Monday, December 26, 2011

End-of-Year Book Survey

Time for my end of the year roundup!  I've adapted this meme from Jamie at The Perpetual Page-Turner, via Amanda over at Ramblings.

1. Best book(s) I read in 2011:  Are best books the same as my favorites?  Some of my favorites didn't necessarily have the best writing or have other flaws, though I still loved them.  So here are the ones that I suppose are the best on a critical level:

The Annotated Persuasion by Jane Austen (annotations by David M. Shaphard)
Germinal by Emile Zola
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

My favorites:  well, keep reading and I think it will be obvious!

2.  Most disappointing book: 

Villette by Charlotte Bronte.  I adore Jane Eyre, so this was a huge letdown.  I know many people love this book, but it just seemed like a huge slogfest, and the payoff sucked.

3. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2011: 

This one is a tie:  The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer and A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin.  I expected to hate Sophy because I'm not a fan of Jane Austen wannabees, but this was great -- I could feel the Austen influence, but the characters were fresh and the story was pretty funny.   Not terribly challenging, but a fun read.

And I normally have no interest in epic fantasy but I fell in love with Martin's world of Westeros and its multiple intertwining storylines.  I finished the first three books in the series and I'm dying to know what happens next.

4.  Books I recommended most to people in 2011:  

The three volumes of Jane Austen annotated by David M. Shaphard:  Persuasion, Pride & Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility  -- though I admit I've only read two so far.  Persuasion and S&S are so wonderfully annotated, Pride and Prejudice must be great also.  I'm also looking forward to the annotated Emma which is out next spring.

And I've been recommending Zola all over the place.  Germinal is a masterpiece, but I loved La Bete Humaine and Pot-Bouille as well.  I first read Zola back in 2010 but this is the year I really fell in love with his work.

5.  Best series I discovered in 2011: Hands down, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.  See #3.

6.  Favorite new authors of 2011:  Georgette Heyer and George R. R. Martin.

7.  Most thrilling, unputdownable book of 2011:  Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  It's called Victorian Sensation for a reason -- I can see why this book has never gone out of print.  It's a fun Victorian roller-coaster of a novel.  Not very deep, but really fun.

8.  Book I most anticipated in 2011:  Probably Germinal by Emile Zola.  I'd heard raves about it from Amanda, and more than a year ago we put it on the reading list for our real-life classic book group.  I know it's more than 100 years old but it was my most anticipated book of the year, and one of my favorites.

9.  Favorite cover of a book I read in 2011:  Again, it's a tie:

The Night Circus is just beautiful and stylish, and I love the woodcuts in the Wodehouse editions by Overlook Press.  If I had more money and bookshelves, I'd buy the whole series.

10.  Most memorable character in 2011:  Two characters actually, both from A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.  First, Tyrion Lannister.  He's a rude, lusty dwarf from a horrible family, but Martin makes him so interesting and sympathetic.  Also, Arya Stark, the ten-year old girl who's trying to survive as war breaks out in Westeros.  I can't wait to find out what happens to both of them.

11.  Most beautifully written book in 2011:  Probably The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  I did have some problems with this book, but it was really beautifully written.  Unfortunately I can't pull any quotes from the book because there was a huge waiting list at the library and I had to return it immediately after finishing it.

12.  Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre for me:  A Storm of Swords is my favorite so far in the Song of Ice and Fire series, but it was A Game of Thrones that dragged me kicking and screaming into the epic fantasy genre.  Definitely NOT my comfort zone!

13.  Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2011:  A tie between Zola's Germinal and La Bete Humaine.  From Germinal I realized just how amazing Zola is; La Bete Humaine has moments that still shock me when I think about them.

14.  Book you can't believe you waited until 2011 to FINALLY read:  Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.  I've wanted to read it for about five years, since I read the wonderful Angle of Repose.  I nominated it for my library book group and we had a great discussion.

15.  Book you read in 2011 that would most likely to be reread in 2012:  The Annotated Persuasion edited by David M. Shaphard.  The annotations add so much to these books -- I get more out of them every time I read Jane Austen.

16. Book that had a scene in it that had me reeling and dying to talk to somebody about it?  (A WTF moment, an epic revelation, a steamy kiss, etc., etc).  No spoilers! : All three books in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin have moments that made me nearly drop the book and scream, "Oh. My. God!  That did NOT just happen!!"  And La Bete Humaine by Emile Zola had some shocking plot twists as well.

Just for fun, some stats about my 2011 reading: 

Books completed: 105
Pages read: approximately 35,586

Books by male authors: 38
Books by female authors: 66
Books by both male and female authors: 1
New books: 93
Rereads: 12
Fiction: 86
Nonfiction: 19
Short story collection: 7
Plays: 1
Children's books: 3
YA books: 1
Big fat books (more than 500 pages): 8
Books in translation: 11 (6 French; 2 German; 1 Swedish; 1 Norwegian; 1 Japanese)

Repeat: authors: I repeated a LOT of authors this year!  I read three books each by Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, and George R. R. Martin; four by Emile Zola, and seven by P. G. Wodehouse.

Books from my TBR shelves:  26.  An epic fail!!  I read too many books from the library, and I'm sorry to say I bought way too many new books so I could read them immediately instead of taking something off the TBR shelf.

And let's not even discuss the books I bought in 2012 that are filling up the TBR shelf.  I think it's time to adjust my reading goals and habits.

What about you, bloggers?  Did you have a good reading year in 2011?  What are your reading plans for 2012?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Victorian Challenge 2012

Sorry for the double posting, but I accidentally clicked on publish instead of save as a draft.  Oh well.

I didn't mean to sign up for more challenges, but I love the Victorians, how could I resist?  This challenge, hosted by Laura at Laura's Reviews, is pretty easy by my standards:  two to six Victorian novels (or adaptations) are to be read, watched, or listened to.  I have stacks of Victorian novels on the TBR shelves, and quite a few in the DVD cabinet I still haven't watched.  I could easily complete this challenge by watching BBC adaptations alone, but that would be cheating.

According to my Goodreads 2011 list, I read seven Victorian novels this past year (strictly counting anything that was published in Victorian England; I'm not counting authors from any other country, so that means Zola is out).  Here's what I read:
  • Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy
  • Villette by Charlotte Bronte
  • Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
  • North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
Plus I read half of Daniel Deronda by George Eliot before I got distracted.   So I think I can easily watch, read, or listen to six Victorians next year.  Here's my tentative list:

1.  Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens -- already signed up for a group read for this one.

2.  Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens -- there's going to be a lot of Dickens obsession next year as it's the 200th anniversary of his birth.  Two Dickens doorstoppers in one year would be quite an achievement.

3.  The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy -- I'm hoping to get this on audiobook.  I've heard the version narrated by Alan Rickman is brilliant.

4.  Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope -- I loved Barchester Towers and it's been a whole year since I finished it, so it's time for more Trollope.

5.  The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith -- I've heard this is hilarious.  Plus I'm intrigued to read something by a writer named Weedon. And it's really short, a nice change from most of those Victorian chunksters.

6.  The Odd Women OR New Grub Street by George Gissing -- I've read a lot of good things about Gissing and got both of these last years from Paperback Swap.  I'd like to expand beyond Dickens, Trollope, and Hardy.

Besides these six novels, I own BBC adaptations of The Barchester Chronicles (starring Alan Rickman!), Daniel Deronda, and He Knew He Was Right.  Plus, I know with the Dickens bicentenary there are two new adaptations of Great Expectations coming to TV and theaters.   Maybe I'll even make it to Galveston for Dickens on the Strand next December!

TBR Pile Challenge

I'm a complete pushover for a good challenge, especially when it involves reading books I already own.  The other day I found another one that fits the bill perfectly for next year.  It's another TBR challenge, but with a twist:  participants must read at least twelve books off their TBR shelves, but every book must have been on the shelf for at least one year.  That is a real challenge!  It's hosted by Roof Beam Reader, a blog that's new to me, but I'm very glad I found it.  You can find the details of the challenge here.

Now, nearly all the books I purchased last year were more than a year old, but now I'll have to think carefully and choose books that I didn't acquire in 2012 -- tough, considering how many I got at book sales and the Borders liquidation (sniff, sniff).  However, I think I can manage twelve books in twelve months, and some of them will also qualify for my Classics Challenge (or is that cheating?)

Here are some ideas from a quick scan of my shelves, in no particular order:

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields -- this is an easy one; I'm starting a book group at my library branch and I deliberately chose this one for our February read.  Maybe I should take the entire years' reading list from my TBR shelves?  Completed 2/14/2012

A Bell for Adano by John Hersey -- I'm embarrassed to admit how long I've owned this book.  It's a Pulitzer Prize winner so I would feel guilty about giving it away unread.  Completed 8/17/2012

East of Eden by John Steinbeck -- how is it that I still haven't read this book?  I love Steinbeck and I hear it's one of his best.  I promised to read it in 2011 for my Reading Swap with Amanda.  Epic fail!  Completed 7/29/2012

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather -- the Cather novel that has been owned-and-unread the longest.  Completed 8/27/2012

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay -- This came highly recommended by a book lover in one of my Florida book groups a few years ago.  I was hoping to read it with a library group but there aren't enough copies in our system.  Completed 1/21/2012

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen -- I bought this about five years ago when I started on my quest to read all the Modern Library 100 Best Novels (I'm still stuck at about 46/100).  I keep forgetting about this book but Book Snob, (one of my favorite bloggers) included Bowen's To the North as her favorite read of 2011 so I'm intrigued.  Completed 10/18/2012

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles -- I had to include at least one neo-Victorian! And it's on the Radcliffe Top 100 List.  Completed 7/1/2012

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West -- I have a big stack of NYRB classics that I haven't read, and I've heard so many great things about this book.  Nicola at Vintage Reads raved about it this summer and there were so many great comments about it.  I haven't forgotten it but I really do want to get to it this year.  Completed 4/3/2012

Mrs. Craddock by W. Somerset Maugham -- another book I bought based on one of Amanda's raves.  We both love Maugham and we're going to read Of Human Bondage together this year for our real-life Classics book group, which should be great.  Of Human Bondage was one of the very first classics I ever read for pleasure, so I'll probably be eager to read more of his works this year.  Plus it's quite short so it should be a quick read after OHB which is kind of a doorstop.  Completed 1/28/2012

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty -- another of my suggestions for my IRL book group.  I try to choose books off my TBR list since it forces me to read them.  Completed 5/11/2012

The Barnum Museum by Steven Milhauser -- I bought this back in 2006 after watching the excellent movie, The Illusionist, which is based on one of the short stories in this volume.  I still haven't read any of the other stories in this collection, but my good friend Amanda over at Ramblings tells me that the first story, "A Game of Clue" is one of her all-time favorites, so she's inspired me to add it to the list.

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild -- I had to include at least one Persephone; it's the last of the Persephone classics (the ones available in the U.S.) that I haven't read yet.  And I've never read anything by Streatfeild, even though she's the beloved author of Ballet Shoes.  Completed 11/11/2012


The Provincial Lady in America by E. M. Delafield -- I loved Diary of a Provincial Lady, so this should be a quick, fun read. Completed 9/19/2012

Don't Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford -- I received several of these lovely Vintage editions for Christmas last year, but haven't opened any of them!  Might be a good alternate to the weightier reads. Completed 10/27/2012

So what do you think, bloggers?  Good list or bad?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Persephone Secret Santa Reveal!

I was very lucky -- my Persephone Secret Santa gift arrived more than two weeks ago!  This is what's been waiting patiently to be opened:

There's a note enclosed which says to be on the lookout for something else, but I couldn't help myself, I had to open it today!  I don't know who it's from, but here's what I found:

It's Good Things in England by Florence White!!!  Very exciting!!  I've wanted this book since I saw it on the Persephone list -- I love cookbooks and British food.  I remember this being mentioned in one of my favorite food books, Laurie Colwin's delightful Home Cooking.  I love food history and historical cooking.  I really enjoyed the first Persephone cookbook I purchased, Kitchen Essays, and I bought Plats du Jour this summer (though I confess I still haven't cooked any recipes from either).

This book includes twelve recipes for gingerbread, plus all kinds of other fun stuff -- Madras chicken curry, kedgeree, and manchet, plus pease pudding and even haggis.  Okay, maybe I won't be making haggis, but it's pretty fun that it's included.

Many thanks to my secret Santa!! I still don't know who you are, but I love my gift!  If you read this, please reveal yourself in the comments.  I love my gift and I hope you get a wonderful gift from your Santa.  

And here's a link to the post from my secret Santee, Care of Care's Online Book Club!  Merry Christmas, Care, and to all the other Persephone Secret Santa participants.  And thanks again to Verity and Claire for hosting!

Who else had a visit from Secret Santa recently, Persephone or otherwise?  What did you get?  Let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

La Bete Humaine by Emile Zola

It's actually been several weeks since I finished this book.  I had just been promoted to my new job, so I had a week of orientation, which I found exhausting, then I started my REAL new job, and had to go back to Spanish class. . . and I actually spend time with my family.  Needless to say, this book review kind of got lost in the shuffle.  Which is a shame, really, because it was a really engrossing book, and I feel like it deserves a review.

So,  La Bete Humaine is my fourth read in Emile Zola's twenty novel Rougon Macquart cycle.  Somehow, these novels all feature inter-related characters, but this isn't the sort of series which requires readers to begin at the beginning.  (Zola purists, please refrain from howling).  La Bete Humaine loosely translates to The Human Beast but is also sometimes translated as The Beast Within.  Basically, it's the story of murderers and what does or does not drive them to kill.   Are people born murders, or can good people be driven to it?  Are we really just animals?

There are several intertwining stories in this novel, which is set against the backdrop of the Paris-Le Havre train route, and its employees.  Monsieur Roubaud is a deputy station master, and he and his wife, Severine, live in company housing with several other railway employees.  A chance remark about Severine's godfather, the wealthy and influential Monsieur Grandmorin, raises Rouboud's suspicions, and he begins to suspect he was more than her patron after her parents' deaths.

Meanwhile, a railway engineer, Jacques Lantier, is harboring murderous thoughts of his own.  He is convinced that he can never have a healthy relationship with a woman, because all he can do is fantasize about killing them.  Jacques is the son of Gervaise, the main character in Zola's novel, L'Assommoir (The Drinking Den), and the brother of Etienne from Germinal, and of Claude Lantier, the main character of The Masterpiece. (However, it isn't necessary to have read these novels, as they all essentially stand alone).

Then there are some other characters who may or may not have killer instincts.  Jacques goes to visit his Aunt Phasie, who lives in a small house right next to the railway line near Le Havre.  She's chronically ill and believes that she is being slowly poisoned to death by her second husband, who is forever searching for her hidden cache of money.  Phasie has a daughter, Flore, who is in love with Jacques.  They're still mourning the death of her youngest daughter, who died under mysterious circumstances which may involve characters previously mentioned.

All of these people leave fairly miserable lives on and around the railway, which is so masterfully described, that, like the mines of Germinal, it becomes an important character in the book.  Jacques and his fellow railway men are constantly describing the engine by its name, "La Lison."

In the past, I've referred several times to literary characters as fascinating train wrecks.  It may be a terrible pun, but it couldn't be more apt in this case.  None of these characters are particularly likeable, but once again, Zola manages to intertwine their stories in such a fascinating manner that I couldn't wait to find out what happened next.  Their lives are pretty sordid, with affairs, theft, murder, and gossip, and Zola manages to get in some pretty nasty barbs about the corrupt judicial system.  I wouldn't really want to meet any of these people, but I could hardly put the book down once I got into it.  It must have been incredibly shocking when it was first published in 1890, and the ending is one of the most emotionally draining things I've read in a novel.  It's not particularly explicit for the twenty-first century reader, but I was still aghast at the ending.  I don't know if it's considered among the best of Zola's novels, but I don't think I can ever forget it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Classics Challenge 2012

I've been seeing a lot of challenges for 2012 on the blogosphere lately, and I can't resist joining at least one.  I have sooo many classics on the TBR shelf, but this challenge hosted by November's Autumn is only seven books, and I'm pretty sure I can manage that number, if not more.  This time around  I'm going to go strictly by the books I have unread on my own shelves.

The list is pretty loose right now; I have multiple unread books by some of my favorite authors on the TBR shelves, so if I end up switching titles, I'm okay with that.  Anything I read will be progress on the TBR shelf.  Here's what I have so far:

1.  Nana or L'Assommoir (The Drinking Den) by Emile Zola -- my latest favorite classic author.  I've read three of his books so far this year and I loved them all.   I still have about five of his books unread now, and there are a few more in good translations available at my library. I also have copies of  The Ladies' Paradise, and The Masterpiece, plus more  Zola on my Christmas wish list.  If I receive any more, they'll be eligible also.

2.  At least one book by Anthony Trollope.  I have NINE unread works by Trollope on my TBR shelves, more than any other single author -- definitely more by page number, since he wrote some real doorstoppers.  This includes a copy of Dr. Thorne which I borrowed from my mother a year ago!   I'd love to continue with the Barchester Chronicles but Pallisers series is also intriguing.  I'm on the library's waiting list for an audiobook of Can You Forgive Her?, so that's a strong possibility.

3.  East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  This must be the fourth year in a row I've sworn I would read this book.  Somehow I just never get to it.  I've loved most everything I've read by Steinbeck so why do I keep putting it off?

4.  The Song of the Lark or any other book by Willa Cather.  I bought about four more of her books during the Borders clearance, plus I have two other on the shelves, so I need to read at least one of those.  I've owned Song of the Lark since about 2007, so I should really read it; naturally, it's the longest one unread.

6.  The Diary of a Nobody by George and Wheedon Grossmith.  I've heard this is hilarious, and I've owned it since 2006.  Plus it's really short especially compared to most of the other classics I have unread.

5.  Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.  This is the only reread I'm planning at the moment. It was one of the first classics I ever read for sheer pleasure and loved it.   It was my pick for the 2012 reading list of my real-life classics reading group.  It's been more than 20 years so I hope it stands up to how I remember it.

7.  Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens.  2012 is the 200th anniversary of his birth, so I want to read at least one new Dickens.  I've read ten of his novels so far, and Our Mutual Friend is supposed to be one of his best.

8.  Kipps by H. G. Wells.  Since I'm including one reread, I've also added an extra bonus book -- I've had this book on my shelves since 2005, shortly after I began my journey back to the classics.  It came highly recommended by an author at a book fair, and after buying my own copy, I haven't touched it other than moving it to two different houses.  If I actually finish this book I'll be very pleased with myself.

Thanks to Katrina at Pining for the West for posting about this challenge!  I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Yesterday I finished The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, and honestly, I'm having a hard time finding anything to say about it.  (Which shocks me, because I'm rarely at a loss for words).  I guess I can sum it up by saying I was underwhelmed.

If you haven't read it, here's the setup:  the story begins with Michael Henchard and his wife walking down a country lane with their baby, in England circa 1830 (if I've gotten the dates wrong, I apologize).  Anyhow, he's an itinerant farm worker, looking to find a job gathering hay.  They wander into a town where an auction is going on, and stop for something to eat called furmity, which is some kind of porridge.  The old hag serving up the furmity laces Michael's bowl with rum (which sounds disgusting -- who puts rum in a savory dinner dish?  It should be reserved for tropical drinks served with an umbrella).  The upshot is that Michael gets drunk and angry because he's young and poor, and starts complaining about being saddled with a wife and child.  He threatens to sell them to the highest bidder, just like at the nearby auction.  The other drunkards go along with this, thinking it's a big joke, but a sailor passing through takes him up on his offer.  The wife, who's had enough of his bad behavior, decides she's better off without him and leaves with this complete stranger.  Michael must have been a pretty poor husband.

Later, he sobers up and realizes what he's done, but it's too late, and he swears off drinking.  Years later, the wife and grown daughter show up looking for him, and by now he's sober and respectable, and he's a wealthy upstanding citizen; in fact, he's the town Mayor.  And this is where things start to get interesting, because he feels obligated to this wife and child, but he doesn't want anyone to know about the terrible thing he's done in the past.  If you've read Hardy, you know this will all end badly.

I've read quite a few classics books that I like to think of as fascinating train wrecks -- if you've followed my blog, you'll know they include some of my favorite classics, like Madam Bovary, The House of Mirth, and pretty much the entire oeuvre of Emile Zola -- you know, people on downward spirals.  They're not always very nice characters, yet I can't stop reading about them.  The Mayor of Casterbridge had the potential to fall into this category, but sadly, I didn't find it so fascinating.  It was an easy read, but somehow, I didn't find the characters all that compelling.  I just really didn't care about any of them.

This the second novel I've read by Hardy.  My first was Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which I read several years ago for an online book group.  I remember distinctly that after it was nominated, one of the members posted a comment that said (and I paraphrase) that he'd rather poke himself in the eye with a sharp stick than discuss Tess again.  I don't know if he was sick to death of it, or he hated it, or he was just being a jerk, but that's all I could think about when it came time to read Casterbridge.  I didn't hate Tess, but boy, it took forever for anything to happen.  Having seen the movie years ago, I was familiar with the plot, and it really seemed like endless description of farm life in England.  Tess was forever digging up turnips or haying or milking cows, et cetera.   (To be fair,  I probably shouldn't have been reading it while on vacation in Costa Rica -- really, it was geographically inappropriate.  Hard to get excited about rural England while enjoying a gorgeous vista of banana plants and coffee trees.)

I love Victorian novels, but I'm having a tough time with Hardy.  How is it his books are both readable and slow at the same time?  His books aren't densely written, like Dickens and Eliot can be, but sometimes it takes forever for stuff to happen.  I'm getting a kinda frustrated with Hardy.  Amanda from Ramblings has sworn to me that Jude the Obscure is much better, and I have promised to read Return of the Native, which she loved. If things don't improve, I'm going to delete his books from my to-read list.

Has anyone else read Hardy?  What did you think?  Should I give up or give him another try?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

One Book, Two Book, Three Book Meme

So, I'm loving my new job, but boy, working 40 hours a week does sort of interfere with your free time! And of course I'm sitting in front of a computer a large portion of the day, so when I'm home, I'm kind of avoiding it.  I'm not giving up on blogging yet, but I was inspired by Anbolyn's recent post to write a short update:  

1.  The book I'm currently reading:  The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy.  I only have 70 pages to go so I'm hoping to post a review in the next couple of days.  It's only my second work by Hardy and I've never blogged about him before, so I'm curious to know how other bloggers respond to my post.

2.  The last book I finished:  The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer.  A follow-up to my enjoyment of The Grand Sophy.  I chose this one because there was an audiobook available at the library branch where I work, so there you are.  I enjoyed it but since I just posted about Sophy, it seemed like it would be a little redundant.  

3.  The next book I want to read:  A tossup between A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  I'm dying to know what happens next in the fictional world of Westeros but the only copy I could get from the library is a mass-market paperback, ugh.  I'm still #2 on the library's waitlist for a hardcover copy and it might be a while.  And The Night Circus has more than 100 holds, plus everyone's raving about it, so I'd better get cracking or I'll never get it back, right?  

4.  The last book I bought:  That's a tough one -- I've bought several out-of-print and used books online in the past few weeks, and I can't remember which one was last!  The one that just arrived (though it may have been one of the earlier purchases) came from England via Abebooks:  Harry Potter y La Piedra Filosofal, also known as the Spanish language edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (or Philosopher's Stone for you Brits.  I know, the Yanks changed the name, because we're mostly not clever enough to know the difference.  Sigh).  Anyhow, I'm continuing my acquisition of Harry Potter volumes in various languages (and this is the only one I might actually be able to read, as I'm still trying to learn Spanish.  Wish me luck!)  So far I have them in eleven different languages, mostly the first volume of the series in hardcover.  My favorites are the Japanese edition which I bought when I lived in Japan -- it opens back to front, naturally, and the illustrations are cool -- and the Italian version which has beautiful illustrations.  My mother bought it for me a couple of years ago on a trip to Malta, which is also pretty neat.  I think this might deserve its own blog post someday. . .   

5.  The last book I was given:  Also tough, as I haven't really received that many books since my birthday -- and I still haven't read any of those!  In fact, I don't think I've read a single one of the books I received last  Christmas, and my husband just asked me for a wish list. . . . which is pretty much all books!  I think the last book I got as a gift was the wonderful Naxos audio version of Sense and Sensibility which I bought with a gift card I won from Jenners during her BBAW giveaway in September.  Does that count?  Either way, it's wonderful (wonderful that I won, and also one of my favorite audiobooks ever).  

And no, I haven't finished that one, either!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

When the Classics Circuit featured Georgette Heyer in the author spotlight back in 2010, I pooh-poohed the Regency romances and chose a mystery instead.  It was good but not nearly on the level of Agatha Christie, so I kind of gave up on her -- I'm not much of a romance reader and I'd heard that the Regency stuff was Jane Austenish, and I am a total snob when it comes to Austen.  I rarely read any of those sequels/prequels/readalikes, et cetera.  They just never measure up to my beloved Jane, and I get annoyed when authors borrow characters that someone else has created.  [Note:  I'm not trying to belittle anyone who does like such books, it's just my little quirk].

Anyhow, my Jane Austen book group is meeting this weekend, and this time around we decided to try some of Heyer's Regency books.  Honestly, we have to be really creative to keep it fresh -- Austen only wrote six complete novels, and we've been meeting every month for almost three years, so you do the math.  I don't think we've repeated a book yet -- we stretch it out with movie viewings, related books, and, yes, the occasional sequel.  The library didn't have enough copies of any single novel, so just for fun we decided to each just pick one and we can do a general discussion, kind of like a series of mini-booktalks.  So I chose The Grand Sophy, which is supposed to be one of the best.  And I am SO sorry I didn't read Heyer before, because it was a hoot!!  I was delighted.

In a nutshell:  Sophy Stanton-Lacy is the twenty-year-old daughter of Sir Horace, a widower and some sort of British diplomat.  After years of dragging his only child around the continent, he's going off to Brazil and can't take her along or leave her unattended, so he foists her off on his sister, Lady Ombersley, who lives in London with her spendthrift husband and a gazillion children, some of whom are about Sophy's age.  They're hoping they can get Sophy married off before he returns from Brazil, and Sir Horace has plenty of cash to foot the bill.

However, Sophy is no shrinking violet.  Within weeks of her arrival, she has turned the household upside-down and is rearranging everyone's lives -- she's trying to prevent two of her cousins from making unsuitable matches -- her cousin Cecilia is in love with a poor but aristocratic Byronic-type poet wannabe, and her older cousin Charles from marrying a shrew named Eugenia.  Charles is independently wealthy since his great-uncle made him the heir, so he's paid off all his father's debts and is calling all the shots.  Naturally, he and headstrong Sophy clash from the beginning.   Will this be a Darcy/Lizzie romance?  Will Sophy find a suitable husband for Cecilia?  All will be revealed, naturally!

Sophy reminds me a lot of Emma Woodhouse -- if Emma was in London and had moved in with, say, Mr. Darcy's family (with way more kids) -- and if he was engaged to Caroline Bingley!   Naturally, the writing is not on par with Austen's satire, but it's pretty funny, and Heyer packs in a lot of Regency vocabulary which shows how much research she did on the period.   Her attention to detail is very impressive.

The plot itself was fairly predictable, and I found the characters a little flat.  And I have to admit the ending was a little silly -- it sort of reminded me of a Regency screwball comedy, a bit like an Oscar Wilde farce.  However,  I really enjoyed spending time with the characters in Sophy's world.  It was a fun, light read, and a nice contrast to the rather depressing Zola novel which I finished the week before.  It's definitely a potato chip book, but a very high-class one. So, I guess you could call it a quality potato chips book.  Quality Regency potato chips?  Anyway,  I can see why her books were so popular, and why they've endured.  Heyer wrote more than 30 other Regency romances, most of which are available at my library.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Northanger Abbey

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” -- Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey.

It's Gothic Literature this month at The Classics Circuit!!  And my author of choice is . . . Jane Austen!!  You would think after spending five whole days discussing Jane Austen with a bunch of other Janeites would be enough, wouldn't you? Well, I did too (and I do admit I'm just the tiniest bit sick of Sense and Sensibility), but after picking up Northanger Abbey, I'm in love with Austen's works all over again.  

For those who are not familiar, NA is the story of Catherine Morland, a young lady who is neither particularly accomplished or clever -- she grew up something of a tomboy and has really only become fairly pretty rather recently.  She's from a large family and her father is a clergyman living in the country. Mrs. Allen, the childless wife of the local landowner, has befriended her, and invites her to spend several weeks in Bath, where Mr. Allen will be taking the waters for his health.  There Catherine is introduced to some eligible young bachelors and makes some new friends, including Isabella Thorpe, who is coincidentally the sister of John Thorpe, friend and Oxford classmate of Catherine's older brother James. She also befriends Eleanor Tilney, a lovely young lady who happens to be the sister of the handsome Henry Tilney.  Following all this so far?

JJ Feild and Felicity Jones as Henry and Catherine in Northanger Abbey

While in Bath, Catherine attends balls, strolls around the pump room, and discusses shocking and decadent Gothic novels with her friends.  When she is invited to spend time with Eleanor and her family at their home, Northanger Abbey, she jumps at the chance, since it sounds exactly like the sort of thing she's been reading about in her beloved novels -- and the idea of spending more time with Henry is pretty enticing too.  She envisions secret passages, winding staircases, and things that go bump in the night.  Of course, her imagination begins to run away with her and hilarity ensues.  

This is my second read of Northanger Abbey, and quite honestly, I liked it even more this time around.  I read it for the first time several years ago and was unimpressed -- it's one of her earliest works and also one of her shortest, and it's obvious to anyone who's read Austen that her other novels are much more complex and well-developed.   But this time I was really struck by how funny it is!  I saw glimmers of her trademark wit, and it's far more satirical than her other novels.  Pretty impressive for a first book (though it was published posthumously in 1818, it was the first novel she completed, in 1803).  It's not even really that much of a Gothic novel -- our heroine Catherine doesn't even visit the eponymous abbey until the second half of the novel.   

Northanger Abbey is not considered one of Jane Austen's best works, and it's not among her most popular.  But having read it the second time, my only real complaint is that it's too short -- I wanted to spend more time with Catherine and her world. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

JASNA AGM and Some More Good News

So, I haven't posted for over a week -- it's been CRA-ZEE in Karenland.  First of all, I spent most of last week in Ft. Worth at the Jane Austen Society's Annual General Meeting (AGM).  Which was fabulous and I hope to post on it soon, as soon as I can figure out how to upload the photos from my camera, which is not cooperating.

The other big news is that just before I went out of town, I found out that I got a promotion at the library!!! Seriously!!! After working as a Library Aide (also known as a shelver) for several months, I got promoted to full-time Library Assistant!!!  Woo hoo!!  It's still not Librarian yet, but it is full-time so that means I'm one step closer, plus I have lots more responsibilities and I'll get programming experience as well!!  Oh, and paid vacations and all the other great benefits that go along with being a city employee.

Of course this also means that I'll actually have to work full-time -- which will definitely cut in to my reading and blogging time, which is the only drawback.  But as I like to tell my children, that's life in the big city.  And I have to leave my wonderful branch which was full of lovely people, but so far my experience has been that there are many, many lovely people who work in libraries, so I look forward to working with the lovely people at my new branch.  I'll spend next week training at the downtown Central Library then it's off to my new job on Halloween!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Packing for Ft. Worth

I'm almost on my way to visit Ft. Worth, Texas!  I'm a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) and this week I'm going to their Annual General Meeting, also known as the AGM.  I didn't get to go last year to the one in Portland, but I went two years ago to the 2009 AGM in Philadelphia and had a wonderful time.
Last time I went with my mother, who can't attend this year, but this time I have two other Texas friends coming with me from our local chapter, so I'll have two roommates.  I'll be spending five days in downtown Ft. Worth meeting other Jane Austen fans, learning English country dancing, playing whist, and attending lectures and seminars about Jane Austen.  I'm such a literature geek, I can hardly wait!

Last time, I naturally packed waaaay too many books in my carryon -- I don't know how I imagined I'd have time to do much reading!  I did actually read two books last time, so I'm cutting back from six books packed last time, to only four.  Hey, I need to have choices!  Here's what I may be bringing with me:

The Annotated Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen -- I recently finished The Annotated Persuasion, which was wonderful.  The theme for this years' AGM is Sense and Sensibility, in honor of the 200th anniversary of its publication.  So of course I'll need my own copy close at hand.

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer -- considered by many to be the Queen of Regency Romances, Georgette Heyer wrote more than twenty books set during the Regency period.  One of my book groups is a monthly Jane Austen group, and we have to alternate her works with other related books.  In November we're each going to talk about a different novel by Heyer.

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin -- I know, it's the complete opposite of Jane Austen!  But I've been dying to read the second volume after loving the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones.  I've been saving this one, since I want to stretch the series out -- book five was just published, so who knows how long it will take before Martin finishes the next volume?  This is a big fat book, perfect for reading on planes, shuttle buses, etc., because it's lots of very short chapters, which make it easy to pick up and read just a little at a time.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen -- one of my possible reads for the October Classics Circuit -- which will also fulfill my fourth book for the RIP challenge.  

A Warning to the Curious by M. R. James OR The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime -- a couple more choices for the RIP Challenge.  It's always nice to have a book of short stories on hand, for the airport or for a quick read at bedtime -- though ghost stories might not be ideal right before I go to sleep!

And I'm also packing a few extra books about Jane Austen -- there are quite a few authors attending and they'll hopefully be able to sign my books.  But those don't count since I probably won't be reading them, just getting them signed.

I just recounted and I'm up to seven books which is more than I brought last time to Philadelphia! Am I the only one who packs books first for a vacation -- and packs way too many??  Which ones should I bring, and which ones will I have to save for later?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Annotated Persuasion by Jane Austen (edited by David M. Shapard)

Best. Book.  EVER.

You know, I complain to myself all the time that the combination of blogging, book groups, and a library job have killed all my time for rereading, but I am so glad I made an exception and read this again.  I've read Persuasion several times (and watched the movies more times than I can count), and I still can't get enough of this book.  It's my favorite Jane Austen novel, EVER.  My apologies to Lizzie and Darcy, but Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth are her most romantic couple.  

Basically, here's the setup:  Anne Elliot is 27 and unmarried; when she was 19, she fell in love with Frederick Wentworth, a poor but promising naval officer.  Her family and friends persuaded her to break off the engagement, but she has never stopped loving Wentworth.  Now, he's successful and back in the picture -- but does he still love her?  And can he forgive her for her earlier rejection?

This is Austen's final novel, written just before she died, herself unmarried at the age of 41.  It's a little melancholy, but to my mind also the most romantic of the novels.  There is some great comic relief, some satire, and some deliciously nasty characters as well.  Of all her novels, I think this is the one with the most social commentary, especially regarding class and rank.  

If you are a Jane Austen fan (and I assume if you've read this far, you are) I cannot stop recommending David Shaphard's Annotated editions of these novels.  These are amazing -- the novel itself is on the left-hand pages, and every right hand facing pages has corresponding explanatory notes -- vocabulary, history, drawings of items in Jane Austen's world (now I know exactly what kind of ships Wentworth sailed on!), etc., etc.  The notes also delve deeper into some of the social conventions on the time, and they include commentary on why certain plot devices do or don't work, minor plot holes, etc.  

HOWEVER -- I must point out that if you have NOT read all of Jane Austen's works, I would not read these editions -- the explanatory notes also include spoilers -- and not only for this book, but for her other books as well!!  For example, a note might mention that "Such and such turns out to be _________, just like ________ in her other book, "____________." So, if you are not familiar with the major plot points Jane Austen's novels, I'd recommend waiting until you've read all the books first.  

But if you're a Jane Austen fan who's read all the books like me, please, do yourself a favor, and get these!  You will not be sorry.  So far Shaphard has also annotated Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility (which I'm reading right now); Emma is scheduled for publication in the spring.  Hopefully Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey won't be far behind.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

British Television Series

A slight book-blogging digression, as this is not a television blog, but it's vaguely book-related. So, last week I completed watching the original Upstairs, Downstairs series.  It was so wonderful, I'm currently in mourning -- what could I possibly watch next which is just as wonderful before Downton Abbey starts in January?  Frankly, I'm not that excited about network television at the moment, with the possible exception of Modern Family and The Amazing Race).

I'm lucky enough to work in a public library with an extensive DVD collection. Bloggers, I need some suggestions for my next series!  Here are the possibilities:

The most recent version of Robin Hood:

This brilliant Masterpiece Theater follow-up to Upstairs, Downstairs (I actually watched it years ago, but it's been so long I've forgotten most of it):

Another classic BBC series set in the 1930s:

A classic series about a British schoolmaster:

A thrilling series set in WWII:

Or a racy series about King Henry XIIV (technically not British, as it was on Showtime, but it's all about the Brits):

The trouble is I want to watch ALL of them!!  Bloggers, have you seen any of these?  Or do you have any other suggestions?  I've seen all of the Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell adaptations.  I love all kinds of historical and period dramas.  Some of my other favorites are Downton Abbey, Foyle's War, Bleak House, Wives and Daughters, The House of Elliott, and of course anything by Jane Austen.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

With The Little Stranger, I've not only read another book for the RIP Challenge, I've also finally completed another owned-and-unread book from the TBR shelf.  I bought The Little Stranger at a library sale not long after I finished (and loved) Fingersmith, so I've been looking forward to reading it.  But like my last RIP book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, it wasn't quite what I was expecting.

Set just a couple of years after the end of World War II, The Little Stranger is an atmospheric story told in the first person by a British country doctor, John Faraday.  He grew in the shadow of Hundreds, a grand country house owned by the local gentry family, the Ayreses.  Though his mother was in service and his father a shopkeeper, Dr. Faraday was able to rise above his station through hard work and his parents' sacrifices.  He's not the Ayreses' regular doctor, but one day he's called out there as a substitute, to check on a young maid who's ailing.

The maid seems to be shamming, but confesses to Dr. Faraday that she's unhappy in the big house, which gives her the creeps.  He dismisses her fears -- the house is nearly empty nowadays, with only a full-time housekeeper; Mrs. Ayres, a widow; her daughter Caroline, who is in her twenties and unmarried; and her son and heir Roderick, who was a pilot in the war and was badly wounded and burned in a crash.

The Ayres family has fallen on hard times, and are barely able to keep the estate afloat.  With the pretext of helping Roderick with an experimental medical treatment, Dr. Faraday begins visiting the Ayreses on a regular basis.  He becomes a close family friend and confidant and is present when a terrible thing happens, the first of many odd occurences.

Three of Sarah Waters' novels are neo-Victorian, but this is her second foray into another historical era -- post-WWII Britain, which I thought she did extremely well.  Of course I'm no expert, but the past year or so I've been reading a lot more fiction written and published in that era, and the mood was very similar.  Waters does an excellent job evoking the period, but what I think was best about the book was her description of an aristocratic family fallen on hard times, and their struggle to keep their lifestyle afloat.  They're desperately hanging on to another era -- they can't keep the farm going, can't maintain the property, and can barely find servants to help them around the house.  It's a real contrast to the books I've been reading recently in which great houses have scores of servants and most women had few other job choices than to be a maid, cook, or governess.

The supernatural aspect of the book is not the best part, in my opinion, and I was a little disappointed in the ending, which didn't quite satisfy me.  But the book is so well written, I read it pretty quickly over a couple of days. I didn't like it quite as much as Fingersmith, but it was well worth reading.   One of my librarian friends is coordinating a historical fiction book group, and the December read is one of Waters' other books, Affinity, so I'm hoping to get to it in a couple of months.  This one is set in a Victorian asylum and also has supernatural elements -- as my friend Jason commented, "Nothing says Christmas like Victorian madhouses!"

Monday, September 19, 2011

Blogoversary Giveaway Winner!

Thanks to everyone who entered my Second Blogoversary Giveaway!  And the winner is . . . .

She's won a copy of Germinal by Emil Zola, one of my very favorite reads this year.  I know she'll love it as much as I did. Congratulations!  And please visit her blog, she's a new blogger to me but I'm so happy to have found her in the blogosphere.  

And guess what???  I was a winner this week too!  I was the lucky winner BBAW Giveaway: a $20 gift card to, courtesy of one of my very favorite bloggers, Jenners at Life. . . With Books.  If you haven't read her blog yet, please do yourself a favor and check her out because she is hilarious!!  Thank you so much, Jenners!  I'm trying to decide on what I'm going to get with my gift card. 

Bloggers, help me out!  I want to use the gift card to get something in honor of the upcoming Jane Austen Society meeting which I'll be attending in Ft. Worth, Texas.  This year, the meeting's theme is Sense and Sensibility, in honor of its 200th anniversary of publication.  So should I buy this:

Or what about this:

I can't decide but I need to get ready for the meeting, it's only three weeks away!  It's five days of Jane Austen discussions, lectures, movies, English country dancing, whist, garden walks -- it's going to be great!!!  I attended the 2009 AGM in Philadelphia and I loved it.  I can't wait to go!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Another RIP read -- and a really good one.  In fact, it might be my ideal RIP challenge read:

1.  It's very creepy.
2.  It's very short (only 146 pages in my edition).
3.  It's a book from my TBR shelves that I've been meaning to read since it arrived in February in that Great Big Box of Penguins.

So, this book was a trifecta for a book challenge from the start.  Oh, and what is it about, by the way?  Well.  Published in 1962, this story is told in the first person by Mary Catherine Blackwood, also known as Merricat.  She's about eighteen when the story takes place.  On the day the story begins, Mary is has to go into town, to the library and to pick up the groceries.  Slowly, as she describes her walk, the reader learns about her very odd family.

Merricat lives with her sister and her Uncle Julian in a large mansion, but she's the only one that ever seems to leave.  Actually, her older sister Constance hasn't left the property in years; Uncle Julian is in a wheelchair, and he might be suffering from mental problems.  Pretty quickly, the reader realizes that almost everyone in the village seems to dislike the Blackwoods.  There are whispers and stares, and people pointing at Merricat.  At first I felt really sorry for her, and wondered what in the heck happened (though if you read the back cover it gives away more of the history. I really wish I hadn't, so I won't reveal it here).   As I kept reading, I realized there was a lot more weirdness going on.

Once again, I don't want to give away too much so I don't spoil it for anyone else.  All I will mention is that Shirley Jackson is just masterful at setting the scene and drawing the reader in, and the tension just escalates -- I couldn't put this book down.  Jackson is wonderful at revealing just enough to give the reader clues without giving away too much too fast.  I will admit that there was one big reveal I figured out pretty quickly -- I've read so many mysteries it's pretty easy for me to pick up on important clues.  However, it didn't take away from my enjoyment of the story one bit.

Before this, I'd really only read one other work by Jackson, her famous short story, "The Lottery," which is also creepy, but in a different way.  If you haven't read it, you can read it online here.  Jackson is well known for showing the darker underside of small-town life, and this book is so worth reading.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle is dark and creepy and Gothic, and I loved it.  A perfect quick read for the RIP season.