Friday, May 27, 2011

Operation Heartbreak by Duff Cooper

Lately, it seems like I've half my books are about World War II.  Not the war itself -- battles and military strategy are not my thing, and I tend to get bored with extended action scenes -- but the homefront during wartime, what you might call the domestic side of the war.  Three of the last Persephones I've read have been about the war at home, and the fourth (The Hopkins Manuscript) was sort of a war allegory, if I'm not mistaken.

Anyhow, I digress.  This is the story of Willie Marynton, a career soldier that never gets go to war and spends his entire life disappointed.  He's just finished his military training and is about to ship out when WWI is declared over, and by the start of WWII, he's too old and spends his career training other soldiers.  He spends his entire life waiting to go off to war.

Well, I can't say that I can relate to poor Willie's desire to go off and fight -- there are some sections in which he is so depressed that he missed out on WWI, which sounds so ghastly from other books -- but I can definitely relate to his sense of disappointment.  I had the bad timing to finish library school just as the economy began to crumble, and I don't think there's a book blogger around who doesn't realize the tenuous state most libraries are in.  I also had the bad fortune to leave an existing library job and move to a city which began a two-year hiring freeze just before I finished my degree.  I could not have chosen a worse time, and it's heartbreaking to me because I've found the ideal job for me.  So I really felt Willie's pain about his career.

Endpapers from the Persephone edition of Operation Heartbreak

This is a short book, and there's not a lot of flowery description -- the sentences are straight to the point, but they really get to the heart of what's happening in the story.  This passage in particular really captured the essence of this book.  Willie's regiment is shipping off to war, though he's been left behind once again:

The demands of security insisted that to the public eye, the regiment should be there one day, carrying on their normal functions and giving no sign of departure, and on the morrow they should have disappeared, leaving no trace behind.  Willie travelled with them to the port of embarkation and actually went on board the ship in which they were sailing.  When he had shaken hands with some of his friends and come over the side for the last time he had a curious and most uncomfortable feeling in his chest, and he found himself foolishly wondering whether people's hearts really do break, whether it might not be more than a mere figure of speech.

Just heartbreaking.  And I won't give anything away, but the ending was so moving I was glad that no one else was in the room when I finished it because I couldn't help crying.  What a great book.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

Austen vs. Dickens: two of my favorite British authors.  It was a tough choice, but I've finished all of Austen, so I chose Dickens this time around -- nothing against my beloved Jane, but I'm trying to work my way through the Dickens canon.  For this edition of the Classics Circuit, I'm reading my tenth Dickens novel:  Dombey and Son. 

(Crickets chirping).

Yes, Dombey and Son : one of Charles Dickens' classic novels. . . . the one that nobody's ever heard of! Because, honestly, nobody ever reads it anymore!  Compared to Great ExpectationsA Tale of Two Cities, and even my beloved Bleak HouseDombey and Son is one of Charles Dickens' least read works.  Even Hard Times is more popular.  I suspect people read Hard Times because it's Dickens' shortest novel, though I personally think it is the least good of his novels.  My library system -- which includes more than 1 million items --  does not own a single copy of this book.  Not one!  Along with Martin Chuzzlewit (the one where the main character goes to America) and Barnaby Rudge (the one about "the Riots of 'Eighty"), Dombey and Son belongs to the trio of works which are probably only read by the hard-core Dickens fans.  

Anyhow, for those of you who are not familiar with the story, here is the setup, without spoilers.  The novel begins with Mr. Dombey (the father), holding his new baby (the eponymous son); sadly, his wife is dying in childbirth. (Mr. Dombey's sister explains it's all the wife's fault, "because she wouldn't rally" -- i.e., she didn't have the character not to die.  Riiiight.)  Dombey has another child, a daughter,  named Florence, about whom he could not care less; his hopes and dreams are all pinned on his son Paul, who will grow up and take over the family business. Mr. Dombey is some sort of business magnate, so little Paul has some big shoes to fill.  

Needless to say, things do not work out as planned regarding his big plans for his beloved son.  I don't want to give anything major away, but basically, this novel is about Mr. Dombey's relationship (or the lack thereof) with poor Florence, who essentially fills the role of the orphan in this novel.  As you may remember, there's an orphan in every Dickens novel, or someone who is had a terrible childhood without loving parents, if you haven't noticed this already.  

Apparently, this is Dickens' attempt at a feminist novel, though I wouldn't say he's really promoting the rights of women as far as work or property are concerned.  Poor little Florence is rejected by her father at every opportunity, and it seems like he goes out of his way to get rid of anyone who might show her affection, because he's aware of what a jerk he is and he doesn't want anyone else to show him up.  Dickens does make a point about the sad lot of marriageable women.  [Mild spoiler alert!]  

For example:  Mr. Dombey is looking for a second wife and he's courting a beautiful widow, Edith, whose mother is one seriously manipulative gold-digger.  The fact that Edith and Mr. Dombey don't really love each other is irrelevent.  Edith has spent her life looking for husbands and not for love, and she blames her mother:

"What childhood did you ever leave to me?  I was a woman -- artful, designing, mercenary, laying snares for men -- before I knew myself, or you, or even understood the base and wretched aim of every new display I learnt. . . . There is no slave in a market: there is no horse in a fair: so shown and offered and examined and paraded, Mother, as I have been, for ten shameful years," cried Edith, with a burning brown, and the same bitter emphasis on the word.

As usual, Dickens fills this book with minor subplots and eccentric side characters, which sometimes disappear for hundreds of pages at a time.  I really wanted to like this book (which I admit I haven't finished; I have about 250 pages to go), but I don't think this is going to rank near the top with my favorites.  I'm finding it terribly uneven -- some parts are just great, and I could easily read eighty or a hundred pages in a day, and some parts dragged glacially.  I found the parts about the wretched Mr. Dombey to be just depressing and rather boring.  Dickens seems to go out of his way to show that Dombey is a cold, heartless, bastard, but after a while it got tiresome. Things really perked up when the fun supporting characters were in the picture, but I've always found them to be Dickens' best writing.   I haven't given up on the book yet -- I'll stick with it to the end and see if it gets better.  Florence may be one of Dickens' typical ingenues, but I do find myself caring about whether or not her story is going to have a happy ending. 

UPDATE:  I did finish the novel, and the ending was extremely satisfying, so I'm really happy that I read it.  I wouldn't rate this novel in the same tier as Bleak House or Oliver Twist, but it's still a good read and worth sticking with if you're a Dickens fan -- if you're new to Dickens you might try another one first.  But it's still a good book overall.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

One Book, Two Book, Three Book Meme

This has been all over the blogsophere lately and I don't know why it took me so long to join in!  I first saw this on Simon's blog, Stuck in a Book:

1.  The book I'm currently reading:

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens.  Well, I should say it's the book I'm currently trying hardest to finish.  I'm actually reading three books at the same time, but I need to get this one done since I'm blogging about it on Saturday for The Classics Circuit.

2.  The last book I finished:

Kindred by Octavia Butler.  It's the second I've completed for my reading swap with Amanda of The Zen Leaf)

3.  The next book I want to read:

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious.  I know someone blogged about it recently and I was intrigued, but I can't remember who it was.   Sorry!

4. The last book I bought:

Mr. Skeffington by Elizabeth von Arnim.   I got this a couple of weeks ago at a tiny antiquarian bookstore in Fredericksburg, TX -- a first edition! 

5. The last book I was given: 

I should have zoomed in a little closer.  It's The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart. This was a Mother's Day gift, one of several Persephones, actually.

So much book loot! 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Pair of Persephones: Doreen and On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946

The endpapers from the Persephone edition of Doreen,
taken from a 1940s printed silk scarf.

My ILL overload is finished; I've finally returned the last of them, and I'm happy to report I finished eight of the ten books!  However, I now have a slew of books to review.  I'm combining two book reviews in this post because I read two books back to back which seemed to go together -- two books set in opposite sides of WWII, and dealing with parents and children.

The first is Doreen by Barbara Noble.  It was my thirty-third Persephone, and it's one of the best ones so far.  This book deals with a heartwrenching topic.  During the London Blitz, parents were encouraged to send their children to foster families in the country, sometimes for years.  Families were faced with a terrible decision: stay together and face dangerous bombs, or send the children away to safety and suffer an extended separation.

The book begins with Mrs. Rawlings and her ten-year-old daughter Doreen, who have spent the night in a London bomb shelter.  A single mother, Mrs. Rawlings decided to keep her only child close after all the other children in Doreen's school were evacuated.  She is beginning to regret her decision and is overwhelmed with worry, and has a breakdown in the ladies' room of the office building where she works as a cleaner.  Another employee, Miss Osborne, offers to contact her brother and sister-in-law, a childless couple living in the country, to see if they would be willing to take Doreen.

What follows is a great story, with fascinating conflict.  Geoffrey is a country solicitor, ineligible to serve due to health reasons, and he and his wife Francie were unable to have a child, so they jump at the chance to take Doreen, whom they treat as their own.  She's shy, but sweet and very bright, and she begins to blossom under their care.  Except for missing her mother, Doreen is very happy living with them.

However, things become more complicated when Mrs. Rawlings spends Christmas with Doreen and the Osbornes, and begins to feel that her daughter is becoming closer to her foster parents.  She begins to worry about will this change their relationship, about the class differences between Doreen and the Osbornes, and how this will affect Doreen in the long run.

What I loved best about this book is how well it showed both sides.  Ultimately, all the adults in the situation want what's best for this child, yet I couldn't help feeling very strongly both ways.  When the author showed the mother's perspective, I was completely on her side, but when it switched to the Osbornes, I wanted Doreen to stay with them.  The book raised so many questions about class-consciousness and what it means to be a parent.

The endpapers from On the Other Side:
Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946

The second book also deals with a mother during wartime; however, this is a true story, a memoir of WWII written in letters, and the children in question are already grown and are never sent the letter. When she wrote On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946,  Matilde Wolff-Monckeberg was in her sixties, living in Hamburg when the war began, and four of her five grown children were living abroad during the war, in America, Wales, South America, and Sweden.  Her oldest daughter stayed in Germany, where she worked as a doctor.  Matilde's letters of life in Hamburg could never be sent due to censorship, and in fact could have had both her and her husband arrested (possibly even killed) had they been discovered.  Her youngest daughter found them after her death and had them published in book form, and they are both terrifying and fascinating.

Matilde grew up in Hamburg, the daughter of the Lord Mayor, and met and married her first husband, while studying singing in Italy.  Her second husband became Rector of the University of Hamburg.  Her letters are slices of life during wartime, in which she describes the escalation of the war, including the lack of food, the terror of the bombings, her despair over Hitler and the Nazi party, and the loss of friends and family during the violence.

Tillie and her family were luckier than most, since they had money, access to good health care, and various places to live.  Her apartment survived the bombings relatively unscathed and she also spent time in the country with extended family during the worst parts.  However, food was in shorter and shorter supply, and for years at a time she had no contact with four of her children.  The final year of the book is actually one of the longest portions (it was easier to write without the constant threat of bombs or arrest), and it's almost the most heartbreaking.  Finally, the horrible war was over, and the Germans who survived still didn't have enough food and were facing the misery of both reconstruction and the guilt of causing the war.  Tillie doesn't really discuss the rise of Hitler and fascism too much but it appeared that she opposed the war.  I can only imagine that she was unable to leave due to her husband's position.

I was particularly interested in this book because years ago I did a summer exchange with a German family and I stayed in Kiel which is not that far from Hamburg.  I didn't really see anything in Hamburg but I did get to travel a bit in Germany and Denmark.  I do remember seeing the remains of some of the bunkers on the beaches in Denmark but we never really discussed the war, though I do know my host mother was in some kind of refugee camp as a child.

Anyway, I thought both of these books were fascinating looks at what life was like on the homefront from both sides of the war.  I still have an unread copy of Few Eggs and No Oranges, a Persephone nonfiction book which is another diary of life during wartime on the English side.  I'm eager to read that one soon.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Too Many ILLs

I've been trying to read my way through the entire Persephone book list, and as much as I would like to own every single one of these beautiful dove-grey editions, I realized that it would cost almost as much as a plane ticket to England.  So I have been utilizing my library's interlibrary loan option as much as possible.  Not only are they free, but it's really fun to get books from Arkansas or Boston or from whatever college library is willing to send them -- and some of the editions are beautiful, and even really old.

But I did go a little crazy back in March when I realized that I was not limited to only five ILL requests -- I could request up to ten!  Without thinking it through I requested nine Persephones (and one future Persephone, to be reprinted next year), assuming that first of all, I might not get all of them, and secondly, that it would take forever.  Ha!  Within a month all ten had arrived and I had another month to finish every one, not to mention various books for book group, plus I had to start reading an 800 page volume of Dickens for the Classics Circuit.  What the heck was I thinking?

Foolishly, I did not take a photo to record my ambitious stack of checkouts for posterity, but here's a list of what I ordered and received:

  • Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton
  • The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Every Eye by Isobel English
  • The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
  • The Village by Marghanita Laski
  • Doreen by Barbara Noble
  • The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff
  • The Hopkins Manuscript by R.C. Sherriff
  • Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple (technically not a Persphone, but I think they're reissuing it in 2012)
  • On the Other Side: Letters to My Children From Germany, 1940-1946 by Matilde Wolff-Monckeberg
Of course the trouble with ILLs is that they don't belong to my library, and they don't usually let you renew them.  The arrivals were staggered somewhat, and so far I've been able to get through six of the ten, and I should finish the seventh sometime today.  I managed to read the first six pretty close to their due dates; sadly, I was forced to return two of them (Every Eye and The Shuttle) unread.  I did get a one-week extension for the last two, The Hopkins Manuscript and On the Other Side.

I do regret not blogging about these reads more faithfully -- I've only written reviews of two of them so far.  However, in the next couple of days I hope to write reviews or at least mini-reviews of the rest of them in a sort of round-up posting.

Does anyone else overdo it with ILLs?  Do you rearrange your reading schedule to fit them in or return them unread?  I know I'm not the only one who checks out way too many library books, but ILLs are a special category.  I'd love to know if I'm not the only one with this problem!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Giveaway Winner!

And the winner of my 100 Followers Giveaway is . . .



She's won a copy of The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins.  Nadia, when you have time please send me an email with your mailing info.   Happy reading!

Monday, May 2, 2011

100 Followers Giveaway!

I just checked my blog to update a post and realized I'd achieved 100 followers!   How exciting!!

I'm so verklempt, I've decided a giveaway is in order!!  One lucky winner will receive the book of their choice -- you can choose any book that I've reviewed on this blog since I started in September of 2009.  The caveats:  the book must be in print; must be paperback; and must be available from The Book Depository; also, the winner must live in a place to which TBD mails.  

To enter, please post a comment telling me which book from my reviews interests you the most and why.  According to my count, I've reviewed 102 books.  I was going to retype the list, but that would take too long.  You can click on the tabs on top to see links to books I've reviewed since I began the blog (for 2009 books, make sure and scroll down to the bottom.  I didn't start blogging so there's nine months' worth of books on the list that I hadn't reviewed.)  Contest entrants are not limited to books I liked -- even if I didn't like a book, that doesn't mean you won't love it, right?

Also, please make sure I have some way to contact you to let you know that you've won!!  If I can't automatically link back to your blog, please leave an email along with your comment.  I'll leave the giveaway open until Friday, May 6 at 5 p.m. Central U.S. Standard Time.