Monday, February 20, 2012

The Stone Diaries; Or, My Book Group Failure

What if you had a book group and nobody came?  How depressing would that be?

Well, I can tell you from first-hand experience, because that's what happened to me last Thursday.  I had the second meeting of the library book group that I just started and nobody came.  Not one person.  I had tea, I had cookies, I had a Pulitzer prize-winning book to discuss, and nobody showed up.

The previous month, I had two people, and this was actually kind of cheating, because one of them also works at the library with me, and the other runs a group that I attended for several years (at the library branch where I used to volunteer).  Unfortunately, neither of them could attend, so I was really hoping for a random stranger, or just someone to come in and keep me from eating all those Pepperidge Farm cookies.

But nothing.  Nada. No one.  I waited twenty minutes, and as I waited, I started reading the next book selection for the Teen Time Book Group which I am also running.  (The book is The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey, and it's really creepy.  And then I gave up and packed up my tea and cookies and went back to the reference desk.

Now, I know it's tough to start a book group from absolute zero, but I was hoping for at least ONE person.  Could it have been my book selection?  Book choices in library groups are tough, because if groups want to discuss the hot titles to draw in new members, you run the risk of choosing a book with about a zillion holds on it. I can't ask members to buy their own copies, because that sort of defeats the purpose, since it is a library activity, right?  And I have to choose the book about two months ahead to get it into the library's newsletter.  It's a vicious circle.

Maybe I chose the wrong book?  It was The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, a 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, and admittedly, I chose it because it was on my TBR shelf, and because the library owned enough copies -- that's another problem, if you wait too long to select a book, the library will start deleting the copies.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on The Stone Diaries.  It was okay.  That's all I can come up with at this point.  I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it.  Basically, it's the story of the life of Daisy Goodwill, from her birth in 1905 through her death sometime in the 1980s.  Her birth itself is pretty shocking, then there's her childhood, her move from western Canada to Indianapolis, her love affairs, friendships, career, etc.  Her old age and death are particularly poignant.

What's mildly interesting about this book is that her life story is almost entirely told through the perspective of other people, plus letters, diaries, and newspaper articles.  It's all various peoples' memories of her -- almost none of it is told from her perspective or with her as the subject.  There's a lot about all the people that surround her, her parents, in-laws, husbands, etc., but very little about her directly, so I guess the point is you're supposed to get a sense of what she was like from this second- or third-hand perspective.  It's an interesting approach, and I liked parts of it, but I wasn't that excited about it.  Maybe it was a bad choice for a book group that's just getting started. Honestly, I think it would have been great to discuss with my old library book group, because I know the people.  There's a lot to discuss in it about the role of women, etc.

Now I have totally rethink this book group thing. Anyone else start a book group from scratch? Any words of wisdom?  Do I need to have the people first, or pick the books first?  Any sure-fire book selections to draw people in?

If nothing else, at least I finished another title for my 2012 TBR Pile Challenge.  That's now three out of twelve, so I'm on track to finish at least one of my challenges this year.   How's everyone else doing with their challenges?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Classics Challenge: February Prompt

Mr. Pecksniff and Old Martin Chuzzlewit

This month's Classics Challenge Prompt is to write about characters.  I'm currently attempting to read Martin Chuzzlewit, one of Charles Dickens' lesser known novels.  It wasn't my first choice for Dickens but one of my online groups is reading it and it was on the TBR shelf, so I decided to give it a shot.

I've read about 150 pages so far and unfortunately not much is happening -- I don't even know enough about any particular character to really write about, so I'll give a bit about each one, as well as I can remember.   Dickens tends to throw a lot of different characters and situations at the reader in the first parts of his books; eventually, everything will tie up together somehow and all will be revealed.  Well, sort of.

Right now there are a lot of unpleasant characters, and a lot of them are named Chuzzlewit.  There are in fact two Martin Chuzzlewits in the story, Martin the elder and Martin the younger.  Martin the elder is a cantankerous old man with a lot of money, and an incomplete will.  He's traveling with a young woman Mary who is some kind of ward, when he appears to fall ill.  Suddenly the relatives appear out of the woodwork, to kiss up and try and ingratiate themselves.  They all show up at the inn where Martin is staying and start arguing amongst themselves.  It's kind of like a contest to see which one is the most revolting and annoying.

Meanwhile, another Chuzzlewit shows up in the vicinity, unbeknownst to the other relatives.  He's Martin the younger, a grandson who has fallen out of favor with Martin the elder.   By a complete and utter coincidence -- lots of these in Dickens novels -- young Martin has just arrived in the village to study architecture with his cousin, Mr. Pecksniff.  Like his name implies, Pecksniff is an annoying character, very full of himself, scheming, and hypocritical.  He has two unmarried daughters and is hoping to marry one of them off to Martin.  It also appears that he's going to get Martin to do all his work, then take all the credit.  I anticipate lots of horrible behavior from him based on his name alone -- Dickens is brilliant at giving vile characters such appropriate names!

The character I like best so far is Tom Pinch, who works for the Pecksniffs.  I'm not exactly sure what he does.  He seems to be an all-around helper, definitely some sort of servant, and the Pecksniffs are very condescending to him.  However, he's kind to young Martin and seems generally good-hearted.  Because he's nice, I predict that something terrible will happen to him before the book is out.

This post probably doesn't exactly fit the parameters of this month's prompt -- it's taken Dickens so long to introduce all these characters and set the scene, and as much as I love him, he is so very awfully wordy.  His descriptions are great and sometimes very funny, but doggone it, I really wish something would happen already!

Bloggers, have any of you read Martin Chuzzlewit?  Does it get better?  It's not terrible so far but I'm just not excited about it yet.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mrs. Craddock by W. Somerset Maugham

I'm very pleased to have finally finished Mrs. Craddock.  I'm a big fan of W. Somerset Maugham, and a couple of years ago I bought this one on the recommendation of Amanda from Ramblings.  We're in the same real-life classics book group at the library and we both love Maugham.  Our group read The Painted Veil back in 2009 and I loved it, and we're also discussing Of Human Bondage in June -- I read it years ago and it was one of the first classics I read for pleasure, so I'm really looking forward to re-reading it.

But back to Mrs. Craddock.  This is one of Maugham's lesser-known works -- in fact, I'd never even heard of it until Amanda recommended it.  My library didn't even own a copy, hence the purchase.  I think that's a real shame because I thought it was excellent.  And short -- it's only 268 pages, including footnotes.  If you're looking for a good short classic, look no further.

Basically, Mrs. Craddock is the story of an unhappy marriage in the late Victorian period. Young Bertha Leys returns to England after the death of her father, with whom she lived abroad for many years.  She's living with her Aunt Polly at the family estate, Leys Court, and falls in love with an attractive young man from her childhood -- it's one of the tenant farmers, Edward Craddock.  Despite the class differences, she is determined to have him.  There's a bit of grumbling from the family doctor and some snide comments from the neighbors, but Edward is a good, solid young man, and there aren't many other prospects for headstrong young Bertha, who is madly in love.

What follows is the breakdown of their marriage, at least from Bertha's point of view.  I wouldn't say this book is defending the arguments about marrying outside one's class, but more about how hard it is to marry someone with whom one has essentially nothing in common.  After the initial sexual attraction begins to wear off, these two people really have nothing in common.  Edward is a good man, but he's not very educated, and not interested in books or music or travel or anything that Bertha likes.  He wants to be the country squire, which he does successfully.   Of course, now that they're married, everything belongs to him.  She tries to make the best of things but is faced with one heartbreak after another.

This sounds really sad, and parts of it are, but the writing in this book is just wonderful, so I hope I haven't discouraged anyone from reading this book.  And surprisingly, parts of this book are actually really funny -- Bertha's Aunt Polly has quite a sharp tongue and she is the queen of the one-liners.  I'd love to see her go head-to-head with the Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey (also known as Maggie Smith).  In fact, Countess Violet would have been nearly the same age as Aunt Polly 30 years before, when the book begins, so there you are.  

Here's a couple of great lines from Aunt Polly.  Every time I read them, they sound just like Maggie Smith:

On marriage:  "Most people when they get married fancy they're doing quite an original thing.  It never occurs to them  that quite a number of persons have committed matrimony since Adam and Eve."

On class differences:  ". . . each set thinks itself quite as good as the set above it and has a profound contempt for the set below it.  In fact the only members of society who hold themselves in proper estimation are the servants.  I always think that the domestics of gentlemen's houses in South Kensington are several degrees less odious than their masters."

This book counts towards two challenges:  The Classics Challenge 2012 and the TBR Pile Challenge 2012.  I guess I could even count it towards the Victorian Challenge, since it was technically written in 1900 (though not published in 1902, so maybe that's dubious).  

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Recent Acquisitions

It's already February and I never posted about my holiday acquisitions!  Not only did I receive some nice books for Christmas, I also did a little shopping, both online and in a post-holiday trip to New York.

Here's what was under the Christmas tree:

Two audiobooks:  Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen AND A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin;

Two books I really really wanted:  Life Below Stairs by Sian Evans (to feed my Downton Abbey addiction); and The Earth by Emile Zola. . . . and (drumroll, please. . . )

The Great Penguin Bookchase game!!  I've been coveting this ever since I read about it on Thomas' blog My Porch.  Thanks for telling me about it, Thomas!   I haven't played it yet but I've had a lot of fun putting all the tiny little stickers on the books.

The week after Christmas I took my parents up to my favorite bookstore in the Lone Star State:  Bookpeople in Austin!  We had a lovely day and I bought two more books (for which I paid full price, supporting my local independent bookstore!):

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin and Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner

And a few days after Christmas I took my youngest on a her first-ever girl trip to New York City!!  One of the highlights was visiting Tom, one of my dear friends from college whom I hadn't seen in ages!  We were invited to a book exchange party -- everyone brought their favorite book from 2011 and we all talked about our books and swapped.  My contribution was The Annotated Persuasion by Jane Austen.  Here's what I brought home:

Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre.   I haven't read much nonfiction lately but I am interested in WWII.  Also, this book is actually related to one of the Persephones I read in 2011, Operation Heartbreak by Duff Cooper.  I don't want to give anything else away but if you plan on reading all the Persephones, don't read this book until you do, because it would give away a major plot point.  That's all I'll say.

But back to the New York trip!  Aside from visiting friends, museums, and the fashion district, we did a little book shopping -- honestly, I can't think of a single trip I've taken in the past few years when I didn't come home with at least one new book!  Naturally, we had to visit The Strand Bookstore in the Village.  I managed to keep my purchases down to only two books from the sale table in the basement:

Two more NYRB Classics to add to my collection (mostly unread!):  Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford and My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley.  And to my delight, my daughter bought a new book for the airplane ride home -- one of my all-time favorites, Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones!

On the way back to our hotel, we also stopped by Books of Wonder, the amazing children's bookstore, where I bought two more books:  

The Story of The Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit and a Welsh-language copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone!  This brings my total of foreign language Harry Potters to twelve in all.  

And by the end of the month I had broken down and made two more online purchases:

I had to buy The Last Chronicle of Barset because I finished the third book in the Barsetshire Chronicles, based on my reading of the wonderful Doctor Thorne (most of which I read while flying home from New York, because my flight was delayed).   My library doesn't even own a copy!  The fact that it's almost 900 pages long and there are two more books in between shall be ignored.

Finally, one of my online groups is reading one of the latest Persephones: 

It's Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple.  I've read two other books by her so far and loved them both.  We shall disregard the fact that there are three more on the TBR shelf unread, right?

Good thing I didn't sign up for the challenge where you don't buy any more books for the first three months of the year.  I would have utterly failed again!