Mildred Pierce-Relevant Classic

Mildred Pierce

By James M. Cain

Published 1941

Read Nov 2021

The book opens with Bert Pierce doing a number of home maintenance chores around his suburban home in a development it turns out he helped create.  When he finishes, he tells his wife, Mildred, he will be going out for a while.  When she presses him for a time to expect him, so that she can appropriately plan dinner—-and how much to spend buying the food she will cook—their discussion degrades into an argument.  He won’t deny that he will be seeing another woman while out and Mildred asks that he permanently leave which he agrees to do.

Thus begins Mildred’s life as a single mother trying to support two young daughters in early 1930’s while the country is in a deep depression.  Part of her anger with Bert had to do with her cooking and baking being the sole source of income for the family for a while.  Bert’s partnership to develop a housing community in Glendale, CA had fallen on hard times as a result of the depression.  Bert and Mildred occupy one of the houses in the development and had enjoyed a lifestyle that included the possibility of Mildred getting a mink coat just before the bottom fell out for them.  The book follows Mildred’s path to finding her way as a beautiful young divorcee with no skills beyond cooking, baking, and cleaning. 

Mildred seeks employment but is loathe to take any position that requires she wear a uniform as that would telegraph her fall down the socioeconomic ladder.  She eventually does take a job as a waitress and hides her uniform from her daughter, Veda.  She becomes involved with one of Bert’s partners, Wally Burgan, who works out a scheme for Mildred to open her own diner in the development.  Before she quits her day-job to open her own restaurant, she meets a wealthy man, Monty, and becomes involved with him.  Mildred’s cooking, her famous pies, and her industriousness pay off and she seems well on her way to success and happiness.      

Of course, the path to success and happiness is often filled with ruts and Mildred’s story is no different.  An Illness takes her younger daughter from her.  Her older daughter, Veda, while enjoying the fruits of Mildred’s success, remains aloof and overtly looks down on anyone who has to work for a living, including her mother, and is willing to take advantage of people for her own benefit.   The conflict between mother and daughter is simultaneously an internal conflict for Mildred— Mildred wants the best for her daughter, wants to give her daughter anything and everything she wants and needs, but also wants her daughter to respect her and her accomplishments, and for her daughter to be a good person.  

The book was made into a movie in 1945.  The Motion Picture Production code in force at the time disallowed some of the elements of Cain’s story, in particular the sexual relationships that Cain includes.  But the relationships he describes are like real ones at that time and don’t include any graphic details.  Cain paints a real, unvarnished picture of the time.  The adult characters face real and complex issues and Cain doesn’t shy away from these either.  The themes Cain considers are quite universal and timeless.  These attributes make this book remains highly worth reading some eighty years after its publication.

Great Expectations–Expect a Great Read

Great Expectations

By Charles Dickens

Published Dec 1860-Aug 1861 serially

Published Aug 1861 in 3 volumes

Read Aug 2016

This reader very belatedly provides just a brief word about this magnificent work.  Apparently (1), in Aug 1860 Dickens formulated the basic plot for a “little piece” about an orphan boy who befriends a convict who later makes a fortune and anonymously supports the orphan through his education; the convict bequeaths the fortune to the boy but it is lost to the Crown.  Then in Sept 1860 Dickens needed to do something to save his weekly publication “All the Year Round” so began writing and publishing the story as he wrote it over the course of about a year. It was wildly successful.  It was later published in three volumes. 

This reader listened to the book while doing a summer of house painting.  What a wonderful way to ease the monotony of this must-do task!  The book introduces us to Pip, a seven-year-old orphan who lives with his much older sister and her husband, Joe.  In the first chapter, Pip encounters a convict, Magwitch, in a cemetery and is convinced to provide him some bread and a tool.  Pip’s life includes many twists and turns.  He is chosen to visit the spinster Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter.  Pip assumes it is Miss Havisham who has decided to pay for his tuition and living expenses to attend school and leave being a blacksmithing apprentice to Joe.  It is many chapters until we learn this isn’t the case.  And many more chapters of adventure, mystery, unrequited love, clashes of values, that tell what happens there after. 

This reader won’t give away any more of the plot and will conclude by saying this is a delightful book about a generally good character who lives through many ups and downs and remains hopeful.    

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Expectations accessed 2021-11-04

The Blessing Way and A Thief of Time and Tony Hillerman

The Blessing Way

Published 1970

Read Sept 2021

A Thief of Time

Published 1988

Read Oct 2021

By Tony Hillerman

The Blessing Way introduced Joe Leaphorn to readers. Hillerman eventually wrote 18 novels involving Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee (both members of the Navajo Tribal Police).  In this first Joe Leaphorm novel, Leaphorn is actually not the primary character in this mystery, but he does play an important role.  The novel does have characteristics that are found in all of the Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels:  they immerse the reader in the geography and history of the Four Corners (Arizona/Utah/Colorado/New Mexico) region; they provide the reader insights into   Navajo culture; and they provide both an interesting mystery and a human story about one or more of the characters.

In A Thief of Time, artifacts from the ancient Anasazi people are being extracted from ruins and sold in potentially illegal ways.  People potentially involved show up dead or missing.  Joe Leaphorn recruits Jim Chee to help him understand what’s going on.

 A very powerful aspect of this book is that Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are both grieving the loss of a romantic relationship.  Joe Leaphorn’s wife of thirty years has died unexpectantly following surgery to remove a benign brain tumor.  His mourning has led him to a deep depression and to put in his retirement papers.  He becomes interested in finding an academic focused on Anasazi pottery who has gone missing shortly before his retirement date and he becomes engaged in understanding the situation.  Jim Chee and his girlfriend are splitting up, not for lack of love, but because neither can commit to living in the other’s culture and geography:  the Navajo reservation/culture or Washington DC/white culture.    Both men are hurting but both men rally to do their jobs.

This reader will continue to read through Hillerman’s 18 Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels.  The mysteries are interesting.  But the human stories and the language that describe them and the geography, history,  and culture within which they occur are the biggest draws. 

Lady Susan-An Unusual Austen Lady

Lady Susan

By Jane Austen

This short book/long story was written in approximately 1794 (when Jane was about 19) but it wasn’t published until 1871, long after her death in 1817.  It is written mainly as a set of letters between the principal characters with a conclusion by an unnamed narrator.

Lady Susan is about 35 years old, is recently widowed, has a sixteen-year-old daughter, and has no home of her own in which to reside so she relies on friends and family for a place to stay.  As the book opens, she is abruptly leaving her friends’ home near London to stay with her brother-in-law and family in the country.   She has deposited her daughter in a school in London, apparently to repair the effects of limited schooling she had while living at home. 

Many rumors follow Lady Susan to her brother-in-law’s estate including the reason for the abrupt departure (excessive flirting with the man of the house), cause for lack of home ownership (the property had to be sold to cover debts incurred by Lady Susan’s excessive spending), and the reason for her daughter’s poor education (Lady Susan had been too busy socializing away from home to pay attention to her).  The letters progress a story that demonstrates Lady Susan’s amazing abilities to deflect rumors, win over people who have a poor opinion of her, and generally manipulate anyone necessary to get what she wants.  Jane Austen’s chosen language for the correspondents is marvelous and paints a picture of a thoroughly self-absorbed woman who uses her beauty, charm, and articulateness to full advantage. 

Austen seemed to have much fun creating the Lady Susan character and using her to highlight constraints placed on women—and men—in this society and how they deal with them.  Some of Austen’s characters’ language and actions make clear a focus on the drive to marry for money with a hope that the bride will be able to stomach the husband and if not your lives can be conducted separately enough to tolerate the situation (or that he’s old and/or infirm enough to die soon).  Two couples—Lady Susan’s brother-in-law and wife and that wife’s parents—seem to have marriages that are more desirable and may involve a real love between the parties.  Lady Susan’s sister-in-law tries and succeeds in pulling Lady Susan’s daughter into her (much more) stable home.  But here again there is a continued focus by the sister-in-law on Lady Susan’s daughter’s successful marriage, this time to her brother.  The sister-in-law convinces her mother to join her in this campaign as Lady Susan’s daughter is seen by them as a deserving and desirable mate for the brother/son.

A 2016 movie, Love and Friendship, is based on this book.  It does a remarkable job of converting a story told through letters to a “live action” drama.  Much of the dialog is taken directly from Austen.  A few changes are made to help an American audience in 2016 understand things but the changes are generally quite minor.  The biggest change regards the marriage of Lady Susan to Sir James which is described in the narrated conclusion in the book.  Sir James has always been smitten with Lady Susan, but Lady Susan’s intentions through the story have been to marry her daughter off to rich Sir James.  Austen merely reports that they marry.  The movie provides a possible and very believable interpretation of what prompts the timing.   This reader/watcher suggests you read the novella and then watch the movie and be delighted by both. 

A Kiss Before Dying—a Classic Must-Read Thriller!

A Kiss Before Dying

By Ira Levin

Published 1953

Read July 2021

Ira Levin was only twenty-three when he wrote this now classic mystery/thriller.  He would go on to write Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil, and a number of plays including No Time for Sergeants and Deathtrap, a long running comedy/thriller on Broadway.   

A Kiss Before Dying, published in 1953, is set in that timeframe.  Young men and women on college campuses smoked and flirted.  Young women lived in dormitories and some young men lived in rooms rented in town by widows.  Young men who had served in WWII were benefitting from the GI bill and were a little older than many of their college classmates. Some of these young men came to college with more “experience” and may or may not have been more likely to persuade their female classmates to join them in bed.  Regardless, college girls did have sex even in those pre- “pill” days, and sometimes found themselves in the situation of hoping their boyfriend would become their husband.  Such is the case for Dorothy Kingship, the daughter of a wealthy copper tycoon.  When Dorothy’s older sister, Ellen, decides to investigate Dorothy’s suicide, things get very interesting—but you will have to read (or listen to) this book to find out why. 

This reader enjoyed being transported in time to 1953 to see some of the culture of the day.  But the primary draw of this novel is Levin’s expertise in building tension repeatedly and experiencing the jolts from the unexpected plot turns. 

Read and enjoy!!  

North and South—a strong young woman in a time of change

North and South

By Elizabeth Gaskell

Published 1855

Read June 2021

This reader began listening to North and South immediately after finishing Pride and Prejudice.  This reader, like many others, found a number of similarities between the books as well as some contrasts.

The protagonist is again a young woman.  We initially meet nineteen-year-old Margaret Hale on her cousin’s wedding day.  Margaret has been living in London with her cousin and her cousin’s wealthy mother for the past ten years.   Once her cousin marries, Margaret returns to her parents’ simpler home in the southern village of Helstone.  There her cousin’s brother-in-law, Henry, an up-and-coming barrister, visits her.  They had enjoyed conversations while in London at the many social events.  Henry proposes marriage and is rejected by Margaret who indicates they are only friends and she couldn’t imagine feelings beyond that.  Shortly after his event, her father, the pastor of the local Church of England, decides to leave his position as a matter of conscience.  Further, with the help of his old friend, Mr. Bell, he has decided to move to a city in the north, Milton, and make a living as a tutor.  He informs Margaret and asks her to tell her mother, knowing his wife will be distressed. 

Thus begins the real story of this book.  Margaret helps her father find a small house to rent and outfits it as best as she can before her mother arrives.  She begins interacting with various residents of the town which has several textile mills that are the major source of employment for the town.  Margaret meets Bessie, a girl about her age, who is very sickly.  Margaret eventually learns that her illness was caused by breathing in cotton dust while she worked at the mill. She also gets to know Bessie’s father, Mr. Higgins, who works at the mills and is a drinker. One of her father’s students is Mr. Thorton, an owner of one of the mills.  We learn that his schooling had been truncated when his alcoholic father died and he had to work to help pay the bills.  He has since then become a successful businessman himself and is spending some time with Mr. Hale to catch up on classical literature he didn’t study when he would ordinarily have. 

As in Pride and Prejudice, Margaret is generally prejudiced against Mr. Thorton, this time due to being an industrialist vs a gentleman.  This corresponds to her general prejudice against the whole concept of the industrial north and she longs for her days in the south and the culture of the gentry.  Her mother shares her prejudice and can’t adjust to being in this town.  It’s implied that the environment is dark—air and water pollution?  It’s not clear.  At any rate her mother falls sick – likely a cancer irrelevant to the town–and dies.  She extracts a promise from an unwilling Mrs. Thorton (Mr. Thorton’s mother) that Mrs. Thorton will provide Margaret moral guidance if needed. 

Mrs. Thorton is quite concerned that Margaret wants to marry her son.  During a visit to Mrs. Thorton at their home, which is on the textile mill campus, strikers charge the house.  Margaret steps out on the porch and tries to calm the crowd (and is effective).   Mrs. Thorton is convinced this act was out of love for her son.  But (of course) Margaret has absolutely no interest in marrying Mr. Thorton and is only interested in the welfare of the workers and didn’t want to see them beaten up by the army that was on the way to break up the crowd.

Without revealing more of the plot, there is a misunderstanding that causes Mr. Thorton to protect Margaret from a lie she told.  She is mortified that he knows about this lie and hopes that it can be cleared up.  Mr. Bell, whom she asks for help in this matter, dies before he completes this task.

Pride and Prejudice, which was also contemporary to its publication, is set about 40 years earlier.  Both authors point out that women had few rights and limited opportunities to make their own way, especially if they are of the “gentlewoman” class.  “Service” is open to working women and, in the North, factory work is available.  However, that proved deadly for many, including Bessie.   After the death of her father, Margaret has no obvious option but to return to her wealthy aunt’s house.  There she has far fewer freedoms than she did either in her beloved village of Helstone or in Milton.  In these two places she was free to walk about, interact with her neighbors and other area residents.  In London, however, she must have her aunt’s permission to leave the house and must be accompanied by someone suitable. 

In this book, Elizabeth Gaskell also highlights the changes occurring in the country.  The South is still a land of land-owning gentry and the farmers that work the master’s land and who are afforded compensation for it.  The shopkeepers and merchants and even the lawyers and businessmen are recognized as essential but are generally outside the “gentleman” crowd.  (Though since only one son inherits the estate, the other sons generally have to go into some kind of occupation to make a living!).  The North is now populated with textile mills and other factories.  The master is now the factory owner and clearly not of the “gentleman” crowd, Mr. Thorton being an example as someone who has raised himself up from a very poor existence to that of master.  The relationship between worker and master in the North is also very different from tenant and master in the South.  The author highlights this with the strike and the willingness of Mr. Thorton and his peers to bring in Irish workers to replace their former employees to meet their contracts when the workers go on strike.  Margaret’s interactions with both the workers and Mr. Thorton help her understand the chasm between them and she seeks to heal it.  She convinces Mr. Higgins, a loyal union member, to ask Mr. Thorton directly for work in his factory.  His perseverance motivates Mr. Thorton to hire him which sets the stage for a different relationship between them.

Mr. Thorton in this book and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice love the respective protagonists and seek to win their love.  Mr. Darcy’s actions to repair damage he caused Elizabeth’s older sister and to save her younger sister from her reckless behavior demonstrated selflessness that won Elizabeth’s heart.  Mr. Thorton protects Margaret from a lie she told and is generally resigned to life without Margaret but that alone does not win her love but rather causes her embarrassment to be around him.  When his financial situation changes, and he seeks employment as a supervisor (vs master), his willingness to work with those he would supervise nullifies Margaret’s prejudices. 

Both novels have much to draw a female audience.  North and South’s focus on the industrial situation may have drawn male audiences as well.  It is interesting to note that North and South was first published as a serial in Charles Dickens’ Household Words in 1854 and 1855 at the same time that a his Hard Times was being similarly serially published in this journal.  Dickens required this title for the work over Gaskell’s preference of “Margaret Hale” or “Death and Variations”.  North and South was published in book form in two volumes of 25 and 27 chapters each and differed from the serialized version in several ways  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_and_South_(Gaskell_novel); July 18, 2021)

Both Austen and Gaskell have provided readers for over a century two interesting, strong women characters whose personal stories have and will engage readers indefinitely.  Their books showed women possible ways of being/thinking that weren’t “standard” at the time and as well provided some commentary on the impact of “standard” thinking on society in general.  These are classics that have been and will be read and produced in multiple formats well into the future. 

Pride and Prejudice–an appropriately beloved classic

Pride and Prejudice

By Jane Austen

Published 1813

Read June 2021

The June 2021 reading of the book was the first for this reader.  The general story was well known to her based on having watched, multiple times, the 2005 Kierra Knightley movie based on the book.  This reader listened to the 2015 Audible production read by Rosamund Pike, a British actress and narrator, who played Jane Bennet in that 2005 movie production of the book.   

The protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet is the second oldest daughter of five.   Her father’s estate is entailed so will pass to a male cousin, Mr. William Collins upon his death since the Bennet’s did not have a son.  As Mrs. Bennet has no income from an inheritance of her own, she and the daughters will be destitute upon the death of Mr. Bennet so it is very important that at least one of the daughters marries into a monied state and can support at least the mother if not them all.  However, the daughters, having had a “liberal” upbringing, are more inclined to marry “for love”. The daughters aren’t as well prepared to marry “up” as they could have been had they spent more time on literary and musical education.  Only Mary seems to be interested in showing off her (limited) musical capabilities.  She doesn’t have the beauty of her older sisters Jane and Elizabeth nor Jane’s sweet demeanor so she’s searching for some foot forward.  Younger daughters Kitty and Lydia are silly and enjoy flirting.  The consequences of their “liberal” upbringing come to bear when Lydia’s flirtations take a step beyond.

The arrival of Mr. Bingley, a wealthy young man, to the neighborhood begins the reader’s introduction to the manners, rites, and rituals of England in 1812.  Jane Austen’s opening two lines of the book are quite telling: 

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”

Mr Darcy accompanies this single mand and his friend Mr Bringley to a dance and Miss Austen begins her tale of how the  unfortunate first impressions (the draft title of the book) of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy slowly evolve and are overcome.  While the Kierra Knightley movie captured the primary story quite well and used Austen’s dialogue quite often, the limitation of 90 or so minutes in cinematic format leaves out much of the detail that the book covers.  There are quite a few characters that drive various aspects of the plot and we learn about each of them to some extent.

While all of the characters are gentlemen and ladies, there are substantial differences between them driven by the source and extent of their wealth.  Mr. Bennet’s income is sufficient to maintain a household of five daughters but his wife needs to stretch the income to cover their expenses and she frets about their future when Mr. Collins will inherit the estate.  Mr. Bingley rents, vs owns, an estate, but has a substantial income from some undefined source. George Wickam, the son of the steward of Mr. Darcy’s late father and who has obtained a position of officer in the militia decries Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth that he has been denied the income of a clergyman by Mr. Darcy’s doings.  Mr. Collins has obtained a position of clergyman and has sponsorship from Mr. Darcy’s wealthy aunt.  Mr. Darcy makes quite clear to Elizabeth Bennet in his offer of marriage (which is denied) that, while she may be a gentleman’s daughter, her economic and social standing is quite different than his (her being lower) and their marriage will cause some stir in his social circle.   His aunt seeks to warn Elizabeth away from her nephew as she is totally unacceptable as a potential wife.  But, of course, love wins out in the end. 

This reader now understands why this book has remained a beloved classic.  This reader was much more delighted than she anticipated she would be to spend 11.5 hours with the multiple characters in this book.  Previous encounters with Austen books (all driven by the reader’s book discussion group) were almost painful for this reader—the language of the time, the incessant focus on the amount of income of potential suitors and the corresponding prejudice against those who actually work for a living, etc.  However, the last book read before this one, via audiobook, showed that Austen could be enjoyable in the audiobook format.  Such was the case with this book.  While the text seems quite formal, it is quite witty and often quite humorous as the characters of different strata within the class of gentlemen and ladies seek to find their way through the myriad of manners, rites, and rituals of the time.  Austen’s sly commentary about the “classes with a class” situation is available to the reader in addition to the enchanting Elizabeth/Mr Darcy love story.  Well done Miss Austen.  My “prejudice” against her has been vanquished. 

My Cousin Rachel—an unusual mystery

My Cousin Rachel

By Daphne du Maurier

Published 1951

Read May 2021

This reader much enjoyed the mystery/suspense of de Maurier’s Rebecca and hoped this book would be similarly engaging.  This reader listened to an Audible production of the book and her level of engagement is demonstrated by this reader’s determination to find occasions to continue listening.  In addition to listening in the car and while jogging, there were additional walks, lots of closet cleaning and other general tidying.  Bottom line—it was hard to turn the kindle off.

The story is set in approximately 1830 with all the societal customs of the landed gentry of Cornwall.  Philip Ashley is the nephew of bachelor Ambrose Ashley.  Ambrose owns a large estate on the Cornish coast.  Philip’s parents died when he was three and his uncle raised him.  The nanny was released from service after a very short time so Philip has grown up with limited interaction with women save the daughter of his godfather who was widowed when his daughter was young. 

After Philip graduates from college and begins working with his uncle in earnest on the estate, the uncle starts spending his winters in warmer, drier climates for health reasons.  One winter he stays in Florence to visit its gardens and collect plants for his Cornish estate.  He meets a distant cousin of his, Rachel, who was raised in Italy and is now widowed.  Letters from Ambrose to Philip describe Cousin Rachel in flattering terms.  But very surprising and suddenly his letters indicate that Ambrose, the committed to bachelorhood uncle, has married and will be staying in Florence for the summer as there are a number of business issues to address.  When the letters become increasingly infrequent and suggest Ambrose is sick, Philip goes to Florence only to learn that his uncle has recently died and has been buried and Cousin Rachel has left her estate.  Did Uncle Ambrose die of a brain tumor as Ambrose’s father did?  Philip returns to England and learns from his godfather, who was Ambrose’s lawyer and is now Philip’s guardian, that Ambrose did not rewrite his will after his marriage and that Philip has inherited everything with nothing going to his widow.  The will also stipulates that Philip’s guardian is in control of the inheritance until Philip’s twenty-fifth birthday which is in about ten months.   Cousin Rachel journeys to England and sends a letter that she has Ambrose’s clothes and books and would like to return them.  Philip invites her to the estate and she arrives.   He is prepared to dislike and distrust Cousin Rachel based on the letters from his uncle, from his conversation with Cousin Rachel’s lawyer in Florence, and from his own knowledge that Ambrose had been such a “true bachelor”.

Thus begins the story of Cousin Rachel and Philip.   The story is told by Phillip.  In the first chapter he is looking back at an experience when he was just seven and people convicted of murder were hung on fence posts for all to see and for slow disposal by birds, beasts, and nature.  He gives us a hint of the story and wonders if Rachel was innocent or guilty and implies that he might be guilty of something himself.   What follows is Philip’s narration of the arrival of Cousin Rachel, development of their relationship, a series of decisions by Phillip made as his view of Cousin Rachel evolves from suspicion to total bewitchment, infatuation, and beyond, and the consequences of those decisions.  We see Cousin Rachel only through the eyes of this twenty-four-year-old who is clearly not yet an adult and who is quite good prey for a money-hungry thirty-five-year-old widow with expensive tastes, if that’s who she is.  Phillip certainly doesn’t see her that way, at least at first, but his suspicions are aroused again by another letter that is found in some of Ambrose’s clothes.

A triumph of du Maurier’s writing is that the answer to Phillip’s question of Cousin Rachel’s guilt or innocence is never answered. Another triumph is that we get the story of a highly intelligent and beautiful woman who is continuing to make her own way through a complicated life by means of her beauty, wits, and wiles in the absence of any other paths for women of her class in this society.  As well she gives us the story of a young man who has been raised to be another Ambrose Ashley, a bachelor and well-respected estate owner.  Perhaps du Maurier is showing us to what such a plan leads with the joke being on the actually guileless master–a reverse on a more usual romance story.  This is a superbly well written and engaging read!  

Brave New World—still very relevant

Brave New World

By Aldous Huxley

Published 1932

Read Feb 2021

Unlike many others, this reader didn’t read this book in high school or college but rather this reader’s first reading of this book is as a retired person who spent decades in a life science business.  

The first part of the book was riveting for this reader.  The development and utilization of biochemical and biological techniques to drive different levels of intelligence and to generate multiple copies of the same clone is discussed by the Director to a group of new students.  He then shows them the psychological conditioning techniques being used, some during sleep and some using rather harsh approaches, to influence ways of thinking, preferences, and aversions.  The only possible give-away that this wasn’t written in 2020 is the need to use only red-light on embryos of a certain age as they can’t withstand other types of light—as, the book indicates,  is the case with photographic film. 

We eventually meet Bernard Marx, an A+(levels given grades A through F indicating level of intelligence)  who has helped develop the sleep conditioning techniques.  His intellect is A+ level but he’s shorter than most and some of his thinking isn’t fully aligned with the World State’s policies. His colleagues suggest these defects are due to unplanned exposure to ethanol during this development.  He wishes to date Lenina, a B-level woman.  She’s been exclusively dating someone, which is not within policy, and her roommate has counseled her to stop doing this and adhere to the policy that “we all belong to everyone” and spread herself around a little more.  So she accepts Bernard’s invitation for a date which isn’t entirely satisfactory for either but that doesn’t preclude them from deciding to go on a holiday together.  Interestingly, all the male level A/A+ characters are interested in dating only level B/B+ women…. 

Their holiday to the Savage Land in Arizona and the direction that takes the plot provides a new set of characters and enables the author’s ability to dive deeply into the consideration of the World State’s set of policies regarding fidelity (no need—everyone belongs to everyone), parenthood (no longer considered useful but actually damaging to development of citizens), leisure (the best part of life but only so much time can be spent here so that people don’t think too much), finding bliss through soma, a potent drug readily available (why not?), happiness (it is better to be happy because of lies than be unhappy), literature (no need for it—books banished because they cause people to think too much), aging (no longer relevant—biology has done away with that).  Even the scientific questions considered are limited in the New World order so that the equilibrium of the current society isn’t disrupted. 

Brave New World came out in 1932 when the relevancy of the innovation of Ford’s Model T and Ford’s production line technology was much more apparent than it might be today.  The references to Mr. T and the “sign of the T” will likely become lost on readers less familiar with Henry Ford, his impact on manufacturing, and the Model T.  The “sexual revolution” happened between the book’s publication and today so the concept of sex outside of marriage and outside of any kind of commitment is taken as a matter of course now, a very different situation than when the book was published.  However, today’s society views regarding parenthood and the role of fathers in raising children are very different than when the book was published—-much higher expectations for deep physical and emotional involvement vs only bringing home a paycheck. 

Regardless of the differences in the views on society brought by readers today vs the readers when the book was first published, the questions the book raises regarding engineering people biologically and psychologically remain very relevant and perhaps even more so now.   In-vitro fertilization has certainly become a reality although driven by the parents of the to-be child and not The Director.   However, who owns the un-implanted embryos is a question that remains incompletely settled.   CRISPER technology has the potential for changing a person and has been used to create a set of twins that lack a receptor required for infection by HIV.  The question(s) of whether and how to use this technology is only in its infancy.  Who has the right to decide these questions?  Is it a right of all or in one or few based on their power and authority.. 

Brave New World doesn’t describe the road society travelled to reach the Brave New World state but rather it focuses on the state that’s been created.  This reader anticipates the author chose the Bernard Marx character and his story of wrestling with the Brave New World state and his place in it to provide the reader some hope that we don’t need to take the same course.  However we do need to think about how we decide what path(s) society takes as technologies are created and developed that could alter our course significantly.

This reader applauds high schools and colleges that include this book in their curriculum.  However, this reader also recommends that adults of all ages should read or re-read this book as well since they are the ones in positions of decision making that should be informed by thinking about these critical topics now. 

The End of the Affair–Greene Classic

The End of the Affair

By Graham Greene

Published 1951

Read Oct 2020

Many of Greene’s works have been adapted for film and this book is no exception. This story, set in London during and after WWI, was adapted as a movie twice:  one film was released  in 1955 and one in 1999.  An opera based on the book premiered in 2004. 

We meet our protagonist and narrator, Maurice Bendix, about two years after the end of his affair with Sarah, the wife of a civil servant.   He recounts the story:   Maurice had been interested in writing a story about an administrator in the government so met Sarah and her husband, Henry.  Maurice and Sarah carried on a passionate affair that lasts about two years.  Bendix tells us he knew the affair was coming to an end, driven in part by his jealousy, but he did not expect the abruptness of the ending which occurred after his house was damaged by a bomb in 1944 and he was nearly killed. 

The story now moves forward:  Maurice remains angry with the ending of the affair.   He encounters Sarah’s husband, Henry, on the square on which both of their residences lie.  Over drinks, Henry takes Maurice into his confidence that he thinks Sarah may be having an affair.  Maurice privately hires a detective without Henry’s knowledge to determine the identity of this new lover to appease his own jealousy.

The detective obtains Sarah’s diary which explains the end of the affair and her new love interest. The second half of the book relates Maurice’s handling of this information and the events that follow.

Greene converted to Cat holism at age 24 and several of his books have strong Catholic themes.  This is the fourth of those novels.  In this one, the characters struggle with the question of believing in God, a struggle Greene also shared prior to his conversion and again later in life.

Greene was both a “popular” and “literary” author.  Greene’s literary talents are well displayed in this book.  Making the main character and narrator a writer is especially interesting as he relates Maurice’s approach to his work and the challenges he faces in his writing while being in mourning for the affair and while he struggles with questions of faith.  This novel demonstrates Greene’s ability to weave a classically interesting tale of an affair with philosophical questions that remain impossible to completely answer and to keep both topics fresh despite the passing of nearly seventy years since the book’s original publication.