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 doesn't even realize that a nice young Englishman named Eric that sits next to her while she's sketching 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 other 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.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Big Book Summer Reading Challenge 2022

Time for another Big Book Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Suzan at Book by Book! Alas, I still have too many unread books. Let's see if I can shrink the pile just a little this summer. Here is my stack of hopeful reads: 

  1. They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy (624 pp)
  2. The Deepening Stream by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (616 pp)
  3. Night Falls on the City by Sarah Gainham (632 pp)
  4. Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood (495 pp)
  5. My American by Stella Gibbons (480 pp)
  6. A London Family by Molly Hughes (600 pp)
  7. The Feast by Margaret Kennedy (448 pp)
  8. Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir (456 pp)
  9. The Gods Arrive by Edith Wharton (454 pp)
  10. The Most of P. G. Wodehouse (701 pp)

Nearly all of them count for other challenges -- Back to the Classics, the TBR Pile Challenge, and the European Reading ChallengeI'm cheating a little this year by choosing mostly fiction which are normally much quicker than nonfiction. I do love a great big fat biography but since I'm so far behind this year I'm going for more novels instead; only three of this list are nonfiction and one volume is (mostly) short stories.  I'm hoping that most of them are fast reads. I know I won't finish them all but we can dream, right?

Which one should I read first -- and are there any I should just donate to my Little Free Library? Please let me know in the comments! And what's on your list for the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge?

Monday, May 30, 2022

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

No civilization had lasted for more than a few thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its day and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it would take shape and have its day. That day was unimaginable; it would be what would be; but already the margins of the present broke crumbling and dissolved before the invading chaos that pressed on.  

Published in 1950, The World My Wilderness is Rose Macaulay's penultimate novel, just before her most famous work, The Towers of Trebizond. I'd been meaning to read this forever and was lucky enough to find a paperback Virago copy a couple of years ago, on the free book cart in the lobby of the Ramstein AFB library. I can spot a green Virago spine a mile away so naturally I snapped it up. 

Just after the end of World War II, British expat Helen Michel is living in the south of France, in a small town near the Pyrenees, with her 17-year-old daughter Barbary, and her young son, child of her second marriage to a Frenchman. Her husband Maurice, suspected by many as being a collaborater, has died under mysterious circumstances, and Helen is living a quiet existence in their house, Fraises, when her oldest son arrives from Cambridge. After a visit, he returns to London, taking his sister back to live with their British father and his new wife. Also joining them on the trip is Barbary's stepbrother Michel, now orphaned, to live with his uncle. Fifteen-year-old Michel and Barbaray have been running rather wild with the Maquis, French resistors. 

The original 1950 hardcover edition

Not surprisingly, the move to London does not suit Barbary very well. Theoretically she's studying art but is also continuing to be rather wild, exploring the bombed-out buildings with Michel and making some rather disreputable friends. Her father, a British peer, attempts to 'civilize' her -- or rather, her new stepmother Pamela does -- but Barbary can't be bothered to put on makeup or look like a lady, much less sit in boring drawing rooms. Things take a turn for the worse when Barbary accompanies the family on a trip to Scotland to visit an uncle, a psychiatrist who would like very much to analyze her. 

I liked this novel but for a short book, only about 250 pages, it was surprisingly slow. I expected to rush through it but it really isn't that sort of book. It's quite description-heavy and the characters are really well drawn. I was surprised that as early as 1950 an author recognized the psychological effect the war must have had on so many people, including the young, since I've always thought PTSD and wartime trauma was mostly ignored -- Barbary's British father and stepmother were clearly very stiff-upper-lip type of people. 

Really like this Dutch-language edition from 1968

Barbary in particular is a very interesting character, she's both old beyond her years and also extremely childlike. I was very worried that something terrible would happen to her wandering about bombed-out London buildings alone, (and it does) but not at all what I was expecting. I also think the name Barbary is a little heavy-handed but again, it was published in 1950 so maybe that was a subtle hint for its time. 

I also quite liked the twist ending which I was not expecting at all. Overall, a very enjoyable book and an excellent summer read. 

This is my sixth book for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Zoladdiction 2022: His Excellency Eugene Rougon

To his father he owed his massive, square shoulders and heavy features; from his mother, the fearsome Felicite Rougon, who ruled over Plassans, he had inherited his strength of will, a desire for supremacy that scorned petty concerns and petty pleasures. He was without question the greatest of the Rougons.

Not one but TWO epic fails this week: I did not finish my Zola novel in time for Fanda's April Zoladdiction reading event, and I did not finish my selection for Classics Spin #29. In fact, I didn't even start my Spin selection. For both fails, I blame Zola. Sorry, Zola, but this book dragged so badly that it's squarely tied on the bottom Nana, the only one of his novels that I truly disliked.

His Excellecy Eugene Rougon is the sixth novel in the Rougon-Maquart cycle, and it's fairly short at 333 pages so I thought I'd have no trouble reading it in a week. I've owned this book for a couple of years but had putting it off because it's a political novel, which is not my favorite genre. Sadly, I was correct to be hesitant because I could barely finish it.

Basically, it's the story of the fall and rise and fall and rise again of a politician, Eugene Rougon, who makes appearances in the first two books of the cycle, one of the original Rougons, the bourgeois, legitimate side of the family . The book begins when he has resigned his post in the ministry. As he's attempting to pack up or burn documents in his office, a parade of hangers-on traipse through his office. This is the circle of friends and frenemies and political allies who are most of the recurring characters in the story. Before he leaves office, many of them are still trying to get favors or score points. 

The rest of the novel is basically Rougon and the group scheming, gossiping and back-stabbing one another to achieve their own ends (or example, one character is desperately trying to get a train line re-routed so it's closer to his factory, which will then increase its value). Often Zola will begin a novel by throwing a lot of characters at the reader, and normally they sort themselves out and become distinctive to me, but I had a really hard time keeping all the characters straight in this one, because they were all sort of awful, and not even in an interesting way as in some of the other books in the series. 

Maybe this was the wrong time for this book. There are so many political scandals right now in real life I can hardly keep them straight, and reading about them in 19th century France is even harder since I don't really understand the context very well. After reading the introduction (which I always save for last because of spoilers), I realized that many of these characters are based on real people and there's a lot of satire involved which would have been obvious to contemporary leaders but was lost on me. I didn't particularly find Rougon to be a very well-developed character and I didn't much care for the other main character, a politically savvy schemer named Clorinde who is basically a female version of Rougon. At one point she suggests that they marry but Rougon points out that two such people in a marriage would be a disaster). 

He loved power for power's sake; free from any vain lust for wealth or honours. Crassly ignorant and utterly undistinguished in everything but the management of other men, it was only in his need to dominate others that achieved any kind of superiority. He loved the effort involved, and worshipped his own capability. . . . He believed only in himself; where others had arguments, Rougon had convictions; he subordinated everything to ceaseless self-aggrandizement.

My other issue with the book was that great sections of it are Zola telling the reader what characters do or have done instead of actually describing or showing it. The parts when there are actual activities and dialogue are much more interesting than the narrator passively explaining it. Towards the end of the book there's a chapter when people are actually doing something and it was the best part of the book, but I had to get through eleven or twelve chapters to actually get there, which was a real slog. And there's SO MUCH gossip! So much scheming, it's kind of exhausting. I guess that's politics though, so maybe this just was not the book for me, or maybe it's just not the right time. But this book is definitely at the bottom of the Zola ranking for me. There are only four more books in the series left that I haven't read and I certainly hope those are better, I'd hate to finish reading Zola with a whimper instead of a bang.

I'm counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge; and as my French selection for the European Reading Challenge. 


Thursday, April 21, 2022

1954 Club: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns


Within a few weeks funerals were to become a common occurrence in that village; but at this time they were rather scarce and looked forward to eagerly.

I've read several books by Barbara Comyns and was delighted to find out one of them had been published in 1954 -- perfect for Simon and Kaggsy's 1954 Club event. Even better, I found out my local library had a copy of this book, a weirdly twisted take on village country life. 

Set in Warwickshire during the early part of the 20th century, the story begins with a flood so high that ducks are swimming through the windows of the Wildweed family home, a large household consisting of Ebin Wildweed; this three children, Emma, Dennis, and Hattie; the matriarch, Ebin's cantankerous mother; and two servants, sisters Norah and Eunice. The banks of the nearby river have overflowed into the house and caused havoc throughout the surrounding villages.

The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.

It's the beginning of June and the floodwaters soon subside. What follows that summer is slightly sordid and increasingly unsettling; quirky and eccentric behavior among the village residents turns dark, violent, and tragic. I should probably give more details about the plot but I don't think I can without giving too much away.

This book was a quick read, less than 200 pages in a smallish paperback format. I could have probably read it in one sitting, but I did have to take breaks because I found it a little creepy. I've read six of Comyn's books and they've all been darkly quirky in a similar way. 

Some of her other novels have recently been reprinted by Turnpike Books and also by Daunt books; I've already ordered one of them, Mr. Fox. A couple of her works are nearly impossible to find, hopefully the reprints will find an audience and the others will follow. 

Thanks again to Simon and Kaggsy for organizing this reading event! I'm hoping to read two or even three more novels so fingers crossed I'll get them finished and posted in time. 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

1954 Club: Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P. G. Wodehouse

It is both amusing and amazing to me that P. G. Wodehouse was able to recycle his own plots and characters over the course of his seventy year writing career. By my count, I've now read 25 of his works, as novels and short story collections. Wodehouse tropes abound in Jeeves and The Feudal Spirit. I'm always looking for an excuse to read more Wodehouse, and the timing couldn't have been better as I could count it for Simon and Kaggsy's 1954 Club!  It runs this whole week from April 18 to 24. 

Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves return for their eleventh adventure and with them some beloved returning characters and situations. Somehow Bertie just never learns to avoid young upper-class women who want to marry him and mold him into respectability, their jealous ex-fiancés who want to sock him, and devious aunts who want him to commit petty crimes. Naturally the faithful Jeeves with his superior brain power is there to save the day (and Bertie's skin).

In this installment, Bertie has been summoned to help Aunt Dahlia out of yet another scrape -- she's desperately trying to unload her women's magazine, Milady's Boudoir, to a wealthy publisher, and has enlisted Bertie to help wine and dine him, in London and at Brinkley Court, her country estate. She has also tasked Bertie with picking up a pearl necklace for her in London from a jewelry store. Little does Bertie know that Aunt Dahlia has made a cheap copy of some extremely valuable pearls, which she has subsequently pawned to infuse cash into her insolvent periodical. She is in a panic because her husband Tom is planning on showing off the pearls to another weekend guest, Lord Sidcup, a supposed expert of antiques and jewelry.

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster and Nicholas Palliser as Stilton Cheesewright from the 1993 TV adaptation, the episode entitled "The Delayed Arrival." Jeeves does not approve of Bertie's mustache.

Bertie is also in the soup, so to speak, because the Brinkley Court guest list includes Florence Craye, a strong-willed young writer who has managed to entangle the unwitting Bertie into an unwanted engagement. She's on the rebound after jilting her overbearing fiancé, D'Arcy "Stilton" Cheesewright, who has appeared to have it out with Florence and wring Bertie's neck. It also includes the aforementioned publisher, Trotter; his social-climbing wife; and his stepson, Percy Gorringe, a playwright who is adapting Florence's novel for the stage, and is madly in love with her. 

You always know what you are getting with Wodehouse, and therein lies the charm. I don't really want to time-travel to aristocratic England between the wars, but it would be amusing to be a fly on the wall and observe the hapless Bertie in all his slapstick charm. It honestly doesn't bother me that Wodehouse recycles plots and character types -- they're so beautifully drawn and so funny, just the thing if you need a light read, and who couldn't use some diversion right now? 

And now time for a little bonus Wodehouse! If you like musical theater, I strongly recommend watching the upcoming TV broadcast of Anything Goes, airing in the US this May on PBS Great Performances. It had a short run on the big screen in US theaters in March and I was lucky enough to go see it. It's a professionally shot recording of the 2021 West End production starring Sutton Foster (currently starring on Broadway in The Music Man). Wodehouse co-wrote the original book, lyrics by Cole Porter. The plot is classic Wodehouse, about wacky characters on an ocean liner in the 1930s. There are mobsters, star-crossed lovers, a ridiculous English lord, and an American cabaret singer, giving ample opportunity for hijinks and great musical numbers. It was an absolute joy to watch and I can't wait to watch it again. I suspect I'll save it on the DVR so I can watch the fabulous tap dancing numbers again and again. 

Here's the preview from Youtube: 

So -- my first read for the 1954 Club! I have two or three more I'd like to read for this event, hopefully I'll get through them all. What are you reading for the 1954 Club?

Monday, March 21, 2022

The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford: An NYRB Classic with a Dark Twist

Detail of "The Shower" by William Herbert Dunton. 
The original is in the American Museum of Western Art in Denver, Colorado

The Mountain Lion is one of several unread NYRB Classics that have been accumulating on my TBR shelves. I've probably owned it for a good ten years and it seemed like a good choice for the TBR Pile Challenge. I try to mix up my reading with different genres and it seemed quite different than my previous read, plus it's short -- a good choice when I'm behind on my annual reading goal already! However, this book was nothing like I expected.

Published in 1947 but set about 20 years earlier, it is the story of a young brother and sister living in California, Ralph and Molly Fawcett. The book begins when Ralph, aged ten and Molly, eight, are anxiously awaiting the arrival of their Grandfather Kenyon, the stepfather of their widowed mother (so, technically, their step-grandfather). They live with their mother and two older sisters in a walnut grove in suburban Los Angeles, and their Grandfather's visit is the highlight of the year. Grandpa Kenyon is quite a character, a world traveler who owns various properties including a ranch in Colorado, managed by his son Claude, their mother's half-brother. 

Ralph in particular is stifled growing up among a lot of females, but ostensibly for their health, Ralph and Molly begin to spend extended trips on the ranch with Claude. Ralph's world changes as he leaves his repressed childhood in California to a heavenly freedom in Colorado, where he learns to ride and shoot and fish. 

The original 1947 cover.
I love the illustration, like a reverse woodblock print. 

This seems like it could be a wonderful and ideal way to spend summers, but it's not ideal for Molly, who is precious, awkward, and bookish. It also takes a rather darker turn as they begin to grow older. What at first appears idyllic is actually not. Jean Stafford is masterful at describing life, both on the ranch and in California, but she doesn't leave out any details, including butchering animals and a really grotesque incident of self-harm. The characters are really well-drawn, but none of them are particularly likable; however, I absolutely had to keep reading to the ending which left me gobsmacked and very unsettled. My edition had a forward by Stafford with a major spoiler so I should have seen it coming -- I was still rather shocked but if you want to be completely surprised, I'd skip it.

Having read the forward, I had an overwhelming sense of dread. It actually reminded me a bit of the film The Power of the Dog, -- not so much the plot, but they're both Westerns set in the 1920s with dark undertones. I actually saw it the theater a few months ago and it's a great movie but it made me deeply uncomfortable because I knew something dreadful was going to happen. If that is the type of story that puts you off, I would probably not read The Mountain Lion. I gave it four stars on Goodreads (there is some racism besides the disturbing parts) but I don't think I would read it again. 

From the 1983 edition. This cover is SO 1980s!

Jean Stafford won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for her Collected Short Stories, and a couple of other novels. I'm not sure if they're as dark as The Mountain Lion but her writing is very good and at some point after I've recovered from this one I might look for them later.

This is my fifth book for the TBR Pile Challenge.