Book Review: The Red Pony by John Steinbeck

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A hard, emotional read, full of emotional complexities and the harsh reality of life on a ranch in the 1930s. Compelling, yet stark. 3 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Raised on a ranch in northern California, Jody is well-schooled in the hard work and demands of a rancher’s life. He is used to the way of horses, too; but nothing has prepared him for the special connection he will forge with Gabilan, a hot-tempered pony his father gives him. With Billy Buck, the hired hand, Jody tends and trains his horse, restlessly anticipating the moment he will sit high upon Gabilan’s saddle. But when Gabilan falls ill, Jody discovers there are still lessons he must learn about the ways of nature and, particularly, the ways of man.

Favourite Quote

I couldn’t decide between the two, so thought I would share both:

“He felt an uncertainty in the air, a feeling of change and of loss and of the gain of new and unfamiliar things.”

(from page 5)

“It was a strange time and a mysterious journey, to Jody – an extension of a dream.”

(from page 15)

Quotes from The Red Pony by John Steinbeck

Review

First up, I didn’t like this story, and I will not read it again, of that I’m certain. It was too sad and when it comes to animals in stories, I don’t like cruelty or abuse being shown to them, or horrible things happening to them whether it is reality or not. And so after reading this book, which I found difficult, I was left feeling sad and emotionally low.

That being said, I must have found the story compelling on some level because I read it in one sitting, though I did have to put the book down a couple of times to take a breather from the content.

The story is full of emotional complexities. Jody is growing up and trying to think and act like a man, but he’s not quite there yet. He has to deal with loss and grief, and finding out that an adult who had never been wrong before in his eyes is fallible. Billy struggles between trying to keep truths from Jody in order to preserve his childhood innocence, yet he knows that Jody is growing up. He will soon see the world for the harsh place it is.

Jody’s parents were interesting. There is softness and kindness there, but especially from the father it is hard to express, because being too gentle, too emotional is a weakness in his eyes. It’s a hard world and he wants his son prepared enough to be able to survive in it, so he comes off as cold and remote. His mother’s tough and loving, and finds the balance between the two. Yet she softens noticeably when she knows her son is struggling.

Steinbeck’s writing is economical and stark. He doesn’t shy away from, or sugar coat the darkness to be found in every day life. Neither is he concerned with giving the reader a happy ending.

From a social history perspective, we are given a good account of life on a ranch in the 1930s. It was first published in 1933 and is set in the Salinas Valley area of California, where Steinbeck himself grew up.

The setting is bleak and powerful; it stirs the imagination and expands the wistful horizons of Jody. What’s beyond the mountain ridge? Why don’t people live up there?

This is Jody’s coming-of-age story, where he is old enough to realise the harsh realities of the world, and they wound and shape him.

A well-written, yet ultimately sad and bleak story. Hence the rating.

Rating

Book Review: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

March’s Book for The Very Informal Classic Reads Book Club Challenge 2021…

The Last of the Mohicans is the second book in The Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Lavish and lengthy descriptions of stunning scenery combine with a tale of adventure in this classic of American literature. Definitely worth a read if you are a fan of geography. 4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads, same as back cover of book)

Skirmishes, captures, flights and rescues are only some of the ingredients of this classic tale of bloody conflict between the British and the French in the forests of North America. It also tells of the cynical exploitation of the native tribes by the two protagonists, setting Indian against Indian, Mohican against Huron.

However, there is one honourable European, natty Bumppo, the loyal and corageous woodsman, who prefers the simple code of natural law to the machinations of the white man. Together with Uncas, the last of the Mohicans, he helps to thwart the efforts of Magua, the sinister Huron, who tries to prevent Alice and Cora Munro from joining their father, the British commander of Fort William Henry.

James Fenimore Copper was the first great American novelist, and his love of the early frontier and the lore of the woodsman struck a chord with his readers that still finds echo today.

Favourite Quote

History, like love, is so apt to surround her heroes with an atmosphere of imaginary brightness.

(From The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper)

Review

This book is almost two hundred years old, and set 75 years before it was written, during the French and Indian Wars. There were some things that I really enjoyed about The Last of the Mohicans and some things I liked a lot less. Let’s start with the positives.

The story itself is entertaining. There is action, a desire for revenge, plenty of chases, kidnapping, a hint of romance, and more, all played out against a backdrop of stunning, unspoilt scenery.

Then there are the characters. Hawk-eye is very interesting as he is a man caught between two worlds but not completely part of either. He moves between both with ease and fluidity, and is accepted by both, yet he appears very much as a man apart, a man alone. Cora is strong and courageous in the face of danger, whilst Alice is beautiful and so utterly pathetic which was prized in women at the time, but doesn’t translate particular well in the twenty-first century…

The American Frontier is richly described in all its vast, awe-inspiring beauty. Indeed, James Fenimore Cooper has captured and recorded this wild landscape in exquisite detail, which is wonderful for a reader like me who prizes geography highly in a book. There might be an argument, and a justified one at that, which questions whether the author has to describe absolutely everything the characters see in minute detail, but some of the descriptions really are wonderful.

What I really (read: really, really, really!) didn’t like was the lengthy and unnatural dialogue, and this did harm my enjoyment of the story. Here we find characters chatting away at the most inopportune times in order to facilitate the author’s need to explain everything. Also, the story doesn’t seem to move at a great pace, given how much action is involved in it.

Then we come to the question of racism…There is no getting away from the fact, that to a modern audience the story does come across as unpalatable, given the prejudices and stereotypes that are mentioned frequently in the book. Yet, I have also come across views that say James Fenimore Cooper had a great respect for the native population, which I can also see in the prose, if taken in the context of the time of writing. But still…

Part of me is a little bit tempted to read the other stories in The Leatherstocking Tales, but another part remains wary. Though there was much to enjoy in The Last of the Mohicans, there is no getting away from the fact that the narrative is heavy and I found it much too slow for my liking.

The 1992 film takes what is good about this story and presents it in a much better form for modern audiences, I think. So, if you have the chance to either read the book or watch the film, I would probably suggest the film. Gasp and Horror! I know, 9.9 times out of 10, I would have said go read the book, but there we go. However, if you are after reading a piece of classic American literature, give it a go and tell me what you think. After all, as I said above, there is much to recommend it if you have the patience for it.

Rating


April’s Book for The Very Informal Classic Reads Book Club Challenge 2021 – Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Book Review: Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore

Twas the Night Before Christmas, or A Visit From St Nicholas by Clement C. Moore, with illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Beautiful, charming and timeless.  A delight to read. 5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

This poem first appeared in a newspaper in Troy, New York, USA, on December 23, 1823, as “A Visit From St. Nicholas”. No one claimed authorship until 13 years later. Clement Clarke Moore, a professor and poet, said that he wrote the piece for his children. Unbeknownst to him, his housekeeper had sent it to the newspaper to be published. However, the family of Henry Livingston Jr. contended that their father had been reciting “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for 15 years prior to publication. Regardless of the true author, the poem is now a Christmas classic.

Favourite Quote

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself

Review

This Christmas was the first time (that I can remember) reading this poem from beginning to end.  Of course, this poem is so well known that, even without having read it, some of its lines are easy to quote.  But I’m so glad that I found the time this year to read it.

The edition I read was from 1912, via Project Gutenberg, and was beautifully illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith.  My favourite picture was the stockings hanging from the mantlepiece – it’s such a typically festive Christmas scene.

I don’t think I quite realised just how old the poem is. It was first published in 1823 and, to give that a little context, it was published twenty years before Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Neither did I realise “Twas the Night Before Christmas” isn’t actually its title, but “A Visit From St Nicholas”, though the poem is more commonly known by its first line.  Something else I discovered this Christmas is that there is argument for attributing the writing of this poem to a different author.

The poem is beautiful and charming and conjures up many ideas we associate with Christmas to this day (for example, Santa’s sleigh is pulled by eight reindeer – Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen – stockings hanging from the mantlepiece, St Nick entering the house via the chimney).  And, apart from a few archaic words, which have been changed out and modernised with later publishing, it could have been written much more recently for the audiences of today.

Even as an adult reading it, there is much joy to be found in the poem, and I have no doubt I will read the poem again, in its entirety, next year, and probably for all the Christmas’ after that!

Rating

Short Story Review: Eleonora by Edgar Allan Poe

Eleonora is a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe, published in the 1840’s.

The narrator introduces us to his life in two parts: the first, when he lived in the Valley of the Many-Coloured Grass and the second when he lived in the city.

In the first, he lived with his aunt and her daughter, Eleonora, in this rural paradise, where he describes a land of beauty, flowers, rivers and hills, and none save them three came to the valley.  There is only one that can surpass the beauty of the valley: Eleonora.

The narrator and Eleonora fall deeply in love, but very quickly she becomes ill, “…she had been made perfect in loveliness only to die”.  The only issue Eleonora has with death is that the narrator might leave the valley and give his love to some other woman, which of course, he swears he will not do.  He makes it clear that he will not marry another woman.

And yet, many years after the death of Eleonora, he leaves the valley, breaks his oath and marries another.  But does the breaking of this oath have any implications for the narrator and his future?

Eleonora discusses the issues of love after loss.  It’s a poignant but interesting story and the description, especially of the Valley of the Many-Coloured Grass which serves to illustrate and reflect his feelings for Eleonora, is vivid.  When he speaks of love, the valley is a paradise, but when he becomes grief-stricken the valley is no longer what it is was.

My favourite quote from Eleonora, I featured in last year’s Quoting the Classics challenge:

Eleonora quote