Month: December 2016

by Robert Surtees

This book from the mid 1800\’s is about a man of limited means who acquires three rented horses, puts on airs and basically invites himself to the homes of various folk in the countryside so he can attend fox hunts (which he also invites himself to). He banks on the fact that nobody knows him, to be able to get away with things- people pretend they know of him to avoid looking ignorant, and he lets them make assumptions about his social position etc, takes advantage of free room and board until he seriously wears out his welcome, and they make efforts to throw him out. Then he moves on, finding someone else who had extended (in mere politeness) an invitation, which he takes them up on suddenly. Eventually enough people in the district hear of him that he finds himself staying with people who aren\’t so well-to-do, and he is thoroughly dissatisfied. He tries to get himself invited back to one of the other households, and starts to wonder at his predicament- no money, no income, and apparently no more invitations forthcoming.

All this time he is involved in some kind of horse-dealing scams- showing off his horses (hiding their faults of course) and selling them, but then making the buyer so discomfited they pay him to take the horse back (once pressured by empty threat of a lawsuit). So he makes money off these horses that aren\’t even his. He doesn\’t seem too skilled at foxhunting although more into it than some of the other characters- lots of them apparently participate just to make a show of themselves- and has a curious obsession with studying a book of \’bus schedules and fares that he carries around. A lot of the book isn\’t about Mr. Sponge at all (most of the names pointedly emphasize something about each character) there are entire chapters just describing the people who will be his next set of hosts. Lots of curious folk with different quirks and habits. I think the one that amused me most was a man who went foxhunting so he could look for likely trees to cut sticks from- his hobby was carving an entire series of walking-sticks with the heads of famous people.

In the end Sponge, who had often had female attentions pressed on him when staying at various households, met a lady who liked to ride with the hounds, and he very suddenly fell in love and married. Of course he still had no means to make a living, but adroitly (or by sheer luck) won a steeplechase and found something to invest his winnings in. It was a rather abrupt conclusion.

I was interested in reading the descriptions of the hunts, the various ways in which they were conducted and the parts about the horses. Most of this seems to be character studies and obviously intended as humor, although I sometimes missed the point. I did like it just for the fact that it described a way of life long gone by, so very different in many ways (it went easier when I started glossing over the descriptions of people\’s clothing). More than for enjoyment of the story or an expectation to read it again, I feel I ought to keep this book just for what it is as a physical object- one of the oldest books in my library. My edition was printed in 1860, and even though it is faded, yellowed and stained in places, the binding has held up remarkably well, the paper has a fine texture (although print somewhat faded) and the ink illustrations are very clever- depicting the various characters with a lot of humor.

Rating: 3/5       408 pages, 1853

by Wendell Berry

This is a thoughtful book, and slow. It is the story of a small town, told through the eyes of a man who lives above the barbershop, makes his modest living giving haircuts, and listens to all the talk of the town. It has many threads- some of this man\’s life- his childhood on an aunt\’s farm, his religious education, the moment he realized he didn\’t want to be a priest and wandered back home where he settled down as the town barber. Then it is a very long and slow story of the small-town life, the people he observed, the folk he liked or disliked. I admit I liked the beginning and end of the novel better, the middle part at times felt very dull and hard to stick with. The latter end, where Jayber falls in love with another man\’s wife and admires her from afar for years, while internally criticizing how that man uses and abuses the land, was far more interesting to me. It is one big long soliloquy on the dismay of small farms folding under pressure and how big agriculture ruins the land. With bits of storylines of the townsfolk holding on or moving out, woven around to make a whole. As the small town quietly crumbles under pressure of change, Jayber himself moves to live in a small cabin on the riverbank. Lots of writing describing nature then, it makes you think of Walden, and then the ending is very sad.

I am curious to read another one of his novels, as I\’ve heard they each tell the story of this town through the eyes of a different inhabitant. Also intend to read some of his nonfiction and essays. But I don\’t know if he\’ll ever be a favorite of mine. Just a bit too- deliberate and meandering sometimes for my taste. However it\’s entirely possible I just need to approach it again at a different time of my own life, with a different mindset to appreciate it properly.

Rating: 3/5      363, 2000

by Rosemary Weir

When I picked up this book up secondhand, it was because I thought I\’d read the name of the main character before- a cat named Pyewacket in another book, called after this Pyewacket whom I didn\’t know of before…

Not sure which book it was that mentioned it, but now I know who the original Pyewacket is. A tough, scarred, one-eyed cat that lives at the end of a rundown lane. There is a cat in each house- a young foolish kitten, an older gentle cat who lives with two ladies, a rather snobby Siamese, a standoffish Manx, two other toms- variety of types. The cats are sitting around complaining about how their humans mistreat or neglect them when the old tom Pyewacket announces a plan: get rid of the humans and have the lane to themselves. He makes a deal with the local rats to enlist their help in scaring away the people, but something else much bigger than Pyewacket\’s plan is going on. Quicker than they had expected, the people start to leave and the cats (who manage to avoid being taken along when their owners move out) are left to their own devices- but not in easy possession of their homes as they had assumed. The entire street is being torn down for a factory to be built. The cats start to get cold and hungry (loosing their edge against the rats) and then their leader is injured and carried off to the animal hospital. What will become of the cats now?

It has a good ending- rather predictable, but with a few nice turns. I liked the inked illustrations by Charles Pickard.

Rating: 3/5       123 pages, 197

DISCLAIMER:

All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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