Friday, March 30, 2012

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

Finally!  I've had this book out from the library for weeks, probably since I finished Dr. Thorne in January.  Seriously.  I started a couple of chapters weeks ago and then didn't really read it until about a week ago.  Once I got started, I was really rolling and finished it in about five days.  I can hardly say that about Dickens!

This is the story of two families, the Luftons and the Robards.  Mark Robards, the son of a respected doctor, is the childhood friend of Ludovic Lufton, a young lord and the heir of Framley.  When Mark and Ludo are still young men, the living of the parsonage at Framley becomes available, so Lady Lufton, Ludovic's mother, gives it to Mark, basically setting him up with a good job for life at quite a young age.  She also finds him a nice wife, Fanny, the best friend of her daughter.

However, Robards is still very young and rather foolish.  He starts mixing with some of Lord Lufton's swanky friends, to the disapproval of Lufton's mother, his patroness.  One weekend Mark attends a house party with some mutual friends, to the very great disapproval of Lady Lufton.  She has the right idea -- Mark is persuaded by a rich spendthrift named Sowerby to co-sign an IOU for 400 pounds (which he, Mark, doesn't actually have).  According to the Trollope website, in today's dollars that's the equivalent of about $25,000.  (Yowza!)  Mark doesn't mention this to his wife, since Sowerby is convinced he's going to marry Miss Dunstable (the rich heiress previously introduced in Dr. Thorne) and he'll be able to make the debt good himself in a couple of months, and it won't cause Mark a bit of trouble.  Ha!  Of course nothing does as planned and Mark is on a downward spiral of debt when he never even used a penny of it for himself.  Following all this so far?

Meanwhile, Mark's father has died, and though this might have saved the day if there was any money to inherit, it adds a different wrinkle to the story.  Mark's charming younger sister Lucy comes to live at Framley Parsonage.  Though she's described as "little and brown," she's quite delightful, and his friend Lord Lufton starts to become friendly with her, to dismay of his mother.  Lady Lufton wants nothing more than for her son to marry Someone Of Consequence; money isn't an issue for the Luftons, like we saw with the Greshams in Dr. Thorne, but LL still wants her son to marry someone impressive.   She's jockeying to get him married off to Griselda Grantley, the daughter of Archdeacon Grantley from The Warden and Barchester Towers.  Griselda is beautiful and rich, but doesn't seem to have much personality.

Meanwhile, there's some political stuff that I found very confusing and honestly, I skimmed parts of it.  Trollope does tend to ramble on about politics, and since I don't know the history, it really meant nothing to me. (I suspect this might get worse when I start reading The Pallisers novels, many of which are in the 800-page range).   Essentially I think there was some kind of vote of no confidence in the current Parliament, and people were in and out of the government.  Plus, Sowerby is trying to get re-elected for Parliament, despite the fact that he's about to lose his estate and his shirt because of all his bad debts.

The best thing about this book was the relationships between the people at Framley Parsonage itself.  Lady Lufton is bossy, but not a monster, and Mark's wife Fanny and his sister Lucy are just wonderful characters.  For a Victorian novel, there's a lot of strong, admirable females -- it's mostly the male characters that are making complete asses of themselves.

At the end, naturally, it all works out and most everyone is happy.  That's another difference between Dickens and Trollope.  With Dickens, the main characters usually turn out all right, but people always die and it's more melodramatic and tragic.  Trollope is closer to Jane Austen in that the endings are fairly happy and the bad people usually get comeuppance.  At any rate, that's what's happening in the Barset series so far.

I did like this book but not quite as much as Dr. Thorne -- the kerfuffle over Lady Lufton and Lucy was sort of a repeat of the situation in Dr. Thorne, and some of the political stuff was sometimes boring.  However, it was definitely worth reading.  I have two more novels in the series left,  and they're both whoppers -- The Small House at Allington is about 700 pages, and The Last Chronicle of Barset is more than 800!  Still, I hope to get to them sometime this year.

Bloggers, has anyone else read the entire Barsetshire Chronicles?  Which did you like best?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

75 Classics in 5 Years

I saw on Goodreads that there's a new Classics Club, run by Jillian of A Room of One's Own.  I adore making lists and I have a ton of classics on the TBR bookcase, so this was a no-brainer.  At first I was just going to choose 50 from my own books, but that would be too easy. (Plus including 15 works by Trollope does make the list run over.)  So I decided to expand it to 75.  I'm sure I can read an average of 15 classic books per year.  So here's my current lineup -- of course, it could change, and it will probably grow longer.  I'm including two books (Framley Parsonage and The Fountain Overflows) which I've technically started already, but I've made so little progress with either I think it's fair.   A lot of these are on my 2012 challenge lists so this will give me added incentive.  Click here for specifics and to sign up.

I hope to finish this list by March 24, 2017.  That gives me just over five years to complete the list.  I really don't know that I deserve any special rewards for finishing these, but Amanda at Fig and Thistle gave me the idea of purchasing Penguin Clothbound Classics -- one for every five completed?  I do love those beautiful covers!

Titles in blue are from the TBR shelves.
  1. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
  2. Pere Goriot by Honore de Balzac
  3. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
  4. Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte
  5. Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck
  6. A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
  7. My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather
  8. One of Ours by Willa Cather
  9. Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
  10. The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
  11. Armandale by Wilkie Collins
  12. No Name by Wilkie Collins
  13. The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
  14. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
  15. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
  16. The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas
  17. Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
  18. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
  19. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
  20. Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
  21. New Grub Street by George Gissing
  22. The Odd Women by George Gissing
  23. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  24. The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hacek
  25. A Bell for Adano by John Hersey
  26. South Riding by Winifred Holtby
  27. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
  28. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  29. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  30. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
  31. The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason
  32. Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham
  33. Theater by W. Somerset Maugham
  34. Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant
  35. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  36. Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
  37. The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow by Margaret Oliphant
  38. A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
  39. Giants of the Earth by A. E. Rolvaag
  40. The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
  41. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  42. The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck
  43. Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck
  44. Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
  45. Saplings by Noel Streatfield
  46. The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
  47. Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
  48. Ayala's Angel by Anthony Trollope
  49. Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
  50. Cousin Henry by Anthony Trollope
  51. The Duke's Children by Anthony Trollope
  52. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
  53. Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope
  54. He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
  55. The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope
  56. Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope
  57. Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope
  58. Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope
  59. Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope
  60. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope
  61. Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope
  62. The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope
  63. Kipps by H. G. Wells
  64. Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty
  65. The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West
  66. The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
  67. The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
  68. The New York Stories of Edith Wharton
  69. Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
  70. The Debacle by Emile Zola
  71. The Drinking Den (L'Assommoir) by Emile Zola
  72. The Earth by Emile Zola
  73. The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola
  74. The Masterpiece by Emile Zola
  75. Nana by Emile Zola
So how are my choices?  Any I should delete, or start reading right away?  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Book Group Update

Well, last Thursday was the third meeting of my library book group, and to be honest, I was pretty much ready to give up.  Plus, I wasn't so in love with the book, The City and the City by China Mieville.  (Review to follow; the post just got too long so I decided to split it into two).  If you haven't read this post from a few weeks ago, I've started a book group at my library, and last month nobody showed up.

So, last week, a few copies of the book had been checked out, but I knew that one of the two people who'd shown up in January wouldn't make it, as she was attending the American Crossword Tournament in Brooklyn (how cool is that??).   And there had been a new development at work.  Last week one of our part-time library assistants left for a full-time librarian job in another library system, leaving the Monday evening book group without a coordinator, so this was assigned to me.  Since the Thursday group was floundering, my supervisor suggested that I put the Thursday group out of its misery and concentrate on the Monday group, which had been meeting steadily for more than five years.  I had only chosen books for the Thursday group through April -- it's already been published in the library newsletter, so I figured that would be the end of that.  (Plus I have a teen book group of sorts once a month during Teen Time, but that's another story).

Well, lo and behold, Thursday rolled around.  I halfheartedly bought cookies and iced tea on my lunch break, and searched online for some discussion questions.  And FIVE PEOPLE SHOWED UP FOR THE GROUP.  One was my intrepid co-worker; one was Eva from A Striped Armchair, and three ladies from the Friends of the Library group!

To be fair, two of the women from the Friends hadn't read the book, but they all checked out books for the April meeting, and when I came back to work on Monday from my long weekend off, every single book for the April book group had been checked out!  Apparently there was a meeting for our branch's Friends of the Library last Saturday, and the ladies all talked it up.  There may even have been mild complaints that there weren't enough copies of the book!   (Zeitoun by Dave Eggers).  I had no idea I would have that much response, otherwise I would have chosen a book with more copies in the library system.  I was flabbergasted.  And now I have THREE book groups to coordinate every month.  I guess I am just a victim of my own success.

Well, if it gets to be too much I can just repeat books between the groups, or choose books I've already read.  I'm pretty determined to try and choose book off my own personal TBR list.  It's challenging to find books that fit the criteria:

  • there must to be at least ten copies in the library, preferably more.  Those with large print and audio are a plus. 
  • they can't been too popular because I can't choose books with too many existing holds.
  • they must be thought-provoking books that will be good for discussion.
  • preferably books under 500 pages, though occasionally exceptions will be made, especially if the book is a fast read.

and finally:

  • books that aren't too cheesy and contrived.  Honestly, this is the hardest one.  A lot of the typical books chosen by book discussion groups I find to be just bleah.  I admit, there are definitely great books that are popular for discussion groups for a reason, but a lot of them are honestly just the worst crap ever.  There, I've said it.  (Feel free to crucify me in the comments, but don't be personal).

So, bloggers, what do you recommend?  Any book group selections that are just amazing and great for discussion?  Any surprises?  And which books are the absolute worst and are to be avoided like the plague?  I have a few ideas for the next couple of months, including a couple of short classics and some historical fiction, but I'd love some ideas!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Kill by Emile Zola; and a painting by Edouard Manet

This weekend, while on a flight to our nation's capital, I finally finished my seventh book by Zola: The Kill, the second of his Rougon-Macquart series.  I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed in this book.  The last three novels I read by Zola were so well crafted and such great stories that I expected this to be just brilliant.

Here's the setup.  This is the story of a really unpleasant couple, Aristide and Renee Saccard, during the French Second Empire.  Aristide is in his fifties and is a frenetic, scheming financial speculator who is making money hand over fist by buying Parisian properties and selling them to shell companies.  He has all kinds of shady government connections and gets these properties to be massively overvalued; then, he cheats the government out of millions of francs by selling the properties to the government, because they're going to be knocked down in a frenzy of urban renewal.  (The government is about to tear down tons of old buildings to put up new ones and create the current grid layout of Paris with the wide avenues, etc.)  Of course, he's also living on the edge because he's constantly on the verge of financial collapse.

Aristide's wife, Renee, is twenty years his junior, and after the untimely death of his first wife, he married her upon the advice of his shrewd sister.  Renee was a young woman of good family who is in a fix, so to speak, so her father marries her to nasty Aristide with a huge dowry to save the family's reputation.  Aristide takes her money to start his career as a financial speculator.  Ten years later, she's shallow and bored, and things take a turn for the dangerous when she decides to take a new lover -- her handsome stepson who's only seven or eight years her junior.

Basically, the story is a whirlwind of parties, greed, and incest, and if you've read anything by Zola, you know how things are going to turn out.   It was an interesting story, and like most of his other books, the characters aren't particularly sympathetic, and their behavior is pretty shocking.  Last year I read three novels by Zola in pretty quick succession (Germinal, #13 in the series; Pot-Bouille (Pot-Luck); #10, and La Bete Humaine, #17).  It was pretty obvious that The Kill is a much earlier work.  I really found the plots and character development much better in the later books, and although the satire and political commentary is present in all of them, I thought it was much more masterfully done in the later works.  Zola kind of beats you over the head with it in The Kill.

Also, there are frequently awful characters in all the books, but in the later novels, the stories are so well crafted that I couldn't stop reading them.  In The Kill I just found them to be wretched people living to excess and not nearly as well developed as the later books.  It's still an interesting book, but it just made me want to read more of the later stuff.  (By the way, #3, The Belly of Paris, was my first Zola, and I liked it, but I think the best bits were the food writing.  It was a good choice for a first Zola since I wasn't able to start with #1, The Fortunes of the Rougons; a new translations by Oxford World's Classics will be published in August.)

And now for the Manet connection.  As I mentioned, I finished this book on a flight to Washington -- it was the end of Spring Break so I got to spend a couple of days with family in Maryland.  Yesterday, we decide to visit the National Gallery, and as I was passing through the French Impressionist rooms, I stumbled upon a group with a docent who was discussing this picture by Edouard Manet:

It was painted by Manet during exactly the same period that Zola was writing about!  Apparently, it was controversial because it's a great big picture, about 6'x8', and it's not just a great painting, it's a social commentary.  At this time, the subjects of enormous artworks like this were always classical or Biblical.  These people are homeless and in the country, which would have been a shocking subject for that time period.  The girl on the left is probably an unwed mother, plus we have two street urchins, and the man on the right in the top hat is called the absinthe drinker because he's in another picture by Manet with that name, so we know he's probably an alcoholic.

Portrait of Emile Zola, 1868
Edouard Manet
Basically, all these people are homeless and in the country because of . . . . urban renewal during the Second Empire!!  So here is Manet painting a picture and making social commentary about the very same subject as Zola!  I mentioned Zola's book to the docent and she was familiar with it.  She also reminded me that Zola was friends with some of the Impressionists, including Manet, who painted Zola's portrait in 1868; and Cezanne, his childhood friend, who is the subject of Rougon-Macquart #14, The Masterpiece.   So there you have it, literature and art colliding.  My visit to the National Gallery was absolutely serendipitous and I think now The Masterpiece will be the next Zola on my to-read list.

Monday, March 12, 2012

My Top 10 Victorians

In my last posting about Dickens miscellany, Anbolyn mentioned in the comments that I should read Our Mutual Friend next because the brilliant author Sarah Waters' included it in her top 10 Victorian novels list.  Well, if you've read this blog, you know how much I love lists, so I had to compile my own Top 10 Victorians list!   I think I've reviewed nearly all of these since I started blogging in 2009.  They're ranked, but really close together, since I love them all.

1.  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte .  The first Victorian I ever loved, so it has to be on the list.  I reread it again last year in preparation for the newest movie adaptation, and I still loved it.  There's something to be said for a novel that you love in your teens and again years later.

2.  Bleak House -- by far my favorite Dickens novel.  It has everything -- satire, comedy, melodrama, mystery, murder, and one of the first detectives in English literature.  It's a doorstop, but so worth it.

3.  Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope.  The second in the delightful Barsetshire Chronicles.   It showcases  the best of Trollope's delightful arch humor, a comedy of manners in a country parsonage.  But do take the time to read The Warden first;  it's a little slow, but it's short, and Barchester makes more sense if you read them in order.

4.  Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell.  The basis of one of my favorite BBC miniseries ever, just the thing when you've finished all of Jane Austen and are in mourning because she only wrote six novels.  Also includes one of my favorite lines:  "I won't say she was silly, but I think one of us was silly, and it wasn't me."  Priceless!  

5.  The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope.   Another Victorian doorstopper, but fascinating.  It's an extremely timely tale of boom and bust in the Victorian era, with a very familiar Madoff-like character.  It's 100 chapters, but an amazingly fast read.  

6.  Three Men in a Boat  by Jerome K. Jerome.  A very funny picaresque novel in which not much happens.  Imagine if Bertie Wooster went on a boat trip with two equally clueless friends, but left Jeeves behind and took a fox terrier instead.  A lot of digressions and amusing observations on life.  I've read it and listened to it on audio multiple time and it still cracks me up.  

7.  Middlemarch by George Eliot.  It's a little dry at first, but the last 700 pages are really good.  Does that sound strange?  A great story about several families in a country village -- sounds a little like Jane Austen but it also includes social commentary about the status of women, politics, hypocrisy, religion and a whole lot more.  Closer to Trollope than Austen.  

8.  Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.  It has all of Dickens' trademark melodrama and it's a great introduction to his early writing. Also fairly short if you have Fear of Dickens.

9.  The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.  A great page-turner of a thriller, one of the first murder-mysteries in English literature.  It's a Victorian sensation novel, but so much more.

10.  Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  It's not great literature by any means, but a great page-turning story.  It set the standard for the Victorian sensation novel and has never gone out of print.

Well bloggers, what do you think?  Are any of these on your favorite lists?  Which ones make you want to scream and throw the book across the room?  Which Victorians are your favorites?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Dickens Miscellany

After finishing Martin Chuzzlewit in a burst of reading energy last week, I'm worn out.  I need to start working on Zola for an online book discussion I'm leading, and I've now renewed Framley Parsonage TWICE from the library, so I need to get moving on that too.  But here are a few bits about Dickens that I forgot to include last week.

Thanks to Elaine

First of all, many thanks to Elaine of Random Jottings!  I was the winner of her Dickens Letters Prize Draw, which absolutely made my day.  Many apologies for not mentioning it before.  And do visit her delightful blog (which includes lots of related posts, about Dickens, gardens and tons of other fun stuff.)  Can't wait to read this!

My current Dickens rankings.

Now that I've finished Chuzzlewit, I need to look back at all my Dickens reads and re-rank them.  The top has remained unchanged:

Gillian Anderson as Lady Deadlock in Bleak House
1.  Bleak House
2.  Oliver Twist
3.  Great Expectations

The middle four now includes my latest read.  These are in no particular order, all pretty good, but not my favorites for various reasons:  

  • David Copperfield
  • Little Dorrit
  • Nicholas Nickleby
  • A Tale of Two Cities

The bottom:

9.  Dombey and Son -- not terrible, but seemed really, really padded.  Could have used some serious good editing.

And at the very bottom. . . .

10.  Hard Times.  Just dreadful.  Preachy, characters unlikeable, nothing funny or interesting about it.  It's the shortest work because all the good stuff was left out.  Of course by comparison, everything else Dickens wrote is pretty good or just plain wonderful.

And for a little bit of Dickens amusement. . . . Doctor Who meets Charles Dickens!

This is the only clip I could find on YouTube.  It's #5 of these top 9th doctor moments, a clip from "The Unquiet Dead" in which Rose and the Doctor go back to Victorian London and meet Charles Dickens.  Fast-forward to about 5:45 for the first meeting with Charles Dickens.  At about 6:40 the Doctor makes a wisecrack about Martin Chuzzlewit that I find really amusing.

Finally . . . which Dickens should I read next?

Now I have six more works by Dickens to complete the oeuvre.  I'm going to take a break, but which Dickens should I read next?  I have four left on the TBR shelf, so I'd like to choose from one of those.  Here are the choices:
  • Sketches by Boz
  • The Old Curiosity Shop
  • Our Mutual Friend
  • The Mystery of Edwin Drood
I'm leaning toward Edwin Drood, because the BBC adaptation is showing here in the States pretty soon, plus I also have a copy of Dan Simmons' Drood on the TBR shelf, and I want to read the original first.   Bloggers, what do you think?  

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

Well, I have finally finished this nearly 800-page doorstopper, and I have to say I am darn proud of myself -- especially since I finished the last 400 pages in just about a week.  Dickens sometimes takes awhile to get started, but once the story got rolling, I needed to finish it.  I have now finished ten of the sixteen major works by Charles Dickens.  Six more to go!

After struggling for weeks with the beginning of this book, it finally started to pick up and got interesting.  However, the title of this book is very misleading.  There are actually two Martin Chuzzlewits, and neither of them is really the main character.  Basically, it's a book about greed, and selfishness, and loyalty, be it to friends or family.  It's also about how terrible situations bring out the best and the worst in people.  There are funny characters, and grotesques, and the typical Victorian tropes of misunderstandings and unbelievable coincidences.  And it all ends up pretty well, though some people are much happier than others.

I'm not sure why this book is so obscure among the Dickens canon -- it's kind of uneven but it turned out to be a very enjoyable read.  Having read several Dickens now, I can see that it contains elements of both the earlier and the later novels -- it's picaresque like Nicholas Nickelby, yet it also has the beginnings of the multiple storylines of Little Dorrit and Bleak House.  I would categorize it as a transitional novel.

Other than the very slow start to this book (it took nearly 200 pages for something interesting to happen) my biggest quibble with this book is the title.  It's named after Martin Chuzzlewit, but honestly, Martin's part isn't even that big, especially when you compare it to the other Dickens works with eponymous titles.  Oliver Twist and David Copperfield?  Makes perfect sense -- these are the main characters and all the action revolves around them.  Little Dorrit?  Well, she's a little more peripheral to the story, but I guess I can agree with that one.  I haven't read Barnaby Rudge or The Mystery of Edwin Drood yet, so I can't comment on those.  But Martin Chuzzlewit is a terrible name for a book.   I suppose one could make the case that it's really about Martin the elder, whose appearance sets all the book's action in motion, since he arrives and gets all the relatives jockeying for position to see if they're going to get a get a piece of his estate in the event of his death.  Really, he's hardly in the book at all.

And Martin the younger leaves for America, but he doesn't really get that much time in the book either.  There's a lot more time spent on his faithful friend Tom Pinch, his nasty cousin Jonas Chuzzlewit, and the Pecksniff family, and what happens to them back in England during Martin's absence.  It's a good book and the plot and characters turned out to be interesting, but I personally think he could have come up with a better title.

When I begin to think about it, Dickens' other titles aren't all that interesting either.  Great Expectations?  A Tale of Two Cities?  Bleak House is my favorite, and Dombey and Son has great irony, but overall I think Trollope did a better job naming his books.  You can't beat Can You Forgive Her? and He Knew He Was Right, or my personal favorite, Is He Popenjoy?  (What the heck does that mean?)  I still haven't read any of these titles, but they intrigue me. Yet they sit waiting patiently on the to-read shelf while I'm still trying to finish the major works of Charles Dickens.

This book also counts towards three of my challenges:  The Victorian Challenge; The Classics Challenge; and the Chunkster Challenge.