Monday, July 29, 2013

Top Ten Books That Scare Me The Most

So, I'm about a third of the way through one of the biggest, fattest books on my TBR Challenge List, The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek.  Quite frankly, I'm pretty pleased with myself for tackling it, because it's long, and it's about war, and it's in translation from a former Communist country.  And the coolest thing is that I'm actually enjoying it.  Earlier this year, I made a list of 20 books for a Classics Spin, and one of the categories was "Five Books That Scare Me."  So far this summer, I've read three of the five on the list, and I've actually enjoyed all of them!  (The other two were Lady Chatterley's Lover and Giants in the Earth.)

So it got me thinking that hey, maybe I could work up the nerve to read something that really scares me.  Not books that are scary, necessarily, like horror.  Really, what I mean are books that intimidate me, that I'm afraid to tackle, because they're really long, or sound really depressing, or, quite frankly, I'm afraid I'm not smart enough to understand or appreciate.  Basically, pushing myself.  I'm not a total idiot -- I read Dickens and Zola and Edith Wharton, though I have no desire to ever tackle Ulysses.

So here is a list of books, mostly from my own shelves, which I have not read and which I've been putting off.  Am I right to be scared, or should I put them in the library donation box?

1.  Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.  It's 600 pages of men chasing a whale. Rumor has it the whale doesn't show up for 100 chapters, and it's full of allegory which is not my strong point.  But I have a beautiful Penguin Deluxe Classics copy which was free, so I feel that I should try it sometime.  Plus I like books about sailing, since I live miles from any ocean.

2.  The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.  Another Penguin Deluxe Classic that I own.  The cover of this particular edition gives me nightmares.  I'm told by a good friend that it isn't any more gruesome than Germinal, which I loved.

3.  Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.  It's 1,232 pages, and there are entire chapters about the Paris sewer system.  I know many people love this book but I find the length daunting.  I bought the Penguin clothbound classic edition because the cover was really pretty.

4.  Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo.  I have a Wordsworth Classic edition which I actually bought at the Notre Dame gift shop. (It still has the price tag on it, in Euros which I find really cool).  Bought after I walked halfway up the 20 gazillion steps and desperately needed a break, because there are no elevators.  The people who work there must have awesome thigh muscles.

5.  To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.  Bought at a library sale for $1, so if I never read it, I won't feel the loss too badly.  Stream-of-consciousness is not my thing, so I don't know if I'll ever actually read it.

6.  The Invention of Curried Sausage by Uwe Timm.  A very short book, a novella really, but I started reading it and it's set in Germany after WWII, which sounds really depressing.  I bought it at Half-Price Books because it was on that 1000 Books to Read Before You Die list.  I'd never heard of it before that and the title really intrigued me.

7.  The Canterbury Tales by Peter Ackroyd (retold).  Another Penguin Deluxe Classic.  They've been retold into modern English, but anything written before 1800 makes me nervous.

8.  The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.  A guy wakes up and he's turned into a giant bug.  I know it's an allegory, but I really hate bugs.

9.  Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  (Also The Brothers Karamazov). A long Russian novel about crime.  And punishment.  Seriously, Russian novels scare me.  My last was Doctor Zhivago, not a great experience.

10.  Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.   It's long, it's picaresque, which means it has sort of a meandering plot, and it was published in 1605.  That's enough to scare anybody.

So -- those are the books that scare me the most, at the moment -- this list could change.  Are my fears well founded?  Are these actually awesome books that I will grow to love, and kick myself for waiting so long?  Or should I run screaming in the other direction before I read them?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Ladies' Paradise by Emile Zola

Slowly, but surely, I am working my way through the entire Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels by Emile Zola.  My eighth effort was The Ladies' Paradise, the eleventh novel in the series.  Loosely based on the famous Bon Marche department store in Paris, this is the story of Denise Baudu, a poor shopgirl of twenty who has come to Paris from the provinces, hoping for a job.  Her parents have both died, and she has two younger brothers to support -- Jean, 16, who's a bit of a ne'er-do-well and already a womanizer; and little Pepe, who is only five.

After her parents passed away, Denise was promised a job by her uncle, who owns a draper's shop in Paris.  Unfortunately, by the time Denise arrives unannounced, business is very bad, mostly because of the expansion of the nearby department store complex, Au Bonheur Des Dames (aka The Ladies' Paradise) which is swallowing up nearby small businessmen, then undercutting them and putting them out of business.  (Sound familiar?)  It's owned by Octave Mouret, the playboy from the previous novel, Pot-Bouille.  He's now a widower who inherited pots of money from his late wife, and has invested all the money into the store, creating a store like no other, at which you can get absolutely everything you need.

Jean has an apprenticeship and goes off on his own (and repeatedly gets into romantic entanglements); Pepe is boarded with some neighbors, but Denise is forced out of desperation to take a job at the evil incarnate, Au Bonheur des Dames.  Her uncle is furious but what can she do?  Mouret has also gone back to his playboy ways, and has his eye on Denise, who blooms as she becomes a skilled shop worker.

Like the train in La Bete Humaine, the main character in this book is the department store itself -- it's basically a satirical look on consumerism and the rise of the very first big-box stores.  I could not help thinking of Wal-Mart as I read this, and how it has squeezed on so many independent retailers.  Zola uses the novel to satirize consumerism, greed, and the rising power of women in the retail market.   I was also struck, over and over, how history is repeating itself with big box stores like Wal-Mart, though I'm pretty sure the employees at Au Bonheur Des Dames are treated better than Wal-Mart employees!

However, the characters themselves aren't that well developed, and I found Denise in particular to be a little too good to believe, too forgiving and long-suffering.  I've seen a lot of this type in Trollope novels lately and it's beginning to get on my nerves.  I suppose it's a Victorian trope, though at least the young women in Trollope and Zola aren't nearly as bad as the ones in Dickens' novels.

The Paradise series on BBC.  
The Ladies' Paradise (#11 in the series, and the eighth I have completed) is fairly popular for a Zola novel, though nowhere near Germinal or Therese Raquin.  You'd think the subject, shopping and commercialism, would make it more popular.  I was inspired to pick this up by my recent binge-watch of Mr. Selfridge -- the entire series had been taking up space on my DVR for several months.  I've also heard that The Ladies' Paradise was adapted into a BBC series called The Paradise, and I've just discovered it will begin airing on PBS here in the States on October 6!!  The folks at BBC know how we Yanks love those British period dramas!

Anyway, it was interesting and entertaining, but not nearly as good as Germinal or La Bete Humaine, which are my favorites by Zola so far -- I'd rank it as a second-tier Zola novel, closer to The Belly of Paris or Pot-Bouille.  Still, worth reading, especially if you like shopping and fashion, or if you're in withdrawal from Mr. Selfridge.  I have a feeling I'll see more blog postings about it in the fall after the TV show starts to air.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

I wish I had the discipline (and the time) to review each and every book I read, as soon as I finish it.  I finished My Name is Asher Lev, back in June.  Other things, other books, other reviews just got in the way.  It is a bad idea to wait an entire month to review a book, but I'll give it a shot.  To the best of my recollection.

Anway -- Asher Lev was a gift from my good friend Amanda, who used to blog about books but now mostly blogs about other things.  I put this on my TBR 2013 Challenge list because I didn't want the entire list to be books by authors that had been dead for years and years (Potok did pass away in 2002, but he's pretty contemporary compared to the rest of this list).

So, Asher Lev is an artist, and he begins his story by telling the reader that he is most famous for creating a painting of a crucifixion, a blasphemy for an observant Jew.  He's not just an observant Jew -- Asher was raised an orthodox Jew, a Hasidic, very traditional and conservative.  Asher lives in New York and was born shortly after WWII, and it is the life's work of his father to help other Jews in Europe, so that they can practice their faith safely.  His mother is studying Russian to be able to help persecuted Jews in Russia.

However, young Asher has different ideas.  As long as he can remember, he's been obsessed with drawing and painting.  It's part of him, he can't stop doing it, much to the chagrin of his father, who believes that he's just wasting his time on frivolity -- Asher's father wants him to do something to glorify God and help other Jews.  Every day, Asher struggles with his need to create art against his family's wishes -- he wants to please his father, and win his love, but his art is a part of him.  This is the story of his coming of age, as a young man and an artist, and how he tries to reconcile the two.

I wasn't sure I wanted to read another book about an artist after my disappointment with The Masterpiece by Emile Zola, which I finished a couple of months ago.  In that book, the main character was so obsessed by his art he lets it ruin his life and the lives of the people around him.  This book is quite different.  Asher is really struggling to satisfy his need to create art and his need to please his family.  It's a really interesting character study.  I'd never read anything by Chaim Potok, but the writing was excellent and the characters interesting and well-developed.  I took a few art history classes in college but I really don't know much about modern art.  I don't think Asher is necessarily based on a particular artist, but I tried to imagine what his art might have looked like.  I was also quite pleased that I recognized most of the real artists and works of art mentioned in the book, like Chagall and Modigliani, and Picasso's Guernica.

La Mariee by Marc Chagall.  
I've also been very amused this summer as many high school students came to the reference desk at my library looking for this book!  Apparently it was on the summer reading list for a local high school -- the choice was My Name is Asher Lev or The Count of Monte Cristo!  I still haven't read Monte Cristo but now I can definitely recommend Asher Lev.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag

Back in 2000, we moved to Nebraska, a state about which I knew absolutely nothing, except that it was surrounded by six other states which I'd not yet visited, and that they grew a lot of corn.  I did not know that it was full of kind and charming people, that the weather was lovely eight months of the year (I won't lie: winters were long and often harsh) and that it was within driving distance of several major cities, including Kansas City and St. Louis.  It turned out to be one of the nicest places in which I would ever live.

Anyhow, not long after our arrival, an old college friend came for a visit, bringing a hostess gift of two books about life on the prairies:  My Antonia and Giants in the Earth.  I did finally read My Antonia with a book group while living right there in the heartland (and I've accumulated another stack of books by Willa Cather) but somehow, Giants in the Earth kept getting packed and unpacked for the next three moves (it did not even cross the ocean for our assignment in Japan; it was relegated to storage for three years).  When I made this year's TBR Pile Challenge List, I buckled down and committed to reading it after schlepping it unread for thirteen years.

So, finally, I finished this book last week, while on vacation in Michigan -- not so much corn in suburban Detroit, but the weather was pretty nice and I had lots of spare time to read.  And I was pleased to discover that after all these years of waiting around and moving this book from house to house, I did enjoy this book.  It's the story of a Norwegian pioneer family after the Civil War:  Per Hansa; his long-suffering wife Beret; and their three (soon to become four) children.  

First published in Norwegian back in 1927, Giants in the Earth starts out as the family is alone on the prairie, trying to catch up with some other Norwegian families who have left Minnesota and are going to start a new settlement in the Dakota territories (not Nebraska, but relatively close to where I eventually lived in Omaha).  Per Hansa et al have become separated from the group and are lost on the prairie; Beret is pregnant and terrified of what will happen if they don't get their bearings and meet up with the rest.  Everything they own is stuffed into the wagon drawn by their two oxen, and it's like a giant sea of grass.  

Eventually, they catch up with the rest and all seems well.  The rest of the story is several years in the life of the family; basically, it's like Little House on the Prairie, but from the point of the view of the adults.  Seriously, what was it really like for Ma out there, all alone in the Dakota territory, living in a sod house?  They were miles from anyone else -- can you imagine giving birth all alone like that?  And living in a house made of dirt?  And the winters -- well, winters in Nebraska are long and hard.  I love the change of seasons, but I really enjoy the Texas winters -- it's rare if it drops below the thirties, much less snow.  Winter in Omaha can last about five months, and the wind whips over the plains, and boy, it is cold.  I loved living in Omaha but I don't know how people did it 150 years ago, miles from anyone else for days or weeks at a time.  And don't get me started on outhouses in the winter -- I haven't been camping for years, and it was in the summer.  I like my modern conveniences!

I've been a military spouse for 18 years, and since 1995 we've had six major moves, including one overseas.  They're always incredibly stressful, even in modern times with real beds, real toilets, and professional packers and movers.  I don't know how pioneer women did it back then.  These women had to deal with the cold and the dirt and they were lucky to see a midwife, much less a doctor.  And the stress of worrying about crops -- these people are dealing with plagues of locusts just like the Ingalls family in LHotP.  We've got some giant bugs in Texas but nothing like what they had to deal with.

Anyway, it's a really interesting book if you're at all curious about pioneer life.  It's an easy read (though many of the characters are named Per or Ole or Hansa) and my biggest quibble is how abruptly the book ended.  Afterward I realized that it's the first of a trilogy, so you find out what happens to the family in subsequent books, though they're harder to find.  I don't know that I enjoyed it enough rush out and track down the next two books right away but you never know, I might look for them after I've made some more progress on the TBR piles. 

This book counts for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge; my 2013 Chunkster Challenge; and it's book #29 in my Classics Club Challenge.  

Monday, July 1, 2013

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence

Finally, I have finished this book, which has been on my TBR shelf since 2011 when I received a Big Box of Penguin Deluxe Classics.  Which was awesome, but the box contained a few that I feared I would never read, including Moby-Dick, The Jungle, and this one.  (Plus Gravity's Rainbow and White Noise, but I've given those away to someone who will truly appreciate them).  I put it both the list for the Classics Club Challenge and the TBR Pile Challenge 2013.  And last month, it came up as my Classics Spin selection.  There was no escape. 

I was a little afraid, but I'd read Sons and Lovers a few years ago (with similar trepidation) and really enjoyed it.  I was actually pleasantly surprised. Chatterley wasn't bad at all -- in fact, I rather liked it -- except for the cover of the book, which is the one I own:

If you don't know the setup, here it is in a nutshell:  Constance Chattereley is a twentysomething woman, from the upper-middle class intelligensia.  Shortly before WWI, she married her husband Clifford.  After a month's honeymoon, he goes off to war and is gravely injured, paralyzed from the waist down.  His older brother died in the war, and he's now the heir to a title and to the family estate, Wragby Hall, somewhere in the English Midlands (sound familiar?  It's a bit like the second season of Downton Abbey, or what might have happened to Mary and Matthew).  

Anyhow, Constance is bored to death at Wragby.  She's shut up there in a dreary estate, the weather is terrible, and it's somewhere in the coal-mining district, so they're surrounded by factories and coal pits, which are on their last legs. (Besides Wragby, her husband also owns some interest in the mine or the factory or something like that.)  It all sounds very depressing.  Also, Clifford doesn't seem particularly interested in Constance at all.   He's got something of a writing career going, so occasionally intelligent, creative people come to the house and she's the perfect hostess, but inside she's dying.  She hates Wragby, Clifford is very distant and cold, and she's terribly lonely.  Plus, she knows she can never have a baby due to Clifford's injury.  She's not even thirty and it seems like her life is completely over.

Clifford is desperate for an heir and tells her he wouldn't mind if she had a child, even if it wasn't his.  Meanwhile, Constance has spent a lot of time tramping around the grounds and meets the gamekeeper, who's rather dishy.  He's lower-class but has some education.  One thing leads to another and they start an affair. 

The beautiful Penguin clothbound edition, which I do not own, but am tempted to buy.
I thought this book was going to be awful and dreary, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  I thought the writing was mostly very good and I felt really sorry for Constance.  I don't think she was necessarily craving sexual contact so much as intimacy -- her husband was so distant and self-centered.  Yes, he was disabled, but she was really unhappy and all he could think about was whether or not she'd take care of him.  He was really quite selfish.

Lady Chatterley's Lover was very scandalous when it was first published in 1928 -- a full version wasn't widely published in England until 1962 -- and there is a fair amount of sex in it, as you'd suppose from all the fuss made about it; however,  it really wasn't that shocking in this day and age (I'm sure it pales in comparison to Fifty Shades of Gray, which I have not read.  And you would not believe how many little old ladies at my library have read it!!  Seriously!!) 

I can see how it would have been scandalous back in the day.  But if you can get past the sex, it's really about relationships and was truly insightful about attitudes of the time, both between Constance and Clifford, and the snobbery between the classes.  The fate of the miners, though a small part of the story, was also very sad.  It reminded me of the strikes that were to come later, like in Billy Elliot.  I wonder if they ever recovered or if Clifford made tons of money when the war started ten years later. 

My one real complaint about the book was about the ending, which I found somewhat unresolved.  But overall, I'm really glad I finally got around to reading it.  Between Chatterley and Sons and Lovers, I'm over my fear of Lawrence, and now I'm thinking about tackling his other famous works, The Rainbow and Women in Love.  Anyone read either of them?  Did anyone else like Lady Chatterley's Lover, or did you all run screaming from the room?   And who else completed their Classics Spin selection?