Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bleak House Readalong, Week 6

Richard Carston, train wreck (and Esther, not a train wreck)
Well, I'm up to week 6 of Bleak House and it is really getting good.  I did wonder if I just loved the book because of the fabulous BBC adaptation, which I love.  Happily, the book is even more wonderful than the miniseries.

I'm more than halfway through the book, and there have been all kinds of plot developments -- Richard Carston is getting deeper and deeper into trouble, and a sleazy lawyer named Vholes has gotten his hooks into him, courtesy of Mr. Skimpole.  What a pair!  Richard is such a train wreck!!  Richard refuses to give up hope that his cut of the Jarndyce fortune is just around the corner, despite the fact that generations of people have lived and died without seeing a penny, including a distant relative that blew his brains out in despair over it.

I've got to hand it to Dickens, once again for creating such perfectly named characters.   Vholes -- is there any doubt that this guy is bad news?  Is he a vulture, a vampire, or a rodent (or should I say a rhodent?)??  This does not bode well for Richard, or for Ada, whose fortune is tied with his, especially now that she has pledged her undying love to him.  Girl needs a sassy gay friend, like, right now!!

Meanwhile, things are not looking good for either Sargent George, who is also in trouble courtesy of Tulkinghorn and Smallweed.  Like Richard, they're putting the screws on him financially because they want proof of the late Captain Hawdon's writing.  And in related news, Mr. Guppy has managed to trace Esther's family to Lady Dedlock, and Tulkinghorn knows something is up.

Esther Summerson, our heroine
And by the way, did I mention Esther has managed to avoid dying of smallpox?  Of course there was never any real danger of her death, as she narrates half the book.  That would be a major plot development, if the narrator died!  We'd have to switch to suddenly having the omniscient narrator take over.

Esther is actually starting to grow on me as a character.  She's not as sickly sweet as I imagined before.  She's really nice to Caddy Turveydrop (nee Jellyby) and to Charlie, her new maid.  Though, as I've mentioned, I really don't see why she adores Ada so much.  Girl needs some serious character development.

One thing about Esther and Ada has really occurred to me -- I think the real love story in this book might be Esther and Ada.  I don't mean in a sexual way -- I once read that the real love story in Sense and Sensibility is between the two Dashwood sisters (though their characters are far better defined, in my humble opinion).  It just reminds me of that, how they adore each other so much.  The reader doesn't really know anything about Ada's history, just that she's also an orphan and a ward of the court regarding Jarndyce.  Maybe the reason she and Esther are so close is that they're both orphans and this is the closest they've ever had to a loving family, like sisters.  Lord knows Esther's godmother treated her like dirt her entire life -- it seems like living at Bleak House has been the happiest her life has ever been, so that's sort of understandable.

Anyway -- the story is really getting good, and some major plot developments are about to happen.  Stay tuned!!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is kind of a weird book.  Not much happens, and a few days after finishing it, I'm not even sure how it ended.  I was kind of hoping I'd be able to count this as a mystery for the RIP Challenge, but I'm not even sure if this could be considered a mystery or a thriller.

I decided to read this book after I was talking to Amanda about going to see the movie adaptation.  (If you don't know Amanda, she's the author of the Zen Leaf, and is the Queen of Dystopian Fiction.) Of course since we are in the Flyover Zone, the movie  doesn't open here until October 1.  Sigh.  But I digress.  Amanda strongly recommended that I read the book first and avoid the trailer like the plague, since it basically gives away the whole plot.  But I realized after finishing this book, that there really is very little plot.  There are only three main characters, and if I try to describe the plot, I'll pretty much give away the whole thing.  Like the trailer.

I'll try to give some background without spoiling it too much.  It's set in the 1990s in Britain, and it's told in the first person by a young woman named Kathy who is a Carer.  For what, or for whom?  It's mysterious, but eventually revealed, though I don't want to give it away.  Most of the action in this book is told in flashback about Kathy and two of her friends, Ruth and Tommy, growing up at a special boarding school called Hailsham, which I keep mentally confusing with Miss Havisham from Great Expectations.  Perhaps this is not a coincidence?

These youths have spent their whole lives at this school, because they are being prepared for Something Special.  Unfortunately, when I put the book on hold at the library, I happened to glance at the bottom of the screen and the book's biggest secret was inadvertently revealed by the library's subject headings (which is a new phenomenon for fiction; you won't find it nearly as often with older books).  Curse you, Library of Congress subject headings!  And this is not the first book the OPAC has spoiled for me.  I guess I need to be more careful about my library catalog surfing.

Well, these secrets are revealed, of course, but there isn't nearly as much buildup or tension as I would have expected.  This is the second book I've read by Ishiguro, and though the subject matter is quite different than in The Remains of the Day, they are similar in that they are both Literary Fiction in Which Not Much Happens.   A lot of the book's action is consumed with the interaction between Kathy and her frenemy Ruth, such as "who said what to whom??" and "how they reacted" and "what does it mean???"  I found the minutia of this exhausting, like high school, but three times worse.  I suppose that's possible, since these youngsters have lived their entire lives at this school and that's all they know.  It was still interesting, but I was hoping for a little something more.  And I still can't remember the ending.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

The Cookbook Collector is described by the publisher as a "modern take on Jane Austen."  Le sigh.  As I have mentioned in previous postings, I am not a huge fan of authors borrowing plots and characters from classic lit.  (Or contemporary lit, for that matter, but I don't see it much due to copyrights).  In fact, I probably would have avoided The Cookbook Collector like the plague, except that A) the title includes the word cookbook, which always makes me perk up my ears since I adore food fiction; and B) -- and this is the real shocker -- my husband mentioned that he wanted to read it.


My husband is a wonderful person and a loving and supportive spouse, but contemporary lit is not his cup of tea.  Apparently he was listening to a review on NPR that compared it to Dostoevsky.  Well!!!  I marched right over to the computer and put my name on the library's hold list.  Sadly, this book bears little resemblance to Jane Austen; I haven't actually read Dostoevsky (he's on my to-read list, I swear), but I'm guessing not so much like his writing either.  Not that it's a bad book, but if you're looking for Jane Austen's trademark wit, you're out of luck.

Note:  if you have not read Sense and Sensibility, there may be spoilers below.  If you have read it, then there may be spoilers for The Cookbook Collector.   

To her credit, Ms. Goodman doesn't really stick that closely to a Jane Austen plot.  The two main characters are very loosely based on the Dashwood sisters from Sense and Sensibility, but just in that the older sister, Emily, is practical, like Elinor, and younger sister Jess is emotional and passionate like Marianne.  That's pretty much it.  Well,  Jess does have an older man who is attracted to her, and she does have an unhappy relationship with a young environmentalist, but it's really very little like the romance between Willoughby and Marianne like in S&S.  Jess, a graduate student, has a part-time job working for a rare book dealer, George.  The title of the book comes from an appraisal job George and Jess are working on, a collection left to a slightly eccentric woman by her even more eccentric uncle, who has a basically priceless collection of old and valuable cookbooks.  As Jess begins to explore and research the amazing collection, she discovers deeper feelings for George, and we all know how their story ends.

The Emily story was much more disappointing.  I suppose I would have liked it more if I hadn't expected it to be remotely related to Sense & Sensibility, which it really isn't, just that Emily is level-headed and practical like Elinor.  She's a dot-com millionaire!  How is this related to Jane Austen???

Seriously, the whole idea of a modern update of Jane Austen is really a stretch for me.  One of the dominant themes in every one of Austen's works is that women had to marry well because they had no other choices, and that just doesn't apply any more, at least not in Western culture.  Now, if you moved the action to the Middle East, I would probably find it much more believable.  Back in Regency times, if a woman of Jane Austen's class didn't have a dowry and couldn't find a rich husband, she was faced with few choices: marrying beneath her; becoming a governess; or becoming a spinster dependent upon her family's charity.  Nowadays women can pull themselves up by their high-heeled Manolo bootstraps and be pretty much anything they want, despite the glass ceiling.

This book also has a bunch of side stories about the dot-com bubble, backstabbing corporate politics; September 11 (again, not a spoiler if you notice that this book is set in the late 1990s); Judaism; long-lost relatives and family identity.  I really wish this book had focused more on the cookbook collector plot, since to me it was the most interesting part of the book -- not just the food-related aspects, but the relationship between Jess and George.  Of course, I also have a library degree, so I found the research into the rare books fascinating;  it's making me contemplate a return to school for classes in preservation and rare-book handling.  In general, I just think there was just too much going on, and not really Austenish at all. If this book hadn't been described that way, I probably would have liked it a lot more.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bleak House Readalong, Weeks 3 through 5

I apologize for the combined posts, but life gets in the way of blogging and reading sometimes.  Not that my life has any Dickensian plot twists, but there it is.   Therefore, I have combined my Bleak House comments for the past three weeks.   We've moved along several hundred pages, and a summary could go on and on.  The plot is really moving along now, and several of the plot threads are starting to intertwine.  Or this could just be considered unbelievable coincidences, but that's Dickens for you.  Somehow, all the characters that have been set up have to have a purpose.

Anyway, the plot with Lady Dedlock has begun to thicken -- Mr. Tulkinghorn is suspicious.  He's conspiring with a nasty character, Mr. Smallweed, to do some dastardly deed.  Mr. Guppy is also involved -- he's convinced he can find evidence that his beloved Esther is somehow connected to Jarndyce, and believes if he can find proof she may become more favorable toward him.

Richard Carston has attempted and abandoned both medical and legal studies.  He thought by studying the law he'd get a jump on the Jarndyce case, but it just wasn't his thing.  After a stern talking-to by his cousin John, he's bought a commission and has joined an Irish regiment.  John Jarndyce tried to persuade he and Ada to break off their engagment, since Richard will be far, far, away, and because he's not convinced Richard will make a go of this career either.  This has caused an estrangement between them.  My immediate reaction to this  is that Richard Carson needs a smack in the head.  Or at least a Sassy Gay Friend.  Or, maybe his cousin/fiance Ada Clare needs a Sassy Gay Friend, because she is putting up with his waffling and still loves him.  Seriously, if Richard was a real person here and now in the 21st century, he'd be a perpetual student like that guy in Wisconsin who was in his sixteenth year at college without graduating, or living in his parents' basement or garage at age 24, playing video games all night and not getting a job.  Grow up, Richard!!

We've also met some more key characters, particularly Mr. George, a former soldier who's running a shooting and training gallery.  Richard is training as a soldier at his place, but George is having financial troubles, and this brings in nasty Mr. Smallweed, a moneylender that makes me want to boo and hiss every time he appears.  Smallweed is also involved with Tulkinghorn, the evil lawyer, so we know he's bad news.

I also wanted to mention another of Dickens' devices, the catchphrase.  A lot of his characters have their own little catchphrases.  Bleak House is particularly riddled with them.  Apparently, it's because there are so many characters, and the story was stretched out for so long, it helped the readers to remember who was who in each installment.  Mr. Jarndyce says, "The wind is in the east!" whenever something's bothering him; Mr. Skimpole is "a child, a mere child"; Mr. Smallweed keeps demanding that people shake him up; Mr. Snagsby, the hapless law stationer, always says, "not to put to fine a point upon it," and so on and so forth.  Even Esther has a bit of a catchphrase, since Richard and Mr. Jarndyce have nicknamed her Dame Durden.  I couldn't figure out the reference so I finally had to Google it -- Dame Durden is from a traditional English song about a housewife, sort of like Old Mother Hubbard.

Nevertheless, I really enjoy the catchphrases (well, except for Smallweed, but he's so obnoxious and nasty I wish I could jump into the book and throttle him), though I know some readers might find them irritating.   It does help to keep everyone straight.  There are more than 40 principal characters in Bleak House -- I'm halfway through the book now and I know there are a couple of characters that still haven't been introduced!  I'm really enjoying it and will try to post more faithfully. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein

I've been trying to work my way though the list of Persephone publications.  There are so many great books to choose from, but it's especially challenging because so few of them are readily available here in the U.S.  Of course you can get them from The Book Depository (they ship free worldwide!)  but honestly, if I had to buy all the Persephones I wanted, it would cost me about $1000.  Tempting, but I could also use that much money for a trip to England -- after my plane fare, I'd have just enough for a plate of fish and chips and a pint.

I've been trying to use Interlibrary Loan whenever possible, and I was able to get my hands on a copy of The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein, a British woman who emigrated to South Africa.   (Actually, it wasn't the Persephone edition pictured, but that was the nicest image I could find online).  This book is not like any of the other Persephones I read or bought so far.  It's a very serious non-fiction account of how Bernstein's husband Rusty was arrested in 1963 in Rivonia, South Africa, along with 19 other anti-apartheid activists, including Nelson Mandela.  The book describes Rusty Bernstein's house arrest before he was arrested at Rivonia, jailed without charge for 90 days under horrific conditions, and then the subsequent trial.  Eventually, Bernstein was acquitted, though every other defendant got life in prison, including Mandela, who served 27 years in prison.

This book started out great, very tension filled, almost like a thriller.  The Bernsteins are under strict rules due to the house arrest -- Rusty can be out of the house from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. but must report daily to the police station between 12 and 2.  Every day his wife and family are terribly tense if he's not home by 6, because they fear he's been arrested and will never return.  Even when he's home, they're constantly watched, spied upon, their house is bugged.  The police can raid the house at any time, day or night.  Hilda, a journalist, is banned from publishing in South Africa, so she can only publish articles abroad, and Rusty's architecture business is struggling since he must work from home and clients and suppliers can't come to the house, since he isn't allowed visitors.   It's like being in a self-supported prison.  It's especially hard on their four children, ages eight to 19.  But the Bernsteins are so committed to ending apartheid that they quietly continue their political work.

Of course, the worst happens.  Rusty is at a political meeting in Rivonia, which is of course illegal, and the meeting is raided and everyone there is arrested.  By South African law, political prisoners can be held for 90 days without charge.  Rusty, like the rest of the prisoners, is in solitary confinement, with no books or papers and not much food.  He's let out of his tiny cell for only an hour a day.  The black prisoners have it even worse.   Visits with his wife are hard to get and very short.  The police are horrible and uncooperative.

After months of this treatment, the Rivonia trial begins miles away in Pretoria, and it is a complete joke.  Everything I know about law is from watching television, and even I can see from the description that it is a complete travesty of justice.  I know our American legal system is far from perfect, but what happened during the Rivonia trail was such a mockery of justice I had to keep putting the book down.  This book is well written, but I was so outraged by what was happening I kept wanting to throw the book across the room.  It's only about 300 pages but it took much longer to finish than I expected just because so angry at what I was reading.  A lot of political activists in South Africa were forced to flee the country, and I honestly can't blame them after reading what the Bernsteins were going through.  I don't know if I could have had the strength to stay and fight as long as they did.  It's really uplifting and encouraging to know that there were white people who fought against apartheid, but this was a tough read.  I highly recommend it if you're interested in Africa and true stories, but my next read is going to have be a lot lighter.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Blogiversary Giveaway Winner

And we have a winner!!

The person randomly chosen from all entries was. . . . Lydia from The Lost Entwife!!  She will receive a copy of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (unless she changes her mind and chooses something else instead).  Congratulations Lydia!

I had 39 people enter the drawing, which I thought was pretty exciting.  Just for fun I decided to see which book choices were most popular.  I tallied up all the commenter's choices, and the books that were most popular were Three Men in a Boat,  Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, and Fingersmith, closely followed by When You Reach Me.  All of these are great books.  I'm very pleased to be sharing some of my favorites around the blogosphere.  And now I have lots of new blogs to start exploring.  Thanks for entering my drawing!

The Old Wives Tale: A Forgotten Treasure for BBAW

Sorry for the late posting, but I have a book I really want to share:  The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett.  Okay, how many of you have heard of this book?

(crickets chirping)

See, I was right.  I'd never heard of it either, and then a few years ago I decided to try and read all the Modern Library Top 100 books (which is a misleading title:  it's actually the Top 100 Books of the 20th Century. Though it was selected in 1990s.  Go figure).   Anyway, this book made the list at #87 (above Call of the Wild and Midnight's Children!) and I was poking around the library one day before a Christmas trip and, on a whim, I decided to take it along.

I was so pleasantly surprised, it was wonderful!  Published in 1908, it spans 70 years from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s in England and France.  It's the story of two sisters, Sophie and Constance, who are raised in an industrial town in the north.  (Bennett wrote other books in his fictional Five Towns, which are based on the Pottery towns near Stoke-on-Trent).  Their mother owns a draper's shop, and the story follows the very different lives of the two sisters from their youth through old age.

I expected this to be a difficult Victorian-style read, but it wasn't, not in the least.  It was quick and absorbing, with none of the flowery language or convoluted plots I was anticipating.  I suppose it would be considered an early neo-Victorian since most of it is set during that period.  It was an easy and fast read -- it's about 600 pages long and I think I read it all in two days (though I did spend a fair amount of time in airports).

Arnold Bennett wrote quite a few books, including a non-fiction work called How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, an early self-help book,  but most of them are out of print.  Well, at least this one is still available though I doubt many bookstores carry it on a regular basis -- if you wanted to buy it you'd probably have to order it online.  My library here in Texas doesn't even have this book, sigh.  However, the nearby community college has several of Bennett's other works, which I have just added to my ever-growing to-read list.  If you're interested in the Victorian period but have fear of Victorian writers, I highly recommend this book.

Monday, September 13, 2010

My Blogiversary and a Giveaway!

Exactly one year ago today, I posted my first blog entry.  Though I haven't read or posted nearly as much as I wanted, I'm pretty pleased with the results so far.  I've read some great books and added LOTS to my to-read list, and I've also discovered lots of other great bloggers.

Just for fun, I thought I'd look back over the past year and compile a few stats about some of the books I reviewed (sadly, I haven't reviewed every single book I've read.  That would leave less time for reading).  Anyway:

Blog entries: 93
Books reviewed: 74

Classic books:  30
Contemporary fiction: 18
Nonfiction/Memoirs: 4
Juvenile books: 9
Young adult books: 4
Short story collections: 5
Horror/SciFi/Fantasy: 4
Gothic/Mystery/Crime: 10
Plays: 1
Books in translation: 7
Books by nonwhite writers: 4
Books by men: 33
Books by women: 37

Note: these stats don't always add up evenly because books may fall under two categories or have multiple authors, i.e., short story collections.  Anyway, I thought it was quite interesting -- my split between male and female authors was pretty even.  I'm definitely going to try and read more world lit and books in translation, and books by nonwhite authors.  Of course, since I'm trying to read lots of classics, most of the authors are dead white males.  But I suppose that can't be helped.

I've had a lot of fun writing this blog, and discovered some great authors.  This week I'll be posting more thoughts using topics from Book Blogger Appreciation Week, which I'll start tomorrow.  In honor of my one-year blogiversary, and in honor of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, I'm giving away a book!   Since this blog is all about sharing my favorite books, I'm giving away a paperback copy of one of my favorite books reviewed in the past year.  If you'd like to be entered in the drawing, please choose a book from the list below and leave a comment.  Tell me what you liked about the review or why the book interests you. Each title has links to my original review for your reading pleasure. The drawing ends Friday at 3 p.m, Central Standard Time. All eligible applicants will be entered into a drawing, and the winner will be chosen at random.  One entry per person, and be  sure and leave your email address so I can contact you! The paperback book (I'll select the edition) will be mailed worldwide from The Book Depository.  Here are your choices, in no particular order:

NOTE:  The book giveaway is now over.  Thanks for all the entries and comments!

1.  Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy by Jean Webster (Penguin Classics edition).  Charming epistolary fiction, and an unappreciated classic.  The book that inspired this blog.

2.  Bleak House by Charles Dickens.  It's long, it's complicated, there are far too many unbelievable coincidences -- it's Dickens!!  What's not to like?

3.  Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.  A joy and a delight, and my first Persephone Classic.

4.  Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.  A twisty-turny Dickensian page turner.  Wowza.  I've never read a 500-page book so quickly.

5.  My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.  A delightful true story of a quirky family of British expats living in Greece, told from the point of view of the youngest child.

6.  A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot.  A French bestseller about the horrors of WWI and a disabled woman's search for her missing fiance.  Brilliant, and beautifully adapted into film.  So worth reading.

7. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham.  Kitty Fane is the bored wife of bacteriologist Walter Fane, who decides to take his adulterous wife to a remote village in China during a cholera outbreak in the 1920s.  Sound promising? Well, it's Maugham, so it's tragic, but fascinating.  Kitty is one of my favorite trainwreck heroines.

8.  Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories.  Particularly appropriate this time of year, especially for those signed up for the RIP Challenge.

9.  The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin. A great food memoir -- with recipes.

10.  The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola.  A French classic AND great food writing!

11.  When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.  The 2009 Newbery Award winner.  I couldn't put it down, and it made me bawl like a little kid.  I loved it.

12.  Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome.  Imagine if Bertie Wooster and his two equally clueless friends went on a pleasure trip down the Thames, but instead of Jeeves they brought a fox terrier.  Lots of digressions and silly observations about life.  It's hilarious, and it never ceases to amaze me that this book was written 100 years ago.  One of the funniest things I've ever read.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

I have very mixed feelings about this book.  Lately, I've been avoiding a lot of "literary fiction," e.g., book club books (except for my own book group's selections).  Somehow, if a book gets really hyped, I'm kinda turned off by it -- I have been so disappointed the past couple of years by books that Everyone Just Loved!  

I hope this doesn't mean I'm turning into some kind of literary snob. There have been some pleasant surprises -- for example, The Help, which I really liked.  On the other hand, there are quite a few that everyone else loved that I just hated, like Wicked, and The Memory Keeper's Daughter.  There's a long list, but I'll save it for another posting.

So, Edgar Sawtelle is the story of a youth, Edgar (obviously), growing up circa late 1960s - early 1970s, in rural Northern Wisconsin.  Edgar was born without the ability to speak, though he can hear perfectly well. He's very smart and learned sign language at a very early age.  He and his parents live on a farm where they raise very special dogs, which appear to be some sort of German Shepherd hybrid.  Most of the action in this book takes place when he's about 13, after his uncle Claude has reappeared and moved back to town and things get stirred up.

I hope it's not a major spoiler to mention that this book is a reworking of the Shakespeare play Hamlet. (highlight if you don't want to be surprised).  Someone at the book group last month mentioned this, but it's also all over the reviews and book jacket, so basically, the plot was pretty much spoiled for me -- I knew many of the major plot twists and how it was going to end.   Obviously, writers have been reusing plots over and over again.  And I don't know that I'm in a position to criticize, given that I've never even published a short story, much less a 576 page book like this one.  I just thought that this book would have been so much better if Wroblewski had come up with his own plot, which is the part I liked least.   I really liked most of the characters, the setting, and, as I am a dog lover, all the details about the dogs and their training.  I just hated the plot twists, and particularly, the ending, which seemed really rushed and action-packed compared to first several hundred pages, which moved much more leisurely.  I really wish I'd stopped reading at about page 500, since I basically knew Edgar's fate.

Also, there were a lot of unanswered questions in this book -- a lot of the middle deals with letters written back and forth between Edgar's father and grandfather and various dog-raising experts, which never seemed to mesh with the rest of the book.   Sometimes I need to be hit over the head with metaphor and symbolism, but I never figured out what the author was doing with all of this, which was annoying.

In general, I'm not overly impressed by authors who rework someone else's plot or characters.  Somehow it feels like cheating to me.  (Could be one reason I was not a fan of Wicked). I'm not saying I've never liked any book like this, it's just that they always seem to be few and far between.  Ahab's Wife by Sandra Jeter Naslund was excellent, and I've loved The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which is a 20th century prequel to Jane Eyre.  And the new horror mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies just crack me up -- but I consider those more as a joke than anything else.  I just get tired of seeing yet another continuing story about one of Jane Austen's characters.

So -- I was mildly disappointed, but not so much that I wanted those hours of my life back, like when I read The Memory Keeper's Daughter or The Corrections.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

R.I.P. Challenge V

Lately it's been more than 90 degrees every day this, so it's hard for me to get thinking about Halloween (which I strongly believe should be chilly and creepy, just like in a Gothic novel).  However, I am inspired by all the bloggers who have signed up for the R.I.P. Challenge.  Participants are encouraged to read and post about books in the following categories:  mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, horror, supernatural, and Gothic.

I've signed up for Peril the Second, so I'm planning on reading at least two books for the challenge in September and October, maybe more.  I'm also hoping to read at least one short story collection -- I think I have four or five Gothic or ghost story collections on my to-read shelf already!  I'm definitely going to try and read books that are already owned and unread, or have been on my to-read list a long time.

Here's my list of potential titles:

  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith
  • My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett 
  • The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones
  • The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski
  • Affinity by Sarah Waters
  • The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells
  • Tales of Mystery and the Macabre by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • The Virago Book of Ghost Stories
  • Short stories by Edgar Allen Poe

So -- any suggestions?  Anyone else participating, and if so, what are you reading for the challenge?  I'm looking forward to it!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

This is the second half of a joint review with Amanda at The Zen Leaf.  For the first half of the review, click here.

Quick synopsis:  Thérèse Raquin has lived with her aunt and sickly cousin Camille since she was a small child and her father basically abandoned her.  Now a young woman, she and her cousin Camille have married and still live with his mother, Madame Raquin, in a dreary little alley in Paris where they have a small haberdashery.  Her life is dull but things suddenly get exciting when she falls for her husband's co-worker, Laurent.  They begin a torrid affair but things take a turn for the worse after Thérèse and Laurent decide they want to be together.
[In the first half of the review, Amanda and I had been discussing some of the themes in Thérèse Raquin.]
Amanda: Oh wow! I was going to point out that same theme - Be careful what you wish for. It was like their wish was their punishment. Fantastic! I’m glad you saw that too. For such a little book, this really had a lot in it, didn’t it? And on top of that, the book could be read strictly for plot. There’s so much ghost story creepy vibe to this book that it’s really just on the edge of pot-boiler. In fact, if it weren’t for all the literary themes, I’d say it was pot-boiler! I loved it, though. It was so fascinating to read. I read somewhere that Zola was doing a character study with it...but that seems to be typical of Zola. He loves character studies! Or just studies in general. I think that’s why I love him so much.
Karen: So, do you think it was a character study of Thérèse or Laurent, or both?  And I’m curious about the other Zola works that you read.  Would you classify those as character studies as well, and , if so, of just single characters or multiple characters?
I also think that Paris is a character in the book.  Zola does such an amazing job of describing the the bleak little alley in Paris where the Raquins lived and worked.  I know descriptions are you not your favorite thing, but Zola made the whole scene so vivid.  The Belly of Paris was set primarily in Les Halles, the famous food market, and he described it so well.  And by the way -- there are a couple of scenes in Thérèse Raquin which are also extremely vivid, but they are not delicious, to put it mildly.  You might not want to eat lunch while reading this book.  That’s all.
Amanda: Supposedly it was a character study of all three major characters. They were both supposed to represent different types of personalities, from what I read. Very interesting stuff.
I’m not sure the other books I read would be classified as character studies, but I do think the work he put into studying people paid off when it came to both books. He certainly went out of his way to make sure he know all his subject matter very well, from the descriptions of Paris to the life of a hired woman to the work of coal-miners. He was very thorough. And despite my normal dislike of description, I actually don’t mind it when it comes to Zola, because he weaves it in so artfully (rather than dumping it in page-long paragraphs that go on forever!). I never feel overburdened by description with him. Of course, much credit has to be given to the translators, which have done an excellent job on the books I’ve read. I love Leonard Tancock’s work, so I’ve grabbed up as many of his translations as possible. I wish he’d translated more! How have your translations been?
Karen:  They’ve been good -- I was surprised at how easy to read Zola is.  I guess I was expecting more long, flowery sentences like Dickens -- probably because it’s 19th century.  But Zola was a journalist first and his prose is really straightforward.  I read the Penguin Classics edition of Thérèse Raquin, which is translated by Robin Buss.  I thought it was excellent.  My edition of The Belly of Paris was translated by Mark Kurlansky, who also wrote some great non-fiction food.  I found it very easy to read, almost contemporary, but not in an intrusive manner -- I recently read a translation of Chekhov that was so contemporary, it was rather jarring.  

Anyway, I’m really happy to have discovered Zola, who has become one of my favorite classic authors.  I went out at bought another of his novels, The Drinking Den, and I’m planning on reading it soon.  I will definitely post my impressions as soon as I get to it!  Any more Zola on your to-read list?  

Amanda: Yep, a whole bunch. Next up will be La Bête Humaine, recommended by my friend Veronica, who says Zola is her fav author and that’s her fav Zola. I’d also love to get my hands on and read The Dream this year. It sounds so fantastic!

Thank you so much for doing this joint-review with me Karen! Any last words on Thérèse Raquin? My only thoughts are that if I’ve loved three different Zola novels like this, I’m hopeful that I’ll just keep loving them!
Karen:  You’re so welcome, I loved it!  We’ll have to do this again soon.  I’m definitely reading more Zola.  Besides The Drinking Den, I’m hoping to read The Kill and The Ladies’ Paradise, plus of course Germinal -- it would be great if we could discuss it in our book group.   And I’d love some suggestions as well -- readers, have you read Zola?  Which were your favorites?
To read Amanda's review of Germinal, click here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Bleak House Readalong, Week 2

Bleak House continues!  I shall try not to gush, but I do love this book so.  Since our last update, there have been some interesting developments.

So far, Esther Summerson and her two companions, Ada and Richard, are settling in quite nicely with their guardian John Jarndyce, at Bleak House.  They've had some visitors, like Jarndyce's school chum Mr. Boythorn (who also has a connection with the Dedlocks; they are in a dispute over property boundaries and a right-of-way). Richard is trying to decide on a Profession.  Although he's hoping to make his fortune from the Jarndyce court case, his guardian keeps telling him not to get his hopes up.  There's also a visit from one of the London law clerks, Mr. Guppy, who has the hots for Esther, much to her chagrin.

Meanwhile, the Dedlocks have returned from Paris.  Tulkinghorn, the lawyer, has made inquiries about the law writer whose handwriting so interested Lady Dedlock.  He tracked him down to a squalid room (coincidentally, the very building housing another person with an interest in Jarndyce, the daffy Miss Flite).  Unfortunately, Tulkinghorn finds him dead from a drug overdose, so his connection to the story remains a mystery.  Tulkinghorn is suspicious.

This seems like a lot of unrelated material, but it all ends up like pieces of a puzzle.  I admit that if I hadn't watched the miniseries before I'd read the book, I probably would have been totally confused.  You need patience with Dickens.  I'm just over 200 pages into the book (close to 1000 pages!), and there are several storylines that sometimes seem unrelated.  However, it all starts to come together soon.  Because this story was originally stretched out over 18 months, Dickens took a lot of time setting up all the different elements.

I admit that sometimes Dickens does tend to blather on a bit (there are a few sections that I have been known to skim, especially when he's trying to make a point about the terrible Byzantine judicial system). I still firmly believe it's worth getting through the boring bits in order to get to the good stuff.

One of the things I love most about Dickens is his delightful use of names.  Frequently, they give us a subtle (or not-so-subtle) hint about the characters.  For example, a law clerk, Mr. Guppy, is kind of annoying fishy sort of person; Tulkinghorn, the lawyer, is kind of a looming, scary presence; Miss Flite is a flaky, crazy bird lady (the Victorian version of a crazy cat lady); Esther Summerson, our heroine, is supposed to be as bright and cheerful as the summer sun.  There are lots more characters with fun names; in fact, there's probably forty or more principal characters!  At one point I actually started making a list, just for fun.  I don't have any problem keeping them all straight because they're very memorable.  Dickens' great characters are just as good as his intricate cliffhanger plots -- I'm so glad I didn't have to read this as a serial, because the waiting would have made me crazy.   I hope everyone else is enjoying the Bleak House readalong!

Click here for more posts on the Bleak House readalong.