Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham

I've been hard at work on my Back to the Classics Challenge!  Recently I needed a fun, light read after some fairly heavy books.  This was a children's classic, a Persephone, and a book on my TBR shelf.  Plus it was nice and short, with some cute illustrations.

Though it's a British children's classic, I'd never heard of The Children Who Lived in a Barn until I started collecting Persephone books.  It's very much in the same vein as the American series The Boxcar Children, one of my childhood favorites. 

Anyway, here's the setup:  sometime in the 1930s, the Dunnet family of seven are living in rural England, though they've just moved into a small village and hardly know anyone.  The parents get a telegram that the grandmother, who's off somewhere in Switzerland, has taken ill.  Without much thought, the parents drop everything and literally fly away, leaving the kids to manage by themselves.  Then the parents mysteriously disappear, possibly in a plane crash over the Alps, and Susan, 13, and Robert, 11, must take charge of themselves and their younger siblings, twin brothers who are 9 and a little 7-year-old sister.  Their unscrupulous landlord evicts them, but a kind farmer offers to let them stay in the barn in exchange for helping out.

At first it seems like a childhood dream to be on their own, but it quickly becomes obvious how hard it is to keep a household running, especially with a limited budget.  Susan and Robert try to make do with odd jobs and a small amount of money allocated by the bank, but things are tight, especially after school starts.  Some local busybodies have decided they'll keep an eye on the children and are none too sympathetic, mostly more judgmental than helpful.  It's the local village folk who are kinder, especially when they see how hard the older children are trying.

The beautiful endpapers from the Persephone edition

The children even rig up something called a "hay box" to keep their food warm during the day, kind of a makeshift slow-cooker.  Here's an illustration of something similar:

The hay-box probably looked something like this.
Eventually, the situation becomes dire but all turns right in the end, as this is a children's book.  I really enjoyed this -- some of my favorite childhood books are those in which the adults are out of the picture and the children are forced to take charge, like the Narnia books and the Boxcar children.

I thought the only weak point is the explanation of what happened to the parents, which seemed extremely unlikely and tacked-on.  Their characters aren't terribly well-developed and they were more immature than Susan and Robert!  However, it was a delight to read and I really enjoyed it.  I have two other classic children's books published by Persephone, The Runaway by Anna Elizabeth Hart and The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler.  I haven't read either of them yet but I hope I'll like them as much as this one.  Has anyone else read this book?  What about other children's classics -- which are your favorites?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Paris in July 2013

Well, once again I have signed up for the Paris in July blogging event -- I think this is the third year in a row!!  Naturally, I have a long list of books I'd like to read, but this year, I'm going to try and be completely realistic.  I'm going to try and read only books from my own shelves, and I've narrowed it down to just three:

Marie Antoinette:  The Journey by Antonia Fraser

This has been on my TBR shelves for awhile, and I've really been excited about nonfiction lately.  After reading Catherine the Great, I'm even more intrigued by royal biographies.  Plus the library has an audiobook copy, so I can get ahead while driving to and from work.

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

This was a birthday (or was it Christmas?) gift a few years ago -- I put a bunch of du Mauriers on a wishlist and my husband bought this for me.  This one is about a man who meets his doppelganger at a train station.  He's English and his double is French.  The other guy takes over his life and so the Englishman has no choice but to step into the Frenchman's shoes.

One of these books by Emile Zola -- this will be third July in a row that I've included Zola!  Last year it was L'Assommoir and in 2011 I read Germinal.  Here are my choices for this year:

The Ladies' Paradise -- about the rise of a Paris department store and commercialism among the French population.  It includes some of the same characters from Pot-Bouille, which I really enjoyed.  And I still have the entire series of Mr. Selfridge saved on the DVR, which might behoove me to choose this one.

Nana -- the story of a Paris courtesan.  The title character is the daughter of the ill-fated Gervaise, the laundress from L'Assommoir, and the sister of Claude Lantier from The Masterpiece and Etienne Lantier from Germinal.  It's considered one of Zola's best in the Rougon-Macquart series.

La Terre (The Earth) -- I've read that this one was Zola's favorite among his works.  It's about a rural family and is reminiscent of King Lear.

La Debacle -- a war novel about the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune of 1870-1871.  I've heard this has some of the most realistic descriptions of war in literature.

Le Reve (The Dream) -- a gift from my good friend Amanda, who is the one responsible for my love for Zola.  She says this is unlike any of his other books.  And it's short, a little more than 200 pages.

I have several other books by French writers or set in France, but I'm going to try and be completely realistic and stick to three books off this list -- one (or more!) by Zola; a nonfiction book; and a more contemporary mystery/thriller.   I think it's a good mix and hopefully I'll be able to finish all of them!

What do you think, bloggers?  Good selections?  Which Zola should I read?  Has anyone else signed up for Paris in July?  What are you reading?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

An Annoying Book-Buying Experience

Well, I meant to post about the upcoming Paris in July event, but something bookish happened today that really steamed me, and I need to vent.

I will begin at the beginning.  A few weeks ago, I started reading Barbara Pym novels for the wonderful Barbara Pym Reading Week celebration hosted by Thomas at My Porch and Amanda at Fig and Thistle.  So, I started reading some of the Pym novels on my shelves.  Some of them are beautiful Moyer Bell editions that look like this:

They're out of print now, and some of them are rather pricey.  I was lucky enough to get a couple at good prices, and a few months ago, I even got one from Paperback Swap.  Anyway, I was all into Barbara Pym and ordered some more.  Some of them were in the $20 range, which is a little spendy but I was feeling flush (I'd just had a birthday and had a little extra cash).  

Anyway, I opened up a package yesterday, but this is what I received: 

Not the same book, at all!!  And I was charged more than $20!!!  At first I thought I'd accidentally ordered the wrong book, but no, I checked the Amazon order, I definitely ordered the Moyer Bell copy.    This particular copy is a Harper Perennial, they list for much less.

So, I contacted the bookseller, and they can't see what the problem is!!!  Their response was basically, well, those books are really expensive, they're out of print, so we "upgraded you."  Really!!!  How is it an upgrade if it's not the book I ordered????  This book's cover is in good condition, but the pages are all browned and it is not a Moyer Bell.  Here's the latest response:

We are baffled by what you say, as all editions here are of the same price and quality, but if you do not want the book, please simply file a return request and send it back. 

Really and truly, we did definitely deliberately upgrade you. You ordered a lightly used book and we upgraded you to one which is un-used. About a $5 value.  We did that to try and make you happy. We are sorry it did not work. 

Now, I have nothing against Harper Perennial.  I'm sure it's a fine book and they didn't misspell any words or leave any chapters out.  But that is not the point.  If you order something, it should be as pictured.   And I'm darned if I'm going to pay the return shipping!!  It's their mistake!

The kicker here is that the slip enclosed in the book states that "we are a new company on Amazon, and we strive to be the best."  Really?  How is misleading your customers and arguing with them about the books "the best"????

And the worst part is, I accidentally ordered the same book from them TWICE.  I haven't read all the Pyms yet, and I was putting in an Amazon order the other day and accidentally ordered the same book from this seller.  AGAIN 

Bloggers, do not put yourselves through this.   Please, please, check your past order history when you order from Amazon!!

The one comfort is that I purchased them through Amazon with a credit card.  Amazon is normally very good about items that are not as pictured; if not, I'll call the nice people at Visa.  

It's just so annoying.  Seriously,  am I in the wrong here?  Am I asking too much to expect to receive what was pictured on the Amazon website?  Please let me know.  

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The 39 Steps by John Buchan

I had a hard time choosing an adventure classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.  I thought this was an easy pick --  originally I was planning on reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but I listened to an audio version and it moved so slowly that I finally gave up.  I was searching for something in my library branch the other day and ran across The 39 Steps by John Buchan, and I remembered how much I'd enjoyed the BBC movie adaptation from a few years ago.

This is the story of Richard Hannay, a youngish man, probably in his thirties.  Set in the spring of 1914, Richard has come to London after spending years in South Africa as a mining engineer.  He's made some money and wants to enjoy himself but he's rather lonely and getting bored with London society.  He craves excitement, and one day it literally bumps into him as a fellow tenant in his apartment, a man with whom he has a nodding acquaintance, accosts Richard as he's unlocking his flat and begs to come in and confide in him.  The neighbor, a Mr. Scudder, has an amazing story -- he's a spy and is in possession of some very top-secret information about international intrigue in the Balkans.  Also, he's just faked his own death to elude some very dangerous people who are trying to kill him.  Scudder convinces Richard to hide him for a few days until he can make contact with important people and prevent an international incident.

Well, this is all fascinating for Richard until he comes home one day to find Scudder dead in his apartment.  It all looks very bad, so he escapes with the clothes on his back, some cash and an encoded notebook that Scudder hid in a jar of tobacco.  (Coincidentally, Richard finds this as he is refilling his tobacco pouch.  Of course.).  He makes his way north to Scotland while eluding the police and the bad guys while trying to decode the notebook and make everything right and clear his own name.

The dishy Rupert Penry-Jones as Richard Hannay
As you'd expect, Richard gets into lots of scrapes and near-misses and has lots of brilliant escapes, kind of like an early James Bond, but without all the gadgets and sexy women.   This was a quick, light read, about 150 pages in the Penguin edition pictured above (I love the retro cover!)  I'm not really into spy or adventure stories but once in awhile I like a good thriller.  Overall, it was okay, but I did have some trouble with suspending disbelief -- it's pretty amazing in this book how often Richard manages to get out of situations one after another by amazing coincidences and his brilliant knowledge gleaned from working as a mining engineer.  Also, the book ends really abruptly.  It was published in 1915 not long after the beginning of WWI, and there's lots of foreshadowing about the war, with mentions of the Balkans and the Germans and such.

It was interesting to read a book published just at the start of the war.  Buchan wrote several sequels about Richard Hannay but I'm not sure this was interesting enough for me to go searching for them.  Has anyone else read this book?  What did you think?  What other adventure classics do you recommend?  And does anyone else think Rupert Penry-Jones would make a good James Bond?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

I think 2013 is going to be The Year of the Great Nonfiction Reads for me.  I keep finding more and more nonfiction I want to read.  Seriously, I'll bet I could read nothing but nonfiction for the rest of the year and never finish all the books on my list.

I was looking for a great biography for my library book group and this kept popping up on the radar, and after narrowing the selection down to three or four books, I took them all out to lunch with me.  After a few pages of this one, I was hooked, and would have kept right on reading it except I try very hard to wait until the month before to start it.  Normally, I allow even less time, since I like to keep the book fresh in my mind for the discussion.  This time I let myself start it a month early because it's about 600 pages long.

I never really knew very much about European history during the 18th century -- I've read War and Peace (though I've forgotten most of it) and I remember some stuff I've read about the French kings and the Revolution, but that's pretty much it.  All the 18th century history I remember is mostly about the American Revolution.  For example, I had no idea that both Catherine AND her husband Peter were actually German -- Catherine (born Sophia) was a minor German princess whose mother's brother had originally been engaged to Empress Elizabeth, though he died while they were still betrothed.  Elizabeth never married and after she seized power years later, she decided to that her heir, her nephew Peter (grandson of Peter the Great) should marry Catherine, his cousin, so they could produce an heir and ensure that Peter's lineage would continue.  Catherine embraced the Russian language and culture though Peter always hated it and wanted to return to Germany.

Basically, Catherine was AWESOME.  This is in the 1700s, when doctors thought it was still an good idea to drain your blood when you were sick, America hadn't even signed the Declaration of Independence, and a huge percentage of the Russian population was poor or even serfs.  Meanwhile, Catherine was educated and enlightened -- she corresponded regularly with Voltaire and Diderot; spent two years trying to create an enlightened system of government, with a document called the Nakaz, (which ultimately failed) -- even before the Americans wrote the Constitution; she even had herself inoculated against smallpox in 1780, to show that it was safe.  By 1800, more than 2 million Russians had been inoculated as well.

If this sounds dry, and boring, well, it wasn't.  I probably should have waited until nearer the discussion because it was an absolute page-turner.  Intrigues, scandals, plotting -- seriously, parts of this book are like an 18th-century version of Game of Thrones, but without the dragons.  Catherine's husband definitely reminded me the vile Prince Joffrey, and Catherine the Great is just as clever as Margaery Tyrell.   Lord Vaerys and some the other King's Landing courtiers would have fit right in the palaces in Moscow and St. Petersburg, if they had warmer costumes.

Margaery and Joffrey aka Catherine the Great and Peter

This book has really spurred my interest in royal biographies -- I still have The Duchess by Amanda Foreman and Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser on the TBR shelf, so I'm ready to tackle those.  And Massie's other books about the Russian royalty are definitely going on my to-read list.  I haven't decided if I should go backward in time and read his biography of Peter the Great, or skip forward and read about the Romanovs.  I'm also thinking about reading some Russian lit this summer, probably Dead Souls by Gogol.

Has anyone else read Robert Massie's books?  Which did you like best?  And what about Russian lit?  I'm a little scared off since I read Anna Karenina, but if Gogol goes well I might even try Dostoevsky!

Monday, June 10, 2013

My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley

So, the other day, I had just finished Nella Last's War, which was kind of a tough read for me.  I was looking through my bookshelves for something that would be different, not too heavy, and preferably something that would fulfill one of my challenges.  Something short would be ideal.  So I was looking through my shelf with NYRB classics (mostly unread) when I happened to gaze upon My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley.  Aha!  Just the thing -- short, nonfiction, and I could count it as my "classic featuring an animal" in the Back to the Classics Challenge.  Plus it was an NYRB that had been sitting on the shelves for over a year, since I went to New York and visited the amazing Strand Bookstore.  It sounded perfect.

However, This book was not what I expected, to say the least.  J. R. Ackerley was an excellent writer, and from the publisher's description, I expected it to be a lovely memoir of a man and his beloved dog.  I am an enormous dog lover, so I was looking forward of anecdotes and funny stories about the dog Tulip -- perhaps stories of things the dog did and shouldn't have done, things she shouldn't have eaten, people they met on walks, that sort of thing.

Well.  It started out a bit like that, with a chapter about the world's nicest lady veterinarian (this was first published in the 1950s, so I expected it to be a product of its times), but then the book progressed into a very detailed description of Tulip's bodily functions.  The second chapter is entitled, "Liquids and Solids" so I really don't need to explain much more.

The remainder of the book, which is not very long, continues with more doggy bodily functions -- specifically, reproduction.  In great detail.  More than 100 pages about Tulip reproducing, or attempting to; that is, finding the proper mate for Tulip, how it all works, how difficult it is for things to happen naturally -- I'm not going to go into further detail, but let me just say it was waaaay too much information.  Seriously, I was beginning to think I was reading 50 Shades of Greyhounds. (Okay, Tulip is German Shepherd, but you get the idea.) I did finish the book to see how it ended, but I really did not need to know the intimate details of Tulip's sex life.  There.  I've said it.

Honestly, it seemed like Ackerley was obsessed with Tulip's sex life.  At the very end of the book, it occurred to me that maybe he wanted Tulip to be fulfilled in a way that he wasn't.  Ackerley was openly gay, living in mid-century Great Britain, and the Sexual Offenses Act which de-criminalized homosexuality iwasn't passed until 1967, the year Ackerely died.  Please believe me, I'm not criticizing Ackerley personally or his love for Tulip, but this book just wasn't what I expected.  It makes me wonder why the publisher's descriptions of the book are so vague.

Ackerley wrote several other memoirs, all available as NYRB Classics, but I'm not sure after My Dog Tulip that I'm particularly interested in reading any of them.  Hindoo Holiday sounds intriguing but I'm a bit put off by Ackerley at the moment.  Has anyone else read anything by Ackerley?  What did you think?

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

Reading a Barbara Pym novel is like slipping into a warm bath after a hard day (or any day, really).  They are the ultimate comfort read.  Not too long, nor too difficult, yet full of wit, sly humor, and great characters.  Jane and Prudence is my fifth Barbara Pym novel, and once again, Pym delivers.

Basically, this is a year or so in the life of two friends.  Jane is a fortyish clergyman's wife, with a single child nearing adulthood.  She once tutored at Oxford, and her former student, Prudence, is in her late twenties, and nearing spinisterhood, though she's very attractive and has had lots of romances.  Prudence works in a London office for some sort of academic and secretly loves her boss from afar.  Jane's husband has recently taken up a new post in the country, and they're settling in.  Jane meets all the people in the village, including busybodies, paid companions, and attractive widower named Fabian who might just do for Prudence.

Meanwhile, Jane's daughter Flora is off to Oxford for her first semester.  Like most Pym novels, not much happens, yet many small things happen.  We learn the tiny details of life in the fifties, about what sort of flowers are appropriate for a Harvest festival to what sort of hats all the women wear, and, naturally, what everyone eats.  Eyebrows are raised in the village since Jane can't cook her way out of a paper bag, yet nobody expects Fabian to pick up a frying pan and fend for himself.   Prudence and Jane make various visits back and forth between London and the village parish, and Prudence becomes involved in a romance.  Will this finally result in marriage?  Naturally, the course of true love does not run smoothly.

Pym's dialogue and wry observations are once again peppered with wry observations.  For example, she describes a book that Prudence is reading as "a novel of the kind that Prudence enjoyed, well written and tortuous, with a good dash of culture and the inevitable unhappy or indefinite ending, which was so like life." Zing!  It's lines like this that Pym so great.  Very subtle and sly, but carefully observant.  I especially loved the interplay between the Prudence and her co-workers, who seem obsessed with what time everyone arrives and leaves the office, and whose responsibility it is to make the tea. For those who have read Excellent Women, there's even a mention of Mildred Lathbury.

Now I have read about 40% of Pym's oeuvre and I am dreading the day when I have finished all of them.  I've read two this past week, and two over the Christmas holiday.  I have several more unread on the shelf but I'm going to have to ration them out so I don't finish them all too quickly.

I've been trying to think of other authors that might be similar.  Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress, the writer) comes to mind, and maybe Anita Brookner.  And of course, my beloved Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen.  Who else writes like Barbara Pym?  What shall I read when I've finished all her books?  And which of her novels are your favorites?

Thanks again for Thomas at My Porch and Amanda at Fig and Thistle for organizing Barbara Pym Reading Week!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym

In honor of the centenary of Barbara Pym's birth, Thomas at My Porch and Amanda at Fig and Thistle have organized Barbara Pym Reading Week!  If you have not Barbara Pym, you are in for a treat.  I've now read four of her thirteen books and am just starting a fifth, and they have all been delightful.  

My fourth foray into Barbara Pym's world was No Fond Return of Love.  This is the story of three people who meet while attending a weekend conference on indexing in the late 1950s or early 1960s.  Two of them, Dulcie Mainwaring and Viola Dace, are thirtysomething women who have been disappointed in love; the third is a handsome scholar, Aylwin Forbes, who has recently separated from his wife.  Aylwin and Viola actually have a bit of history, though nothing's really happened, and Dulcie develops a bit of a crush on Aylwin.  

Viola and Dulcie become friendly and as their friendship develops, so does Dulcie's interest in Aylwin. In fact, she almost becomes a bit stalkerish.  At the time, it would probably have been considered just an eccentric crush, but nowadays I think one would be worried.  Dulcie begins to track down Alywin's ex-wife, the parish of Alywin's brother, a clergyman; and the somewhat shabby seaside hotel where Alywin grew up.  There are a lot of moments which are almost painfully awkward to read as Dulcie snoops about him and Viola, still getting over her crush, indulges her.  

Still, it's all very delightful.  We also get a bit of insight into a younger crowd as Dulcie's twentyish niece Lucy moves in with her while she starts a secretarial course in London.  There are also the usual cast of clergyman's wives and do-gooder churchwomen that seem to inhabit all of Pym's novels, and lots of discussion of the food and drink of the period.  I will be forever curious about Cauliflower Cheese from having read Barbara Pym, and though I am lactose intolerant and cauliflower is far from my favorite vegetable, I will probably try and make one soon since I recently ordered this:

It should arrive in the next month or so, and hopefully I'll be able to make all the recipes mentioned in the books.  

Though Barbara Pym is often compared to Jane Austen.  I don't know if I'd say that exactly -- her heroines are older, more jaded, and a little more worldy than Austen's.  However, if Jane Austen traveled in time to the 1950s, still unmarried and fortyish, without aristocratic connections, I can definitely see her writing books very much like No Fond Return of Love and Excellent Women.  They have a similar wry humor and sneaky observations.  

When I opened this book I was hooked from the very first page, with this sentence:

For what could be more peculiar than a crowd of grown-up people, most of them middle-aged or even elderly, collected together in a girls' boarding school in Derbyshire for the purposes of discussing scholarly niceties that meant nothing to the rest of the world?
This cracked me up because for the three of the past four years, I've spent  a long weekend at the Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, surrounded by about 500 Janeites, discussing her works and her world, from its broad themes to absolute minutiae.  I'm quite sure most of my Janeite friends would love Barbara Pym, if they don't read her already.  

Who else is reading Barbara Pym this week?  Which are your favorites?  And who has a good recipe for Cauliflower Cheese?