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.