Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Victorian Celebration: Looking Back

First, I want to thank Allie from A Literary Odyssey for hosting this blogging event.  I've had so much fun and read so many great books the past couple of months. Here's what I finished during The Victorian Celebration. 

I posted nine reviews:  
  • Our Mutual Friend, my eleventh novel by Charles Dickens, and now one of my favorites; 
  • Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte, which has been on my TBR shelves for about five years; 
  • Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome, author of one of my favorite books;
  • Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, on my TBR shelves for two years;
  • The Odd Women by George Gissing, a Victorian author I'd never read before;
  • The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit, a delightful Victorian children's book and one of my favorite reads this year; 
  • Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, a neo-Victorian which I first read more than 20 years ago; 
  • The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles; a neo-Victorian on my TBR Challenge list; 
  • L'Assommoir by Emile Zola, a French novel written during the same period (my sixth novel by Zola and my fifth in the Rougon-Macquart series.
I also hosted two giveaways.  I'm really happy with all the books I finished in the last two months -- I'm only sorry that I wasn't able to read more.  I still have a giant stack of books by Anthony Trollope unread!

How about you, bloggers?  Did you get a lot of Victorians read this summer?  Which were your favorites?  

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Odd Women by George Gissing

Before the Victorian Celebration, I wanted to read at least one book by an author that was new to me.   I had two novels by George Gissing on the TBR shelf, and they weren't too long, so I thought one of them would be a good choice.  I chose The Odd Women because it was the shorter of the two, and because I'd seen some interesting reviews on the blogosphere in the last few months.

From the title, I thought it was about strange or unconventional women, but then I thought it was going to be about Victorian spinsters -- i.e., odd as in unattached, unpaired.   The beginning of the book seems this way, with six sisters who are suddenly placed in genteel poverty.  The book then focuses on three of them, Alice, Virginia, and Monica.  Alice and Virginia, the eldest, are eking out an existence working as a paid companion and a teacher; the youngest, Monica, starts working as a drapers shop at 15.  Then the action jumps forward several years when Alice and Virginia get a letter from an old friend, Rhoda Nunn, who is living in London.  She's employed at a business school for young women that teaches them typing and office skills.  She urges the women to invest in a typewriter and try to make a better living for themselves, and to get Monica away from the exhausting hours she's working as a shopgirl.

In the beginning, it seemed that this book was going to be about Alice and Virginia and their desperate lives as Victorian spinsters with few job prospects, but then the focus of the book changed.  The story is really mostly about two different women:  Rhoda Nunn, who's intelligent and unconventional; and the youngest sister Monica, who is tempted by a very traditional (though loveless) Victorian marriage for her security.  Things don't work out exactly as planned for either woman.  

What really surprised me about this book was how unabashedly feminist it was, especially for a book written by a Victorian man in 1893.  Gissing creates some very forceful arguments about the plight of women and marriage during that time.  Some of his characters must have been extremely revolutionary for this time, and I'm sure it was pretty shocking.  

I really liked this book.  The characters end up being quite interesting and I got really invested in how this was going to turn out -- not how I expected at all!  Other than the complete shift in focus, the only minor criticism I have about it was that a few sections got kind of preachy and started to drag.  A couple of the characters really lecturing each other about feminism and women's roles and while I understood the point, it did come off as rather didactic and really slowed the book down for me.

The writing style was also extremely readable -- a lot of the Victorians tend to be slow reading, but this one was actually pretty speedy compared to Dickens and Eliot.  George Gissing doesn't get much attention among Victorian writers but I'm very glad I discovered this book.  I also have another of his books, New Grub Street so I'm looking forward to reading that one too.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

Since I run my library's book discussion group and I have all the power, I chose Tortilla Flat for our July read, because it's on my Classics Club list.  ( If nobody else suggests any titles, then I feel completely justified in being mercenary and picking books I want to read.) It's one of Steinbeck's early works, and it's fairly short, and we hadn't read any classics yet this year, so I thought it would be an interesting choice.  Plus, there were plenty of copies in the library catalog, so I thought it was perfect.

Well, maybe not.  We had a good turnout for the group, but I'm not sure the discussion went very well -- I think this was the most heated debate that I've ever seen in a book group!  Basically, one person hated them book and thought it was a complete waste of time.  The conversation ended up digressing into a debate about what people should or shouldn't read for pleasure.

But I'm digressing.  Here's the setup:  After World War I, a young slacker named Danny comes home to find that his grandfather has died and left him some property with two ramshackle houses in Tortilla Flat, an area in the hills around Monterey.  (Danny's no war hero; he spent the war breaking mules in Oklahoma.)  Danny moves into one house and lets his ne'er-do-well friends move into the other.  Told as series of vignettes, this is the story of Danny and his friends Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria, and Pirate, and how they spend their days basically drunk on red wine.  According to the introduction, it's loosely based on Arthurian legend; these guys are supposed to represent the Knights of the Round Table, but I didn't see much chivalrous behavior.  They drink and argue and spend most of their days trying to figure out how to get food and more wine without having to do any more work than is necessary.

Parts of it were pretty funny, but I didn't get particularly attached to any of the characters until about midway through the book.  In fact, it was pretty much the same story over and over until that point in the book.  I was wondering how I was going to get through it and it's only about 200 or so pages long, one of Steinbeck's shorter works.

Eventually there was one episode that actually got me invested in one of the characters, so I began to enjoy it more and even laughed out loud a few times.  Frankly, for me, a bunch of guys sitting around drinking just isn't that entertaining, and I didn't much see the point of the book.  A few years ago I read Cannery Row, not long after I discovered Steinbeck, and it seemed to have a similar premise, about the lives of ordinary people in California, but I found that one much more interesting and entertaining -- from what I remember, at least the characters did something -- there's one episode about some guys frog hunting for a scientist which is absolutely hilarious.  (Apparently it's some kind of war metaphor, but even if you don't get that part it's still funny).

I'm no literary expert, but I get the definite impression that Steinbeck is kind of uneven -- some of his stuff is great, like The Grapes of Wrath, and some if it is just meh.  I really like his travel writing, like Travels with Charley and A Russian Journal, but I'm really unimpressed with the shorter stuff so far.  I thought Of Mice and Men and The Pearl were both unbelievably depressing, and I couldn't even get through The Red Pony.  I'm probably the only person in America who got through high school without reading any of those.

Tortilla Flat was okay.  I suppose if I knew anything about Arthurian legend I would have gotten more out of it.  I'm just glad it wasn't any longer.  My oldest daughter was assigned East of Eden for her summer reading, so I'm reading it along with her, and already I can tell it's much better.

Anyone else a Steinbeck fan?  Who's read Tortilla Flat?  Is it really a mediocre Steinbeck or am I just missing the point of the book entirely?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Historical Fiction Challenge

Danger, Will Robinson!! Danger!!  I've found another challenge!!

While reading some blog postings the other day, I found this Historical Fiction Challenge at Historical Tapestry.  I have absolutely no business signing up for another challenge, but I've nearly finished three of the four challenges I originally signed up for this year, so why not??  I do love historicals and between my book groups and my TBR shelves, I easily found more than ten historicals that would fit the challenge (not to mention historicals on my to-read list for book groups at the library). I've signed up for the third level, Struggling the Addiction, which is ten books.

Here's a what I have hanging around the house at the moment that would qualify for the challenge:

It might be a bit blurry, so here's what's on the pile:

  1. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
  2. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
  3. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber
  4. Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
  5. Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather
  6. Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
  7. The Living Reed by Pearl S. Buck
  8. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
And then there's this stack:  

  1. Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson
  2. The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen by Lindsay Ashford
  3. The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
  4. Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
  5. A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr
  6. The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
  7. Marking Time by Elizabeth Jane Howard
  8. The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer
  9. Lark Rise to Candleford by Elizabeth Jane Howard
And then I found a few more. . . . 

  1. Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
  2. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters
  3. Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
  4. A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss
  5. The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss
  6. The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt
I'm only sorry that I didn't see this challenge earlier -- I looked back at my Goodreads list of 2012 reads so far, and I've already read at least eight historical books this year that would have fit the challenge.  Anyway -- what do you think, bloggers?  Which ones should I read first?  Any that should go on the donation pile immediately?  And am I absolutely insane for even thinking about another challenge?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Zola Giveaway Winner

And the winner of my Zola Giveaway is. . . . .

Jane GS from 

Congratulations to Jane, who selected Germinal as the Zola novel she would most like to win.   I'm very happy because that's one of my favorite novels of all time.

Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway.  My blogoversary is coming up in September, and I'll be giving another book away then.  Happy reading to all!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit

After my recent intense experience reading Zola, a children's classic was just the thing, especially since I'm still obsessed about the Victorian Celebration.  Originally, I'd planned on reading either The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley or At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald.  Neither of them really grabbed me, but then I realized that The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit qualified as a Victorian!  One of Nesbit's earliest children's books, it was published in 1899, and so it still made the cutoff date.  And I just loved it.

I'd never heard of E. Nesbit when I was a child -- of course this was years before blogging and online library catalogs, and though my public library was pretty good, it's nowhere near what libraries are today.  After I started library school, I'd read a couple of Nesbit's fantasy stories and liked them well enough, but something about The Treasure Seekers just spoke to me -- I found it delightfully charming and really funny -- I kept reading bits out loud to my eleven-year-old daughter, and finally I just started reading her entire chapters.  

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Told from the point of view of one of the children, this is the story of the six Bastable children:  Dora, Oswald, Dicky, the twins, Alice and Noel, and the youngest, Horation Octavius, also known as H. O.  Their mother has died fairly recently, and after her death, their father also fell ill and lost most of his wealth (it's unclear, but it sounds like his business partner made off with most of it)  This once genteel family is now scraping by; they've given up school and summer holidays and all the silver plate has been "sent off to get the dents removed, but never sent back" -- probably pawned or sold.  So, the children are full of plans to restore the family fortunes.  They brainstorm all sorts of ideas, such as digging for treasure, writing poetry for money, becoming bandits, and saving elderly people from danger, who will then reward them.  The book was originally published in serial form, and each chapter details a different adventure as the children try various schemes, (some of them definitely hare-brained) so it's easy to read in small snatches.  

I thought Nesbit did a fantastic job creating the characters of these six children -- they all had personalities, and what's best about them is that they're definitely flawed -- they argue and bicker amongst themselves, like real siblings, and they have flaws.  Some of their schemes are morally and legally questionable, and they usually learn their lessons from their bad behavior, but it's not at all preachy.  The adults were good too.  The children often wind up needing grownups to help them out, including "Albert-next-door's uncle" who never gets an actual name, but seems like a real hoot -- he's a writer, and if he'd been real, I'm sure he would have gotten a lot of good material from the Bastable children.  (Could this be E. Nesbit herself in disguise?)  

I also loved the wry humor -- here's one of my favorite bits:

I have often thought that if people who write books for children knew a little more, it would be better.  I shall not tell you anything about us except what I should like to know about if I was reading this story and you were writing it.  Albert's uncle says I ought to have put this in the preface, but I never read prefaces, and it is not much good writing things just for people to skip.  I wonder other authors have never thought of this.  

There are lots of funny little comments like this throughout the book.  The plot's pretty good, and I found the ending particularly satisfying.  I'll say no more since I never want to give anything away.  

I was also happy to read this one because I had an unread copy on the shelves -- I bought it last year at Books of Wonder, the celebrated children's bookstore in New York.  I only wish they'd had a hardcover copy -- it was the recent paperback copy pictured above, but it was on sale for only $5 so I couldn't pass it up.  Of course now I'll have to track down the two sequels, The Wouldbegoods and The Story of the New Treasure Seekers, neither of which are available at my library.  So I'll probably end up adding two more books to my shelves!  Has anyone read either of them?  Are they as good as the first one?  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Zola Giveaway!

Happy Bastille Day!  Joyeux Le Quatorze Juillet!  Today, I'm honoring both France and my favorite French author, Emile Zola.  (And of course, the Paris in July blogging event).  Zola is one of the classic authors I discovered while blogging, and he's become one of my favorite writers.  In fact, I'm so in love with Zola's work, I've decided to share the love and give away a paperback edition of one of his novels.

One winner will receive his or her choice of a Zola novel listed below.  All you have to do to enter the giveaway is leave a comment below telling me which Zola novel you'd like to receive, and why.  Make sure you leave a contact email if your comment doesn't link automatically to your blog.

Here's a list of novels of Zola readily available in good, current paperback translations from the Book Depository.  At the moment, I've included all the Oxford World's Classics and Penguin translations, which I know are good.  (If I've missed any, please tell me so in the comments).  I've included links to the Zola novels I've reviewed so far on this blog.

  • Therese Raquin:  One of Zola's earliest novels and his big break, the book that first made him famous. 
  • The Fortunes of the Rougons (*Available August 9, 2012 from Oxford World's Classics):  The first in his famous Rougon-Macquart series of novels.
  • The Kill : Second in the Rougon-Maquart series, about a couple made rich by frantic real estate speculation in Paris.  
  • The Belly of Paris: Third in the series, this one is set in the famous Les Halles food markets.  Lots of great food descriptions! 
  • L'Assommoir (The Drinking Den): The story of a working-class laundress and her downward spiral into poverty and alcoholism. 
  • Nana: One of Zola's most famous works, the story of a prostitute who rises from humble beginnings to become a high-class "cocotte."
  • Pot-Bouille (Pot Luck): An acerbic satire about the bourgeoise, hypocritical residents of a Paris apartment building.  
  •  The Ladies' Paradise:  The original sex-and-shopping novel, about the rise of a department store and consumerism in late 19th century Paris.  
  • Germinal: Probably Zola's most famous work, the story of a coal-miner's strike in northwestern France.  Considered by many to be his masterpiece, and one of my favorite novels of all time.
  • The Masterpiece:  Inspired by Zola's childhood friend, the Impressionist Paul Cezanne, this is the story of a talented young artist who comes to Paris from the provinces.  It's the most autobiographical of Zola's works and gives insight into his life as a writer and into the lives of the Impressionists. 
  • The Earth:  Similar to King Lear, this is the story of a a family's divisive struggle after the patriarch divides his land between three children, portraying the destructiveness of greed and ignorance. 
  • La Bete Humaine (The Beast Within):  One of Zola's most violent and explicit works, this novel is set against a backdrop of railways and examines what drives people to murder.  
  • The Debacle:   Set during the Franco-Prussian war, this was the best-selling of Zola's novels during his lifetime.  It's well regarded for its historical detail and epic sweep. 
The drawing will be open until Thursday, July 18, at 5 p.m. U. S. Central Standard Time.  The contest is open to residents of any country to which The Book Depository ships.  (If you're not sure if your country is included, click here).  I'll post the winner on my blog and contact him or her via email; the winner will have three days to reply or I'll choose another winner.  

*If the winner selects The Fortunes of the Rougons, it won't ship out until August, as this the publication date of the new paperback translation.

Good luck and happy reading!

Friday, July 13, 2012

L'Assommoir by Emile Zola

Well.  I have really been out of the blogging loop the past week or so, as I have been on vacation in beautiful California.  First, I was visiting my baby nephew in San Diego and then a side trip with my youngest child to Disneyland.  Believe it or not, I actually got some reading done.

So what did I read on vacation?  Light, fluffy beach reads?  Murder mysteries?  Something by a California author, at least?  Well, I did bring one book by John Steinbeck, but I never even cracked a page of it.  Instead, I spent my vacation reading a book about poor French people who drink themselves to death! Yes, dear readers, my choice for a light vacation read was L'Assommoir by Emile Zola, also known as The Drinking Den.  Fun stuff!

What happened was this.  I had a big stack of French books and Victorians to choose from for vacation reads, lighter stuff mostly -- including The Ladies' Paradise by Zola, an ode to shopping and consumerism (perfect for Disneyland, right?)  Well, on a whim, I grabbed L'Assommoir off the shelf to read a few pages while I had my lunch.  I'd been putting this Zola off because it sounded absolutely dreary, but during lunch,  I read the first chapter and I was completely hooked, so I HAD to bring the book on vacation, because I had to know what happened next.  

Here's the setup:  Set in the mid-19th century, Gervaise Macquart is a young woman of twenty-two, living in seedy hotel in Paris.  In the book's first pages, she's anxiously waiting up all night for her lover, Auguste Lantier, the father of her two young sons.  He finally arrives home at the crack of dawn after drinking and carousing all night; meanwhile, she's pawning all her possessions so they can eat.  She goes out to do some laundry and meanwhile Lantier skips town with practically everything she owns.  (Her reaction to this news while doing laundry is pretty priceless; the book is worth reading for this chapter alone).

Gervaise is no quitter, and pulls herself up by her bootstraps and works hard as a laundress.  Eventually, she marries a roofer named Coupeau, who seems like an upstanding, non-drinking guy.  After a rather rocky wedding day (another great chapter!), things are going pretty well for her.  She and Coupeau are both working, he's a good father figure, and she's ready to go into business on her own.  Sadly, she's surrounded by jealous gossips who take advantage of her and stab her in the back at a moment's notice -- and then her old lover Lantier shows up and worms his way back into her life.  She and Coupeau start on a downward spiral that is horribly depressing yet so engrossing I could not stop reading it.

I've read a lot of books with characters that I like to call fascinating train wrecks, but Gervaise has to be one of the worst -- but Zola writes her and her situation so well.  The characters seem so real that sometimes I just want to jump into the book and give them a good shaking.  Her life is hard but things are looking up until she makes one stupid decision after another.  I wanted to slap her upside the head like Cher slaps Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck (one of my favorite movies of all time):

If you've read any Zola before, this book combines the train wreck aspects of La Bete Humaine with the nasty backbiting characters of Pot-Bouille, in a Paris apartment complex in a working-class neighborhood.  It's the seventh in the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and though the characters are related to others in the series, it's fine to read as a stand-alone book -- Gervaise is the mother of Nana, the eponymous main character in book #9; and also of Claude, the artist in The Masterpiece (#14); Jacques,  the engine driver in La Bete Humaine; and Etienne, the mine worker in Germinal (#13).  Of those, I've only read La Bete Humaine and Germinal, both of which I loved, so it was interesting to read about their childhoods and how Zola was setting up these characters for the later books.

Based on the title, I thought this book was going to be incredibly depressing and dreary, and this is somewhat true --there are some scenes of people drinking that are pretty awful and even nauseating, but they're only a small part of the book; from the title, I thought the entire 400+ pages was going to be about people sitting around a bar getting soused.  Also, the ending is pretty sad, but that didn't surprise me -- I've read seven novels by Zola so far and not a single one has a happy ending!   However, Zola is so good at weaving these tales I can't stop reading them.

Has anyone else read this novel?   Did you find it incredibly depressing?  And is it strange that Zola writes these amazing books about such wretched people?  And does anyone else take classics on vacation?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

This was one of the books I chose last year for my TBR Challenge, and since it's a neo-Victorian, I thought it would fit in very well with the Victorian Celebration.  Well, yes and no.  It's set in the Victorian era, though it was written 100 years later, in 1969, and even though Fowles does a very good job of writing in the Victorian style, it's definitely a modern novel, or post-modern one.  In other words, it's very meta and the ending just confused the heck out of me.

I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself.  Ostensibly, this is the story of a love triangle between Charles Smithson, an idle gentlemen in his early thirties, the heir apparent to a title and grand estates; his fiancee Ernestina, the sweet but spoiled only daughter of a rich tradesman; and the eponymous French Lieutenant's Woman, Sarah Woodruff (the French Lieutenant himself is only mentioned in passing, so don't worry about him).   Ernestina is staying with her aunt in Lyme a few months before her marriage to Charles, and he's come down to Lyme to visit her and poke around looking for fossils (the same ones discussed at length in Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, which I read several months ago).

One day while Charles and Ernestina are out walking out on the famous Cobb, Charles sees a beautiful and mysterious woman, staring at the sea.  She's a local eccentric known as the French Lieutenant's Woman -- apparently the Lieutenant was a shipwreck survivor and she fell in love with him while nursing him back to health.  She had planned to run off with him, but instead he left without her and ruined her reputation.  Sarah is employed as a companion by a nasty and pious rich woman who likes to torture the less fortunate, and she's forbidden to go out walking to the sea or the woods, but she defies her mistress and keeps running into Charles.  Charles then becomes obsessed with her, which complicates his engagement, as you can well imagine.

This story starts out as a fairly straightforward Victorian melodrama, but after a few chapters, it becomes apparent that it's more than that.  The omniscient narrator becomes more and more involved in the story, addressing the reader directly and reminding us that this is a modern book, with references to the present day and how Victorians were so different, unable to imagine television and computers and whatnot.  He starts putting in witty asides and footnotes and whole histories of other people, to try and show us how the Victorian mind worked and how different things are in the present (that is, the late 1960s).
The famous Cobb at Lyme Regis

I liked this book but at some points I did get very annoyed by the narrator, who seemed rather smug and condescending to the reader.  I assume Charles' attraction to Sarah was supposed to symbolize the break with traditional repressive Victorian society and desire for freedom.  (He's also a lazy snob, and I don't think he's ever worked a day in his life.)

One thing that really bothered me was I found the novel extremely sexist -- nearly all the female characters were either manipulative, gold-diggers or looking for husbands, with the exception of Ernestina's aunt who seemed genuinely kind.  There's a lot of discussion about hysterical females which I found really off-putting -- I'm sure Fowles is trying to show how modern he is, but since it was written  during the late 1960s, during the women's movement, I can't help but wonder if he's taking shots at feminism.

Also, I found the ending rather confusing.  I guess post-modern meta-fiction is just not my thing.  Still, overall I liked this book, though I wasn't what I expected at all.  I'd seen the movie years ago but I barely remembered anything about it, which I suppose is a good thing.