Thursday, February 27, 2014

Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson

Persephone book #9 is Few Eggs and No Oranges: the Wartime Diaries of Vere Hodgson, 1940-1945.  It's probably the longest Persephone book own, nearly 600 pages, and the actual time I spent reading this book was by far longer than any other Persephone, which I can normally get through in a few days, sometimes even as little as one day (and there are those that I've literally finished in one sitting). This book took me more than six weeks, because I had to read it in bits and pieces -- I just couldn't sit and read long sections at once.   

Vere Hodgson (1901-1979) was born in Birmingham and was working at a charity in Notting Hill Gate during WWII.  Few Eggs was first published in 1976, an abridged version of Ms. Hodgson's diaries from the war years, which she sent to relatives in Rhodesia during the war.  Since I'm really interested in the War at Home, I thought this would be just up my alley.  Well, it was and it wasn't -- I was really not prepared for how difficult a read this book would be.  It's one thing to read fiction, but true stories are always more painful to read.  The first year or so of the book covers the London Blitz, and much of this portion of the diary is entry after entry of days when Vere literally did not know if she would live to see another day -- bombs dropping, sirens blaring every night, mad rushes to the bomb shelter -- seriously, I don't know how millions of people lived through it every day and didn't lose their minds.  

Vere Hodgson
And then the survivors had to deal with the destruction, the short rations, and constant fear -- plus the sleeplessness would have sent me around the bend.  People must have developed nerves of steel.  However, the book also includes a lot of lighter moments.  By far, my favorite parts were about the extraordinary kindness that the British people showed to one another -- over and over there are instances of people sharing what little they had with strangers, especially soldiers. 

As I read the book, I only wished I had better knowledge of WWII history -- I know the basic outlines, but I feel like I need to go back and reread all the war history that I've forgotten.  Anyway, this is quite an interesting look at the life of someone who lived through the war.  

The endpapers from the Persphone edition of Few Eggs and No Oranges.
It's from a vintage Jacqmar scarf called "London Wall."
I couldn't use this as my Classic About War selection for the Back to the Classics Challenge, since it wasn't actually published until 1976, but still have a lot of books about WWII on my TBR lists -- I have another book in the Cazalet series, Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, which I really want to read, plus I might read The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck.  Bloggers, which are your favorite books about WWII? 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann

This is my third book this year completed for the TBR Pile Challenge, and one of the many books from Virago press that I still have on my to-read shelves.  The Virago books kept popping up on my radar after I started reading Persephones; apparently, a lot of Persephone fans enjoy Viragos as well. 

And it's yet another book published between the wars.  Set in England the early 1920s, Dusty Answer is the story of Judith Earle and her love affair with an entire family, the Fyfes.  Before the Great War,  Judith lives in the country, somewhere outside of London.  The house next door belongs to an elderly woman with five grandchildren, four boys and a girl who spend a lot of time there.  The children live with the grandmother because some of the parents are dead or traveling or are unreliable.  Two of the boys are brothers.  Judith is several years younger than the Fyfe children but plays with them because they're the only children in the neighborhood. 

One of the brothers, Charlie, is everyone's favorite, including the grandmother.  Before he's shipped off to war, he marries his cousin, Mariella.  He's killed in the war and Mariella has a baby not long afterward.  The family has mostly left at this point, and occasionally return to the country house during holidays.  

Throughout the book, Judith she fantasizes about falling in love with each of the Fyfe men in turn -- Julian, the eldest, who had a falling out with his brother Charlie just before his death; the dull but reliable Martin, and the enigmatic Roddy.   Eventually, she goes off to Cambridge and has a complicated relationship with her best friend, the beautiful Jennifer, who is beloved by nearly everyone in their dormitory.  

I liked this book but I'm having a hard time describing what it's really about.  I suppose it's a sort of coming-of-age story -- it starts out with Judith being alternately in love with all the Fyfe boys; then the story shifts and it's mostly about her life as a female university student in the 1920s.  Along the way, she learns about unrequited love and heartache.  It was a very melancholy read, but not exactly sad.  

I think the best thing about the book was the characterization.  There's not a tremendous amount of plot, but the writing was really good, though it's sometimes written in the stream-of-consciousness style, which is not usually my favorite.  Also, the characters were very well developed.  I also found it rather modern regarding its depiction of some characters that were obviously homosexual.  There aren't any explicit sex scenes, but since it was published in 1927 I suspect the subject was rather shocking for its time.  

Overall, this was a good read, not too heavy, and luckily not too long since I'm simultaneously still reading Few Eggs and No Oranges, a WWII diary that's almost 600 pages long, and I've just started bits and pieces of my next Classics Spin pick, He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope, which is a whopping 836 pages!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

Because I've committed to only reading books from my own shelves until March, I've been really strict with myself and only allowed exceptions for books for my book group (of which I am the moderator, so I can't wiggle out of reading them).  This includes audiobooks -- I nearly always have one in progress in the car, because the radio in my area is just dire.  Since I only actually own audiobooks by Jane Austen, I'm forced to search my library's catalog for audiobook editions of books on my TBR shelves which can be challenging.  Not many audiobooks by Trollope in the library collection! 

However, I did find one last, lone audio copy of Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser, which has been on my nonfiction shelf for a couple of years (picked it up for a mere $1 at the Friends of the Library sale).  I've been really interested in historical biographies since I read and loved Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie last year.  The story of Marie Antoinette really intrigued me since Massie mentions how shocked Catherine was at the death of MA during the French Revolution (hopefully, that isn't a spoiler for anyone!). 

Before I began this book, I knew next to nothing about her life, except that she lost hear head during the French Revolution and her infamous line, "Let them eat cake," (which she never actually said -- that line had been attributed to a lot of disliked princesses years before she'd ever married Louis).   I didn't know much about the history of France or the Revolution either.

So, this is Marie's life story, beginning with her childhood as one of EIGHTEEN children borne by Maria Theresa, the Hapsburg Empress of Austria.  Marie's marriage to the Dauphin Louis, the future King Louis XVII of France, was merely a political move by the Hapsburgs to try and solidify an alliance with France.  The Austrians hoped that Marie would someday be able to influence the French to their advantage, but basically, this set up young Marie for failure for the rest of her life.  

Kirstin Dunst as Marie Antoinette in the film adaptation
She was married at 14 to Louis, who was shy and indecisive, which set HIM up for failure as a King, given the historic circumstances of his reign.  They weren't bad people, just mediocre rulers at a time when the wealthy excesses of the royals at a time when common people were demanding more rights and equality, taxes were high and finally, bad weather and poor harvests drove food prices sky-high.  A war with Austro-Hungary was the last straw.  The French people essentially never forgave Marie for being Austrian, and made her the scapegoat for everything -- she was just crucified in the press and libeled for being spendthrift, a lesbian, promiscuous, and manipulative, most of which wasn't true.  She was pretty much doomed from the start.  I'm sure Marie Antoinette wasn't perfect, but her life was pretty tragic.  She certainly didn't deserve execution.

This book was very well-written and interesting, but since I don't know that much about the history of France and the Revolution, I can't compare it to anything else.  I'm not sure if Marie was really just misunderstood or if Fraser is leaving out anything negative about Marie.  I'm going to have to read more about French history to get another side of the story.  The basic facts behind the Revolution are mostly mentioned in passing, only in relation to what happens to Marie.  I wish Fraser had included more of that background, it was so focused on how it really related to the royal family.  The rest of France seems to be glossed over.

However, this book was extremely enjoyable, and I listened to it almost on audio because of the excellent narration by Donada Peters.  Normally, when I have an audiobook, I read ahead in the print copy, to make it go faster.  Peters' posh accent and beautiful pronunciation of all the French names was so good that reading it myself just didn't do the narration justice, no matter how I tried to imagine her voice in my head (does anyone else do that?).  So I listened to nearly the entire story, which is rare for me, especially since this book was more than 20 hours of audio on 17 discs -- it took me about five weeks, and I'm normally not that patient. 

I'm currently taking a break from France for a bit, but I think after this I'm going to revisit France and read The Debacle by Emile Zola, his best-selling novel from about the Franco-Prussian War.  What other books about France should I read?  And which other royal biographies do you recommend? 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Awful Book Covers: House of Mirth

Inspired by this hilarious post by Simon of Stuck in a Book, I've decided to showcase some bad book covers of my own choosing. Here are some supremely bad covers from one of my favorite novels, House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.  Let the snark begin!

House of Mirth:  Renaissance version!  
Because we all know that Lily Bart lived in 1605, not 1905.   

House of Mirth:  Bridal Shower edition!
The one where Lily Bart and her frenemies make gowns out of toilet paper.

House of Mirth: 18th Century edition. Laurence Selden is really rocking those breeches --
I especially love his golden capelet.  

House of Mirth: Cirque du Soleil edition!
Lily Bart visits Venice and gets her face painted at a street fair.

House of Mirth: Crazy Reptile Lady edition!
Apparently Lily would rather hang out in Italy with a little turtle instead of her society friends.
But her outfit is fabulous, though I can't figure out what time period that's supposed to be.  

House of Mirth: Jazz Age edition!  
I actually kind of like this cover, even though it's the wrong time period.  Too bad Lily didn't live in the 1920s.  But then she'd be in The Glimpses of the Moon instead. 

House of Mirth: No Girls Allowed edition!
It looks like she's about to run the gauntlet to get into their exclusive men's club. 
(And not a fun club with Bertie Wooster, either). 

House of Mirth: Diva Edition!  
Lily Bart starts a new career as an opera singer, and lives happily ever after.  Riiiight.

House of Mirth: YA Edition! 
That's the prequel when Lily was 13 and wandered around a mansion in her nightgown.

House of Mirth: Pre-Raphaelite edition!
(I think this may be the same girl who had nothing to wear but her wet sheet
 in Simon's Wuthering Heights cover.)

House of Mirth:  "Mr. Selfridge"edition!
Of course Mrs. Selfridge's dresses were much more fabulous.  
That is one seriously ugly dress.

House of Mirth: Ennui edition!
I love Penguin classics, but that girl looks bored beyond belief.

That was really fun -- which novel should I pick for my next edition of Awful Book Covers? 
And who else wants to play?

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Recently I made the mistake of reading three really long books at the same time (well, technically, two very long books, and a very long audiobook).  I'm currently in the midst of an audio version of Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser (17 discs); Few Eggs and No Oranges: the Diaries of Vere Hodgson, 1940 -1945 (590 pp) and I just finished Miss Marjoribanks, which clocked in at 512 pages.  The WWII diaries are good, but hard to read -- I'm only midway through 1941 and pretty much every entry is about surviving the Blitz one more night.

Needless to say, I wanted a short read for my next pick.  Originally, I thought I'd use The Return of the Soldier to fulfill the Classic Novel About War category in the Back to the Classics Challenge.  However, I'm not really sure if it's a book about war after all.  

Here's the setup:  in the midst of The Great War, the narrator, Jenny Baldry, is living with her wealthy cousin's wife, Kitty, while he is off fighting. They haven't heard anything from Kitty's husband, Captain Chris Baldry, for some time.  Out of the blue, a strange woman arrives and says that she has news about Chris.  She's rather frumpy, middle-aged, and lower-class, and Kitty is suspicious.  It turns out that Chris has had a concussion, and has lost all memory of the last fifteen years, and this woman, Margaret Allingham, is the long-lost love of his youth.  Having no memory of Kitty whatsoever, Chris has managed to contact Margaret.

What follows is the struggle of love triangle, and between Chris's distant past and the traumatic memories of the war, and a far more recent tragedy.  Margaret tells Jenny the story of her ill-fated romance with Chris, and Jenny is torn between wanting Chris to regain his memories and her reluctance to cause him any more pain. 

I suppose this is a book about war because if it weren't for the concussion, Chris wouldn't have lost his memories, but the story only mentions the WWI peripherally.  I really think the book is more about the struggle between classes and the inevitable changes that are about to take place in the social structure of England.  It's also about lost loves and memories.

The book also takes on a different perspective if the reader knows anything about Rebecca West, who was the mistress of H. G. Wells for ten years, and had an illegitimate child by him.  He never divorced his second wife for her, and had affairs with a lot of other women as well.  The Return of the Soldier was published in 1918 before the end of the war, just a few years after the birth of her son, so I'm sure the book reflects a lot of her own life.  

This was a really good, quick read, though not exactly uplifting.  It gave me a lot to think about for such a short novel, just about 150 pages.  And Rebecca West was an absolutely beautiful writer -- I could turn to almost any page and find a beautiful passage to use as an example for a quote.  I opened a page at random and here's one from p. 67:

Before I started I went to the pond on the hill's edge.  It is a place where autumn lives half the year, for even when the spring lights tongues of green fire in the undergrowth and the valley shows sunlit between the tree trunks, here the pond is fringed with yellow bracken and tinged bramble, and the water flows amber over last winter's leaves.

The whole book is full of passages like that -- just beautiful.  So I've decided not to count this as my Book about War selection -- instead I'm going to count it for my 20th Century Classic.  Anyway, it's a really great read if you're looking for a short classic.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Classics Club Spin V

Time for another Classics Spin!!!  Basically, a random number selected next Monday will determine my next read from my Classics Club list.  I participated all four times last year, and ended up really liking, if not loving, all four of the books I was assigned:  The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow; Lady Chatterley's Lover; Orley Farm; and The Earth.

Since I'm still committed to reading only books from my TBR shelves for the next two months, my choices are getting limited -- I'm more than halfway done with my Classics Club List, so that left me with only 24 books from which to choose.  Here's my list:

Five books I keep putting off:

1.  The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
2.  Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
3.  The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
4.  Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
5.  Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson

Five I really want to read:

6.  Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
7.  The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
8.  Nana by Emile Zola
9.  I, Claudius by Robert Graves
10. Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert

Five I'm neutral about:

11. A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
12. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
13. Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham
14. Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
15. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Free choice -  five Victorians:

16. No Name by Wilkie Collins
17. New Grub Street by George Gissing
18. Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope
19. Ayala's Angel by Anthony Trollope
20. He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope

Can't wait until next Monday to see what number comes up!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant

It's only February, and Miss Marjoribanks is the second book I've finished from my TBR Pile Challenge 2014 list.  I've owned it for several years, since I became a serious reader of Victorian fiction.  It came highly recommended for the Jane Austen lover, and it was a great choice -- when you have finished all of Austen's six novels, when you have read Middlemarch and Elizabeth Gaskell; if you love Trollope and you want a brilliant comedy of manners, or if you are craving a lovely fat Victorian triple-decker about slightly ridiculous English society people, then this is the book for you.

Published in 1866, Miss Marjoribanks is the story of Lucilla Marjoribanks (pronounced Marchbanks).   The story begins when Lucilla is just 17.  She is an only child, and she comes home to Carlingford from school after her mother passes away.  It is Lucilla's greatest desire to be "a comfort to dear papa."  Dr. Marjoribanks is the town's doctor, and he insists that Lucilla complete her education. Two years later, after a grand tour of the continent, she returns to Carlingford with the intent of whipping Carlingford society into shape.  Which she does, in grand style.  Dr. Marjoribanks has the town's best cook and has a reputation for hosting great men's dinner parties, but Lucilla becomes the Queen Bee of Carlingford society with her Thursday evenings.  

Lucilla is a master at coordinating events, bringing people together, and averting scandals.  This is a woman that would have made a brilliant diplomat or politician.  Her father often regrets that he had a girl and his brother got the boy, Lucilla's cousin Tom, who is madly in love with her but is rather flighty.  After Lucilla rejects his offer of marriage, he goes off to India with a broken heart. Meanwhile, Lucilla rearranges everyone's lives in Carlingford but her own.  

This book started out a little slowly, but once the plot got going, I could hardly put it down, reading the last 200 pages in just over a day, which is pretty fast for a Victorian.  I had some suspicions about how this story was going to wind up, but there was a plot twist that I wasn't expecting at all.   At first I thought of Lucilla  as a spider, drawing everyone into her benevolent web, but then I decided she was really a puppet master, but in a good way.  This book definitely reminded me of Jane Austen's Emma, if Emma were less self-absorbed and a lot nicer.  It also reminded me of Cranford, and the sly, ironic wit reminded me of the novels of Anthony Trollope.  

This is the second book I've read by Margaret Oliphant, who was a prolific Victorian writer, producing more than 120 works.  Last year, I read two of her novellas, published by Persephone books as The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow.  I liked it, but not nearly as much as I enjoyed Miss Marjoribanks, which is the fifth book in her Carlingford Chronicles.  Most of the other books in the series are out of print, but some of them were published as Virago Modern Classics, so I'll have to try and track them down.