Monday, May 26, 2014

Moby-Dick or The Hunchback of Notre-Dame?

Readers, I have a conundrum.  A couple of weeks ago, I signed up once again for the Classics Spin VI, one of my favorite blogging challenges.  My spin selection was the #1 book on my list, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, a book I purchased in Paris (at the actual Notre-Dame Cathedral, in the gift shop) way back in 2007.  I've been dreading it ever since, so I was happy and apprehensive at the same time.  I have until July 7 to finish this book and post about it on my blog.

And then Adam over at Roof Beam Reader announced a Moby-Dick readalong that lasts from June 1 through July 15 -- about 15 pages per day, according to his calculations.  It so happens that I have an unread copy of Moby-Dick on my shelves, a beautiful Penguin Deluxe Graphic edition that I received from the nice people at Penguin Books a couple of years ago.  It also happens that Moby-Dick was the second book on my Classics Spin list.

So here's the conundrum -- I know there's no way I can read both of these books at the same time.  So which one should I choose?  Moby-Dick is longer (625 pages versus 429) but it has the advantage of the readalong -- so much more fun to read a book and discuss it online with others!  Also, my library has two different audiobook editions, one narrated by George Guidall and one by Paul Boehmer.  I could possibly listen to the entire thing on audio and keep up with the schedule.  Both of them are on my Classics Club challenge list, and both of them are books I've been putting off forever.  If I finish either of them, I know I'll be very satisfied.

Bloggers, what do you think?  Which one should I read?  Both classics, but I think they're very different.  An American or a French classic?  Queequeg or Quasimodo?  And has anyone listened to any of the audiobook versions?  Which do you recommend?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

He Knew He Was Right: the BBC TV adaptation

Oliver Dimsdale as Louis Trevalyan.
I've finished watching the excellent 2004 adaptation of Anthony Trollope's classic novel, He Knew He Was Right, which I selected for my TV/Movie adaptation of a Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.  I was a little skeptical as to how they could adapt an 800-page book into a four-episode miniseries, but they did a pretty good job.  Andrew Davies, who famously adapted Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House, and many other excellent classic books, wrote the screenplay, so that was encouraging.

Overall, the casting was excellent -- I recognized lots of actors from other BBC productions.  One of my favorite actors, Bill Nighy, played the slippery rake Col. Osborne.  Here he is, probably causing some kind of mischief with the reputation of Emily Trevalyan, daughter of his oldest friend:

Another great bit of casting was Geoffrey Palmer (well known as Lionel in As Time Goes By) as Emily's father and Geraldine James as her mother, Lady Rowley.  I actually liked the Lord and Lady Rowley characters better in the series than in the book.  Geoffrey Palmer is less buffoonish than Lord Rowley in the book, and Lady Rowley is obsessed with marrying Emily's sister Nora off to a rich aristocrat, Mr. Glascock.  However, the mini-series was heavily condensed, and cut out most of the side plot of Glascock's romantic subplot once Nora rejects him. 

My favorite storyline was Rev. Gibson and the two sisters who are fighting over him (above).  David Tennant was hilarious as Gibson, and Fenella Woolgar (left) and Claudie Blakely (right) were wonderful as the cutthroat sisters.

The best casting of all, however, was the late Anna Massey as Aunt Stanbury, above.  She's just wonderful.  And Matthew Goode was just adorable as Brooke Burgess, her intended heir.

Matthew Goode as Brook Burgess.  Very dishy.
My biggest objection was the casting of Stephen Campbell Moore as Hugh Stanbury, the best friend of Louis Trevalyan, and the love interest of Emily's sister Nora.  He's a good actor but he's nothing like Hugh as described in the book.  I'm racking my brains trying to find a better choice, but all the British actors I can think of who are about the right age are just too handsome -- Hugh is supposed to be sort of burly, not very attractive.  But I'm quibbling.

Christina Cole as Nora and Stephen Campbell Moore as Hugh Stanbury. 

Overall, a good production, though of course abridged.  A lot of sub-plots were condensed, especially scenes taking place in Italy.  As usual, the book was better, but they did a pretty good job.  I haven't read any Trollope lately so I think I may choose one of his books off my shelf for a nice long summer read.  Maybe Can You Forgive Her?  I haven't read any of the Pallisers series yet and my library has this on audiobook -- it's 22 discs!

So that's my sixth posting for this challenge  -- I'm halfway finished!  Bloggers, how are you coming along on your book challenges?  And which other TV adaptations from classic novels are your favorites?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

After a recent viewing of The Grand Budapest Hotel (which I LOVED -- who knew Ralph Fiennes was hilarious?) I was searching the internet for background of the movie.  I was delighted to read that director Wes Anderson was inspired by the novels of Stefan Zweig.  I had an unread copy of The Post-Office Girl on my TBR shelves, so it seemed serendipitous, so I put it in my carry-on bag for my recent European vacation (OK, Austria is not the same as Italy, but I just wasn't in the mood for I, Claudius.)

I've not always had good luck with NYRB Classics -- sometimes I love them, and last year, I bought two that I disliked so much, I returned them the same day I bought them.  But The Post-Office Girl is a real keeper.

The story begins with the eponymous post-office girl, Christine, a young twentysomething girl whose youth is being wasted in a tiny Austrian town after the Great War.  She's eking out a pretty miserable existence, caring for her ailing mother and just scraping by, since her father lost his entire business during the war years.  Her dull life takes an exciting turn when, out of the blue, she receives a telegraph transmission at the post office that is actually for her, which has never happened before.  Apparently, she has an aunt who ran off to America years before.  She's now visiting Europe with her wealthy husband, and wants to reconnect with the family.  Christine's mother is too ill, so instead, Christine uses some vacation time to visit her in an Alpine resort town, and her life is changed forever.

At first, this is like an amazing Cinderella story.  Christine blossoms in the mountain air, her aunt buys her clothes and gives her a makeover, and she's swept up in to the hotel society.  But naturally, it's all too good to be true, and after a series of misunderstandings, Christine's aunt drops her and she's plunged back into her dismal everyday world, stunned.  Now that she's experienced a taste of the good life, nothing in her tiny provincial time will ever satisfy her.

In the second portion of the book, Christine tries to change her life, and meets a disillusioned war veteran who is bitter and just as dissatisfied as she is.  Without giving away any more of the story, I'll just say that the story took a turn that I didn't expect at all.  

I loved this book.  Christine and the other characters were so real, and I thought it was a really interesting portrait of life between the wars for regular people.  Most of the inter-war books I've read have been English, and life probably turned out very differently for other Europeans in that time period.

My one complaint about this book is that it ends abruptly -- it seemed so unfinished, like there was a third portion that was missing.  After reading it, I found out that the novel was published posthumously, in 1982.  Stefan Zweig was a very famous writer during the 1920s and 1930s.  During World War II, he was exiled by the Nazis, and eventually settled in Brazil.  Like Christine, he became disillusioned and depressed, and he and his second wife committed suicide in 1942.  I'm not sure if the novel ends that way deliberately.

Anyway, I loved this book and now I'm intrigued and want to read more of the works of Stefan Zweig.  I'm counting this as my Classic by an Author That's New To Me for the Back to the Classics Challenge.   (I was thinking about counting as my Classic in Translation, but I will probably read a Zola novel for that one).

Has anyone else read anything by Stefan Zweig?  Which of his books should I read next?  And who loved The Grand Budapest Hotel as much as I did?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

I put Rudyard Kipling's Kim on my TBR Pile Challenge list this year because it was on the Modern Library's Top 100 list, and because I bought a copy for a mere $1 at a library sale several years ago -- I've moved it with me to two different houses since then!  I chose Kim off my TBR pile because it was fairly short and because it's May, which is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month (I'm on the Diversity committee at the library, and we've been planning events for it all year.  Since Kim is set in India, I thought it would fit in nicely).

Basically, this is the story of Kimball O'Hara, also known as Kim, a young orphan boy growing up mostly on the streets of Lahore, India during the Victorian era.  He's not an Indian though, being the child of an Irish soldier and a nameless mother.  When book opens, Kim is about 13 and he meets a Tibetan lama (a holy man) and becomes his apprentice -- his chela. The lama has a quest to find a particular river, and Kim also has a quest.  He's always been told that it was his destiny to meet a red bull on a green field.  Kim joins the lama, but on their quest, he encounters a group of British soldiers.  They find evidence that Kim's father was once in their regiment -- and they have an emblem on their regimental flag that's a red bull on a green field.  

Naturally, they have to make sure he's raised as a white child.  Plans are made to give him a proper education, but a clever colonel realizes that if trained, Kim's knowledge of Indian languages and culture could be a great asset to the British forces.  He's shipped off to school but spends his holidays being trained by secret agents.  Kim becomes drawn into the "Great Game" of British imperialism.  Eventually, he rejoins the lama while still working as a secret agent for the British. 

I always thought this was some kind of adventure book, but it's the slowest adventure I've ever read -- my edition was 286 pages but it took me nearly three weeks to finish it! I did enjoy the details about Indian culture, and the sense of place, but the pace of the story was just glacial.  If you're looking for a great swashbuckling adventure tale, this isn't one I'd pick.  It's really more about Kim's quest, but I'd say it's really about his quest for identity as an Anglo child growing up in India.  Over and over, he's reminded that he's a Sahib, and therefore superior.  

I was surprised at how much religion was in the book.  There's a lot of Buddhism, and an awful lot of references to Indian gods and legends, most of which I didn't get (I was actually reading two different editions, one at home and library copy on my breaks at work -- that copy didn't have any footnotes).  Apparently this was quite groundbreaking for its time.

Kim sometimes considered a children's book, which I don't get at all.  I can't imagine any child today picking this up and reading it for fun -- it's a fairly interesting story, even though Kim is yet another child that speaks and thinks like an adult.  I'm pretty sure the language of the story would turn off most modern children. (I did check my library catalog, and half the copies in the system are cataloged as Children's Fiction.  I should go back and see how often they've circulated!)

So, my final verdict: if you're looking for a fast-paced, rollicking adventure -- I would read Kidnapped or Treasure Island.   If you're interested in Indian culture and an insightful look at British Colonialism in the late 19th century, this is a fine read, as long as you're not in a hurry.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Back from a Blogging Break

If anyone is actually still following this blog, I apologize for my long absence.  As noted in a previous post, nearly two months ago (!!!!!)  I was about to go on a wonderful Italian vacation, which I did.  No, I didn't go to Italy for two months -- only twelve days, but soon after my return, some personal things came up and I just couldn't blog for awhile.  I had to take another week off from work, and the library has been incredibly busy.

But at long last, here are a few photos from my vacation.  We did three days in Rome, four in Venice, and four in Florence -- not nearly enough!!  It was probably the best vacation I've ever taken, and I can't wait to go back to Italy.

The Colosseum in Rome.  Just breathtaking.

Trevi Fountain.  It's jammed with tourists all the time, and it's really crowded -- you'd think this would be in a big plaza with plenty of space.  It's not.  

I always take photos of random things.  I love architecture, especially doorways.  
This one was on a street near the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome.

A group of gondoliers, just hanging out in Venice.  No big deal.

The Grand Canal in Venice.  That's the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute.  
I think it's the most beautiful thing in Venice.

This is the oldest restaurant in Venice, from about 1500.  It's around the corner from our pensione.  We ate dinner there the last night and had the best lobster gnocchi in the world.  There are framed letters from the 1700s and 1800s hanging on the walls.  

The Arno River in Florence.  

A giant head of David in the Boboli Gardens in Florence.  Different than the more famous statue of David in the Accademia Galleria, but still beautiful.

Our hotel in Florence, just down the street from the Duomo.  
It's a converted monastery, originally built in 1527.  

View of the Duomo in Florence from the Campanile (tower) of the Palazzo Vecchio.  I didn't climb up to the top of the Duomo but the view from the Palazzo Campanile was amazing.  

I'll post more photos later, and then it's back to blogging as usual. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Classics Spin VI

It's time for another Classics Spin.  I know I've been away from blogging lately, but this challenge always inspires me to read one of the many classics on my Classics Club list.  Tomorrow morning, the Classics Club blog will choose a number randomly selected from 1 to 20.  That number will determine my next read.  Here is 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.  Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
10.  Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope

Five I'm neutral about:

11. Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham
12. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
13. Bel-Ami  by Guy de Maupassant
14. The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
15. I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Free choice -  five books I'd have to get from the library:

16.  Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
17.  One of Ours by Willa Cather
18.  The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck
19.  The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
20.  The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

Which ones should I be hoping for? Or dreading?  And what's on your Classics Spin list?

Updated:  the Classics Spin number selected was . . . . 1!!!  So, it's time for me to read The Hunchback of Notre Dame!  I'm a little scared, but I'll give it a shot.  So far I've really enjoyed all the Classics Spin picks.