Monday, July 27, 2015

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo is one of those really long classics that's been on my to-read list forever. I'd always been intimidated by the sheer length of it -- it's more than 1200 pages long! Originally, I had planned to read something by Zola for Paris in July, but then a couple of months ago I started listening to an audiobook called The Black Count by Tom Reiss, a biography of Alexandre Dumas' father, Alex Dumas. That story is pretty amazing. Alex Dumas was born the illegitimate son of a nobleman and a Caribbean slave yet became a General in the French Army. Dumas's father inspired his swashbuckling tales, and I couldn't help wishing I'd actually gotten around to read The Count of Monte Cristo and was worried about spoilers. So, I stopped listening to the audio and checked out Monte Cristo instead -- all 37 discs of the audiobook! It took me more than a month, but I finally finished it and I'm counting it as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge

I'm sure most people already know the set-up of the story, so here's the short version: young Edmond Dantes, a French sailor, spends fourteen years imprisoned in the infamous Chateau d'If after being unjustly accused of treason. His three anonymous accusers are jealous of him for various reasons, and unfortunately, the prosecutor covers up the truth to hide his dirty little secret. Poor Edmond is the victim and they essentially lock him up and throw away the key. Naturally, he is despondent, and after four years of solitary confinement, he's ready to end his own life when he receives an unexpected visitor -- another prisoner accidentally tunnels into Edmond's cell.  

This mysterious prisoner is Abbe Faria, an Italian priest who becomes Edmond's friend, mentor, and father figure. Over the next ten years, he teaches Edmond languages and sciences and gives Edmond hope. He also gives Edmond the means to plot the perfect revenge on the four men who have ruined Edmond's life. It takes years, but Edmond eventually gets justice. 

This book is one of those great epic tales -- it has daring escapes, murders, duels, daring escapes, romance, villains, buried treasure, vengeance, and more. There are a lot of characters (which I sometimes confused -- why are two of the main characters named Morrel and Morcerf? Maybe I missed something in translation). I was really impressed by how Dumas kept my interest in such a long and complicated story. I had a few quibbles with some of the amazing coincidences, but that's really just a product of its time. I was also a little bothered at the end with some of the fallout from Edmond's vengeance. Yes, he deserved justice, but at what price? 

The Count of Monte Cristo has been adapted and abridged many times, but it's really worth taking the time to read (or listen to) the original version. I listened to a lot of it on audio but also read parts of it in the excellent Penguin translation. The audiobook was good -- I will listen to pretty much anything narrated by John Lee. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this and I definitely want to read more books by Dumas. The Man in the Iron Mask is still on my Classics Club list, and I think I might also have the courage now to tackle another whopping French epic, Les Miserables, though I think I'll put it off for next summer. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

On Very Long Books

I'm beginning to feel like it's been to long since I actually wrote a book review -- summer is generally the time when I get a lot of reading done, but lately, I've been obsessed with really long books. Specifically, The Count of Monte Cristo and the Outlander series.

Monte Cristo, unabridged, is more than 1,200 pages long, so it definitely qualifies as one of the longest books I've ever read (disclosure: I am also listening to it on audio on my commute to work, which is only 15 minutes each way). Each of the Outlander books have page counts of more than 800 pages, probably closer to 900 -- and the series gets longer as it progresses.  So far, I've read about 900 pages of Monte Cristo and have now read half of the Outlanders. This is definitely going to impact my end-of-year book count -- I normally shoot for around 100 books, but I don't even think I'll hit 90 if I continue with all the doorstoppers (I still have half of Trollope's Pallisers series on the horizon.

So it made me think about the other really long books I've enjoyed -- there's something just so wonderful about getting really engrossed in a long novel or series, and knowing that you get to settle in with these characters and stories for a good long time. As I look through my Goodreads list of my favorite long books, I noticed a lot of them are historicals and fantasy novels -- makes sense when you think of all the world-building they pack in. And of course there are quite a few Victorians! Here are some of my favorite really long books:

1.  Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. (1013 pages). I first read this when I was in the sixth grade, and I've reread it many times. The underlying racism does make me uncomfortable, but I'll always love Scarlett O'Hara and her spunk. I wouldn't want to be her friend, but she's one tough chick.

2.  Bleak House by Charles Dickens. (989 pages). By far my favorite of all of Dickens' works -- it has everything! Mystery, satire, humor, a great love story -- and one of the first literary detectives in the English language, the wonderful Inspector Bucket. There's also a great miniseries adapted by the BBC in 2005.

3.  The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. The first book by Trollope that I ever read, and still one of my favorites. It's a great satire about politics and a pyramid scheme (amazingly timely when I read it in 2009) -- great drama, great characters. It's more than 780 pages and 100 chapters, and I could hardly stop reading it. I would seriously sneak away to read just one more chapter.

4. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. A charming, delightful Victorian romance novel about two families. Very Jane Austen-esque without being a complete ripoff.

5.  Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. (611 pages). One of the first classics I ever read for pleasure. I reread it a couple of years ago and loved it just as much the second time around.

6.  The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt. Great story about artistic families around the turn of the century in England. It's long with lots of plot and fascinating characters, just the thing for a lazy summer read.

7.  Middlemarch by George Eliot. Big and sprawling with a long list of characters living in a provincial town in 1830s England. Starts out a little dry but well worth sticking with the entire 800 pages.

8. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Great neo-Victorian about a pickpocket who gets involved in long con to fleece an heiress out of her inheritance. I think Sarah Waters is one of the best writers of historical fiction around, and this book includes one of the best plot twists I've ever read.

9. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (838 pages). Another neo-Victorian, about a prostitute named Sugar and her relationship with a perfume magnate.

10. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. (782 pages). Imagine if Jane Austen and Charles Dickens got together and wrote their own version of Harry Potter. The wonderful BBC TV adaptation is airing now in the U.S. If you're scared by the length, maybe watching it on TV will get you hooked. I loved every page of it!

What are your favorite long books to read during the summer months? And what are the longest books you've ever read?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Back to the Classics Mid-Year Giveaway: The Winner!

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

Cat from Tell Me A Story!!!

Congratulations, Cat, you've won your choice of any Penguin Clothbound Classic valued under $20 (US). I've sent you an email notifying you of your prize.

And thanks to everyone else who entered the giveaway, and to everyone who's signed up for the 2015 Back to the Classics Challenge! Keep reading those classics!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

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

2015 is halfway over! How's everyone doing with the Back to the Classics Challenge?

I'm pleased to report that I've already finished eight of of the twelve categories, and I'm making good progress on #9!  Here's what I've read so far:
  • 19th Century Classic: Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope
  • Classic by a Woman Author: Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  • Very Long Classic: The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
  • Classic Novella: Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham
  • Classic With a Name in the Title: Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope
  • Humorous or Satirical Classic: Frozen Assets by P. G. Wodehouse
  • Forgotten Classic: The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley
  • Children's Classic: Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers
I think my favorites were Lady Anna  and Mary Poppins, and of course Wodehouse is always a hoot. I did find Pickwick to be a bit of a slog, but I mostly listened to the audiobook. I'm also about a third of the way through my Classic in Translation, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, just in time for Paris in July!

I'm so pleased with my progress. And how is everyone else doing? As a little incentive, I'm having a giveaway! Just like last year, 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:

Updated: Since it is a holiday weekend here in the U.S., the deadline has been extended to July 10. 

1.  To enter, you must already have been signed up for the challenge (sorry, the cutoff date was back in March.) If you have not already on the list, YOU ARE NOT ELIGIBLE.

2.  Challenge participants must have already linked at least one review to one of the twelve categories in the 2015 Back to the Classics Challenge. If you've signed up but haven't posted any reviews, the cutoff date to post is July 10. 

3.  Any new links to the Challenge must follow the original parameters for the Challenge.

4.  Challenge participants must leave a comment below, letting me know which book they've most enjoyed reading for the challenge. If you like, you can also tell me which Penguin Clothbound Classic you would choose if you won (you can change your mind if you're the winner). Include an link or an email address so I can let you know if you've won. 

5. One lucky winner, drawn at random, will receive his or her choice of Penguin Clothbound Classic valued up to $20 (US) from either OR The Book Depository. The winner must live in a country where they can receive delivery from or The Book Depository. If you're not sure, click here to see if The Book Depository delivers to your country. 

6.  Comments and links must be posted no later than July 10, 2015 at 11:59 p.m., U.S. Central Standard Time. On July 11, 2015, I'll post the name of the winner. 

7.  The winner must contact me with a good address by July 16, 2015, at 11:59 p.m., or I'll choose another winner. 

So what are you waiting for?  Post some reviews, tell me which books you liked best, and let me know which Penguin Classic you'd pick if you won! 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Paris in July 2015

It's almost time for Paris in July 2015!! If you're not familiar, it's an annual event hosted by Thyme for Tea. Bloggers are encouraged to explore all things French, including books, movies, food, music, etc. I already have a list of French Classics from my TBR Shelves (can count any of these as my Book in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge):

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (I'll probably combine this with an audiobook version since it's so long)
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
La Debacle by Emile Zola
The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola

Books set in France:

Julius by Daphne Du Maurier
The Glassblowers by Daphne du Maurier

Nonfiction books about France:

Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir (from my TBR Pile Challenge list)
The Black Count by Tom Reiss
The Gastronomical Me by M. F. K. Fisher (can count this as a nonfiction classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge)

and possibly A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse -- my daughter just read this and loved it.

So who else is signing up for Paris in July 2015? What are you planning to read?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Victorian Celebration 2015

I've already read two Victorian novels so far this summer . . . how many more can I finish? Allie from A Literary Odyssey is hosting another Victorian Celebration this summer, so signing up was a no-brainer for me. Here are just a few of the Victorian novels on my TBR shelves:

Red Pottage by Mary Chomoldely
No Name by Wilkie Collins
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden
Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
New Grub Street by George Gissing
A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy
Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome
The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley
At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald
Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau

. . . plus about a fifteen books by Anthony Trollope. Seriously.

Right now, I'm leaning toward Thomas Hardy since I loved Far From the Madding Crowd; also, Return of the Native is on my Classics Club list, though I don't own a copy, so I've been putting it off. Allie is also allowing books from non-British authors, so I may read some Zola or Victor Hugo, which also counts for Paris in July.

Anyone else signing up for the Victorian Celebration? What are you planning to read? Have you read any of the books on my list?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Well, it took a movie adaptation, but I think I am finally converted to liking Thomas Hardy. I had read Tess of the D'Urbervilles several years ago, which I thought dragged on forever, and The Mayor of Casterbridge later, which was better, but I didn't love it. However, with Far From the Madding Crowd I'm beginning to see the appeal of Hardy.

If you don't know the story, here's a brief setup. Independent and beautiful, but poor, Bathsheba Everdene first draws the attentions of sheep farmer Gabriel Oak. She rejects his proposal, and after a reversal of fortunes, she ends up giving him a job as a shepherd at the farm she has just inherited. Bathsheba has also caught the attentions of a wealthy older farmer, Mr. Boldwood, whom she also rejects. Bathsheba doesn't think she can be tamed by any man and wants to run the farm on her own. Both Oak and Boldwood wait patiently, loving her from afar, until the dashing bad-boy Sergeant Troy arrives and turns Bathsheba's head, and surprise! -- things do not end well for some of the characters. 

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. It was quite an easy and straightforward read, and I really liked the character of Gabriel Oak. Bathsheba was a little frustrating at times, but I give Hardy credit for creating a strong, complex female character. It's a great story, with great writing and great characters. I can definitely see that Hardy was also a poet:

It was now early spring—the time of going to grass with the sheep, when they have the first feed of the meadows, before these are laid up for mowing. The wind, which had been blowing east for several weeks, had veered to the southward, and the middle of spring had come abruptly—almost without a beginning. It was that period in the vernal quarter when we may suppose the Dryads to be waking for the season. The vegetable world begins to move and swell and the saps to rise, till in the completest silence of lone gardens and trackless plantations, where everything seems helpless and still after the bond and slavery of frost, there are bustlings, strainings, united thrusts, and pulls-all-together, in comparison with which the powerful tugs of cranes and pulleys in a noisy city are but pigmy efforts. (Chapter XVIII). 

Having now read most of Dickens and an awful lot of Trollope, I can see how different both of them are from Hardy. Hardy's books are more pastoral and poetic, Dickens' works have more gritty characters and settings, with social commentary and melodrama, and Trollope's books are usually middle and upper-class characters, with some sly satire. Hardy also makes a lot of insightful observations. Here's what he has to say about Bathsheba:

When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who never had any strength to throw away. One source of her inadequacy is the novelty of the occasion. She has never had practice in making the best of such a condition. Weakness is doubly weak by being new.  (Chapter XXIX)

Cary Mulligan as Bathsheba and Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak. 

I confess, I probably would not have attempted this book if I had not seen the movie adaptation first -- I usually prefer to read the book first, but my husband surprised me by taking me to a movie with period costumes so I could hardly refuse. I now have the courage to tackle more Hardy. I have two of his books on my TBR shelves, A Pair of Blue Eyes and Under the Greenwood Tree; also, The Return of the Native is on my Classics Club list. 

Bloggers, how do you like Thomas Hardy? Has anyone else seen the movie? And which book by Hardy should I read next? 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mary Barton was the first novel published by Elizabeth Gaskell, author of one of my very favorite books, Wives and Daughters. I'd had it on the TBR shelves for several years, and now that I'm getting down to the final books on my Classics Club list, I thought it was time to give it a try. (This also counts for the Reading England Challenge.)

Set mostly in Manchester around 1840, Mary Barton is the story of two working-class families, the Bartons and the Wilsons. Barton and Wilson both work for the mills. Mr. Barton has a pregnant wife, a daughter Mary, aged about 13. Mr. Wilson has small twin sons, probably toddlers, and an older son, Jem, who's about 18. Mrs. Wilson has a disability from an accident she suffered before she was married. 

Mrs. Barton is grieving because her sister, Esther, has run off to be with a man, and they fear the worst. Soon after, tragedy strikes both families; Mr. Barton is depressed and becomes more and more involved with labor unions and the Chartist movement. 

Meanwhile, Mary has grown into a beautiful young woman, apprenticed at a dressmaker. Jem becomes a skilled worker, working with the factory machines. He's in love with Mary but her head's been turned by the attentions of Harry Carson, the mill owner. Times are bad at the mills, with job cuts at the worst possible time. Resentment between the workers and the mill owners comes to a head just as Mary's two lovers have a confrontation. After another tragedy, Mary is caught up in the middle of all this, and her loyalties are tested.

I liked this book, but it doesn't have nearly the charm or the characters of Wives and DaughtersNorth and South, or even the quirky Cranford. I found the characters rather one-dimensional, especially Mary, and the story itself is on the preachy side. It's also a little melodramatic and predictable. Still, it's interesting to read one of her early works. Mary Barton shows glimmers of  Elizabeth Gaskell's great talent as a writer. I still have Sylvia's Lovers on the TBR shelves, plus some of her Gothic tales. Has anyone read either of those?

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

I think the best thing about Adam's TBR Pile Challenge is that it inspires me to read those books that have been hanging around the bookshelves for far too long -- it's just wonderful to find treasures that I've been ignoring for far too long. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is exactly that -- one of those books that I really regret putting off for so long.

This award winning book is the story of the clash of cultures between the immigrant Hmong refugee community in Merced, California, and the doctors treating a young Hmong girl, Lia Lee, who showed symptoms of severe epilepsy starting at three months of age. She was first diagnosed in 1981. Her parents were refugees from Laos who resettled in California after the Vietnam war. The Hmong people are an ethnic minority living who are originally from the mountainous region of Southeast Asia, including China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, but they are fiercely independent and have never assimilated into any of those national cultures. Many Hmong people fought secretly for the CIA during the Vietnam War and for the Laotian Civil War in the 1970s. After fleeing to Thailand, the Lee family eventually settled in Merced, about two hours west of San Francisco, where there is a large population of Hmong refugees and their families. 

The book traces the cultural clash between Lia's family and their beliefs in traditional Hmong medicine and the American hospitals and staff, but it's also much more than that. There's a lot of background about the Hmong people and the wars in Southeast Asia, and most of the book is really about the cultural differences and how difficult it is for immigrants to adapt. It also makes a serious point about medical practitioners and cultural sensitivity. After I finished the novel, I went online to read more about Ms. Fadiman, and I found that this book is now required reading at Yale Medical school, and has had a strong influence in how medical professionals are now interacting with immigrant groups.

I found this book to be absolutely fascinating, extremely well-written and organized -- it's definitely one of my top reads of the year. I could hardly put it down and read it in just a few days, and I've been recommending it over and over to co-workers and library patrons. It would be a great selection for my non-fiction book group at the library, but unfortunately our system doesn't have enough copies -- maybe I'll have to persuade them to order some more so that we can put it on our reading list for next year. 

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 Michelle Dockery 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 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.