Book bits

Thomas Hardy, By Claire Tomalin

When English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy wed Emma Gifford, the rosy-cheeked young woman he'd met in Cornwall, he was unquestionably marrying for love. But the union ultimately soured, and 38 years later, at the time of her death in 1912, Mrs. Hardy was a neglected wife and rather pathetic figure.

Almost from the moment of her passing, however, her husband found himself engulfed in grief and regret, suddenly awash in memories of his early passion for her. For the rest of Hardy's life, despite his remarriage to an attractive younger woman with whom he had been involved while Emma still lived, Emma remained his muse, inspiring poetry that some consider to be Hardy's best work.

Hardy's yearning memories of Emma were "a fiction," his second wife complained bitterly, "but a fiction in which their author has now come to believe!"

In order to understand such behavior, says Claire Tomalin in her insightful new biography Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, one must grasp "the width of the gap between [Hardy's] imaginative life and the day-to-day events going on around him."

Apparently for Hardy it was ever so. As a sensitive young boy growing up in southern England, he internalized the sights and sounds of rural life while setting his heart on a far grander future. Later, he immersed himself in literature even as he trained to be an architect.

Hardy was a relatively young man when "Far from the Madding Crowd" was published in 1874, assuring him fame and financial security for the rest of his days.

Yet even as he went on to enjoy the trappings of middle-class affluence and respectability, he churned out dark novels reflecting a belief in a hostile universe – a worldview seemingly at odds with Hardy's comfortable bourgeois existence. Hardy's personal favorite, "The Return of the Native" (1878) repelled both critics and the public when it was first published, and a horrified Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" (1891) that it was "not alive, not true ... not even honest." Some critics renamed his late masterpiece "Jude the Obscure" (1895) "Jude the Obscene."

Tomalin, an acclaimed literary biographer ("Jane Austen: A Life," "Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self") offers an intelligent and thorough examination of Hardy, a worthy read for all curious about the richly imaginative world created by a man for whom, as Tomalin makes clear, the inner life was all.

– Marjorie Kehe

By a Monitor writer

Robert Klose has long been a favorite with readers of the Home Forum page of The Christian Science Monitor. His essays chronicle everything from nostalgia for the quirky charm of his urban New Jersey childhood to the more rural delights of daily life in Maine to the peculiar challenges and rewards of teaching biology to college students. Perhaps his most memorable pieces, however, have been those about his adoptions, as a single man, of first Alyosha (from Russia) and later Anton (from Ukraine.) Klose turned the story of Alyosha's adoption into a book titled "Adopting Alyosha: A Single Man Finds a Son in Russia."

More recently, the University of Missouri has published a collection of Klose's essays called Small Worlds: Adopted Sons, Pet Piranhas, and Other Mortal Concerns. Most of the essays included in this collection were originally published in the Monitor.

Three books about large mammals

What happens when a baby elephant loses its mother? That is one of the concerns addressed by naturalists Mark and Delia Owens in Secrets of the Savanna. The husband and wife team have written about lions ("Cry of the Kalahari") but here they focus on the elephants of Zambia, where the Owenses lived, fighting to eradicate poaching and studying the plight of baby elephants orphaned by hunters. Their story is inspiring, informative, and deeply touching.

Swimmer and author ("Swimming to Antarctica") Lynne Cox also worried about a motherless animal the day she met a baby gray whale during her morning swim off California's Seal Beach. Although only a teenager at the time, Cox was determined not to leave the playful calf till he was safely reunited with his mother. Grayson, her remembrance of this encounter, is a joyful and charming tale.

In Chosen by a Horse, Susan Richards writes movingly of Lay Me Down, an abused mare she adopted, and how the lessons she learned from Lay Me Down changed her own life for the better.

– M.K.

Readers' picks

I'm in the middle of Imperium, a Robert Harris political thriller set in ancient Rome and starring Cicero, the greatest orator of all time. It's every bit as intriguing as a John Grisham novel, with the added thrill of being based on the real court documents and speeches of Cicero as transcribed by his secretarial slave, Tiro, who also narrates the story. Cicero's speeches, timing, and strategies are awe- inspiring. "Minor" characters include Julius Caesar, Pompey, and others. It's hard to put this book down.

– Bob Clark, Clearwater Beach, Fla.

I'm rereading Great Expectations, Charles Dickens' masterpiece. It was my favorite classic when I read it in ninth-grade English. It's still immediate and relevant today now that I'm 50. Bittersweet and poignant, some of the scenes are stamped indelibly in my mind. This should be required reading for all middle-school readers.

– Michael Pace, Kolonia, Micronesia

Rowing to Latitude by Jill Fredston. More than an exciting rowing adventure around the Arctic circle, this engaging nonfiction story examines Jill Fredston's inner landscapes as well. Her heartfelt appreciation and apprehension for the future of our environment made me feel an instant kinship with her.

– Judi Lindsey, Candia, N.H.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David O. Relin was my favorite book of 2006. Mortenson, an ex-climber and RN, promised a remote village in Pakistan a school. Ten years later his foundation is still building schools and other projects in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. This book takes the reader to Central Asia. The inspiration leads one to compassion and action.

– Dianne Patrick, Marquette, Mich.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

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