Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Daddy's Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer

I didn't intend to review another Persphone right away, but once again, Inter-Library Loan has dictated my reading schedule.  (This is what comes of boredom and infinite access to library catalogs via the internet.  I once had eight Persephones arrive at the same time via ILL!)

After carrying this book around in my bookbag for a couple of weeks, a looming due date inspired me to open up this slim volume, vintage 1958 (and a beautiful copy it was, thanks to the Tulsa, Oklahoma public library system).  This is the story of Ruth Whiting, a thirty-something mother in late 1950s England, living a dull suburban existence.  She's just dropped her two sons off at the train enroute to boarding school for the fall term, and returns home to an empty suburban home.  Her eldest child, an eighteen-year old Angela, has just zipped off on the back of some guy's Vespa, and she's home alone since her dentist husband spends the weeknights at a London flat.

Endpapers from the Persephone edition of "Daddy's Gone A-Hunting"

Basically, this is the story of Ruth having a minor breakdown, and how she recovers when forced into  a difficult situation with her daughter; she doesn't want Angela to repeat her mistakes and end up with a life like hers.  

This book was sad but it was a real eye-opener about how life must have been like for women in the late fifties and early sixties before the women's movement began to take off.  Parts of it were bitingly funny; Penelope Mortimer gets in some real zingers, especially her observations about suburban life.  Here's a quote, discussing the people in Ruth's neighborhood:  

Like little icebergs, each [wife] keeps a bright and shining face above water; below the surface, submerged in fathoms of leisure, each keeps her own isolated personality.  Some are happy, some poisoned with boredom; some drink too much and some, below the demarcation line, are slightly crazy; some love their husbands and some are dying from lack of love; a few have talent, as useless to them as a paralysed limb.  Their friendships, appearing frank and sunny, are febrile and short-lived, turning quickly to malice.  Combined, their energy could start a revolution, power half of Southern England, drive an atomic plant.  It is all directed towards the effortless task of living on the Common.  There are times, towards the middle of the school term, when the quiet air seems charged, ready to spit lightning; when it is dangerous to touch a shrilling telephone and a coffee cup may explode without reason. 

Mortimer herself had a difficult life; she had two husbands and multiple affairs.  Eventually, she had a total of six children by four different men.  She was a journalist, and wrote several novels, plus screenplays.   Most of her work is out of print, but another novel, The Pumpkin Eater, is now available as an NYRB classic, so I've suggested it for purchase for my library.  The library also owns a DVD called Portrait of a Marriage, for which Mortimer wrote the screenplay, so I've put it on my request list. It originally aired in the U.S. on Masterpiece Theater and it's about Vita Sackville West, starring Janet McTeer, so I'm intrigued.  I still haven't read anything by Sackville-West but I have The Edwardians on my to-read shelves.

Monday, February 18, 2013

April Zola Reading Event

Fanda from Fanda Classic Lit and  O from Delaisse are hosting a Zola reading event!!  In honor of Zola's birthday, which is April 2, they are hosting Zoladdiction, which is basically a month of reading Zola.  Well, I love Zola, and I have several volumes waiting patiently on the TBR shelves -- how could I refuse?

You can find details here, but essentially, participants will read Zola's works and blog about them during the month of April.  There are three levels of participation, named in honor of three of his most famous heroines:

First level:  Maheude -- read one book 
Second level:  Gervaise -- read two or three books
Third level:  Nana -- read four or more books

As much as I'd love to read all Zola, all the time, I'm going to be realistic and commit to the second level, Gervaise -- I'm sure I can read two books by Zola in one month!

Currently, I have six unread works by Zola in my possession, so I'm going to try and read at least two of them:

The Ladies' Paradise -- sex and shopping!  The story of a department store, with some of the characters from Pot Bouille

The Debacle -- Zola's only historical novel, set during the Franco-Prussian War.  Said to be one of the most accurate depictions of war in literature. 

The Dream -- the story of a young orphan living in a world of dreams.  It sounds very different from the harsh realism of most Zola novels.

I won't actually be reading this in French.
But I really like this cover!
The Earth -- a rural novel, set in Provence.  I've heard it has parallels with King Lear.

Nana -- one of Zola's most famous works, the story of a high-class courtesan in Paris.  Nana is the daughter of Gervaise, the washerwoman in L'Assommoir.

The Masterpiece -- Zola's most autobiographical novel, about a tortured artist.  Supposedly Zola's childhood friend Paul Cezanne never spoke to Zola after the novel was published.

Well -- is anyone else signing up for Zoladdiction?  Which novels should I read?  What's your favorite Zola novel?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Chunkster Challenge 2013

I did promise not to sign up for any more challenges, but if I can fulfull a new challenge while knocking a few books off the TBR shelf, why not?  Especially big fat books?  Bring on the Chunkster Challenge 2013!

Last year I was easily able to complete the Do These Books Make My Butt Look Big Challenge?, so I'm going to sign up for that level again.  Here's what I need to complete it, and some possible titles:

Two books between 450 and 550 pages:

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett (512 pages)
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Mildred Jung Chang (544 pages) Completed 10/28/13
The Persephone Book of Short Stories (477 pages)
Completed 4/30/13
Giants of the Earth by H. E. Rolvaag (453 pages) Completed 7/9/13
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki  (530 pages)
Completed 4/25/13
The New York Stories of Edith Wharton (464 pages) Completed 8/2/13
The Earth by Emile Zola (512 pages)

Two books between 551 and 750 pages:

The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt (675 pages) Completed 9/6/13
Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson (590 pages)
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (625 pages)
The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (552 pages) Completed 8/28/13
The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker (626 pages)
Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson (556 pages)
The American Senator by Anthony Trollope (561 pages) Completed 4/6/13

Two books of 750 pages or more:
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clark (782 pages)
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber (894 pages)
The Art of Eating by M. F. K. Fisher (784 pages)
The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hacek (752 pages) Completed 8/24/13
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1232) pages)
Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope (825 pages) Completed 10/11/13

Plus, I could choose any one of a number of Victorian triple-deckers by Trollope still on my shelves -- I think I have about ten that would fulfill the requirements!!   I'm slightly annoyed that I didn't sign up for this before completing The Last Chronicle of Barset (and that I started it before January 1, thereby disqualifying it from the challenge.  Oh, well, it's not as if I don't have enough other choices!)

Which do you recommend, bloggers?  And is anyone else signing up for this challenge?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fidelity by Susan Glaspell

Susan Glaspell

I'm way behind on my TBR Pile Challenge list, it's already February!  Originally, my goal was to complete one from the list every month.  Finally, I've finished Fidelity by Susan Glaspell, one of the first Persephones I ever purchased (which has been sitting around unread since about 2010, ahem!)

Anyway.  This is one of the Persephones by an American writer, which tends to be a little jarring for me -- if I read a lovely dove-grey book I usually expect it to be British, so reading about life in small-town America was a little strange every time I picked it up.  This is the story of Ruth Holland, a young woman growing up in Iowa who upsets the balance of society in a small town when she runs off with a married man at the age of twenty.

The story begins thirteen years later, in 1913, when Ruth's oldest friend, Dr. Deane Franklin, returns home to Freeport with his new bride.  Deane and Amy are making the rounds of society parties, introducing Amy to all the best people in town, when Ruth's name comes up.  Ruth's scandalous behavior has caused ripples in the fabric of the town society that are still felt years later -- people still blame Deane somewhat for defending Ruth and standing by her.  Ruth's family was ostracized, and it hurt the family business.

Years later, Deane is still the physician for Ruth's family, and her father is dying.  He's written to Ruth to come and see her father one last time, and her arrival causes turmoil for Deane, his bride Amy, Ruth's former best friend, Edith, and for Ruth's sister and brothers.

The story is told in the third person, so the reader gets to see the story from various perspectives -- from Deane, who was once in love with Ruth, and still cares for her; from the bride Amy, whose joys as a newlywed are upset by Ruth's arrival; and by Ruth herself, who is still shunned by her old friends, most of the "society people" and even by members of her own family.   It's not so much about the fidelity of marriage, but about Ruth's infidelity to her friends and family and the entire town.

The beautiful endpapers from Fidelity, an image of a Log Cabin quilt sewn in Iowa

It's a really interesting story, and it really made me think about the interplay of people in a small town.  It's set 100 years ago, and it made me wonder how the story would have played out in the 21st century.  I've never lived in a small town -- my closest experience was living on a military base overseas, and though I can't say I knew everyone, I ran into people I knew constantly.  I suppose it wasn't unlike living in a small town, but one where the people changed every three or four years -- even if you knew everyone, you didn't know their whole life history and all the skeletons in their closets.

I'm sure there are still small communities like that, but people are so much more mobile today, and modern communications and technology have changed so much.   I was wondering if a situation like Ruth's could still take place today.   

A couple of years ago I read the other Persephone book by Susan Glaspell, Brook Evans, which is the story of a young girl who has an affair and gets pregnant, and how this affects three generations of a family.  It was so good I read it almost all in one sitting.    Besides these two, I don't think any of Susan Glaspell's books are still in print, which is an absolute shame, especially since she was a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright.  

This is the 49th book from the Persephone catalog that I've completed, and the first book for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Classics Spin for the Classics Club

So, The Classics Club has come up with a fun idea for choosing a classic book to read:  participants choose twenty unread books off their Classics Club to-read list, numbered one to twenty.  Then, next Monday, the club posts a random number, and that's the book off the list we have to choose, to be finished by April 1. Sounds fun!

Updated:  the selection for the Classics Spin was #14.  So I'm reading The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow by Margaret Oliphant.  I'm looking forward to it!

I have selected the following books for my possible read:

Five books that scare me a little:

1.  The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hacek
2.  Kipps by H. G. Wells
3.  Giants in the Earth by A. E. Rolvaag
4.  I, Claudius by Robert Graves
5.  Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence

Five books I can't wait to read:

6.  The Masterpiece by Emile Zola
7.  Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
8.  The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
9.  Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck
10.  Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope

Five books I'm neutral about:

11.  Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant
12.  One of Ours by Willa Cather
13.  Theater by W. Somerset Maugham
14.  The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow by Margaret Oliphant
15.  The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Five big fat books I'd love to cross off the list:

16.  Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope
17.  Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
18.  The Earth by Emile Zola
19.  A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement)  by Anthony Powell
20.  Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

I want to read all of them, so I think no matter what I'll be happy (unless I end up hating it, especially if it's a long book!) And almost every one of them is from my TBR bookcase, so I'll probably have another of those crossed off the list -- or one that's been on my to-read list for a long time.

Which books are the best?  And has anyone else signed up for this?  Send me a link so I can look at your Classics Spin list!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Go Tell it On the Mountain by James Baldwin

Go Tell it On the Mountain has probably been on my to-read list since 2005, since I discovered The Modern Library 100 Best Novels list.  (I've now read 48 of them.)  Along with Native Son and The Invisible Man, this novel is one of the classics of African-American fiction.

This is a short book, about 250 pages in most editions.  Basically, this is a semi-autobiographical story based on Baldwin's early life.  It's centered around a day in the life of John Grimes, on his 14th birthday.  It's 1935 and he's growing up in Harlem,  where he lives with his parents, baby sister, and younger brother Royal.  His father Gabriel is a preacher, and everyone thinks he'll grow up in his father's footsteps.  He and his father have a difficult relationship, because his father favors his younger, wilder brother.

The story deals with John's spiritual and sexual awakening, and flashes back to his parents, Gabriel and Elizabeth, and his aunt Florence, and how they moved north from their life of poverty in the Deep South.  It's not overtly about racial conflict, but racism plays a big part in their situation and how it shapes their lives.  There's a lot of religion in the novel, but it's also about family dynamics.

Go Tell it On the Mountain was an easier read for me than Native Son, which has some really unpleasant characters doing horrible things, but I don't think Baldwin was trying to make a big social statement like Richard Wright.  I think it's really just a snapshot, a look into people's lives.  I'm not a religious person, so I'll admit that those parts of the book really didn't speak to me and I ended up skimming them somewhat.  What I was really interested in was the family histories, the role of the female characters, and how hard it was for African-Americans at that time.  The characters are really well-developed and I found them very realistic.

This book was the monthly selection for the library's classic book group, and though not everyone had managed to finish the book, we had a really good discussion about religion and how writers portray it in modern novels versus older book.  I'd still like to read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, though I'm a little intimidated by it, because of the length and the subject matter.

Have any of you read Go Tell it On the Mountain?  How about Invisible Man?

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