Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope

Among the twenty books by Anthony Trollope that I own is Rachel Ray.  It's not one of his most famous books compared to the Barchester series, the Pallisers books, or even The Way We Live Now, which is a shame, because it is mostly delightful, with one quibble.  It is also blessedly short, just about 400 pages, compared to some of his 800 page chunksters.  

Rachel Ray is 18 and lives in Baselhurst with her widowed mother and her sister Dorothy, who is ten years older and also widowed.  Both widows were previously married to clergymen, and Dorothy is very devout and evangelical.  Trouble starts one night when she reports to her mother that she has seen her younger sister doing something scandalous . . . walking alone with a man!!!  Shocking!  

This young man is in fact Luke Rowan, who is a guest of the Tappitt family.  Rowan is the heir to a portion of the local brewery, and came to Baselhurst to try and work out an arrangement with Mr. Tappitt.  Mrs. Tappitt had great hopes that he would marry one of the three unwed Tappitt daughters, who are friends of Rachel.  Rachel was visiting her friend Cherry Tappitt, and was walking home when he overtook her and caused this minor scandal.  

Meanwhile, Mr. Rowan has all kinds of ideas about improving the brewery and the beer.  Mr. Tappitt thinks he is a young upstart, and Mrs. Tappitt is smarting because Luke had the nerve to fall in love with Rachel instead of one of her daughters.  Luke is a little hotheaded, and he Mr. Tappitt can't get along.  Meanwhile, there's a local election which causes the town to start taking sides, partly based on the whole Rowan/Tappitt feud, and poor Rachel is caught in the middle.  The story follows the courtship of Rachel and Luke, and is a social satire about gossip, hypocritical evangelicals, and local politics. 

I mostly enjoyed this book.  The characters are charming and interesting, and Trollope gets in some good digs, especially about the overly pious Dorothy and a suitor who is mostly interested in her money.  The only part of the novel I didn't enjoy was an aspect of the local election -- the current MP is challenged by a local businessman who is -- gasp -- a Jew.  He's not a bad character, but some unpleasant comments are made about him by other characters (mostly his political opponents) which made me uncomfortable.  I'm not sure if Trollope himself was anti-Semitic, or was just trying to make a point about people of this time period, but I really wish it hadn't been included.  But it's otherwise a nice portrait about life in a small town during Victorian period, and a very easy read.  

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

Nana by Emile Zola

Well, I didn't think it could happen, but it did.  Zola has disappointed me, in a very big way.  Nana is the twelfth book by Zola that I've completed, and the tenth in his epic Rougon-Macquart cycle, and this is the one I've liked the least, by far.  It's also the one that took me the longest.  Usually I zip through a Zola novel in a week, sometimes just a couple of days, but this one just dragged for me -- it was more than a month from start to finish, because I just couldn't get into it.

Nana is one of Zola's most famous novels, but for those who are not familiar, it's the eponymous story of a courtesan and sometime actress named Nana who becomes the most talked-about, scandalous woman in Paris.  She's kind of like a cross between Helen of Troy, Madonna and Kim Kardashian.  Men are obsessed by her, and she drives many of her lovers to financial ruin, or even worse.  Nana is an addiction, a succubus -- men are trapped by her spell, and will stop at nothing to satisfy her every whim.

Overall, I found this to be a really sordid, depressing tale.  I've read a dozen novels by Zola so far, and believe me, he is the master of writing about awful people in unpleasant situations.  However, I think this is the first book where I didn't care about a single one of the characters at all.  Usually there's someone whose story both repels and fascinates me enough to keep reading, but this book took me more than a month to finish, I was so disinterested.  Usually I'll finish a Zola book in a few days, normally not more than a week.  Nana just dragged on and on.  I hated everyone, and I thought they all deserved what was coming to them.  (I would have given up, but I kept hoping it would get better, so I finally plowed through it.)

I was also really disappointed by the writing.  Most of the time Zola writes really tight plotlines; this one seemed all over the place, lacking in focus. It started out in a theater, where a new production of a play is about to premiere.  Nana is described as not being able to act or sing, but somehow, her presence is so electrifying, people can't stop watching her.  Then the story shifts to Nana's sideline as a prostitute -- she's still turning tricks on the side, since she can't support herself as an actress.  There are subsequent chapters about Nana's love affair with a count, and how she essentially ruins his life.  The only chapter I actually liked is one where Nana and her entourage attend the races at Longchamps, which was very interesting and well-written (I've had a soft spot for horse racing ever since I read all the Dick Francis mysteries years ago.)  Finally, the last chapter was just wretched.

Another thing that really bothered me was an unpleasant sub-plot about Nana and her love affair with an abusive boyfriend.  It was really painful to read, and it just didn't seem to fit the character.  Even though she's vile, Nana is mostly a strong personality, strong enough to dominate men and bend them to her will, yet this horrible actor slaps her around and she seems to enjoy it.  I'm no expert on women in abusive relationships, but it just didn't make sense to me.  Plus, there are constant references to Nana's genitalia, and how she's using her sexuality to control men -- I just got tired of reading about it.  Zola has written some books that were very shocking for their time, but this one must have been the epitome of the racy French novel.  I got the feeling that Zola was writing some of it just for shock value.

I should really go and research more about the background of this book to get more of the metaphors.  (I usually go back and read the introduction until after I've finished a book, since I hate spoilers.)  I've heard this book is really a scathing satire about the decline of Paris during the time period, but I just don't care enough to find out.  If this were my first experience reading Zola, I don't think I'd ever read another one of his books again, ever.  I still own copies of three other Zola novels -- The Dream, The Debacle, and Money, and I'm really hoping that they're better than this one.

I am counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

Okay, quick survey. . .  what is the worst cover of a book you've read so far in 2014?

And how does it compare to this one:

Honestly, is this not the CHEESIEST book cover you've ever seen????  (Unless, of course, you are a regular reader of paperback romances, or the illustrator of this cover, in which case I apologize in case I've offended you. )

And my next question is this:  I know that book covers will attract readers to books, but have you ever been so put off by a book's cover that you actually refused to read it?  I ask this, because I bought this book more than six years ago after reading rave reviews by some of my favorite bloggers.  However, I could never bring myself to read it because I was too embarrassed.  Seriously!!

I finally decided I'd give it a try the other day -- I honestly wanted something from my TBR shelves that was short, and that was the complete opposite of Moby-Dick, which I had just finished, after six weeks of listening to the audio in the car.  I had also started reading a Zola novel which just wasn't doing anything for me.   

This is the story of Valancy Stirling, who lives somewhere in Canada with her mother and aunt, and is completely cowed and browbeaten by her entire extended family.  At twenty-nine, she is an old maid, and her family will never forget it.  When I  actually started reading it, I still didn't crack my lousy mass-market paperback -- I read the first chapter or so via the e-book version from Project Gutenberg Australia.  

I was pretty much hooked when I read this paragraph in Chapter I:

Aunt Wellington, of whom Valancy stood in abject awe, would tell her about Olive's new chiffon dress and Cecil's last devoted letter. Valancy would have to look as pleased and interested as if the dress and letter had been hers or else Aunt Wellington would be offended. And Valancy had long ago decided that she would rather offend God than Aunt Wellington, because God might forgive her but Aunt Wellington never would.

Things get very interesting when something absolutely life-changing happens to Valancy.  Without telling her family why, she decides to take matters into her own hands and live her life the way she wants, without giving a fig about what other people think.  This completely shocks her family and most of the population of her small town, and the reactions of her family members are pretty hilarious.  I don't want to give too much away, but this part of the book is full of wry observations and some laugh-out loud moments.

This book was written by L. M. Montgomery, the beloved writer of the Anne of Green Gables series.  I discovered Anne fairly late in life -- I never read it as a child because I somehow got it confused with Pollyanna, and I assumed Anne would be a sickly-sweet goody two-shoes.  I never read Heidi either.  Still haven't.  (If there are any Heidi and Pollyanna fans out there, please tell me if I should reconsider). The Blue Castle is Montgomery's only book meant for adults, and it does remind me a bit of what Anne would have been like as a grown-up, though I can't for a minute imagine her as browbeaten as Valancy is in the beginning of the book -- so, really, Valancy is like Anne after she takes charge of her own life.

Anyway, this book is funny and charming, and there's a nice little love story, though the ending is a bit unrealistic.  But it's a fun fast read, just over 200 pages in most editions.  It's a great summer read if you can get past the horrible cover.  Clearly, the publishers never actually read it, because the couple on the front look nothing like Valancy and the love interest.  I only wish I'd bought a later edition with this cover:

or even this one: 

(Also cheesy, but not nearly as bad as the first one.)

Or even this one:

This one's better, but to be fair, Valancy's mother and aunt would faint dead away before they let her near a window with this much skin showing.  And don't get me started on the makeup -- this book was published in 1926.   

Anyway -- what books repelled you before you even opened the covers?  And has anyone actually read Pollyanna and liked her, or does she make your teeth ache?  

Friday, August 8, 2014

Classics Club Spin VII

Oh, I am such a pushover when it comes to the Classics Club Spin!  If you're not familiar with it, participants in the Classics Club post a list of 20 books from their to-read list.  Next Monday, a random number will be assigned which determines the reading choice.  The blogger then reads and posts about that book on October 6.  Last time I utterly failed -- I gave up on reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame in favor of joining a Moby-Dick readalong.  This time I'm going to try harder -- I've enjoyed nearly all of my Spin selections so far and it really does inspire me to cross those books off my TBR list!

I've read more than 40 of the 75 books on my original list.  I'm trying to weigh the list mostly with books from my own shelves.  Here are my 20:

Five Books I Keep Putting Off:

1.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
2.  Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
3.  Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
4.  I, Claudius by Robert Graves
5.  The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Five Books I Really Want To Read:

6.  Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
7.  Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
8.  The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
9.  Ayala's Angel by Anthony Trollope
10.  Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck

Five Really Long Books:

11.  No Name by Wilkie Collins
12.  Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
13.  A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell
14.  Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
15.  New Grub Street by George Gissing

Five Books I'll Have to Check Out From the Library:

16.  Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
17.  One of Ours by Willa Cather
18.  The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
19.  The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
20.  The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason

So, next Monday I'll find out what the Classics Spin has selected for my next read.  Bloggers, which do you recommend from my list?  And what's going on your Classics Spin list??

Updated:  The Classics Spin Number was 17.  So I'll be reading One of Ours by Willa Cather.  I'm very happy about the selection!!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Moby-Dick: Final Thoughts

So, it's done.  I'm finished.  I've completed Moby-Dick -- that is, if you count listening to an audiobook the same as reading a book.  To be completely honest, I would say I read about 30% in combination of print and online, and the other 70% via audio.

Anyway, this book really was not what I expected at all.  I really thought there would be more action, more adventure.  I didn't expect non-stop action like Treasure Island or even The Three Musketeers, but I was expecting a little more adventure, for a whaling novel.  There was much more description about whales, and whaling, and butchering whales than I ever expected.

Maybe I would have liked it more if I owned this beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic!

Overall, I really wish I understood this book better.  Listening to the audiobook certainly made it easier in some ways, especially because I could absorb a little at a time, but sometimes I felt like I was losing the narrative thread (such that it was) since I only listened to a few pages a day.  After a break, I want to read Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick to see if that sheds some more light.  Parts of it were funny, and I really liked Queequeg -- I wish the book had had more about him.  I'm really not even sure what happened to him, though I have my suspicions.  I admired the writing, I appreciate the risks that Melville took, but I'm not sure that I can say I actually liked it.   And now I really want to go on an ocean voyage -- I'd love to go to Alaska now and do some whale watching! 

I'm glad I finished it, and I'm counting Moby-Dick as my American Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson

About one million British men were killed during WWI -- and another 2 million wounded, almost 35% of their total forces.  A disproportionately large percentage of these men were officers.  This "lost generation" was devastating, not only because of the lives lost and ruined.  After the war, approximately 2 million women were left single, with no prospects for husbands or children.  Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson is the story of how those women coped during an era when the ultimate goal of most women was to get married and have a family.

This book is fairly short, but packed with information.  It must have been absolutely terrible -- for some women, especially in the upper classes, the ratio of available women to men was something like ten to one.  A higher proportion of upper-class men enlisted and were killed in the war, and most upper-class women couldn't or wouldn't marry down the social scale.  Many of them had few prospects, other than becoming teachers and governesses, and maiden aunts, during a time when being a spinster was the ultimate shame.

Nicholson's book describes a variety of women, some who became famous, like writer Vita Sackville-West and archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson.  Some of the women in the book were able to use this terrible situation to break down barriers and pursue other careers and dreams, such as becoming doctors, lawyers, and businesswomen.  Though it's probably a fraction of many of the women who were left single and childless, it's a very interesting look at how the era and their situation contributed to the changing role of women in the early part of the century.  

This book was very interesting and well-written, and I especially like how the author organized the works mentioned at the end of the book -- she quoted from so many novels and biographies, it was nice to have them organized so I can go back and find them again easily (and add them to my to-read list!)

I highly recommend this book, especially if you're interested in social history and about the aftermath of WWI.  It's particularly timely because of the upcoming anniversary of the Great War.  And another book I can check off my 2015 TBR Pile list! 

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?