Monthly Archives: January 2010

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

1800. 118 pages (including introduction). Hardcover.

From: A university library

For the Challenge: Read 19 Books Older than Myself


When I was hunting for books that would fit into my personal challenge of reading 19 books older than myself, I had a hard time finding a book for the decade between 1800 and 1809.  For the other decades, I could usually spot a title or author that was already familiar.  While searching the internet for possibilities, the name Maria Edgeworth kept popping up, so I finally settled on Castle Rackrent.

Maria Edgeworth, a tiny English woman at only 4 feet 7 inches tall, published Castle Rackrent when she was 33.  Her writing career was encouraged by her father, who moved the family to Ireland when Maria was fifteen.  Her resulting acquaintance the Irish people is displayed in Castle Rackrent.

In this very brief novel (about 85 pages total), an old Irish peasant by the name of Thady Quirk narrates the “Memoirs of the Rackrent Family” – a tale that encompasses several generations of Rackrents whose imprudent marriages and greedy, foolish estate management brings about their ruin.  Thady Quirk is an unreliable narrator, glossing over the faults of this family to whom he is loyal, betraying more about them than he realizes. (Though another review that I read says that perhaps Thady is being tongue-in-cheek and knows that he is subtly belittling the Rackrents.  I can buy that.)

The novel’s main strength and my favorite aspect is the voice of Thady Quirk: the cadence of Edgeworth’s writing means that I could just about hear the lilt in Thady’s narration.  Here’s an excerpt from Thady’s description of Sir Murtagh Rackrent’s surprising marriage to a widow from a family called Skinflint.

I knew how it was; Sir Murtagh was a great lawyer, and looked to the great Skinflint estate; there, however, he overshot himself; for though one of the co-heiresses, he was never the better for her, for she outlived him many’s the long day – he could not see that to be sure when he married her.  I must say for her, she made him the best of wives, being a very notable, stirring woman, and looking close to everything.  But I always suspected she had Scotch blood in her veins; any thing else I could have looked over in her from a regard to the family.

I’m not sure that you can actually catch the cadence from just that bit – it seems to be a cumulative effect while reading straight through.  But the excerpt definitely shows the humor of the writing.

I was a little confused by the footnotes and endnotes attached to the story.  At first I thought it was something added for this 1964 edition of the book, but they are actually additions made by Maria Edgeworth herself.  The notes are mainly used to explain Irish terms and customs that the English person would presumably not know.  She launches off into little stories in the endnotes that are amusing in and of themselves.

Bruce Teets, in his introduction to this edition, writes “Castle Rackrent is notable as the first regional novel of any consequence.”  This statement and others in the introduction posit that Maria Edgeworth’s work is important as precursors to other authors’ work, as an influence on other authors.  It’s the kind of praise that doesn’t really seem like praise at all, but more of a nod of acknowledgement.

I did like this insightful statement from Teets in the introduction though:

By choosing Thady as her narrator, [Edgeworth] was able to use to advantage another technical device – the minor-character point of view.  Again she loses something: the dash and heroics, the color and romance of high life above-stairs.  But none of that was to her purpose, which was to depict the Ireland of the majority of the Irish and from their point of view.  And most people are, in life, minor characters.

I read this book in a couple of hours while waiting for the Verizon technician on Wednesday.  I found it pleasant but I can’t see any reason why someone should necessarily run out and read it.  However, if the idea of an old, humorous novel set in Ireland appeals to you, then you might want to check it out.

Other reviews:

Age 30+ . . . A Lifetime of Books (thought the footnotes were better than the story)

Desperate Reader (really liked it)

Melmoth the Lost (sees a similarity to Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day.  I thought that too!)

Pue’s Occurrences: The Irish History Blog (recommends it)

Read, Reading, Read (thought it was just ok)


Filed under Uncategorized

One Bullet Away by Nathaniel Fick

One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer by Nathaniel Fick

2005. 369 pages (hardcover)

From: The public library

For the challenge: Memorable Memoir

In a nutshell:

Nathaniel Fick describes his career in the Marines, from when he started training in 1998 to when he left at the rank of captain in 2003.   He served in Afghanistan as an infantry officer and then in Iraq as a lieutenant in the Recon Marines.

Why I decided to read this book:

How I decided to read this book is roundabout.  This past fall, Netflix skipped over Little Dorrit in my queue and gave me the first disc of Generation Kill instead, which I had been waffling about watching.  Generation Kill is a miniseries based on Evan Wright’s non-fiction book of the same name, and it covers his observations as an embedded reporter with the Bravo Company in the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion.  When watching the miniseries, I was impressed by the competent leadership of Lt. Nate Fick, as he was portrayed in the miniseries.

Last month I stopped at the library because I thought one of my interlibrary loan books had come in, but it hadn’t.  Not wanting my trip to be a waste, I browsed around and came across One Bullet Away.   I love it when books come into my hands by such serendipitous routes.

Alexander Skarsgard and Starks Sands as Sgt. Colbert and Lt. Fick in Generation Kill


Nathaniel Fick received a degree in classics from Dartmouth before joining the Marines, and that blend of scholar and soldier proves to be a good mix in writing this book.  Though Fick goes into detail about his training and war experience, I rarely felt lost, as can happen with me when military slang and terminology is tossed around, as it was in film version of Generation Kill.  Occasionally I forgot the meaning of an acronym while reading and wished for a glossary, but it didn’t impede my comprehension overall.

I liked reading about the Iraq conflict from Fick’s perspective.  He was an officer, so the book includes explanations of how he made hard decisions on the fly.  It definitely is an excellent book for examining how it is to lead under pressure.  And yet his rank meant that he was close to the action as well.

The level of detail is astonishing and vivid.  Fick does a good job of placing the reader in the thick of it.  Here’s an excerpt from when the platoon is approaching the Iraqi town of Muwaffiqiya:

“There’s an obstacle on the bridge.”  Colbert’s voice was measured but taut, the way an airline pilot would tell his passengers about an engine fire.  Then I saw it, too – what looked like a Dumpster full of scrap metal pulled out into the road.  Large-diameter pipes lay scattered on both sides of it.  There was only one explanation.

“Back up, back up, back the f— up.”  The fear was palpable.  You could hear it and feel and even taste it, like a penny under your tongue.  But the Marines stayed calm.  We were jammed together with trees to our left, buildings to our right, an obstacle in front of us, and the rest of the battalion pressing in from behind. (p. 267)

One Bullet Away encompasses a range of emotions, from humor to heartbreak.  And there is a definite arc to the story; one feels the passage of time.  By the time the book has reached April 2003, Fick’s training in Officer Candidates School feels far away.  You sense how much things have changed, both for and in him and in the world.

The phrase “support our troops” seems so reflexive and emptied of meaning to my ears.  I sometimes feel that the speaker of the phrase is trying more to signify something about themselves than actually using it as an exhortation.  For instance, it may be used partly as an utterance of protection against accusations of unpatriotism.  I know that I used it that way, or a phrase like it, in college discussions about the war back in 2003.

So when I say that this book made me truly appreciate the people in the armed forces, I am trying my hardest to not make that seem like an empty platitude.  I can’t imagine facing the decisions and danger that the author and his fellow Marines faced.  The civilian life is not inferior but it is very different.

Fick does illuminate problems he saw while in Iraq, including certain decisions made by higher command.  The Marines see the initial welcome of the Iraqi people begin to sour and there is a sense of squandered opportunity.

At the close of the book, I felt satisfied in the reading experience but also sobered.  I believe I will be thinking about this book for a while yet.


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays, Non-Fiction

Library Loot: January 13th

The internet has been down at the apartment since the weekend, and was fixed this morning by the technician.  So this is a quick ‘yay’ post for the return of connection.

I stopped at the library on Monday night to return a book and of course checked out a couple of more, since I was there.

The two books I picked up were:

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

This is a retelling of the the fairytale, the Twelve Dancing Princesses.  Should be a nice light read.

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

I don’t really like the cover, but I am intrigued by what I have heard about this travel memoir: a suspenseful story of two young women who go to China in 1986, soon after that country was open to travelers.  From what I understand from others’ reviews, something goes psychologically wrong with the author’s traveling companion while they are there.

Library Loot is hosted by Eva at A Striped Armchair and Marg at Reading Adventures.


Filed under Library Loot

Defiance by Nechama Tec

Defiance by Nechama Tec

1993. 296 papes (not including endnotes and index). Paperback.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Defiance, also known as Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, describes how the leadership of Tuvia Bielski and his brothers helped save 1200 Jews in Nazi-occupied Belorussia.  Unwilling to be taken to the ghetto by the Germans, the Jewish brothers escaped to the forest, which they knew well.  They were joined by family and friends there, though they also lost some of their loved ones.  Their partisan community – the Bielski Otriad – continued to grow in numbers as others escaped to the forest from the ghettos and death.  All Jews were welcomed, an anomaly among other partisan fighter groups who were often anti-Semitic and also saw the elderly, infirm, women and children as burdens.


When trying to describe the writing style of Defiance, the word I came up with was “transparent.”  In some non-fiction books, the author never refers directly to his or her sources.  Nechama Tec directly quotes from the people she interviewed and sometimes comments on the interview itself.  In this, Defiance is like a journalistic account or a scholarly work.  I use the word “transparent” because Nechama Tec really lets the story shine through her writing.  This is an amazing piece of history and she uses her craft to get us close to the first-person accounts while providing organization, insight and explanation.

Though Defiance is the story of the entire Bielski Otriad, it is also a portrait of its charismatic leader, Tuvia Bielski.  The author managed to conduct a short interview with him in 1987, two weeks before he died.  Most of her knowledge of his story was then culled from interviews with his family and from people who lived in the Bielski Otriad.  Throughout the book, Tec adds to her portrait of Tuvia, trying to figure out what made him tick, what kind of leader was he, what were his flaws, and how did he succeed?

Other aspects of the book explore the survival of the Otriad.  How did these Jewish people, devastated by loss of family and homes, make a community in the forest?  Nechama Tec is matter-of-fact here.   Though all were welcome to the community, there was a hierarchy of sorts.  Those with guns, who could fight, were at the top.  Those who had no skills to provide were at the bottom.  Everyone was guaranteed food and a place, but some found ways to get more or better.

Tec spends an entire chapter on the fate of women during this time and in that region, and then specifically focuses on their role in the Bielski Otriad.  I really appreciate that she included that chapter.  She also effectively sketches out the community’s precarious situation.  Not only was the group hiding from the Germans, but they were uneasy allies with the Soviets and other partisan fighting groups.  Still, they survived even in this.  Thus Defiance is a story of hope in the context of immense tragedy.

Book / movie comparison

The story of the Bielski Otriad truly deserves to be better known.  Obviously, the recent movie adaptation has helped generate more exposure and interest in the story.  I wouldn’t have picked this book off of the shelves if I hadn’t seen the trailer of the movie.  So in that the movie has done right.

Unfortunately, when I finally watched the movie last night, I was disappointed.  I had made the mistake of reading the book first.   I understand when films have to make composite characters and play around a little with events and chronology.  But I had a hard time with some of the changes that the film made.

For instance, in the film, Tuvia Bielski said that the women would fight alongside of the men.  This never happened.  According to the book, only one woman in the Otriad was known to have had a gun and gone on food missions and that was the wife of one of the Bielski brothers.  If a woman joined the Otriad in possession of a gun, it would be given to a man.  Such a change in the film seems motivated by a desire to soften those aspects of history that we don’t like.  To me it seems a disservice to pretend the inequality didn’t happen.

I thought that the portrayal of Tuvia Bielski made him appear less commanding than he was, and also that the Otriad appeared to act haphazardly in the film.  From Tec’s description, Bielski was not a reluctant leader and the Otriad – though imperfect – was organized and resourceful.

One last thing: at one point in the film, a lot of the people in the community get killed.  This too, did not happen.  Almost all of the people who stayed with the Otriad survived the war, possibly about ninety-five percent.  That was the main triumph of this story – that almost all of the people who sought refuge with them were saved.  I did not like that the movie took away some of that triumph.

I will say that the DVD extras featuring the children and grandchildren of Tuvia Bielski and his brother were fantastic and added memories of post-WWII Tuvia Bielski that were not described in the book.

So if you’ve seen the film and liked it, read the book.  As usual, the book is better.

Other reviews of the book:

Bollocks Busters

Vulpes Libris


Filed under Non-Fiction

2010 Biodiversity Challenge

People need to stop devising interesting reading challenges.  I’m like the moth to the flame here.

Host: Classical Bookworm


My involvement:  I don’t think I’ll do everything for the challenge, but I’ll try maybe for Biodiversity Bonanza: one book from each sub-challenge.  For sure, my recent library pick-up Grail Bird will help meet the Bye-Bye (books about endangered species) sub-challenge.

Bye-Bye: The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker by Tim Gallagher [review]

Biomes: Swampwalker’s Journal: A Wetlands Year by David M. Carroll [review]

Back Yard: City of Trees by Melanie Choukas-Bradley [review]


Filed under Challenges

Library Loot

I returned a bunch of books at the library today, including one unread: Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo.  I think I will try picking it up again some other time, but I had spied a number of lackluster responses to it and the first couple of pages weren’t grabbing me.

So, here is the new loot:

The Alibi Club by Francine Mathews – As the giant swatsika and the tiny Eiffel tower on the cover indicate, this thriller involves Nazis and is set in Paris.

The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker by Tim Gallagher – this is the true story about how a bird once thought extinct had its existence finally proven in the swamps of the Mississippi Delta.

Stone Song: A Novel of the Life of Crazy Horse by Win Blevins – While looking for this book in my library, I found out my library has a separate section for Westerns.  Anyway, Crazy Horse is the man who led the victory over General Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Tumbling by Diane McKinney-Whetstone – I had gone to the library specifically to get the first three books of my loot and then I let browsing and serendipity lead to my fourth choice.  This is about a young African-American couple starting out their life in 1940’s Philadelphia.

Library Loot is hosted by Eva at A Striped Armchair and Marg at Reading Adventures.


Filed under Library Loot

Teaser Tuesday: One Bullet Away

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Basically, open the book you’re currently reading and share a couple of sentences from that page on your blog.   Avoid spoilers of course.

Here’s mine:

By the time we processed that the Iraqi military was “declared hostile” and could be engaged without provocation, the trucks had stopped, and uniformed men stood next to them with their hands in the air.  Half of the battalion was already across the highway, so each passing Humvee simply trained its guns on the bewildered Iraqis and continued north into the desert beyond the road.  After all the tough talk, all the doubt, fear, and wonder, our first encounter with Saddam’s army ended with us pretending we hadn’t seen them.  I was grateful that we had scraped by without anyone on either side being dumb enough to fire.

p. 196 of One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer by Nathaniel Fick

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Filed under Teaser Tuesday