Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Chapters 51 - 90

So, I'm up to Chapter 90 of Moby-Dick.  I really did mean to finish by July 15, but I'm pretty certain that's not going to happen.  I have made some real progress, and I hope to finish it in the next couple of weeks.

I'm very glad that this book is all in short chapters, because I don't know how much I could sit down and read straight through.  In all honestly, if I didn't have the audiobook in the car, I don't know if I would have gotten this far.

There's really not that much narrative at this point -- Ishmael and the boys are on the hunt, and there are far, far more asides than actual plot.  I understand this is probably ground-breaking and experimental, but I'm beginning to understand why this is a book that people either really love or really hate.  There's still not so much character development -- I understand that Ahab is on a quest for revenge against the white whale, but other than that, not much insight into his character, or Ishmael either.  He seems more like an omniscient more than anything else at this point.  Well, there are still about 45 chapter to go, so I suppose that part is upcoming.

What I'm really learning about so far is whales -- the differences between the different types, their anatomy, habits, you name it.  Ishmael (or Melville, I suppose) seems in awe of whales, almost reverent about them -- it's sort of shocking how much he seems to admire them, yet in the very next chapter, or even the next paragraph, will then go on describe how they're going to kill these magnificent creatures.  I'm learning much, much more about the butchering of whales than I would like.  So far, when it comes to Man vs. Whales, I'm firmly on Team Whale.  I'm not a vegetarian, I do eat all kinds of meat, but there's no way I could bring myself to ever eat whale, especially after reading this book.  Maybe I should start on a krill diet.

That being said, the writing is mostly excellent, but I'm finding the story kind of uneven overall -- some chapters are fascinating and others just bore me to tears.  Frank Muller's narration really does enhance the story.  I'm down to the last five discs, so I should finally finish it up in the next week or so.

Is anyone else still working on Moby-Dick?  How are you enjoying it?  

Monday, July 14, 2014

Happy Bastille Day!

Happy Bastille Day!!!  I haven't been reading nearly as much French literature this month as I wanted, but the other day I was lucky enough to have a wonderful meal at a French bistro in town.  Here are some of the highlights of the meal:

This was my first course, a warm goat cheese tart in puff pastry, topped with a caramelized fig.  It was my favorite part of the entire meal.

This was my husband's appetizer, gnocchi with sauteed foie gras.  It was amazing, but I was polite and didn't steal all of it from his plate.  I think I showed great restraint.

This was my dessert, a poached apple filled with creme brulee.  It was excellent.  

Has anyone else been cooking or eating French food today?  Bon appetite!!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Six in Six

I found this great meme created by The Book Jotter (via Helen's blog, She Reads Novels).  The idea is to look back at the books you've read in the first six months of the year.  Book Jotter created a lot of great categories.  I've tried to choose different books for each category, though some of my authors repeat.  I've read some great books so far this year, and I'm definitely starting to see which books will make my favorites for the year.

Six Books From Authors I Know Will Never Let Me Down:

  1. The Doll: Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier
  2. Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym
  3. The Unrest Cure and Other Stories by Saki
  4. He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
  5. They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
  6. The Girl on the Boat by P. G. Wodehouse

Six Trips Abroad:

  1. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang
  2. Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser (France)
  3. The Lost City of Z by David Grann (The Amazon)
  4. Kim by Rudyard Kipling (India)
  5. The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston (Italy)
  6. Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojurn in Kyoto by Victoria Abbott Riccardi (Japan)

Six Persephone Classics:

  1. Midsummer Night in the Workhouse by Diana Athill
  2. The Squire by Enid Bagnold
  3. The Runaway by Anna Elizabeth Hart
  4. Few Eggs and No Oranges: The Diaries of Vere Hodgson, 1940-1945
  5. House-Bound by Winifred Peck
  6. Wilfred and Eileen by Jonathan Smith

Six From the Non-Fiction Shelf:

  1. Jane Austen's England by Lesley Atkins
  2. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Caine
  3. Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson
  4. The Sisters: The Story of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell
  5. Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
  6. Among the Janeites by Deborah Yaffe

Six Authors I Look Forward to Reading More Of:

  1. Kate Atkinson (Life After Life)
  2. Elizabeth Jane Howard (The Light Years)
  3. Nancy Mitford (The Blessing)
  4. Irene Nemirovsky (Suite Francaise)
  5. Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch)
  6. Stefan Zweig (The Post-Office Girl)

Six Authors I Read Last Year, But Not So Far This Year:

  1. Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits)
  2. Jane Austen (The Annotated Pride and Prejudice)
  3. A. S. Byatt (The Children's Book)
  4. Charles Dickens (The Old Curiosity Shop)
  5. Neil Gaiman (The Ocean at the End of the Lane)
  6. Penelope Lively (Making it Up)

Bloggers, how were your first six months of reading this year?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Thief by Maurice Leblanc

What is it about mysteries that makes them such perfect summertime reading?  I was looking for a fun, quick read for the holiday weekend, and I put Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Thief into my carryon bag.  I could not have chosen a better book -- short stories are perfect vacation reads, especially when traveling (since one is so often interrupted by those pesky airport and in-flight announcements); also, this book had the added advantage of being on the TBR shelf and a book translated from French, so I can use it for the Paris in July event.

So.  Arsene Lupin is a dashing, debonair gentleman thief -- he steals from the rich (but doesn't give to the poor); first published in 1907, he's a bit like the French version of Sherlock Holmes -- but if Sherlock were the criminal mastermind, instead of the detective.

Arsene Lupin himself is a mix of James Bond, Robin Hood, and Hercule Poirot.  He's suave and sophisticated, the ladies all swoon over him, and he's so brilliant that he always outsmarts the police, especially his nemesis, the detective Ganimard.

This edition includes thirteen short stories, all of which were delightful, if not always strictly believable.  Lupin is a brilliant master of disguise, despite the fact that his photograph is published in newspapers, he's able to fool even the police; he always manages to escape the worst situations; and he's so brilliant he can steal the unstealable, and break into any building, no matter how impenetrable and well-guarded.  He can also solve the crimes of other perpetrators.  In short, he's rather over the top, but the stories are light-hearted and full of witty banter, so it's hard to take them too seriously and judge them too harshly. They're a really fun alternative to Sherlock Holmes, plus they're French, so what is not to like?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge

I chose Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge as one of my TBR Pile Challenge books this year because I'd bought a Capuchin Classics edition (pictured below) for next to nothing when Borders closed up a few years ago.  Some of the members of my online book group had raved about Illyrian Spring, one of Bridge's later works, which I read and enjoyed very much. I was really looking forward to this one.  However, this turned out to be another one of those books in which not much happens.

Ostensibly, it's a story set around 1930, about a bunch of European diplomats and hangers-on who take a weekend excursion from Peking (now known as Beijing) to a temple several miles away.  Though it's entitled Peking Picnic, it's not at all how I've ever had a picnic --  that is, sitting on a blanket on the ground and eating from a basket, fighting off ants and wasps, then packing it all up and going home the same day.  No, these people bring camp beds (what are these anyway?) and good china, loaded up on a bunch of donkeys by a bunch of servants who then serve them multiple fancy courses.  I suppose it's closer to what we would call camping for rich people also known as glamping.  I myself have never been on a picnic with multiple courses, such as the "broiled crayfish with Hollandaise. . . . grilled chicken a l'Americain (with Russian salad); and . . . macedoine of fruit with cream mousse, followed by coffee and liqueurs."  I suppose it's closer to camping Downton Abbey style, if all the characters were diplomats stationed in China.  

Anyway, there's really not a lot of action or plot in the book.  The main character is Laura Leroy, wife of one of the diplomats stationed in Peking.  One of her friends organizes a weekend excursion, which may or may not be cancelled because of a possible military coup.  Included in the party are her two nieces who are visiting from England, various young diplomats who may be falling in love with said nieces, and various wives and people from the diplomatic corps.  Basically, Mrs. Leroy does a lot of thinking and making sage pronouncements with people who are falling in and out of love.  

For three quarters of the book, hardly anything happens, though the writing is mostly beautiful. Here's a description of a temple the party visits:

The whole temple is full of the light gentle voice of water; the formality of stone and shrine and symbol is made gay with its shining freedom, brought in, like the blossoming tree, to worship within the holy places.  The Chinese do deeply love and honor the things of nature -- air, water, flowers and trees -- more deeply than almost any other people. 

Ann Bridge really captures the sense of place.  I've actually been to Beijing, and though it was about eighty years after the book is set, I can still get a glimpse of what it must have been like back in the 1920s and 1930s.  

Eventually, the party does come into conflict with Chinese bandits who are associated with one of the warlords who might be planning some kind of takeover -- the same warlords who initially put a damper on the excursion, to the chagrin of the hostess.  From this point, there's a lot happening in the story, though it does take more than 200 pages to get there. 

This book does give some insight to the viewpoint of British colonials of the period, who were unbelievably racist, and according to this book, completely obtuse.  If the biggest problem they have is that fighting warlords might interrupt your party plans, there's something a little bit wrong here.  I mostly liked the book, despite the slow pace, though I was really put off by the racism exhibited by the British regarding the Chinese and other Asian races -- there are a couple of condescending cracks about Filipinos as well.  So -- overall, a fairly interesting though slow read, and I've now finished seven of the twelve books on my TBR Pile Challenge, so I'm on track.  

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Back to the Classics Giveaway Winner

And the winner of my Back to the Classics Mid-Year Giveaway is. . . . 


She's won her choice of Penguin Clothbound Classics (up to $20).  Congratulations!!  Ruthiella, please send contact me no later than July 7 so I can make arrangements to send you your prize!  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville: Chapters One through Fifty

So, I've made it through fifty chapters of Moby-Dick -- about 250 pages, which is about 40 percent. Though I'm behind the original reading schedule, I'm quite pleased about my progress.  When I started this read-along, I was really apprehensive -- Moby-Dick is one of those books that are legendary, almost like War and Peace (which I have read) or Ulysses (which I haven't). It seems to be one of those books that either you read in school, and hated, or that you plan to read someday, but never get around to.  

A quick summary of the novel so far:  Ishmael, a rather mysterious narrator, travels to Nantucket to find a place on a whaling ship.  There he meets Queequeg, and the two find jobs on the Pequod.  After several days on board, they meet the notorious Captain Ahab, who is hell-bent on avenging the loss of his leg to the eponymous Moby-Dick, a legendary white sperm whale. 

I like parts of it so far, but mostly, I was surprised by two different things.  First, I was surprised at the close relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg -- on their first night together, they basically share the same bed and become very cosy.  I'm not sure if this was common among sailors back in the 1850s, or I'm reading way too much into it.  

Secondly, I was surprised by the novel's unusual structure.  Like many novels of the era, it's broken up into lots of little short chapters -- some of them are less than a page long.  But it's not a straight narrative like I'm used to.  There are all kinds of random asides, like a short chapter about chowder (which I enjoyed) and a fairly long ramble about the color white (not as much).  

I'm beginning to think this is a novel I would appreciate much more if I was reading this as part of a class -- I'm sure there are tons of allusions and Biblical references and metaphors that I'm just not getting.  I tend not to read introductions and analyses of books until after I've finished them, because I hate spoilers (though I have a pretty good idea of how the book ends).  I never took any American literature classes in college, and I read hardly any in high school -- I think I'm the only one I've ever met who didn't read Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, or The Great Gatsby while I was in school.  

I can't say I love Moby-Dick so far, but I'm going to stick with it until the end.  I've read quite a bit of the book online, but some in my print copy (pictured below), and, lately, some on audiobook, narrated by Frank Muller, which is just wonderful.  My library owns two different versions on audio, and I've actually listened to both of them so far.  I'm sorry to say that the other edition, narrated by Paul Boehmer, was so boring that I was sure I'd fall asleep while driving.  Frank Muller is a much better narrator; in fact, I think I'd listen to pretty much anything he narrates.  

Bloggers, have any of you read Moby-Dick?  Did you love it or hate it?  and which are the big fat books that you still want to read but never seem to get around to starting?  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Back to the Classics Challenge 2014: Mid-Year Check In (and Giveaway!!!)

Well, it's almost halfway through 2014, so I thought I'd check in and see how everyone's doing with the Back to the Classics Challenge!!  I'm really proud to say that I've actually finished seven of the eleven categories -- and I can count my current read, Moby-Dick, for number eight!  I'm quite proud because I've deliberately chosen not to count books from my other big challenge, the TBR Pile Challenge, towards this challenge, thinking this would inspire me to read even more books off my own shelves.  I've also decided not to repeat any authors, to try and vary my selections.

Here's what I've read (and watched) so far:

20th Century Classic:  The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
Classic by a Woman Author:  The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
Classic about War: The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck
Classic by an Author That's New To Me: The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
Historical Fiction Classic: Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather
Classic Adapted into a Movie or TV Series: He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
TV Series Adaptation: He Knew He Was Right BBC Miniseries

I really liked all of them but if I had to choose, my two favorites so far would be The Post-Office Girl and The Glimpses of the Moon.  Now I only have four categories left: 19th Century Classic; Classic in Translation; American Classic; and Classic Mystery, Suspense, or Thriller.  Right now I'm reading Moby-Dick which I'll count for either my 19th Century or American Classic, I haven't decided which.

And how is everyone else doing?  I'm so pleased with all the links I've seen posted already!  And to thank everyone who's signed up, I'm offering a midpoint giveaway!!!  Yes, to further entice everyone to reading even more classics, one lucky winner will receive a beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic of his or her choice (up to US $20).  

Here are the rules for the giveaway:

1.  To enter, you must already be signed up for the Challenge (sorry, the last day to sign up was back in March.)  If you are not already on this list, you are NOT ELIGIBLE.

2.  Challenge participants must have linked at least one review for the 2014 Back to the Classics Challenge.  If you're signed up and you haven't linked any reviews left, the cutoff date is July 1.

3.  Any new links must follow the guidelines originally set for the challenge.

4.  Challenge participants must leave a comment below telling which book they've most enjoyed reading for this challenge.  If you want, you can also tell me which Penguin Clothbound Classic (valued up to $20) you'd choose if you're the lucky winner.  Include an email or link to your blog so I can contact you if you've won!!  

5.  Contest winners will receive their choice of a Penguin Clothbound Classic with a value up to $20 from or The Book  Contest winner must live in a country where they can receive delivery from either Amazon or The Book Depository.  If you're not sure if The Book Depository ships to your home country, you can check here.

6.  Comments and links must be posted no later than July 1 at 11:59 p.m., U.S. Central Standard Time.  On July 2, I'll announce a winner.

7.  Winner must contact me with a good address no later than July 7, or I'll pick another winner.

So what are you waiting for?  Post your reviews, pick your favorite Clothbound Classic and tell me in the comments below!!  I can't wait to give a prize away!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell

Sometimes when I read books off my TBR Pile Challenge list, it's kind of a slog, and I wonder why I bothered keeping this book around.  However, more often than not, I've been so pleasantly surprised by a book I'm annoyed at myself for waiting so long to read it.  The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family is the second type of book -- a sheer delight and one that I couldn't stop reading.  

I'd never heard of the Mitfords until I watched the BBC adaptation of Love in a Cold Climate around 2006.  I was so enchanted by the story that I quickly bought the book (a combined volume with The Pursuit of Love.  I loved them both so I was delighted to find The Sisters, which I promptly put on my to-read shelf and then ignored, though I moved it from house to house.  I'm really glad I finally read it -- it's both a chatty tell-all and a fascinating biography of a the intertwining lives of six sisters from an eccentric aristocratic English family.  

This is one of those stories that is truly stranger than fiction.  The eldest sister, Nancy, became a bestselling author; the third sister Diana was a reowned Society beauty who married an heir to the Guinness fortune and then left him for Oswald Mosley, a right-wing politician who became an infamous Fascist (both were imprisoned without trial for three years during WWII); another sister, Unity, was one of Hitler's groupies and was rumoured to have been his lover.  The next-to-last sister, Jessica (nicknamed "Decca" eloped with a distant cousin Edmond Romilly, a nephew by marriage to Winston Churchill.  Romilly had fought against fascism in Spain and they were both Marxists.  The youngest sister, Deborah, became Duchess of Devonshire.  So, you can just imagine that this book is just packed with interesting characters and history, mostly set during my favorite period, the inter-war years in England.  I will note that there's quite a focus on Unity's friendship with Hitler, which is really quite creepy.  There's also a lot of discussion as to whether or not some of the sisters were anti-Semitic. I know that this wasn't uncommon among the upper-class British at the time, but it sometimes makes for some uncomfortable reading. 

All of the sisters (with the possible exception of Pamela, the second sister) were real characters, and they were all smart and witty -- sadly, they had very little formal education (some of the sisters never forgave their parents for denying them higher education).  Most of them had writing talent, and besides Nancy, Decca and Deborah also published books -- Deborah published a memoir called Wait For Me! back in 2010.  

I really enjoyed this book -- it's just chatty and gossipy enough to be fun, and includes enough history and politics to be informative, without getting bogged down in too much politics and jargon.  And I was surprised that I never had any trouble distinguishing between all six of them -- they had such distinct personalities.  I only had a few quibbles with the book -- there's not much about the second sister, Pamela, for one thing; also, I did have trouble keeping track of all the many houses the families lived in -- a map would have been incredibly useful, to go along with the family tree and extensive endnotes.  

Overall, though, it's a great biography and I'm very interest to read more of Lovell's books.  She also wrote a biography of Beryl Markham called Straight on Till Morning; The Churchills: In Love and War, plus several others.   The book has really piqued my interest about the Mitfords.  My TBR shelves still include  Hons and Rebels, Decca's memoir; Nancy's book Wigs on the Green, a satire about the fascist sister Unity; and a 700-page volume of Decca's letters.  Hopefully I'll get to some of them before the end of the year.  And now I'm halfway through my TBR Pile Challenge -- I've finished six books in six months, so I'm right on track. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Paris in July 2014

Once again, I have signed up to participate in the annual Paris in July blogging event.  If you haven't heard about it, it's hosted by Karen and Tamara, and every year, bloggers post about all things French -- books, movies, food, trips, and so on.  Here's a link for more information.

This year, I'm planning on reading as many French books as I can.  I definitely want to read Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert, which is on my TBR Pile Challenge 2014 list; also, I have several unread novels on my shelves by Emile Zola, and maybe even Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant.  I also want to read some more books by Irene Nemirovsky -- I read Suite Francaise a few months ago and loved it.  Who knows, I might even take a crack at Victor Hugo!

I also want to watch some French movies and, as always, eat French food!  My youngest daughter is starting French in the fall.  I haven't studied the language since I was in high school and I've forgotten nearly everything (except ordering off a menu and asking for the bathroom) but I'm going to try and study along with her.  I'm already registered for the 2014 Jane Austen Society meeting which takes place in French-speaking Montreal in October, so it would be helpful to refresh my memory -- and who knows, maybe my daughter and I will reward ourselves with a trip to France someday!

Anyone else planning on a virtual visit to La Belle Paris this July?  What will you be reading?  Which French films do you recommend?  And who are your favorite French authors?