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 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.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

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.

Friday, October 8, 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.  

Thursday, October 7, 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!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Fascinating Train Wrecks

A few months ago, when I was reading Summer by Edith Wharton, I started comparing it to two of my other favorite Wharton novels, House of Mirth and Ethan Frome.  Both of those novels have characters that I liked, despite their flaws, and I loved both of those books despite the fact that I knew they wouldn't end well.  Both Ethan and House of Mirth's Lily Bart are on downward spirals -- Lily in particular is a real train wreck who makes one bad decision after another; yet, I couldn't stop reading the book. 

I've noticed a lot of my favorite classics have characters like these, which I like to call fascinating train wrecks.  These characters are sometimes unappealing or unlikeable, but somehow, the authors elevate them and their stories in such a way that I have to keep reading.  I've begun to compile a list of my favorites, below. (WARNING! Spoiler alert -- if you haven't read some or any of these books, you may want to skip this posting).

1.  Lily Bart in House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.  The entire novel is one downward spiral of Lily's bad decisions, one after another.  Well, at least she doesn't drag anyone down with her, like so many other characters.

2.  Ethan Frome -- eponymous novel by Edith Wharton.  It's a Wharton novel, so it ends up badly.  However, Ethan really does try to do the right thing.

3.  Madame Bovary, courtesy of Gustave Flaubert.  Wow, she is just trouble.  Like Lily Bart, she makes one bad decision after another.  The trouble with Emma Bovary is that she ruins so many other lives in the process.  A wretched, unlikeable character, yet I found the story fascinating.

4.  Richard Carston in Bleak House.   He is so naive and doggedly determined to get his hands on the Jarndyce fortune, despite the fact that generations of potential heirs have lived and died without seeing a single penny.  He just will not give up!

5.  Kitty in The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham.  She has an affair with a callous diplomat while her husband is posted in Hong Kong.  To punish her, said husband, a doctor specializing in infectious diseases, decides to pack up and take her to a cholera-ridden region of China, where it's likely they will both die.

6. Philip Carey in Of Human Bondage, also by W. Somerset Maugham.  an orphaned boy, born with a clubfoot, marries a woman who makes his life a living hell.  Oh, and it's 600 pages long --  sounds promising, right?  It's wonderful.  I was blown away.   And it's one of the first classics I read for pleasure, and probably one of the first that made me realize that classics don't suck.

7.  Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence. Not an orphan (hence, the title), but this guy's mother makes his life hell.   I was sure I'd hate it, but it was also surprisingly fascinating.

8.  Rosamund Vincy in Middlemarch by George Eliot -- a supporting character train wreck, but her bad decisions are interesting and help flesh out the fascinating cast of characters.  Another doorstop of a Victorian novel, this was the only book I read for an entire month.  Absolutely worth it.

9.  The Joads in The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  An entire train wreck family!  I had such fear of Steinbeck, but I loved Travels With Charley so I gave it a shot.  I was so pleasantly surprised at how compelling the story was.

10.  Bigger Thomas in Native Son by Richard Wright. Well, Bigger isn't on a downward spiral, since he pretty much starts at the bottom, an uneducated petty criminal in 1930s Chicago.  As a black man in that era, he can't get much lower, but it is surprising how quickly his life gets worse.  It's an absorbing read, but it's so awful I just wanted to take a shower after reading this.  I'm glad I read it but I really can't say I liked it.

Of course, there are many other literary train wrecks, but some of them I found extremely unlikeable.  Here is a short list of literary train wrecks I couldn't stand:

1.  Anna in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina -- couldn't wait for her final train trip!  It just went on and on. . . and she was such a crappy mother.  An offensive trainwreck, literally.

2.  Ernest in The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler.  A Victorian smear on the hypocrisy of the church.  It went on for waaaaay too long and he was such a doormat that I didn't feel sorry for him in the least, despite his horrible parents and train wreck of a marriage.  However, it was one of my first Victorians so maybe if I read it again I'd appreciate it more.

3.  Tess Durbeyfield in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles.  Many people love this book.  I felt sorry for Tess but the story dragged on for so long that I lost patience, and by the end I just didn't care.  I think Hardy just stretched out too many scenes about hay making, or milking, or digging up turnips or something.  Maybe pastoral fiction is just not for me.

4.  Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy -- to be fair, this book started out really well, with a social climber on a downward spiral.  However, the last third of the book went on and on and on. . . and that pretty much killed it for me.  I found it tragically long, wish Dreiser had had a better editor.

5.  Cathy in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.  Wow, she was a whiner -- I just wanted to smack her upside the head.  And her relationship with Heathcliff was so dysfunctional -- they really deserved each other.  I know many people love this book, but I just can't see the appeal.  Nowhere near as good as Jane Eyre (and I do realize that was written by her sister Charlotte, but I still think of them together).

So -- I'm sure there are some that I've missed.  Any more fascinating train wrecks I can add to my list?  I'd love to hear about some others.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Victorian Chaise Longue by Marghanita Laski

So, another Persephone, but also, a neo-Victorian, and it counts for the RIP Challenge!  I'm killing three birds with one stone, plus it was only 120 pages!

But seriously, this is one creepy little book.  Our protagonist Melanie is a young married woman living in London, I'm guessing about 1950.  She has a young baby, but has hardly seen him because she is recovering from tuberculosis.  However, her prognosis is good, and until her husband can take her to Switzerland, she is recovering at home.  In fact, her doctor has said it's okay for her to get out of bed and move into another room.  Melanie is finally going to be able to look out the window, lying on an ugly Victorian chaise-longue she bought at an antique store when she was newly pregnant, shopping for a cradle.  She never actually used the chaise longue because she became ill.

However, things take a turn for the bizarre -- on her first afternoon lying on this antique piece of furniture, Melanie closes her eyes for a nap and awakens in Victorian England, lying on the same hideous chaise longue.  She's being attended by her bitter, cold sister Adelaide, and her name is now Milly.  She is upset and confused and her sister is angry and hateful, and though she doesn't understand what's happening, she recognizes pictures in the room, and names, and has snippets from memories of people she doesn't even know.

A Victorian Chaise Longue, not so ugly
This book is strange and unsettling -- without giving too much away, Milly's sister is angry with her and she doesn't know why, but Milly's life has strange parallels to Melanie's.  She doesn't know if she's been reincarnated or remembering a past life or if she's dead.  Some secrets are revealed at the end, but there are a lot of unanswered questions.  Though I was lucky to get a 1953 edition through interlibrary loan for free, I really wish I'd bought a copy of the recent Persephone edition because it has an introduction by P. D. James.  Persephone Books is now hosting an online discussion group, and if they continue in order of publication, The Victorian Chaise Longue should be the November read and hopefully someone in the blogsophere can answer all my questions.  It's a creepy little read and I highly recommend it if you can get your hands on a copy.

Have you reviewed this book on your blog?  Please tell me in the comment section and I'll link to your review.