Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

(Edited to remove a possible spoiler)

At last, I have finished; I have completed all six novels of the Barsetshire Chronicles!  It's more than 3,000 pages, more if you count the introductions and endnotes!!  I started back in 2009, but I really hit my stride last year, finishing Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, and The Small House at Allington.  I started The Last Chronicle of Barset the day after Christmas and read it in bits and pieces for the past month.

If you're a Trollope reader, this is the book that ties up all the loose ends in Barsetshire.  Nearly every major character from the previous five books makes an appearance, from the first book to the last, and some new characters as well.  The reader sees how all the characters fit in together in the world of Barset, especially among the clergy (though I never could remember the difference between the dean, the bishop, and the archbishop.  Oh well).

Basically, the story starts out with a scandal, a mystery that brings all the characters together.  Reverend Crawley, a minor character from Framley Parsonage, has been accused of stealing a check for 20 pounds to pay his butcher's bill.  He refuses to get legal help and is arrested for theft.  Barsetshire is abuzz with the news, and people take sides, many of them jumping to conclusions long before the trial.  (I'm talking about you, Mrs. Proudie!)

This is further complicated by the fact that his eldest daughter Grace is the love interest of Henry Grantly, son of the Archdeacon, and grandson of Mr. Harding, the main character of The Warden.  The archbishop won't hear of his son marrying her while her father is under a cloud of suspicion, causing friction in the family;  meanwhile, we learn the fate of Johnny Eames, and many of the other Barset characters, including Dr. Thorne, Miss Dunstable, and the wicked witch of Barset, Mrs. Proudie.  The only character I really missed was the oily Obadiah Slope of Barchester Towers, who, sadly, makes no appearance.  And a few new characters are thrown in as well, just to thicken the plot.

I really liked this book and the way it tied up all the loose ends of Barsetshire.  However, I did feel sometimes that it was dragging on too long.  It's nearly 900 pages!  Honestly, the story of Josiah Crawley could have been trimmed a bit -- pages and pages are devoted to the fact that he won't come to his own defense and hire a lawyer because he's a little too ethereal to bother himself with everyday problems like paying bills.  I also thought some of the side stories were a little unnecessary.  And I still wanted to strangle Lily Dale. (Highlight if you want to know the answer).

Nevertheless, this is a really satisfying ending to the series.  I'm quite proud to have finished it -- now on to the Pallisers, another six-volume series, this one with a more political angle.  I'm sad to be leaving Barchester but I look forward to reading more Trollope.  I'll probably try and read a couple of the stand-alone novels before I tackle another series of Victorian triple-deckers.

I have another 40 novels by Anthony Trollope to enjoy!!  Any suggestions?  So far, the only one I've read (besides the Barset novels) is The Way We Live Now, which I absolutely loved.  Which of Trollope's stand-alone novels are the best?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Here is a book that many people hate, and yet, it is one of my favorite books of all time.  Sadly, the people who hate this book were most likely forced to read it in high school.  I often bemoan the fact that I came to love many classics later in life, but I've also come to realize that if I had read this in high school English, it's quite likely I would have hated it as well (probably because the American Authors teacher was a terror; I took World Lit because I'd had that teacher for composition sophomore year and really liked him).  At any rate, I was happy reading Candide and 1984 (though The Mill on the Floss was a BIG mistake on my part) and my friends were suffering through The Scarlet Letter.

Nevertheless, I finally found Edith Wharton about seven years ago.  I read The Age of Innocence while on vacation in the Florida panhandle, but somehow, it didn't do much for me.   I really didn't get how wonderful Edith Wharton was until I read House of Mirth about a year later, which I could hardly put down.  Soon after I read Ethan Frome in a single sitting, and I've loved it ever since.  Since then I've enjoyed more Wharton, a writer who can write both heartbreaking novels, ghost stories, and wry and witty short stories -- if you don't believe me, just Google "Xingu" and try to read it without cracking a smile.

But, back to Ethan Frome.  If you don't know the story, basically, it is about a young man trapped in terrible circumstances.  (If you haven't read Wharton, this is pretty much the theme of her entire oeuvre.)  Told with a framing device, in flashback and conjecture, we learn that when Ethan was in his late 20s, he was trapped in a marriage with an older woman, Zenobia, a shrewish hypochondriac.  To help out, Zeena's distant cousin, Mattie Silver, had come to live with them, and Ethan is in love with her.  Once Ethan had a promising future as an engineer or scientist, but he's saddled with debts on a farm he can't sell, and now there's really no way out for him and Mattie.  Over the course of a few days, his life takes a tragic and ironic turn.

I chose this book for the January read for one of our book groups, and I think it was a good choice.  It's a short read, about 150 pages in most editions, and there's so much to discuss -- loaded with symbolism and great characterization.  Also, Wharton is just masterful at setting the scene.  I live in south Texas where we rarely get a hard freeze, much less a dusting of snow, and I just felt freezing cold while reading this book.  It brought back a lot of memories of winters I've spent in the Midwest -- about ten years ago we were stationed in Nebraska, and this story could have easily been relocated to the bleak, windy prairies.

I love Ethan Frome, but it always makes me wonder why I'm so attracted to it.  What does it say about me, if I love Wharton -- her stories are so tragic!   She does tend to write variations on the same story over and over, but she does it so well.  I've read about about seven of her novels, and I've loved most of them.  Sadly, I can only think of one that has a happy ending -- and that was her unfinished novel, The Buccaneers, which was finished by another author based on Wharton's notes.

I still have Twilight Sleep and The Glimpses of the Moon on the TBR shelves, plus The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, an NYRB Classic.  I want to read at least one of these this year.   There's a chance I may even get to visit Wharton's estate, The Mount, in the Berkshires this summer -- but that's still in the planning stages.

So, who else is a fan of Edith Wharton?  Do you love Ethan Frome, or hate it?  And has anyone been to The Mount?

This is the first book I've completed for the Back to the Classics 2013 Challenge.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Back to the Classics Challenge 2013

I did say I wouldn't sign up for any more challenges. . . but this is another great way of working on my Classics Club reading list, and finishing some more books from my TBR shelf!   It's Sarah's Back to the Classics Challenge 2013, hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much. Finish all six categories and blog about them, plus a wrap-up post, and you're entered into a drawing for a $30 gift card from, or a choice of book(s) from The Book Depository!  There are also five optional categories if you want to increase your chances.

Here are the categories:

1.  Any 19th century classic
2.  Any 20th century classic
3.  Any classic from the 18th century, or earlier
4.  Any classic related to the African-American experience
5.  Any adventure classic
6.  Any classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title

Anyone who completes all six of these is entered into a drawing at the end of the year.  Plus, there are five optional categories:

1.  A reread of a classic work
2.  A Russian classic
3.  A non-fiction classic
4.  A children's or young adult classic
5.  Classic short stories -- three or more works by the same author, or by connected by the same genre or time period.

So, here's my tentative list of reads for the challenge:

1.  19th century classic -- Can You Forgive Her?  by Anthony Trollope.  I'm nearly done with the Barsetshire series and I really want to start on the Pallisers novels.  Plus, my library now owns the audiobook, which will make it go faster.  Of course, half the books on my to-read list of classics is from the 19th century, so I have plenty from which to choose.

2.  20th century classic -- A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell.  A big fat book, and one from the Modern Library's Top 100 Novels.  Another series I'm hoping to finish someday.

3.  18th century (or older) classic -- probably Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, because I'm looking for an excuse to buy another of the beautiful Penguin clothbound classics!  Or maybe Moll Flanders, because it's fairly short. 

4.  African-American classic -- Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin.  Been on my to-read list forever. 

5.  Adventure classic -- Kim by Rudyard Kipling, which has been on the TBR shelf for awhile.  Or maybe A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs -- last year I saw the movie adaptation, John Carter, which was much better than I expected.  (Sadly, it was an incredible box office flop, so no chance of a sequel).

6.  Classic book about an animal -- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne.  I'd like to read more books in translation, and classic sci-fi.  I also own Journey to the Center of the Earth, so that's also a possibility.  (Could switch these to the adventure category as well, if I find another book about an animal).  Or maybe Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau, if I'm in the mood for a long Victorian.

And some optional books, if I can get to them:

Classic reread  -- Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.  One of my all-time favorites.  I'm definitely rereading this one in January because I chose it for my library's book group. 

Non-fiction classic -- I have a couple of choices here.  Probably The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, but I also have some classic travel books -- Letters from Hawaii by Mark Twain; In Morocco by Edith Wharton; and Pictures from Italy by Charles Dickens.  Or maybe The Flame Trees of Thika, since I'm fascinated by Africa.

Children's Classic -- The Railway Children by E. Nesbit.  I read The Story of the Treasure Seekers last summer and I absolutely loved it, so I'm looking forward to this one.

Classic short stories -- I have stacks of these as well.  I have unread volumes by Edith Wharton, Evelyn Waugh, and W. Somerset Maugham on the TBR shelves, so I'll probably choose one of these authors.

I'm not even going to try and choose a Russian to read -- all the Russians on my to-read list are incredibly long, such as Crime and Punishment.  I'll have to finish all the other books for this challenge first! 

Any suggestions regarding the list -- any real clunkers?  Which are must-reads?  And who else signed up for this challenge?  What books are you hoping to read?