Monday, June 18, 2018

Obscure: A New Podcast about Jude the Obscure

I think the universe is telling me to read more Thomas Hardy. I just finished two of his early works, Under the Greenwood Tree and A Pair of Blue Eyes, and I had planned to take a break from Hardy until maybe next year. And then I saw this tweet about a new podcast called Obscure with Michael Ian Black :

Comedian Michael Ian Black is tackling a great work of literature. Actually, Tackling might be too strong a word. More like “light caressing” plus a lot of complaining. He's reading the Thomas Hardy classic, Jude the Obscure, out loud and commenting as he goes. Join Michael, some of his famous (and non-famous) friends and experts as he discovers Jude’s world and a few things about his own. Is it a terrible idea? Probably. But it’s a terrible idea he wants to do with you.

A read-along podcast of a work of classic literature? Sign me up! I've listened to the first episode, which is about half an hour long and is an introduction with Black explaining how the podcast came about, and his reading and commenting on the first chapter (which is very short). I'm also wondering if he's only going to read one chapter a week, which might take almost a year -- by my count, there are 50 chapters in this book. I'm pretty sure I can't stretch out an audiobook of only 400 pages for an entire year -- I tend to get impatient towards the end and just read a print or digital copy. 
But I'm definitely interested in listening to a comedian's thoughts and comments on a great work of literature. 

So, I've already downloaded a digital audio copy of Jude from library (only a three-week checkout), and listened to the first chapter -- you can definitely tell the difference with a professional reader. Coincidentally, it's the same narrator, Frederick Davidson, who read my previous audiobook (An Old Man's Love). He's an excellent narrator and does all different voices and accents -- it's always a little weird for me to hear an American narrating a British book, so I definitely prefer listening to the book narrated by Davidson. I really enjoyed the first podcast -- Michael Ian Black is a little snarky, but now I'm imagining a whole series of comedians reading and commenting classic literature. Comedians in Cars Discussing Literature, if you will. 

You can subscribe for automatic downloads or just listen online. It looks like it's going to be an entire summer of Thomas Hardy for me after all. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

An Old Man's Love by Anthony Trollope: Not Actually As Creepy As the Cover Images

I'm not into the May-December romance thing but he looks much older than 50.

My recent track record with Trollope's shorter novels hasn't been great (I haven't forgotten Linda Tressel) but my library had a free digital download of An Old Man's Love on audio and I needed something to listen to, so I decided to give him another shot. This is Trollope's last completed novel; it's listed as published in 1884, though he died in 1882. (I'm not sure if the 1884 date is a serialization or posthumous publication of the complete novel). It's another of his short works, about 250 pages, and it didn't take long to listen to the entire book on audio.

Basically, this is a love triangle between young Mary Lawrie, an orphan (naturally) of about 25; her benefactor, the 50ish Mr. Whittlestaff; and her absent lover, John Gordon. As the novel begins, Mr. Whittlestaff is informed that the wife of his late friend Mr. Lawrie has died, leaving young Mary (her stepdaughter) penniless. He takes it upon himself to give Mary a home at his small Hampshire estate, Croker's Hall. Mr. Whittlestaff isn't wealthy but he has a quiet and comfortable life and is happy to have Mary in the household, rather than force her to make her way in the world as a governess. 

Eventually, he begins to develop romantic feelings for Mary, though he's old enough to be her father. Mr. Whittlestaff, proposes marriage, and Mary is fond of him and grateful for all he has done for her. She confesses that she was in love with a dashing young man named John Gordon, but her stepmother sent him packing because he had no money, though he was well-born and hardworking. It's been three years and she hasn't heard from John, so after struggling with her feelings, she accepts Whittlestaff's proposal. Wouldn't you know it, John Gordon, having made a fortune in the diamond mines of South Africa, shows up looking for her the very next day after she accepts. Who could imagine the coincidence??

Thus the dilemma ensues. Should Mr. Whittlestaff hold Mary to her promise to accept his proposal? What does Mary owe Mr. Whittlestaff? And will his housekeeper Mrs. Baggett ever shut up? 

As one of the shorter novels, the plot isn't very complex, but the writing was good and there were some amusing side characters. The housekeeper Mrs. Baggett has a parallel plot with an estranged drunkard husband who shows up after years in absentia, demanding financial support to continue his gin habit. She moans and wails and rolls her eyes and doesn't think Mary is good enough for Mr. Whittlestaff, yet can't abide the thought of Mary turning him down. She wants Mary to accept him to make him happy, but at the same time Mrs. Baguette doesn't want Mary to become mistress of the household and threatens to leave. It's enough to make your head spin.

There's also a delightful and garrulous vicar, the newly engaged Mr. Montagu Blake, an old schoolmate of John Gordon who decides to play cupid and encourage the match between Gordon and Mary Lawrie. This leads to the world's most awkward dinner party ever. 

Some of the characters in this book made me guffaw, snort, and yell out loud in response. I've heard that the quality of Trollope's writing declined in his later years but I really enjoyed this book, with one small quibble -- there are several racist comments about the workers in the South African diamond mines which made me really uncomfortable. I realize this was written well over 100 years ago, but it does make me disappointed in Trollope.

And now on to the bad book covers! I do realize that age 50 in the 1880s was considered old, but the image on the paperback version looks like a man in this 70s, at the very least. 

And what about this cover? It's pretty bad. 

This one isn't much better:

And while I was searching for the original Overdrive image I found this one, 
which left me speechless:

I literally have no words for this. I don't even want to imagine what they were thinking.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Lacquer Lady: Victorian Intrigue in Mandalay

A few years ago I was spending a weekend in Austin, Texas, just about a 90 minute drive from our home in San Antonio. It was a rainy Friday night, and my idea of fun is poking around bookstores. Just a short drive from my hotel was a massive Half-Price Books. If you are not familiar with HPB, it is a family-owned chain of used bookstores that started in Dallas, and it's all over Texas and quite a few other states. There are several locations in San Antonio but this one in Austin was the biggest I've ever seen, with an amazing selection. There were really nice collectible books and classics, and the fiction section had a whole bunch of Viragos, some in green covers, some in the original black. That's where I found The Lacquer Lady by F. Tennyson Jesse, first published in 1929.

Set in the late 1800s, the story begins with a young woman named Fanny Moroni, who is at a boarding school in Brighton. Having made a reputation for herself at school as being a teller of tall-tales, she leaves school to return to Upper Burma, where her family live. Her mother is half English and half Burmese, and her father is Italian and has a weaving business. He had once been a favorite of the king but had recently fall out of the circle. Fanny takes the long boat ride back to Mandalay with her schoolmate Agatha, who is also going to Burma to live with her missionary father. (At the time, Lower Burma was a British colony, and Upper Burma was still under royal control). 

While Agatha joins her father and his curate saving souls, Fanny's social circle moves among the community of foreigners who are occasionally allowed into the inner circle of the Burmese royals in Mandalay, and becomes close to one of the princesses, Supaya-lat, eventually becoming one of the ladies-in-waiting. Fanny isn't a terribly likable heroine -- she's very selfish and self-serving, and has been compared to Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair. 

Fanny was very aware of what people were like; she couldn't read through a book of Dickens, she couldn't have picked up newspaper and understood was anything about except the police-court cases, she couldn't have held an impersonal conversation on any subject whatsoever, but she had a sensitiveness, within her limitations, to human beings, that amounted to a talent, whenever her judgement was not obscured by her personal wishes. She was aware that she knew what the three men in the room were like far better than did Agatha, who had been seeing them for several days past. (Ch. V)

The royal court is thrown into turmoil when King Mindoon dies, leaving many sons by various wives and no definite heir to the throne. Fanny is sometimes in and sometimes out, but her fate is intwined with her friend Supaya-lat, and eventually, she unwittingly becomes a key player of the British invasion and takeover of Upper Burma. 

This book started out rather slowly, but it really picked up about a third of the way after the king died and there were a lot of palace intrigues, some of them quite bloody and horrifying. This book is loosely based on actual events, and I didn't realize until I read the afterword Fanny isn't just a made-up character -- she's actually based on a real person, though the circumstances are not exactly the same. I'm also really intrigued by the writer -- F. Tennyson Jesse was not only a great-niece of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, she was a criminologist and journalist and was one of the few women to report on WWI. Her most famous novel is A Pin to See the Peepshow, which is based the notorious 1920s murder case of Edith Thompson and Frederic Bywaters. (I bought of copy after listening to Simon and Rachel's Tea or Books? podcast from last year; naturally, I still haven't read it!)

I was particularly interested in this novel because I've actually been to Burma, albeit very briefly. Years ago we were stationed in Japan and I met a friend in Bangkok who was visiting her son who worked at the consulate. After a few days in the city, we drove with her son and his friend up to Chiang Rai, where the friend had bought a retirement home. It's near the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, and we were actually able to walk over the bridge to Myanmar and shop in the market. We couldn't stay very long because the border crossing closed at 5 p.m., but I can say that I've actually been there. 

This is my eighth book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018! I'm making great progress on my list. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Mini Persephone Readathon: Heat Lightning by Helen Hull

In theory I should sit down instantly and record my thoughts about a novel as soon as I've finished it, but sometimes I really need to take a day or two to mull over and absorb first. I had hoped to write this post yesterday in time for the Mini Persephone Readathon hosted by Jessie at Dwell in Possibility but as is often the case, I'm a day or two behind. I did zoom through my selection, Heat Lightning, in just over two days, which isn't bad considering I had three other books in the rotation.

Nevertheless. Helen Hull's Heat Lightning, published in 1932, is one of the few American Persephone novels, and like many books about domestic life, it is about nothing in particular and everything at the same time. Set in the hot, airless summer of 1930 in a fictional small town in Michigan, it's the story of thirtyish Amy Norton, who has left New York City for a family visit. Her husband is off fishing in Canada (as my own father used to do); and her two children are away at camp.

Amy is the prodigal daughter, the only one to move Far Far Away from her hometown, where her extended family still live. Her late grandfather was a successful businessman, and her family are the prominent Westovers, who own a plough factory and like so many of the period, are facing hard times after the financial crisis of 1929. Amy's visit coincides with the early delivery of her younger sister's baby (her fourth or fifth daughter), plus a number of other family crises in which quite a few family secrets, prejudices, and scandals are revealed. The center of this story is the matriarch, Amy's grandmother, who lives next door to her parents and pretty much still rules the family with a firm but loving hand. 
An early edition of Heat Lightning

This novel started out a little slowly with Amy's arrival into town, but picked up pretty quickly with the reveal of a pretty big family secret, and kept on rolling from there. There are a lot of family members -- sisters, brothers, cousins, in-laws -- and I was happy to see a list of the characters and their relationships listed in the front. I'm sure I would have gotten the story quite confused without it. I'm not sure if it's the sign of good or bad writing if the author has to list it up front, but I was glad to have it.

Ostensibly this is a domestic novel, but it was really a sort of microcosm about life in that time period. It's rather timely with some talk about immigration and "foreign invasion" -- which include Italian immigrants (with a few slurs); a French sister-in-law who I can only assume is a war bride; a cousin's wife who is the child of German immigrants; and a Lithuanian domestic, who had been referred to as being of "a different race." I can only imagine how the Westovers would have reacted to  my mother's family of Polish/Germans, who were farmers in Alpena which is northern Michigan.

Heat Lightning also has some really good and insightful writing about family life and marriage, as Amy begins to reconcile her family's history and relationships, and the struggles within her own marriage are revealed. I really enjoyed this book and I'm glad that Persephone chose to reprint it as one of their American selections.

Finally, I have to make a comment about the endpapers, which are one of the nicest features of Persephone books. I imagine that the publishers tried to find an American fabric from the period to use, and I was delighted to see on the website that the name is "Memories of the Alamo" -- not quite the Midwestern setting of the book, but I love that this book set my home state of Michigan also incorporates a little bit of San Antonio, where I spent eleven years. If you look closely you can see that iconic Texas building in the print.

This is my seventh book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018. And thanks again to Jessie at Dwell in Possibility for hosting the Mini Persephone Readathon which inspired me to read this book.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

15 Books of Summer

There's a meme going around for 20 books of summer, but when I started compiling this list I realized some of mine are real whoppers, so I'm cutting it back to fifteen. I'm not usually good at finishing specific lists, unless it's for a challenge, but I wrote a post a couple of months ago of the Top Ten Books on my Spring TBR List, and I'm happy to say that I've finished eight of them so far and started the ninth. Who knows, maybe I'll actually succeed with this list as well.

A detailed list:

1. Heat Lightning by Helen Hull. A Persephone I received as a Mother's Day gift a few years ago, it's on my TBR Pile Challenge List; also, there's a mini Persephone Readathon this weekend so I really want to finish it in time.

2. The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett. I bought this at a library sale about 10 years ago, it is probably one of the books I've had owned and unread the longest. I downloaded the audio from the San Antonio Public Library and I need to finish it before my library card expires! (It's not pictured because I can't actually find my print copy -- could I have donated it to the library before we moved two years ago?)

3. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. For my book group that meets next week before we break for the summer. Luckily  it's quite short, under 200 pages (which is why we chose it.) Highly recommended by Simon from Stuck in a Book.

4. London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes. Already started, but it's 450 pages of biweekly essays written for the New Yorker magazine. Not like I can zip through it. It's on my TBR Pile Challenge list, I'm making good progress this year.

5. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Also on my TBR Pile Challenge list -- it's almost 700 pages long! But I've heard it's amazing and there's a readlong that starts June 1.

4. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. One of my daughter's favorites, I've been putting it off forever because I am afraid of Dostoevsky. There's a new translation which I will try to get from the library. I can also use this for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

5. Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell. Book #6 in the Barsetshire series (I've actually skipped #3, The Demon in the House, but I'm told you can skip around the series).

6. In Confidence by Irene Nemirovsky. I thought her short story collection Dimanche and Other Stories was absolutely brilliant, so when I saw this new collection on a blog, I ordered it immediately. More than a year ago! It's quite short so I should be able to finish it quickly.

7. The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith. Published in 1963, it's by the author of I Capture the Castle, one of my favorites. I love mid-century fiction and I was actually able to get it from the library!

8. Tom Tiddler's Ground by Ursula Orange. This was a birthday gift -- a year ago, and I still haven't read it. It's a Furrowed Middlebrow reprint by Dean Street Press, highly recommended by Simon and Rachel in the Tea or Books? podcast.

11. An Old Man's Love by Anthony Trollope. Also available on audio from the library. Trollope is tough to find on audio, especially the standalone novels, so I was delighted to find this on OneClick Digital for download.

12. Barmy in Wonderland by P. G. Wodehouse. Because Wodehouse is the perfect summer read.

13. Bond Street Story by Norman Collins -- because I loved London Belongs to Me (and also recommend by Rachel from Booksnob. It's another doorstopper, almost 500 pages and also oddly oversized.

14. The Day of the Scorpion by Paul Scott. (Not pictured). Second in the Raj Quartet series, it's only on audio download from the library -- but, luckily, the library card that isn't expiring! I have a year left if I want to finish the series before we move back to the U. S. (though of course I can find in a library when I return).

15. Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy. Bought last year in a secondhand shop in Charing Cross Road on a trip to London.

Let's see if I can finish all of these by Labor Day which is September 3. Bloggers, which are your favorites? And what's on your summer reading list?

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A Pair of Blue Eyes is On the Verge of Victorian Sensation

I hadn't planned on reading two books by Thomas Hardy back-to-back, but Under the Greenwood Tree was so short that I felt like I hadn't given Hardy enough attention. (Also, my San Antonio library card is expiring soon, and the Air Force Library didn't have it on audio). A Pair of Blue Eyes is another of Hardy's lesser-known early works, but it was much better than I expected and I think I liked it nearly as much as Far From the Madding Crowd, which is my favorite Hardy book so far. It's got plenty of drama and pastoral scenes, and a really interesting premise. 

So. This is the story of young Elfride Swancourt, daughter of a widowed vicar in Wessex. When the story begins, she is awaiting the visit of an architect who is coming from London to make some drawings and plans for renovating her father's parish, where they have lived for a year or so. Unfortunately her father has had an attack of gout and is confined to his room, so Elfride will have to act as hostess to this dull man. Little does she know!

It turns out that this architect (assistant, really) is Stephen Smith, and he is young and handsome, and nearly the same age as she -- about twenty. Sparks fly, her father takes to Stephen, who is intelligent and well-spoken, and Stephen extends his visit as long as possible. Reverend Swancourt invites him to come back for a longer visit when he gets his holidays. Sounds great, right? But of course not, the path of true love never did run smoothly. It turns out Stephen is unworthy of Elfride, and after a secret engagement, he goes off to India to seek his fortune so he can make a proper offer. 

Meanwhile, Reverend Swancourt decides he needs to get Elfride married off as soon as possible, and produces a wealthy stepmother to help guide her along the way. After some time in London, the new Mrs. Swancourt (who is not the evil stepmother I was expecting) invites her cousin Henry Knight for a visit. Henry is a clever yet somewhat pedantic writer -- who happens to be Stephen's former tutor and mentor. (Where would Victorian literature be without these amazing coincidences?) Naturally, Henry becomes enamored of the beautiful Elfride, and she's challenged by his intellect. Of course, she begins to forget about Stephen, who is already en route from India. Thus the love triangle ensues. There is plenty of drama, and descriptions of walks in the woods, and a narrow escape from death on a cliff which I still can't picture exactly in my head. (Apparently this scene may be the origin of the literary term "cliffhanger.")

I really enjoyed this book but I definitely had some issues with some of the characters, especially Henry Knight, whom I would have loved throttling. Some of the symbolism was kind of heavy-handed and there was definitely a lot of foreshadowing, and a plot twist at the end that I saw coming from a mile away. 

Also, there's a lot of Victorian attitudes about women in this book that made me roll my eyes so hard I was afraid they'd fall out of my head -- hopefully that was Hardy's point. I don't want to give away too much but there were some parallels with this novel and Trollope's Linda Tressel -- but I liked this one much more, probably because there was a lot more character development and I guess I kind of expected the melodramatic ending from Hardy more than Trollope. I might even classify A Pair of Blue Eyes as a Victorian sensation novel -- it was published in 1873, only two years after Desperate Remedies, which apparently falls in the sensation category so I'd really like to read it also. 

I've never read any Victorian authors' works in order of publication, but I think that would be really interesting to see the progression -- I can see how A Pair of Blue Eyes is more complex and dramatic than Under the Greenwood Tree but it's not nearly as tragic as The Return of the Native or Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I still haven't read Jude the Obscure but I've definitely gained a new appreciation for Hardy -- I might even reread Tess and actually like it this time around.

I really did enjoy this book, which I've owned for more than ten years, and I'm looking forward to reading more Hardy. Which should I read next -- one of the early novels, like Desperate Remedies? Or should I skip to the end and tackle Jude the Obscure?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

According to my Goodreads account, I joined on March 3, 2008, and started making a list of books (mostly classics) that I wanted to read. Some of those book are still on my TBR shelves and have been haunting me for more than ten years. Two of them are less-famous works by Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree and A Pair of Blue Eyes -- which I recently discovered were available on audiobook download from the library. After ten years, I was finally inspired to take a crack at Under the Greenwood Tree, which sounded like just thing to listen to while walking the dog in my pastoral neighborhood.

Hill near my house.

Some of the neighbors.

The book begins with a group of local musicians in the rural village of Mellstock. They're out making the rounds on Christmas Day, as one does. There are fiddlers and singers from the choir, and as they're out and about, one of the members named Dick Dewy sees the young schoolmistress and is instantly smitten. Fancy Day (her real name) is beautiful and educated, and the local vicar is planning on replacing the traditional choir with Miss Day as the new organist. The vicar is also very attracted to Fancy, as is Frederic Shiner, a local farmer. It seems like the odds are against Dick and Fancy's match, especially because Fancy herself is rather flirtatious with other men, and seems to take Dick's love for granted.

This is Hardy's second published novel, and though I enjoyed it, there's not that much to it. The writing was good (despite my dislike of dialect) but the plot isn't terribly complex and I didn't think the characters were particularly well-developed -- it almost felt like this could have been part of a longer novel with more back story or plot complications. This book had some good points but I really expected more drama given the circumstances. It's a very quick read, under 200 pages, and it wouldn't be a bad place to start with Thomas Hardy if you're a little intimidated by Tess of the D'Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure.

I still have Jude on the TBR shelves and I've just started A Pair of Blue Eyes so I plan on making lots of progress with my Hardy reading list. I'm also intrigued by Desperate Remedies which is apparently more of a Victorian Sensation novel, which sounds like fun. 

Anyone else read Under the Greenwood Tree? How do you think it compares to other books by Hardy? 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

My Blog's Name in Books

This meme's been going around the blogosphere, I'll play. All of these are books from my TBR shelves. I did not know until I wrote this post that my blog name has 18 letters.

B: Bella Poldark by Winston Graham. The twelfth and final book in the series, I still have two left to go. I was a little disappointed by the third season of Poldark so I haven't really been inspired to pick up the eleventh book, The Twisted Sword. Which is also on the TBR shelves, naturally.

O: One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens. Bought at Shakespeare & Company in Paris, from the used book table out front. My edition has an inscription "Wishing you a very happy Christmas and to visit England in the New Year, with love from Arch, Joan & the children -- Christmas 1952." I love it when old books have names and dates of the people who previously owned them.

O: Our Hidden Lives: The Remarkable Diaries of Postwar Britain by Simon Garfield. I'm fascinated by this period of history.

K: Kept in the Dark by Anthony Trollope. That's a terrible cover (her face is so white compared to her ears which are really pink!) but I only have two books on the TBR shelf that fit for the letter K, and the other one is also by Trollope (The Kellys and the O'Kellys).

S: Slipstream: A Memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I still haven't read any of her books other than the Cazalet series, which I loved. It sounds like she had a fascinating life.

A: At the Still Point by Mary Benson. I know nothing about this book other than it's a green-spined VMC and it's about South Africa under apartheid. Bought at the wonderful John King Books in Detroit.

N: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. I love this retro pulp-fiction inspired cover. It's one the last of the books I won in the Penguin Classics drawing a few years ago that are still unread (I've pretty much given up on The Metamorphosis as I cannot bring myself to read a book about a giant bug).

D: La Debacle by Emile Zola. Still working my way through the Rougon-Macquart series. This is supposed to one of the best war novels ever and was his bestselling novel during his lifetime, but I keep putting it off. It's really long and it looks rather dire, I feel like it's going to be full of extended battle scenes which are NOT my favorite.

C: The Caravaners by Elizabeth Von Arnim. It's supposed to be very funny so I'm saving it for next year when I include Classic Humor as one of the categories for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

H: The Hireling by L. P. Hartley. I've only read The Go-Between by Hartley but it was really good. I found this at Shakespeare and Company a couple of years ago and still haven't read it.

O: An Old Man's Love by Anthony Trollope. Probably my next Trollope, simply because there's an audio for free digital download at my library.

C: The Children by Edith Wharton. One of the books that's been on the TBR pile the longest. I would love to cross this off my to-read list.

O: The Other Day by Dorothy Whipple. Bought after hearing about it on the wonderful Tea or Books? podcast hosted by Simon and Rachel. It was a little pricy, and I suspect Persephone may reprint it now that they've published all her novels and most of her short stories.

L: Love Among the Ruins by Angela Thirkell. I have about a dozen Thirkells unread on my shelves. This is #17 in the series so it'll be a while before I get to this one, I've only read four so far.

A: Antidote to Venom by Freeman Willis Crofts. I bought four of these beautiful British Crime Classics on a trip to London last year and still haven't read any of them. I think I chose this one because the main character is a zoo director.

T: Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy. A Virago I found in a Charing Cross bookshop last year. Historical fiction written in 1953, about a Victorian man researching a scandalous Regency-era ancestor. Midcentury, Victorian, AND Regency, all in one book!

E: East Wind, West Wind by Pearl S. Buck. I love the covers of these Moyer-Bell editions.

Looking over these selections I realized how many of them are British authors so I did a quick count -- less than 25% of my unread books are by non-Brits! I suspect I bought them all because I tend not to buy books anymore unless I can't get them in the library.

I wouldn't mind reading any or all of these in the next couple of months -- bloggers, which of these books should I read first?

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott

After watching the Masterpiece drama Indian Summers in 2015/2016 I became fascinated with the British Raj. I was really annoyed when the series wasn't renewed so to comfort myself I searched for as many books as I could find about the period, and The Jewel in the Crown was at the top of my to-read list. I received the first book of the series for Christmas last year and realized is almost 500 pages of tiny print and it is dense. Luckily, it was also available on audio via digital download from my library! It took me more than a month to listen to the audio on 1.25 speed, but I finally finished it.

Here's the setup: most of the story takes place in 1942 in Mayapore, a fictional place in India, towards the end of the British Raj, or authority over India. It's pretty obvious the Indian population is ready for independence but the British are resisting, using the war with Japan as an excuse -- they are afraid that a Japanese invasion will loosen their final hold on India. After the Indian National Congress votes to support Gandhi, riots break out, and a young English woman named Daphne Manners is raped and a group of young men are arrested by the local police. The police sergeant has ulterior motives because he is in love with Daphne, but she's actually in love with an Indian journalist, Hari Kumar, who is among the group of innocent men arrested and tortured. The same evening, another British school teacher named Edwina Crane is attacked by a gang as she drives back to Myapore from a remote village. She isn't physically harmed but her companion, an Indian teacher from the school, is beaten to death by the gang as she looks on in horror.

The format of the book is unusual, not told in traditional chapters, but in different long sections which are alternately third person narration of different characters, police reports, interviews, and diary entries. It seemed a bit disjointed at first, changing viewpoints every 50 or 100 pages, but the reader begins to get a more complete picture of the complicated relationship between the British and the Indians in the years before the end of the Raj. The narrators and writers are both Indian and British, and though I liked the audio version (which clocked in at more than 22 hours), but the narrator has a very clipped, posh accent for the British characters, but I didn't much care for the accent he gave the Indians. 

Overall, though, I really found the story fascinating, even though the central event is quite brutal (though it's never described in specific detail). I feel like Daphne and Hari's relationship was symbolic of the relationship between India and Britain, and how things could go horribly wrong. It's always tricky reading colonial literature written by white people but Scott takes a really unflinching look at the British in India, and it isn't very flattering. He also takes some serious jabs at both the British and Indian class systems, and the racism between the British and Indians is just devastating and extremely timely. 

I found Hari and Daphne's story really heartbreaking, but the book is really engaging as soon as you get used to the format and I'm eager to read the next three volumes. The other three are also available on audio digital download but I think I need to take a break before diving into the next one as they're equally long -- the final volume is more than 600 pages in print and more than 27 hours of audio! There was also a TV adaptation filmed in the 1980s that was voted one of Masterpiece Theater's all-time favorites, but I will probably wait until I've finished reading (and listening) to the books before I watch it.  

I'm counting this as my 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge

Monday, May 7, 2018

Classics Spin # 17: One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

So I'm nearly a week behind with Classics Spin #17, but better late than never. My spin pick was One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, a slim novella of a mere 184 pages. One would think it would be easy enough to finish this book in time --I was so confident that I could zoom through this book in a day that I literally left it to the last minute. Of course, I was wrong.

It's a short book, but not one that I would recommend rushing. As the title suggests, it's a single day in the life of Laura Marshall, who lives in Wealding, a fictional English in Sussex. It's shortly after the end of the war, and her husband Stephen commutes by train to his job in the city; daughter Victoria, about 9 or 10, is off to school and then visiting a friend afterward for tea.

Laura goes about her early summer day, filled with the normal tasks of cleaning, cooking, shopping and errands. The family live in a big house that once had several servants, but now must make do with a part-time daily charwoman and elderly gardener. Her tasks that day include asking a local youth to help out with the gardening maintenance; putting an advertisement in the local paper for a cook.

The reader really gets a feeling of what life was like in the aftermath of the war. The book was published in 1947 and it's very obvious that WWII is still very fresh, with rationing, queueing, and German POWs still working on local farms. Laura picks a basket of gooseberries for her husband's work assistant who lives in London; there are mentions of the sudden availability of oranges, and daughter Victoria longs to live on a farm where milk and cream are there for the taking.

It seems like any ordinary day, it's really a microcosm of how life was changing in England, neatly encapsulated in less than 200 pages. Much of the story is also focused on how life was before the war and how it will never be the same due to changes in class and social structure. Laura and her family are faced with the impossibility of finding help, as all the working-class people are no longer interested in service. Laura's snobby mother can't understand why her daughter has to -- gasp -- do housework! but the local squire's wife has faced reality and is moving off her crumbling estate to smaller housing and has given over her mansion to the National Trust. The young man asked for gardening help has no interest in sticking around the little poky village, and is ready to move on to bigger and better things.

Overall, this book is just beautifully written, too good to zip through in a single sitting.

How hot it was! The midday heat was rising to a head, like milk to the boil, singing in a clotted hum of bees, of crickets among the sorrel and daisies, of gnats dancing above the cresses tugged all one way by the trickle of water running under the hedge. An old woman came out with a pail, hobbling across the lane to the tap dripping among the moss. She had lived to see men flying overhead like birds; to stand among the hollyhocks watching bombs spluttering across the stars to kill a family forty miles away; to turn a switch and hear the great voice from Westminster correcting her kitchen clock. 

I loved this book and it was the perfect read for a beautiful spring day. I read a good chunk of it on Saturday afternoon sitting outside in the Japanese garden in Kaiserslautern. I didn't take any photos this time but here's one of my favorites from last year.

Mollie Panter-Downes worked for years as a correspondent for the New Yorker magazine and as a short story writer; sadly, she really didn't write many novels. However, I've read and enjoyed both of her short story collections published by Persephone, and I also own London War Notes, a collection of her wartime columns which was thankfully republished (also by Persephone) because the previous edition from the 1970s was terribly expensive.  It's on my TBR Pile Challenge list so I'm hoping to get to it before the end of the summer.