Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

Dorothy Whipple
"It was a great pity, she thought, that all the violence of life should fall on the young, before they have acquired any resistance to it."

Ever since I began reading about Persephone books in the blogosphere, the same author's name kept popping up over and over:  Dorothy Whipple.  All the Persephone fans seemed to just love her books.  Well, I have taken the plunge, and I am officially on board.  She is just wonderful.  I just finished my first Whipple, The Priory, and I loved it.  It's more than 500 pages, but I could not put it down.  It's my fourteenth Persephone book so far and I think it is my favorite.

The story is set in the late 1930s, just before the war, and centers around the Marwood family who live in Saunby Priory.  The patriarch is Major Marwood, a fiftysomething widower who doesn't want to spend any money keeping the place up since he'd rather spend all his money funding cricket matches.  His wife is long dead, his oldest son has escaped to a job in London, and his two daughters, Penelope and Caroline, are in their early twenties and don't do much of anything.  There's also an aunt, Veronica, who lives off her brother and spends all her time painting. There are various servants, and a good section of the book is devoted to them as well, a bit like Upstairs, Downstairs or Gosford Park (though much less posh).

The Marwood family is shaken up when the Major decides to remarry a local spinster, Anthea.  Basically, he wants some unpaid help running the estate and his annual cricket gatherings.  This upsets the balance of the family and the plot starts moving along with various romances and love affairs, pregnancies, babies, and scandals.   One thing I found interesting about this book is that the focus of the book shifted several times -- at first I thought all the action would be about one character, and then the reader wouldn't hear about this character for a long time.  A couple of interesting characters unfortunately seemed to disappear -- perhaps Whipple didn't know how to incorporate them back into the story.

The best thing about this book is the characters.  Whipple develops them so skillfully, and I loved how she did it by showing the reader through their words, thoughts, and actions, not just telling us.  In one of my favorite passages, Nicholas, who's fallen in love with Christine Marwood, is trying to figure out how he could ever get a job to support her and himself so they can get married:

He decided to 'hang on for a bit' until things improved.  If they ever did.  There would probably be a war before long, and then he, with the rest of his generation, would be employable again; as soldiers.  When most of them were killed, competition for jobs would be lessened, he thought cynically.  The uncertainty of the times affected Nicholas adversely.  He had a secret feeling that nothing was worth doing, because nothing would last.  He felt he might as well have a good time while he could, because to-morrow, or the day after, the good times would be over.


Endpaper from the Persephone edition of The Priory

I found the characters in this book engrossing, especially against the backdrop of the war.  It was published in 1939 so Whipple couldn't have known how everything would turn out.  I think this is my favorite Persephone so far, even better than Miss Pettigrew and Miss Buncle's Book.  I just wish it was easier to get on this side of the Atlantic.  However, I predict I'll be giving this one out as presents for any appropriate occasion -- my 2011 Secret Santee will probably get a copy of this if he or she doesn't own it already!

I didn't buy a copy of this, since I was actually able to get it through Inter Library Loan.  But the other neat thing about reading this was that the copy I borrowed came from the University of Central Arkansas and it was a first edition from 1939!!  It still had the pocket with the card in it, and the slip with the date stamps showed all the due dates from previous borrowers, starting in December 1939.  I don't think anyone checked it out after 1950, which I find sad because I loved it so much.  I was sorry to have to return it and I definitely want to buy my own copy.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

I really wanted to like this book.  I love food fiction and travelogues, especially anything about France.  This book had so much potential, but sadly, it fell short.

Let me begin with a quick synopsis:  Hassan Haji is a young Muslim boy living in India.  His family owns a very successful restaurant, and Hassan spent many happy childhood days in the family’s kitchen with his beloved grandmother.  They’re forced to flee the country due to anti-Muslim uprisings.  His mother is killed in a devastating attack, so the extended family moves first to England, then finally in Lumiere, a small town in the French Alps.  Hassan’s father is determined to start the first Indian restaurant, with young Hassan as the chef.   However, this is met with considerable resistance by Madame  Mallory, owner of a highly respected traditional French restaurant across the street.  Things get ugly, and are finally resolved when Hassan, a culinary genius, is apprenticed to Madam Mallory.

I got an ARC of this book from Amanda at the Zen Leaf – she didn’t care for it much either, but one of her concerns was that she didn’t like food fiction enough to appreciate it properly.  Well, I’ve read lots of food fiction, and I’ve worked as both a professional cook and as a food writer, and I still didn’t like this book.

To me, the book’s biggest fault was the lack of character development.  Hassan and his family members felt so flat, so one-dimensional.  It seems like Morais did more telling about the characters than showing.  For example, Hassan tells us that he can’t have a real loving relationship with a woman because of his mother’s death when he was a boy, but we really don’t get any examples.  A lot of family members are introduced, but barely described.  However, the food, the restaurants, and the location are very realistic.  I think the writer spent so much time on these elements that he forgot about the characters and the plot. And the plot – well, it just didn’t make a lot of sense to me.  I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who might want to read it, but before Madam Mallory takes Hassan under her wing, she does something terrible, something so bad which I frankly think would be unforgiveable.  And the results of this devastating incident are barely mentioned again for the rest of the book!  That made absolutely no sense to me.

I know as a reader I should suspend disbelief, but there just seemed to be so many plot holes.  I think the writer knew a lot about food and wanted to write a food novel, but it’s pretty obvious to me that he’s never worked in a restaurant.  Seriously, there is no way anyone with no actual restaurant experience could suddenly become head chef of a restaurant serving more than 100 individual plated meals per night.  Hassan is chosen to be the chef because he spent so much time watching his grandmother cook, but I am sorry, this is nothing like cooking multiple different dishes for diners at a restaurant.  It isn’t even like cooking for a huge party of 100 people.  (Which is why so many people think they could have their own restaurant because they like to cook.  And they usually fail).  I don’t care if Hassan is a culinary prodigy, this kind of skill takes years to acquire through hard work.  That’s why many chefs usually start at the bottom and work their way up, and a lot of them don’t even have certificates or degrees; they do it the old-fashioned way.

Besides, I'm really getting tired of the prodigy trope -- Hassan is a brilliant chef because he is just born that way, with the ability to cook and taste and pair foods together unlike anyone else, with little training other than hanging around his grandmother's kitchen and selling street food as a teenager!  Hassan's talent was just a little too miraculous for me.  And it's barely worth mentioning that the author throws in a couple of other annoying things, like random comparisons of food to genitalia, which was so out of character to the rest of the book -- is he borrowing from Henry Miller or just trying to show that he's edgy?  Also, one scene includes a character with Tourette's syndrome, seemingly for no other purpose than to insert repeated f-words.  Again, this had no connection to the rest of the book, and it was so incongruous that it was irritating. 

This book is really short, less than 250 pages.  It had some good ideas but it really seemed unfinished.  The author, Richard Morais, was an editor at Forbes, but he doesn't seem to realize that just because you can write and you know about food and travel doesn't mean you can write a good novel about food.     

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Owned But Unread Project

One of my goals for 2011 is to significantly reduce the amount of owned-but-unread books that I have piled up.  I was sorting through the bookshelves the other day and I counted 168 175!  And of course, this does not include any of the books I'm hoping to receive for Christmas . . . or use any Christmas money or gift cards to acquire.  And of course this means I have to have every single one of my unread library books finished before January 1.  All of them. No exceptions!

What's really sad is that I've been schlepping a stack of these from house to house for years. Just for fun, I decided to sort them into piles based on how long ago I'd acquired them.  This wasn't as hard as you'd think -- since I've moved six times in the past 15 years, I just had to remember where I was living when I'd gotten each book.  It's pretty sad -- I have about 20 books I've owned for almost 10 years, some of them even longer.  If I haven't read them by the end of the year, I'm donating them to the Friends of the Library sale.  Period.

So I've decided to make this my project for 2011:  to read as many of these owned-but-unread books as possible.  I'm not signing up for any challenges, though I did sign up for the TBR Dare, which will help me achieve this goal.  With more than 150 books on my TBR shelves, I'd have plenty to read if I didn't acquire a single new book for the entire year, either through purchase or library loot.  But realisticallyI know there's no way this is going to happen -- between my three face-to-face book groups, plus volunteering at my library branch twice a week, I can't swear not to read anything that's not on the TBR pile.

Here are my rules:
  • At least every other book I read MUST be from my own shelves;
  • No new book purchases for three months, starting January 1;
  • Christmas gifts and books purchased before January 1 with Christmas gift cards or money are OK;
  • Books already ordered but not received by January 1 are also OK;
  • I don't have to finish every single book; if I read at least 75 pages and I'm still not interested, I can give it away.
Now, if something miraculous happens, and I actually get a library job, I'm allowed to start reading additional books if they are work-related.  The library is theoretically hiring librarians next year, so I can only hope.

For those of you who are curious, I am compiling a list of all my owned-but-unread books and will post it as a page with a tab at the top of my blog when it's complete.  It'll take a while.  I'm going to try and tackle the oldest books first.  Here's the list of the books I've owned longest.  Any recommendations from the list would be greatly appreciated -- and that includes recommendations to give them away.


The oldest books -- owned since 2002 or earlier:

  • Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles: Letters from Helen Evans Brown by James Beard
  • Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Berniers
  • My Misspent Youth: Essays by Meghan Dowd
  • Perfume from Provence by Lady Winifred Fortescue
  • Orchid Fever by Eric Hansen
  • A Bell for Adano by John Hersey
  • Collected Stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Collected Novellas by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Tasting Pleasure: Confessions of a Wine Lover by Jancis Robinson
  • Giants in the Earth by A. E. Rolvaag

Books from 2003-2005 (when we lived in Japan):

  • Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber
  • Geography by Sophie Cunningham
  • A Treasury of Royal Scandals by Michael Farquhar
  • The River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong by Edward A. Gargan
  • Murder on the Menu edited by Peter Haining
  • A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss
  • Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
  • A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
  • The Bromeliad Trilogy by Terry Pratchett
  • Nectar by Lily Prior
  • Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojurn in Kyoto by Victoria Abbott Riccardi
  • Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

So, book bloggers, which should be read first?  Which should be donated to the library sale?  And, confess, how long have some of your books been hanging around on the to-read shelves unread?  And which ones?

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Until I became a devoted Persephone reader, I had no idea that Burnett, like many children's writers, wrote tons of stuff for adults as well.  All I knew of her was that she'd written The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, one of my childhood favorites.  Also Little Lord Fauntleroy, but I've never had any desire to read it -- I guess it's that image of the little boys with short pants and long curly hair.  I'm sure it was fashionable back then but now it just seems cruel.

I also did not realize that although Burnett was English, she moved to the U.S. (to Tennessee, interestingly) when she was sixteen, after the death of her father.  She was also quite poor at times and helped support herself and her family with her writing.  She spent much of her adult life here as well, and eventually became a U. S. citizen.  Burnett was married and divorced twice and had two sons, one of whom died young of TB.  

Anyway, this one of Persephone's more popular books and one the ten classics readily available here in the U. S. -- I actually bought it right off the shelf in my local chain bookstore!  I didn't even have to order it online.  It's actually two stories in one volume about the same character, Emily Fox-Seton.  The first story is the original Making of a Marchioness, and the second is basically a sequel.

So, it starts out with Emily, in her mid-thirties, living in London in genteel poverty.  She's from a good family that have come down in the world, and of course she has no close family, so she is making ends meet by helping out as a sort of elevated domestic -- she runs errands for people, shops for them, writes letters, etc.  She has been taken under the wing of an elderly rich lady Lady Maria, with a fancy country house.  Lady Maria invites Emily out to her country house and asks for her help with her annual summer party -- basically, she gets Emily to do all the work for her without pay.  It gets interesting, however, because the widowed Marquis of Walderhurst is also a guest, as well as two young unmarried debutantes on the prowl for husbands.  The Marquis, though in his 50s, is quite the catch, and everyone expects to see him married off to one or the other of these women by the end of the season.  But that would be too easy, wouldn't it?  This is described as a charming Cinderella story, and apparently has been taught in colleges alongside Pride and Prejudice.  The title alone should give the reader a hint of the outcome, so, hopefully, I haven't spoiled it for everyone.

The first half is quite a nice little romance, but I found the second half of the book more surprising.  It's much closer to a Victorian sensation novel, which I didn't expect at all!  There's trouble in paradise after the heir apparent to the Marquise gets wind of the second marriage -- since Emily is fairly young and of childbearing age, his inheritance is in jeopardy.  The heir is Captain Alec Osborn, and he is a real piece of work.  A cad! A bounder! A ne'er-do-well! A slimeball! (Feel free to insert your own evil adjective here -- it's like book blogger Mad Libs).  He's a slacker officer posted to India, and when he hears about Walderhurst's marriage, he hotfoots it back to England with his Anglo-Indian wife Hester, to see what they can do about it to protect their own interests.

And this is where the story really changes.  Instead of a sweet romance, our heroine (whom the author herself referred to as rather stupid and a sheepdog!) is in trouble, though it takes a while for her to realize it.  I really don't want to give the ending away, but even though Emily was unbelievably sweet and naive, I became fond of her and I was quite worried about how it would all end.  And the ending really surprised me. (Not like aliens or vampires suddenly appearing would have surprised me, but nevertheless a surprise ending).  This book starts out as a sweet, fairytale like romance and ends up as a pretty serious commentary on the state of Victorian marriages, which I did not expect. Apparently her own failed marriages strongly influenced her writing.

Another of Burnett's adult fiction books, The Shuttle, is also available through Persephone,  I'm definitely interested in reading this and I may actually even read Little Lord Fauntleroy as well, just to see what it's like.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Persephone Secret Santa Revealed

Sorry for the double posting today, but I can't wait until tomorrow to reveal my Persephone Secret Santa! (Trollope fans, please proceed to the posting below for my review of Barchester Towers).

Well, my gift hasn't technically arrived, but thanks to all the wonderful clues (and a little help from a blogging friend!) I have finally figured out my Secret Santa:  Care from Care's Online Book Club!  She sent three wonderful clues to my gift, which was such fun.  Even though the package hasn't arrived yet, they totally brightened my day and made me feel special.  It was fantastic.  And I'll be copying her next year, so, Persephone readers, you'll be getting clues if you're my Santee!

Her clues were so clever -- I knew she was from Massachusetts, collected lobsters, and loved dogs -- she even made her own stamps with photos of her cute Wirehaired Pointing Griffons -- adorable.  And unless I'm wrong, I'll soon be receiving a copy of They Knew Mr. Knight by Dorothy Whipple!!  Woo hoo!  I haven't read any Whipples yet and I've heard so many great things about them.  Can't wait to read it.
The beautiful endpaper from They Knew Mr. Knight

I also had fun choosing a gift for my Santee -- Marie from Boston Bibliophile!  She received a copy of Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy, another book I've added to my to-read list.  I look forward to reading her blog to see how she likes it.

Finally -- thanks to everyone who commented on my post about Greenery Street by Denis Mackail.  The lucky winner of my extra copy is . . . Jeanne from Necromancy Never Pays!!  Jeanne, send me an email with your address so I can send you another Christmas present!  Congratulations and I hope you enjoy it!  Many thanks again to Claire at Paperback Reader for organizing the Secret Santa Swap.

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

Two whole weeks of Anthony Trollope!  It's my turn for a review of Barchester Towers, the second book in his Barsetshire Chronicles and one of his more popular books.

Anyway, I've been wanting to revisit Trollope for awhile.  Last year I read The Warden, the first of the series set in fictional Barsetshire.  It's one of Trollope's shortest novels at only about 250 pages, but I didn't like it nearly as much as The Way We Live Now -- it seemed to take forever to get going.


Barchester Towers gets interesting much more quickly.  It picks up not long after the end of The Warden.  If you haven't read The Warden, you may want to skip to the end as there are mild spoilers (it is a series after all). Anyway, the Bishop of Barchester is on his deathbed.  Dr. Grantly, his son, who is also his archdeacon, is widely expected to pick up the reins and be appointed to his father's position, but that would be too convenient.  A Dr. Proudie from London has been appointed instead.  However, Dr. Proudie has no intention of actually spending that much time in the country -- he'd rather stay in London and make appearances in the House of Lords, so most of the responsibility will be shouldered by Mr. Obadiah Slope, his chaplain. This appointment throws the whole social and religious society in Barchester into a bit of an uproar because Dr. Proudie and Mr. Slope are more evangelical, also known as Low Church -- Trollope was making a statement about the schism in church politics.

It also becomes complicated by the fact that Dr. Grantly's father-in-law is Mr. Harding, the eponymous warden of Hiram's Hospital from the first novel.  Actually, he's now the former warden, as he resigned his positions due to a kerfuffle.  (See The Warden for more background.)  The slippery Mr. Slope decides to exercise his influence with Dr. Proudie to get his choice selected as a new warden.  Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie's opinionated, overbearing wife get into a power struggle over this, leading to one of the funniest bits in the book.  It's a bit long but I think it's worth sharing:

There was a dead pause in the room.  Mr. Slope had risen from his chair, and was standing with his hand on the back of it, looking at first very solemn and now very black. Mrs. Proudie was standing as she had first placed herself, at the end of the table, and as she interrogated her foe she struck her hand upon it with almost more than feminine vigour.  The bishop was sitting in his easy chair twiddling his thumbs, turning his eyes now to his wife, and now to his chaplain, as each took up the cudgels.  How comfortable it would be if they could fight it out between them without the necessity of any interference on his part; fight it out so that one should kill the other utterly, as far as diocesan life was concerned, so that he, the bishop might know clearly by whom it behoved him to be led.  There would be the comfort of quiet in either case; but if the bishop had a wish as to which might prove the victor, that wish was certainly not antagonistic to Mr. Slope.

There are lots of misunderstandings, power struggles, and people falling in and out of love.  Much of the action comes to a head at a hilarious garden fete hosted by the local gentry.  Parts of this book really reminded me of Elizabeth Gaskell (I could absolutely envision the garden party after my repeated viewings of Cranford and Wives and Daughters) and the domestic scenes reminded me quite a lot of Jane Austen, particularly her sly wit. I've heard that Trollope was a huge Austen fan, which doesn't surprise me after reading this book.

The book does start out a bit slow, though it picked up and became a faster read by far than The Warden -- I think I read about 150 pages this past Monday, which for me is amazing for a Victorian.  I know Carolyn at A Few of My Favourite Books read 300 pages of Trollope a day for this circuit -- wow!

The only other comment I'd like to make is that I really wish I had researched the Church of England before I'd started this book -- I wasn't raised Episcopal so I didn't really understand the difference between High Church and Low Church and all the different titles with the hierarchy of the various characters' positions.  I wish I'd found some kind of chart to make it less confusing, like a family tree.  I still enjoyed the heck out of this book but I think I might have gotten more out of it if I'd known more about the history.  Of course I didn't read the introduction to this book first because I was afraid of spoilers.  The endnotes were good but I think they assumed the reader knew more background.

This was one of my favorite books of the year and I'm eager to read more Trollope.  One of my goals for 2011 is to finish the Barsetshire series -- I've heard great things about both of the next two books, Dr. Thorne and Framley Parsonage.  And today I was at Half Price Books with Amanda from The Zen Leaf, where I was delighted to find another volume of Trollope that includes Barchester Towers, Miss MacKenzie, and Cousin Henry -- for $3.22 which included tax!  Sweet!

If you'd like to read more reviews of Trollope's novels and stories, please visit The Classics Circuit for links and more information.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail - plus a giveaway!

An original illustration,
from the Persephone website
Another Persephone book!  I am so behind in my blog postings that I think I could do a Persephone every day for a week -- and I just might, in honor of the upcoming Persephone Secret Santa exchange.  (I've mailed off my gift and can't wait to see how the recipient likes it -- and I got another clue from my Santa.)

Greenery Street is the story of Ian and Felicity Foster as they begin their life together as young marrieds in London, 1925.  Greenery Street (an actual street in Chelsea) is the perfect place, full of young couples -- once the families start growing, there just isn't enough room with babies and prams and nurses, so the young families tend to move on.  The book starts out with a their courtship and the beginnings of their married life, as they look for a house, struggle with budgets, and deal with quirky neighbors and difficult servants (something I can't even imagine).  

This book is pretty lighthearted, definitely middlebrow fiction.  What I particularly liked is the omniscient narrator who throws his two cents in every so often -- I know I read a review in which it was compared to the narration in Arrested Development, one of my favorite TV shows (and if that reviewer reads this, please let me know so I can give you credit).  

According to the Persephone website, "Greenery Street can be read on two levels - it is a touching description of a young couple's first year together in London, but it is also a homage - something rare in fiction - to happy married life."  It starts out a charming, amusing book about a young couple, rather lightweight, with a little satire thrown in.  However, by the end of the book, it's much more than that. In particular, the ending throws the reader a bit of a curveball, when Felicity and Ian are suddenly thrown in the midst of a fairly serious situation.  I don't want to give anything away, but the ending of the book does leaves the reader with something to think about, a moral dilemma that I wasn't expecting at all.

Due to a twist of fate, I have the good fortune to be in possession of TWO copies of Greenery Street!  I was going to save one and give it away if there's another Persephone Reading Week (and I hope there will be!); however, I'm feeling the holiday spirit, so I'm going to give away my pristine, unread copy to a lucky reader.  All you have to do is leave a comment and answer one of these questions:

1.  Which is your favorite Persephone, and why?
2.  Which Persephone should I read next, and why? (click on my Persephone challenge page to see what I've finished)
3.  Any recommendations for other books by Persephone authors you've read, or any other book you think would go well in their catalog? (i.e., books they should publish someday).

Please be sure and leave some method of contact, either your email address or a link to your blog where I can contact you.  Also, I'm going to have to limit the giveaway to the U. S.  Copies of the dove-grey Persephones are tough to come by on this side of the pond, so I want to convert some readers here.  I'll keep the giveaway open until midnight December 14 (Central Standard Time).  I'll select my favorite comment for the winner, and post the name on December 15, the day when the Persephone Secret Santa participants will be blogging about their gifts.  

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mariana by Monica Dickens

I first encountered this book at BookPeople in Austin, Texas (probably the world's best independent bookstore).  One of the coolest things about this store is that it has an entire section just for classics.  Joy of joys!  Well, whilst browsing several months ago, I came across this volume shelved next to (gasp!) books by Charles Dickens.  Who was this upstart Dickens, with her book on the shelf next to my beloved Bleak House and Oliver Twist? Who had the nerve to call herself Dickens???

Um, actually, his great-granddaughter, that's who.  And a darn good writer in her own right, though nothing like the wordy, flowery prose of the beloved (and sometimes reviled) Charles.  After purchasing it, I soon realized it was the second book from the marvelous Persephone imprint -- I already owned Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which was waiting patiently on my to-read shelf.

Sadly, Mariana languished on the shelves for several months until a few weeks ago when I needed something comforting during a nasty ear infection.   And it was an excellent comfort read, but despite the beautiful cover, this isn't the chick lit I was expecting.  The story begins with a young woman, Mary, who is alone in a country cottage during World War II.  She's just heard on the wireless that a British ship has been sunk -- the ship on which her beloved husband is sailing.  She is in a state of complete panic because there's a terrible storm and all the phone lines are down, and she can't even walk into the village to try and contact anyone.  She is utterly alone in her terror and misery, with no company but a little dog until the following morning.

The book then begins to flash back to Mary's childhood.  She's never known her father, who died in the Great War, but she spends idyllic summer's at the family home in the country, surrounded by her loving grandparents, aunt, uncles, and cousins.  She has an incredible crush on her cousin Denys, her first great love.  The book then follows Mary through her childhood, adolescence, and life as a young woman growing up in London with her mother, a dressmaker, and her hilarious uncle Gerald, a somewhat ne'er-do-well actor.  Mary struggles in school, flunks out of drama college, and learns dressmaking in Paris.  We also follow Mary's love life -- the prologue never gives the husband's name, so I breathlessly followed the story to figure out which of her men could be lost at sea.

This is a really nice coming-of-age-story set during the inter-war years, one of my very favorite periods.  It's touching and sometimes absolutely hilarious -- Mary gets into some really amusing scrapes.  Her time at drama school is particularly funny.  This book is loosely based on Monica Dickens' life, and what I also find very interesting is that Mariana was first published in 1940 when she was only 24!  She never set out to become a writer, but sort of fell into it -- her first published work is One Pair of Hands, which is the story of her life working as a domestic (after she'd been a debutante!).  I was so intrigued by this, having worked as both a professional pastry cook and a writer, that I instantly requested One Pair of Hands from my library. (Review to follow soon).

For all you Persphone fans, and for those who are just intrigued, please do yourself a favor and find this book.  It's one of the Persephone Classics that are readily available here in the US, so if you can't find it in your local bookstore, it's easy to find online.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Wives of Henry Oades by Johanna Moran

It's been so long that I actually wrote a book review that I'm afraid I've forgotten how.  Between school, and traveling, and illness, I'm way behind in my reviews.  Let's hope this review ends my blogging slump.

Nevertheless, here's an interesting historical fiction book that I recently read while on vacation. I specifically brought it because I'm trying so hard to read more of the books I own, not just library books.    One of my goals has been to clear of those to-read shelves, which are becoming more and more crowded.  Must. Stop. Buying. More. Books!!!!

Anyhoo.  The Wives of Henry Oades starts out as a pretty straightforward historical fiction book.  The story begins in England in the late 1800s, and Henry Oades has been given a promotion in his job, one which will involve him uprooting his wife and children and moving to wild New Zealand, much to the chagrin of his wife Margaret.  Still, like a good Victorian wife, Margaret bears the difficulty of the long voyage, seasickness, etc., and makes a good start of a new life in a tough situation.

Then something bad happens.  I don't want to spoil this, but it's pretty awful.  And again, not trying to spoil [the title of this book is The Wives of Henry Oades, isn't it?] but due to terrible circumstances, poor Henry believes his wife is dead.  After much grieving, he moves on, going to far as to leave New Zealand to make a new start as a farmer in California.   Henry meets a young widow with a baby, and takes a liking to her.  They marry.  And that's when things get really interesting. . . highlight for the little hint. . . the first wife shows up, very much alive!  What would you do?

This book brings up all kinds of moral and ethical dilemmas, and what made it even more interesting to me was this is based on an actual family!   I do get really tired of writers lifting plots and characters from real life, but this is so intriguing I absolutely understand why the author was compelled to fictionalize it.  I really wish my library had enough copies so I could suggest it as a book for our discussion group.

My only complaint is that I wish there had been more back story on some of the characters -- I would have liked a little more character development for some of the family members as well.  But overall I really enjoyed it.

And many thanks to Suey, since I won this book in her giveaway last spring.  Amazingly, the publisher somehow sent me TWO copies of this book, so I was able to give one to my mother, who really liked it.  She was very happy to receive it as she's actually been to New Zealand.  It's so fun to give someone a book that they really enjoy.  Thank you Suey!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Persephone Secret Santa

Secret Santa is starting!!

I only signed up for one Secret Santa swap this year, and when I heard Paperback Reader was organizing a swap for Persephone books, I jumped on it.  I've already purchased a gift for my Santee and I'm hoping to send it out tomorrow with some homemade cookies.

And I have received TWO clues from my Santa!  When I got the holiday mail on Monday, I had my first clue -- a photocopy of one of the beautifully colored endpapers.   I was able to identify the book from my 2011 Persephone Ninety Calendar, which includes all 90 of the beautiful endpapers. However, my Santa could be trying to trick me -- the author of that particular book, Dorothy Whipple, wrote six different books in the Persephone Catalog.  Could Santa be leading me astray?  Well, I haven't read any of them, so I'll be happy no matter what.

I got my second clue in the mail today, and it is even more cryptic, full of clues as to the sender's identity.  I am completely mystified!  I know he or she lives in Massachusetts and has been blogging since 2007, and was able to attend the Book Blogger Con in NYC this year -- lucky!!  Santa is also hosting a challenge which is about to end, and collects either lobsters, stamps, or dogs (a clue from the notecard I received).  Anyway, I just wanted Santa to know that I'm loving this little mystery.  Thanks again!!

I only hope my Santee likes his/her gift as much as I will.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Blogging Sick Leave and Comfort Reads

Sorry to have been away from the blog for so long, but, unfortunately I've been nursing a nasty ear infection for the past week.  I've managed to read a few comforting books, though I've been a little too foggy to put together enough coherent and insightful thoughts to write an actual book review.  (Though I have been gratefully reading lots of other brilliant and clever postings!)  Hopefully, I'll spend the holiday getting caught up and start posting again soon.

In honor of my little sick leave, I'm posting a short list of some of my favorite comfort reads (in no particular order):

1.  Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone. The book that made me fall in love with the wizarding world.  It will always be my favorite of the entire series.

2.  The Chronicles of Narnia.  My favorites are The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Horse and His Boy.  Though Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are awfully good. . .  . okay, pretty much the whole series except The Magician's Nephew and The Silver Chair, both of which I found to be dreary and depressing.

3.  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. [Spoiler alert!] Elizabeth realizes Mr. Darcy isn't such a horse's ass after all, they fall in love, and all is right with the world.  Sigh.

4.  Persuasion.  See #3 and substitute Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth for Lizzie and Darcy.

5.  Danny, the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl.  By far my favorite Roald Dahl book, and curiously, one of the few without magic.  I love the relationship between Danny and his father.  The great pheasant caper is pretty cool also.

6.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith.  Poor Francie Nolan's life is so terrible, so why is this story so comforting?  

7.  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  My favorite parts of this book are about the minutiae of life in a small town in the South.   This book just gets better as I get older.

8.  The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.  One of the best historical juvenile books ever.  It even makes me want to go back to Colonial Times -- and I don't do so well without running water.

9.  Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum.  Dorothy's back in Oz after a shipwreck with a talking chicken. There are also trees with lunch boxes and dinner pails growing on them, a Hungry Tiger, and a princess with multiple heads -- what could be better?  How about Dorothy standing up to the princess who wants to trade heads with her -- "I b'lieve you won't!!"  You go, Dorothy!

10.  Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.  Is it weird that a creepy gothic novel is comforting?  A young woman marries a much older widower who brings her back to his big scary mansion, complete with a creepy housekeeper who's obsessed with the first wife -- sounds comforting, right? Still one of my favorites.

So, bloggers, which books do you turn to when you're sick or cranky?  Childhood reads, mysteries, chick lit?  I'd love to know what other people find comforting.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Top Ten War Stories

In honor of Veteran's Day I've created a list of my Top Ten War Stories.  Thanks to Suey for the inspiration!  In no particular order:

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.  Yes, it's racist, but Scarlett is so spunky, and I'm always interested in reading about wars from the perspective of the home front.  I'm not really into battles and action sequences.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.  Death narrates the story of a young orphaned German girl during WWII.  I cried like a baby at the end.

A Very Long Engagment by Sebastien Japrisot.  A heartbreaking look at WWI France, and its aftermath.  Also a great movie adaptation.

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene.  A 12-year-old Jewish girl living in the American South befriends a German POW. One of my favorite young adult books of all time.

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegleman.  The groundbreaking graphic novel, one of the best books about WWII I've ever read.  Not to be missed.

The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett A great unappreciated book about the very different lives of two Victorian sisters. One of the sisters, Sophia, is trapped in the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. Scary.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows.  On the lighter side of WWII fiction, but a great read.  I never knew that the British Channel Islands were invaded by the Germans during the war.  It's mostly in letters, which I always love, and it's about a book group in wartime!

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.  Another heartbreaking love story.  I think I liked the movie adaptation even more than the book, even though Colin Firth plays a real ass.

Stones From the River by Ursula Hegl.  And interesting look at WWII, from a German viewpoint.  This book had great insight into how the Germans tolerated the rise of Nazism, until it was too late.  One of the best of Oprah's books.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Not my favorite Dickens, but still, great writing, and a frightening look at the French Revolution.

So -- which books have I missed?  Suggestions from the blogosphere?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Oh, I am so behind on my book reviews.  I still haven't reviewed all the books that I read during Readathon, and now my vacation books.  Well, now that I'm back I'll hopefully be able to catch up. I'm going to start out with Nightingale Wood, the first book I read on my trip.  (Technically, I started it a couple of days before I left, but since I finished it on the airplane to my recent vacation, I count this as a vacation read.) And it was just the thing -- light, funny, and not too mentally taxing.

I really enjoyed this book.  The only other book I'd heard of by the author, Stella Gibbons, is Cold Comfort Farm, which is a charming satire of British pastoral fiction, full of quirky characters and a rather know-it-all heroine.  Nightingale Wood isn't really like that -- yes, Gibbons does poke fun at some literary archetypes like the stodgy English lord-of-the-manor, and the rich playboy-type, but this is more of a Cinderella story.

So here's the setup.  The book is set about the 1930s, I'm guessing after the stock market crash.  In her early twenties, Viola Withers is newly widowed and broke.  She was briefly married to the only son of a somewhat wealthy family, and is forced to move in with her in-laws due to her reduced circumstances.  So she leaves London to live in the country with her stodgy, money-obsessed father-in-law, her rather bland mother-in-law, and her two sisters-in-law; one of whom is secretly in love with the handsome young chauffeur, and the other who wants nothing more than to play golf and raise dogs.  There's another wealthy family nearby, with a handsome son Victor, who's all but engaged to a bitchy socialite.  Viola, a former shopgirl, is pretty, sweet, and not terribly intelligent, but her presence in the dull countryside shakes things up a bit, especially when she meets her Prince Charming at the annual charity ball.

Since this is sort of a twist on a fairy tale, some people might consider this chick lit.  However, I found it so much more original and joyful than most of the chick lit available these days.  Yes, it has romance, a young single woman, and a happy ending, but it's much more than that.  Viola isn't terribly bright, but we're still rooting for her and for all most of the other single women in the story, her sister-in-law Tina and Victor's bookish bohemian cousin Hetty.  Gibbons also puts a little twist on some of the other typical characters, like the village hermit and the hot young chauffeur.  Nightingale Wood lacks some of the biting satire of Cold Comfort Farm, but Gibbons gets some good digs in, particularly about readers and writers.  Here's a description of Victor's cousin Hetty:

"Hetty had taken after her father's side, the unsuccessful (that is, poor) Franklins who were all teachers and parsons and librarians, and as dull as ditch-water, with their noses in books, their socks in holes and their finances in muddles.  Hetty was a disappointment.  All that Mrs. Spring [her aunt] could do with Hetty was to let Victor see that her investments did not go down, while she herself chose her clothes and tried to marry her off."

I suppose I found that amusing (instead of being offended) because I'm both a bookworm and a librarian!  Of course, most of the librarians I know are extremely interesting people.  And here's what Viola's sister-in-law Tina is thinking when she takes her first driving lesson from the family chauffeur:

"She was not a fuzzy person like Viola; had she been, she might have married, for the distressing truth is that the fuzzies usually do; men like them.  She had kept her brain exercised by reading heavyish books, which might not always be truly wise but at least were not those meringues of the intellect, those mental brandies-and-sodas -- novels."


Oh, shocking, the reading of novels!  I hope my fellow book-bloggers are giggling over this instead of snorting in disgust.   I prefer to think that Gibbons is actually poking fun at people who don't read novels, since she wrote 25 novels in her lifetime, plus short stories and poems.  Oddly enough, she's best known for her Cold Comfort Farm, her very first novel, and that which is most widely available.  Nightingale Wood was only just reprinted here in the U.S., and sadly, I don't think any of her other books are still in print here.  Like the works of Winifred Watson, author of Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, it seems Gibbons' novels have fallen out of favor.  Hopefully publishers will start reprinting more of her books.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Posting from Hawaii

Well, bloggers, I am on vacation, and have been so busy getting ready for said vacation, I've been remiss in my postings.  However, I did pack plenty of books -- I do have my priorities.  I can't complain as I am on Oahu!  (My DH had a convention and it would be unfair to let him go alone, wouldn't it?)

I did try very hard to find appropriate books to bring, but since I couldn't face James Michener's Hawaii, the closest thing I could find on my to-read shelf was The Wives of Henry Oades, a contemporary historical fiction book I won in a giveaway from Suey several months ago.  It's actually set in New Zealand, but it's in the South Pacific, so I figured it was somehow appropriate.  I started it today (while waiting for my husband outside the convention center) and I'm enjoying it so far.

However, nearly every other book I brought with me is set in England!  Here are the other books I brought:

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons -- finished on the plane (nine hours total, plus a layover in Dallas).

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett -- (I had to bring at least one Persephone).

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail -- okay, another Persephone.  I've signed up for the Persephone Christmas Exchange.  This is research.  Really.


Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope -- because I signed up for the upcoming Trollope feature on The Classics Circuit.  It is 825 pages long, so I need to get cracking.  I've read 80 pages and it's good so far, so this is promising.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson.  Set in Sweden, but it's in the summer, and it's summer here all year round.  Close enough. And it's short.

And because I could not go 24 hours on vacation without buying a book, I bought Mark Twain's Letters From Hawaii.  I'm feeling a little guilty because I really wanted to buy this at an independent bookstore called Native Books.  I walked and walked and walked and got frustrated and (after visiting the Iolani Royal Palace) I broke down and bought it at Barnes and Noble, which actually had a really big selection of Hawaiiana.  But I feel guilty because I know if people don't support independents, they'll all go out of business.  Of course I got back to the hotel and looked it up --  I was only a block away!!!  Grrrr.  I'll just have to go back and buy something else before I have to leave.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Ever since I discovered the Persephone imprint, I've been so excited to read all their books.  Unfortunately, they're hard to find here in the U.S.   The Home-Maker is still in print here in the U.S. from another publisher, but the copy I received from the library via interlibrary loan was actually published in 1924!!  It's one of the oldest copies of a book I've read.

If you're familiar with Persephones, you're probably thinking of charming, cozy midcentury women's British fiction, like two of my first Persephone reads, Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day and Miss Buncle's Book, both of which are fun, delightful reads.  The Home-Maker starts out with a much darker story; in fact, it was so depressing at first I almost abandoned it altogether.  It did get better, though, and I'm really glad I stuck with it.

It's set in a small American town (not clear where, maybe the midwest) in the early part of the century.  A struggling housewife, Evangeline Knapp, is obsessed with keeping her house clean and her family in order.  They're all absolutely miserable -- she's practically OCD, her kids are cowed and frightened of her, her husband is in a dead-end accounting job at the local department store and probably has ulcers.  They're all so unhappy, it's just awful.  Her husband Lester is kind of a cerebral, poetic person, totally miserable stuck in an office, and when his job is on the line he considers suicide -- a bit like It's a Wonderful Life without the angels.

Something terrible happens, and Evangeline is forced to pick up the pieces of the family and go looking for a job.  There had been previous hints of Eve's quick mind and inventiveness, but she'd been completely stifled in her role as Wife and Mother.  So things start to turn up for this family.  Basically, this book is a very feminist, forward look at gender roles and families. It was so surprising and I was absolutely rooting for the Knapp family and couldn't wait to find out how it all turned out.  This book was published more than 80 years ago and it's still very timely, given the struggles of couples and families to balance work and childcare, and the issues of childrearing and caregivers.  It's pretty groundbreaking.

I'm really glad I was able to get a copy via ILL, but I was totally annoyed while reading it -- I got to page 315 (it's 320 pages) and I realized a page was missing.  Of course I was able to get the gist of the ending but I was sort of thrown for a loop.  Luckily, I was able to find it online through Google reader and read the two missing pages.  How irritating -- has that ever happened to anyone else?

By the way, if you're a fan of Persephones, you'll be pleased to learn that The Home-Maker is being reprinted as a Persephone Classic next June, and will be readily available for the U. S. market (according to Amazon.com and The Book Depository).  You can even pre-order now if you're willing to wait for it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Final Comments on Bleak House and My Favorite Dickens Novels


I have finished Bleak House -- all 28 discs of the audio version, alternating with nearly 1000 pages of the print version.  We're nearly finished with the eight-week readalong, and again, I'd like to thank Amanda for organizing this -- it's nice to see so many participants.  I know not everyone is as big a Dickens fan as I am, so I'm especially impressed with the bloggers that have stuck with it this far, considering the length.  It's a big reading commitment, especially if you're not enjoying it.  I did enjoy this just as much this time around as my previous read, and even more than my multiple viewings of the excellent BBC adaptation.  If you're intrigued by the story but put off by the length of the book, please, do yourself a favor and watch this -- believe me, you will be hooked.  It may even inspire you to attempt reading it.

I'm not even going to attempt to recap the plot thus far -- it would take too long and include far too many spoilers.  I love Bleak House because of the memorable characters, the fascinating, twisty plot, the great cliffhangers, and the brilliant way in which Dickens ties everything together while including social commentary, mystery, humor, tragedy, and romance.  Seriously, this book has everything.  It will remain one of my favorite books of all time.  If I was going into outer space for a year and could only bring ten books with me, this would be one of them.

Like Bleak House, most of Dickens' works are a commitment.  They are long.  His prose is flowery and sometimes challenging.  His plots can be labyrinthine.  Some of his characters (especially the women) can be irritating.  I also find that he's elitist -- good characters, even if they are criminals, are usually nice looking and come to a happy end, and they are usually well-born, even if they are miserable orphans and don't realize they are From a Good Family.  Many of the poor, unhappy characters are uneducated, unloved, and unattractive, and they suffer sad fates.  Those that are not rarely rise above their station.

However, this does not deter me, because Dickens is really and truly worth it.  I read my first Dickens work, Great Expectations, back in college and then basically ignored his oeuvre until 2007, when I read A Tale of Two Cities with an online classics group.  It wasn't until I watched the BBC miniseries adaptation of Bleak House that I was seriously hooked on Dickens.  I've now read about half of his major works.  I'm ranking them below in order of preference.

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock
1.  Bleak House.  Still my favorite.  Maybe it was the miniseries, but I am captivated by the tragic story of the Jarndyce court case.  The lives of the Jarndyce heirs are intertwined with the heroine, Esther Summerson, as well as the mysterious Lady Dedlock.  This book has everything -- romance, blackmail, murder, the brilliant Inspector Bucket (the first detective in English fiction!) and a host of side characters that are both grotesque and charming.

2.  Oliver Twist.  The quintessential Dickens orphan.  By now, the trope of the Poor Orphan is a little hackneyed, but little Oliver manages to survive the workhouse and a gang of thieves and still be sweet and saintly.  Also one of Dickens' shorter works, so it's a great starting point for the Dickens novice.

3.  Great Expectations.  My first Dickens, read in my last semester of college.  I took a fifth class, Introduction to Fiction, on a whim.  I can't remember any of the other books we read except this one.  I was sure I'd hate it but I was blown away, it was so enjoyable!  It contains some of Dickens' most memorable characters -- Pip, the hero; his kindly but hapless stepbrother Joe, and his shrew of a sister.

4/5.  Little Dorrit and David Copperfield -- tied for fourth place.  Copperfield started out so well, vying with Bleak House for my favorite, but the middle gets really slow, and the story doesn't seem to go anywhere.  And David's True Love Dora is one of his most annoying ingenues EVER, so it slips in the ranking.  Little Dorrit has a lot of the colorful characters for which Dickens is famous, but somehow the story isn't quite as enchanting.  Young Amy Dorrit was born and raised in the Marshalsea Prison, where her father has spent years imprisoned for debts.  Dickens was pointing out the injustice of this vicious cycle.  The hero, Arthur Clennam, is trying to help the Dorrits and falls in love with Amy.

6.  A Tale of Two Cities.  This one gets big points for being fairly short, and also for having the BOTH the best first line and the best last line in a book EVER.  Lots of great books have great first lines, but to have both is pretty impressive.  Also, one of the best female villains, Madame DeFarge.  However, points are taken away because, once again, Lucie Manette, the beautiful ingenue, is so boooring.  Why is everyone so in love with her?  Apparently Dickens believes that since she is young, innocent and pretty, no character development is therefore necessary. Snore.

7.  Nicholas Nickleby.  Poor Nicholas has to get a teaching job at a terrible school to support his widowed mother and sister, and along the way he has some adventures.  It was okay, but the characters didn't appeal to me nearly as much as those in Bleak House, Oliver Twist, or even Great Expectations.

8/9.  Hard Times and A Christmas Carol.  Bleah.  They're short, but I just don't see the appeal.  Hard Times is often read in schools because it's one of Dickens shortest works -- because he left out all the good stuff!  Seriously, I cannot recall a single element of this book that I liked, or a single interesting character.  It seems like Dickens had a novel all planned out and hadn't added any of the funny and/or grotesque side characters, but he was in a rush to publish something so he just handed it off to the publisher.  A huge disappointment.

And A Christmas Carol -- it's so popular, and I've seen so many adaptations -- there's even a Disney adaptation with Mickey Mouse and Scrooge McDuck.   When I finally got around to reading it, I didn't see what the big deal was.  I suppose I would have enjoyed it more if a TV version hadn't scared the crap out of me when I was about six or seven.  (What was my mother thinking, letting me watch this?  I was so scared of the Ghost of Christmas Future I slept under the bed for a week).  I finally got around to reading it a few years ago and was seriously underwhelmed.

So, now that I'm nearly finished with Bleak House I have to think about which Dickens to read next.  My top choices are Martin Chuzzlewith, Dombey and Son, and Our Mutual Friend.  Bloggers, have you read any of these?  Which one should I read next?  I'd love to hear your comments and also your thoughts about other Dickens novels.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bleak House Readalong, Week 8

This is my second reading of Bleak House, and I'm enjoying the heck out of it.  I can't help it.  I know, it's kind of a nineteenth-century soap opera.  It's melodramatic, and there are far too many coincidences, but I still love it.  It's kind of like a Victorian version of Lost, but without the island and the smoke monster. There's lots of characters whose lives end up mysteriously interconnected. . and they were on an island. . . and there was a lot of smoke in Victorian England. . . so I guess it's a lot like Lost!  (But without the plane crash.  Hey, what about a steampunk version of Bleak House?  Maybe a mashup?)

But I digress.  Sometimes I've fallen behind in the reading/posting, and for this, I apologize.  As far as a plot summary goes, if I describe too much at this point, it would spoil it.  I'll just say the action has really moved along here -- one of our characters is on a major downward spiral, one is in serious trouble, one is dead, and others are suspected of the crime.  Inspector Bucket, one of my favorite characters, had been introduced previously, but now he's really involved in the story.  He's one of the first detectives in English literature, if not THE first, which is pretty cool.  He may have been inspired in part by an actual detective in Victorian history, Mr. Whicher.

I have to admit that I've never actually read the print version of the book the entire way through -- it's so long, and I have so much else to read, that I've combined the audio and print versions.  I'm fortunate that my library has the Naxos audiobook version, narrated by Sean Barrett and Teresa Gallagher, and I think it's just wonderful.  Both of them are such great readers, and can do so many voices so well.  I'm always amazed when a male reader does a distinctive female voice, and vice versa.  With both of these excellent readers, I'm able to tell instantly when Ms. Gallagher is doing Mr. Jarndyce, or Mr. Vholes, or when Mr. Barrett is reading Lady Dedlock's part.  There are more than 40 characters in Bleak House (seriously, I once made a list!) and to be able to so many parts so well is real talent.   The right reader can make or break an audiobook -- I am quite sure that the audio of Wuthering Heights may have been what ruined it for me.

Alun Armstrong as Mr. Bucket
And as I've said repeatedly, I think the BBC miniseries adaptation of Bleak House is just fantastic.  Yes, they had to cut a few characters, and condense things a bit -- they've made a thousand page book into an eight-hour miniseries, so a few things had to go.  The series is quite faithful and really captures the essence of the story, if not every single detail.  I honestly can't say whether I liked the book or the series better, they're both just wonderful.

I still have more than 200 pages to go, with a lot of unanswered questions -- who is the murderer?  Will everyone learn Lady Dedlock's deep secret?  Will the Jarndyce case EVER be settled in Chancery Court?  And will Esther find true love?  And will someone finally smack Harold Skimpole upside the head?  See, I told you it was a Victorian soap opera -- stay tuned for the next episode.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Readathon Wrap-Up

All done!  I lasted until about 2 a.m. Central time.  I did finish my final book, a creepy little Gothic thriller by Joan Aiken called Died on a Rainy Sunday.  It's a short book, only about 120 pages, and I'd read it before so it was a fun way to end the evening (plus it counts for the RIP challenge).  I was too tired last night to write a final update, so here are my numbers:

Pages read: 1237
Books finished: 5
Books finished from my shelves: 3
Books finished from the library: 2

Cecelia's books:

Pages read: 1499
Books finished (all from her own shelves): 6

It was really fun but I was sorry to get started so late in the day.  I also should have planned out the dinner better.  Hopefully I'll be able to plan my day better next year -- it just worked out that book group fell on this day, and I hate to miss it.  What I'd really love would be to pack a bunch of books into a suitcase and check into a hotel for Readathon!  I could lock myself into the room and order food in.  I'd get tons of reading done (except breaks for the hot tub, of course).  Wouldn't that be great?

Readathon Update 3

Four books and counting!

I'm so glad I have such a pile of short books -- it really helps me feel I'm making progress.  Of course the pile keeps getting bigger instead of smaller. . .

I've finished another Persephone, Cheerful Weather For the Wedding, which was super short.  And I finished Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  I read a total of about 90 pages of it today, so I'm going to count it was one of my finished books.

Updated totals:

Pages read: 1016
Books finished: 4
Books finished from my shelves: 3
Library books read: 1

It's after midnight and I think I'm going to reread a favorite gothic novel by Joan Aiken, then go to bed.  If I'm early enough tomorrow I may read some more.  I didn't get nearly as many books read as I'd hoped, but next time I'll hopefully have an entire day.

Readathon Update 2

I've made progress!!  582 pages of progress, to be specific! Woo hoo!  I finished Blankets by Craig Thompson, a wonderful, big, fat graphic novel.  And I finished it in less than two hours!  This will do great things for my total number of pages.  I'm definitely energized and inspired.  I loved Blankets and I'll post about it this week.

I've started my Persephone book, Cheerful Weather For the Wedding by Julia Strachey.  It's a really thin book, only 119 pages, and I realized it's one of those books that the publisher has fleshed out by using really, really wide margins -- the book itself is 5 1/2 by 7 1/2 inches, but the actual text on each page is only 3 inches by 4 3/4!!  That's a LOT of white space on each page.  I should finish it quickly.

I should have planned ahead for dinner, but I ended up making a roast duck with crusty potatoes and braised red cabbage.   I know, I should have planned ahead and ordered in or cooked ahead of time, but the duck was finally defrosted and I didn't know if it would keep another day in the refrigerator, so I stuck it in the oven.  But please don't be impressed -- roast duck isn't any harder than a roast chicken, it just has a lot more fat.  And it comes with its own packet of delicious orange sauce.  Gabriela, my 13-year-old, made cupcakes this morning, so dessert was ready.  She has already promised to make French toast for breakfast tomorrow.

I can't give an accurate update for Cecelia, because she fell asleep on the couch so her big sister tucked her into bed.  I'll report on her final page numbers tomorrow, but it's very impressive, somewhere around 1500 pages.  She's a fast reader and I think she reread the entire Percy Jackson series, but who cares?  She's raising money for charity and I think that's great.

Current totals:

Pages read: 838
Books finished: 2
Books finished from my shelves: 1
Library books finished: 1

Readathon Update 1

Oh, I am starting out so slowly.  Of course, I wasn't planning on reading the entire 24 hours, but I'm disappointed at my progress.

This morning I did read about 25 pages of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies -- our discussion was at 11 a.m. and I still wasn't finished.  Honestly, though, I was really just skimming the Jane Austen parts and looking for the ultraviolent zombie mayhem to see how Seth Grahame-Smith worked it into the novel, so it's not as if I was missing much. I didn't get around to making zombie cupcakes, much to the chagrin of my daughter, but I'll work on that tomorrow.

I still haven't finished it -- I had about 50 pages to go, but somehow I didn't think it would be appropriate to read during lunch!  Instead, I started Ella Minnow Pea, which I really enjoyed.  But I got sidetracked by a nap and you know how that goes.  I did finish it after my nap, and one of my goals was that half of the books I read today would be from my shelves, not all library books, so that's good.


And of course my daughter Cecelia is on a roll!  Of course, she didn't attend book group or take a nap.

Progress so far:

Karen's Books:

Pages read:  232
Books finished: 1
Books finished from my shelves: 1
Library books finished: 0

Cecelia's Books:

Pages read: 1,499
Books finished: 6
Books finished from her shelves: 5
Library books finished: 1

Well, I am well rested and something of a night owl, so I hope to make good progress tonight.  Plus, juvenile lit and graphic novels await!  Should make up some lost time.  I was hoping to read five books for the Readathon, so if I finish P&P&Z, I'll count that towards my books for donations event though I didn't start it today.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

In Which I Am Angry

Right now, I'm supposed to be getting ready for Readathon.  I'm also supposed to be finishing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for tomorrow's book group, which I'm supposed to be leading.  Instead of reading about Elizabeth Bennet kicking zombie butt, or making delicious zombie-themed treats to accompany this discussion, I'm hopping mad about an incident that happened to my good friend Amanda at The Zen Leaf.

Today, Amanda was quoted in a New York Times article about children's reading habits.  Rather, I should say she was terribly misquoted by a reporter with an agenda who completely took her remarks out of context.  Basically, the article makes Amanda look like a pushy mother who won't let her seven-year-old son read picture books, that she's FORCING him to read chapter books against his will, as if that will somehow make him smarter, which could not be farther from the truth.

As well as being a great writer and insightful book blogger, Amanda is a great mom who would do anything to encourage literacy for her three sons.  Her house is filled with books, and she would only discourage her children from reading books if she felt the content was simply too mature.  She doesn't care if her boys are reading picture books, chapter books, non-fiction, even the back of the cereal box.  Her family has a monthly book club in which they discuss books they've selected for each other to read.  Last spring her boys participated in Readathon with her, and they each read books for charity.  Did they have fun?  You betcha.  Did she force them?  Certainly not!!

That New York Times article has had more than 300 comments, most of them vilifying my friend.  The Times reporter has refused to correct or clarify her remarks, and that makes me furious.  She's hurt and upset, and it's so unfair.   Now, Amanda has about ten times more followers than I do, and she's had tons of supportive comments on her blog today, which is comforting.  She's also had lots of comments from people who sought out her blog after reading the article, and were able to get the full story.

I just feel really badly that my good friend has had this terrible experience when she was simply trying to be kind and helpful to this reporter.  The whole thing is particularly disturbing to me because years ago, I was a journalism major in college, and our professors tried to teach us about getting accurate quotes and writing unbiased articles.  The New York Times was always used as an example of a paper with very high journalistic standards, so I'm really disappointed with them.  This isn't some lousy cable news service.

Amanda was the first friend I made when I moved to San Antonio two years ago -- not surprisingly, we met at a book group that she founded.  She's the one who encouraged me to start blogging, and I've probably found most of my followers and commenters because of her.  If you've never read her blog, please take a moment to read her side of the story, and even leave her an encouraging comment.  She deserves better than this.

P.S. If you can't get to Amanda's blog, it's probably crashed from so much traffic.  

Friday, October 8, 2010

My Readathon List

My first Readathon!!  I'm so looking forward to this, I've already started collecting piles of books and making lists.

Unfortunately, I am not actually going to be able to participate in the entire 24 hours.  I am leading back-to-back book groups that morning -- sorry, I just can't miss the discussion of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!!  So I'll miss about three hours.  And I honestly don't think I can stay up all night reading, I'd be completely zonked the next day.   I'll probably end up reading about 15 or 16 hours, which is still a lot.

Since this is my first Readathon, I have no idea how many books or pages I'll be reading, so I don't have any particular goals other than to get through as many as possible.  I'm guessing I can get through at least three or four books.  I will be donating to charity based on my results.  I've never done this before, but I was thinking a penny a page, plus $5 for every book completed.  I'll be donating to the Humane Society of San Antonio.  And my nine-year-old daughter is participating also!  She's going to donate a penny a page to SNIPSA, another pet charity, and I told her I'd pay half so she doesn't deplete her savings account.  (She's a fast reader!)

I tried to take most of my Readathon list off of my to-read bookshelf, which is getting bigger and bigger!  I really shouldn't even check out more library books, but I volunteer twice a week, and I can't help myself.  (So many good things -- it's like being in a candy store!)

So, here is a list of my potential reads:

1.  Blankets by Craig Thompson.  I've heard it's a good idea to have a graphic novel for Readathon, and I've heard so many things about this one.  It's a must-read.

2.  One juvenile book by Diana Wynne Jones, either The Pinhoe Egg or Homeward Bounders, both on my to-read shelf.

3.   One Persephone, as they're starting to pile up.  I have two that I just checked out from the library (thank you, Interlibrary Loan!):  The Home Maker by Dorothy Canfield, and An Interrupted Life: The Letters of Etty Hillesum.  I also have a nice stack from my owned-and-unread bookcase. Mariana was the earliest unread purchase, so that's possible, but Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is nice and short.

4.  Something creepy for RIP.  Probably We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, or The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells.

5.  Something by Joan Aiken, author of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, one of my favorite childhood books.  She wrote a lot of short gothic novels for adults also, so that would satisfy RIP.  I definitely want a lot of short books to choose from!

6.  The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery.  Because I loved Anne of Green Gables.

7.  Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn.  It's short and been on my bookshelf forever, and I think it will be a fast read.  Perfect for Readathon.

8.  Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don't Float by Sarah Schmelling.  A humorous-looking book -- what if literary characters were alive today and all joined a social networking group?  Literary and timely!

9.  Pearl Buck in China by Hilary Spurling -- a new biography, been on the library's wait list for this for months.  I really loved The Good Earth, and last year I was lucky enough to visit her home

10.  The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett -- it's the November selection for my IRL classics book group, and I'll be picking it up that day.

Other possible reads:

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
Wuthering High by Cara Lockwood
The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson.
The Ghosts of Kerfol by Deborah Noyes

Plus I have lots of books of short stories -- always a good choice, since you can read them in bits and pieces to break up the longer books.

Anyone else participating in Readathon?  What are you reading?  And do I have too many books on my list?  This will be so fun!