Saturday, March 7, 2020

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Italian cover. Great photo, but wrong era, it's off by about 50 years.

"There came a moment, she imagined, in the lives of most unmarried daughters, and perhaps in other people's too, when they must either bolt or go permanently under." 

It's funny how some authors are so strongly identified by a single work, when they often have lots of other books which are largely ignored. I feel like Elizabeth von Arnim is one of those authors.  She's so well know for her delightful novel Enchanted April, yet so many of her other books are hardly discussed and mostly out of print.

Author Elizabeth von Arnim
One of those novels is Father, published in 1931. It's sadly fallen out of print, like many of her novels (except in Italian -- most of her books seem to be in print int Italy -- because of Enchanted April ? Of course I'm only guessing.)

Anyway, I've now read nine of her books and Father is near the top of my rankings, by far one of my favorites. Set between the wars, it's the story of Jennifer Dodge, the thirty-three year old spinster daughter of a famous writer. On her mother's deathbed some 12 years before, Jennifer promises to look after her father. Inevitably, she give up her youth and possibilities of any of her own hopes and dreams, devoting herself to Father so that his work is not disturbed.

The only image I could find of an English-language edition
All this changes when Father comes home one day and announces that he has remarried -- to Netta, a nineteen-year-old beauty, a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. Naturally, Jennifer is stunned -- then elated! With a new wife, surely she will be in the way? Now she can escape and have a chance at her own life. Though her father never paid her a cent for her hard work, Jennifer has a tiny income of her from her late mother, and decides to find a tiny cottage where she can garden and live happily in the country.

Minnie, the cook, suggests her home county of Sussex, and Minnie's copy of the local church paper provides two possibilities. After has Father whisked Netta off on a Norwegian honeymoon, Jennifer gets on a train to explore two cottages owned by neighboring vicarages. The first attempt is a disaster, and at the second, the spinster sister of the vicar agrees to rent Rose Cottage to Jennifer, simply out of spite to her brother, with whom she's just had a tiff.

Great cover, but it doesn't represent the characters AT ALL.
These people are far too glamorous and sophisticated.

Alice Ollier, the vicar's sister, quickly regrets her decision when it occurs to her that is distinctly possible that her brother James might fall in love with Jennifer! There's almost a bit of screwball comedy involved as Jennifer begins to settle into Rose Cottage and Alice attempts to thwart her. What would happen to 40ish Alice if James brings home a bride? Meanwhile, Jennifer's idea of a peaceful existence is frustrated by the sudden appearance of the child bride Netta -- apparently there's trouble in paradise. Jennifer's father is also none too pleased at her decision to -- gasp -- want a life of her own! The nerve!

Parts of this are quite funny, but there's an undercurrent of sadness in this novel, as it's mostly centered on men's expectations of the women in their lives, and people trying to manipulate one another. The character of the father in particular made me want to jump into the book and throttle him -- I have rarely read such a well-drawn, frustrating character. He is absolutely self-centered and self-absorbed. And I wanted to give Alice a good talking-to as well.

A French-language edition.
She looks like a dutiful daughter, but about 20 years too early.
This is clearly Edwardian.
I chose this book off my stack because I thought the title would make it a perfect fit for the Classic About a Family category in the Back to the Classics Challenge. It didn't turn out to be quite what I expected -- it is about families, but it's just as much as about the Olliers as it is the Dodges. I hope I'm not giving the impression that I didn't like this novel, because I really liked it, and it will probably be one of my top reads of the year.

I'm counting this as my Classic About a Family for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I'm also counting it as my British novel for the European Reading Challenge.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Les Miserables, Book Two: Cosette; and Maison Victor Hugo in Paris

The Battle of Waterloo by William Holmes Sullivan
Two volumes done, three to go! I'm making real progress with Les Miserables, one of the books that's on my TBR shelves the longest. I've read 500 pages so far and completed two volumes. 

The second volume of Les Miserables begins with an extended description of the Battle of Waterloo. Talk about back story -- this section goes on for nearly fifty pages and at the very end, in the last three pages, we finally discover how it relates to the rest of the book! The awful Thenardier, the innkeeper who takes custody of Cosette, arrives on the scene as a thief, scavenging from the bodies on the battlefield. Nice.

Then we jump back to what's happening with Jean Valjean, now serving a prison sentence on another galley ship -- but not for long! He manages to escape by faking his own death after saving a sailor's life. He then retrieves some money and makes his way back to the Thenardier's village so he can rescue little Cosette from those monsters who are treating her like a slave. The scene where they finally get away from Thenardier is one of the most satisfying I have read in a long time. 

Jean Valjean and Cosette make their way to Paris, where they live quietly in seclusion for awhile, until Jean suspects he's being watched. They escape in a very exciting sequence, and wind up in a secluded walled garden which turns out to belong to a convent with a girl's school conveniently attached. In one of those amazing coincidences so beloved by Victorian writers, the elderly gardener is Fauchelevent, the very man whose life was saved by Jean Valjean back in Vol. I, which aroused Javert's suspicion to his true identity. Fauchelevent swears he will help Valjean with anything, and they arrange to smuggle Cosette out of the garden in a basket, so they can bring her back to the school through the front door. 

However, the conundrum is how to sneak Valjean out of the garden and back inside semi-legitimately as Fauchelevent's brother and new assistant gardener. In another amazing coincidence, one of the nuns has just died and it is her dying wish to be buried (illegally) in the vault of the chapel. Conveniently, the convent now has an empty coffin which needs to be filled with something and buried to avoid suspicion. It was no surprise that the plan succeeds, with some suspenseful plot twists.

This volume had a lot of twists and turns, and great plot development. However, it also included with some very detailed and long asides about both the Battle of Waterloo and the convent where Cosette and Valjean end up. I ended up listening to much of this on audio so I didn't mind the history and asides, but I cheerfully admit that my mind wandered during the extended action scenes. I'm really enjoying this book, but boy, it could have used some editing.

And now for some photos of Paris! 

Fountain in the square of the Place des Vosges in Paris 
Back when I lived in Germany, we were very lucky to be close to the border of France -- less than an hour's drive for an easy day trip, but even better, there was an express train to Paris from the nearest town. From my village train station, I could make it to Paris in less than four hours. If I booked far enough in advance sometimes it was as little as $80 for a round-trip ticket. Needless to say, I made the trip quite a few times. 
Portrait of Hugo on display at the Maison
On my second trip I decided to visit the home of Victor Hugo which is now a free museum, Maisons Victor Hugo (there's a second museum in Guernsey). It's in the Place des Vosges, a beautiful square in the 3rd Arrondissement, not far from the Place de la Bastille. Hugo lived at #6 Place Royal (now Place des Vosges) from 1832 to 1848. I hadn't read any of his works when I visited but the  museum is quite interesting. It includes a lot of his possessions from his entire life, including his writing desk and the bed in which he died, plus portraits of Hugo and some of his own drawing -- I hadn't realized he was also an accomplished artist.

Hugo's writing desk. He wrote standing up. 
It's definitely worth seeing if you're in Paris and if you're curious about writer's homes, as I am. I've been to several, including Jane Austen, Dickens, Hemingway, Ann Frank, and Goethe. I'd also love to go to Yorkshire and see the Bronte parsonage and the home of Elizabeth Gaskell. And now that I live on the East Coast I'm hoping to go up to the Berkshires and visit Edith Wharton's home.

Bloggers, do you enjoy visiting writer's homes? Which ones should I visit in the U.S.? 

Saturday, February 29, 2020

European Reading Challenge 2020

Another challenge! But all of these are books that are already on the TBR shelves, or count for another challenge. How can I resist? 

Hosted by Rose City Reader, this challenge is a tour of Europe through reading, either books from European countries or set in European countries -- any kind of book is fine, they don't have to be classics -- it could even be a cookbook or a children's book. Participants can choose different levels of participation so there's no big commitment. But one lucky reader can win a prize at the end for the most countries visited! The only real rule is no more than one book per country. 

I'm signing up for the Five Star Level, at least five books. I'm pretty sure I can finish five books by European authors by the end of the year. Here's what's on my list so far: 

Austria: Chess Story by Stefan Zweig 
France: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (in progress!)
Germany: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann 
Hungary: They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy
Ireland: The Real Charlotte by Edith Somerville and Violet Martin
Italy: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassini
Russia: Crime and Punishment OR Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky 
Switzerland:  In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim
UK: The Belton Estate by Trollope OR East Lynne by Mrs. Henry Wood
Ukraine: The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky

I'd love to add more countries later but I really want to finish books from my own shelves or that fulfill other challenges, so I'll have to wait and see what I else I can count. Most of the books on my owned-and-unread shelves are British -- shocking, I know! I do want to read more world literature and I'm always looking for more books in translation. 

Has anyone else signed up for this challenge? And do you have any suggestions for books from other European authors? If you're interested, sign-ups are here

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: Book One, Fantine

So I've decided to take the plunge and make another attempt at Victor Hugo's epic masterpiece, Les Miserables. At 1260 pages (depending on the edition), it's quite possibly the longest book I've ever read! (I'm not sure if it's longer than War and Peace, it's tough to say based on different editions. It's definitely longer than Gone With the Wind and anything by Dickens or Trollope.) 

Since the book is so long, I've decided to write blog posts after each of the five books. The first book, Fantine, took me just about a week to finish. If you don't know the setup, here's what's happened so far:

The book begins in the 1820s, and begins with a lot of back story about a priest, Monseignur Bienvenue, who only appears in this section but is a pivotal character. (He is saintly and allows a newly released convict, Jean Valjean, into his home for the night. Valjean has spent 19 years doing hard labor onboard a galley ship after stealing a loaf of bread (his initial sentence was five years, but was extended after repeated escape attempts). Valjean steals the family silver and uses this to start a new life, eventually working his way up to become a successful businessman and the well-respected mayor of a town about five years later. Meanwhile, one of the factory workers, the beautiful Fantine, has left her illegitimate daughter Cosette in the care of the unscrupulous Thenardiers, who take Fantine's money and spend it on their own children, treating little Cosette like a servant.

Cosette's nasty co-workers discover where she's been sending her weekly wages, and get her fired from her job. She then sinks to selling her hair, then her teeth, and finally her body on the streets. Finally one day she is arrested for assaulting a man on the street when Valjean (now known as  Monsieur Madeleine) witnesses the event and stops the policeman Javert from throwing her in jail. Fantine health is wrecked and he takes charge of her care, promising to reunite her with Cosette.

Meanwhile, Javert has become suspicious -- he believes Mayor Madeleine is a former convict who is wanted for thefts after his release. However, Javert tells Madeleine his fears were averted when another man is arrested for the crimes. Madeleine realizes another man may be sentenced for his crimes and struggles with the decision to come forward. And that's only the first 200 pages!

There is A LOT going on in this book -- plot, characters, setting (Hugo loves detailed descriptions), and many asides in which Hugo pontificates about politics, philosophy, religion, etc. This seems to be a feature of books of the time -- I remember Moby-Dick included entire chapters about chowder and the color white. I've heard there are entire chapters in Les Miserables about the Paris sewer system, so that'll be . . . interesting. (Fun fact: you can take sewer tour in Paris -- there is an actual sewer museum! Apparently it's closed at the moment for renovations, so if you're planning a trip, you're out of luck). Also SO MUCH back story about the characters -- Monseigneur Bienvenue was the reason I gave up my first attempt reading this a few years ago. 

Anyway, I'm really enjoying it so far, despite all the asides. I've been lucky enough to find a digital download of the audio from the library, so I've been able to make real progress while walking the dog and driving around town. The audio version is the Charles Wilbour translation from 1862, and I like it so far. It's the same translation as the Modern Library hardcover edition, also checked out from the library. I do actually own two other copies of this book, but it's easier to keep reading the same edition. I also own the beautiful Penguin clothbound copy and the Signet mass-market paperback, both pictured. I love the Penguin copy but it's actually easier to read the Modern Library version, as it lies flat when open. The Penguin and Signet editions are also different translations. I'm sure they're equally good but I find it easier to just stick with one -- maybe someday I'll go back and reread the others to see which one I like best!

I'll be posting more thoughts about Les Miserables in the coming weeks -- I'm hoping to finish one section every week, so if all goes as planned I'll finish up by the end of March. I'm also going to include some travel photos related to Paris and Victor Hugo, and various adaptations.

Bloggers, have you read Les Miserables? Which edition is the best? And what are the longest books you've ever read?

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Man and Wife by Wilkie Collins

Victorian sensation fiction is SO MUCH FUN. If you read a Victorian sensation novel you are guaranteed many, if not all, of the following:
  • Secrets
  • Scandals
  • Swooning
  • Brain fever
  • Wildly unbelievable coincidences
  • Death by heartbreak
  • Misunderstandings
  • Mistaken identities
  • Wills, forged and legitimate
  • Adultery
  • Bigamy
  • Illegitimate children
  • Murder
and just general bad behavior in Victorian times. They're generally pretty long (in order to fit all this in) but they aren't difficult reads and they are absolutely worth reading. 

So. Man and Wife starts with two proper young Victorian ladies, aged about 18, on board ship. They are the dearest of schoolmates and vow to be friends for life. One of them, Blanche, is en route to India, where she eventually meets and marries a titled aristocrat; the other one, Anne, winds up in Italy, where she becomes a celebrated actress and singer.

Flash-forward 24 years later. Anne has returned to England from abroad and has married a younger man, Vanborough who is no longer as besotted with her as he once was. He's a social climber, and realizes that his wife is holding him back. He starts gallivanting about the county without telling anyone he's actually married, and finds a rich woman who would help him break into society and quite possibly, a successful career in politics. 

Vanborough finds a clever attorney who finds a loophole in their marriage paperwork: since they were married in Ireland by a priest, and Vanborough wasn't Catholic, the marriage is not technically valid. He uses this as an excuse to leave his wife and young daughter (also named Anne) and start a new life. His former wife eventually dies of heartbreak, leaving her daughter in the care of her old friend Blanche, now Lady Lundie. 

Flash-forward again, about 12 more years. The younger Anne is now governess and best friend of Blanche's daughter, also called Blanche. Both her parents have died, and she lives with her widowed stepmother, the second Lady Lundie. Blanche II and Lady Lundie are hosting a weekend party one summer at their estate in Scotland, and two of the guests include Arnold Brinkworth and his best college mate, Geoffrey Delamayn. Arnold is a stand-up guy and is trying to work up the nerve to declare his love to Blanche and make her an offer. He's very different from Geoffrey, who can't be bothered to pick up a book and is something of a bounder, a ne'er-do-well; however, he's the best rower in Oxford, and once saved Arnold from drowning. He is also, coincidentally, the second son of Sir Geoffrey Delamayn, the somewhat unscrupulous lawyer who helped Anne's father slither out of his marriage to her mother. 

History begins to repeat itself with poor Anne Silvester, who just can't catch a break. She's caught up in a scandalous relationship and is trying to make it right, and everything seems to go wrong and spiral out of control, involving her best friend Blanche, Blanche's swain Arnold, and even Blanche's Uncle Patrick, the heir to her father's title and head of the family. Much of the action takes place in Scotland, and if you've ever read of Gretna Green, (a famous destination in Pride and Prejudice), you will learn more than you ever anticipated about Scottish marriage laws. 

Like most Victorian sensation novels, Man and Wife is a real rollercoaster of a book, with many of the elements listed above. However, this book took a darker turn toward the end with the real threat of domestic violence, which I wasn't expecting. It does have some very funny moments, where the omniscent narrator injects some wry comments. Also, I particularly enjoyed the character of Sir Patrick Lundie, Blanche's uncle, who is the voice of reason in the book but also dryly amusing. I really enjoyed this book and after a bit of a slow start, I raced through more than 600 pages in a week because I just had to find out what happened next. This is my seventh novel by Wilkie Collins so far, and I really think this one is my favorite. 

There are at least five more books by Collins that I still haven't read: The Frozen Deep, Basil, Hide and Seek, The Dead Secret, The Evil Genius, and Jezebel's Daughter. They all sound really scandalous and over the top, I can't wait to read them all.

I'm counting this as my second book for the Victorian Reading Challenge, for the Love & Marriage category. I'm also counting it for my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

Friday, February 14, 2020

Shakespeare in Washington, DC

One of the best things about living near Washington D. C. is all the amazing culture that is so close to me. In addition to the the history, great museums, monuments, and restaurants, there is an amazing theater scene -- more than 100 live theaters within a two-hour drive, from small community theater companies to the National Theater and the Kennedy Center. 

I've been to a couple of events at the Kennedy Center, which is stunning, but what I like most are smaller theaters. One of my favorites so far is the Folger Shakespeare Theater, part of the beautiful and historic Folger Library, on Capitol Hill. It's closing soon for a major expansion and renovation, but I was able to get a ticket for the current production, The Merry Wives of Windsor. 

I've been reading classics on a regular basis for more than ten years now, but my knowledge of plays is sorely lacking. I've only seen three plays performed live (King Lear, The Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet). I did take a Shakespeare class in college, but that was a long time ago, and to be honest I can't even remember exactly which plays we read! (I know there were four tragedies and four comedies). However, I am quite sure that I haven't read The Merry Wives. 

The Merry Wives of Windsor trailer

DC also has a regional theater company specializing in Shakespeare, though they perform other plays as well. The next play for the Shakespeare Theater Company is Timon of Athens, about which I know absolutely nothing (apparently it's not performed very often, but this production is gender-flipped and set in modern Greece). Much Ado About Nothing is scheduled for May, which sounds fun. The 2020/2021 season includes The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It, so I'm looking forward to both of those.

Timon of Athens trailer

So here is my question for all my dear readers who are well-versed (or slightly versed) in Shakespeare: how important is it to have read the plays before attending the productions? Normally, I don't like to know too many details about a play before I see it, for fear of spoilers. But Shakespeare is something else entirely. I haven't read any of the plays for years, and I don't want to be completely lost before attending. 

Readers, what would you suggest? Read the plays, or be surprised? And has anyone read or seen Timon of Athens

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

I was racking my brain to think of a novel for the Journeys and Travels category for the Victorian Reading Challenge when I thought of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells -- seriously, what could be a more fantastic journey than traveling through time? Though I'm not much of a science fiction reader, I really enjoyed my last foray into H. G. Wells, The Invisible Man. I'd been putting off this one because I saw the 1960 film adaptation as a child and it scared the bejeezus out of me. 

Published in 1895, the story is narrated by an anonymous man who meets a mysterious scientist at his gentleman's club. As a group of men are sitting around waxing philosophically, a scientist, known only as the Time Traveller, describes his theory of time travel. Of course they scoff at his ideas, but accept his invitation to see the machine. The narrator and a few other men accept an invitation for the following week, but when they arrive at the Time Traveller's home, their host is absent. They begin dinner without him and are shocked at his dusty, haggard appearance when he finally arrives. Gulping his food like a starving man, he recounts a fantastic tale of traveling thousands of years into the future, to a world now populated not by humans but by the peaceful, beautiful Eloi. Things seem idyllic until the Traveller realizes things are much darker and more dangerous than he realized at first, and he is soon fighting for his own existence. 

After a slow start, I raced through the book, which was much better than I expected, and rather different than the film version that I remember from years ago. It's short, only about 100 pages in most editions, and can easily be read in a single sitting. (I actually read most of it off my phone which I downloaded for free on iBooks). What surprised me most was how much Wells emphasized the environment and the future of mankind, so far ahead of his time. He also made some serious points about class warfare, which comes to an extreme in the book. 

It's quite a page-turner and I loved the ending, which I found very poignant, and I'm very glad that I finally got around to reading it. I don't know if I dare watch the 1960 film version again, or even the 2002 adaptation starring Guy Pearce. The effects in the first version are probably pretty cheesey to modern viewers, but I'm very squeamish about horror movies. I'm pretty sure the newer version is even scarier. I'm not a huge sci-fi person but I know it's iconic. 

And just for fun, here's a clip from a very funny episode of Big Bang Theory, in which Sheldon has a bad dream about time travel after purchasing a movie prop time machine. There's a bit of a spoiler in it, so don't watch it if you don't know the big twist from the novel. 

I'm counting this as my Genre Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and as my Journeys and Travels novel for the Victorian Reading Challenge.

Monday, January 27, 2020

So Big by Edna Ferber

"The more kinds of people you see, and the more things you do, and the more things that happen to you, the richer you are. Even if they're not pleasant things. That's living." (p. 10)

Edna Ferber is one of those authors that has sadly fallen off the radar. Winner of the 1925 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, and author of several other well-regarded books, she is unfortunately an author that hardly anyone reads anymore. Published in 1924, So Big is the story of Selina Peake, a young, idealistic woman who falls on hard times after the sudden death of her gambler father.

At nineteen, Selina is forced to take a job as a schoolteacher in a farming community outside of Chicago, a job she is able to find through a school friend's father, a successful butcher. She hopes to return to Chicago in a year and find a better job, and the locals find her odd. Selina tries to find beauty in her surroundings, and finds a kindred spirit in young Roelf, the teenage son of the farmers who provide her with room and board. She also begins tutoring a local Dutch farmer, whom she eventually marries. Selina throws all her energy into making a success as a farmer's wife, and soon a mother, but the farm is on poor land and her husband is stubborn and unwilling to make changes. It seems Selina is destined for a downward spiral; however, she takes matters into her own hands, defying conventions. With her determination, plus a bit of deus ex machina, her luck begins to change -- for herself, and her young son Dirk, also known as "So Big." In the second half of the book, Dirk becomes the protagonist as he works hard to elevate himself from a farmer's son to a success. Eventually he tries to break into Chicago society, though it's hard for him to ignore his roots. 

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book. I didn't know what to expect, but I really liked the character of Selina, and how she was determined to be a success one way or another. Her story reminded me a bit of Laura Ingalls from The Little House on the Prairie series, particularly These Happy Golden Years (the eighth volume in which Laura teaches in a one-room schoolhouse). I was actually more interested in Selina than in her son Dirk. She's present in the second half of the book but is more of a peripheral character. Dirk was kind of annoying and superficial. 

I also loved reading a book set in Chicago, where I lived for about ten years. Of course this book is set nearly 100 years ago and it's vastly different now, but I did recognize some of the street names and mentions of famous buildings and hotels like The Palmer House. 

My only quibbles with the book were some racist language (insert eyeroll here; I know, it's a product of its time, but still, yuck.) Also, I found the ending of the book to be a little abrupt. Overall, though, I really enjoyed it and now I'm curious about more of Ferber's works. I know she wrote Giant which is set in Texas (another place I've lived!); and Cimarron, both of which were adapted into movies; and Show Boat, which was adapted into a famous Broadway musical, which I saw on tour when I was very young. 

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

Monday, January 13, 2020

2020 Victorian Reading Challenge

Becky at Becky's Book Reviews is hosting another Victorian Reading Challenge and the way she's organized it is so fun and interesting I can't pass it up. There are two levels: the basic level is quarterly, just read one Victorian every three months -- easy peasy! The advanced level is still pretty easy, with eleven themed months and one bonus theme. And there's a lot of flexibility with the months, which is great since so many Victorians are real doorstoppers.

Here are the themes and some possible books that would fit the challenge:

JANUARY/FEBRUARY: Journeys and Travels: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (can also count this as my Genre Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge).

FEBRUARY/MARCH: Love and Marriage: Man and Wife by Wilkie Collins. Sounds super-dramatic and sensationalist, which is always fun.

MARCH/APRIL: Second Chances. Maybe Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (I can also count this for my Abandoned Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge). I got stuck about halfway through, maybe I should watch the miniseries and it will inspire me to actually finish the book. Or Les Miserables if I can finish it in time.

APRIL/MAY: Names as Titles: Victorian authors named a lot of books after people! Maybe Basil by Wilkie Collins or a bunch of others by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. There's also The Real Charlotte (also from my Back to the Classics list!)

MAY/JUNE: Long Title or Long Subtitle. How about Harry Heathcote of Gangoil: A Tale of Australian Bushlife ? That's a long title, even for Anthony Trollope. There's also The Struggles of Brown, Jones and Robinson by One of the Firm and The Golden Lion of Grandpere. All of these are fairly obscure and there's not a single decent cover image online for any of them. At least they're all fairly short for Trollope.

JUNE/JULY: Adaptations. The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy. There's a movie adaptation with Rufus Sewell, need I say more?

JULY/AUGUST: Favorite Authors, New-to-Me Titles.  Probably Elizabeth Gaskell, there are a few novellas and minor works that I haven't read yet.

AUGUST/SEPTEMBER: Back to School: I didn't have many Victorians assigned in college and high school, which is why I've been reading so many as an adult. My choices are pretty limited so I'd have to go with Jane Eyre or Great Expectations. Or maybe The Awakening by Kate Chopin -- I didn't read it in school but I think it should be included in school curriculum.

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER: Crime or True Crime. There are so many great nonfiction books that fulfill this category. I've been meaning to read The Five by Hallie Rubenhold.

OCTOBER/NOVEMBER: Home and Family. Period Piece by Gwen Raverat, a memoir of her Victorian childhood (she was a granddaughter of Dickens); also A London Family, an omnibus by Molly Hughes. I've read the first volume but never got around to finishing the last two. I meant to read both of these last year for the TBR Pile Challenge but didn't finish that one either.

NOVEMBER/DECEMBER: Comfort Reads. Pretty much anything by Anthony Trollope fits this category, or maybe Mrs. Oliphant. I loved Miss Marjoribanks and would love to read more in her Carlingford series.

SUPER-BONUS: Bearded Authors. How to choose? I think Trollope has the most impressive beard of the Victorians. Maybe that's a good month to read his biography.

Anthony Trollope
Anyone else signing up for this challenge? What other Victorian novels and novelists do you recommend? And which novelist has the best beard?

Friday, January 10, 2020

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

I started reading Nevil Shute last year because I intended to review one of his books for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. I started with one of his most famous works, A Town Like Alice. Though I never got around to writing a post, I enjoyed it so much I read two more of his books before the end of the year. Though he's most famous now for his books set in Australia, Shute started writing in the 1920s, and more than half his novels were written before he moved there in 1950. 

Published in 1942, Pied Piper is set in 1940. It begins a framing device: an anonymous narrator meets an elderly man one night after dining in his London club. They are forced to stay during an air raid, and the older man relates his tale of a recent escape from the Nazi invasion of France, just after the fall of Dunkirk.

The protagonist, John Howard, is a widower, bereft after the loss of his only son, an RAF pilot. He's unable to help with the war effort due to health issues, and in early spring of 1940, has cabin fever and decides to go on a fishing holiday in France, in a small town near the Swiss border, near the Jura mountains. Howard had hoped to have no reminders of the war, which seems very far away, and is mildly annoyed to find British tourists staying at the same small hotel. Young Sheila and Robbie are on holiday but normally attend school in Geneva, where their father is working for the League of Nations. Gradually Howard befriends the family, and after the fall of Dunkirk, decides it's best to go home to England. The children's parents are alarmed at the speed of the invasion, and beg him to take the children with him back to England, to stay with relatives. 

It seems like a relatively easy task to take a train to Dijon and then to Paris, but Howard underestimates the difficulty of traveling with children, and the rapid escalation of the invasion. The younger child, Sheila, becomes feverish and the party is forced to spend the night in a hotel. Trains stop running, luggage goes missing, and Howard is forced to keep finding alternate routes to get back to England. Meanwhile, thousands of people are attempting to evacuate before the arrival of the Nazis. The small party begins to increase as more and more children join Howard and he attempts to get them all to safety. 

I really liked this book. I do love reading about the lives of ordinary people during the wars. This is also a survival story, which I always enjoy. I liked how Howard comes out of his shell when he makes it his life's purpose to protect the children. I also enjoyed following their route across France as they zigzag toward safety to try and elude the Nazis. There were also some good side characters that helped them. It's always nice to read about the kindness of strangers. 

This was also a really fast read, I think I finished the whole thing in one day. It also reminded me a bit of A Town Called Alice, which also includes wartime refugees on a march, trying to survive, though that one is set in Malaya. I definitely want to read more works by Shute, though some of them are a bit obscure. They're a bit tricky to find in libraries but there are many inexpensive used copies from online retailers.  

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