Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser was published in 1900 and is another Top 150 novel. The title of the book led me to believe this would be a story about a nun. I couldn’t have been further from the truth!

This is the story of an 18-year-old girl named Caroline who boards a train in her small town home in Wisconsin headed for a new life in the big city of Chicago where she intends to stay with her older sister and her husband. No sooner is she on the train, than a traveling salesman by the name of Charles Drouet makes a move on Carrie. Ignorant of the ways of such men, she is taken-in and forthcoming in sharing personal information with the smooth talking stranger who pounces on her soon after her arrival in Chicago.

Jobs of consequence and fair pay are inaccessible to a girl like Carrie who has no previous experience. Forced to take a menial factory job leaves Carrie miserably unhappy and disillusioned. In addition, her sister and her husband take almost all of the meagre pay Carrie earns as room and board. Enter Drouet, with a pocketful of money and an ulterior motive, and Carrie follows him on a dead-end path away from her family. With stars in her eyes,  she believes Drouet’s self-motivated promises. In reality, Carrie becomes a kept woman.

As the story progresses, Carrie’s unfulfilled desires lead her along a path of compromise, disillusionment, and disappointment. Considering the year in which the story was published, one can imagine how racy the subject matter was. The story isn’t solely about a girl gone wrong, it is a social commentary about the early nineteen hundreds; in particular the mores which affected women.

Unfortunately, this is another novel which lacks a happy ending. I enjoyed reading it very much because, even though more than a hundred years have passed since it was written, I don’t think life has changed as much as we’d like to believe. The novel is well-written and the characters believable. I came away from this novel with the reinforced belief that some things never change.

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood was definitely not to my liking. I am still wondering why and how it was included on the Top 150 list. Might it have been widely read? Beats me!

This is a futuristic novel which describes a ghastly change in the U.S. as we know it. Using first-person narration, Atwood speaks in the voice of a woman who belongs to a select group of women in red garb who are still capable of reproduction. These women are farmed-out to powerful couples unable to conceive children of their own. The concept was so bizarre and abhorrent to me that I struggled to read the book.

With hopes of a happy ending, I made it to the conclusion which left me all the more dissatisfied. As stated earlier, this genre is among my least favorites. I would only recommend this novel to someone who enjoys this type of thought.

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A Child’s Eyes

The Book of Emma Reyes by Emma Reyes is a memoir of letters written by the late Colombian painter.

Emma was raised in abject poverty by a woman who eventually abandoned Emma and her older sister. They ended-up in a cloistered Catholic convent where they were treated like slaves. Her story is heartbreaking. So many of her childhood memories tell of brutal treatment by those around her who should have provided nurturing love that it is almost unbelievable. Emma’s mother abandoned all four of her children and kept them locked indoors whenever she left the places in which they were housed. A garbage dump served as Emma’s playground.

This sad and tragic tale is one I know I will remember for a long time. Written simply by a woman who never received a formal education; it is a testament to the human spirit.

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No Aces

The Studs Lonigan Trilogy by James T Farrell is a classic Top 150 novel. It is by far one of the best, grittiest Chicago stories I have read to date.

Set in the early 20th century, this is the story of the life of Studs Lonigan, a fictional Irish Catholic punk from the south side of Chicago, which unravels like a noir movie. The three novels cover Studs as a young boy in Catholic school, Studs as a teen hanging out with friends, and finally Studs as a young man living through the stock market crash and depression years in the early ’30’s.

Studs likes his liquor and cigarettes. He lacks motivation necessary to fulfill his wishes and dreams of success. He is uneducated, in poor health, and an overall wastrel. The changing times and a family who turn a blind eye to his failings paint a bleak prospect for Studs. Several of his friends are already dead at  young ages and he’s skidding up the same path.

Little in this novel is uplifting. In fact, the story is downright depressing. However, the skill withStuds’s it is told is masterful. I felt the characters in the novel; recognized their world because of the countless Chicago references. I believe many Chicago natives would feel the same as I do about this book. The changing neighborhoods, corner bars, parks, streets, subways, and beaches are vivid in my mind. The author writes about the decline of Studs’s neighborhood as different ethnic groups enter and leave it. There exists a great deal of prejudice in the story much of which, wrong as it may be, we have all witnessed.

Stud Lonigan captures a tragedy not only of the past, but present as well. It is a social commentary which tells it “like it is”. Excellent read!

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The Age of Chivalry

The Once and Future King by T.H. White has long been on my list of books to read. My love of history and legends, especially that of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, led me to finally buckle down and devote necessary time to read this lengthy tale. It was gratifying imagining a distant time filled with wonder in an era of chivalrous passions.

The tale begins with young Arthur and his mentor Merlin the magician who sees the past and the future. After Arthur extricates the mighty, magical sword Excalibur, the story follows him through young adulthood. The final section is about Arthur’s later life.

What surprised me about the novel is the fact that it is not solely about the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot. It is about the way we live our lives based on the things we hold dear. It is also about honor and what being civilized means. King Arthur is an idealist with a good heart who truly wants the best for the people he governs. He is a man who abhors fighting and holds justice dear. Sir Lancelot is hideously ugly and a walking contradiction. Although he has an abiding faith in God, he breaks just about every commandment there is. Guinevere is in love with two men for different reasons and in different ways. I didn’t especially like her because she displayed narcissistic tendencies. There are many interesting characters in the novel most of whom play important roles in the lives of the three main characters.

I am so happy I finally took the time to read this wonderful book. I marked many passages which I found enlightening. One in particular has Merlin explaining the evolution of creatures on earth to young Arthur and it is moving.

All the time I was reading the tale of King Arthur I couldn’t help but think how history repeats itself. One can almost change the names, places, and people, put them in another time, and see similar outcomes. I wonder, will we ever find a way to live in peace and harmony? I think there are many people in the world who wish for happily ever after endings. Even though this novel does not have one, its message is worth reading.

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Poison Pen by Sheila Lowe is page turner written by a hand writing expert. When the author approached me about her books, I was intrigued because hand writing analysis has long been of interest to me.

This novel is the first in a series of mysteries involving a main character named Claudia Rose who is a hand writing expert. In this story Claudia attends the funeral of a former friend who is believed to have committed suicide. Her business partner thinks otherwise and hires Claudia with hopes of confirming the suicide note is a forgery. One thing leads to another and before long, Claudia becomes deeply embroiled in much more than she bargained for.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book! It is well-written and the author’s expertise in hand writing analysis made the plot all the more interesting. The quick-moving story with twists and turns kept me guessing right along with the main character Claudia. I plan to add Lowe’s remaining novels to my list of books to read. I surely liked this one! I trust you will as well!

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Up the Mountain

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn won a National Book Award in 1940. Written by an author of Welsh descent, the well-known story may be familiar to many who have seen the movie by the same name. Once again, I loved the book so much more than the screen version. I say this because Hollywood has a tendency to leave out so many aspects of original stories that it disappoints me because the heart of the story is left behind.

This novel about a coal mining family in Wales is so beautifully written that the lyrical words alone brought tears to my eyes. Told in the first-person through the eyes of a man looking back on his life in Wales, the novel stresses the importance of family, faith, and hard work in a coal mining town.

If you choose to read this novel, I recommend listening to it because hearing it read in the welsh dialect adds extra beauty to the story. It is like a very long verse of poetry. Excellent!

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