Friday, May 22, 2015

Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton

Well, it had to happen sometime: Edith Wharton has finally disappointed me. Twilight Sleep is the thirteenth book by Wharton that I have read, and it is officially my least favorite. Hardly anyone has reviewed this book on Goodreads, and my library doesn't even own it.

The set up is a little complicated. Published in 1927, this is the story of the Manford family, rich socialites living in New York in the 20s. Pauline Manford is the busiest rich woman in the world, with a schedule so jam-packed with committees, speeches, beauty treatments, appointments with new-age gurus, and social engagements, she has to schedule time in 15-minute increments, including a conversation with her own daughter Nona, who is 19. Nona is Pauline's daughter by her second marriage, to the successful lawyer, Dexter Manford, who represented Pauline in her divorce from her first marriage to Arthur Wyant, after Arthur had an affair with his cousin. Pauline also has a son, Jim Wyant, from her first marriage, and his own marriage is on the rocks. Jim's wife Lita is a Jazz Age party girl with a hankering for the stage, to the dismay of her husband's family. Following all this?

The story takes place over a fairly short period of time, in which Pauline is determined to devote her do-gooder energies to saving Jim's marriage to Lita, not realizing that her own marriage is crumbling and that her daughter Nona is in love with Arthur Wyant's cousin, who is trapped in a loveless marriage to a pious woman who won't divorce him. Lita is determined to leave Jim and go out to Hollywood. Dexter claims he merely wants to prevent a family scandal, but he's clearly falling for Lita himself, and all the characters are thrown together at the end in a climactic scene in Pauline's country estate. (I'm actually trying to mentally recast with all the characters from Downton Abbey, except Lady Mary would have to be the daughter-in-law and we wouldn't have the wonderful Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess).

I rather liked this novel but I was sort of puzzled by it. It starts out describing Pauline's busy life and packs in all the other characters in such a rapid succession I could hardly follow them. I suppose Wharton is trying to show the fast pace of life in the twenties and the whirlwind schedules of these wealthy characters, but I just found them shallow. I hadn't ready any Wharton books in a while but I do remember that typically the character development was better and the pace was slower.

Wharton is known for her novels about rich society people who are unhappy. Pauline seems shallow but has so much energy, it made me wonder what this character could have done if she had lived in the 21st century -- she could have been a CEO of some Fortune 500 company instead of filling her time with making inspirational speeches, visiting charlatans trying to do emotional healing, and doing eurythmic exercises.

I suppose overall this novel is supposed to be a satire of the Jazz Age, and she does get in some good shots about society types. My favorite bit in the entire novel is when Pauline and Dexter both decide to visit Lita's eccentric aunt, Kitty Landish. Kitty's latest obsession is remodeling her home, No. 1, Viking Court, in the authentic style of the Vikings who just may have landed close by hundreds of years ago:

. . . the room contained only a few relentless-looking oak chairs, a long table bearing an hourglass (for clocks would have been an anachronism), and a scrap of dusty velvet nailed on the cement wall, as to which Mrs. Landish explained that it was a bit of a sixth-century coptic vestment, and that the nuns of a Basilian convent in Thessaly were reproducing for eventual curtains and chair-cushions. "It may take fifty years," Mrs. Landish always added, "but I would rather go without it than live with anything less perfect."

So. Overall, not a terrible read, but not up to what I normally expect from Edith Wharton. I was originally going to count this as my 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge, but since nobody reads it, I don't really think it applies.  I still have some novellas and a couple of her earlier works on the TBR shelves. Hopefully they will not disappoint.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

The Woman Warrior is the seventh book I read from my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge. I chose it in honor of Asian-Pacific American Heritage month, and though I finished this book almost two weeks ago, I'm having a really hard time writing about it. 

Published in 1975, The Woman Warrior is Maxine Hong Kingston's memoir is the story of growing up as a child of Chinese immigrants, but it's not just about her -- it's really about the experiences of the women in her family, both in China and after arriving in the United States. It's a fairly short book, just over 200 pages, and is divided into five sections. Each of the sections is centered around a different woman in her family -- herself, her mother, and her aunts. The book is beautifully written, but mostly heartbreaking. The parts that really got to me were how badly women and girls were treated. The first chapter starts with story of an aunt, her father's sister, who got pregnant after her husband had left for America to make his fortune, and her shame was so terrible she threw herself and her newborn child into a well. Kingston doesn't even know her aunt's name -- the shame is so terrible that her name is never mentioned, and she is instructed never to speak of it to her father. 

There's also a chapter about her mother's sister, who came to the United States to confront the husband that had left her and a daughter behind in China years before; a chapter about her mother studying to be a doctor in China after her husband had gone to America; and a retelling of the Fa-Mulan woman warrior myth. Although it's considered a nonfiction memoir, there are definitely elements of fiction woven throughout. Like some of the earlier memoirs I posted about this year, I did wonder a bit how much was fact and how much was fiction. 

Not the edition I read, but I really like this cover from 1977.
Overall, I liked it, but it was a difficult read at times -- it becomes really painful sometimes to read how badly women are treated in many cultures. It's also tough to read about how difficult it is for the children of immigrants who are caught between two different cultures. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

Classics Spin #9! My selection was Shadow on the Rock by Willa Cather, a book I've had on my shelves for several years. I hadn't read anything by Willa Cather for a while so I was looking forward to this one.

Published in 1931, this is a work of historical fiction starting in 1697. Euclide Auclair, the apothecary of Quebec, lives with his twelve-year-old daughter in the remote settlement of French Canadians. As the story begins, Auclair watches as the final ships sail up the river, leaving the settlement isolated for a the long winter. The story unfolds in slightly more than a year, until after the last ships leave again the final year (plus a short epilogue). Euclide came to Quebec from France years before, when Cecile was a baby, following his patron, the wealthy Count de Frontenac.

The story is divided into six books, each focusing on a different character. It's really a series of vignettes about life in Quebec, more than an over-arching narrative. There's really not much plot to speak of. The "Rock" in the title refers to the mountains surrounding Quebec, so I suppose the shadows are the stories in the book. However, Cather is masterful at creating a sense of place. I remember that was the thing I've liked best about all her books so far: the Midwest in My Antonia and  Song of the Lark; the Southwest in The Professor's House; and antebellum Virginia in Sapphira and the Slave Girl. 

Here's one of my favorite passages:

. . . Cecile got away unobserved into the nearest wood. She went through it, and climbed toward the ridge in the middle of the island. At last she came out on a waving green hayfield with a beautiful harp-shaped elm growing in the middle of it. The grass there was much taller than the daisies, so they looked like white flowers seen through a driving grey-green rain. Cecile ran across the field to that symmetrical tree and lay down in the dark, cloud-shaped shadow it threw on the waving grass. The tight feeling in her chest relaxed. She felt she had escaped for ever from the Harnois and their way of living. She went to sleep and slept a long while. When she wakened up in the sweet-smelling grass, with the grasshoppers jumping over her white blouse, she felt rested and happy, -- though unreal, indeed, as if she were someone else. 

I liked this book but I found it a somewhat slow read. Though the prose is beautiful, the lack of plot didn't really compel me to pick it up again. Also, I felt like the story didn't have much focus. I really enjoyed the parts about Cecile and her father and the day-to-day life of the Quebec residents and the hardships they faced, but I felt it got bogged down with some of the politics which kept the Count in Quebec, plus the competition between two rival bishops got a little boring.

Not one of my favorites by Cather, but worth reading overall. And now I only have three more books by Cather to finish -- and only 18 left on my Classics Club list!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

The Eustace Diamonds is the third novel in Anthony Trollope's Pallisers series. This is the 19th novel by Trollope that I've read so far, and it's one of my favorites.  Basically, much of the plot revolves around Lady Elizabeth Eustace and her diamonds -- and whether they actually belong to her. Lady Elizabeth Eustace, nee Greystock, is a young, beautiful woman of good family, but not much fortune. She marries well, to Lord Florian Eustace, who has a fortune, a title, and good family, but unfortunately, poor health. Lizzie knows all this and uses it to her advantage; poor Florian doesn't realize he's married a sly mercenary until it's too late. He dies young with a pregnant widow, and relatives who are very unhappy with this interloper who is permanently attached to the family.

The diamonds in question are a necklace worth about 10,000 pounds, about $750,000 in today's money. Lizzie claims that her husband gave them to her before he died, as a gift, but Eustace lawyers disagree, saying they're part of the estate, and must be passed down to his son and heir. (Lizzie has also received a life interest in an estate in Scotland and an annual income of 4000 pounds, so she's not hurting).  She decides she needs a man to help her fight the nasty lawyers, and waffles between her cousin, Frank Greystock, a poor lawyer and MP; and Lord Fawn, a financially struggling aristocrat (and a former suitor of Violet Effingham from Phineas Finn, the previous Palliser novel). Lord Fawn pops the question first, but quickly tries to back out of the engagement when he hears about Lizzie's legal troubles. Lizzie then makes a play for Frank, but he's already engaged to Lizzie's childhood pal, Lucy Morris -- who also happens to live with Lord Fawn's mother, as governess to his youngest sisters. Following all this so far?

Lizzie then tries to twist Frank around her little finger and get him to fight all her battles, both against the lawyers and Lord Fawn. She also wants to play the great lady and host guests at her Scottish castle and go fox hunting, so we have the requisite Trollope scenes where they're all riding to the hounds. Trollope makes it all sound very exciting, except of course for the poor fox. There are also love triangles, some appearances by Palliser regulars Lady Glencora and the Duke of Omnium.

Compared to Phineas Finn, there's much less politics and much more domestic intrigue. About halfway through this book I thought it was going to be standard Trollope, but then there was a major plot twist I wasn't expecting at all -- and then it twisted around again. And then again! This book really had me on my toes, and I finished the second half of the book in just a few days. Lizzie Eustace is so sly and manipulative, I wanted to jump into the book and throttle her -- she definitely reminded me of Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair. The parts of this book with the legal wrangling over the ownership of the diamonds also reminded me a bit of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce from Charles Dickens' masterpiece, Bleak House

This is a fairly long Trollope, but I really think it's one of his best. It's the third book in the Pallisers series, but Lady Glencora and the other characters from the previous two books are really quite minor to the plot, so I think one could easily start reading the series with this book. I'm really glad I jumped right into this book after finishing the second book in the series, and I'd really love to finish the last three volumes of the series this year. Plus, this is one of the books from my Classics Club, so I'm happy to cross it off my list.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Anthony Trollope Bicentennial Celebration: Second Giveaway Winner!

And the winner of the second Anthony Trollope giveaway is. . . . 

She's won her choice of Anthony Trollope paperbacks via The Book Depository.  
I'll be contacting her via email. 

Congratulations, Amy, and happy reading!!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Miniseries

I am so excited about this!  

When, when, WHEN is it coming to the US????  Does anyone know???

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope

"I never knew a government yet that wanted to do anything. Give a government a real strong majority, as the Tories used to have half a century since, and as a matter of course it will do nothing. Why should it? Doing things, as you call it, is only bidding for power,—for patronage and pay."

Phineas Finn is the second of Trollope's Palliser novels. After reading his six Chronicles of Barset, I had put off reading the Pallisers since I was afraid of getting drawn into another series -- it's six more novels, and most of them are more than 700 pages long! But I finally took the plunge last year and read the first in the series, Can You Forgive Her?

Set around 1865, Phineas Finn is the story of a young Irishman who moves to London to study law but gets drawn into British politics. Due to a series of chance circumstances, he's asked to stand for Parliament (or as we Yanks would say, "run for Parliament") for his home district. So, at a young age, with virtually no political experience except a love for debate, Phineas becomes a junior member of Parliament.

Much of the novel is devoted to Phineas as he climbs up the ladder as a career politician, having turned his back on the law, and the concurrent wrangling over the Reform Bills going through Parliament. During this time, only a small percentage of the British population were allowed to vote -about one of every seven males. There's a lot of political wrangling and references that I must confess I kind of skimmed over.

And then there's Phineas' love life. Even though there's a sweet girl back home who loves him, Phineas is attracted to the beautiful Lady Laura Standish; her friend, the orphaned heiress Violet Effingham (who has an on-again/off-again relationship with Laura's brother, Lord Chiltern); and the mysterious widow, Madame Max Goesler.

This book had way more politics than in any of the other Trollope novels I'd read before, and I'm sure I would have gotten more out of it if I knew more of the history.  I definitely enjoyed more of the domestic side of the novel than the political side. However, the characters really drew me in and I kept rooting for Phineas, both in his career and his love life.  And it's really quite witty.  Here's a conversation between Violet Effingham (who has a lot of suitors, since she is an heiress) and her best friend Lady Laura:

"I hate a stupid man who can't talk to me, and I hate a clever man who talks me down. I don't like a man who is too lazy to make any effort to shine; but I particularly dislike the man who is always striving for effect. I abominate a humble man, but yet I love to perceive that a man acknowledges the superiority of my sex, and youth, and all that kind of thing."
"You want to be flattered without plain flattery."
"Of course I do. A man who would tell me that I am pretty, unless he is over seventy, ought to be kicked out of the room. But a man who can't show me that he thinks me so without saying a word about it, is a lout. Now in all those matters, your friend, Mr. Finn, seems to know what he is about. In other words, he makes himself pleasant, and, therefore, one is glad to see him."
"I suppose you do not mean to fall in love with him?"
"Not that I know of, my dear. But when I do, I'll be sure to give you notice."

Phineas Finn is only loosely connected to the characters in Can You Forgive Her?, but there are appearances by some of the characters, including Plantaganet Palliser; his wife, Lady Glencora; and the Duke of Omnium.  I suppose one could theoretically read them out of order, but I think it makes more sense to start at the beginning.  I've since started The Eustace Diamonds which is one of Trollope's most popular novels (and it's on my Classics Club list, huzzah!)

I'm counting this as my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Anthony Trollope Bicentennial: Second Giveaway!

Anthony Trollope

It's Anthony Trollope's 200th birthday, and that means it's time for another giveaway! This week, one lucky winner  (world-wide this time) will win his or her choice of any Trollope novel available from The Book Depository ($20 US or less). There are lots of lovely Penguin and Oxford World's Classics available.  Here are just of few of the possibilities  (I've included links to books I've reviewed on this blog):
The Chronicles of Barset:

The Small House at Allington

The Pallisers Novels: 

Can You Forgive Her? 
The Eustace Diamonds
Phineas Redux
The Prime Minister
The Duke's Children

Other novels published by Penguin:

Christmas at Thompson Hall
Doctor Wortle's School
He Knew He Was Right
The Way We Live Now

Other novels published by Oxford World's Classics:

Cousin Henry
The Way We Live Now

Here are the rules:
  • To enter, simply leave a comment and let me know which of Trollope's novels you'd choose if you were the winner (you can change your mind if your name is chosen).  Please include an email address in your comment if it doesn't link to your blog automatically. 
  • The deadline to enter is Thursday, April 30, at 11:59 p.m., U.S. Central Standard Time.  A winner will be chosen randomly and announced the following day.
  • The winner must live in a country to which the Book Depository delivers.  To check and see if your country is included, here is a list
  • The winner will be contacted via email and will have 48 hours to respond with a mailing address; otherwise, I'll choose another winner.  
And that's it! Easy, right? Well, good luck, and happy reading!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Anthony Trollope Bicentennial: First Giveaway Winner!

First, my most sincere apologies for the late posting -- I know, this post was supposed to go up on Friday to announce the winner of my giveaway. (I'm out of town and somehow, my automatic post did not show up on time, and I had no laptop until today).

But without further delay, the winner of the first giveaway is. . . . Melissa at Avid Reader!!  Melissa, I'm sending you an email and we can make arrangements for me to send you your prize, this beautiful Vintage Paperback edition of Can You Forgive Her?

I'll be back home soon, and in a couple of days I'll post some more Trollopian events, including my review of Phineas Finn, a roundup of other posts about Trollope, and my next giveaway!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Jane Austen and Crime by Susannah Fullerton

"Crime became a part of her plots, crime revealed character, crime emphasized duty and responsibility, and crime even united some of the heroines with the heroes."

For five of the past six years, I have been lucky enough to attend the Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (also known as the JASNA AGM). Every year, hundreds of Jane Austen fans gather in a large hotel and discuss all things Jane Austen, from academic analyses to pop culture phenomena. There are costumes, dancing, lectures, discussions, and it's great fun if you're a literature geek like myself.  

Every year, I buy at least one book from one of the vendors that provide the retail therapy at the convention, usually from the wonderful Jane Austen Books -- if a book exists with any connection to Jane Austen, they probably sell it.  At my very first AGM, in 2009, I purchased Jane Austen and Crime by Susannah Fullerton, which examines how crime relates to Jane Austen's fiction and how it would have affected her personally during her lifetime. True crime and Jane Austen -- what is not to like?

Jane Austen lived from 1775 to 1817, during the Georgian and Regency periods.  Life was pretty brutal back then -- if caught, criminals could get the death penalty for offenses as minor as setting straw on fire or cutting down a tree.  Austen's own aunt was arrested for supposedly shoplifting some lace, and spent months in jail before she was finally acquitted, and Austen herself actually visited her aunt in jail.  Austen's own works are full of crimes, though some are not immediately obvious to the reader.  In this book, Fullerton examines actual crimes of the period and how they relate to the novels.    As a fan of history, Jane Austen, and crime writing, this was a literary triple threat. The book includes sections about crimes against life; crimes against property; crimes of passion (including adultery and elopement); social crimes (like dueling, smuggling, gaming, and poaching); gothic crime (regarding the gothic novels so fascinating to readers of the time period, including Jane Austen herself); and punishment and the law.

This book isn't long, but it did take a while to finish. Sometimes I find that history books are just packed so full of facts that I can only read so much at a time. This book has only 218 pages of text, but it took me about ten days to finish it (and of course I'm also juggling other reads as well).  I did learn lots of interesting facts, including the following:
  • Nearly every book by Jane Austen includes adultery, illegitimate children, fallen women, or an elopement. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet could have sued George Wickham for damages because he'd ruined Lydia's reputation, but ironically, Lydia herself could not.
  • Emma's Harriet Smith commits a crime when she is accosted by gypsies and pleads with them to leave her alone. Theoretically, merely speaking to a gypsy was a hanging offense.  
  • The laws regarding the shooting of game during the time period were horribly skewed to the wealthy and privileged. Essentially, if you didn't own enough property, you couldn't kill a pheasant, but you could sit on a jury and sentence a person to hang for killing a pheasant.
  • Owning a hunting or sporting dog was also reserved for the privileged few who were allowed to hunt.  So, if I had lived in Regency times, it would have been illegal for me to own my Golden Retriever (except they didn't exist back then). Theoretically, I would not have been allowed to own this couch potato:
An extreme close-up of my dog Lucy. On the couch. 
  • Jane Austen's early works are full of murders and crimes. I've read all of her novels multiple times, but I've never read the juvenilia.  I suppose now I need to put this on my birthday wish list:

I'm always looking for a good reason to buy another Penguin Clothbound Classic.

So that's one more book crossed off my TBR Pile Challenge list!  I'm halfway finished and it's only April, so I should have no trouble finishing the list by the end of the year.  How's everyone else doing with the TBR Pile Challenge?  And which other nonfiction books about Jane Austen or the Regency period do you recommend?