‘Shirley’ by Charlotte Bronte

I was first introduced to Charlotte Bronte in high school with “Jane Eyre”, one of my all-time favorite classics book, and one that I have read multiple times. I figured now was the time to try to read something else by Charlotte Bronte. Some of her books are on my reading list for The Classics Club and as luck would have it, “Shirley” got picked for the latest CC Spin and we had 9 weeks to read it. Easy enough.

So here we are, January 30th, and I am sorry to say that I have yet to finish it and I am even debating whether to set it aside for good. I’m so disappointed with this read and honestly, I am kind of bored with it at this point.

For one thing, the pacing of this book is sooo slow and while I understand some authors want to unfold story little by little, I feel that it takes forever to get to the character for which this book is named. Shirley is not introduced to the reader until halfway through. Rather it would seem that the main character is Caroline as we learn about all about her and she becomes front and center to the story. Even when Shirley is first introduced, the author narrates Caroline’s movements more.

While I know that this is the point in the book where things may pick up, I feel like I shouldn’t have to work so hard. I can’t relate to any of the characters and honestly feel like Caroline’s story line has gone flat. Basically, she is in love with Robert Moore and her woes as she tries to make him see her in the same way. Nothing new has happened in the last 50 or so pages. I want to keep reading but I am afraid to be disappointed if nothing changes.

This is becoming more of a rant than a review at this point, so I will leave it here. I am going to keep the book to the side and pick it up at random, with the hope of eventually finishing it. Perhaps I may surprise everyone in a few months with a new review. Or I may DNF it permanently. Whatever its fate, I am just glad that “Jane Eyre” was my first Charlotte Bronte read.

Have you read “Shirley”? Are there any other Charlotte Bronte books I should try? Let’s discuss?

Book Club Discussion: ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

The Modern Library’s January discussion was “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey, a book I read a few years ago but didn’t quite remember it. I am glad that I got a chance to reread it because I think I actually enjoyed it even more. In fact, my review bumped to 5 stars.

If you are not familiar with this book, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is set in a psychiatric hospital ward, run by the infamous Nurse Ratched. She runs a tight ship and makes sure all the patients keep to a strict schedule. That is until the ward gets its newest patient, Randle McMurphy, who swaggers into the ward on his first day and pulls rank among the patients. Immediately, McMurphy defies Ratched’s rules and begins to be seen as a troublemaker by the nurse. It becomes a battle of wills as Ratched tries to keep reign over the ward and McMurphy tries to get the other patients on his side.

I thought that the setting of the book in a psychiatric ward was brilliant because it ultimately made the book a page turner. Not only it’s an unpredictable environment, but you throw McMurphy into the mix, and it’s anyone’s game. I found myself laughing aloud at some parts, because Kesey’s writing makes the reader feel they are right in on the action. I was particularly amused when McMurphy has an overnight party on the ward and those involved get drunk on smuggled alcohol and cough syrup. Hilarious.

Yet, even with its comic relief, Ken Kesey also brings to light some of the harsher truths about psychiatric hospitals and the stigma of society to conform. This book was written in the 60s when psychiatric hospitals were run a little more cruelly and this book provides a bit of reality of what patients went through. Kesey highlights how when people didn’t conform to what society dictated as ‘normal’, they were considered crazy. How to treat that condition differed pending on who was in charge of your care. In the case of Nurse Ratched, if you didn’t follow her rules, you could either being punished with electro-shock treatment or by a lobotomy.

Kesey uses McMurphy as the weapon to reveal these truths, particularly with his power struggle with the nurse. Yet, we don’t see all this through McMurphy’s eyes. Rather Kesey uses another character, Chief Bromden, a Native American patient who has been on the ward for 10 years as the narrator. It actually works with the plot as Bromden provides perspective on how things were pre-McMurphy and the changes that McMurphy causes during his stay.

You get to know everyone on the ward and slowly Kesey reveals why they are truly there. That even though they have been label “crazy” by society, they are anything but. Sure they have their quirks or challenges, but they are still humans who have emotions and needs that should not be ignored, simply because society says. Kesey also reveals what can happen if they don’t get what they need.

There were mixed reactions to the book. No one hated it but some were surprised by the amount of racism and misogyny described, which raised a discussion. There was some debate about Nurse Ratched, who is characterized as being firm and manly, running the ward like the army and how McMurphy goes about undermining that, even at one point revealing her as the female she is. There was some debate about whether McMurphy’s actions were warranted as well as whether Nurse Ratched was truly a villain. Were her punishments against the patients effective? How cruel is too cruel and at what cost?

The ending is particularly shocking but everyone thought it a fitting end to the battle between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy. I won’t say more than that except that the group agreed that this was a book that deserved to be recognized for what it was, at the time that it was written. This is definitely book club worthy as there are many topics to discuss.

Have you read “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? What did you think? Let’s discuss!

Book Club Discussion: ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson

For years, I have been wanting to read this book but never got a chance to. I have, however, seen the movie, titled “The Haunting”, starring Catherine Zeta Jones, Liam Neesen and Lili Taylor as Eleanor. I normally do try to read the book before the movie but in this instance I didn’t even know it was a book until a few years ago.

Having seen the movie, I was excited to read it for book club, because usually it’s always better than the book. However, I must say, in this instance, I felt like I was missing a whole part of the plot. Where the book ends, the movie had added a whole other subplot, which seemed to tie up some of the loose questions that were left unanswered

It was one of the biggest criticisms from the other members in book club. They felt like Shirley Jackson would bring up a point in the story and when you were excited to see it where it would lead, she just kind of dropped it. Or she would bring in a random scene only to move on to the next without any reason.

There were mixed reactions about the book overall. Some were let down because they were expecting a good scare, while others argued that yes, it’s tame for modern standards, but for the time (1950s) this book was scary. Others, who don’t necessarily read horror , liked this book because of the psychological elements to it.

In short, a doctor, looking to analyze how paranormal activity can affect the psyche, invites two women to stay with him at, you guessed it, a haunted house. The soon to be heir of the house is also invited, basically to watch over things. And of course things begin to happen.

The two women – Theo and Eleanor – are invited because of their sensitive nature to unknown occurrences. The story focuses on Eleanor, a mousy quiet woman who lives with her sister and brother-in-law, who yearns for an adventure and accepts the invitation to stay at Hill House. Upon arriving at the house, she immediately becomes affected by the things around her and how the others treat her.

I will agree with the others that this book is definitely a psychological thriller and while it wasn’t scary, it did have enough suspense to keep me turning the pages. However, one of the biggest things that Shirley Jackson doesn’t quite answer is why Eleanor is more affected than the others. She leaves it open for interpretation, which actually made for a good discussion in book club. Was she simply just crazy? Or did the house have the same kind of influence on her that it did on the previous occupants? For a book that many were on the fence about, we discussed it for nearly 2 hours.

Despite my initial disappointment that it wasn’t like the movie or vice versa, once I looked at the book for what it was, I must say that it stands on its own and is definitely a good read.

Have you read “The Haunting of Hill House?” What did you think? What are some other good spooky reads you would recommend? Let’s discuss?

Book Club Discussion: ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll

For the month of June, the Society for Avid Readers Across the Hudson (SARAH) Book Club read Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Most of the group had read the book as a child so this was a reread for many, except for yours truly. I had never read the book but was quite familiar with the story, having grown up on the Disney movie and later watching the Tim Burton version.

If you don’t know the story, a young girl name Alice is sitting with her sister one day when she suddenly sees a white rabbit. While a rabbit isn’t extraordinary, the fact that this one can talk and seems to be watching the time on a pocketwatch has little Alice intrigued. She decides to follow the rabbit, and ends up down the rabbit hole. After falling for what seems like eternity, she ends up in Wonderland and there she is introduced to a myriad of characters including the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and of course the evil Queen of Hearts, who does nothing but scream “Off with your head!”

This is a simple, fun read, especially for a child. While I did enjoy it, I think I would have enjoyed it more if I was younger. The book itself is a bit surreal and nonsensical. Obviously when we get to the end, we understand why, but all the same, there were parts of the book where I couldn’t make heads or tales about what was going on or why. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way as many in the group said the same. Some even compared this book to feeling like they were on drugs. I guess it is a bit “trippy”, but I guess the best way to describe it can be summed up with the movies. The Disney version, which is obviously for kids, makes it exciting as we follow Alice on her adventures, while the Tim Burton movie is a bit unique to say the least. If you know Tim Burton’s movies, you know what I am talking about.

If you have seen the movies and are reading this book for the first time, you will think that the book has left out some characters or key elements that are in the movies. I came to find out that this is because the movies combine the book with it’s sequel, “Through the Looking Glass”, which I have obviously not read. Will I read it? That has yet to be determined.

The group also talked about how this book remain popular since it was first published in 1865 and how it continues to be referenced today in pop culture, from bands using it as inspiration in their music to popular English phrases such as “Mad as Hatter” or “Smiling like a Cheshire Cat”. The teacups at many amusements parks are inspired by this children’s classic and there is even a medical term called the Alice in Wonderland syndrome, where people perceives objects around them as smaller or larger than they are. This book has stood the test of time and should definitely be read at least once.

Have you read “Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland”? What did you think?




Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is pure fun

I tried reading this a few months ago but never finished it. Not that it wasn’t good but because I had a lot going on at the time, not to mention, countless other books I had to read before it. I didn’t want to read it piecemeal so I put it down with plans to pick it up again.

Then the Classics Club announced another spin and so I pulled out my list of classics, made a list of 20 and waited for the lucky number which happened to be #19 and on my list that was Treasure Island.

I knew from the first time I tried reading it that this book was going to be an engaging read. Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing style draws the reader in until they are part of the action. This time, the book caught me hook, line and sinker. I finished it over a few hours.

What makes this book so great is that the adventure starts right from the first chapter when the main character Jim Hawkins and his parents, who own the Admiral Benbow Inn, receive a mysterious guest, known as the Captain, who ends up staying at their inn with nothing but soiled clothing, a mysterious chest and a huge appetite for rum. When the Captain inevitably meets his demise, Jim Hawkins discovers a map that will lead him to Treasure Island. And so the adventure begins and continues on land and sea with a whole host of characters.

I thought I knew the story of Treasure Island just from what people had told me, but it is quite another story when you read it. I had no clue what to expect except that I felt that I was standing right beside Jim the whole time, from hiding in the apple barrel overhearing Long John Silver make his plans to steal the treasure, to Jim’s actions on the island to save his friends. There was nothing predictable about this book and I kept turning the pages with anxious excitement, wondering how Jim and his friends were going to get out of the danger they were in.

Robert Louis Stevenson is so descriptive that I could picture the island clearly. I could feel the heat of the sun and feel the salt from the sea. I could also picture each of the characters, especially Captain Flint with his scar and Long John Silver with his one leg as he hobbled through the forest trying to keep up with the rest of the crew. I think one of the most iconic scenes comes right at the beginning when the reader is introduced to the blind man named Pew. He doesn’t have a large role but Stevenson has set it up that the tapping of the blind man’s cane on the road outside is equivalent to the music cue in a movie to indicate a pivotal moment. It is enough to set the reader on edge and keep turning the pages to find out what is going to happen.

What was most surprising to me was that the book was first published in 1883. It doesn’t read like your typical classic that is usually bogged down with dense language. Even adventure stories like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea can be slow sometimes. However, Treasure Island is anything but slow and it is so easy to read. That is probably why it has stood the test of time. It is also why it is a great children’s classic. Not to mention it is full of adventure, secret maps, treasures, pirates, danger and just plain fun.

Have you read Treasure Island? What did you think? Let’s discuss!

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

When my book club announced that they were going to be reading To Kill a Mockingbird for March, I may have whooped aloud. I haven’t read this book since freshman year of high school (18 years ago…what?!) but I could still remember the feeling I had after reading it. I was excited to get back to it although a little anxious.

It’s been 18 years. My perceptions of the world as a 13-year-old are completely different now. Would I still love this book? Would I still get out of it what I did so long ago? Taking a deep breath, I cracked open my copy of the book, the same copy I bought oh so long ago, and began to read.

I need not have worried. This book is considered a classic for a reason, mainly because it stands the test of time. And if there is one thing that this book proved is that you can read it at any age. This book has so many things to teach an individual at any age, from racism to personal values and more.

To Kill a Mockingbird is about growing up in Maycomb, Alabama during the 1930s and is told from the point of view of Scout Finch. The story opens up with the reader getting a feel for the sleepy town and the daily routines. For Scout and her older brother Jem, it’s about getting the mysterious neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley to come out of his house. However, pretty soon, the Finch family is faced with something more serious as Scout’s father, Atticus, has agreed to defend a black man who is accused of raping a white woman.

One of my favorite quotes from this book is said early on but carries its weight in every situation that occurs throughout the book.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” -Atticus Finch

I loved Atticus for all of his wisdom. He knows that people do things that may seem horrific or outlandish or insane but rather than just judging them from seems obvious, Atticus tells his children to try to understand them. When he tells Scout this, he is trying to help her understand the Radley family, who is a mystery but this simple quote becomes the foundation for the whole book. I also loved Atticus for taking on a case he knew that he would get hell for. Even though the neighbors let their prejudices stand in the way for what is right, Atticus doesn’t care.

In a conversation he has with his sister who expresses concern about the things people say about him, Atticus says,

“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

That right there just tells you what kind of person Atticus and I don’t think I need to keep going on about it.

Having Scout as the narrator also puts the point of view of a serious situation in the eyes of a child. I think this is genius on Lee’s part. Too often, adults get caught up in trying to be what society dictates they ought to be. However, children haven’t gotten to that point yet. This is evident just by Scout going against societal norms of being a girl. Rather than wearing dresses and playing with dolls or drinking tea, as her aunt would love her to do, Scout would rather wear overalls and play with her older brother and neighbor Dill.  So rather than get the view of the trial from one of the adults, the reader gets the view from that of a child and it’s a whole new perspective.

Although the book focuses mainly on the trial, the book’s does have a subplot, which I mentioned before, the story of the Radley’s. While Boo Radley remains a mystery for most of the book, the reader along with Scout, begins to understands him little by little. In the end, the book comes full circle when we find out just who the real Boo Radley is.

I can go on and on about this book. I am so glad that I loved it just as much as I did back in the day. It will remain a fixture on my book shelf for years to come and I look forward to the day when I can pass it on to my children. For now, I look forward to the discussion in book club.


Have you read To Kill A Mockingbird? If so, what did you think? Let’s discuss! 🙂




Book Club Discussion: Young Lonigan by James T. Farrell

I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Prior to reading it, I went on Goodreads to check out what others had thought of it and was surprised that the average rating was 3.5 stars. Uh oh, I thought, and sighed. This is going to be another book that the Modern Library misjudged in putting on their Top 100 list.

Young LoniganYoung Lonigan is the first book in the Studs Lonigan Trilogy and is about a 14 year old boy growing up in an Irish-American neighborhood in 1916 Chicago. Studs Lonigan graduates eighth-grade and then spends the rest of the summer hanging out with friends, crooning over female crushes and deciding how he wants to spend his future. For a 14-year-old, these decisions range from the immediate problem of going to high school to the long-term problem of what he wants to do with his life — become a priest like his mother wants him to or working for his father.

I had grown up listening to stories of my father growing up in an Italian neighborhood in the 1940-50’s Newark, New Jersey. And reading this was like listening to those stories all over again, except this time they took place 50 years prior and in an Irish neighborhood. Farrell’s writing is simple and concise and yet very descriptive. I could picture every moment of Lonigan’s life as it is described from him standing in the bathroom trying get the smoke out as his sister bangs on the door to him standing on street corner with a gang of kids. I could picture his father sitting on the porch, smoking a cigar as he reflected on his life.

Farrell is known for his American realism and giving a voice to the inarticulate. I can agree with those references. Given that my father was going through the same type of things in the 50’s, I would say Farrell was on to something.

I read the book for enjoyment rather trying to analyze every little facet of what Farrell was trying to say and for me it was enjoyable. However I was in the minority.

There were about 10 of us who showed up to discuss Young Lonigan and besides me, there were only 2 other people who really enjoyed the book. The rest of the group, primarily older males, were rather critical of it. Though they said it wasn’t a bad book, they did understand why it was so high on the list. For them, it was going to back to their own childhood, an experience, they said, they would rather not relive. They didn’t get anything out of the book.

Some were critical of the language in the book, saying that it made it drag. Others noted how there wasn’t a substantial plot, though I argue that Young Lonigan is the shortest of the three books in the trilogy (Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan and Judgment Day). Farrell is just getting started with his young character. There are more than 500 pages with books 2 and 3 so there is a whole lot more about Studs we just don’t know. Anything could happen. Though, since I read the introduction to my edition, I already know what is going to happen.

We have decided that when it comes to the trilogies that are on the list, if the majority of the group doesn’t like the first one, we won’t go on to read the rest. I think the majority have spoken on this one. I might check out the other two but it’s not high on my priority list.


The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson

This book has been sitting on my bookshelf since college but I didn’t remember reading it. Needing something short to read, I decided to see what it was about.

The autobiography of an Ex-Colored ManIn short, the book follows the narrative of a black man growing up and integrating in society. It delves into his personal views and observations about the people around him and how they treat him.

I have probably said this about a few of the books I have read, but I will say it again, this book may have been written in 1912 but is still prevalent today, especially given the racial tension in this country for years. Some of the points that the narrator makes in this book are arguments that are still being made today.

Right in the first chapter, you see the narrator realize he is different only after the teacher segregates him into the group with the “colored” kids. Previously, the narrator hadn’t thought about it, especially since he had a white father, but from this moment on, it changes his whole perspective and makes him look more closely.

“He is forced to take his outlook on all things, not from the viewpoint of a citizen, or a man or even a human being, but from the viewpoint of a colored man.” … “I do not think my friends changed so much toward me as I did toward them.”

It  makes me think of “Americanah” where Chimamanda Agozi uses her characters to point out how they never put labels to who they were while in Nigeria. There was never “African” or “African American” until they came to America. “Americanah” was written in 2013 and it’s making the same points made in a book written in 1912. While “Americanah” is more of an immigration story, the parallels are so similar.

What I thought even more interesting was that Weldon brings up the whole argument about the usage of the “N” word. I thought it was interesting that his argument was being made back in the day when the word was of common vernacular. Here I thought it was a present day argument to keep the word in the vernacular.

“I noticed that among this class of colored men the word “nigger” was freely used in about the same sense as the word “fellow” and sometimes as a term of endearment but I soon learned that its use was positively and absolutely prohibited to white men.”

Today, there are some people that argue that if one class of people can’t say it then not should say it at all, while others argue that they can use it when it is used as a term of endearment. To think that we are still having these arguments is dumbfounding.

The plot follows the narrators journey as he struggles to define who he is and where he fits in society. He offers criticisms of his fellow man while at the same time pointing out their attributes. This book doesn’t pass judgement but is merely an analysis of a culture and is a book that should continued to be read today.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Let’s discuss!

The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler

I didn’t know what to make of this book at first but given that it is no. 12 on the Modern Library’s Top 100 List, I figured I would have to give it a try. I was surprised by how much I liked it.

From Goodreads:

the way of all fleshWith The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler threw a subversive brick at the smug face of Victorian domesticity. Published in 1903, a year after Butler’s death, the novel is a thinly disguised account of his own childhood and youth ‘in the bosom of a Christian family’. With irony, wit and sometimes rancour, he savaged contemporary values and beliefs, turning inside-out the conventional novel of a family’s life through several generations.
A novel of keen perceptions, The Way of All Flesh, as Richard Hoggart remarks in his Introduction, ‘blows a refreshing wind of ironic laughter and caricature through some rooms of the mind that had become very musty indeed’ and ‘shows that fascinating interplay between art and the raw material of a man’s life’.

This was a great anti-Victorian novel. The beginning is a little slow and can feel like Butler is lecturing a little but a few chapters in, the story really gets moving. I was surprised by how much I wanted to keep reading. This is the first book that I can say I actually “damaged” as I dog eared pages and underlined passages that stood out to me.

“We must just men not so much by what they do, as by that they make us feel that they have it in them to do.”

Butler portrays his characters in a way that society dictates that they ought to be. In how they act, dress, etc. Then as the story moves on, he positions his characters so they experience hardships that make them realize the hypocritical way people live. For example, Ernest, the main character of the novel, realizes his father Theobold, a clergyman, a man who is supposed to be a leader in the community and treats everyone else with patience and respect, is mean to his own children.

Ernest is raised in the mold his parents have shaped him to be – to be a clergyman like his father. There are few times, where Ernest has some time of epiphany, sometimes with help from others, where he questions his future. Yet, every time Ernest tries to break from the mold, something happens that sends him back a few steps. The reader can’t help but feel for Ernest and frustrated with those who are influencing him.

“I supposed people almost always want something external to themselves, to reveal to them their own likes and dislikes.”

My favorite part of this book is when Ernest has an “enlightened” moment after he falls to his lowest point and realizes the truth about the clergy. He begins to reflect on his religious upbringing and questioning everything he had been taught. One of the examples is the story of Jesus’ resurrection and whether it was meant to be taken literally. This part made me smile and made me think back to my college days. I had gone to an all girls Catholic school and so a religious class was mandatory. I will never forget the day when my professor told us that the Bible was written by man and that upon reading each gospel, I found that they told the same story but in different ways. MIND BLOWN! I had never thought of the Bible in such an analytical way before. While I still have my faith, college made me approach my faith in a whole new way.

I can see  why Butler didn’t want to publish this book until his death. It would have probably been thought of as heresy.  And this is just one example.

There were other passages which I found still related to today from common sayings that you still hear today to questions that are still argued today.

“Surely if people are born rich or handsome, they have a right to their good fortune. Some, I know will say that one man has no right to be born with a better constitution than another; others again will say that luck is the only righteous object of human veneration…”

Isn’t this an argument that we still hear when we argue about whether we should tax the rich? A Victorian idea that is still argued today. I couldn’t help but shake my head.

The only criticism I have about this book is that the ending makes me feel conflicted. I don’t feel like Ernest got any resolution but rather stayed stagnant through to the end. Maybe I am used to everything getting tied up with a nice little bow and this book is not about that. And yet, I understand the point Butler is trying to make. I think I may have to reread this one to full grasp everything Butler wants to say.

Have your read this? What did you think? What classics have you read recently? Let’s discuss!

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stagner

Traditionally, I have not been overly impressed by Pulitzer Prize-winning books. While good, more often than not, I am unable to put into words why the book is good. However, “Angle of Repose” was an entirely different experience.

From Goodreads:

Angle of ReposeWallace Stegner’s Pultizer Prize-winning novel is a story of discovery—personal, historical, and geographical. Confined to a wheelchair, retired historian Lyman Ward sets out to write his grandparents’ remarkable story, chronicling their days spent carving civilization into the surface of America’s western frontier. But his research reveals even more about his own life than he’s willing to admit. What emerges is an enthralling portrait of four generations in the life of an American family.

I knew I was going to like this book right from the first page and I was right. I flew through the first 200 pages in a day and I couldn’t wait to finish it.

Wallace’s descriptive writing transports the reader into the character’s world until you can feel the dry heat on your face and the dust flying into your nose. There were times, I completely lost myself in this book.

Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in this book is Stegner’s description of Susan’s journey into the mine. Susan is an artist and writer who illustrates and writes stories about the places she settles in for a magazine in her old home town. So in an attempt to capture the experience of the miners’ work, they bring her down. From traveling down the shaft and walking down a tight tunnel to watching the miners work in a cavernous room underground, the reader feels that they are there the whole time.

What I liked about this book is how Stegner separates each section by the locations in the west the characters are located, so the reader travels with the characters and gets to experience it as they do.

I also liked how the book’s present and past is a parallel to each other, a complete compare and contrast. Throughout the book, Lyman constantly compares the world he currently lives in to the one his grandparent’s lived and makes notes on how it has changed.

“…It’s not quite true that you can’t go home again. I have done it, coming back here. But it gets less likely. We have too many divorces, we have consumed too much transportation, we have lived too shallowly in too many places…”

Another notable theme in the book are the roles of men and women during this time and how the west impacts each of them. Right from the beginning, Susan is a strong female who has her own job and circle of friends. However, she leaves that world to marry an engineer, who despite all of his efforts can’t seem to get a break. Susan quickly falls into the womanly role but struggles to leave her past completely behind. The two begin to clash, as their roles reverse and Susan ends up supporting the family.  In the end, the two are able to find an “angle of repose” or the angle upon which a man or woman finally lies down, though as Lyman points out, that angle didn’t intersect until their deaths.

Through his journey into his grandparents lives, Lyman begins to realize that though remarkedly different, his life follows almost a similar path to them. He is struggling to maintain his independence as those around him doubt in his ability to care for himself. So it is only fitting that he should end the book upon these lines:

“Wisdom ….is knowing what you have to accept. In this not-quite quiet darkness, while the diesel breaks its heart more and more faintly on the mountain grade, I lie wondering if I am man enough to be a bigger man than my grandfather.”