Sunday, June 29, 2014

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville: Chapters One through Fifty

So, I've made it through fifty chapters of Moby-Dick -- about 250 pages, which is about 40 percent. Though I'm behind the original reading schedule, I'm quite pleased about my progress.  When I started this read-along, I was really apprehensive -- Moby-Dick is one of those books that are legendary, almost like War and Peace (which I have read) or Ulysses (which I haven't). It seems to be one of those books that either you read in school, and hated, or that you plan to read someday, but never get around to.  

A quick summary of the novel so far:  Ishmael, a rather mysterious narrator, travels to Nantucket to find a place on a whaling ship.  There he meets Queequeg, and the two find jobs on the Pequod.  After several days on board, they meet the notorious Captain Ahab, who is hell-bent on avenging the loss of his leg to the eponymous Moby-Dick, a legendary white sperm whale. 

I like parts of it so far, but mostly, I was surprised by two different things.  First, I was surprised at the close relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg -- on their first night together, they basically share the same bed and become very cosy.  I'm not sure if this was common among sailors back in the 1850s, or I'm reading way too much into it.  

Secondly, I was surprised by the novel's unusual structure.  Like many novels of the era, it's broken up into lots of little short chapters -- some of them are less than a page long.  But it's not a straight narrative like I'm used to.  There are all kinds of random asides, like a short chapter about chowder (which I enjoyed) and a fairly long ramble about the color white (not as much).  

I'm beginning to think this is a novel I would appreciate much more if I was reading this as part of a class -- I'm sure there are tons of allusions and Biblical references and metaphors that I'm just not getting.  I tend not to read introductions and analyses of books until after I've finished them, because I hate spoilers (though I have a pretty good idea of how the book ends).  I never took any American literature classes in college, and I read hardly any in high school -- I think I'm the only one I've ever met who didn't read Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, or The Great Gatsby while I was in school.  

I can't say I love Moby-Dick so far, but I'm going to stick with it until the end.  I've read quite a bit of the book online, but some in my print copy (pictured below), and, lately, some on audiobook, narrated by Frank Muller, which is just wonderful.  My library owns two different versions on audio, and I've actually listened to both of them so far.  I'm sorry to say that the other edition, narrated by Paul Boehmer, was so boring that I was sure I'd fall asleep while driving.  Frank Muller is a much better narrator; in fact, I think I'd listen to pretty much anything he narrates.  

Bloggers, have any of you read Moby-Dick?  Did you love it or hate it?  and which are the big fat books that you still want to read but never seem to get around to starting?  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Back to the Classics Challenge 2014: Mid-Year Check In (and Giveaway!!!)

Well, it's almost halfway through 2014, so I thought I'd check in and see how everyone's doing with the Back to the Classics Challenge!!  I'm really proud to say that I've actually finished seven of the eleven categories -- and I can count my current read, Moby-Dick, for number eight!  I'm quite proud because I've deliberately chosen not to count books from my other big challenge, the TBR Pile Challenge, towards this challenge, thinking this would inspire me to read even more books off my own shelves.  I've also decided not to repeat any authors, to try and vary my selections.

Here's what I've read (and watched) so far:

20th Century Classic:  The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
Classic by a Woman Author:  The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
Classic about War: The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck
Classic by an Author That's New To Me: The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig
Historical Fiction Classic: Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather
Classic Adapted into a Movie or TV Series: He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
TV Series Adaptation: He Knew He Was Right BBC Miniseries

I really liked all of them but if I had to choose, my two favorites so far would be The Post-Office Girl and The Glimpses of the Moon.  Now I only have four categories left: 19th Century Classic; Classic in Translation; American Classic; and Classic Mystery, Suspense, or Thriller.  Right now I'm reading Moby-Dick which I'll count for either my 19th Century or American Classic, I haven't decided which.

And how is everyone else doing?  I'm so pleased with all the links I've seen posted already!  And to thank everyone who's signed up, I'm offering a midpoint giveaway!!!  Yes, to further entice everyone to reading even more classics, one lucky winner will receive a beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic of his or her choice (up to US $20).  

Here are the rules for the giveaway:

1.  To enter, you must already be signed up for the Challenge (sorry, the last day to sign up was back in March.)  If you are not already on this list, you are NOT ELIGIBLE.

2.  Challenge participants must have linked at least one review for the 2014 Back to the Classics Challenge.  If you're signed up and you haven't linked any reviews left, the cutoff date is July 1.

3.  Any new links must follow the guidelines originally set for the challenge.

4.  Challenge participants must leave a comment below telling which book they've most enjoyed reading for this challenge.  If you want, you can also tell me which Penguin Clothbound Classic (valued up to $20) you'd choose if you're the lucky winner.  Include an email or link to your blog so I can contact you if you've won!!  

5.  Contest winners will receive their choice of a Penguin Clothbound Classic with a value up to $20 from or The Book  Contest winner must live in a country where they can receive delivery from either Amazon or The Book Depository.  If you're not sure if The Book Depository ships to your home country, you can check here.

6.  Comments and links must be posted no later than July 1 at 11:59 p.m., U.S. Central Standard Time.  On July 2, I'll announce a winner.

7.  Winner must contact me with a good address no later than July 7, or I'll pick another winner.

So what are you waiting for?  Post your reviews, pick your favorite Clothbound Classic and tell me in the comments below!!  I can't wait to give a prize away!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell

Sometimes when I read books off my TBR Pile Challenge list, it's kind of a slog, and I wonder why I bothered keeping this book around.  However, more often than not, I've been so pleasantly surprised by a book I'm annoyed at myself for waiting so long to read it.  The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family is the second type of book -- a sheer delight and one that I couldn't stop reading.  

I'd never heard of the Mitfords until I watched the BBC adaptation of Love in a Cold Climate around 2006.  I was so enchanted by the story that I quickly bought the book (a combined volume with The Pursuit of Love.)  I loved them both so I was delighted to find The Sisters, which I promptly put on my to-read shelf and then ignored, though I moved it from house to house.  I'm really glad I finally read it -- it's both a chatty tell-all and a fascinating biography of a the intertwining lives of six sisters from an eccentric aristocratic English family.  

This is one of those stories that is truly stranger than fiction.  The eldest sister, Nancy, became a bestselling author; the third sister Diana was a reowned Society beauty who married an heir to the Guinness fortune and then left him for Oswald Mosley, a right-wing politician who became an infamous Fascist (both were imprisoned without trial for three years during WWII); another sister, Unity, was one of Hitler's groupies and was rumoured to have been his lover.  The next-to-last sister, Jessica (nicknamed "Decca") eloped with a distant cousin Edmond Romilly, a nephew by marriage to Winston Churchill.  Romilly had fought against fascism in Spain and they were both Marxists.  The youngest sister, Deborah, became Duchess of Devonshire.  So, you can just imagine that this book is just packed with interesting characters and history, mostly set during my favorite period, the inter-war years in England.  I will note that there's quite a focus on Unity's friendship with Hitler, which is really quite creepy.  There's also a lot of discussion as to whether or not some of the sisters were anti-Semitic. I know that this wasn't uncommon among the upper-class British at the time, but it sometimes makes for some uncomfortable reading. 

All of the sisters (with the possible exception of Pamela, the second sister) were real characters, and they were all smart and witty -- sadly, they had very little formal education (some of the sisters never forgave their parents for denying them higher education).  Most of them had writing talent, and besides Nancy, Decca and Deborah also published books -- Deborah published a memoir called Wait For Me! back in 2010.  

I really enjoyed this book -- it's just chatty and gossipy enough to be fun, and includes enough history and politics to be informative, without getting bogged down in too much politics and jargon.  And I was surprised that I never had any trouble distinguishing between all six of them -- they had such distinct personalities.  I only had a few quibbles with the book -- there's not much about the second sister, Pamela, for one thing; also, I did have trouble keeping track of all the many houses the families lived in -- a map would have been incredibly useful, to go along with the family tree and extensive endnotes.  

Overall, though, it's a great biography and I'm very interest to read more of Lovell's books.  She also wrote a biography of Beryl Markham called Straight on Till Morning; The Churchills: In Love and War, plus several others.   The book has really piqued my interest about the Mitfords.  My TBR shelves still include  Hons and Rebels, Decca's memoir; Nancy's book Wigs on the Green, a satire about the fascist sister Unity; and a 700-page volume of Decca's letters.  Hopefully I'll get to some of them before the end of the year.  And now I'm halfway through my TBR Pile Challenge -- I've finished six books in six months, so I'm right on track. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Paris in July 2014

Once again, I have signed up to participate in the annual Paris in July blogging event.  If you haven't heard about it, it's hosted by Karen and Tamara, and every year, bloggers post about all things French -- books, movies, food, trips, and so on.  Here's a link for more information.

This year, I'm planning on reading as many French books as I can.  I definitely want to read Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert, which is on my TBR Pile Challenge 2014 list; also, I have several unread novels on my shelves by Emile Zola, and maybe even Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant.  I also want to read some more books by Irene Nemirovsky -- I read Suite Francaise a few months ago and loved it.  Who knows, I might even take a crack at Victor Hugo!

I also want to watch some French movies and, as always, eat French food!  My youngest daughter is starting French in the fall.  I haven't studied the language since I was in high school and I've forgotten nearly everything (except ordering off a menu and asking for the bathroom) but I'm going to try and study along with her.  I'm already registered for the 2014 Jane Austen Society meeting which takes place in French-speaking Montreal in October, so it would be helpful to refresh my memory -- and who knows, maybe my daughter and I will reward ourselves with a trip to France someday!

Anyone else planning on a virtual visit to La Belle Paris this July?  What will you be reading?  Which French films do you recommend?  And who are your favorite French authors?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

Not the actual cover of the edition I read.
That one is just too disturbing.
Warning:  Do not read The Jungle, if you are like me and typically read books while while eating.  Period.  End of story.  It will put you off your lunch, seriously.  Possibly for a long time.

That is not to say that The Jungle is not worth reading.  It's one of those books that I've had on the TBR shelf for more than three years now, since I received the Big Box of Penguins from the nice people at Penguin Classics.   It is one of those books, also, that I didn't want to read so much as I wanted to have read it, if that makes any sense.

Anyway, this is the story of Jurgis Rudkis, a Lithiuanian immigrant who lives in Chicago in the early 1900s.  The book begins at his wedding to Ona.  It starts out with a big party, and basically, their lives go downhill from there.  Not only do they go into debt for this big wedding, they're barely eking out an existence working in the famous Chicago stockyards, in a neighborhood known as Packingtown, which is one of the nastiest, filthiest places in literature.  This book was written as an indictment of the terrible conditions in which poor people lived and worked at the time, especially immigrants, who came to America thinking they'd have all these great opportunities.  In fact, conditions were probably worse for them than back in the old country.  I've read a lot of immigrant stories, but this is probably the first one I can remember in which the immigrants should have stayed home.

Jurgis came to America with his father, his future bride, her stepmother Elzbieta, and various extended family members and children, including Marija, Ona's cousin.  Thing start out badly when they arrive  in the slums of Chicago's Packingtown, and get worse when they're tricked into spending their savings a terrible house.  They're working hard under horrible working conditions, but illnesses, layoffs, and bad weather create a situation that goes from bad to worse.  And I do mean seriously worse.  Have you read Germinal or The Grapes of Wrath?  Those books are cheerful compared to The Jungle, which has my vote for Most Depressing Book of All Time.

And Sinclair does not shy away from the messy details.  He goes into great detail about the horrible sanitation of the stockyards, the disease and filth and disgusting working conditions.  It's amazing to believe that anyone survived eating food that came out of there -- and even scarier to think of how it must have been to work there.  There was so much corruption, and so few rights for the workers, it's just shocking.

But this book isn't just about how bad the sanitation and working conditions of the stockyards; it's also about how few rights workers had, how companies took advantage of immigrants, and about the shocking corruption, both with the big corporations and in Chicago politics.  Having lived in Chicago for ten years, this sheds new light for me.  (I will never think of the name for the Chicago Bulls basketball team in quite the same way again). 

The edition that I actually read.  It's a really nice edition, except for the cover artwork.

It was an interesting book, yet horrifying.  I can't say I'd recommend it for the writing or character development; even the plot is not that great.  I'm quite sure this book is considered important for its impact than for its literary merit.  In a way, the terrible lives of these people in Packingtown are so over-the-top, it's unbelievable.  They were less human to me, more caricatures --  it's like Sinclair thought to himself while writing, how can get this get worse?  It really lacked the great writing of Steinbeck and the riveting characters of Zola; if you haven't read anything by Zola, he is the absolute master of creating people whose lives are on incredible downward spirals.  Also, the ending of the book is really unresolved -- it just ends with this big rant about Socialism, and we never find out what happens to Jurgis and the rest of the family.

So.  I'm very proud to have finally finished it -- that's five books off my TBR Pile Challenge for this year.  My goal was one book every month, so I'm a little behind, but not terribly.  I've already started reading The Sisters, a biography of the Mitfords, which I already know will be a really fun read.  I know I'm supposed to be starting Moby-Dick, but I really need a break to before starting another book I've been dreading.  How's everyone else doing on their TBR Pile Challenge?  Are they books you love, or just books you really wanted to have crossed off your list?  And are there any books even more depressing than The Jungle

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck

I hadn't read anything by John Steinbeck in ages -- looking back, it's been nearly two years since I finished East of Eden.  I mostly love Steinbeck, but I think his work is a little uneven -- I tend to love the longer works but the shorter works are hit or miss.  I loved Travels with Charley and Cannery Row, but I never felt the love for Of Mice and Men.  The Pearl was just so tragic, and I couldn't even get through The Red Pony.  

Recently I'd just finished Kim, which took me a really long time for such a short book.  I wanted a short classic to cross off my list, and something totally opposite from Kipling -- Steinbeck was just the thing, and I could count it as my Classic about War for the Back to the Classics Challenge.  The Moon is Down is extremely short, just over 100 pages.  I probably could have read the whole thing in one sitting.

Published in 1942, this novella is the story of an anonymous town that's suddenly overrun by an invading army.  The names are vaguely American but the setting seems Scandinavian -- it's an coastal town with a coal mine, and it's terribly cold and snowy.  The invaders, who are obviously Nazis but are never specified as such, 

The cast of characters is small -- a few officers from the invading army; the Mayor; the town's doctor; and a few townspeople.  Basically, this is a fable about how an invading army assumed it would be easy to take over a town by surprise, with little opposition, and how they underestimated the will of the people.  Steinbeck wrote this novella during WWII, as a piece of propaganda to encourage resistance against the Nazis.  It was quickly translated into a multitude of languages, and almost as quickly banned by the Nazis.   

I found this story particularly interesting because it was written and published while the war was still going on -- I think the perspective must be quite different than writing a book in hindsight, when the author knows the outcome of the war.  

I liked the story, though it's short and there isn't a huge amount of characters or character development.  Parts of the book are a little preachy.  I found the introduction (which I always read after I've finished a book) especially interesting, as it gave a lot of historical perspective about how the book was received and reviewed.   Apparently, there was a lot of backlash against Steinbeck because he made the invading characters somewhat sympathetic -- at least, not completely evil.  They were believable as people who could have had some good characteristics, although they were on the wrong side.  

The introduction also gave a lot of insight as to how this book was received in other countries -- although it was blasted by Americans, it was very well received by Norway and many other countries, in Europe and farther abroad as well.  

Overall, a good quick read, though not my favorite Steinbeck.  I still want to read Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row, which I loved, so maybe I'll choose that for my American Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

Bloggers, what's your favorite book by Steinbeck?  And how is everyone coming along with the Back to the Classics Challenge?  This takes me up to 7/11 -- I'm more than halfway done!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Whale of a Read-Along: Moby Dick

The commenters have spoken!!  I have taken the plunge and signed up for Adam's Whale of a Read-Along event at Roof Beam Reader.  Our goal:  to finish Herman Melville's most famous work, Moby-Dick.  If you're interested in reading more about it, or signing up, here's a link to Adam's post.  

I'm pretty scared, but Adam has created a schedule that sounds pretty manageable, only 15 pages per day, about 20 chapters total per week.  How bad could that be?  And I have not one but TWO audiobook versions checked out from the library.  I'll listen to a little of each and decide which one I prefer.

Anyone else interested?  Or has everyone else finished Moby-Dick already?  Did you love it or hate it?   I'll post updates as the readalong progresses.  Wish me luck!!