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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: Library’s New Literature Book Club To Read Nineteenth Century Novels:

The world may be permanently locked in fast forward, but the Fairview branch of the Santa Monica Public Library is taking a deliberate and long step backward.

The focus of its recently created Literature Book Club is a group of novels, all of which were written over 100 years ago. The club’s discussion leader Heather Hoffman said of the books, “Each novel weaves a compelling narrative, and they are all beautifully written.”

At the club’s first meeting on August 13, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an American novel that changed literature forever, was discussed.

The club will meet on the second Saturday in each of the next five months, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Fairview library. Everyone is invited to read the books, all of which may be borrowed from the library or purchased in paperback in any bookstore, and take part in the discussions. There is no charge.

Speaking of her choices for the club’s reading list, Hoffman said, “I searched for great literature that was also fun to read…call it great literature you can’t put down. Once I found about 15 novels, I narrowed my selection down to six, based on variety. There are two female authors, two British ‘country’ writers, one British (Irish by descent, but lived in London) ‘city’ writer, two American authors, and one French author.”

At its next meeting, on September 10, the group will discuss George Eliot’s 1880 novel, The Mill on The Floss.

In her book, George Eliot, English novelist Virginia Woolf wrote, “The beauty of those first books, Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, is very great. It is impossible to estimate the merit of the Poysers, the Dodsons, the Gilfils, the Bartons, and the rest with all their surroundings and dependencies, because they have put on flesh and blood and we move among them, now bored, now sympathetic, but always with that unquestioning acceptance of all that they say and do, which we accord to the great originals only. The flood of memory and humour which she pours so spontaneously into one figure, one scene after another, until the whole fabric of ancient rural England is revived, has so much in common with a natural process that it leaves us with little consciousness that there is anything to criticize.

“We accept; we feel the delicious warmth and release of spirit which the great creative writers alone procure for us. As one comes back to the books after years of absence they pour out, even against our expectation, the same store of energy and heat, so that we want more than anything to idle in the warmth as in the sun beating down from the red orchard wall.”

On October 8, the club will talk about The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.

Merlin Holland, the author’s grandson, said, “[Oscar Wilde’s] first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in an American magazine in 1890 to a storm of critical protest. He expanded the story and had it published in book form the following year. Its implied homoerotic theme was considered very immoral by the Victorians and played a considerable part in his later legal trials.”

The November 12 choice is Jude The Obscure, by Thomas Hardy (1895).

“Jude went out, and, feeling more than ever his existence to be an undemanded one, he lay down upon his back on a heap of litter near the pig-sty. The fog had by this time become more translucent, and the position of the sun could be seen through it. He pulled his straw hat over his face, and peered through the interstices of the plaiting at the white brightness, vaguely reflecting. Growing up brought responsibilities, he found. Events did not rhyme quite as he had thought. Nature’s logic was too horrid for him to care for. That mercy towards one set of creatures was cruelty towards another sickened his sense of harmony. As you got older, and felt yourself to be at the centre of your time, and not at a point in its circumference, as you had felt when you were little, you were seized with a sort of shuddering, he perceived. All around you there seemed to be something glaring, garish, rattling, and the noises and glares hit upon the little cell called your life, and shook it, and warped it.” – passage from Jude The Obscure.

The club’s December selection is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo. from 1831.

Frank T. Marzials wrote in his Life of Victor Hugo in 1888, “Victor Hugo’s world in Notre Dame is as a world seen in fever-vision, or suddenly illuminated by great flashes of lightning. The medieval city is before us in all its picturesque huddle of irregular buildings. We are in it; we see it: the narrow streets with their glooms and gleams, their Rembrandt effects of shadow and light; the quaint overhanging houses each of which seems to have a face of its own; the churches and convents flinging up to the sky their towers and spires; and high above all, the city’s very soul, the majestic cathedral. And what a motley medley of human creatures throng the place! Here is the great guild of beggar-thieves even more tatterdemalion and shamelessly grotesque than when Callot painted them for us two centuries later. Here is Gringoire, the out-at-elbows unsuccessful rhymer of the time. Anon Esmeralda passes accompanied by her goat. She lays down her little mat, and dances lightly, gracefully to her tambourine. See how the gossips whisper of witchcraft as the goat plays its pretty tricks. And who is that grave priest, lean from the long vigils of study, who stands watching the girl’s every motion with an eye of sombre flame? Close behind, in attendance on the priest, is a figure scarcely human, deformed, hideous, having but one Cyclops eye — also fastened on the girl.”

The January 14, 2006, club meeting will take a very different direction with Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, The Awakening.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese of Emory University has written, “With Chopin the dark crannies of the human soul were part of what it is to be human. It was part of her war against platitudes, it was part of her sense that there’s no true beauty without complexity, conflict, the friction of stone against pavement, or one of those street cars, iron against the brick railroad. Its that sense of tragedy and complexity. That is, if you look only at the surfaces or if you look only at the Hallmark card view of the world, you’re not going to begin to understand what people are about. And I think it’s a measure of both her talent and her character, her strength as a woman, that she didn’t find the depths of the human soul, even human depravity, threatening. Part of knowing who you are for her I think is to be able to look at different kinds of experience, different kinds of people, appreciate them, empathize with them, without seeing it as an immediate call to judgment.”

Looking ahead to the club’s next round of books, which will begin in February, 2006, Hoffman said, “Participants have expressed interest in reading three or four books by a specific author, such as John Steinbeck, Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, or J. R. Tolkien.”The Santa Monica Library Fairview branch is located at 2101 Ocean Park Boulevard.

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