Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, 1895

redbadge

At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way…He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage. Stephen Crane

Spoiler Alert

Though it’s been reduced to retail sales, barbecues and the unofficial launch of summer, Memorial Day is supposed to be a way to remember and honor soldiers who’ve died in war. Many books, films and games glorify war by focusing on the victories while ignoring the cost. But there is a cost and since the American Revolution over one million American soldiers have paid with their lives.

I debated reading books like Catch-22 or Slaughterhouse Five, both irreverent looks at the military and war written by veterans. I started each, but the cynicism just didn’t feel like a good fit for the holiday. But I wanted to review a book that portrayed war realistically without trivializing the aftermath. So, I chose The Red Badge of Courage which fulfills the Classic Book challenge (2018 Reading Challenge). It’s a compelling look at war through the eyes of a young soldier learning the difference between what he imagines war to be and what war really is.

The short novel follows young Henry Fleming, a naïve glory-seeking Union soldier eager to prove himself on the battlefield during the Civil War.

When the story begins, Henry and his companions wait for battle.  So far, the glory Henry seeks alludes him since his company has not seen any skirmishes. The quiet before the storm gives Henry’s fear and doubt a chance to thrive as he wonders how he’ll react if the chance to fight finally comes. Will he fight bravely? Will he flee? Will he survive?

When war finally comes to him, he does in fact run. Crane delves into the psychology of the main character and doesn’t hold back from presenting him in a negative and sometimes foolish light. Henry’s guilt and self-loathing come out in obnoxious and sometimes cruel ways. We see the toll Henry’s desertion takes on his character.  When he finds himself alone with ample time to recount his misdeed, he transforms from romantic dreamer to bitter cynic. And once he meets up with actual wounded soldiers paranoia sets in as he fears his shameful secret will be revealed.

While things happen around Henry and impact his choices, the novel is less about the war and more about the mindset of this young man as he witnesses the horrors of war nobody talks about. He eventually redeems himself and not only makes peace with his earlier actions but embraces them for their part in making him the man he eventually becomes. Side note: The edition of the book I read included the sequel “The Veteran” published a year after The Red Badge of Courage. In this micro story (eight pages) an older Henry reflects on the war with his young grandson and in fact readily admits to running.

 

 

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886

dr. jekyll and mr. hyde

“…my evil…was alert and swift to seize the occassion; and the thing that was projected was Edward Hyde.”       Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Spoiler Alert

Even though I have a Capricorn symbol tattooed on my arm, I’m not really into astrology. But I could not resist the perfect tie-in to my next book selection. That’s right. As the sun begins to travel through Gemini, my book of choice…The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It fulfills the Book Written before 1920 Challenge (2018 Reading Challenge).

The Jekyll and Hyde tale is such a familiar part of pop culture I assumed I knew the story. I was wrong. I expected it to be told from the Jekyll/Hyde perspectives, but like most stories of the time, a third-party witness recounts much of the tale.  Only at the end do we get a rather lengthy letter written by the last remnants of Jekyll telling the story from his perspective.

The tragedy begins with Gabriel Utterson, Dr. Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, growing concern for the respectable and reliable Jekyll. First, Jekyll withdraws from social circles then abruptly bequeaths everything to the mysterious and unlikeable Mr. Hyde. From there, Utterson attempts to reconcile the mystery of Jekyll’s strange behavior with the sudden appearance of the wretched stranger who yields undue influence.

Of course, in the end we find out that Hyde is the manifestation of Jekyll’s bad side, allowing him to act on his evil impulses without repercussion. Using a potion, Jekyll summons the feral and barbaric Hyde in measured doses. Unfortunately, Jekyll discovers one of the potion’s ingredients wasn’t pure, and that unknown impurity  gave Jekyll domination over Hyde’s arrival. Without it, Jekyll can’t control when Hyde appears or rein in his actions.

No longer forced to transform back to Jekyll against his will, Hyde goes on an unsupervised spree. Once Hyde commits an unforgiveable crime, Jekyll knows that something drastic must be done to stop his alter-ego.

Stevenson provides a satisfying mystery, though the familiarity of the overall story, if not the details, softened the impact.  Even so, I understand how those reading it when it was first published would find it shocking and disturbing.

Thoughts that linger:

The copy I read, pictured above, came with a glossary defining some of the outdated terms or obscure references as well as interpretive notes that added insight into the Stevenson and his story.

Burial Rites, Hannah Kent, 2013

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“They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.” Hannah Kent

Spoiler Alert, I guess.

The jagged landscape of Iceland’s coasts juxtaposed with its lush green interior always appealed to me. Though I don’t know much about the history, government or culture of the country it’s sheer beauty makes it a place I’d like to see with my own eyes. Which leads me to the next challenge: a Book Set in a Country You’d Like to Visit. (2018 Reading Challenge)

Admittedly for all the natural beauty Iceland has, there’s also a desolation that seems to go with it. Many of the pictures I see show no signs of civilization. Simply a vast amount of unforgiving landscape with no roads or shelter. I can only imagine the intensity of the seclusion in 1828 which lacked immediate communication with the outside world and travel was done on foot or horseback.

In her debut novel, Burial Rites, Australian author Hannah Kent captures that isolation in this fictionalized account of the last few years of Agnes Magnusditter’s life. As the book jacket, wiki page and any other site that comes up when you google her name will tell you, Agnes (along with a man named Fridirik Sigurdsson) were the last people sentenced to death and executed in Iceland, hence the questionable spoiler alert warning.  The event was traumatic enough that Agnes is still haunts her countrymen almost two hundred years later. Just last year, a mock trial was set up to retry the case, finding that she would have been sentenced to fourteen years rather than death. Numerous books have been written and Jennifer Lawrence is attached to star in an adaptation of Burial Rites. While the memory of her hovers in Iceland’s shared history, Agnes the woman remains mysterious and unknowable. But Kent does her best as she imagines Agnes back to life, giving her agency and purpose.

Sentenced to die in northern Iceland where there are no nearby prisons, Agnes is foisted upon the Jonsson family, who’s patriarch, Jon serves as a local official. Though eager to do his duty, Jon is understandably hesitant to allow a murderess into the home with his wife and daughters.  His sickly and stern wife Margret is incensed by what she considers and insult as is her youngest daughter Lauga, who fears that proximity to Agnes will ruin her chances for marriage. While his oldest daughter, Steina initially fights Agnes’ internment, she’s the first to let down her defenses. Agnes requests a young assistant priest named Toti, to act as her spiritual guide in preparation for her impending death. The shifting relationships between the prisoner, her reluctant jailors and the unqualified chaplain drive the story to its inevitable conclusion.

A bit of a mystery plays out, more in Agnes’ motives for the killings rather than a did she/didn’t she. Though Kent never excuses Agnes, she gives her a humanity we don’t usually like to see in our murderers. I was left with a satisfying ambiguity that comes from reading well developed characters who are neither saints or monsters. Even though the book jacket made clear Agnes’ fate, I found myself dreading the end, knowing there wouldn’t be a last-minute reprieve and unsure of whether she deserved one.

Talking As Fast As I Can, Lauren Graham, 2017

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I’d given “slapping a bass” a whole new meaning. Lauren Graham

Lauren Graham’s memoir fit into a few categories in the 2018 Reading Challenge. It was a 1) celebrity memoir that was a 2) 2017 Good Choice Award Winner that 3) made me laugh out loud. But more importantly, it fulfills the Book With A Six Word Title challenge. Six word titles are not as easy to find as you think. And now I can breathe a sigh of relief having finally found one that I was excited to read.

I’m a big Gilmore Girls fan. As the only child of a young single parent, the idea that a show would focus on that family dynamic was welcome and affirming. Disney princesses aside, you didn’t really see single parent households in family entertainment in 2000. Especially one so unapologetic. Graham’s upbeat and energetic portrayal of Lorelai captured the spontaneity that comes with growing up with your parent.

Graham recounts her whimsical childhood (first Honolulu, then Japan, then a houseboat) and her early days as a struggling theatre actress in New York to successful tv and film star in Los Angeles and all the wacky adventures that got her there.  She also talks about the perks and weirdness that accompany fame, like being famous enough to guest host on Project Runway yet still being awestruck enough to draw a blank.

Of course, for most of us, the real fun starts when she recollects her Gilmore Girls years from breathing life into Lorelai Gilmore and reviving her almost ten years later. She recalls first impressions of costars, hopes and expectations for the show as well as the behind the scenes production drama that comes with getting a show on the air. Graham focuses on the positive, staying away from gossip or pettiness leaving the quaint colorful world of Stars Hollow intact.

Would be actors will find her climb familiar and inspiring, though things have changed a great deal from the early nineties when she began her ascent. I’m sure there are aspects of the acting career that don’t change much. Gilmore Girl fans will love the inside stories of the making of the original as well as the reunion ten years later. Graham has a light, genuine tone, humility and self-depreciating humor that make her writing enjoyable and accessible.

Thoughts that linger:

I always considered Graham to be a private person since she managed to avoid the tabloids and was delighted that she shared pictures of herself from childhood to the present.

She includes a section in each of the season summaries called “Times were different” where she reminds viewers of once common, now archaic, aspects of life like *69ing and using disposable cameras.