Monday, January 23, 2023

Back To the Classics Challenge 2022: The Winner!

 Congratulations to Joseph at The Once Lost Wanderer

Joseph won a $30 gift card so he can get even more books to read in 2022! Many thanks and congratulations to everyone who participated in this challenge -- 69 people signed up, and 24 people completed the challenge. And a special mention of Flicker who completed her entire list with Japanese books in translation; and also to Major Yammerton who completed the challenge and did a second round! 

We're all winners because we got to share the joy of books and each one of us crossed some classic books off our to-read lists!. I hope everyone enjoyed all the new books and authors they discovered. 

As some of you may have guessed, I'm taking a break from blogging right now and so I'm going to take this year off from reading challenges, including my own. Lately I've felt like challenges and goals are too much pressure and are taking some of the fun out of my reading, so it's time to take a break and just read for pleasure. Hopefully this will inspire me, and by the end of the year I can plan for another Back to the Classics Challenge in 2024. 

Thanks again to everyone for participating and I hope you find plenty of joy in your reading in 2023. Happy reading everyone!

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Back to the Classics 2022: Final Wrap-Up Posts


Have you finished the Back to the Classics Challenge? Congratulations! This is where you'll link up to your Challenge Wrap-Up Post, after you've completed a minimum of six different categories from the original challenge post. This post is only for Challenge Wrap-Up Posts. If you do not have a blog, or anywhere you post publicly, please write up your post-challenge thoughts/suggestions/etc in the comments section below. Please read the directions carefully. 

By linking or commenting here, you are declaring that you have completed the challenge; that each book reviewed fits the correct definition of the category, and was published no later than 1972 (except for posthumous publications); and that your reviews for each category are linked to the correct post. If I cannot find links to your reviews, I cannot give you credit and thus enter you into the drawing. THIS is where I will look at the end of the year and randomly choose the winner for the bookish prize. 

Please remember to indicate the following within THIS POST, linked below, or in the comments section below if you do not have your own blog:

1. Which book corresponds to each category;
2. The number of entries you have earned for the prize drawing; 
3. Links to your reviews. 

If you do NOT include links to your original reviews IN THIS POST, I CANNOT ENTER YOU INTO THE DRAWING.

  • If you've completed six categories and you get one entry.
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries.
  • Complete all twelve categories, and your name is entered into the drawing three times!

Please be sure and include some kind of contact for me within your final wrap-up post. This year, I will be contacting the winner privately BEFORE posting their name publicly on this blog. If I cannot contact you, I cannot award your prize. If there is no contact on your blog post, please email me at karenlibrarian13 [at] yahoo [dot] com.

I can also message the winner via Goodreads, so if you are posting reviews via your Goodreads account, I can contact you that way also.

The deadline to link your wrap-up post is December 31, 2021 at 11:59 PM, Pacific Standard Time. I will notify the winner the first week of January. 

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Mr. Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim

I found this book several years ago at an antique bookstore in Fredericksburg, TX, a very cute little town outside of San Antonio, full of boutiques and antique stores. Or maybe it was Boerne -- so many quaint places in the Hill Country, I can't keep them all straight. Anyway, I was pleased to find a first edition of a book by Elizabeth von Arnim, one of my favorite writers. Naturally it sat on the shelf for a good ten years before I finally decided to read it. 

Lots of Italian reprints of von Arnim's novels.
Nice cover but it really doesn't reflect the mood of the book.

So. Published in 1940, the book begins with Lady Frances (Fanny) Skeffington, who is recovering from a serious illness. She's on the verge of her 50th birthday, and is basically going through a mid-life crisis. In her early twenties Fanny married a rich older man, Job Skeffington, to save her beloved brother's estate, but finally divorced him after his multiple affairs with office girls. She never remarried but for the last twenty years or so has had multiple romances with various men. Now nearing 50, her stunning beauty has faded and she begins to consider her past life and relationships; also, she keeps having visions of her ex-husband Job. 

Nice cover on this French edition

First Fanny consults unsuccessfully with a famous London specialist, whom she finds insulting; then, she decides to revisit all her past lovers, which becomes more and more embarrassing as she acknowledges that they were really all attracted to her by her stunning beauty -- another Helen of Troy, much like Lady Ruby MacLean in The Loved and Envied. Time and illness have stripped her of her looks and most of her past lovers and friends are shocked at her appearance. 

Apparently this novel was much beloved and even adapted into a movie starring Bette Davis, but it isn't my favorite of von Arnim's novels. I found it really sad and kind of painful -- Fanny really needs to find validation from men, and she isn't getting it. (And most of her female friends were really pretty unpleasant). I don't know if it was supposed to be funny or if von Arnim was trying to make a point about women in the mid-century. This was her last novel and she herself had an unhappy first marriage, then an affair with writer H. G. Wells, and an unhappy second marriage. 

The other issue I had with this book was the anti-Semitism. Fanny's ex-husband Job is Jewish, and this is brought up multiple times in a rather uncomfortable way. (There's also another awful character who has recently returned from the South Pacific and is really racist, but he's clearly meant to be terrible).  Without giving away the ending, I will say that Fanny takes the high road, but I was really wondering how this would all pan out, especially with the backdrop of the War and Jews in Europe, which is finally acknowledged. So it all basically comes right in the end but the whole book was just kind of awkward and uncomfortable for me. I cannot imagine how this translates to a film, but it's available for rent on Amazon for only $3 so I might give it a try, though I honestly don't see Bette Davis as Fanny. 

So, not among my favorites of her novels, but I still have three left on the shelves unread -- The Caravaners, Vera, and The Jasmine Farm. I'm really hoping I like those better. 

I'm counting this as my Classic by a Woman Author for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Bethel Merriday by Sinclair Lewis (with Bonus Bad Book Covers)

Original 1940 dust jacket cover

Like all artists -- all painters, all musicians, all poets, even some of those plodding recorders, the novelists -- actors are glorious children, with a child's unwearied delight in the same story over again, and the child's ability to make dragons grow in a suburban garden, but with an adult magic of crystallizing the daydreams into enduring life. 

In the summer of 2019 I took a little jaunt to Ellicott City, Maryland, officially known as The Cutest Little Town in the USA. It's really just a long winding street up a steep hill, lined on either side with quaint shops and restaurants, the perfect place to spend the day puttering about. At the bottom of the hill is a multi-level antique mall, which is a great place to look for obscure books. Needless to say I found several that intrigued me, one of which was Bethel Merriday by Sinclair Lewis. Famous for his satires Elmer Gantry, Babbitt, and Main Street, he actually published more than 30 novels. I'd never heard of Bethel Merriday and was intrigued. A quick online search described it as "the story of a young girl on the stage," and since I've become really interested in the theater the past few years I thought I'd give it a go. Plus it was a first American edition! (but sadly no dust jacket -- I've found an image of the original, plus there have been some hideously bad pulp covers on paperbacks, included for your amusement).

This 1960 paperback cover makes it look really steamy. It is not.

So. It starts with Bethel as a small child growing up in Connecticut, realizing that she loves to play-act. Eventually she goes off to a women's college and snags a few parts, and despite her family and friends trying to convince her to settle down and marry her home-town honey, she persuades her parents to do a sort of summer theater internship, where (for a fee) she gets a few small parts and does a lot of behind the scenes work in a small theater in a disused former church. Bethel then decides to try her luck on Broadway, and after several months of struggling, discovers that someone from the summer stock company is mounting a new touring production of Romeo and Juliet, with a shocking modern interpretation -- well, shocking in that the actors are all wearing modern clothes. She manages to finagle herself a job as a secretary to the producer/lead actor, the handsome and wealthy Andy Deacon, who is spending all his money on this endeavor. Bethel is also the understudy for Mrs. Boyle, a semi-famous actress who has accepted the part of Juliet for an astronomical sum.

The whole crew go on the road, bringing the Bard to small-town America. By now it's 1938 and the threat of war is looming, but there's very little mention of "the situation in Europe." It's really about the day-to-day struggles of this low-budget touring company and their attempts to at least break even, and the relationships that develop among the players. As the lead character, naturally young Bethel has her admirers -- I counted at least six proposals of marriage Bethel receives from various men in the book, and it might have been more.

 A very pulpy 1962 paperback edition, also laughably bad. 

I enjoyed reading about all the backstage drama and trouble that the company faced, which probably wouldn't be much different today, except they'd probably be in a giant motor coach instead of Pullman cars. (I love traveling by train and the idea of a sleeper car sounds delightful -- they still exist in the USA but they're quite expensive and train food isn't very good any more so I don't know if I'll ever try it). I liked Bethel and the other characters but the story is lacking the real satire that I expected after reading Main Street. I really didn't get a lot of character development, especially with Bethel, who is really a bit too perfect. I've seen other readers complain that the book mostly ignores the buildup of WWII -- the book was first published in 1940 and it is a bit odd, though Lewis had addressed the rise of facism in his 1935 work, It Can't Happen Here. Maybe he really wanted a break from the war and needed to write something escapist? I don't know enough about Lewis to speculate. 

There are three classes in the audience in a  city theater: those who can afford to go -- of whom some really like the play; those who want it thought they can afford to go -- they are too engaged in hoping they look like regular and expert theatergoers to have much attention left for the play itself; and the students up in the gallery, who love the play savagely or hate it volubly.

A Spanish edition from 1946. This one is actually quite pretty.

Bethel Merriday was a fairly quick read and pleasant diversion, if a bit predictable. I liked it though it's not particularly memorable. If you're not a theater lover or a big fan of coming-of-age stories, I don't know if you'd enjoy it. The writing is good and Lewis gets in some good zingers here and there, but I"m not surprised it's mostly fallen into obscurity. 

This is my eighth book for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Paris in July 2022: The Loved and Envied by Enid Bagnold

My fourth book for this years Paris in July is The Loved and Envied, a Virago reprint I've owned for several years (I can't even remember where I bought it -- it has the price in USD). Originally published in 1951, it's a novel for adults by Enid Bagnold, most famous for her children's book National Velvet (which I've never seen nor read).

Inspired by the life of Lady Diana Cooper, it's the story of aristocratic families living in Paris after WWII. Though their titles are French, some of the characters are actually British. Most of the action is centered around the beautiful and charismatic Lady Ruby Maclean. Now in her mid-fifties, she's has been happily married to Sir Gynt Maclean for many years, but has always had a large circle of admiring men who find her irresistible -- Sir Gynt first saw her while walking down the street and instantly fell in love with her at first sight. She's basically Helen of Troy and men will do anything for her, much to the chagrin of her only daughter Miranda, who has always been overshadowed by her mother.

Also in the Macleans social circle is Edouard, the elderlyVicomte de Bas-Pouilly and his mistress Rose; Alberti, the Duca de Roccafergolo, who rents a cottage on the Vicomte's estate; Rudi Holbein, a famous playwright; and his ex-wife Cora, an artist and great friend of Lady Ruby. 

The Virago reprint. The cover image is the portrait of Lady Diana Cooper by J. J. Shannon.

The story begins the opening night of Rudi's latest play, with most of the characters in attendance, and what follows over the next few weeks. It's another book in which not much happens, yet many things happen, largely character driven. Most of the characters are aging aristocrats and much of the story concerns aging and mortality, particularly the question of aging beauty. Lady Ruby is 53 and still all the men hover around her, even those young enough to be her sons. 

The original 1951 cover

The story jumps around quite a bit at the beginning giving back story to all the characters surrounding Lady Ruby and their relationships to her. The first half was almost like a set of short stories about them before they actually got to the main character. Honestly, I don't even remember much about her except the many descriptions of how beautiful she is and was, and that got a little tiresome. It's well written and I liked a lot of the characters, but I found everyone besides Lady Ruby to be far more interesting than she was and would have loved to read more about them and less about her. I particularly liked the back story of Cora Holbein and would happily have read an entire novel about her.

One thing I didn't particularly like was (yet again) some of the persistent racism and some homophobia. Ruby's daughter Miranda is living in Jamaica for part of the book and there are some unfortunate slurs. There's more than one gay character and at first I thought the book was surprisingly progressive, then another gay character showed up at the end and yikes some of it was pretty cringe-worthy. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised since it was published in the 1950s but I still hate it.

Though nearly all the story takes place in France, many of the characters are British so it doesn't feel especially French. It was an interesting look at aristocrats of the period but it isn't one of the best Viragos I've read so far.

This is my eighth book completed for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Paris In July: Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir


I am extremely pleased with myself for finally finishing this book! I bought it more than ten years ago on a visit to the Frick Museum in New York City, when I went to see an exhibit of Dutch masters. Apparently they didn't have anything else in the gift shop and but the pretty cover of this NYRB classic (it's a detail from Garden at the Rue Cortot, Montmartre painted in 1876, below. It's at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh). 

So. I've owned this book forever and I know I've put it on my list of books to read for Paris in July multiple times. I finally cracked it open a couple of weeks ago and though it's not a fast read, I really enjoyed it. I love art and I'm fascinated by the lives of artists. I wouldn't say Renoir is my favorite Impressionist but I really gained a new appreciation of his work from reading this book. 

Originally published in 1958, it's a memoir by filmmaker Jean Renoir, Auguste Renoir's middle son. Jean was wounded during WWI and as he convalesced with his elderly father, who was already crippled with rheumatism, the younger Renoir spent a lot of time talking to his father about the artist's life. The book is a combination of a biography of his father's life and his own recollections growing up in Paris and various other parts of France. The family often spent summers in the countryside in various parts of France, particularly Essoys in Burgundy, where his mother Aline was born, and later in the south of France, near Nice (I was actually lucky enough to visit Nice a few years ago and was sadly unaware that there's a Renoir museum just 20 minutes away in Cagnes-sur-Mer, in his final home. I did get to visit the Chagall Museum and the Matisse Museum, so I really wouldn't complain but I wish I'd known!)

It's quite an interesting memoir about Renoir's life and how became and artist and met up with his fellow Impressionists. He's one of the most prolific of the group, with at least 4000 paintings to his record (and the book includes stories about other paintings that were lost or stolen which just made me aghast. Some were literally used to patch up holes in a leaky roof). 

There are also great stories about the other painters including one about his good friend Gustave Caillebotte, who named Renoir executor of his estate and personal art collection after his death. Apparently it was Caillebotte's wish that the collection be given to the Louvre who didn't want the whole collection and turned 2/3 of it away. The third that they kept was stored away in the Luxembourg Museum. After his widow's death they just went to various heirs and were mostly sold outside France. Well, France's loss is the world's gain, I suppose! 

I feel very fortunate to have been to Philadelphia last year where I saw the biggest single collection of Renoir's works at the Barnes Foundation, a total of 181! Barnes was a huge art collector and began amassing Impressionist works in the 1920s. His entire house was designed to showcase his collection and was eventually left to the city of Philadelphia as a private museum. The collection was eventually moved to a larger space in downtown Philadelphia which resembles the original house with the exact layout of the all the artworks. If you ever get the chance it's absolutely worth visiting! 

I'm also extremely fortunate to live only a short drive away from the Phillips Collection Museum in DC near Dupont Circle. One of the highlights of the collection is Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. The last time I visited one of the docents told me that Phillips and Barnes were rival collectors. Phillips was annoyed that Barnes had the bigger collection of Renoirs but always bragged that he had the best one. 

Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881.
Renoir's future wife Aline is in the left hand corner with the little dog;
Renoir's friend and fellow Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte is on the lower left leaning back. 

I enjoyed visiting Renoir's world but the book is pretty dense and took a lot longer to finish than I expected -- I am rather behind on Paris in July reading list and also my Big Book Summer Reading Challenge! But this book was on both lists and I'm also counting this as my Classic Nonfiction for the Back to the Classics Challenge

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Paris in July: The Martha series by Margery Sharp


I thought I'd start Paris in July with a short, fun book. Margery Sharp's Martha in Paris fit the bill perfectly -- only 166 pages and it was one more I could cross off my owned-and-unread pile. However, when I bought this at Strand Books several years ago I didn't realize it was second in a series. Naturally I would need to read them in order, so I had to track down the first book and buy that one too, though it's set in London, not Paris.

Published in 1957, The Eye of Love is the first book of the Martha series. Set in 1932, it begins with Martha's aunt, who was christened Dorothy Hogg but now goes by the name of Dolores Diver. Miss Diver, on the wrong side of 30 and fading, has just been left by her longtime lover Mr. Gibson, who is about to become engaged to the daughter of an associate, in order to preserve his failing furrier business. Times are hard and during the Depression, furs aren't selling well. Mr. Gibson and Miss Diver are despondent, but there's nothing to be done. He must leave his Spanish rose to marry an annoying woman he doesn't love. The least he can do is pay the lease on their love-nest through the end of the year, and give her all the contents which they've accumulated.

Miss Diver is also the guardian of her orphaned niece Martha, now ten years old and obsessed with drawing -- so much so that she basically eludes school and spends all her time sketching trees, stoves, and anything that catches her fancy. One day while sketching a tree she meets Mr. Phillips, who is looking for new lodgings, and he becomes their boarder, but soon suspects Miss Diver has some money and decides to make a play for her. 

I love this pulp novel cover - so dramatic! 

Meanwhile, Mr. Gibson has merged his business with the charming and steadfast Mr. Joyce, his future father-in-law, and they soon develop a deep friendship -- much more so than with his future wife Miranda. He cannot bear the thought of marrying her instead of Miss Diver but doesn't see any way around it. Coincidentally, Mr. Joyce, a lover of art, also encountered young Martha while sketching and sees that she has talent. Naturally all the stories converge, and without going into too much detail, I'll only say that it's witty and charming and has a very satisfactory ending. 

I really enjoyed it and was also enchanted by the sequel, Martha in Paris. The story has jumped forward and Martha is now eighteen. Mr. Joyce is now Martha's patron and decrees that she MUST study in Paris. Martha is still obsessed with her drawing and resists at first, but then sees the advantages and begins studying art while staying with a widow and her daughter. She's very focused and is oblivious to everything else -- in once instance, she doesn't even realize that while sketching in the Tuileries Gardens, the nice young Englishman named Eric sitting next to her is asking her out on a date. In a very amusing turn of events, she turns his invitation to Friday night dinner with his mother into an opportunity for a really good bath in their renovated English-style tub. 

This book is equally witty and charming and surprisingly feminist for its time (first published in 1962). Martha is portrayed as an artist completely focused on her work, but she actually struck me as someone who today might be considered on the autism spectrum. She's completely obsessed with drawing and art, and really bad at picking up at social cues. I'm no expert but if the book were published today I think readers would really speculate about that. 

This cover is just SO WRONG it's laughable. 
Martha wouldn't be caught dead in stockings and black pumps.
It's so bad I had to include it. 

My one tiny quibble about this book is that if the first book starts in 1932, the second would be set squarely in WWII and the French occupation of Paris. There is not a single mention of this and people are traveling back and forth over the Channel from England,so clearly, this book is set in an alternate universe in which the war never took place (but now I'm nitpicking).

I don't want to give away too many details for fear of spoilers, but Martha in Paris ends on such a cliffhanger I absolutely had to find out what happened next, and I found a online copy of the final novella, Martha, Eric and George online and read the whole thing in a couple of hours. If I gave any but the loosest setup it would absolutely spoil the plot of the second book. The third books picks up immediately after the end of the second, and after a couple of chapters, jumps forward ten years later with Martha as a successful artist who has to finally deal with the fallout of her actions in the end of the second novel. I loved the third novel as well as the first two but I do think it ended rather abruptly. 

I love this retro cover.

Like the second novel, it's also very feminist for its time (1964). Like Martha, author Margery Sharp was very successful and focused on her work. I also wonder if Martha's devotion to her work was a reflection of Sharp's own feelings about women working. I'm guessing some people will find Martha unsympathetic but if she'd been a man no one would have raised an eyebrow at her absolute dedication to her work and confidence in her talent. 

I've now read a dozen of Margery Sharp's books for adults (she also wrote the Rescuers children's series adapted into two animated Disney movies.) I've really enjoyed all of them and I'm happy to report many have been reprinted, including six recent paperback editions by the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press. The DSP editions are available on Kindle for around $3 or $4 US, a real bargain, and I'm sure I'll be downloading some of them soon. 

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Paris in July 2022

It's July already, the year is half over -- how did this happen? But for me July will always include the Paris in July reading challenge hosted by Thyme for Tea. I started participating in this event back in 2011 and I've posted my Francophile book reviews nearly every year since! 

As always, I'm trying to read mostly from my own shelves in my never-ending quest to empty the TBR shelves. Some of these can also count for the Back to the Classics and TBR Pile Challenges, and from my Classics Club List. I'm sure I won't finish all of them but reading goals are always good, right? 

First, the French books in translation: 

  • Claudine Married by Colette. The second novella in the Claudine omnibus; I'm sure I won't finish the entire series this month.
  • The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos. Found this whilst browsing in the library and it looked interesting (and short!). 
  • Maman, What Are We Called Now? by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar. 
  • Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir
  • A Fine of Two Hundred Francs by Elsa Triolet
  • The Bright Side of Life by Emile Zola

Books originally written in English but set in France: 

  • The Loved and Envied by Enid Bagnold
  • Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden
  • Martha in Paris by Margery Sharp
  • The Golden Lion of Granpere by Anthony Trollope
  • Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
So - mostly fiction and fairly short books - more than half of them are under 300 pages and a couple are under 200! The longest is the Renoir biography (not counting the Claudine omnibus but all three of the remaining novellas are under 200 pages). I wonder if I could actually finish the entire list? 

Bloggers, have you read any of these? Which are your favorites and should be read first? And what else do you recommend for Paris in July?

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

Cover of a 1969 reprint. This one is pretty much perfect.

So, how is everyone's summer reading going? Anyone in the mood for a beach read that turns out to be full of death and destruction? The Feast by Margaret Kennedy was reprinted last summer and WOW. I put it on my Christmas list last year and saved it to read until this summer. If you're looking for a summer read that packs a real punch, this is it. 

Published in 1949, this is basically a morality tale that tells you upfront that people are going to die -- this is NOT a spoiler, it's the setup. The book begins a prologue: the annual meeting of two friends, a minister in Cornwall and his summer visitor (they're hardly in the book, so their names are not really important). They normally begin the visit with an evening of chess, but the host needs to put off their game in order to finish a sermon for the following day -- a eulogy for a group of people who tragically perished when a cliff collapses on top of a summer resort, leaving nothing but a massive pile of rubble. 
However, we do know that there were some survivors among the resort's guests -- but who? 

The copy of my edition.
Nice, but I don't think it really reflects the setting of the book. 

The book then jumps back seven days and describes the final week of the resort and its inhabitants. Set in 1947, the Siddal family are struggling to make ends meet in their ancestral home on the Cornish coast and have converted it to a boarding house, not so much a hotel. Mrs. Siddal is trying to make a go of it but her husband has mentally checked out and doesn't lift a finger, hiding in a room under the stairs. Her three grown sons help but are ready to leave the nest. There are also some servants including Miss Ellis, a snobbish, gossipy housekeeper and Nancibel, the loyal housemaid. Then there are the guests, including two families, the wealthy Gifford family with four children; the Coves, with three; an unhappy couple, the Paleys, who are grieving for their dead daughter; plus an obnoxious clergyman, his put-upon daughter Evangeline; and a late arrival, a bestselling author and her chauffeur. It's almost like an Agatha Christie novel, but instead of a murder, it's a natural disaster, and the reader has to work out who will live and who will die. 

The original 1949 cover. Good, but I like the 1969 cover better. 

This book took a bit for me to get into, but after the first few pages, I was hooked. It's divided up by the seven days of the final week for the resort, and each has many short sections (too short to really call chapters) covering the many characters in the book. And there are a LOT of characters, more than twenty. Some of the children are really minor characters, but it didn't take long to keep everyone straight. They're mostly really well developed and the plot got me completely engrossed, so I was able to speed through it quickly -- it's more than 400 pages long, and the last day I read almost the last hundred pages in a single sitting. It is THAT GOOD. 

A French edition from 1956

Towards the end I began to have a terrible sense of foreboding -- of course the reader already knows that disaster is looming but there is a lot of foreshadowing. I absolutely had favorite characters and I was dreading the end because I'm always worried if someone I like will be killed off. If you want hints about the plot and the outcome, feel free to read the introduction which gives some very strong hints. I have given up reading introductions because of spoilers so I was blown away by the ending. I am glad that I did go back and read it because there was some subtext that I had definitely missed. 

A new French reprint. Good, but a little too cheerful for what's inside the book.

This is an absolutely brilliant book and I know it will be one of my top reads of the summer, if not the entire year. I've only read one other book by Margaret Kennedy, Troy Chimneys, which is also good but very different from this one. Several of her other books are still in print including her other most famous book, The Constant Nymph, which I also own and will definitely move up on the to-read pile. 

I'm counting this as my Classic Set In A Place You'd Like To Visit for the Back to the Classics Challenge. It's also the first read for my Big Book Summer Reading Challenge.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

A Pin To See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse

In the history of the world it is only we -- we who are young now -- who are really going to know about life. 

I bought this Virago Modern Classic more than five years ago, after Simon and Rachel discussed it in the wonderful podcast Tea or Books? I was going to say "I can't believe I've waited so long to read this" but who am I kidding? I have more than 150 unread books and the pile never seems to grow any smaller. But I recently joined a Goodreads book group that discusses middlebrow books and it was their June pick! (The group has also caused me to buy more books, so I don't know if it's really a win. I'm really enjoying the books though).

It took me awhile to get started, but I zoomed through this book in only three days -- pretty good since it's just over 400 pages. It's one of several books inspired by the Thompson/Bywaters murder trial in the 1920s. I knew nothing about the case other than what I'd heard on the podcast several years ago, and I remembered none of it -- I couldn't even recall who the murder victim was though I had my suspicions. 

I really liked this book but I was surprised at how long it took to get to the actual crime, more than 300 pages. It's really a character study of a young lower-class woman growing up in the Edwardian/WWI period. The protagonist is renamed Julia Almond and the story begins when she's off to school, aged about 16. As one of the upper-level pupils, she's tasked one day with briefly overseeing some younger students, one of whom has a tiny peepshow, a sort of mini-diorama you peer into through a tiny hole. This peepshow acts as a metaphor for Julia's life -- over the next ten years she's observing what she wants and will never have, due to circumstances beyond her control.

I think this is the original dustjacket.
Nice illustration but it doesn't even give a hint about the story.

Julia soon leaves school and studies fashion drawing and French, which leads her to a minor job at a fashion house in London. She's a quick study is working her way up in the business when the Great War begins. People are spending money like there's no tomorrow (and for some, there won't be) and she makes fashionable friends and hopes for a better, more exciting life. 

However, her father dies suddenly leaving Julia and her mother without enough to live on, and they are forced to combine households with her uncle and his family, including a younger cousin Elsa. It's tight quarters and they're obliged to share a room, which overwhelms Julia, and she makes the rash decision to marry an older friend of her father's, Herbert Starling, just to get out of the house. Having had a taste of independence, Julia isn't satisfied as the compliant little wife by the hearth that Herbert has envisioned, and the marriage is doomed from the start. Julia isn't a particularly likable character, but I absolutely sympathized with her frustration and lack of choices for women in the time period, particularly middle-class women who were judged by a much higher standard than lower or upper-class women of that era.  A Pin To See the Peepshow was published in 1934, about twelve years after the murder, and I wonder if it was quite shocking for its time as it covers some topics that are still pretty divisive today.

This book is very character-driven and Jesse takes a long time on developing Julia. Most of the other characters are also well drawn. The murder portion of the book is really only the last 100 pages or so and did feel a bit rushed in parts. The author does spend a good bit of time on Julia's thoughts during and after her trial, and thankfully leaves out a scene at the end which is probably best left to the imagination. My Virago edition also includes an excellent epilogue by the writer who adapted it as a 1973 mini series. (There's also a new British Library Women Writers edition which includes an introduction by Simon!) I was hoping someone had uploaded it to YouTube or other streaming service but I haven't been able to find it. It starred Francesca Annis who I can perfectly imagine as Julia. 

This is book #7 for the TBR Pile Challenge.