Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

I know I'm catching the tail end, but I did want to write a quick post about the only novella I was able to manage this month for the August Art of the Novella Challenge.  I think I ended up checking five different novellas out of the library, but I was only able to finish one.  But it was delightful!  If you're looking for a quick, fun read, this is one I'd highly recommend.  It's a book about book lovers, and it's just 124 pages!

Published in 1917, Parnassus on Wheels is the prequel to Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop.  It's the story of Helen McGill, a 39-year-old spinster living with her brother on a farm in upstate New York.  Her brother, Andrew McGill, is a well-regarded writer who purchased the farm after his business failed.  Their departure to rural life inspired Andrew to write several popular books on the glories of country living and simpler times, etc, etc.  However, now that Andrew is A Famous Novelist, he tends to wander off in search of new material, leaving her to carry on all the everyday work.

One day, a funny little man with a traveling caravan approaches the farm while Andrew is out.  He is Roger Mifflin, the owner of a traveling bookshop, the eponymous Parnassus on Wheels, and he's ready to settle down.  Roger thinks that Andrew is the perfect person to buy Parnassus lock, stock and barrel, but Helen has had enough.  She knows that Andrew will buy the caravan and leave her again, carrying on all the responsibilities of the farm and the house while he's off gallivanting.  She decides it's time she had her own adventures.  Much to her brother's chagrin, she buys Parnassus for herself and takes off to make her fortune and spread the gospels of good literature to the masses.

This is a really fun book.  Helen is a spunky heroine, Roger is quirky and charming, and hilarity ensues. Plus, there's lots of discussion and descriptions about great books.  How could a bibliophile like myself not fall for a book with this quote:

"Lord!" he said, "when you sell a man a book you don't sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue -- you sell him a whole new life.  Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night -- there's all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean!"

What is not to love?  I finished the book in practically one sitting, and now I'm waiting for the sequel, The Haunted Bookshop, to arrive at my library branch.  

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

High fantasy is normally not my thing. In general, I prefer children's fantasy, and low fantasy, to these intricately plotted other-worldly . . . worlds.  Believe me, I have the highest respect for authors who can create these amazing places with characters and settings and creatures, oh my, replete with fantastic names for all of them.  Normally, I just do not have the patience -- frankly, it's all the vocabulary.  I honestly get tired of having to keep it all straight -- I want plot and characters to wrap my brain around.  Children's fantasy has much less world-building for me to keep straight in my head.  (Does this make me a lazy reader?)

So how in the heck did I find myself hooked on A Game of Thrones????  Frankly, I blame HBO.  Yes, it is the antichrist, television, that got me completely obsessed with a a series that is currently numbering more than 4000 pages and threatens to take over my reading list for the next couple of months.  Normally, I ignore all the adult fantasy in my library, except when I'm shelving or helping a patron, and it holds no fascination for me.  But darn it if that pay cable station didn't get me hooked on an epic fantasy series.  I didn't even start watching it until July!  There was a lot of buzz about it, so I set the DVR and promptly forgot about it.  Then one night last month, when everyone else was in bed, I decided to take a look and see if it was any good.

I. HAD.  NO.  IDEA.  Let me just say, first of all, that the series premiere has one of the best cliffhangers I've EVER seen on television, and that, having finished the first book, HBO did an amazing adaptation -- they were able to translate a book of almost 700 pages into ten hours, with very few changes (other than making the characters slightly older).  If you know nothing about this series, it's kind of like a Medieval version of The Sopranos, but with a little supernatural stuff thrown in.  Or, to put it another way, Lord of the Rings, but with sex thrown in.

It's set in the mythological lands of Westeros, which is divided up into Seven Kingdoms.  The lords of the kingdoms have all sworn fealty to the King Robert Baratheon at King's Landing.  When the story starts, the King's Hand, similar to his Lord Chancellor, has died, and King Robert has come far north to Winterfell to ask his childhood best friend, Lord Eddard Stark, to step in as his new Hand.  He comes with an enormous entourage, including his despicable wife Cersei of the House of Lannister, and her two brothers: her twin, valiant knight Lord Jaime, and her younger brother Tyrion, also known as the imp.

Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell
Well, things start to get very interesting -- plotting!  intrigue!!  backstabbing!  Plus there are illegitimate children, swordfights, ousted rulers, a whole race of semi-savage horse-lords, a crazy prince who claims he has dragon's blood, giant wolves -- and at the Northern border there's an enormous Wall to keep out scary stuff that may or may not be mythological.  And did I mention that in this land, seasons last for years at at time?  It's been summer for about ten years now, and Winter Is Coming.

I eagerly watched all ten episodes in less than a week -- I could have stayed up all night watching if I didn't have other things to do, like supervise children and housework (I hadn't started working at the library yet).  Then I had to decide if I was going to read the books, or wait nine months to see what happens next. . .  . riiiight.  I was on the library's wait list but it was too long, so the other day I broke down and bought it.  And you know what?  Even though I'd just watched the series (twice), the book was even better!  George R. R. Martin has done an amazing job intertwining the book's multiple plots from the viewpoints of about seven different characters -- each chapter takes one character's perspective, and the chapters are quite short.  Martin worked in television for years, so I can see how easily the book was translated into a series. (Martin was also an executive producer and wrote one the episode's scripts).  I say easy, but it couldn't have been, with thousands of extras and costumes and swords and castles and so on.

Anyhow.  I've probably been rambling, but if you have even the vaguest interest in fantasy, this series is really worth it, if the rest of them are anything like the first book.  Seriously, I haven't been this excited about a new series since I read Harry Potter -- sacrilege!  And after I finish the fifth book in the series it'll be a long wait until the next one -- just like the agony J. K. Rowling put me through.

This is so unlike most of the other books I read, but I had to blog about it.  Bloggers, what about you?  Are there any books or series you love that are totally different than your usual reads?  Do you think of them as guilty pleasures?

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was one of the authors that got me interested in reading classics a few years ago.  I'd found a list of the Modern Library's Top 100 Novels and was shocked at how few I'd read.  However, I was pretty intimidated by Steinbeck -- The Grapes of Wrath sounded so dire.  Shortly after I made the commitment to classics, I joined an online reading group, and one of the first selections I read with the group was Travels With Charley, in which Steinbeck travels around the U.S. with his dog.  How bad could that be?

Well, it wasn't bad, it was great.  And after that I had the nerve to tackle The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and several of his other works.  I laughed and cried with Steinbeck, and someday, I hope to read his entire oeuvre.  I've read seven of his works so far, and I've liked or loved most of them.

A Russian Journal is a bit like Travels With Charley because it's a non-fiction travel memoir.  At the beginning of the Cold War, Steinbeck and his friend, Robert Capa, a respected WWII photographer, traveled around Russia for several weeks, recording his impressions.  As a famous writer, Steinbeck naturally went to receptions and speeches and events with Important People, but what he really wanted was to travel all over the country and met regular people and see what their lives were like, much like he would do in the 1960s in the United States with his dog Charley.

I found this book extremely interesting -- I've spent my whole life wanting to see other places, so I am a complete sucker for a travel memoir.  Steinbeck is a great observer of life and characters, and most people don't realize how funny he could be.  He didn't make fun of the Russian people -- he held them in the greatest respect.  Steinbeck writes really well about the humor in situations, like the nightmares of bureaucracy and the difficulties of travel.

What really struck me about this book was Steinbeck's admiration of the Russian spirit.   Steinbeck sees people who are literally living in holes in the ground, the remainder of their homes after they've been bombed out by the Germans.  It will take years to rebuild, yet the people are undaunted.  They're determined to survive.  One of my favorite parts of the book was when he describes a visit a farming community in the Ukraine, which was particularly hard-hit by the war.  Steinbeck and Capa spend an evening in a village, eating and drinking and dancing with the locals.  There are very few young men, since so many died in the fighting, so the young women dance with each other.  These young ladies work hard all day harvesting in the fields, using traditional methods since there isn't much machinery left since the war; then, they dance all night long, sleep a couple hours, and get up and go back to work in the fields.

Steinbeck found the Russian people as curious about Americans as he was about them.  He also found them to be equally concerned about nuclear war.  And more than anything, he found them warmhearted and generous.  He and Capa are constantly entertained wherever they visit.  One of the places he visited was Georgia, which sounds absolutely wonderful.  After visiting a tea plantation, they stop at many houses to visit, and at each one Steinbeck and Capa are offered food, which they couldn't bring themselves to refuse.   After they were completely stuffed, the manager of a farm asks them to stop by his home for a bite to eat, "only a token bite, as a courtesy."

We were beginning to believe that Russia's secret weapon, towards guests at least, was food. . . . It was the vision of the table that nearly killed us.  It was fourteen feet long, and it was loaded with food, and there were about twenty guests.  I think it was the only meal or dinner we ever attended where fried chicken was an hors d'oeuvre, and where each hors d'oeuvre was half a chicken. . . . [Steinbeck goes on to describe many fabulous-sounding dishes] . . . .The flavors were all new, and we wanted to taste all of them.  Capa, who prides himself on a thirty-two inch waist, and who will not let out his belt, no matter what happens, was getting a puffed look under the chin, and his eyes were slightly popped and bloodshot.  And I felt that if I could just go two or three days without eating anything, I might return to normal.

If you have any hesitation about reading Steinbeck, this is a great introduction.  His writing has a wry humor and genuine insight into the human spirit.

My thanks again to Rebecca at The Classics Circuit!  I've really enjoyed reading all the postings about Steinbeck, and look forward to more tours.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

I have owned My Cousin Rachel for almost five years now, and I cannot imagine why I took so long to read it.  Rebecca, du Maurier's masterpiece, is one of my favorite books of all time, and it's the August selection for my classic book group that meets this weekend.  I practically know it by heart, so I grabbed My Cousin Rachel off the shelf this weekend to help get myself in the gothic mood.

I was a little worried that it wouldn't measure up to Rebecca -- honestly, I don't think many books could!  Also, I was really disappointed by Jamaica Inn, one of her more famous novels.  However, I'm pleased to report that My Cousin Rachel was quite a page turner and I couldn't wait to find out how it all turned out.

Here's the setup, in a nutshell:  young Philip Ashley is an orphan, raised by his bachelor cousin Ambrose, who is twenty years his senior.  Philip is the heir apparent to Ambrose's considerable family fortune, and is as close to him as if Ambrose had been his father.  When Philip is in his early twenties, Ambrose is forced by health issues to winter in Italy, where he meets a distant cousin, Rachel.  Though Ambrose had never been much interested in women, he and Rachel hit it off over a mutual love of gardening.  What follows changes the lives of both Ambrose and Philip forever.

Like Rebecca, this book is set on a large estate in Cornwall, and is a blend of mystery and romance.  However, this is actually a historical novel, like Jamaica Inn, though it took me awhile to realize it was set sometime in the early 1800s -- at first I thought it was set in the 20th century, like Rebecca, until Philip mentions his father died in the Napoleonic wars.  There's also no mention of train travel, and communication between Philip and Ambrose takes forever while he's in Italy.

I liked this novel -- the characters were well realized and I thought the pacing and tension were good.  My only quibble was I found Philip to be incredibly naive.  He's in his early twenties, and has led a rather sheltered life for a wealthy young man -- he knows absolutely nothing about women, and doesn't seem to have had any experience with them at all, which I find rather absurd -- he'd been to prep school and spent time at Oxford.  Even if this was almost 200 years ago, I can't imagine that there weren't any women around!  It's not as if he'd been raised on a desert island or locked in a tower, his schoolmates must have had sisters, or cousins -- not to mention all the village women.  When they come into contact with Rachel, both of these two men are so stupidly infatuated with Rachel that I wanted to smack them both.

Nevertheless, the mystery and gothic elements of the book are classic du Maurier.  I don't want to give away too much for fear of spoilers, but even though it's not as good as the brilliant Rebecca -- and honestly, what novel could be? -- but it's well worth reading if you are a du Maurier fan.  I still have The Scapegoat on the TBR shelves -- any other du Mauriers I should read?  Besides Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, I've also read Don't Look Now and many of her other short stories.

Monday, August 8, 2011

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

I belong to three face-to-face book groups, and I have to admit that I'm terrible about getting the books read on time -- I usually leave them to the last minute, and it's a rare month in which I finish all three books.  It does not help that two of them meet back-to-back on the same day (in the same library branch) and frequently, the other group meets the same week.  It's crazy, but I love all my groups and I'd hate to give up any of them.

Anyhow, I was really pleased with myself for finishing one of the selections so early -- North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.  I'd been looking forward to this one all year, and copies were limited, so I was resolved to read it quickly and return it for the next book club member.  However, I couldn't have imagined I'd read it so quickly!  It's more than 500 pages but I zipped through it, could hardly put it down.  Needless to say I really enjoyed this book.  I loved Cranford and Wives and Daughters is one of my all-time favorites, so I had great hopes for it.  I was not disappointed.

Essentially, it's another story of a young woman and man who fall in love after first disliking each other, with verbal sparring and witty repartee.  However, it's much more than that.  This one is set during the Industrial Revolution, with a background of factory strikes, a dirty, gritty Northern town, and the working poor.  Young Margaret Hale was raised in a privileged background, as the companion to her wealthy cousin.  After her cousin marries, she returns to live with her parents in a small, idyllic town in the South of England, where her father is a curate.  Her mother married beneath her to the parson of a small living, where she is miserable.  Mr. Hale has a crisis of faith and leaves his position, taking a job as a tutor to wealthy industrialists in the Northern town of Milton (based on Manchester).  Here Margaret meets John Thornton, a self-made industrialist who owns a cotton mill.  Margaret is at first unimpressed by this man in trade (gasp!) who is one of his father's pupils (he was too busy pulling himself up by his bootstraps for a classical education).  They clash but of course they care for each other.

This has been described over and over as a Victorian re-working of Pride and Prejudice.  Normally, retellings and sequels and prequels of classic lit make me run the other way, but I gave it a chance.  I suppose it's a bit like P&P, but it's pretty loose.  Of course, you have the young unmarried woman and the gruff man who start out hating each other and fall in love -- it's such a trope that it hardly seems like a reworking, but maybe Jane Austen was the first one to use it.  This story has much more social commentary; apparently Dickens lifted this idea for Hard Times, causing a rift between himself and Mrs. Gaskell.  Trust me, this is by far the better novel, as Hard Times is the Dickens novel I like least.

I actually finished this a couple of weeks ago, and over the weekend I watched the BBC miniseries adaptation starring the dreamy Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton.  It was so good both my daughters watched it with me, and one night we stayed up until almost midnight!  Am I a good mother for exposing them to quality literature or a bad mother for letting them stay up that late?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Borders Loot and My Guilty Conscience

I'm feeling very guilty but I could not help myself the other day, I took advantage of the 20% off clearance prices (plus additional 10% off with my Borders Plus membership).  This is what I brought home:

From top to bottom, in case you can't read the titles:

Aunts Aren't Gentleman by P. G. Wodehouse
Galahad at Blandings by P. G. Wodehouse
The Girl on the Boat by P. G. Wodehouse
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Authors on Why We Read Jane Austen by Susannah Carson
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David

I'm sure I could have bought these books for less online at Amazon, but there is something so wonderful about browsing.  It was really bittersweet, though, since I couldn't help feeling if I'd had more shopping sprees like this at Borders, they'd somehow have stayed in business.  My closest Borders is only about five minutes' drive away, and I frequently hung around reading without buying anything, not even in the cafe, or bought one item with my coupon so they barely made any profits.  I did shop on their website occasionally but found their online delivery slow so I hardly ever used it.  And the past few months, they've been sending me coupons that worked out to about 46% nearly every week!  How can a business expect to survive like that?  I knew it wouldn't last but I still took advantage.

I do have a Barnes & Noble membership and frequently bought from them online -- I prefer shopping at B& over Amazon even though I have to pay tax, since I can return items at the store without paying return shipping -- plus, they have an actual telephone number answered by real people.  (When was the last time you spoke to someone from Amazon??  It's virtually impossible.)  And besides, Barnes & Noble has Starbucks, and the good squashy chairs!  Where can I get those chairs?

I've heard from several people who worked at Borders that it was a whole range of problems that contributed to its demise, so I know I shouldn't hold myself responsible because I didn't shop there enough.  I'm still sad to see a major book retailer go out of business.  I spent many happy hours browsing and reading -- I do think their fiction selection was much better than Barnes & Noble.  And I'm sure I'll go to the other two stores within driving distance to hunt up some more bargains.  Nearly every one of the books I bought was dusty, especially the Wodehouses, so I feel I have given these books a happy home.

I'm sure when the store is closed for good I'll probably cry.