Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

"The past is a foreign country.  They do things differently there."  Another of the best first lines ever.  [I didn't include this book in that post, as I hadn't finished it yet.]  But another great line, and a great book.  But it just broke my heart.

This is the story of young Leo Colston, a twelve year old boy spending the summer holiday with a school friend on a country estate.  It's set in 1900, at the very end of the Victorian era.  As an adult in his sixties, Leo finds the journal he kept that summer, and he's reminiscing about this summer and how it changed his life.

Leo is at Brandham Hall, a country estate, as a companion to his school friend Marcus Maudsley.  Unfortunately, a few weeks into the summer, Marcus falls ill with the measles and is quarantined, so Leo has to amuse himself for several weeks; he and Marcus were the only children and all the other guests much older .  He's befriended by Marcus' older sister, Marian, a beautiful young lady of about 18, whom Leo worships.  The family hopes that she'll soon be engaged to Viscount Trimingham, from whom they are leasing the estate -- he's titled but low on cash, and the Maudsley family are rich but untitled.  So, a match between Marian and the Viscount would solve everything beautifully.  Of course, things don't go as planned.  Leo is befriended by Ted, one of the tenant farmers, and soon Leo is passing messages between Ted and Marian -- hence, the title.

This book has a lot to say about Victorian ideas of class and station, snobbery, and loyalty.  Leo's pretty middle-class, and he's a little out of his depth with all of these wealthy people.  He's very aware of the class differences.  He's also friendly with Ted but is very aware that he's not the same class, being just a farmer.  He realizes he's caught in the middle of something and is trying desperately to get out of it without offending anyone, especially Marian, on whom he has a tremendous crush.

What I liked best about this book was Hartley's ability to write in the voice of a child.  I've read other books in which the narrator is a child, and a lot of them just didn't ring true -- they seemed so precocious, and much older than their years.  For example, I'm thinking about Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite books of all time.  I love this book, but Scout doesn't sound like any child I've ever known, and I have two girls of my own.  (Other than this, I think it's perfect).  I didn't get any hint of that in Hartley's novel.

My one complaint is [contains spoiler! highlight if you want to read this section] that Leo has no clue about sex -- which I find pretty unbelievable for a 13-year-old boy, especially one who attends a boy's school.  I am sure that some other schoolmate would have known something and talked about it!  Seriously.  There would have been boys with older siblings or who had been on a farm or something.Anyway, I just found that terribly unrealistic.  But still, it's a great book, beautifully written.  Hartley is also very skilled at descriptions -- I could absolutely imagine myself right there with Leo.   There's an detailed chapter about a cricket match between the villagers and the residents and guests up at Brandham Hall -- I don't know anything about cricket (or much about any other sports, for that matter) but Hartley made it both interesting and full of tension, just like a real sporting event.  It takes a talented writer to get me interested in sports, believe me!  And the ending -- well, I couldn't possibly spoil it, but it's pretty dramatic, I couldn't stop reading.  This is one of those great classics that I think is sadly unappreciated.

This review is also posted at Our Mutual Read.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Top Ten Literary Places to Visit

Once again, Amanda has inspired me to make another Top Ten List. (I always copy from her -- is this cheating?)  This was easy -- I just had to think about my favorite books.

Anyhoo, I've divided it up into fictional and real places.  I have another list of ten literary places I don't want to visit, but I'll save that for another day.

Fictional Places:

1.  Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  I'd love to go anywhere in the wizarding world, actually, as long as there are no Death Eaters or other minions of Voldemort.  Luckily, I'm planning a trip to Florida to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, so that will have to do for now.  Only 88 days to go!

2.  The Land of Ingary to visit Howl's Moving Castle (from Diana Wynne Jones).  And not just because I have a huge crush on Wizard Howl.  The castle sounds amazing, it has doors on each side that lead to different worlds, including ours. And I'd love to meet Sophie!

3.  Bookworld, from Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series.  How cool would it be to jump into a world where literary characters are real?  A must-read series for people who love literature.  It doesn't always make sense to me, but I love all the literary jokes -- my favorite is the bit where a piano ends up in Jane Austen's Emma by mistake.  Hilarious.

4.  Narnia, during the Golden Age, the reign of High King Peter and the royal Pevensie children.  Wouldn't it be amazing to live among magical people, unicorns, centaurs, and talking animals?  Almost as good as having magical powers.

5.  Cranford, England, the eponymous village created by Elizabeth Gaskell.  I'd give Miss Pole something to gossip about, and drink lots of tea with Miss Matty.

Real Places:

1.  Regency England.  Of course with my luck I'd be a cook or a maid, or a cranky old governess.  Actually, I'd really like to be an invisible time traveler, so I could see it all without having to explain who I was, like Amanda in Lost in Austen (a very cute movie if you like the Jane Austenish stuff).  Then I could travel back in time so I could enjoy modern conveniences and medical care.

2.  Cornwall, England.  Specifically, I want to visit Manderlay, or something like it, so I can wake up and say, "Last night, I dreamt I was at Manderlay again."  Just like Mrs. de Winter, but without the scary housekeeper in Rebecca.

2.  Gabarone, Botswana.  I've always wanted to see Africa, and after reading The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, I think Botswana would be an excellent choice.

4.  The Orient Express.  Someday, I'd love to take a long train ride, with a beautiful private compartment, lovely food, and gracious service.  I'm usually jammed in a tiny airplane seat with rude people and bad food.  I'd love to travel in style.  But without a murder, thank you very much.

5.  Provence in the south of France.  I loved Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, wish I could go.  The French countryside, fresh farmer's markets, antiques, amazing food -- what's not to like?

I could go on and on, but for today, those are my top picks.  I'd love to hear where other book lovers want to go, and why.  Please let me know!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bleak House Readalong, week 1

First of all, thanks to Amanda for organizing the Bleak House Readalong!  Every week I'll be posting my thoughts about this amazing book, my favorite Dickens novel, and one of my favorite books of all time.

I love this book.  It's my second reading, or actually, I should say listening.  I have the audio version from Naxos Audio books, which is excellent.  Audio is a great way to enjoy Dickens -- I think it really forces me to slow down and enjoy the writing.  Sometimes I tend to skim over long passages because I'm so intrigued by the plot, and there is so much great writing in Dickens!  His prose can be somewhat flowery and long-winded at times, but it's worth it.  

Bleak House is centered around a civil case Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, that's been languishing for years in the court of Chancery.  Dickens drew upon his own experiences -- first, as a court reporter, before he became a successful novelist; then again as a plaintiff in a civil case.  After the runaway success of A Christmas Carol, Dickens sued a publishing company that was selling a book which was a very thinly veiled knockoff.  He won the suit, but the publisher declared bankruptcy, and Dickens was forced to pay the court costs for himself and the defendant!  Talk about adding insult to injury!   Dickens had no love of the British court system.

Anyway, the Jarndyce case has been going on forever.  The two main stories at the beginning are related to the case.  First, we have the story of Esther Summerson, a young orphan aged about 20, who is the ward of Mr. John Jarndyce.  The reader learns her back story, and now she's on her way to live at Bleak House, Mr. Jarndyce's country estate.  Esther has never met her benefactor, but she's going to live with him to be the companion to Ada Clare, a young lady who is one of the possible beneficiaries of the Jarndyce case.  Her distant cousin, Richard Carstone, another ward of the Jarndyce case, is also going to live there.  Much of the action is about their arrival at Bleak House and their first impressions of it, Mr. Jarndyce, and of the colorful characters that surround him.

The other story is about the wealthy Dedlocks, who live in another grand estate, Chesney Wold, which is dark and depressing.  Lady Dedlock is also a possible heir to Jarndyce.  She's married to the much older Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, who married her for love.  She's bored to death. 

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock
So, somehow, these stories are connected.  The beginning of the book is mostly back story and character exposition.  It seems like a lot of unrelated stories, but since this is one of his longest, most complex works  (more than 900 pages long and was originally published in a serial format, from March 1852 to September 1853.)

My likes and dislikes so far -- well, I love how beautifully Dickens sets the scene.  Chesney Wold, the Dedlock estate, is so dark and dreary sounding, I can practically hear the rain dripping as I read it.  I also love his description of London, as young Esther first sees it -- it's so smoggy that she's convinced there are fires everywhere, and the gas lamps are lit quite early since it's so dark.  I can't imagine living somewhere so polluted.

Also, I love how Dickens creates his characters.  Mr. Jarndyce is sweet and benevolent, but sort of shy.  Some of the side characters, like Jarndyce's friend Harold Skimpole, and Mrs. Rouncewell, the housekeeper at Chesney Wold, are also very vivid (I especially love the description of Mrs. Rouncewell's corsets.  My biggest complaint is Esther -- she's really pretty saccharine.  I've read about half of Dickens' works and nearly all of them contain a sweet ingenue who is pretty and vapid and kind of annoying.  Esther isn't as bad as some, but the book also contains another ingenue, her companion Ada Clare, and everyone looooves her -- Esther's only known her a few days and always refers to her as "my darling."  Based on the book I can only surmise it's because she's sweet and has pretty golden curls. How shallow.  

Nevertheless, this book is worth sticking with.  Dickens creates some amazing supporting characters, some of whom are quite grotesque, but I'll get to those later as I continue my weekly updates.  This book has so much in it -- romance, mystery, satire, drama, wit.  I love this book as much the second time around as I did the first. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Candide by Voltaire

I'm lucky enough to be in a face-to-face, in-real-life book group that only discusses classics.  Every year, the group leader, Amanda, does a great job of balancing all the books we read -- male/female authors, books in English vs. books in translation, and also different time periods and style.  Not only that, we're limited to titles that have enough copies in our public library, so no one has to purchase books. 

Our August read was Candide, which covers several categories -- first of all, it was written in 1759; it's translated from French; and finally, it's a satire.  Great pick, Amanda!  If you're like me, and normally run in fear from an 18th century novel, you should consider it.

This was my third reading of Candide.  The first time was in my junior year of high school, for World Lit.  (Slightly surprising, seeing as how it's a little racy -- it's an 18th century book but there's quite a lot of sexual innuendo.  Maybe none of the parents had read the book and had no idea.)  I read it again a few years ago for another book group and remember enjoying it.

 Basically, this is a satire about a young man, Candide, who grows up as an illegitimate child on a Baron's estate.  He's in love with the Baron's beautiful daughter, Cunegonde, and their tutor, Pangloss, has convinced them that they live in the "best of all possible worlds." (Pangloss is a satirical representation of the philosopher Leibnitz).  Candide is thrown out in disgrace after kissing Cunegonde, and must make his way in the world.  It's a picaresque novel, in which our naive hero encounters disaster after disaster -- earthquakes, wars, shipwrecks, and more -- but he manages to survive and is determined to reunite with Cunegonde.  No matter how terrible his life is, he is eternally optimistic and hoping to find his lost love.  He meets all sorts of people, many of whom are based on historical characters and philosphers, all skewed by Voltaire.

Apparently, Voltaire was both celebrated and reviled for his satire, and was exiled more than once.   This book satirizes philosophy, various governments, religion -- no wonder he was drummed out of France.  I'm sure the Catholic Church hated him, he takes some real shots at the Jesuits and at the Inquisition.  I wish I knew more about philosophy and the Enlightenment, so I'd know more about what he was satirizing.  It's a fast, easy read, and parts of it are really funny.  If you'd like some more background, click here.

Somehow I just didn't enjoy Candide as much this time around.  I know it's a satire, but I got a little tired of being reminded of all the terrible things that have happened, tsunami and earthquakes and rapes and murders and theft and torture.  Maybe I'm just taking this book too seriously.  The terrible things seem to be outweighing the funny bits this time.   I suppose I've been reading too much world news lately, all the terrible war crimes and disasters.  But for an book that's 250 years old, it's surprisingly enjoyable. 

Amanda at the Zen Leaf also reviewed Candide (yes, the same Amanda who leads my book group, and who inspired me to start blogging.)  You can read her review here.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Favorite First Lines From Books

I was inspired by Amanda at The Zen Leaf, who posted today about her favorite lines from books.  I realized that many of the lines I remember most are first lines, so that's what I'm listing.  Many of them are famous, a few not so famous.  And I couldn't limit myself to just ten, so here they are, in no particular order:

1. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife."  -- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

I can't say anything about Jane Austen that hasn't already been said, and probably better than I could say it.  Probably my favorite book in the whole world, a great first line.

2.  "Last night I dreamt I was at Manderlay again."  -- Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

Rebecca, the best gothic novel ever.   Not only does it have a great plot, and memorable setting, and scary villain, it's beautifully written.  The movie and television adaptations are great, but if you don't read the book you're really missing out.

3.  "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."  -- J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone

In just a few words, J. K. Rowling sucked me into the memorable world of Harry Potter, and I've been a fan (sometimes to the point of obsession) for almost eleven years.  I'm counting the days until I get to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (only 97 left!)

4. "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." -- Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

Immediately, we learn that our narrator is a writer, or diarist, and that she's quirky.  Intriguing!  Cassandra Mortmain lives up to the intro in this charming book (one of J. K. Rowling's favorites, by the way).

5.  "When he was 13, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow." -- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

What happened to Jem, and how is this important to the story?  One of the classics of American literature.  If, like me, you read it in high school and didn't see the big deal about it, read it again.  It means so much more to me now as an adult.  I can't wait for my daughter to read it next year.

6. "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were." -- Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

I don't think I'd like to be friends with Scarlett, but I'll always admire her spunk and determination.  It's probably not PC to love this novel, but it will always be one of my favorites. 

7. "Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu." -- Ha Jin, Waiting

One of my favorite lines from contemporary literature.  Every summer?  Do they get remarried every year -- what is going on here?  A great book about modern China, and a heartbreaking story.

8.  "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."  -- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Bleak House is still my favorite Dickens so far, but I don't think Dickens ever wrote a better opening line.  A Tale of Two Cities also includes what is probably the best last line in a book: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far far better rest that I go to than I have ever know."

9.  "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." -- C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Who is Eustace, and what has he done to deserve it? And what is he doing on the Dawn Treader? Eustace is one of Lewis' most memorable characters in the Narnia series. The Horse and His Boy will always be my favorite in the series, but Dawn Treader comes pretty close. I'm looking forward to the movie adaptation.

10. "In the land of Ingary, where such things ase seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility still exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three." -- Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle

I know I keep harping on it, but Diana Wynne Jones is sadly underrated in this country.  She's written more than 30 books of children's fantasy, and I've loved nearly every one I've read so far (13 and counting).  Everyone mourning the end of the Harry Potter series needs to read her books.

11.  "I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story." -- Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome.

One of the most beautiful, heartbreaking stories I've ever read. Ethan is so tragic, but I still find the story wonderful and fascinating. Another novel that I think is best appreciated as an adult.

12.  "During my career as a backup singer with the with Vernon and Ruby Shakely and the Shakettes, it often occurred to me that this was not a lifetime occupation and that someday I would have to figure out my rightful place in society." -- Laurie Colwin, Goodbye Without Leaving

I loved Laurie Colwin's food columns when she wrote for Gourmet, but her prose is just beautiful.  I realized after reading her short stories that I would never write anything as good, and I should just give up trying. I've read all her books and wish there were more, but sadly, Colwin died suddenly in 1992 at the age of 48.  She's best known for two collections of food essays, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking.

So -- what are your favorite first lines?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon

WHAT in the WORLD made me read this book?

A disclaimer:  this is not an awful book.  I have nothing against the author, Ms. Gutcheon, and I'm actually interested in reading some of her other books, like Leeway Cottage.  When it arrived from the library, my gut told me this was going to be a difficult book.  I almost returned it unread, but thought I'd try a few pages yesterday. Well, I got sucked in and had to finish the whole thing, basically in one sitting.  So yes, it is well-written and suspenseful, but very disturbing.

What the heck was I thinking?  This is a book about a woman whose not-quite-seven-year-old son is snatched on his way to school.   If you are the least bit sensitive about this sort of thing, DO NOT READ IT, unless you want to be handcuffed to your children until they are 30.

Okay, the synopsis part:  one spring afternoon, Susan, a professor living in Boston, realizes that her "very responsible" son Alex, who is nearly seven, is late coming home from school.  A quick call to a friend reveals that he didn't show up that day.  Panic ensues.  Susan is separated from her husband, the unfaithful Graham, and the rest of the book chronicles the horror of a missing child.  It's not only about the initial stages of the tragedy, the media attention, the phone calls, crackpots, etc., but about the long-term effects.  After a while, the media and the community becomes tired, almost embarrassed, about her plight, and eventually, she's treated as kind of an outcast and a crackpot for still wanting to believe he's alive.  It was heart wrenching.

Perhaps I am overreacting, but I found this book really upsetting.  I actually got it from the library because it is included in the list of books the wonderful company Persephone publishes in the U.K.  This is so not like their other books, such as Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Miss Buncle's Book, etc., which have been charming domestic fiction written in the 1930s.  I've also recently enjoyed Kitchen Essays (1922) and Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes (originally published in The New Yorker during WWII).  Not. Like. Those. At. All!!!!

In its defense, the book is very well written, and (forgive me for slipping into cliche) a real page-turner.  I read the book all in one sitting -- because I had to find out what happened.  I used to read all kinds of thrillers, but I just don't have the stomach for them any more.   I can't even read Jodi Picoult, since her books are always about some kind of child tragedy.

Another thing that sort of bothered me was how homophobic the characters were.  This book was published in 1980, so I suppose that was typical of attitudes at that time; also, it's mostly unsympathetic characters who are spouting the slurs, but it still bothered me.

Other than than, it IS a good book if you don't mind this sort of thing. But I do.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Stories: All New Tales Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

I put this book on hold from the library since included a new story by Neil Gaiman, one my favorite authors.  I was surprised and delighted to find that my favorite stories in this collection were by other authors, some of whom I'd never read before.  For example, I probably never would have read anything by horror author Joe Hill (son of Stephen King) but his story, "The Devil on the Staircase," is one that I won't forget.  After committing a crime of passion, a poor Italian laborer rushes down mysterious stone steps into what he believes is Hell, with devastating long-term results.

I expected this collection to be filled with stories of the supernatural, fantasy, and science fiction, but some of them were mystery and suspense.  I recognized quite a few of the authors, and some of them surprised me -- Jodi Picoult, who isn't really known for fantasy/supernatural; Joanne Harris, best known for Chocolat; Joyce Carol Oates; Richard Adams (of Watership Down fame).

My least favorite was probably "Catch and Release" by Lawrence Block, which gets into the mind of a serial killer.  Normally I like his stories, but this one was just a little too realistic, so much so that I can't forget it and wish I hadn't read it.  Block has a similar story in an older collection called Some Days You Get the Bear -- I read it more than ten years ago and I still can't forget it, and not in a good way.  Still makes me shudder to think about it.

But anyhow, I should focus on the best stories.  My favorite has to be by Diana Wynne Jones (I didn't even know she was in the collection until I saw it in the book, so that was a lovely surprise!); it's called "Samantha's Diary," about a woman who starts receiving gifts from a stranger -- all the gifts from The Twelve Days of Christmas.  Every day -- it begins with the partridge in the tree, then the doves, the hens, and all the rest.  It's driving her crazy and all the birds are making a horrible mess.  I thought it was hilarious.  Even if I wasn't an enormous fan of her work, I think I still would have liked this one best.

Of course the collection includes a vampire story.  After Twilight and Sookie Stackhouse, I'm a little tired of vampires, but "Juvenal Nyx" by Walter Mosely was really good, one of the best vampire stories I've ever read.  I'd never read Mosely though I've seen the movie version of Devil in a Blue Dress.  Next time I'm in the mood for a mystery I will definitely look for one of his books.

Overall, this was a really interesting mix of stories, authors, and styles.  They seem really disparate, but the collection really works because of the quality of the writing.  It really sucked me in and I was compelled to finish all of them, so that's saying something.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin

I have a weakness for food memoirs and food fiction -- the result, I am sure, of my onetime aspirations to be a chef, which included a culinary certificate and about five years of working in professional kitchens, mostly making desserts.  Though I realized I'd never be a contender for Top Chef or America's Next Food Network Star, I still enjoy reading about good food.

This was a really fun read, great for a vacation.  The Apprentice is an enjoyable memoir of a chef who grows up in France during and after WWII, works his way up through French kitchens, and has a fascinating career as a chef, writer, and television personality here in the U.S.  He was the head chef for General Charles de Gaulle, for heaven's sake!

If you are not a fan of food fiction or memoirs, this may not be the book for you.  There's tons of mouthwatering food descriptions, funny stories, and really interesting facts: for example, even though Pepin dropped out of school in France when he was thirteen and came to America barely speaking English, he went back to school in the U.S. (Columbia) and nearly completed a Ph.D in French literature! Who knew?

And the funny bits are really funny.  I was seriously laughing out loud in parts, which I did not expect at all.  I've never watched any of Pepin's TV shows but I'll have to see if the library has any -- I need to see if he's as funny on camera as he is in the book.  I must also point out that sections of this book are not for hardcore vegans/vegetarians, or for the faint of heart.  The French are well known for charcuterie, and for using up every possible bit of an animal.  Some of the descriptions about butchering animals might be offensive.

However, I loved this book.  My only complaint is that I really wish it was longer -- it seemed like there was so much of his life story that was barely skimmed.  I'd have loved to learn more about his friendship with other chefs, like Julia Child.  And there are recipes and an index, so this book is really much shorter than 336 pages.

And what's sort of sad is that while I was reading portions of this book, full of recipes and descriptions of fantastic-sounding food, I was trapped on an airplane eating a dry, overpriced sandwich.  If you are going to read this, please make sure that you have already made plans to go out for a fabulous meal, or have all kinds of snacks at the ready.  I'm not talking about chips and salsa or any kind of salty snack ending in "ito."  You need pate and cornichons and crusty bread and cheeses and probably a nice glass of wine or something similar -- preferably something you can eat without too much fuss, since you'll need extra hands to turn the pages.  Trust me, this is one delicious memoir.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Summer by Edith Wharton

This book was a bit of a bummer.  Summer has been on my to-read shelf for several years (I bought this edition specially because I loved the cover; the original painting is at the Smithsonian), but other books kept shoving out of its place in line.  But lately I've been sneaky and now I only nominate books for my face to face discussion groups if they are sitting on my to-read shelf.  Basically, I want to force other people to read what I want. Anyhow, Wendy, the librarian who coordinates the group, appropriately chose this for our August read, and we had a great discussion this week.

Summer is the tenth novel I've read by Edith Wharton, and I must say I was a little disappointed. I've been a huge Wharton fan since I read House of Mirth several years ago, but somehow this book just didn't do it for me.  I was so hoping I'd love it as much as Ethan Frome, but it was not to be.

I should back up and include a quick synopsis here:  Published in 1917, this is the story of Charity Royall, a 17 year old girl living in a small town in western Massachusetts, probably near the Berkshires.  Charity is the foster child of Mr. Royall, a respected lawyer in the town.  He's now a widower and he and Charity have something of an awkward relationship.  Meanwhile, a young architect from Boston, Lucius (note the similarity to the name Lucifer!) has come to town to study some of the old houses, and Charity falls in love with him.  This being an Edith Wharton novel, things do not bode well for Charity's romance.

Years ago, Mr. Royall brought Charity down from "the Mountain," a nearby community full of rogues and lawless folks, to be brought up in a better place.  However, Charity isn't particularly grateful.  She's been brought up her entire life knowing she somehow isn't as good as everyone else because of her parents and where she came from, and she's pretty resentful.  She doesn't have much education or interest in intellectual pursuits.  I should have known Charity was going to annoy me from the very beginning -- when the story begin she's been skiving off her job at the library, and she has absolutely no interest in reading what's in "those dusty old books." !!!  I should have just shut the book aside right then and there, and just admired the pretty picture on the cover.  But I persevered.

Sadly, I didn't like Charity much more by the end of the book, but I did feel sorry for her situation.  Once again, Wharton focused on how few choices women had in the early 20th century, and the double standards women to which women are held.  I think I would have liked this book a lot more if Charity had been a more sympathetic character.  In a way I pitied her because she's really just a teenager and made a lot of bad choices, plus teenagers tend to be pretty self-centered.  However, she doesn't really show any kindness or sensitivity to anyone other than Lucius, and she's very attracted to him, so she has ulterior motives.

Wharton described this book as her "hot Ethan," comparing it to Ethan Frome, one of her most famous works, and one of my favorites.  However, I was so much more sympathetic to Ethan -- he had far more redeeming qualities than Charity.  He didn't want to hurt anybody, but he was trapped in an unhappy life and a miserable marriage.  He'd always wanted an education and couldn't get it because of his obligations.  Charity, on the other hand, has no interest in improving herself, even though she seems fairly bright.  We did have an interesting discussion about whether she has unselfish or selfish motives at the end.  It is possible Charity made a good decision at the end, the best possible decision given her situation, but I just thought it was sad.  Some of Wharton's books are beautiful and tragic, but this one just made me depressed.  Still, I'm glad I read it.

Other reviews of Summer by Edith Wharton:
If you've reviewed this book and would like me to link to your blog, please leave a comment and I'll add a link. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Lives of Christopher Chant and The Magicians of Caprona by Diana Wynne Jones

When Jenny announced she was hosting a Diana Wynne Jones week, I was so excited!  I've loved DWJ since I was a child.  Unfortunately, after I discovered one of her earliest books, Dogsbody, it was years before I found another -- my school library didn't get any of her other books, and neither did the public library.  And of course this was before Amazon and library online catalogs.  I didn't even know about ILL back then.  I didn't rediscover her works until I saw one by chance about five years ago, Howl's Moving Castle, another of my favorites.

In the past few weeks, I've been so inspired by all the postings and reviews of her other books I've read six of her books -- two standalone books, plus four from the Chrestomanci series, of which there are now seven books: six novels, plus a book of short stories.  In the interest of time, I'm going to write about two of the Chrestomanci books I've read recently:  The Lives of Christopher Chant and The Magicians of Caprona. 

The Chrestomanci books don't need to be read in order like many other series; they're not so much a linear narrative, more like  interrelated novels.  In the Chrestomanci books, our world is one of a number of parallel worlds that have split off from one another and coexist; occasionally, there are people that can travel from one world to another.  In most of these worlds, magic exists and is quite common.  Chrestomanci appears in all of the books and stories, but it isn't a person's name, it's a title -- the Chrestomanci is the most powerful magician of his time, and so he's sort of like the Minister of Magic.   Different books might have a different Chrestomanci, or even two, the current Chrestomanci and a future one.

The first book I read this summer was The Lives of Christopher Chant.  It's set in a parallel version of Edwardian England, and Christopher's parents and uncle all have magical powers.  As a young boy, he also has strong magical powers, but not everyone is aware of them.  He can control his own dreams, and while he's dreaming, he can move from one parallel world to another.  He also has multiple lives.  Christopher also realizes he can carry objects from one world to another.  When his family finally realize how powerful he is, he's sent to train with Chrestomanci.  Things get complicated when people begin to try and use Christopher's powers for personal gain.

Of the four books that I read, this was my favorite.  Christopher is a well-developed character.  He's flawed, but that makes him more endearing.   He wants to be a normal boy, yet he wants to impress his parents and make them love him.  He also wants to please his uncle, who is the first one to recognize his magical talents.  If you've read Charmed Life, the first Chrestomanci book DWJ wrote, this is the back story of the adult Chrestomanci featured in that story.  This was the second in the series that I read, but you could probably read it any order, though I'd recommend it first or second.

The second book I read was The Magicians of Caprona.  Unlike the other DWJ books, this one is set in Italy.  Again, it's a parallel world, though similar to ours, in which magic is normal.  It's about two magical families in the city-state of Caprona, the Montanas and the Petrocchis, and they're sort of like the Capulets and the Montagues, hating each other for years over something trivial that has grown out of proportion.  The main character is Tonino, a little boy in the Montana family.  Like Christopher Chant, he's having a hard time with his magical talents.  His family is famous for creating spells, but Tonino seems hopeless.  However, his magical powers come to light when an evil enchanter is trying to steal the magic from Caprona while they're under threat of war.  The rivalry between the Montanas and Petrocchis comes to a head as the enchanter must be stopped.

I had a harder time getting into this book, but once I did I really enjoyed it.  It was interesting to see DWJ write about in a setting outside of England (or magical versions of England, I suppose).  Chrestomanci does make an appearance, tying this book in with the rest of the series.  I especially liked the way DWJ worked him into the story in a way I didn't expect.  This was the second book written for the series, but I think you could read it in any order.

While I was on vacation recently, I also read Witch Week and Mixed Magics, which is a collection of four stories with Chrestomanci and includes some of the other characters in the series.  I also have Conrad's Fate checked out from the library, and hope to start it soon.  I'm really enjoying the Chrestomanci series.  If you are a fan of DWJ you'll probably love it.  I think it's a good choice for anyone who enjoys Harry Potter or other children's fantasy as well.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day and Miss Buncle's Book

My first two Persephones.  (Sighs blissfully).

Of course, many of the book lovers in the blogosphere have already been initiated into the Cult of Persephone.  Well, better late than never.  For those of you who are not familiar, Persephone Books is a London publishing company which reprints neglected fiction, mostly 20th century works by British women writers.  It includes novels, memoirs, cookbooks, short stories, etc.  A lot of them are from the early part of the century, which is a period that I just love.

My first Persephone was Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day by Winifred Watson.  It's probably the most well-known, due to the delightful movie adaptation.  Even if you have seen the movie, the book is so worth reading.  Set in 1930s London, Miss Pettigrew is an aging governess on a downward spiral -- if she doesn't get a job quickly, she'll be thrown out of her apartment with nowhere to go.  An employment agency sends her to the glamorous apartment of Miss Delysia LaFosse, a flightly torch singer who is torn between various men.  Desperate for a job, Miss Pettigrew jumps in and acts as a sort of governess to Miss LaFosse, though she's had little experience with love, and meanwhile Miss LaFosse draws Miss Pettigrew into her glamorous world for twenty four hours.  Miss Pettigrew throws all caution to the wind and decides to live it up.

This passage describes Miss Pettigrew's reaction upon meeting Delysia's friend Miss Dubarry:

The subject of the conversation still eluded her, but she didn't care.  She was thoroughly enjoying herself. She was in a state of spiritual intoxication.  No one had ever talked to her like that before.  The very oddness of their conversation sent thrills of delight down her spine.  Come to think of it, hardly any one had ever troubled to talk to her about anything at all: not in a personal sense.  But these people!  They opened their hearts.  They admitted her.  She was one of themselves.  It was the amazing way they took her for granted that thrilled every nerve in her body.  

This is a really fun, light read, perfect for a vacation.  It's been described as a Cinderella story, but in my opinion Miss Pettigrew is both Cinderella and fairy godmother.   I suppose it's really just classy chick lit but it is so witty and charming!  The dialogue is wonderful and the Persephone edition includes charming illustrations.  It reminded me of another recent read, The Diary of a Provincial Lady and its sequel, Provincial Lady in London.  Sadly, none of Winifred Watson's other books are in print, but I have already emailed the Persephone folks and begged them to reprint more of her books.

The original cover to Miss Buncle's Book
I've been collecting other Persephone books simply because I've been so intrigued by all the online raves, and I now have four other Persephone classics waiting on the shelves (though their catalog currently consists of 88 books, only ten are easily available here in the U.S.).  My love of Miss Pettigrew inspired me to check my library catalog for other Persephone titles.  Since nearly every one in their catalog had fallen out of print, there are tragically few in my local library.  I felt fortunate to get a battered 1983 copy of Miss Buncle's Book by D. E. Stevenson, which I checked out immediately after returning home from my vacation.  I think I like it even more than Miss Pettigrew!

Miss Buncle, like Miss Pettigrew, is an aging spinster fallen on hard times.  She lives in a tiny English village called Silverstream, and her income has dried up (the worldwide economic depression is only mentioned as general hardships facing various people in the village). Out of desperation, Miss Buncle has written a thinly veiled portrait of the charming eccentrics in her village, with a somewhat fantastical ending.  She is lucky enough to find a publisher, but all hell breaks loose when the book is comes out and the village residents quickly recognize their fictional counterparts in the novel (which are frequently unflattering).  Their reactions and the results are pretty hilarious -- I found myself racing through the book and frequently laughing out loud.  I wish this book were widely available here in the U.S., as I'm sure I would purchase multiple copies and give them as gifts.   Like The Diary of a Provincial Lady, Miss Buncle's Book is full of wry British humor and gently pokes fun at quaint village life.  

I was surprised to read in the author's online bio that D. E. Stevenson wrote more than 40 books and sold more than 7 million copies in the UK and US combined!! She was a hugely popular writer -- why aren't her books more widely available?  It's so sad.  Well, I am lucky to have a public library with quite a few of her books, so that will keep me busy for a while.  And I just received an email from the kind Persephone folks who have informed me they are publishing the sequel to Miss Buncle next year!

And now I have 86 more Persephone titles added to my to-read list!  Oh, dear.  If you've read any Persephone titles, please give me recommendations.  They all look wonderful and I am overwhelmed with choices.