Monday, January 26, 2015

Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers

"She knew very well that Mary Poppins never wasted time in being nice." 

Growing up, I missed an awful lot of the children's classics -- I read and loved the Narnia series, the Little House books, and the Boxcar children, but I never even read The Wizard of Oz series until I was in middle school (and I skipped the first book, assuming it was just like the movie.  I was quite wrong).  I am now officially adding Mary Poppins to the list of books I regret never reading while I was an actual child.

If you're not familiar with the plot, Mary Poppins is a mysterious, magical nanny that shows up and takes charge of the four Banks children after their Katie Nanna leaves on short notice.  She's not what you'd call warm and cuddly -- she's actually rather short and brusque with the children -- but when Mary is around, wonderful things happen.  The two elder children, Jane and Michael, have fantastic adventures with Mary, including a visit to the zoo at night when the animals are running the place; a tea party held whilst floating up near the ceiling; and a magical trip around the world.

Mary Poppins was never among my favorite Disney movies when I was a kid, and when my own children were born, I didn't enjoy it much more.  It was only after I saw Saving Mr. Banks that I had any read desire to read the book to see how it compares to the movie.  Well, it's far superior -- in fact, there's barely any resemblance to the movie at all, except the famous opening when she comes in with her carpet bag and slides up the bannister; and her evening out with Bert.  It's possible that other elements in the movie are taken from later books in the series, which I haven't read yet, but if you're a fan of the movie, you might be disappointed.  Mr. and Mrs. Banks are barely mentioned, and there are no chimney sweeps in sight.

I also did not realize that this book was revised by Travers back in 1981.  I'd been listening to the audio, and when I have a hard copy, I like to see my progress by comparing it to the print book.  So, I looked in my copy to check my place, and was VERY surprised to see that my current chapter, "Bad Tuesday" was QUITE different -- as in quite racist!

That particular chapter starts out with Michael getting out of the wrong side of bed.  Everything goes wrong all day and he's being very naughty.  They're out on a walk and spot a compass on the ground, and Mary Poppins uses it so they can travel around the world.  In the audio version, they go in all four points of the compass, and visit a polar bear, a macaw, and panda, and a dolphin, and it's quite delightful.  Apparently in the original version it's people, and the visit to Africa is particularly offensive.  But I'm glad to say that the revised version is much better.  

Though I do own a print copy of the book, I mostly listened an audio version, which I just loved.  The reader, Sophie Thompson is one of the most delightful audiobook narrators I've ever encountered.  (Yes, that's the Sophie Thompson who is the sister of Emma Thompson, who played Miss Bates in Emma and Mary Elliot in Persuasion).  She's just perfect for Mary Poppins -- Mary is very no-nonsense, the children are full of wonder, and her accents are spot-on.  I'm planning to read the entire Mary Poppins series, and when I do, I will imagine Sophie Thompson narrating all the rest of the books in my head.

I'm counting this book as my Children's Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Anthony Trollope Bicentennial

Well, I just recently discovered via some other bloggers that 2015 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Anthony Trollope, one of my all-time favorite writers!  How did I not realize this?  

So far, I've read 15 of his 47 novels, and I still have 16 unread on my shelves (not to mention three volumes of short stories, his autobiography, and an illustrated biography).  To celebrate my love of Trollope and his charming novels, I'm thinking about hosting a month-long event on my blog.  Trollope was born on April 24, 1815, so I thought April would be an appropriate month.  

I've hosted giveaways before, and I'm currently hosting the second year of the Back to the Classics Challenge, but I've never hosted a blogging event like this.  I was thinking I'd have some sort of sign-up linky, some giveaways, and maybe post weekly updates with links to participants' postings.  I'm definitely open to suggestions!

Bloggers, what do you think?  Are any of you interested in participating?  And what would you like included in a blogging event? 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Girls From Winnetka by Marcia Chellis

Well, that was disappointing.

I was really looking forward to starting my TBR Pile Challenge reading list for 2015.  After finishing one giant doorstopper of a book (which I loved), and having about another 20 audio discs to go on a second, I naturally looked through the pile and chose the shortest book.  I have a really hard time leaping from one enormous book to another.  My choice was The Girls From Winnetka by Marcia Chellis. I received this as a prize drawing gift from another blogger back in 2010.   Unfortunately, I wasn't nearly as enamored of this book as she was.  

This is the true story of five friends, women who graduate in the same high school class in Winnetka, Illinois, an upscale Chicago suburb, in the late 1950s:  Annie, Margo, Barbie, Laura, and Brooke.  (No last names are given in this story; we don't even know the actual year they graduated).  The book covers their changing lives throughout the decades and examines them in light of the social upheaval of the 1960s and 70s, and the changing role of women.  Each chapter is split up between the five women as they live through different decades, from the 1950s through the 20th century, beginning and ending with a reunion of these lifelong friends.

I was particularly intrigued by this book because I love nonfiction (my entire TBR Pile Challenge list is nonfiction this year!) and because I lived for about ten years in Chicago and the suburbs.  I've been to Winnetka many times and actually know people who graduated from this very high school, New Trier. I also attended the same university as one of the women in the book, and I really hoped that this book would really connect with me.  

Unfortunately, it really didn't.  This book was published by a small independent publishing company, and it really showed.  I found the quality of the writing really lacking, with some serious errors in punctuation, and the style just felt amateurish.  (I should confess upfront that I am a person who becomes easily annoyed by the misuse of an apostrophe.) Maybe I'm especially nitpicky, but it really bugged me that the author (or editor) misused commas and italics repeatedly -- basic stuff that any middle school teacher would mark down.  I know my blog posts aren't always perfect, but I'm not asking anybody to pay to read my stuff. 

The story was also quite disjointed, with huge gaps in the narrative.   I think these women really did have interesting lives, and I'm quite sure I would have gotten more out of this book if it were better written.  I just couldn't get past the poor quality of the writing and editing.  It really seemed like a first draft to me.  It was only 240 pages, so it was a fast read, but I'm sure I would have liked it much better if it were longer and the women's histories were expanded.  

However, I won't be discouraged with the rest of my TBR Pile list; I've just started the next book on my list, and the first twelve pages of the prologue were infinitely better written than The Girls From Winnetka.  I've heard excellent things about nearly all of the other 11 books on the list, and the two alternates, so if nothing else I knocked the worst one off the list first.  

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

As usual, I am years behind everyone else and am only now reading the Next Big Literary Thing.  (I suppose it's just a Literary Big Thing. Ten years!  That's how long it took me to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,  though I've only owned this book for about three years (which I got at the bargain price of $1 at the library's Friends sale.)  It is yet another Big Fat Book that has been taking up space on the TBR shelves.  This book is almost 800 pages, and I've already started the audio of The Pickwick Papers.  I really and truly had no business starting this doorstopper, but it looked dark and mysterious, and that's exactly what I was in the mood for on New Year's Day when I picked it up.  

Quite frankly, it's just BRILLIANT.  It's taken me almost two weeks to finish (due to interruptions), but honestly, I didn't want to rush through it.  This is one of those books that I was glad to savor and read in bits in pieces.  I didn't want to stay up all night to find out how it would end.  I wanted it to last forever, because I knew I'd be sad when it was over. 

For those who don't know the set up, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell begins in 1806, in Yorkshire.  There is a society of magicians, who really don't know much about magic, but they've heard that there's a Mr. Norrell with an amazing library of magical books, who claims to be the last practicing magician in all of England.  A couple of them go to meet him, but either he's a snob or he doesn't like competition.  He makes them an offer:  Mr. Norrell will do something amazing to prove he's a magician, but all the others must sign an agreement that they'll never try to do magic again.  All but one of them accept. 

Well, he does do something amazing -- he goes to a cathedral and brings all the statues to life.  Everyone's abuzz with the possibility of actual magic back in England.  Mr. Norrell moves to London and meets a lot of fashionable people, and then he performs an amazing feat of magic.  Soon all of London is crazy for magic.  Mr. Norrell offers his services to help with the war against Napolean.  He also takes on a single pupil,  Jonathan Strange, a wealthy young man who's a bit of a dilettante, but he seems to have found his calling as a magician.  The rest of the book consists of the the development of the relationship between Strange and Norrell, and the changes that magic brings to England.

One of Portia Rosenberg's  illustrations from the novel
This 800-page book is set up very much like a Victorian serial.  There are 69 short chapters, all about ten pages long, which was really nice for reading in bits and pieces.  This isn't a book I wanted to rush through.  It took me more than two weeks to finish this book, and I was glad to stretch it out.   I can definitely imagine this published weekly, like the novels of Dickens and Trollope.  It has a very Dickensian feel about it, though it's set in the Regency period which was the time of Jane Austen.   I normally hate comparing books to other books, but I couldn't help thinking that if Jane Austen and Charles Dickens could have met and written their version of Harry Potter, it would have been very much like this.  It's definitely written in an 1800s style.  Susanna Clarke nails the Victorian writing style more than any other historical writer I've read.  

It's also written as though it were an actual history of how magic came back to England, complete with footnotes to explain all the references they make, mostly about ancient magicians and stories of magical events in the past.  I also found it very funny in parts -- there are a lot of snarky little asides.

Some people have complained about the pacing of this book, but I thought it was just right.  I just loved the world of Strange and Norrell and I'm really sad now that I've finished the book.  It took Susannah Clarke about ten years to write it.  I've heard that she's writing a sequel and I really hope that's true, and that it won't take too long for it to be finished.  

In the meantime, apparently the BBC is adapting it into a TV miniseries!  That's actually one of the reasons I decided to tackle this book -- I really wanted to read it before I watched it on TV.  It's going to air here in the States on BBC America, though there's no word yet when it will actually be shown.  I'm glad it's a miniseries and not a TV movie or feature film, because the format is just right.  Eddie Marsan is playing Mr. Norrell and though he's young for the role, I'm sure he'll do a wonderful job.

Bertie Carvel (left) as Jonathan Strange and Eddie Marsan as Mr. Norrell
There are some other production stills floating around the internet.  I don't recognize any of the other actors but I'm really hoping it will live up to the novel.  Susanna Clarke also published a book of short stories called The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and I've already requested it from the library. 

Has anyone else read this?  And how is your reading going for 2015?  

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Chunkster Challenge

Currently, I'm in the midst of two Big Fat Books -- how do I manage to get myself into these situations?  It started a couple of weeks ago, when I pulled Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell off my TBR shelf on a whim.  It was a dark and dreary day, and I wanted something that seemed like it would match my mood.  I got sucked into the story right away, but it's not what I'd call a quick read.

I also started listening to The Pickwick Papers on audiobook -- it's 25 discs, more than 32 hours of reading!!  The print copy from the library is about 800 pages of teeny tiny print.  My commute to work is pretty short so I've barely getting started. I'm keeping track of my progress with a print volume, but I've only completed about 120 pages worth so far.

That being said, I thought that was a pretty good excuse to sign up for the Chunkster Challenge.  The rules are extremely flexible -- there is no minimum amount of books required, plus audio is okay.  I think the only requirement is that the book be at least 450 pages.  You don't even have to have a blog!

Just for fun, though, I decided to make a list of some of the Big Fat Books from my TBR shelves I'd like to complete this year.  I've narrowed the list to an even dozen, since I think that's pretty manageable.  Besides my two current reads, I'm also including books that are still on my Classics Club list.

1.  Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke (782 pp) .  It's slow, but it's just wonderful.  I'll be sad when it's over.

2.  The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.  (801 pp).  One of the last works by Dickens on my to-read list.  However, I'm kind of underwhelmed by it so far.  I haven't given up though.

3.  No Name by Wilkie Collins. (748 pp).  I can count this as the 19th Century Classic in the Back to the Classics Challenge.

4.  Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell (528 pp).  This can count as the Classic by a Woman Author.

5.  New Grub Street by George Gissing (576 pp).  I read The Odd Women by Gissing a few years ago and really liked it.   I'm trying to expand my knowledge of Victorian writers beyond Dickens and Trollope.
6.  A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell (718 pp). This one is actually an omnibus of three shorter novels.  Also, the margins are really wide, so I don't think this one will take that long.  Can count it as my 20th Century Classic.

7.  Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson. (556 pp). Another omnibus.  This was one on my TBR Pile Challenge list back in 2013, and I never did get to it.

8.  The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope.  (794 pp).  Volume 3 in the Pallisers series.  Of course, before I read it, I'll have to read:

9.  Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope (752 pp).  Volume 2 of the Pallisers!  I loved Can You Forgive Her? so I'm really looking forward to this one.  Could also count this one for the Name in the Title category.

And to make it an even dozen from the TBR shelves:

10.  All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard (592 pp).  The final volume in the Cazalet series.  I read the first four in 2014 so I'm looking forward to this one, though I'll be so sad when I've finished it.

11.  Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.  I've read so many books set during WWII, I feel like I should read more books set during WWI.  And it's a little shorter, a mere 483 pages.

12.  The Quincunx by Charles Palliser (787 pp).  This one is almost 800 pages of tiny print, and it's another big fat historical novel -- this one's set during Victorian times, so it might be just the thing after I finish Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  Unless I decide to read a bunch of short books first.

 So tell me, bloggers -- has anyone else signed up for the Chunkster Challenge?  Which big fat books do you want to finish in 2015?  And am I completely insane to read two 800 page books at the same time?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Frozen Assets by P. G. Wodehouse

My first book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015!!  I wanted to start out the year with a fun, quick read, and I have several unread books by P. G. Wodehouse on the TBR shelves -- just the thing.

Many people are familiar with the works of Wodehouse because of his most famous characters, Jeeves and Wooster, and the brilliant BBC adaptation starring Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as the hapless Bertie Wooster.  No Jeeves and Wooster in this book, but it's classic Wodehouse -- basically, a screwball comedy.  It starts out with a very funny scene in which Jerry Shoesmith, a young English journalist, is trying to report a lost wallet at a Paris police station.  The French policeman, who loves bureacracy, decides to make things difficult for poor Jerry, whose keys were also in the wallet, so he can't get back to his uncle's apartment for the night.  However, all is not lost, because Jerry runs into the beautiful Kay Christopher, an American whom he met on a ship a couple of years ago.  She's at the police station reporting the absence of her brother Edmund, also known as Biff.

Lo and behold, Biff has absconded back to London to avoid the French police.  It seems Biff has a tendency to get drunk and assault policemen.  However, back in London, he discovers that he's become a millionaire overnight, since his eccentric godfather has passed away and left him a fortune -- with strings attached.  It seems Biff has to stay out of trouble until his 30th birthday, which luckily is only a week away.  Unluckily, the fortune would then pass to his godfather's brother, Lord Tilbury, who just happens to be Jerry's former employer.  Tilbury will stop at nothing to get Biff in trouble and get his hands on the money.  Jerry wants to help Biff because he's in love with Kay, who unfortunately is already engaged to a stuffy British diplomat.

The book is short, but delightful, full of witty repartee and downright silliness.  There are love triangles and quadrangles, amazing coincidences, and a great recurring bit about missing trousers.  Being Wodehouse, it all comes right in the end.

Wodehouse wrote more than 70 books, over a period of about as many years.  Frozen Assets is fairly late, published in 1964 (so it just qualifies for the Back to the Classics Challenge), but the humor is timeless.  This was a perfect choice for my Humorous Classic category for the Back to the Classics Challenge.  Originally, I was planning on reading The Pickwick Papers, but it's nearly 800 pages so I'm saving that for my Very Long Classic.

Anyone else a Wodehouse fan?  Which are your favorites?  And has anyone else started on the Back to the Classics Challenge yet?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Challenge Link-Up Post: Final Wrap-Up


Have you finished the Back to the Classics Challenge?  Congratulations!  This is where you'll link up to your Challenge Wrap-Up Post, after you've completed a minimum of six different categories from the original challenge post.  This post is only for Challenge-Wrap Up Posts.  If you do not have a blog, or anywhere you post publicly, please write up your post-challenge thoughts/suggestions/etc in the comments section.  

By linking or commenting here, you are declaring that you have completed the challenge; that each book (or play) reviewed fits the correct definition of the category, and was published before 1965 (except for posthumous publications); and that your reviews for each category are linked to the correct post.  THIS is where I will look at the end of the year and randomly choose the winner for the bookish prize. 

Please remember to indicate within your post how many entries you have earned for the prize drawing:

  • If you've completed six categories and you get one entry.
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries.
  • Complete all twelve categories, and your name is entered into the drawing three times!

  • Thank you again for participating, and congratulations again for completing the challenge!

    Challenge Link-Up Post: Classic Play

    Please link your reviews for your Classic Play here.  This is only for the Classic Play category.  (Plays are only eligible in this category). If you do not have a blog, or somewhere public on the internet where you post book reviews, please write your mini-review/thoughts in the comments section.  If you like, you can include the name of your blog and/or the title of the book in your link, like this: "Karen K. @ Books and Chocolate (Othello)." 

    Challenge Link-Up Post: Children's Classic

    Please link your reviews for your Children's Classic here.  This is only for the Children's Classic category.  If you do not have a blog, or somewhere public on the internet where you post book reviews, please write your mini-review/thoughts in the comments section.  If you like, you can include the name of your blog and/or the title of the book in your link, like this: "Karen K. @ Books and Chocolate (The Wizard of Oz)." 

    Challenge Link-Up Post: Non-fiction Classic

    Please link your reviews for your Non-fiction Classic here.  This is only for the Non-Fiction Classic category.  A memoir, biography, essays, travel, this can be any nonfiction work that's considered a classic, or a nonfiction work by a classic author.

    If you do not have a blog, or somewhere public on the internet where you post book reviews, please write your mini-review/thoughts in the comments section.  If you like, you can include the name of your blog and/or the title of the book in your link, like this: "Karen K. @ Books and Chocolate (Travels With Charley)."