Monday, October 19, 2020

1956 Club: Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington, and some book covers

A first edition dust jacket. 
Those bare shoulders seem more 1950s than Edwardian.

I was really ambitious for Simon and Kaggsy's recent #1956 Club -- I had a stack of books published that year that I was determined to read, mostly from my own shelves. I did finish four of the five, though I only had time to blog about two of them. I had also started another, a Persephone called Madame Solario. However, it was a bit of a slow read and 493 pages long, I knew I wouldn't finish it during the specified period. But I finally finished it last week and thought I'd review it anyway. 

Published anonymously in 1956, Madame Solario is set in the fashionable resort town of Cadenabbia on Lake Como in northern Italy, in the summer of 1906. The book, which is divided into three parts, begins with the arrival of a young Englishman, Bernard Middleton, who is spending the summer on the continent before settling down in a banking career chosen for him by his family. He is supposed to meet friends who have been delayed, but decides to stay when he is drawn into the society of other expats vacationing in the same hotel. At first he is drawn to the beautiful young Ilona, whose heart is being broken by a Russian soldier, Kovanski. Bernard is disappointed by Ilona's sudden departure, but is soon enamored of the mysterious Madame Natalia Solario, a beautiful English woman with an absent husband. Her arrival turns the hotel into a bit of a turmoil. It seems there is some unfinished business with the jealously glowering Kovanski, and Bernard also learns of some scandals in Madame Solario's past. 

Beautiful endpapers in the Persephone edition

Bernard begins a tentative friendship with Madame Solario, but the viewpoint of the book shifts in the second part with the arrival of Madame Solario's brother, Eugene Harden, who is apparently the source of the mystery in his sister's past. The hotel guests become suspicious of their close relationship, and rumors begin to spread. Bernard is hardly mentioned and it's very focused on Natalia (nicknamed "Nelly" by her brother) and Eugene. A lot of it is just mostly conversations between the two, or rather, just long rants by Eugene. The third part then shifts the focus back to Bernard and the pace really picks up before a very dramatic finish that left me gobsmacked.

According to the Persephone website, reviews of the novel compared to it Henry James crossed with Ivy Compton-Burnett or with Daphne du Maurier. I haven't tackled much by James but I am a fan of his contemporary Edith Wharton, and this feels a bit like a Wharton novel to me -- dissatisfied upper-crust people in Italian resorts are definitely an Edith Wharton setting, though the malevolent brother isn't typical of her work. 

Those people . . . they have the superiority of owing their good fortune to something they themselves had nothing to do with. And that is the superiority I envy! To be born with a sort of super-self, for that's what rank is, a super-self that planes over frontiers -- to be born thinking one has the right to look down -- hasn't that got more charm than anything one can do for oneself? (pp 198-199)

I liked this book, though the middle section, the longest, dragged somewhat. I found the relationship between Natalia and her brother disturbing. I don't want to give anything away but after reading it I'm not surprised that the author was anonymous for a long time. And the ending was . . . wow. I really, really wish I knew someone else who had read this so I could discuss it with them. Not a typical Persephone at all, but definitely worth reading. 

And lots of interesting book covers! 

A first edition, not very exciting. 

A Polish edition


Nice cover on this French edition, I think it's my favorite of the bunch.

Trashy paperback cover! Looks very 1970s but internet searches say 1950s paperback edition. 

 A Penguin reprint from 1956. She looks more like Eliza Doolittle here --
the correct time period, but not glamorous enough.

A Spanish edition, meh

An Italian edition, nice photo of Lake Como on the cover.

In 2012 Madame Solario was adapted into a French movie, currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime. I haven't watched it yet but I'm curious to know how they'll adapt this 500 page novel into a 90 minute film. I imagine just cutting out Eugene's tirades will save a lot of time. 

There was even an entire book published on the mystery of the anonymous author. Sadly it's only available in French.  

I'm counting this as my book set in Italy for the European Reading Challenge

Sunday, October 11, 2020

1956 Club: French Leave By P. G. Wodehouse


I've been reading a lot of P. G. Wodehouse lately and it occurred to me that it was very likely that he had published a book in 1956 that I could read for Simon and Kaggsy's 1956 Club! I depend on Wodehouse to cheer me up whenever I need a light read, and once again he came through with French Leave, a slight and amusing novel. 

This one digresses from the normal Wodehouse setting of London or the English countryside -- it's mostly set along the French coast, in fictional resort towns of Picardy and Brittany. The characters are primarily American and French and I don't think there's even a single English character which is very unusual for Wodehouse. 

But here's the setup. The book starts in America, on Long Island. The three Trent sisters, Kate, Jo and Teresa (known as Terry), are trying to make a go of a farm, selling eggs, milk, and honey, and having a pretty hard time of it. Conveniently, they have a windfall of $2000 each, and the two younger sisters, Jo and Terry, decide to risk it all on a trip to France, in search of millionaire husbands. Eldest sister Kate is aghast and is determined to go along as a chaperone. Jo and Terry will each pose as a wealthy American, with her sister playing her maid, for a month each. Jo goes first in Picardy but is unsuccessful and returns home; Terry continues to try her luck in St. Rocque.

Terry does meet up with some genuine millionaires, but she also meets the slightly shady and very broke Nicolas Jules St. Xavier Auguste, the Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie Mauberanne, also known as Old Nick. Old Nick is an impoverished French nobleman who prefers living off wealthy wives (he's had at least three), questionable business deals, and his son Jefferson, from his first marriage to a wealthy American. Jeff mostly lived with his mother in America but fought with the maquis, the French resistance, and has a dashing scar on his face to show for it. He's now a struggling writer who refuses to marry for money but is willing to help his father out of a tight spot. In return, Old Nick decides to set up his son with the delightful Terry Trent, whom he believes is loaded with American cash. 

Unfortunately this plot also includes spending time on a yacht with some other wealthy Americans, including Old Nick's second ex-wife Hermione Pegler, who believes that Terry is an adventuress (technically, she is) who will mess up her plans to marry off her niece Mavis. Mrs. Pegler wants to pair Mavis, a fizzy-water heiress, with Freddie Carpenter, another fizzy water millionaire (Mrs. Pegler owns considerable stock in both water companies, and hopes that a marriage between the two would be of financial and personal benefit). She thinks that Terry is after Fred's money, but Terry and Jeff are instantly smitten. The fact that neither of them has any money and assume the other one does leads to misunderstandings, tears, and a lot of physical comedic moments. This being a Wodehouse novel, everything comes right in the end. I can absolutely imagine adapted as a classic screwball comedy from the early 1950s. I recently watched Some Like it Hot and there are some elements that are similar -- wealthy Americans on yachts, husband-hunting, and characters climbing out of hotel windows.)

Not French, it's the historic Del Coronado Hotel in San Diego, California. It was the filming location for Some Like It Hot (which is actually set in Florida). 

I enjoyed French Leave, though it isn't a classic Wodehouse -- I think I've read 17 books by him so far, and I wouldn't count it among his best. There are some characters that seem superfluous, and some definite loose ends that are never resolved. However, it's a fun, short novel, and can easily be finished a day or maybe even one sitting (it would be perfect for a vacation read) -- preferably in a resort town on the coast of France. 

Thanks again to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting this event, can't wait to do it again next time! 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

#1956 Club: Every Eye by Isobel English; and some bonus photos of Spain

I had a lot of choices this year for Simon and Kaggsy's 1956 Reading Club -- three from my own shelves, plus a Persephone I'd never gotten around to reading, and even a P. G. Wodehouse available from the library (you have to love those prolific authors!) I've got one halfway done on audio and decided to tackle the Persphone, simply because it was the shortest and I'd be guaranteed to finish it in time.

I don't know why I'd put off reading Every Eye by Isobel English for so long -- it's very short, set in Spain, and a Persephone mid-century book by a woman author, all things I normally love. It was also available in another edition from the library for free (a definite plus since international shipping has risen sky-high recently). I was very pleasantly rewarded by how much I liked this book, possibly one of my favorite reads this year.

The eighteenth book published by Persephone, it's only 144 pages in their edition and 155 in mine (pictured below), in a tiny little book not more than five by seven inches. But what is in the book is powerful and beautifully written. It's the story of Hatty Latterly, who at 37 is taking a delayed honeymoon to Ibiza with her younger husband. The book alternates between their journey from London to the Balearic island, via multiple boats and trains -- and her memories of an aunt by marriage who has recently died. It is through this Aunt Cynthia that Hatty meets her first love Jasper Lomax, a much older man who had known her uncle and late father, and Cynthia is also the reason that Hatty has selected Ibiza for her honeymoon. 

Aunt Cynthia didn't enter Hatty's life until she was 14, when she began a relationship with Hatty's Uncle Otway, her closest male relative after the death of her father. Eventually she marries Hatty's uncle, and when Hatty is about 20 she meets Lomax at a party hosted by her aunt. They begin a friendship which becomes something more (and to modern readers, something pretty icky). Eventually the relationship ends and we also learn, in flashback, the story of Hatty meeting her husband. In the last paragraph of the book there is a twist ending that made me want to go back to the beginning and read the entire book all over again. 

However, the story is much more than this. It's fully of beautiful observations about human nature, about traveling, and family dynamics and relationships. The writing is really beautiful. I'm generally a fast reader and I have the terrible habit of speeding through passages to find out what happens next. This book is short and I took my time so I could really enjoy the quality of the writing. I really wish it had been longer so I could have spent more time with Hatty. 

There must be a great emptying of the mind when one is about to start on a long journey. It is no good clinging to the shreds of last night's anxiety, nor to its comforts; everything must be fresh and completely hared at the edges to withstand the future movement and buffeting. 

I loved this quote, it really is the essence of the feeling of travel. In the book, there is a lot of travel description, all of it wonderful. Hatty and her husband take a train from London, a ferry to France, another train to Paris, where they spend a day before taking another very long train journey south to Barcelona, where they get on another boat to Ibiza. I did a lot of traveling the last few years while I lived in Germany so much of this really resonated with me. Though I was lucky enough to get cheap flights most of the time, I love train travel, and I would take another boat trip someday though heaven knows when it will be safe.

I was lucky enough to visit Spain three times while I lived in Germany, and though I didn't make it to Ibiza, I did spend a week in Mallorca, which is the largest of Spain's Balearic islands (fun fact: Spain's second most popular tourist destination). I spent a couple of days in Palma, the capital city, before heading to the little town of Sóller on the island's west coast. We took a historic wooden train, which was delightful, and stayed in a wonderful B&B. It's a pretty little town and we could walk or take the tram to the Port of Sóller. It was April, and though it wasn't quite warm enough to swim the days were beautiful and sunny enough to sit on the beach, and there were lemons growing everywhere. 

The vintage narrow-gauge train from Palma to Sóller. It's more than 100 years old. There's also a vintage tram from Sóller to the Port. 

View of the mountain from the street, our B&B was on the left, restored from 1902. 

I loved the grillwork on all the buildings. I think this was opposite our hotel room. 

View from the tram stop towards the square in Sóller.

View from the walk from our B&B to the port.

Port de Sóller

I also made a day trip to the town of Deiá, a pretty town in the mountains with beautiful views. It was also the home of the writer Robert Graves who moved there in 1929 and lived there until his death. The house is now a museum, and you can visit the house and surrounding garden for a small fee. It was a bit of a walk outside the town but was worth seeing. 

View from the walk to Robert Graves' home, that's Deiá in the distance. I love the terraced hills.

Robert Graves' home

Robert Graves' study

Another day I walked a few miles through some lemon groves to the town of Fornalutx. It was beautiful and tranquil and then I had a glass of wine and some tapas while sitting in the square, watching bicyclists whizzing by on the mountain roads. 

View along the walk to Fornaluxt

There were lemon and orange trees everywhere.
There were signs posted all over for local marmalade and I'm sorry I didn't buy any. 

I was so tempted to reach through the fence and pick one of these lemons! 

I made a slight detour on the walk which turned into a hike and I went the back way into town.
Great view though.

I loved this reading girl on a terrace. That would be me, everyday, if I lived there!

Lots of stairs in Fornaluxt! 

The square in Fornaluxt. I sat at one of the restaurants on the right and had a snack.

Mallorca is know somewhat for being a party island but I skipped all that and just enjoyed the stunning scenery. It was beautiful and relaxing and I would love so much to go back to Spain someday. 

Thanks again to Kaggsy and Simon for hosting this event! I hope to read at least one more book published in 1956, and hopefully more in the coming weeks. 

I'm also counting this as my book set in Spain for the European Reading Challenge

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Classics Spin #24: Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy

Another Classics Spin success! I always look forward to the Spins, they motivate me to read the books that I keep putting off. I bought this in June of 2017, on a trip to London in the hottest week of the year. . I had a bit of nostalgia when I found the receipt still stuck in the back of the book, from a used bookseller on Charing Cross Road. (I paid £5 for it, one of three green Virago Modern Classics purchased that day). 

Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy had all the signs of an ideal read for me. Published in 1953, the story begins with correspondence in 1879, between two brothers-in-law. The honorable Frederick Harnish is researching some family history while recuperating from something unspecified, and requests some papers left by an ancestor, Ludovic, who died in 1830. He's specifically looking for letters he might have written, and what emerges are letters and diary entries from Ludovic's lifelong friend Miles Lufton, the owner of a property called Troy Chimneys. So, essentially this is a mid-century book about a Victorian researching a Regency ancestor. 

What follows are the memoirs of Miles Lufton, a former MP from Wiltshire. The actual property called Troy Chimneys is mostly peripheral -- it's really just slices of life in the early 1800s by a man on the fringes of upper-crust society. Son of a clergyman, he really doesn't have any money, but uses his Oxford connections to gain a seat in Parliament, though that's not a big part of the book either. It's more about his everyday life, though there are hints of a family scandal that is revealed at the end of the story.

Not a long book at just under 250 pages, but not what I'd call a quick read. It was slow going at first as the story is first framed by correspondence regarding the history of the late relatives, and also a bit confusing as Lufton begins to explain the history of his family -- I really should have written down a family tree as I was reading. It's also a bit confusing because Lufton sometimes refers to himself as Pronto, which is sort of his alter ego, the sociable persona he adopts to make himself interesting and in demand as a guest with the upper-crust people. It's also a bit confusing that two of the characters are Lufton and Ludo. 

But I really did enjoy it. What I liked most about it was that it was really written in the style of the Regency period -- it probably slowed down the reading, but I really felt like this could have been written by Jane Austen or one of her contemporaries, thought it's definitely from the male point of view. Miles could absolutely have been a minor character in a Jane Austen novel, like Mr. Yates in Mansfield Park or Captain Fitzwilliam in Pride and Prejudice -- probably as a sidekick to a leading man, but a younger son without much money. 

The book does include a Jane Austen reference which delighted me: 

But over novels she was obstinate; she could not like them. . . . she objected strongly to anything sentimental, nor would she listen to my pleas for my favorites: Emma and Mansfield Park, of which she complained that they kept her continually in the parlour, where she was obliged, in any case, to spend her life. A most entertaining parlour, she allowed, but: 

'That lady's greatest admirers will always be men, I believe. For when they have had enough of the parlour, they may walk out, you know, and we cannot.'

Interesting that a woman of the period (albeit fictional) would have thought of it that way! Yet very true. And so ironic since nowadays the majority of Austen's fans are women.  

So, a very successful Spin pick, and I hope there will be another before the end of the year. Only 18 books left on my Classics Club list! I'm tempted to try and finish it in 2020, though there are several doorstoppers which would probably slow me down. Still, it's worth trying. 

Bloggers, did you participate in the latest Classics Spin? Did you enjoy your pick? 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Back to the Classics 2020: 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 before 1970 (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.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Big Book Summer Wrap-Up

Summer is officially over, and so is the Big Book Summer Challenge hosted by Suzan at Book By Book. I'm very pleased because I finished ten very long books this summer! Eight were from my original list, and two were e-books that I'd been wanting to read. Here's what I read: 

Altogether I finished ten big fat books, seven in print, two on e-book, and one (mostly) audiobook: 

Nonfiction: (3)

Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman (592 pp)
Roughing It by Mark Twain (592 pp)
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (622 pp)


Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett (769 pp)
The Twisted Sword by Winston Graham (646 pp)
The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili (944 pp)
Temptation by Janos Szekeley (685 pp)
John Caldigate by Anthony Trollope (656 pp)

The Fruit of the Tree by Edith Wharton (652 pp)

Short Stories: (1)

East and West: The Collected Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Vol. I (955 pp)

Of course, some of these books were actually not as long as expected, due to margins, font size, illustrations, etc. The nonfiction books also had indices and appendices. 

The longest book was The Collected Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, and the shortest was actually The Fruit of the Tree, though it doesn't look it.  Altogether, my total number of pages read for this challenge:  7,113!  (I also read some shorter books this summer to break it up). 

I enjoyed all the books for the most part. I think my least favorite was Roughing It and my favorites were Temptation, The Warmth of Other Suns, and Imperial Palace. I still love big fat books and plant to keep reading them -- there's still almost 30 books left on my original list! I have some other challenges coming up this fall and hope to finish some more by the end of the year -- and some shorter books too. 

Bloggers, how was your summer of reading? Did you finish any great big books, and what's on the horizon for your fall reading plans? And thanks again to Suzan for hosting, I hope we'll do it again next year!

Monday, September 7, 2020

Roughing It by Mark Twain: Tall Tales (and Some Racism) in the American West

Published in 1872, Roughing It is a semi-fictional account of Mark Twain's travels and misadventures in the American west during the 1860s. The story begins with Twain eagerly accompanying his brother Orion to the Nevada Territory, where Orion has been appointed Secretary. After an extensive stagecoach journey, he spends time in Nevada before visiting Salt Lake City, then failing as a miner in California. Twain begins to support himself by taking various writing and newspaper jobs, which eventually take him to Hawaii. 

This book is full of wry humor and amusing descriptions of life in the Wild West, including some tall tales and colorful characters. However, it's sprinkled throughout with a lot of racist comments -- Twain is particularly unpleasant about native Americans and Hawaiians, though he includes pretty much every non-white group in American at the time. I realize this was the prevailing attitude of the times, but honestly, there were some serious yikes moments for me. It was very disconcerting because there would be amusing chapters about ridiculous characters and situations  -- and some not so ridiculous, but downright scary, like the time Twain and his companions set off a massive forest fire. In another instance, Twain and his companions were trapped on a tiny island in the middle of an alkali lake after their boat drifted off. A storm was brewing and they narrowly escaped perishing (if the story is to be believed).

This was a slow book, and I listened to most of it on an audio download from my library. There are several editions available. Mine was read by Robin Field who is an excellent narrator, and I probably would have given up on the book much earlier if I had just been reading the print copy. 

Honestly, the only reason I read this book was because I'd bought a copy years ago and it was on my pile for the Big Book Summer Challenge, and also on my Classics Club list. If it hadn't been available on audio I probably wouldn't have stuck with it. Twain is good at spinning out an entertaining yarn, and if you like a dry and occasionally ridiculous style of humor, it's mildly amusing if you can skip over the racism. I also have a copy of Twain's Letters From Hawaii that I bought in Waikiki about ten years ago. It's much shorter and I may give it a go in a few months just to get it off the shelves and donate it to the Little Free Library on my street.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett: Upstairs and Downstairs in a London Hotel

He knew the exact number of guests staying in the hotel that night; but their secrets, misfortunes, anxieties, hopes, despairs, tragedies, he did not know. And he would have liked to know every one of them, to drench himself in the invisible fluid of mortal things. He was depressed. He wanted sympathy, and to be sympathetic, to merge into humanity. But he was alone. He had no close friend, no lovely mistress -- save the Imperial Palace. The Palace was his life. And what was the Palace, the majestic and brilliant offspring of his creative imagination and of his organising brain? It had been everything. Now, for the moment, it was naught.

Imperial Palace by Arnold Bennett has been on my TBR pile for about 10 years, since I found a copy for $1 at the library's used Book Cellar. I was really hoping it would be the book assigned by the latest Classics Club Spin, I thought I'd try and tackle it anyway as part of my Big Book Summer reading challenge.

Set in the late 1920s, it's approximately a year in the life of two hotel employees at the eponymous hotel, a swank London establishment (based on the luxurious Savoy hotel). The manager, Evelyn Orcham, is in his late forties and has devoted his life to the hospitality business, working his way up from the bottom. He's now at the top of his profession, the most respected hotel manager in London. The other main character is Violet Powler, a young manager from the hotel's laundry division, who Orcham promotes to floor housekeeper and begins to fast-track her career to bigger and better things in the hotel. 

Their stories are intertwined with the arrival of the blustering Sir Henry Savott (baronet) and his impulsive daughter Gracie, one of the Bright Young Things of the London set, known for her fast cars and eccentric ways. It's mostly set in the hotel and supporting establishments, and follows their lives amid the day-to-day workings of the hotel, including difficult guests, a merger, a massive holiday celebration, love affairs, jealousy, gossipy employees, and potential scandals. It's a bit like Downton Abbey, only set in a 1920s hotel instead of a country house. (It also reminded me of Norman Collins' Bond Street Story, which I also loved). 

The lobby of the famous Savoy Hotel in London, inspiration for the Imperial Palace.
It is so posh I was afraid to go inside.

And the story is long, nearly 800 pages. It's not a difficult read, but I found myself reading it fairly slowly, spreading it out over several weeks. There are a lot of short chapters, like a Victorian novel, so there were plenty of stopping points; also, I really didn't want it to end. For the most part, I really enjoyed the characters, and I loved being in their world. I had a particular interest in this novel because years ago, I was employed at a large hotel in Chicago, where I worked in the kitchens as a pastry cook for almost two years. Of course I didn't see nearly all the minutiae of housekeeping and guests, but I learned a lot about how much work is involved in running a large operation, keeping all the departments coordinated and the logistics of large events. In the kitchens alone we had to deal with catering, ordering, stocking, room service, stewarding, and so on. A hotel is like a giant machine and all the parts fit together, and I am always fascinated by how much work goes into coordinating everything. Based on my own experience, Bennett must have had first-hand knowledge of how a hotel was run because that aspect of the book seemed really authentic. (Bennett also wrote about hotels in the much shorter novella The Grand Babylon Hotel, and briefly in The Old Wives' Tale). 

That being said, this novel was published in 1930 and there are some racist and sexist bits that made me roll my eyes. The hotel manager Orcham doesn't seem to think much of women's intelligence unless they are useful to him, and both the main characters are pretty xenophobic -- there are actual Italian and French employees, the horror! And I was pretty sure I knew how the book would end up, but there was one outcome that I did not like one bit, it was so sexist. 

Overall, though, I really did enjoy this book and it will probably be one of my favorites for the year. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Something Fresh by P. G. Wodehouse: Silliness at Blandings Castle


After my visit to Second Story Books in Rockville last month, I realized that nearly all the unread P. G. Wodehouse in my home library were from his Blandings Castle series. I get twitchy about reading books in a series out of order (except for Zola), so I decided to track down the first novel, Something Fresh, first published in 1915 (titled Something New in the U.S.) It was available for digital audio download from my library, and since I was about to embark on a long car trip, it seemed like the perfect choice for a summer read. This book doesn't count for a single one of my reading challenges but it was a break from all the long books I'm reading this summer, and it is so delightful I had to write about it.

The story begins with a young man called Ashe Marson, a young writer of thrillers who is lodging in a cheap rental near Leicester Square in London (though I am sure it would shockingly expensive today). He has drawn the attention of a fellow lodger, Joan Valentine, because he is outside one morning doing calisthenics in the street. They get to talking and it is revealed that Joan is also a writer for the same cheap tabloid, and they both want to get out and do something more interesting (and profitable). 

Meanwhile, we are introduced to the hapless Freddie Threepwood, the second son of Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle. Freddie is in a tizzy because he has recently become engaged to a young heiress, Aline Peters, daughter of an American businessman. His father is pleased with the engagement, but Freddie is worried that he may be served with a breach-of-promise lawsuit from a pretty chorus girl. Freddie never actually met her but sent her flowers, letters, and poetry, which may have included a proposal. He fears that he may be subject to blackmail or even legal action. 

Then we have Lord Emsworth, a gruff yet lovable but extremely forgetful man, who is liable to steal the silverware from a restaurant as most people would walk off with a cheap ballpoint pen. Whilst visiting his future in-law Mr. Peters, the absent-minded Lord has unwittingly absconded with a valuable Egyptian artifact, a precious Cheops scarab, from Mr. Peters' collection. Mr. Peters will stop at nothing to get it back, including a large reward, and places an ad in the paper for a young man seeking a well-paid adventure, which attracts the attention of Ashe. 

All these characters converge on Blandings Castle for a fortnight's holiday in which everyone is trying to get their hands on the scarab, with the addition of various relatives, hangers-on, secretaries, and servants, and hilarity ensues (and even a little romance). If you're familiar with the Jeeves and Wooster stories, this is definitely in the same vein, especially the classic novel The Code of the Woosters (which also involves an artifact being stolen back). There is even a brief mention of an Emsworth relative named Algernon Wooster -- a precursor of Bertie, perhaps? 

This was the perfect book for a car trip, and I found myself laughing out loud multiple times. It was brilliantly narrated by Frederick Davidson, who does all the voices and accents beautifully (except for a few slips in his attempts at an American southern twang). Davidson also narrated the audio version of Les Miserables that I downloaded earlier this year, and his reading was a big part of keeping my interest for the 56 parts of the novel. He was a prolific narrator of more than 700 audiobooks and I think I could listen to him read a telephone book, if they still exist. 

I'm looking forward to more Blandings novels and maybe even the TV series, which I have yet to watch. Has anyone seen it? And which Wodehouse novels do you recommend? I've read several of the Jeeves and Wooster novels and some of the stand-alone novels. Next up in the Blandings series is Leave it to Psmith, which is #4 in that series, so I don't know if I should go back and start with Psmith #1 and jump back into Blandings. Does it really matter?

Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvilli

I first heard about The Eighth Life a few months ago, but I knew immediately that I wanted to read it. More than nine hundred pages about a family in Eastern Europe, over six generations? More than a hundred years of a family's history? A book in translation? Yes please, this is exactly the sort of book I love. But I'm not going to lie, this book, as you might expect, is A LOT. 

I should back up a bit and give as much summary as possible. The story begins with a prologue: Nizia, Stasia's great granddaughter, is living in Berlin and gets a frantic phone call from her mother. Nizia's niece Brilka, aged 12, has left her ballet group in Amsterdam and is on a train to Vienna, alone, on some kind of wild-goose chase. Nizia agrees to find her niece and bring her back to Tbilsi. The story then goes back more than a hundred years, to tell the history of six generations of the Jashi family, beginning with Stasia, a young Georgian dancer who is forced to give up her dreams of the Bolshoi Ballet and instead marries a dashing young officer in the early 20th century. Nizia narrates the story as though she's telling her family's history to Brilka. 

She remains with her family as he goes off on assignment, then they are separated by the Russian revolution. We learn about Stasia's beautiful sister Christine, who living a fabulous life in Tbilisi society until she attracts the attention of an important party leader; about Stasia's two children: Kostya, a promising Russian naval officer; and Kitty, a talented folk singer; Kostya's spoiled daughter Elene, the mother of narrator Nizia; and Nizia's sister Daria, a beautiful actress. Along the way there are world wars, revolutions, sieges, torture, heartbreak, murder, and terrible things happen to everyone along the way. There is also a magical chocolate recipe that is supposed to be some kind of curse but is really only a very minor part of the book (and I was really hoping for a recipe that never appeared.)

Haratischvilli interweaves real events and people (named and unnamed) in the book, so I learned a bit about Georgian and Russian history and geography. I do admit to skimming over some of the politics mentioned in the book. These characters experience a lot of tragedy and heartache -- honestly, I'm shocked that everyone in Georgia doesn't have PTSD or worse. I cannot even imagine living through even a fraction of what these characters have experienced. 

Great cover on this Turkish edition
Great cover on this Turkish edition

Overall, I really liked this book and being able to spend so much time with the characters. There are a lot of great strong women in this family (though they seem to have terrible taste in men). I did prefer the first half of the book to the second -- the narrator, Nizia, is actually my least favorite character in the book. She does some things that seem really unbelievable and overly convenient to the plot. However, I was so absorbed in the family's story and all the other characters that I stayed along with it until the end. I was not disappointed, though I was hoping for more chocolate. 

The Eighth Life was first published in German in 2014, and finally translated into English in 2019. I love reading books in translation -- I know so many of my books are mid-century British and classics and I really want to expand a little bit. It is Women in Translation Month so this ties in nicely. It also ties in as my Georgian selection for the European Reading Challenge, and towards my Big Book Summer Challenge.