Friday, June 24, 2011

On Vacation

We're leaving Friday for vacation in Florida!  It's sure to be hot and steamy and the forecast looks like rain for the entire trip.  Oh well, I'll get plenty of reading done -- and hopefully it won't interfere with our visit to The Happiest Place on Earth.

I'm not bringing my laptop so I'll be off the grid for about a week.  Happy Fourth of July to all my American friends in the blogosphere!!  I'll report back when I return.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Paris in July

I'm so excited about the Paris in July read hosted by Karen at Bookbath and Tamara at Thyme for Tea!  I'm packing for my vacation, and I've resolved once again to work my overstuffed TBR bookshelf.  If nothing else it has narrowed down my choices somewhat.  First, some French classics:

It's a little hard to read, but from top to bottom:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant
Nana by Emile Zola
Germinal by Emile Zola
The Drinking Den by Emile Zola

(And by the way, I bought that copy of Hunchback at the actual Notre Dame gift shop a few years ago. Which is in Notre Dame.  Halfway up the 300 bazillion steps!!  I feel sorry for the woman who works there, the only bathroom is on the main floor, so if she has to go up and down about 15 flights every time.  She must have amazing legs!)

I also have some slightly more contemporary fiction by English and American authors, but all set in France:

France in Mind edited by Alice Leccese Powers
The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

I'll definitely be reading at least one book about food:

My Life in France by Julia Child
The Olive Farm by Carol Drinkwater
Cooking For Kings: The Life of Antonin Careme by Ian Kelly

I also have some other nonfiction about France:

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser
La Belle France: A Short History by Alistair Thorne

I'm hoping to get through at least one from each stack but I'm definitely going to read Germinal, which is the July choice for my real-life classics book group -- we thought it would be so appropriate for July.  Right now I'm also leaning towards The Scapegoat, My Life in France, and Cooking for Kings.

So what do you think?  Good choices?  Which ones have you read and loved?  Should any of them be skipped and donated to the library sale?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Victorian Overload?

I don't know if anyone actually notices my little "Currently Reading" box on my blog sidebar, but if you do you may realize I have been reading Daniel Deronda for more than a month now.  This book just seems like it's taking forever.  It started out really well, but now I'm stuck at about page 370.  I've been trying desperately to hit the 400 page mark, and I just keep falling asleep or getting distracted.  I'm not sure if it's me or if it's the writing.  I'm not sure if I can blame it on George Eliot -- I loved Middlemarch once I got past the first 100 pages, and I thought Silas Marner was good even thought it was slow for such a short book (I actually listened to it on audio and I read it when I was walking the dog).

I've read three other Big Fat Victorian books so far this year, and I've had the same problem -- I usually seem to get stuck about halfway through, and it's hard for me to get motivated to finish them.  Is it just me, or is this a persistent problem with 19th century novelists?  Does anyone else notice that they tend to drag in the middle?  I wonder if it's an issue with serialization, or if it's just those particular authors, or just these specific books.  I haven't read any Trollope lately but I don't remember that problem with either Barchester Towers or The Way We Live Now.

It was probably a mistake to even start this book -- seriously, I just finished Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens; and earlier this year I completed Charlotte Bronte's Villette and The Three Musketeers by Dumas for online readalongs.  So those combined with Dombey totaled about 2000 pages, not including endnotes.  

And it gets worse -- I'm scheduled to start Germinal by Emile Zola for my Classics Book Group and one of my other book groups is discussing North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell in August!  That's another 1000 pages or so!  What the heck was I thinking?  

I suspect my problem is that I just belong to too many book groups, and I'm tempted by too many readalongs (Both Villette and Three Musketeers had been sitting around the TBR shelf for several years, and I really wanted to finish them.)  Daniel Deronda was for my Jane Austen group -- of course I hadn't finished it in time for the discussion which was two weeks ago.  (In my defense, only one person in the group actually finished it.  One person watched the BBC adaptation, and nobody else read it.) 

Bloggers, I need your advice -- should I stick with Daniel Deronda or move on to something else?  Does anyone else get discouraged halfway through a Big Fat Book?  Or am I just trying to read too many 19th century novels too close together?   

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Top Ten Literary Dads

In honor of Father's Day, I decided to compile a list of great literary dads.  It's shocking how many bad fathers there are in literature, but there are great dads worth noting.  I'm not limiting it biological fathers, since there are many great adoptive fathers and foster fathers in books.  Here are my favorites, in no particular order:

1.  Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.  One of the most famous and beloved literary dads, he was the first one I thought of.  He's a great dad AND he stands up for his principles, defending a black man unjustly accused of a crime in small Alabama town, long before the Civil Rights era.   Plus he's a great checkers player AND a crack shot!

2.  Mr. Harding from Barchester Towers and The Warden by Anthony Trollope.  Even though his daughter Eleanor is in love with a man who could potentially ruin his career, Reverend Harding supports her and her decisions.  How many fathers would do that?  He staunchly stands by Eleanor, no matter what it means to his own lifestyle.  

3.  Arthur Weasley from the Harry Potter series.  He's not the best breadwinner and he's a little goofy at times, but he makes up for it in his devotion to his seven children AND Harry Potter, whom the Weasleys essentially adopt since his aunt and uncle are so wretched.  There is not a better father in the wizarding world.  

4.  Danny's father in Danny, the Champion of the World.  Roald Dahl's books are rife with horrible adults, but Danny's father is a real winner.  He's a single dad devoted to his son (though he's slightly morally suspect).  This book is one of the few Dahl novels without magical or supernatural elements, and it's always been my favorite.

5.  Dr. Gibson in Wives & Daughters.  Another single dad, he has a great and loving relationship to his daughter Molly, and marries a widowed governess to give her a mother figure.  Even though this doesn't work out as well as planned, he still loves her and tries to do his best, unlike many of the fathers in Victorian literature (note that I do not include a single father from the works of Charles Dickens -- there are some great uncles and father figures, but the biological fathers are either dead or terrible.)

6.  Mr. Emerson in A Room with a View.  He stands up for his son George in matters of the heart, and convinces Lucy Honeychurch that his son is the man for her, despite their class differences.  Brilliantly portrayed by Denholm Elliot in the 1985 film version, far superior to the 2007 BBC adaptation, which has a horrible, unnecessary epilogue.  (If you do watch this version, skip this.  Trust me.)

7.  Hans Hubermann in The Book Thief.  He's technically not a father, but he's Liesel's foster father, and he's a great father figure.  He does the best he can to take care of an orphan girl in Germany during the end of WWII.  And he does some heroic stuff too.

8.  Silas Marner.  Not my favorite book by George Eliot, but curmudgeonly Silas is a memorably great dad.  He finds a little orphan child in the snow, and she changes his life.

9. Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables.  He was supposed to adopt a boy, but brought Anne home instead, to the chagrin of his sister.  Worked out very well for everyone though, especially the readers who get to enjoy the entire series.

10.  Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni from The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith.  An adoptive father, the finest mechanic in Botswana, and all-around great guy.  He is never too busy to help out fixing things at the local orphanage and does not bat an eyelash when his fiancee Madame Ramotswe adopts two orphans, a brother and sister, one of whom is disabled.

Happy Father's Day to my dad and to my dear husband!  They'd definitely make the list of great dads.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

After reading The Professor's House, I was really looking forward to Death Comes For the Archbishop which was the selection of my real-life classics book group.  In fact, I've been looking forward to this one since we selected it and put it on the schedule last fall.

If you are not familiar, here's the setup:  Beginning about 1850, Father LaTour is a young French missionary prince, working in Ohio.  Some church elders decide he is the perfect person to administer the enormous vicarate of New Mexico, as the new archbishop.  The story is basically a series of vignettes in the life of Father LaTour and his boyhood friend, Father Valliente, another missionary who accompanies him on his journey to save the souls in the Southwest.

I feel almost guilty writing this, but I just did not get why this book is so beloved.  It's considered one Cather's best works, if not THE best, but I found it disappointing, and really slow.  Of course, the writing was wonderful, but I just hard a hard time connecting with the story, which isn't really a narrative -- it's just little slices of the lives of Father LaTour and Father Valliente.  It's almost like a series of short stories.  It's possible I didn't appreciate it as much because I took a break in the middle of reading it, a couple of weeks, and I had a hard time getting motivated to pick it up again.  However, I honestly didn't care much about the characters.  Father LaTour didn't really seem to be very developed to me.

I'm not a religious person, and I was actually raised Catholic though I don't agree with it.  I'm not going to use this post to get into a big religious discussion (and if I get any hateful comments I WILL delete them); in general, it just didn't really interest me.  I actually got rather offended at times when Cather wrote about some of the abuses of power shown by the priests.  There's a scene in which a Mexican woman, who's been enslaved by a horrible white family, comes to Father LaTour -- does he help her and give her refuge?  No, he hears her confession and sends her back to her captors!  Now, as far as I know, this book is set before the Civil War, but to my recollection slavery was never legal in New Mexico, and definitely not the slavery of Mexicans by whites!!  I was appalled.

I also disliked how condescending the white characters were to both Mexicans and Indians.  I wasn't shocked when it was characters who were obviously unsympathetic jerks, but even Father LaTour was kind of racist.  Cather repeatedly refers to his parishoners as "yellow" and "red." I should have expected it, because it is a historical novel, but I did find it kind of offensive.  I never got the impression that Cather was racist, since she portrays the Mexicans as loving and generous, and the Indians with great dignity and respect.  It was just the white characters that really bugged me.

Of course, Cather's writing was great, and I do think the best thing I liked about it was the sense of place.  At our book group discussion, Amanda pointed out that New Mexico itself is almost a character in the book, because it plays such a big part.  Cather writes repeatedly about the canyons, the rocks, the pinon and mesquite trees, the enormous sky and the clouds, in such a way that made me feel as if I was right there with Father LaTour:

The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunlight.  The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still -- and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world.  The plain was there, under one's feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud.  Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it.  Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky.  The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!

Now, if that doesn't make you want to buy a ticket to New Mexico, I don't know what will.  And I'm still going to keep reading Cather -- I still have The Song of the Lark and Shadows on the Rock on the TBR shelf, and both look wonderful.  

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Jeeves and Wooster and P. G. Wodehouse

My latest obsession is Jeeves and Wooster by P.G. Wodehouse.  I was looking for DVDs that were family-friendly but didn't bore me to death and I thought the kids might enjoy these, especially since they got a hoot out of the audiobook version of Three Men in a Boat that we listened to in the car.

My youngest daughter especially has gotten a real kick out of the videos.  We liked them so much we bought the entire series in a box set, which we found for a great price at Costco.  It worked out to about $1 per episode, which is pretty good since I know we'll watch them over and over.  It's so fun to see Hugh Laurie in his pre-House days, and Stephen Fry is just brilliant as Jeeves.  We particularly enjoy it when Jeeves disapproves of fashion choices:

[There's actually a better and even funnier montage of Jeeves' disapproval on Youtube, but somehow I couldn't imbed the video.  If you're interested, click here.]

Anyhow, I've found watching the series absolutely delightful and it inspired me to pick up more Wodehouse at the library recently.  I have far too many books checked out and on the TBR shelves, but I needed a break from all the big fat Victorians I've been reading lately.  I could not resist this cover: 

Of course it would look so much better without the library sticker covering up the swan on the front.  Oh well.  If you haven't fallen in love with these already, they're the Overlook Press reprints of the works of P. G. Wodehouse.  He published more than 90 books and I think they've reprinted about 75 so far.  Which could be dangerous!!   I had a birthday recently and I strongly hinted to my family that any of these would be greatly welcomed.  Well, I suppose "hint" would be an understatement; I handed my husband a Borders coupon with the words "P. G. Wodehouse Overlook Press" written on it in large printing, so he wouldn't miss it.  I admit that I am not terribly subtle.  The result was this nice little stack:

I've started reading The Man With Two Left Feet, which is a collection of Wodehouse's early stories, including the very first appearance of Bertie and Jeeves.  Jeeves is merely mentioned and Bertie's apparently has no last name, but it's still pretty funny.  The dreaded Aunt Agatha ships Bertie off to America to prevent his cousin from making a ghastly marriage to a chorus girl.  Bertie does not enlist Jeeves' brainpower and it all goes terribly wrong, of course, though hilarity still ensues.  Perfect summer reading! 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Small Stack of NYRB Classics

Since reading and loving The Slaves of Solitude this past week, I was motivated to take a look at all the other NYRB Classics I have hanging around my shelves.  A few months ago I wanted to participate in an NYRB Reading Week, but sadly I just didn't have time.  However, Thomas from My Porch posted a striking photo from his collection that inspired me to take this:

The photo is a little fuzzy, so here's the list from top to bottom:  

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Westcott
The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay
Stoner by John Williams
The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West
The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

My stack isn't nearly as impressive as Thomas', but there's still plenty to choose from -- so far, I've only finished one from the stack, Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier.  I have a vacation coming up in a couple of weeks, and I'm already thinking about which books to pack in my carry-on.  Right now I'm leaning towards The Summer Book and The Dud Avocado.  Any suggestions?  Which of these would be best for a vacation read? 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

It seems like it's been forever since I posted a book review -- okay, only ten days.  I have just felt really uninspired lately.  I suppose reading two massive Victorian books back to back was a bad idea -- what was I thinking, tackling Dombey and Son right before I was supposed to read Daniel Deronda for a book group discussion??  Crazy!  (And no surprise -- Daniel Deronda is still unfinished).

Something shorter was just the thing.  My choice was The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, which came highly recommended by Simon at Stuck in a Book.  And what a great choice!  This is one of those books that make me glad to be a blogger -- it's one of those books of which I would like to buy multiple copies, so I can hand them out to friends (or random strangers) and say "Read this -- right now!!"

Here's the setup:  It's set in England in 1944, in Thames Lockdon, a London suburb, and the action is centered around the residents of a boarding house called the Rosamund Tea Rooms.  The main character is Miss Roach, a 39-year-old spinster, formerly a schoolmistress, who is still working at a publishing company in London since she was bombed out of her home.  Due to the housing crisis, she's forced to live in this rundown boardinghouse with some depressing people.

The most notorious of her fellow residents is Mr. Thwaites, a nasty, bullying retiree of about sixty.  Miss Roach is assigned a seat in the dining room at the same table as Mr. Thwaites, who manages to take the most innocent conversation and turn it into something unpleasant.  Unfortunately, Miss Roach is his favorite target, and either due to politeness or reticence, nobody ever seems to stand up to Mr. Thwaites and put him in his place.

Miss Roach hopes that things will turn around after she suggests the Rosamund Tea Rooms to her acquaintance Vicki Kugelmann, a German emigre with a lot of spunk.  She hopes that Miss Kugelmann's presence will change the dynamic of the boarding house.  And it does, but unfortunately not for the better, of course.  Everything goes absolutely wrong, and it began to get even more interesting.

This book reminds me a bit of Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, though it has a more melancholy undertone.  It's full of wry observations like Pym, but also a little like Jane Austen.  I'm also finding it almost satirical in parts.  Here's a passage describing the detestable Mr. Thwaites, who simply lives to bully the other residents at the boarding house:

". . . Mr. Thwaites had on fine mornings no one to boom at in the Rosamond Tea Rooms, and spent much of the time writing embittered letters in the Lounge.  These, after he had put on his overcoat and cap, he took round to the Post Office and posted in the most acid way.  He passed pillar-boxes on the way, but did not trust them, as not going to the root of the matter.

After this he would return to the Rosamund Tea Rooms, where he would prowl restlessly, and whence he would, perhaps, make one or two rapid, tigerish excursions into the town, to make an enquiry, to buy something, or to change a book -- invariably tying the assistants into knots, and, in the ironical pose of a stupid man, saying he was so sorry, no doubt it was his fault, entirely."

Mr. Thwaites is one of the most memorable characters I've read about this year.  For literary villains, he's right up there with Harold Skimpole from Bleak House or Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice -- not evil, but someone you'd just love to throttle.  From the moment this character was introduced, I could not wait for him to get his comeuppance.  He was rather a Dickensian character now that I think about it.

This is another of those great books in which technically, not much happens.  However, it's a great character study, and I loved the dynamics of the people involved.  These people are trapped in their circumstances by the war -- they can't find new homes, they can hardly go out at night because of the blackout, and supplies are short, except for what seems an endless supply of alcohol.  Unhappy people and drinking seems like a recipe for trouble.  I could not put the book down because I was so intrigued at how everything would play out -- which it did, in a highly satisfying manner.