Monday, January 30, 2012

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

Sorry for not posting lately, I've worked the last seven days straight and even though I sit in front of a computer a large part of my day, I think the library administration would frown on writing my personal blog on the city's dime.  By the time I get home I have no desire to write anything.  But I have been reading!  In the past two weeks I finished not one but TWO books off my challenges list.  The first one was The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, which came highly recommended by someone in a book group years ago.  I bought it at a bookstore in Orlando for the sheer purpose of getting my parking validated at a pricey shopping mall, which actually backfired -- they wouldn't validate and so I had yet another unread book on the shelf AND had to pay for parking anyway.  Hmpf.  

But I digress.  I'd heard this was a great book but all I knew was that it was about South Africa and boxing.  I find Africa fascinating but I am not a sports fan and I absolutely HATE boxing -- the idea of people beating each other up for FUN is repellent to me.  It's no wonder this book sat on the shelf unread for so long.  I finally sucked it up and picked up the book a couple of weeks ago, and to my surprise, I really, really liked it, boxing and all, though it's more than 500 pages long.

The setup:  a little boy nicknamed, aged 5, is sent off to boarding school in South Africa in the 1930s.  His mother has had some kind of a nervous breakdown and there's no father around, so they ship him off to school.  Unfortunately, he's the only English boy at the school of Boers.  (Did you know that the white South Africans hated each other as well as the black South Africans?  I had no idea.)  So, not only does this little boy have to suffer because he's a wee little thing who should be home with his family, he's horribly abused by all the nasty bigger kids for being different (and smarter).  The thought of sending a child under twelve away to school horrifies me, but FIVE?  What were they thinking???

Anyway, eventually his family move and he leaves the wretched school all alone on a very long train journey, where one of the porters keeps an eye on him for the trip.  Turns out this porter is an amazing boxer and takes the boy, who is now nicknamed Peekay under his wing and also to a boxing match.  This is a life-changing event for Peekay, who decides that someday he'll be the welterweight champion of the world, and no one will ever pick on him again.  

The rest of this book is a coming-of-age story about Peekay and how he comes to terms with all the bullies of the world, in school and life, as he goes through school and trains to be a boxer, with the backdrop of WWII and the beginnings of apartheid I learned a lot of things about Africa in this book, which I liked, and also about boxing, which, shockingly, I also liked.   Somehow Courtenay was able to describe the boxing training matches in a way that made it accessible and interesting even for a non-sporty person like me (I still haven't figured out the rules of American football).  Apparently boxing is sort of scientific, not just people beating on each other.  (It's sort of like in the new film versions of Sherlock Holmes when they slow the action down and explain Sherlock's thought processes, then show the speeded-up version, if that makes sense.)

Anyway.  I rather liked the boxing bits, and the school bits, plus there's lots of great stuff about the African country and how beautiful it is, and Peekay has a wonderful relationship with a music professor who is his neighbor and becomes a father figure to him, and that's lovely.  My one complaint about this book is that Peekay is just too perfect.  He becomes an amazing boxer.  He's brilliant.  Everyone loves him, especially all the black Africans.  He's not just good at everything, he's the best ever. (Except music, at which he is just pretty good).  He becomes this angelic figure up on a pedestal, and he's so perfect he started to annoy me.  Plus, the ending didn't work for me.  Without giving anything away, I'll just say that it didn't seem to fit in with the rest of the book.  

I am glad I read this book, it's definitely worth reading if you're interested in Africa or you like a good bildungsroman, or if you like sports (or even if you don't).  I'm happy to say that this book counts toward two of my challenges:  TBR Challenge 2012 and Chunkster Challenge 2012

Challenge progress:  TBR Challenge 1/12;  Chunkster Challenge: 2/6

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures is Tracy Chevalier's latest historical fiction novel.  I haven't read any of her novels since Girl with a Pearl Earring, which I loved, one of my favorite books, definitely one of my favorite historical novels.  I've started a new book discussion group at my library and since I'm in charge, I got to choose the first two books!  This was my first choice.

The setup:  Remarkable Creatures is based on the lives of two real women, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, who lived in Lyme, England in the early 1800s and were fossil hunters.   Mary is a working-class girl who lives near the beach, making extra money for her family by unearthing and cleaning up "curies" or curiosities.  Elizabeth is about 15 years older, a spinster who moves to Lyme with her two unmarried sisters.  Their prospects are not good and their married brother has basically shipped them off to live somewhere cheaper.  Mary and Elizabeth forge an unlikely friendship over their mutual love of fossils.  Mary in particular is somewhat famous for her amazing fossil finds.  She was actually a bit of a local legend her entire life, since as a child, she was struck by lightning and survived.  The story takes place over many years, and includes love, jealousy, and heartbreak.

This book brings up a lot of interesting issues, especially about religion, evolution, class differences, and the role of women during the time period.  The study of fossil evidence of creatures that no longer exist makes Elizabeth question the whole idea of creation, and she doesn't get a lot of satisfying answers from so-called experts.  And the way women were treated just makes me want to scream, and it's more than just whole thing about marriage prospects, no jobs, no respect -- at one point, Elizabeth is walking down a London street alone -- shocking!!! -- and people are staring at her because she obviously must be some kind of strumpet.

There were a lot of things I liked about this book.  The story is told in alternating points of view, and Chevalier does a nice job of creating two very distinct voices.  The alternating chapters aren't labeled or indicated in any other way that they're different characters, but it's quite obvious to the reader.
One my favorite things was the period -- it's set in the early 1800s, Regency through early Victorian, so there was some overlap with Jane Austen.  It's also set in Lyme, where Jane Austen set an important part of Persuasion, which is my favorite of her novels.  In fact, Jane Austen and her novels are mentioned, but only in passing, so it didn't feel at all like Chevalier was ripping Austen off, like so many modern authors.  In fact, if you're a fan of Jane Austen, and you want to read more books set during this period, I'd recommend this book by far over some of the shameless Austen pastiches that seem to be everywhere these days.

Update:  I just found out I can add individual replies to comments.  Many thanks to Blogger for finally adding this feature, and to Simon at Stuck in Book for posting about it!  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Classics Challenge January Prompt: Anthony Trollope

As a participant in the Classics Challenge hosted by November's Autumn, I'm posting a monthly prompt.  This month's assignment:  The Author.

Featured author:  Anthony Trollope.   British, born 24 April 1815, died 6 December 1882.

Some background:  Born in London, son of a failed barrister.  However, his mother, Frances, became a successful writer.  After his father's legal practice failed in 1834, Trollope Senior and fled to Bruges, Belgium to avoid being jailed for debt.  The whole family moved with him to Belgium and were supported by Mrs. Trollope's income as a writer.  Young Anthony accepted a clerkship in the British post office and returned in the fall of that year.  He had a reputation as being unpunctual and insubordinate.  One incident in particular is interesting -- a debt of 12 pounds to a tailor was turned over to a moneylender and eventually grew to 200 pounds.  (This incident, along with many other from his life, would appear eventually in his fiction.)

At first Trollope hated working for the post office, but stuck with it, and eventually was promoted to postal inspector in Ireland.  This involved a lot of train travel and he spent his time on trains writing.  According to Wikipedia, he occasionally dipped into the Lost Letter Box for ideas for his novels.  He also invented the British postal box:

I could write a very long post about Trollope's life, and I hope to read more about hin, including his autobiography which sounds fascinating.  Trollope was extremely well-traveled, and visited Europe, the Middle East, the U.S., Australia, and South Africa, among other places.  Everywhere he went, he wrote, eventually publishing 47 novels, plus numerous short stories and other writings.  He's most famous for his two series: The Chronicles of Barset, the story of life in the provincial county of Barchestershire; and The Pallisers Novels, a series of political novels about Parliament.   He also wrote many stand-alone novels, including The Way We Live Now, which many consider to be his finest work. 

I've only read four of Trollope's works so far and I really enjoyed them.  I was waffling between Trollope and Dickens for my next big fat Victorian read and I'm pretty sure Trollope is going to come out the winner.

Who else is a fan of Trollope?  Which are your favorite novels so far?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith

After Dr. Thorne, I was tempted to jump right back into another big fat Victorian doorstopper, but on a whim I grabbed Diary of a Nobody and put it in my bookbag on my way to work the other day, thinking it would be a fun, light read on my lunch hour, and as it's epistolary fiction, it would be easy to read in bits and pieces during breaks.

True, it was an easy, light read, but somewhat disappointing.  It's supposed to be hilarious, but it was nowhere near as good as Three Men in a Boat or one of my favorite epistolary novels, The Diary of a Provincial Lady.  Both of these had me laughing out loud and I recommend them over and over.  Honestly, Diary of a Nobody is just meh.

Diary of a Nobody was published in 1892, serialized in Punch magazine.  It's the story of Mr. Pooter, a middle-aged senior clerk at some financial institution in the City of London.  He begins a new diary after he moves into a new house in a London suburb with his wife Carrie, and it's a year in his life.  Pooter's life is pretty ordinary, but he thinks he's fascinating.  It's just little vignettes about his life.  It's mildly amusing and interesting to read about what Victorian life was like (if this can be interpreted as truly representative) but I didn't find it that funny.  I barely cracked a smile most of the time I was reading it.  It was okay, but I can't really see myself recommending it to anyone except the most die-hard fans of Victorian literature.  It's especially disappointing because I bought this book since it wasn't available at my library, and I've moved twice since I bought it, which means I've packed and unpacked it twice!  Hmpf.

The best things about it were that it's very short, just about 130 pages, and I finally read it and can take it off the TBR bookshelf.  It also counts toward my both my Victorian Challenge, and my Classics Challenge, though foolishly I didn't put it on the list for my TBR Challenge -- I sort of thought it would be cheating to repeat too many books on my challenges.  Oh well, I'll know better next year.

Now I have to decide if I should tackle Martin Chuzzlewit, which I'm supposed to be reading with an online group over a period of several months; or Framley Parsonage, which I checked out from the library.  I honestly don't think I can handle both of them at the same time.  Bloggers, what do you think?  Dickens or Trollope?  Or something completely different?  And has anyone else read Diary of a Nobody?  Did you love it or were you disappointed, like me?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope

I'm posting a bit late, but Doctor Thorne is my first book of the year and it counts for three challenges:  the Victorian Challenge 2012, the 2012 Classics Challenge; and the 2012 Chunkster Challenge!  I'm especially pleased because even though I didn't include it my TBR challenge, it's been sitting on my shelves for more than a year, since I borrowed it from my mother.

Last year, I read Anthony Trollope's wonderful Barchester Towers for the Classics Circuit, and I just loved it.  I can't believe I waited a whole year to read the next book in the series!

Here's the setup of the novel:  set in Barchester mostly in the 1850s, Doctor Thorne is the really the story of love of two young people, Frank Gresham, the heir to Greshamsbury, a large landed estate; and Mary Thorne, the niece of the eponymous doctor.

Frank Gresham has just come of age, the only boy in a large family.  Years ago, his father had a good income and married his mother, Lady Arabella, the daughter of a local noble.  The combination of a large family and a wife with aristocratic taste has reduced the family income so that they're barely hanging on financially, and Frank Senior has heavily mortgaged the family estate and sold off part of the property to a crass nouveau riche baronet.  The pressure is on Frank to marry a wealthy heiress and save the family fortune, but he's fallen for the lovely Mary is his childhood playmate. Unfortunately, her origins are much humbler.  She has no fortune, no connections and no aristocratic blood -- in fact, it's a family secret that Mary is actually illegitimate.  Shocking!

Frank's family -- particularly his snobby, hypocritical mother -- is pressuring him to throw Mary over in favor of an heiress to preserve the family estate.  Meanwhile, Mary is pressured to give Frank up or be ostracized from country society forever.   The book is almost 500 pages, and most of it is spent entirely on this one theme.  Even though I'm sure the story could have used some editing, I enjoyed every minute of it.  Trollope is really quite witty -- the omniscient narrator makes plenty of tart asides and wry observations about the landed gentry, the upstart nouveau riche and the hypocrisy of the nobility when it comes to blood versus money -- they're fine with overlooking the humble origins of a commoner, as long as they have a fat bank account.  And God forbid if someone of their class is willing to work for a living!

Like Barchester, this book has some of the same themes about country life and gentle satire as Jane Austen.  There's one scene in particular that reminded me quite strongly of a famous scene in Pride and Prejudice, that of the big showdown between Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, which in my opinion is one of the best parts of the book.  Honestly, if you've read all of Jane Austen, I'd strongly recommend taking up Trollope instead of reading one of the silly sequels that are all the rage.  He did write 47 novels plus a lot of other stuff, so you won't run out of his works any time soon!

Doctor Thorne comes third in the series after Barchester Towers, but the two books really don't have any connection other than a brief mention of a couple of the characters, and the fact that it's peripherally located somewhere in Barsetshire.  I'm definitely not waiting another year before I continue with the Barsetshire Chronicles -- I've already checked Framley Parsonage out from the library and it will probably be my next Victorian novel and the next for my Chunkster Challenge as well.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2012 Chunkster Challenge

I found this challenge over at Allie's Literary Odyssey.  I know it's terrible of me to sign up for another challenge, but I have so many Big Fat Books on my to-read shelves, it's really no problem for me to sign up for just one more.  In 2011 I read eight books that were more than 500 pages so this should be easy-peasy.  Every single one of these books is on the TBR shelf.

I'm signing up for the Do These Books Make My Butt Look Big? level:  six books, of which two are 450 -550 pages; two books between 551-750 pages; and the final two books are at least 751 pages in length.  And is it cheating if I repeat books from other challenges?

My tentative list, vaguely in order by page length:

They Knew Mr. Knight (496 pages) OR They Were Sisters (455 pages) by Dorothy Whipple.  I've had this pair of Whipples unread on the Persephone shelf for a year, since I received both as Christmas gifts in 2010.  I was on a roll completing the Persephones but I've slowed down a bit.  This looks like a good excuse to read another, or maybe even both.

Doctor Thorne (496 pages) by Anthony Trollope -- I'm way behind on the Barsetshire series.  I borrowed this copy from my mother a year ago and still haven't touched it!

South Riding by Winifred Holtby (512 pages).  I won this last year in a Virago Reading Week giveaway courtesy of Thomas at My Porch.  The miniseries is still in the DVR queue and I don't want to watch it until I've read the book.

The Earth by Emile Zola -- I couldn't forget Zola, and it's 512 pages, so that's perfect.  And I just got it for Christmas!  Or maybe L'Assommoir (480 pages) or La Debacle (592 pages)  Amanda at Ramblings got me hooked on Zola, and we're hoping to do a Zola buddy read sometime soon.

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay (528 pages).  This has been highly recommended over and over, and I hope that 2012 will finally be the year I get to this one.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  (601 pages)  I love Steinbeck, but the size is intimidating.

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (615 pages).  I'm already committed to reading this with my real-life classics book group, and I nominated it, so I have to read it!  It'll be a re-read but it's been so long it'll be like a brand-new book to me.

Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens (864 pages) I'm reading it with an online group, plus 2012 is going to be all about Dickens.  Might even get to Our Mutual Friend (880 pages) as well.

A Dance With Dragons (1016 pages) by George R. R. Martin.   I must find out what happens in Westeros -- really looking forward to Season 2 of Game of Thrones on HBO.