Thursday, June 3, 2021

Big Book Summer Challenge 2021

Time for another Big Book Summer Challenge! I was so happy to find Suzan's challenge last year -- I finished ten big fat books, eight of which were from my own shelves. I've been trying to whittle away at the longest books at my TBR shelves. I'm down to about 25, and if all goes as planned I'll have finished half of them by the end of the summer. Here's what I have left to read:

Nonfiction: (11)

The Art of Eating by M. F. K. Fisher (749 pp)
Our Hidden Lives: The Remarkable Diaries of Postwar Britain by Simon Garfield (544 pp)
Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood (495 pp)
Trollope by Victoria Glendinning (551 pp)
Slipstream: A Memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard (528 pp)
A London Family, 1870-1900 by Molly Hughes (600 pp)
Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee (869 pp)
Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford (744 pp)
Millions Like Us: Women's Lives in War and Peace, 1939-1949 by Virginia Nicholson (508 pp)
The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla (638 pp) [library book]
Charles Dickens by Michael Slater (696 pp)

Novels: (8)

We Were Counted by Miklos Banffy (596 pp)
The Complete Claudine by Collette (656 pp)
Painting the Darkness by Robert Goddard (608 pp)
Bella Poldark by Winston Graham (688 pp)
Penmarric by Susan Howatch (735 pp)
The Kellys and the O'Kellys by Anthony Trollope (537 pp)
Ralph the Heir by Anthony Trollope (770 pp)
Marcella by Mrs. Humphrey Ward (560 pp)

Short Story Collections: (7)

Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens (680 pp)
The World Over: The Collected Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Vol. II (681 pp)
The Portable Dorothy Parker (626 pp)
The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (495 pp)
The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh (640 pp)
The Collected Stories of Edith Wharton (640 pp)
The Most of P. G. Wodehouse (701 pp)

I'd love to finish at least ten this summer --  I've already started The Art of Eating by M. F. K. Fisher, though it won't count for the challenge since I've been reading it off and on for a couple of months. My goal is to read at least three from each list. Last year I finished ten, but half of them were fiction, which is faster for me than nonfiction. I also ended up reading two books that weren't on my original list. Top of my list this year include Bella Poldark (final novel in the Poldark series), Edith Wharton's biography, the Maugham stories, and the Wodehouse stories.

Bloggers, which of these should I read first? And is there anything I should skip reading and just donate to my local Little Free Library? What big fat books are on your reading list this summer?

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

He pitied widows, but he mistrusted them.  They knew too much.  As free as unmarried women, they were fully armed; this was an unfair advantage, and when it was combined with beauty, an air of well-being, a gaiety which, in a woman over forty had an unsuitable hit of mischief in it, he felt that . . . all manhood was insulted . . . But he knew how to protect himself.

I bought Chatterton Square back in 2017 after Simon raved about it on his wonderful Tea or Books? podcast, and it would probably still be languishing on my bookshelves if my book group hadn't chosen it for their May read. (Yes, I did selfishly suggest it because I've been wanting to read it for so long!). I'm not a huge fan of Zoom but I do love that I'm finally able to see members of this group face-to-face, especially since many of them live in the UK. The group meets this afternoon to discuss it but I wanted to knock out a post of my own independent thoughts. 

This is another lovely Virago book in which not much seems to happen, but also a lot of things are happening. Chatterton Square by E. H. Young is the story of two families, the Frasers and the Blacketts, who live in the eponymous Chatterton Square in Radstowe, a thinly disguised version of Bristol. The Frasers are a single-parent household headed up by the beautiful Rosamund, and her five children. It's never said exactly how old the children are but the eldest Felix is just qualifying to be a lawyer, and the youngest two, Sandra and Paul, are still in school, so I'm guessing they're in their early teens. In the middle are James, a university student, and Chloe, who has finished school and is working in a dress shop. Their father, Fergus, is some sort of writer and has been absent from the house for several years, having absconded to somewhere on the Continent.

The household is completed by Miss Agnes Spanner, Rosamund's childhood friend and a spinster of many years. Rosamund grew up in the house and Agnes was the daughter of her father's business partner. After her parent's death she moves in next door to the Blacketts, headed up by Herbert Blackett, one of the best-drawn and most annoying men I have ever encountered in literature, a self-absorbed, snobbish, judgmental narcissist, and never have I wanted to much to jump into a book and verbally slap someone. The Blackett household also includes his long-suffering wife Bertha,who seems sweet but downtrodden, and his three daughters, one of whom, Flora, takes after him exactly. 

The original cover c.1947

Mr. Blackett sneers and belittles the Frasers to his own family at every opportunity, though he's secretly attracted to the free-spirited Rosamund. He also looks down on Mrs. Blackett's cousin Piers, a disfigured war veteran who has bought farm nearby and comes into town to sell vegetables. Blackett has always disliked Piers, ever since he returned from the war on the eve of his marriage to Mrs. Blackett, when he realized his bride cared more for her cousin but would never back out of her wedding; sadly, she realized on her honeymoon that she was trapped in marriage to a pompous ass. A friendship has struck up between Piers and Rosamund, which is another reason to dislike them both.

Meanwhile, their are potential relationships brewing between the children. James Fraser and Flora Blackett are students at the same university and have developed a mild flirtation, and middle daughter Rhoda has begun borrowing books from Miss Spanner. All of this is taking place under the cloud of potential war, which Mr. Blackett insists will never happen. As the book was published in 1947, contemporary readers, like ourselves, feel the tension since we know the inevitable is coming, which ratchets up the tension in the book. 

Cover of the new BLWW series reprint

I loved this book, though it took longer than I expected -- normally I can zip through a novel in just a few of days, but this was a fairly dense read. There's a lot that's implied and unsaid, especially about current events in the novel, and I often found myself rereading passages to figure out what was going on. It was also a bit frustrating because there is a lot that is unresolved -- if you want your endings neat and tidy, you won't like the end of this book, but since it's set on the eve of WWII, it would be unrealistic to expect anything else. 

What I loved most about this book is the characters and their interactions. As much as I dislike Mr. Blackett and his daughter Flora, they are beautifully developed villains, and I also how his wife Bertha began to grow and change. I also loved his middle daughter Rhoda who is my favorite character in the book. 

This is the third book I've read by E. H. Young -- I loved both Miss Mole and The Misses Mallett. I have three more of her books unread on the TBR shelves and had intended to read Jenny Wren for the Back to the Classics Challenge; however, I may put it off a bit more and try to ration out my E. H. Young books as long as possible (I also own the sequel, The Curate's Wife, and William.) I'm so happy that I finally finished this and am so looking forward to our discussion because I'm sure everyone will have a LOT of opinions about it! 

Friday, May 7, 2021

Shakespeare in a Year?


Last year just before COVID hit I wrote this post about a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C., and all the upcoming Shakespeare plays I was hoping to see 2020. Well, we all know how that's turned out. (Really, I've been extremely fortunate I don't know anyone who's been seriously ill and I'm fully vaccinated as of this week.) Nevertheless I've really missed the theater, and I've tried to fill up some of my time by reading and watching streamed plays and movie adaptations. 

My life in semi-quarantine has recently brought me to Shakespeare. One of my online book groups read Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet, which I loved, and around the same time I signed up for an online class about Shakespeare in context at the Shakespeare Theater Company in DC. We didn't study his works much from a literary aspect, but it inspired me to start reading the plays I'd missed. Which is a LOT -- of the 37 plays commonly attributed to Shakespeare, I'd only read seven. Since I started the class in March I've read five more, bringing me up to a dozen, so I have quite a ways to go. Here's what I've read so far in total:

  • As You Like It
  • Hamlet
  • King Lear
  • Macbeth
  • The Merchant of Venice
  • Measure For Measure
  • A Midsummer Nights' Dream
  • Othello
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • The Tempest
  • Twelfth Night
  • The Winter's Tale
It then occurred to me that I could possibly finish all the plays in a whole year, maybe even by the end of 2021! (I'd also like to go back and reread all the plays we read in college, but probably not until after I've finished the whole list). Right now I'm trying to alternate comedies and tragedies -- I'm a bit intimidated by the histories and will probably do those last, in chronological order by monarch. 

All the plays are available for audio download through my library in various editions. I really like the Arkangel Audiobook series, which has full cast recordings with amazing actors, mostly from the Royal Shakespeare Company. I've been alternating listening to the audio versions with reading the plays online and in print, often with the help of No Fear Shakespeare. 

David Mitchell as William Shakespeare. The cast includes Gemma Whelan and Rob Rouse.

Just for fun I've been watching Upstart Crow on Britbox -- if you haven't heard of it, it's hilarious, starring David Mitchell as Shakespeare. It's by the same creator as Blackadder and there are lots of in-jokes about Shakespeare and they satirize current events as well. 

And I'm also hoping to make a trip to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia! They're already started their summer series -- two of the plays are indoors (socially distant) at their recreated Blackfriars Playhouse, and there's also an outdoor production of Macbeth. It's about a two to three hour drive from my home in suburban DC, so I could easily go in a weekend!

Bloggers, which Shakespeare plays are your favorites? And do you have any favorite stage or screen adaptations? 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Zoladdiction 2021: La Debacle by Emile Zola

It's April and that means Fanda's annual Zoladdiction, a celebration of the life and works of Emile Zola (1840-1902). After putting it off for several years, this time I decided to tackle La Debacle, the pentultimate work in his Rougon-Macquart cycle. A story of fictional people in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, it's considered one of the best war novels of all time, and was Zola's most popular novel when it was published in 1892.

I've been really daunted by this one because it's by far his longest, more than 500 pages, and honestly, I am not a fan of war novels. I'm very bad at following extended action scenes in novels, and I'm much more interested in the social aspects of wartime than of military strategy and maneuvers. I'm normally good at picturing descriptions of scenery and landscapes in my head as I read, but if there's any kind of action, my mind tends to wander. So I was not looking forward to 514 pages of battle scenes.

However, I persevered. The story begins in August of 1870. After the Second Empire declared war on Prussia, the French were pushed back over the borders of western France, in the Alsace-Lorraine region. The main characters of the story are Jean Macquart, who has rejoined the military as a corporal after the disastrous events of La Terre (The Earth); and the soldiers in his regiment, mostly Maurice, who is of a higher class, but is a less experienced soldier. At first Maurice is condescending to Jean, but eventually they become close friends after Jean looks out for him during the course of the war. 

As the story begins, the French had planned to march on Berlin and assert dominance over the Germans, but are quickly pushed back by the superior and more organized Prussian army. (The French were so confident of victory they only brought maps of Germany, and none of western France, leading to mass confusion). Much of the first quarter of the book consists of various regiments basically marching around France, not knowing exactly what's going on, and trying to find food and shelter from terrified and suspicious peasants and villagers. It's pretty much a disaster. 

Portrait of Zola, 1902, Felix Vallotton

We finally get to the actual battles in the second quarter of the book, with a lot of battle descriptions in the fields outside the towns, and the siege of the town of Bazeilles, home of Henriette Weiss, the twin sister of Maurice. After Maurice and Jean take a night's rest inside the Weiss home, the story begins to follow Henriette and her husband, and his employer Delaherche, the owner of a dye factory where the military sets up a temporary hospital. There's also another side character, another soldier in their company called Honore, whose heart was broken when his father wouldn't let him marry the girl he loved, Silvine. Silvine was devastated and has since had child by a Prussian jerk named Goliath, who then refused to marry her. However, Honore still loves her and ironically, Silvine and the child are now living at his father's farm as she has nowhere else to go.

For me the book really picked up when it was more character-driven. Zola is really good at creating realistic characters, and his depiction of how the war affected the civilian population was really good. Of course I'm always more interested in the social aspect than the military and political side. My mind did tend to wander when Zola was describing all the political events and military maneuvers as the war goes from bad to worse for the French, and the Prussians take over. 

The fighting doesn't stop, however, and Weiss ends up going back to Paris. Unbeknownst to all of them is the upcoming siege of Paris and the Paris commune! Things are going to get worse! The short version is that after a months-long siege of Paris by the Prussians, overthrow their own government and all hell breaks loose inside the city, culminating in a bloody week when more than 20,000 people died and much of the city burned to the ground. I've been to Paris several times and I am aghast that I had no idea that this happened.

Despite all the politics and warfare, I ended up really liking this book, though it's a lot to take. There is a LOT of violence and pretty detailed descriptions of deaths on the battlefront, executions, wartime hospitals (including amputations), disposing of bodies, and just general unpleasant things that happen in wartime. Might not be the best choice if you like to read and eat at the same time. 

The hardest parts for me to read were definitely the military actions and the history of the politics that were going on, culminating in the Paris commune. I was a history major but I haven't read that much academic history for a long time, and Zola crams in a lot of facts, names, dates, and places, and it was tough to keep everything straight. I absolutely understand why he had to include all of it, but it wasn't my favorite part of the book.  I read the Oxford World's Classics edition, pictured above, which includes a lot of resources in the endnotes, timelines, and maps, which were great. There's also a list of the characters, the first one I've seen in a Zola novel. 

Until I started reading this, I also didn't realize that much of the action takes place a fairly short distance from where I spent three years in Germany! There's a lot of mentions of cities and towns that I actually visited, like Strasbourg and Metz, which are a fairly easy drive from our house in the Rhineland. I'm quite sorry now that I didn't read this while I was living there -- I certainly would have paid closer attention while I was on day trips and maybe even tried to trace the route of the armies. (It makes sense why the U. S. military built an enormous base nearby for its strategic location.) And I visited Paris multiple times when we lived there, but not once did I visit Place Vendome and many of the other important sites mentioned. I guess I'll just have to go back someday! 

I'm counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge. Thanks again to Fanda for hosting Zoladdiction 2021 and inspiring me to finally read this book!

Thursday, April 15, 2021

1936 Club: The Other Day by Dorothy Whipple


I love books written in the inter-war period; I love memoirs; and I love the middlebrow author Dorothy Whipple, so One Fine Day checks off so many boxes for me! It is the perfect read for Kaggsy and Simon's 1936 Club. 

Born in 1893, in Blackburn, Lancashire, Whipple was the eldest child of what would be eventually a large family of seven children. She seemed to have a mostly idyllic childhood, though there would be heartaches. Young Dorothy especially loved the countryside and was fascinated by stories and folktales from a young age. 

. . . the tales Kate told us got mixed up with the tales I told myself, so I could not sort them out, and walking over the wet roads between the low black stone walls and looking out to the far splendid hills with the cloud-shadows going over, I felt a deep satisfaction that the world should be so full of tales, of things that had happened and were happening. Anything seemed possible in those days, and I should not have been at all surprised if a great antediluvian beast had appeared among the browsing cows in the field, or if Mistress Nutter had overtaken us on a broomstick.

However, schools for girls in the early part of the century were spotty, and Dorothy had some pretty horrific school experiences -- a particularly nasty math teacher was constantly berating her, and at one point she's accused of plagiarizing a short story she'd written, which is so infuriating! (Obviously, her talent for writing began at a young age, since the teachers didn't believe a child could have written such a good story.

Finally her father decided to send her to a convent school, which he announced casually at the dinner table. 

It was at meals that we mostly saw him. Vital changes in our young lives have been announced to the accompaniment of knives and forks clattering on plates, the gurgle of water being poured from glasses, and requests for more bread from unconcerned parties. While being helped to vegetables one's dearest hopes would fall between dish and plate never to be recovered, or on the other hand, one would be raised to the seventh heaven of delight by some promise made while waiting for the pudding to come in.

The news of Dorothy's new school came as shock but she grew to love it, though it was difficult as a Protestant in a school run by a Belgian order of nuns, with nearly all Catholic classmates. Naturally there are some funny and embarrassing school anecdotes. 

A 1950 paperback edition cover

The book really only includes Dorothy's childhood, up to the age of twelve when the family moves permanently to the countryside. Of course Whipple was only in her forties when she wrote the memoir, but I would have loved to learn more about her coming-of-age and her life as a writer. Before The Other Day, Whipple had written four novels and a book short stories, which doesn't include some of her most popular works. 

I've been a Whipple fan since I read The Priory, one of my very first Persephones, and it's thanks to Persephone that I have a pretty big collection of of her work, nearly every book in print and out of print. Nearly all of them are reprinted by Persephone, but not this one, and I'm sorry to say that copies are scarce and quite spendy when they do come on the market. I did pay rather a lot for this one, though not nearly as much as I've seen recently. I really do hope Persephone or one of the other publishers reprints this little gem! 

And thanks again to Kaggsy and Simon for organizing the 1936 reading week, it's been so lovely reading about all the wonderful books published that year. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

1936 Club: Anne of Windy Poplars by L. M. Montgomery

While searching for an appropriate book for the 1936 Club, I realized that Anne of Windy Poplars, fourth in the Anne of Green Gables series, was published that year. Six of the books in the series were published from 1908 to 1921, but later in her career, L. M. Montgomery went back and filled in the gaps before and after Anne's House of Dreams; (Anne of Ingleside was published in 1939.)

Anyway, it was an easy choice, especially after my previous read, which was good but a little depressing. I hadn't read any of the Anne books for a few years, so I quickly sped through Anne of Anne of the Island (volume 3) to get caught up with Anne in volume 4. I'm very glad I did because although I enjoyed the third book, I much preferred the fourth. (This post will contain very mild spoilers about Anne's career and love life, but nothing really shocking).

So, our beloved Anne Shirley, spunky orphan from Prince Edward Island, is now a graduate of Redmond College, and has a three-year job as principal of Summerside High School, also on Prince Edward Island. She's engaged to Gilbert Blythe, who is in medical school, and much of the book is Anne's lengthy letters to Gilbert (sadly, no letters from Gilbert to Anne are included). The story begins with Anne looking for lodgings in Summerside. Traditionally, the principal boards with Mrs. Tom Pringle, who has decided not to take lodgers. Anne finds a room boarding at a house delightfully named Windy Poplars, with two widows, Aunt Kate and Aunt Chatty, and Aunt Kate's curmudgeonly yet lovable cousin, Rebecca Dew, who is sort of a housemaid/milkmaid/Greek chorus. Windy Poplars is just the sort of charming, romantic house that would attract Anne, situated on a road called Spook's Lane, with a tower bedroom, across from a graveyard. 

Nice cover, but Anne is far too young -- 
she'd have her skirts down and her hair up if she were the school principal! 

The reason that Mrs. Pringle won't take Anne as a boarder becomes quickly apparent. The Pringles and "half-Pringles" are the dominant family in the area, and they run the show. Before even arriving, they're mad at Anne for having the gall to be hired as principal over one of their own clan, and they are determined to make her life difficult behind her back, though they appear to be kind to her in person, inviting her for dinners, etc. But they undermine her at the school at every turn, especially with the students who are insubordinate, refuse to do homework, play pranks on her at every turn. However, Anne manages to get the better of them when they attempt to sabotage the school play. 

Of course Anne wins them over eventually, with a bit of deus ex machina. (Which is fine).There are also other recurring characters, including Katherine, a prickly co-worker who was also angling for the job; and Elizabeth, a miserable child living next door who seems to have the worst guardians and the loneliest existence in the world. Naturally, Anne's inherent sunny disposition and cockeyed optimism change their lives. 

This volume isn't groundbreaking or particularly exciting as far as Anne's story goes (or in the greater annals of children's literature). Basically, it just seems amusing filler in the Anne chronicles before her marriage. Nothing really happens to Anne other than meeting interesting and eccentric characters in Summerside, or improving the lives of everyone around her. You could even read this as a stand-alone novel if you didn't know anything else about Anne Shirley -- I actually found it easier to read than the previous novel, Anne of the Island (due to the gap in my reading I'd forgotten a lot of the secondary characters and was a bit confused at times).

Still, the fun and quirky characters are what makes this book delightful, if a little too good to be true, sometimes. But it's Anne Shirley and who doesn't need a little unrealistic levity right about now? It's just the thing for a pandemic comfort read, and I will probably finish the rest of the series this year.

In this passage, Anne is taking a tour of the cemetery and getting a little local color from one of the residents: 

The MacTabbs were all handsome but you could never believe a word they said. There used to be a stone here for his Uncle Samuel, who was reported drowned at sea fifty years ago. When he turned up alive the family took the stone down. The man they bought it from wouldn't take it back, so Mrs. Samuel used it for a baking-board. Talk about a marble slab for mixing on! That old tombstone was just fine, she said. The MacTabb children were always bringing cookies to school with raised letters and figures on them. . . scraps of the epigraph. They gave them away real generous, but I never could bring myself to eat one. I'm peculiar that way. 

I'm quite sure I will remember this story the next time I'm rolling out cookie dough!

There are many, many editions out there, and while searching for cover images, I also found this:

Apparently Anne of Windy Poplars was adapted as a 1940 movie! It's not on DVD but you can find clips on YouTube. The full movie may be online somewhere but I wasn't able to find it. I did find a synopsis of the plot on Wikipedia which you can read here, it sounds absolutely terrible. Has anyone seen it? I'd love to know! 

 I'm counting this as my Children's Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. And thanks again to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting the 1936 Club! 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Classics Spin #26

Time for another Classics Spin, #26! I'm getting close to the end of my second Classics Club list. A week from today, April 18, the Spin will assign me a random number which will determine the next read from my list. 

I only have 17 books left, and I also eliminated a few that I know I won't read right now. Therefore I have doubled up most of them to make it an even 20. To make it a little more interesting, I've put them in reverse order alphabetically by author. Here's my list:

  1. La Debacle by Emile Zola
  2. La Debacle 
  3. Jenny Wren by E. H. Young 
  4. Jenny Wren 
  5. Ralph the Heir by Anthony Trollope 
  6. A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym 
  7. A Few Green Leaves 
  8. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macauley 
  9. The World My Wilderness 
  10. The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson 
  11. The Little Ottleys 
  12. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann
  13. Invitation to the Waltz
  14. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
  15. A Pin to See the Peepshow
  16. Mandoa, Mandoa! by Winifred Holtby
  17. Westwood by Stella Gibbons 
  18. My American by Stella Gibbons
  19. The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim 
  20. The Caravaners 
I'm really hoping for Jenny Wren or The Caravaners. I will also probably read La Debacle for Fanda's Zoladdiction

Bloggers, have you read any of these? What's on your list? I'm looking forward to my next Spin selection! 

Friday, April 2, 2021

America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan

I knew that as long as there was a hope for the future somewhere I would not stop trying to reach it. I looked at my brother and Alfredo and knew that I would never stay with them, to rot and perish in their world of brutality and despair. I knew that I wanted something which would ease my fear and stop my flight from dawn to dawn.

I really feel it's important to read more classics by people of color, so last year I decided to make that a permanent category in the annual Back to the Classics Challenge. I know I don't read nearly enough books by nonwhite authors, and this year I really wanted to read a classic by an Asian author. I was really happy to discover America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino-American author. It's a really personal connection to me because my husband is Filipino, and I'm always trying to learn more about his culture.

Published in 1946, this semi-autobiographical novel is the story of Carlos, a young man from the rural Philippines who tries make a better life for himself in America. It's been compared to The Grapes of Wrath, and since Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers, I was even more intrigued. 

The story begins after World War I, when young Carlos is just a boy and his oldest brother returns to the family in Binalonan after several years' absence as a soldier. The family struggles to keep the family farm and pay for the education of another brother, Macario -- basically, the only way out of poverty. The family endures hardship and heartbreak, and Carlos is badly injured more than once, just trying to make a little extra money to keep from losing their land. They are too poor for him to go to school regularly but he picks up what education he can, and reads on his own. 

At just 17, Carlos makes his way to America, but there are few jobs for Filipinos other than canning factories and migrant work, picking crops. He makes his way up and down the West Coast, from Alaska to California, sometimes barely managing to stay alive. Eventually he reconnects with Macario and another brother who had previously emigrated. Carlos also gets involved with Filipino union organizers who are fighting for better working conditions. His English improves and he also begins writing. However, the attempts to organize labor unions is violently opposed, and Carlos and the other organizers are constantly threatened by arrest and violence. He also becomes ill with tuberculosis and at one point is hospitalized for two years.     

This was a tough read for me. The writing isn't difficult, but it was really painful to read about how badly Carlos and the other minorities were treated -- terrible working conditions, no benefits, unable to find housing in any place but the worst parts of town, unable to own property, unable to become a citizen. The racism is just appalling. For me, it was even worse than reading about the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath because at least the Joads had some rights -- and they wouldn't be subjected to generations of racist bigotry because of the color of their skin. It's so infuriating that Filipinos and other Asians had so few rights -- Asians weren't allowed to become US citizens until the 1940s, and there were still immigration quotas until 1965.

It's not a long book, 327 pages in my edition, and there are lot of very short chapters. But the subject was so difficult to read that it took me a long time to finish for such a short book. This did make it harder to keep some of the recurring characters straight -- Carlos would run into an old friend or colleague and I couldn't always remember how they'd met. But I'm really glad I finished it. Immigrant stories are really important and this was especially personal to me. 

Carlos Bulosan

I glanced out of the window again to look at the broad land I had dreamed so much about, only to discover with astonishment that the American earth was like a huge heart unfolding warmly to receive me. I felt it spreading through my being, warming with its glowing reality. It came to me that no man -- no one at all -- could destroy my faith in America again. . . . It was something that grew out of the sacrifices and loneliness of my friends, of my brothers in America and my family in the Philippines -- something that grew out of our desire to know America, and to become a part of her great tradition, and to contribute something toward her final fulfillment. I knew that no man could destroy my faith in American that had sprung from all our hopes and aspirations, ever.

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

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Swiss Summer by Stella Gibbons


I love that Dean Street Press has re-published so many out-of-print women authors in their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint -- some of the more obscure books from my favorite authors are nearly impossible to find, and many of them are shockingly expensive! They recently released a whole slew of midcentury middlebrow books, which are delightful comfort reads. My latest was The Swiss Summer by Stella Gibbons, a prolific author best known for the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm. Though The Swiss Summer doesn't have quite the biting wit and satire of her best-known work, it's still a delight to read.

First published in 1951, it's the story of a group of English people spending the summer at Chateau Alpenrose, a chalet near Interlaken. The main character, a fortyish woman named Lucy Cottrell, meets Lady Dagleish, the owner of the chalet, while visiting her old friend, wife of the local vicar. The chalet was a gift of the Swiss government to her husband, a famous mountaineer. Lucy learns that Lady Dagleish is sending her paid companion, Freda, to spend the summer inventorying the contents of the chalet, and on a sudden whim, invites the envious Lucy to go accompany Freda for the summer. Delighted at the chance to leave dreary postwar London, Lucy eagerly accepts, and three weeks later finds herself in a picturesque chalet among breathtaking surroundings, with a woman she barely knows, and a curmudgeonly Swiss cook/caretaker, Utta.

I like to imagine the view looked something like this. 

Things go well at first, and Lucy enjoys helping Freda and exploring the nearby surroundings, breathing in the fresh mountain air. But the summer's plans take a detour with the arrival of Astra, Freda's nineteen year old daughter, who has left her job with wealthy family. She's gawky and awkward and doesn't know what to do with her life, but begins to form a friendship with the childless Lucy, who's always wanted a daughter. Things are further complicated when more visitors arrive -- the Price-Whartons, friends of Freda, with their snobbish daughter Kay, Astra's only friend. Meanwhile Lucy had already invited her outdoorsy godson Bertram, a forestry student, who brings his flatmate Peter.

Meanwhile, the cantankerous Utta resents all the visitors, especially Freda, whom she believes to have ulterior motives about the future of the chalet. Lady Dagleish has hinted in the past she'll remember Freda in her will, but she likes to amuse herself by manipulating people, and she eagerly awaits letters from Lucy to find out what's happening in Switzerland. Naturally it all plays out to a very interesting and sometimes unexpected ending. 

I really enjoyed this book -- it's a quick read and I finished it in just a couple of days. I did have an idea of how it would end, but not exactly how it would all play out, and Stella Gibbons also drops in a few bombshells about the future of some of the characters, making me wish she'd included an afterward or even a sequel about some of them. My only quibble with this book is it's sometimes really sexist -- the young men Bertram and Peter make some pronouncements about women's roles that are pretty cringey, though I'm sure it's not out of character for the early 1950s. But seventy years later it did make want to jump into the book and give them a piece of my mind. 

Nevertheless, this is a fun book with interesting characters and lovely descriptions of the mountains, and it would be a lovely vacation read, ideally while sitting a balcony overlooking the Swiss Alps. I hope to read more of the new Furrowed Middlebrow titles soon as possible.

I'm counting this as my Swiss selection for the European Reading Challenge.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Hudson River Bracketed by Edith Wharton

Never was a girl more in love with the whole adventure of living, and less equipped to hold her own in it, than the Halo Spear who had come upon Vance Weston that afternoon.

According to my Goodreads account, I've read 19 works by Edith Wharton's, including short story collections and novellas, and I had assumed that by now, I've read all the best stuff. After The Fruit of the Tree, my hopes were not high for Hudson River Bracketed, one of her least-popular works. I was so happy last week when I absolutely loved it and could not stop reading -- high praise indeed, considering it's her longest novel, more than 500 pages long. Unlike most of Wharton's novels, the main character is not an unhappily married rich woman from New York, but a young, poor man, a struggling writer from the Midwest.

Published in 1929 but set in the early 1920s, it's a coming of age story of Vance Weston. Young Vance is only nineteen at the beginning of the story, and is resisting pressure from his family to join his father's successful real estate business outside of Chicago. What Vance really wants is to be a poet, but that will never fly with his conservative middle-class family. After a serious illness, Vance is allowed to travel to the Hudson Valley outside of New York, to stay with the Tracys, distant relatives in a quiet, small town. Vance hopes that somehow he'll manage to visit New York and make some contacts for a writing career; instead, his life changes forever when he meets Halo Spear while visiting a house called The Willows. (The title Hudson River Bracketed refers to a specific type of architecture in the area, of which The Willows is an example).

Wyndclyffe estate in Rhinecliff, NY, inspiration for The Willows

Vance's poor cousins earn extra money by acting as caretakers for this empty mansion, which must be left exactly as it was when the previous owner passed away. Vance is enchanted by the mysterious Victorian house and its back story -- and by its magnificent library. He is secretly perusing the books when he meets Heloise Spear, a wealthy cousin of the Tracys. Nicknamed Halo, she's several years older than Vance and is impressed by his love of books, though she seems amused at his lack of education. They begin to bond over poetry and literature, but things take a drastic turn over a series of misunderstandings, and Vance is sent back to the Midwest in disgrace. 

A few years later, Vance returns to New York determined to make a career as a writer, and reconnects with Halo, now married, though her husband, the publisher of a new literary magazine, who sign Vance to a very poor three-year writing contract. Vance also reconnects with his cousins the Tracys -- in particular, his cousin Laura Lou, who has grown up quite a bit in the last three years -- enough to steal Vance's heart on first sight. So Vance is a typical starving writer in New York, madly in love with someone who doesn't understand his literary world, and trying to live enough to have something to write about so he can make more money. Naturally, it's a vicious circle that doesn't end well. 

Like The Fruit of the Tree, my previous Wharton read, this is another of her novels that hardly anyone ever reads anymore. My expectations were pretty low and frankly I was shocked by how much I liked it -- and how quickly I sped through it! Granted, I didn't have much to do over last weekend, but I was really absorbed in the story and couldn't wait to find out what happened next. It's Wharton's longest novel at 536 pages, but the pages flew by. According to the book's afterward, Wharton wanted to write about her experiences as a writer, and thought it would be easier for the reading public to accept a story about a young male writer, rather than a female. I loved reading about the writing process and Vance's experiences trying to get published, though it was often infuriating to see all his bad decisions. 

. . . they wanted to know what else he had written, what he was doing now, when he was going to start in on a novel, when he would have enough short stories for a volume, whether he had thought up any new subjects lately, whether he found it easier to write in a big city or in his own quiet surroundings at home, whether Nature inspired him or he had to be with people to get a stimulus, what his best working hours were, whether he could force himself to write so many hours a day, whether he didn't find that regular work led to routine, whether he didn't think a real artist must always be a law unto himself (this from the two or three of the younger women), and whether he found he could dictate, or had to type out his own things. . . .

There are also some thinly veiled references to other writers of the period which I found highly amusing: 

Of the many recent novels he had devoured very few had struck him as really important; and of these The Corner Grocery was easily first. Among dozens of paltry books pushed into notoriety it was the only one entitled to such distinction. Readers all over the country had felt its evident sincerity, and its title had become the proverbial epithet of the smalltown atmosphere. 

Some of the novels people talked about most excitedly--Price of Meat, say, already in its seventieth thousand, or Egg Omelette, which had owed its start to pulpit denunciations and the quarrel of a Prize Committee over its exact degree of indecency--well, he had begun both books with enthusiasm, as their authors appeared to have; and then, at a certain point, had felt the hollowness underfoot, and said to himself: "No, life's not like that, people are not like that. The real stuff is way down, not on the surface." 

I'm just guessing, but I think that The Corner Grocery is a reference to Main Street by Sinclair Lewis (which lost the Pulitzer Prize to Wharton's Age of Innocence in 1920 because the committee thought it was unflattering to small-town America). Could Price of Meat be The Jungle by Upton Sinclair? And I originally thought that Egg Omelette was a reference to West Egg in The Great Gatsby, but further research told me it's meant to be Ulysses by James Joyce. There are also multiple references to the Pulsifer Prize . . . what could that possibly be? 

There's also a mention of Zola that I found delightful: 

Nothing else new about him--might have worked up his method out of Zola. Probably did."

"Zola--who's he?" somebody yawned.

"Oh, I dunno. The French Thackeray, I guess."

"See here, fellows, who's read Thackeray, anyhow?"

"Nobody since Lytton Strachey, I guess."

This German edition looks a little French New Wave to me!

I loved this book, though I did have a few quibbles about some characters that are a little too deus ex machina for me, miraculously showing up at just the right time. But overall, it's one of Edith Wharton's truly underrated novels. And there's a sequel! Wharton published The Gods Arrive only three years later in 1932, the only one of her novels with a sequel. I suppose since it's based on her own life, she really wanted to finish the story. I'll say no more since any hints about the next volume are spoilers for the first. Sadly, copies of the Virago edition of The Gods Arrive are a lot pricier than Hudson River Bracketed so I'll have to read the iBooks copy that I downloaded for only 99 cents. I'm also inspired to finally tackle her massive biography by Hermione Lee that I've been meaning to read forever -- it's 869 pages long! 

I'm counting this as my 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge; also counts towards the Chunkster Challenge