thought sure he would do the same to the Athelnys, but was glad they tracked him down and made him fess up.

Maugham’s characters were fully realized and likeable, excepting psycho Mildred and maybe his Vicar uncle, who was a selfish tightwad. It was felt that this book was somewhat autobiographical, as Maugham’s struggles with stuttering were much like Philip’s with his club foot. Maugham also lost both parents in his early childhood and spent his childhood with a cold Vicar uncle. Like Philip, Maugham dropped out of school, traveled to Germany, worked in an accounting office and disliked the work, and spent five years in medical school. Unlike Philip, Maugham had affairs with men and was able to travel to Spain as Philip had so desired to do, although he did end up marrying a woman and having a child.

Happy endings have definitely been at a premium on the Modern Library list. Some have even argued that this book did not have a happy ending. Those who don’t think so clearly weren’t paying attention. It was as perfect an ending as I could ask for. This book is my favorite on the ML list so far. If you haven’t read it, get yourself to the bookstore now, or  add it to your Xmas list. At a hefty 712 pages, this qualifies as book #5 towards the Chunkster Challenge. Only one more to go!

Grade: A+++++