The Winter Classics Challenge Completed

On January 2, 2007, booklogged announced she was hosting the Winter Classics Challenge. In this delightful challenge, one chooses five Classics to complete in January and February. Luckily for me, I was home for all of December and January, and I was able to complete my five Classics before the end of this month. So, here they are in order of completion, the five Classics I read to meet this Challenge:

Dr. Zhivago
by Boris Pasternak was completed in 1956, smuggled out of the Soviet Union in 1957, and first published in Russian in Milan at that time. It wasn’t until 1988 that it became published in the Soviet Union. Its 592 pages tell the story of The Russian Revolution of 1917, and the story of a man ((Zhivago) whose life is slowly destroyed by the violence of the revolution. It won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1958.

I loved this book because no one was left unscathed by the ravages of war; it seemed universally applicable to any culture. I also loved it for adding to my understanding of Russian history, for the beautiful setting in Winter, and for the portrayal of relationships. The movie, with Julie Christie and Omar Shariff, did not do this book justice in my opinion.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is set in between the period of 1775, at the beginning of the American Revolution, and 1789, at the storming of the Bastille in France. It tells the story of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, both of whom are in love with Lucie Manette. The story slowly, slowly builds to an astounding conclusion of sacrifice, while weaving in the characters of Lucie’s father and Madame DeFarge who is a female revolutionary with a grudge against the Darney family. The whole time I was reading it my father was saying, “Madame DeFarge, knitting, knitting, knitting…” and looking at me with raised eyebrows and a laugh. It’s opening line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” remains among the most famous lines in English literature.

This summer, I began working through the Pulitzer Prize winning novels, and California Teacher Guy recommended I read A Bell For Adano by John Hersey. It was first published in 1944, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. It tells the story of the town of Adano, in Sicily, whose 700 year old bell has been taken down and melted for ammunition by the Fascists. The Major who comes to this town, and transforms it into a democracy, is a character I will never forget. He has a heart, does not abide by the rules for rules’ sake, and empowers the people with his laughter, acceptance and courage. This has to be one of my favorite books of all time.

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis was also recommended to me by a friend. (Interestingly, it’s author, Sinclair Lewis, worked at one time as a secretary for John Hersey in the 1930’s.) Sinclair Lewis was not an author I was familiar with, although he may be best known for his novel Babbit. Main Street was first published in 1920, and was Lewis’ first commercial success. It tells the story of small town America in the 20’s through the eyes of a young girl named Carol Kennicott. She comes to the town as a young bride, where she is quite distressed over its dullness. She attempts to transform it into an intellectually stimulating “city” with no success, running into a “wall of bigotry, hypocrisy and complacency” every where she turns. I was personally startled at what I perceived to be her selfishness, leaving her husband to go to Washington for a few years (which reminds me of Anne Tyler’s novel in which the woman is sick of her family and just leaves to begin a new life somewhere else. Who, with any character is able to do that?) and pretending to be more than she really is. Again, this novel is applicable to many places today. Only, I’m trying to get our Now Huge Town small again. But, that would be egotistical of me, wouldn’t it?

Finally, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky was first published in twelve monthly installments in 1866. Along with Tolstoy’s War and Peace it is considered one of the best known and most influential Russian novels of all time. It tells the story of Raskolnikov, who in many ways reminded me of my brother. Poor, destitute, and filled with little ability to make wise choices, Raskolnikov kills an old woman who is a pawnbroker for her money. Which he never, in fact, uses. Through the course of the novel, he gradually realizes the seriousness of his crime, and he develops a growing need to confess. Against this backdrop, we see him protect his sister from an awful suitor and potentially disastrous marriage. He also falls in love with a prostitute, who, in the end, provides his redemption. (I also counted this as the first of my Chunkster Challenge reads because of its 448 pages. I’m not sure if it’s quite fair to double up like that… )

In conclusion: Classics are my favorite genre. They contain lessons, and people of character which I sorely miss in contemporary fiction. Their length gives me enough time to be fully absorbed in the story, and it’s almost with dread that I finish the last page because I’m so immersed. I found Winter to be the perfect time to curl up with a classic, especially the Russian ones with their setting of snow. So, thank you, booklogged, for this exciting challenge which made me feel I’d really accomplished something during my weeks at home recovering from surgery.

A Bell for Adano

I have just closed the cover on The Bell for Adano, Pulitzer Prize winner for 1945.

I consider it a gift from California Teacher Guy, who told me about it this summer when I wrote a post about all the Pulitzer Prize winning novels I wanted to read. I am only sorry I waited so long to read it.

Briefly, the novel is about a town in Sicily named Adano, and the American-Italian Major Joppolo who has been assigned there. This Major stands for everything I believe in, especially in terms of leadership.

He throws out bureaucracy in favor of the heart of the matter. When he first arrives in Adano, he takes out a pile of papers titled Instructions to Civil Affairs Officers. “When he had read three pages, Major Joppolo looked at his wrist watch. It was eleven thirty. Almost half of this first day was gone. He took the sheets of instructions up from the desk and tore them in half, and tore the halves in quarters, and crumpled up the quarters and threw them into a cane waste-basket under the desk….He stirred and reached into his brief case again and took out a small black loose leaf notebook…and turned to the page marked: Notes to Joppolo from Joppolo. And he read: “Don’t make yourself cheap. Always be accessible to the public. Don’t play favorites. Speak Italian whenever possible. Don’t lose your temper. When plans fall down, improvise…” (p. 14).

The course of the novel follows, recounting changes that Joppolo makes for the town’s well-being, while he also tries to obtain for them a bell to replace the 700 year old bell that Mussolini had taken and melted down to make ammunition.

Near the end of the novel, Joppolo is preparing a speech for the townspeople which relates to the American Liberty Bell. Did you know that there is an inscription on our bell from Leviticus? It reads, “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25:10 KJV) This is one of the things that Major Joppolo wishes to do for Adano.

I don’t want to spoil the surprises for you, over whether the town receives its bell and what happens to Joppolo, because I hope that you might pick it up yourself. It was one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read, and I will long remember the character of Joppolo (which was based on the real life experiences of Frank Toscani, military governor of Licato, Sicily after the Allied Invasion).

But, I will leave you with the comments the townspeople make when they present Major Joppolo with a painting they had done especially for him:

“These others have asked me merely to tell you, Mister Major, that this picture may not be the best picture that was ever painted, although it is very good for Lojacono, but even if it were very bad, we would still give it to you, because we wished to show you that-“

Old Bellanca was very embarrassed. He cleared his throat again and said, “What these others asked me to tell you was that this portrait-“

The old Mayor looked at the others in despair. Gargano stepped forward and said: “What the Mister mayor wishes to say is that the eyes” -Gargano made those circles with his thumbs and forefingers and put them up to his own eyes-“the eyes of the portrait are honest.”

D’Arpa said, pointing at the picture:”In the chin there is strength.”

Gargano grabbed one of his own ears with one hand and pointed at an ear in the picture with the other: “In the ears there is alertness.”

Saitta the street-cleaner said approvingly; “In the fix of the hair there is neatness.”

And finally old Bellanca remembered enough of his coaching to say. “In the cheeks there is a sympathetic warmth.”

Then Gargano said, and this time his hands stayed still by his sides, in proof of his absolute sincerity:”And you can see in the picture that that man wishes that each person in the town of Adano should be happy. That is a very big thing in a face.”

And, that, my friends, is exactly what I want my own face to say.