Sunday, August 31, 2014

Austen in August: Mansfield Park

I know that many, many people in the blogosphere are writing about Mansfield Park this year, mostly because it's the bicentenary of its publication.  This is my second reading of the book, though technically, it's a listen, since I have the wonderful Naxos audiobook version narrated by the brilliant Juliet Stevenson (who played Mrs. Elton in the 1996 version of Emma).

If you don't know the set up, here's the short version:  Fanny Price is the poor cousin of the wealthy Bertrams who live in Mansfield Park.  She's the daughter of one of the three Ward sisters -- the one who made a crap marriage and is living in Portsmouth with a drunkard and a passel of kids.  One of her aunts married a wealthy landowner, Sir Thomas Bertram, and the other married a clergyman who got the living at the local parish.  This sister, known as Aunt Norris, gets the bright idea to take one of her sister's kids off her parents hands, though she actually pawns her off to her sister and wealthy brother in law -- brilliant!

So young Fanny comes to live in a strange house at the age of ten, and every one pretty much treats her like crap, except the second brother, Edmund, who's actually nice to her.  Things get interesting when Fanny turns 18 and Aunt Norris' husband dies.  The living is assigned to another clergyman, Dr. Grant, who brings his wife and is shortly followed by Mrs. Grant's half-sister and half-brother, Mary and Henry Crawford, who proceed to stir up all kinds of trouble with the Bertrams.  Henry flirts with both the daughters, Julia and Maria (who is engaged to a wealthy but boring guy), and Mary sets her sights on Edmund, to the chagrin of Fanny, who's secretly in love with him.  So, lots of love triangles in sight.

I hadn't actually read this in several years -- I actually tried listening to the audio last year, but I got so disgusted by the dishrag personality of Fanny Price I got bored and gave up halfway through.  I only gave it another go because I'm gearing up for the upcoming Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), which I'm attending in October.  This year the theme is Mansfield Park, so I though I'd better give Fanny and company another chance.  And I was very glad I did, because I liked it so much better this time around.

Frances O'Connor as Fanny and Alessandro Nivola as Henry Crawford.  

I was really inspired to try it again after reading this wonderful essay by Paula Byrne, author of Jane Austen:  A Life in Small Things.  Byrne points out that instead of an innocent girl going from the country to the big city and being corrupted, the Crawfords come to the country and corrupt everyone around them.  It's also Austen's sexiest novel.  Mary Crawford makes her infamous quip about "rears and vices;" also, there's a lot of symbolism when Henry is trying to corrupt cousin Maria.  So, I gave it another try, and was very glad that I did.  Yes, Fanny's a little wimpy, but she's really a product of her environment.  Nobody except Edmund has paid much attention to her, other than to treat her as a de facto servant, like Aunt Bertram or Aunt Norris, or to constantly put her in her place, like Julia and Maria -- and Aunt Norris, who spends the entire book trying to beat her down.

The lovely Penguin clothbound classic.  Those are the gold chains that Fanny wears to her first ball -- will she choose the one given to her by her cousin Edmund, or by Mary Crawford?

This time, I really enjoyed Austen's dry wit as she describes Aunt Norris' hypocrisy, the self-absorption of Aunt Bertram, and Edmund's starry-eyed adoration of Mary Crawford.  All the faults and foibles of the Bertram clan are filtered through the eyes of Fanny, the novel's moral center. Sure, sometimes she's a bit too wimpy for my taste, but all the other characters are so well developed I can give her a pass.  Lord Bertram is a lot nicer than I remembered, and Aunt Norris is by far one of the most delicious villains in English literature.  Henry Crawford is kind of charming yet sleazy, and I kept wanting to shake some sense into both Fanny and Edmund.  If I liked Fanny's character better, it would be one of my top novels by Austen.

And now I'm going to have to watch one or both of the Mansfield Park adaptations available on DVD.  Years ago, I fell in love with the story after watching Patricia Rozema's 1999 film adaptation (before I'd actually read the book).  After becoming a devout Janeite, I discovered that many people pooh-pooh this version though I can't see that the more recent 2007 version is any better.  I still think the casting in the 1999 version is spot-on, though Frances O'Connor plays Fanny as a little spunkier than she is in the book.  The casting of Billie Piper as Fanny in the 2007 BBC miniseries is just wrong, though Blake Ritson is pretty dishy as Edmund.   There's also a 1983 version which I've heard is just awful, though it stars Anna Massey, which intrigues me.  I actually own an entire box set of 1980s BBC adaptations of Jane Austen novels, but I've never gotten around to watching it.

So -- how does everyone else feel about Mansfield Park?  Like me, can you put up with Fanny because the rest of the novel is just great?  Do you love Mary Crawford and wish she was the heroine?    And has anyone seen the 1983 BBC version of Mansfield Park?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious


Grace Metalious blew the roof off the image of the quaint New England Town in her 1956 shocker Peyton Place. Ostensibly set in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but with more of a 1950s feel to it, Peyton Place is the story of three women: Constance McKenzie, a beautiful widow with a Deep Dark Secret; her 13-year old daughter Allison, a budding writer coming of age in a small town; and Allison's best friend, Selena Cross, a beautiful girl who is growing up in squalor on the wrong side of the tracks with her mother, half brother, and stepfather, the town's creepy drunk.  

Peyton Place covers all the dirty secrets of small town life, including murder, suicide, child abuse, incest, illegitimacy, and abortion It was groundbreaking for its time, though it's probably pretty tame compared to Fifty Shades of Grey.  

I'm a big fan of stories of life in small-town America, and this is like a really sordid version of Gilmore Girls, with much less witty repartee. There were lots of interesting and colorful side characters -- the upright and beloved town doctor, the uptight school teacher; the rich, unscrupulous mill owner and spoiled son; and the new principal who comes from the big city.  There are a whole slew of characters from various generations, all with their own back story.  Some times I did wish Metalious had included less characters and given the reader more about less people.

I found it to be quite the page turner -- I finished the entire book in a weekend, and I really enjoyed it.  I did have trouble keeping some of the characters straight, particularly the colorful old-timers who sat around at the diner and played poker with the doctor and the town newspaper editor.  Some of the threads were left unresolved; there's a whole plot thread about Allison's childhood sweetheart Norman and his creepy mother, who seems like an eerie precursor to Norman Bates, but we never really find out what happened to him; also, I didn't care for the ending, which seemed somewhat tacked on.  I would love to read an entire book about Allison and what happened to her after the events in the book ended.  There was a sequel, Return to Peyton Place, but I've read it isn't that good, so I may skip it and just imagine for myself how the character's lives would have continued.  

Now I want to read more books about small-town American life -- Main Street by Sinclair Lewis has been on my to-read list for ever; also, I want to read some more mid-Century fiction.  Another one on my to-read list is The Group by Mary McCarthy, which I've returned unread to the library three times at least!

Bloggers, which other books about small-town life do you recommend?  Which banned books do you love?  And has anyone ever seen the Peyton Place movie or TV adaptations? 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope

Among the twenty books by Anthony Trollope that I own is Rachel Ray.  It's not one of his most famous books compared to the Barchester series, the Pallisers books, or even The Way We Live Now, which is a shame, because it is mostly delightful, with one quibble.  It is also blessedly short, just about 400 pages, compared to some of his 800 page chunksters.  

Rachel Ray is 18 and lives in Baselhurst with her widowed mother and her sister Dorothy, who is ten years older and also widowed.  Both widows were previously married to clergymen, and Dorothy is very devout and evangelical.  Trouble starts one night when she reports to her mother that she has seen her younger sister doing something scandalous . . . walking alone with a man!!!  Shocking!  

This young man is in fact Luke Rowan, who is a guest of the Tappitt family.  Rowan is the heir to a portion of the local brewery, and came to Baselhurst to try and work out an arrangement with Mr. Tappitt.  Mrs. Tappitt had great hopes that he would marry one of the three unwed Tappitt daughters, who are friends of Rachel.  Rachel was visiting her friend Cherry Tappitt, and was walking home when he overtook her and caused this minor scandal.  

Meanwhile, Mr. Rowan has all kinds of ideas about improving the brewery and the beer.  Mr. Tappitt thinks he is a young upstart, and Mrs. Tappitt is smarting because Luke had the nerve to fall in love with Rachel instead of one of her daughters.  Luke is a little hotheaded, and he Mr. Tappitt can't get along.  Meanwhile, there's a local election which causes the town to start taking sides, partly based on the whole Rowan/Tappitt feud, and poor Rachel is caught in the middle.  The story follows the courtship of Rachel and Luke, and is a social satire about gossip, hypocritical evangelicals, and local politics. 

I mostly enjoyed this book.  The characters are charming and interesting, and Trollope gets in some good digs, especially about the overly pious Dorothy and a suitor who is mostly interested in her money.  The only part of the novel I didn't enjoy was an aspect of the local election -- the current MP is challenged by a local businessman who is -- gasp -- a Jew.  He's not a bad character, but some unpleasant comments are made about him by other characters (mostly his political opponents) which made me uncomfortable.  I'm not sure if Trollope himself was anti-Semitic, or was just trying to make a point about people of this time period, but I really wish it hadn't been included.  But it's otherwise a nice portrait about life in a small town during Victorian period, and a very easy read.  

I'm counting this as my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Nana by Emile Zola

Well, I didn't think it could happen, but it did.  Zola has disappointed me, in a very big way.  Nana is the twelfth book by Zola that I've completed, and the tenth in his epic Rougon-Macquart cycle, and this is the one I've liked the least, by far.  It's also the one that took me the longest.  Usually I zip through a Zola novel in a week, sometimes just a couple of days, but this one just dragged for me -- it was more than a month from start to finish, because I just couldn't get into it.

Nana is one of Zola's most famous novels, but for those who are not familiar, it's the eponymous story of a courtesan and sometime actress named Nana who becomes the most talked-about, scandalous woman in Paris.  She's kind of like a cross between Helen of Troy, Madonna and Kim Kardashian.  Men are obsessed by her, and she drives many of her lovers to financial ruin, or even worse.  Nana is an addiction, a succubus -- men are trapped by her spell, and will stop at nothing to satisfy her every whim.

Overall, I found this to be a really sordid, depressing tale.  I've read a dozen novels by Zola so far, and believe me, he is the master of writing about awful people in unpleasant situations.  However, I think this is the first book where I didn't care about a single one of the characters at all.  Usually there's someone whose story both repels and fascinates me enough to keep reading, but this book took me more than a month to finish, I was so disinterested.  Usually I'll finish a Zola book in a few days, normally not more than a week.  Nana just dragged on and on.  I hated everyone, and I thought they all deserved what was coming to them.  (I would have given up, but I kept hoping it would get better, so I finally plowed through it.)

I was also really disappointed by the writing.  Most of the time Zola writes really tight plotlines; this one seemed all over the place, lacking in focus. It started out in a theater, where a new production of a play is about to premiere.  Nana is described as not being able to act or sing, but somehow, her presence is so electrifying, people can't stop watching her.  Then the story shifts to Nana's sideline as a prostitute -- she's still turning tricks on the side, since she can't support herself as an actress.  There are subsequent chapters about Nana's love affair with a count, and how she essentially ruins his life.  The only chapter I actually liked is one where Nana and her entourage attend the races at Longchamps, which was very interesting and well-written (I've had a soft spot for horse racing ever since I read all the Dick Francis mysteries years ago.)  Finally, the last chapter was just wretched.

Another thing that really bothered me was an unpleasant sub-plot about Nana and her love affair with an abusive boyfriend.  It was really painful to read, and it just didn't seem to fit the character.  Even though she's vile, Nana is mostly a strong personality, strong enough to dominate men and bend them to her will, yet this horrible actor slaps her around and she seems to enjoy it.  I'm no expert on women in abusive relationships, but it just didn't make sense to me.  Plus, there are constant references to Nana's genitalia, and how she's using her sexuality to control men -- I just got tired of reading about it.  Zola has written some books that were very shocking for their time, but this one must have been the epitome of the racy French novel.  I got the feeling that Zola was writing some of it just for shock value.

I should really go and research more about the background of this book to get more of the metaphors.  (I usually go back and read the introduction until after I've finished a book, since I hate spoilers.)  I've heard this book is really a scathing satire about the decline of Paris during the time period, but I just don't care enough to find out.  If this were my first experience reading Zola, I don't think I'd ever read another one of his books again, ever.  I still own copies of three other Zola novels -- The Dream, The Debacle, and Money, and I'm really hoping that they're better than this one.

I am counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

Okay, quick survey. . .  what is the worst cover of a book you've read so far in 2014?

And how does it compare to this one:

Honestly, is this not the CHEESIEST book cover you've ever seen????  (Unless, of course, you are a regular reader of paperback romances, or the illustrator of this cover, in which case I apologize in case I've offended you. )

And my next question is this:  I know that book covers will attract readers to books, but have you ever been so put off by a book's cover that you actually refused to read it?  I ask this, because I bought this book more than six years ago after reading rave reviews by some of my favorite bloggers.  However, I could never bring myself to read it because I was too embarrassed.  Seriously!!

I finally decided I'd give it a try the other day -- I honestly wanted something from my TBR shelves that was short, and that was the complete opposite of Moby-Dick, which I had just finished, after six weeks of listening to the audio in the car.  I had also started reading a Zola novel which just wasn't doing anything for me.   

This is the story of Valancy Stirling, who lives somewhere in Canada with her mother and aunt, and is completely cowed and browbeaten by her entire extended family.  At twenty-nine, she is an old maid, and her family will never forget it.  When I  actually started reading it, I still didn't crack my lousy mass-market paperback -- I read the first chapter or so via the e-book version from Project Gutenberg Australia.  

I was pretty much hooked when I read this paragraph in Chapter I:

Aunt Wellington, of whom Valancy stood in abject awe, would tell her about Olive's new chiffon dress and Cecil's last devoted letter. Valancy would have to look as pleased and interested as if the dress and letter had been hers or else Aunt Wellington would be offended. And Valancy had long ago decided that she would rather offend God than Aunt Wellington, because God might forgive her but Aunt Wellington never would.

Things get very interesting when something absolutely life-changing happens to Valancy.  Without telling her family why, she decides to take matters into her own hands and live her life the way she wants, without giving a fig about what other people think.  This completely shocks her family and most of the population of her small town, and the reactions of her family members are pretty hilarious.  I don't want to give too much away, but this part of the book is full of wry observations and some laugh-out loud moments.

This book was written by L. M. Montgomery, the beloved writer of the Anne of Green Gables series.  I discovered Anne fairly late in life -- I never read it as a child because I somehow got it confused with Pollyanna, and I assumed Anne would be a sickly-sweet goody two-shoes.  I never read Heidi either.  Still haven't.  (If there are any Heidi and Pollyanna fans out there, please tell me if I should reconsider). The Blue Castle is Montgomery's only book meant for adults, and it does remind me a bit of what Anne would have been like as a grown-up, though I can't for a minute imagine her as browbeaten as Valancy is in the beginning of the book -- so, really, Valancy is like Anne after she takes charge of her own life.

Anyway, this book is funny and charming, and there's a nice little love story, though the ending is a bit unrealistic.  But it's a fun fast read, just over 200 pages in most editions.  It's a great summer read if you can get past the horrible cover.  Clearly, the publishers never actually read it, because the couple on the front look nothing like Valancy and the love interest.  I only wish I'd bought a later edition with this cover:

or even this one: 

(Also cheesy, but not nearly as bad as the first one.)

Or even this one:

This one's better, but to be fair, Valancy's mother and aunt would faint dead away before they let her near a window with this much skin showing.  And don't get me started on the makeup -- this book was published in 1926.   

Anyway -- what books repelled you before you even opened the covers?  And has anyone actually read Pollyanna and liked her, or does she make your teeth ache?  

Friday, August 8, 2014

Classics Club Spin VII

Oh, I am such a pushover when it comes to the Classics Club Spin!  If you're not familiar with it, participants in the Classics Club post a list of 20 books from their to-read list.  Next Monday, a random number will be assigned which determines the reading choice.  The blogger then reads and posts about that book on October 6.  Last time I utterly failed -- I gave up on reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame in favor of joining a Moby-Dick readalong.  This time I'm going to try harder -- I've enjoyed nearly all of my Spin selections so far and it really does inspire me to cross those books off my TBR list!

I've read more than 40 of the 75 books on my original list.  I'm trying to weigh the list mostly with books from my own shelves.  Here are my 20:

Five Books I Keep Putting Off:

1.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
2.  Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
3.  Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
4.  I, Claudius by Robert Graves
5.  The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Five Books I Really Want To Read:

6.  Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
7.  Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
8.  The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
9.  Ayala's Angel by Anthony Trollope
10.  Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck

Five Really Long Books:

11.  No Name by Wilkie Collins
12.  Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
13.  A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell
14.  Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
15.  New Grub Street by George Gissing

Five Books I'll Have to Check Out From the Library:

16.  Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
17.  One of Ours by Willa Cather
18.  The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
19.  The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
20.  The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason

So, next Monday I'll find out what the Classics Spin has selected for my next read.  Bloggers, which do you recommend from my list?  And what's going on your Classics Spin list??

Updated:  The Classics Spin Number was 17.  So I'll be reading One of Ours by Willa Cather.  I'm very happy about the selection!!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Moby-Dick: Final Thoughts

So, it's done.  I'm finished.  I've completed Moby-Dick -- that is, if you count listening to an audiobook the same as reading a book.  To be completely honest, I would say I read about 30% in combination of print and online, and the other 70% via audio.

Anyway, this book really was not what I expected at all.  I really thought there would be more action, more adventure.  I didn't expect non-stop action like Treasure Island or even The Three Musketeers, but I was expecting a little more adventure, for a whaling novel.  There was much more description about whales, and whaling, and butchering whales than I ever expected.

Maybe I would have liked it more if I owned this beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic!

Overall, I really wish I understood this book better.  Listening to the audiobook certainly made it easier in some ways, especially because I could absorb a little at a time, but sometimes I felt like I was losing the narrative thread (such that it was) since I only listened to a few pages a day.  After a break, I want to read Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick to see if that sheds some more light.  Parts of it were funny, and I really liked Queequeg -- I wish the book had had more about him.  I'm really not even sure what happened to him, though I have my suspicions.  I admired the writing, I appreciate the risks that Melville took, but I'm not sure that I can say I actually liked it.   And now I really want to go on an ocean voyage -- I'd love to go to Alaska now and do some whale watching! 

I'm glad I finished it, and I'm counting Moby-Dick as my American Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson

About one million British men were killed during WWI -- and another 2 million wounded, almost 35% of their total forces.  A disproportionately large percentage of these men were officers.  This "lost generation" was devastating, not only because of the lives lost and ruined.  After the war, approximately 2 million women were left single, with no prospects for husbands or children.  Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson is the story of how those women coped during an era when the ultimate goal of most women was to get married and have a family.

This book is fairly short, but packed with information.  It must have been absolutely terrible -- for some women, especially in the upper classes, the ratio of available women to men was something like ten to one.  A higher proportion of upper-class men enlisted and were killed in the war, and most upper-class women couldn't or wouldn't marry down the social scale.  Many of them had few prospects, other than becoming teachers and governesses, and maiden aunts, during a time when being a spinster was the ultimate shame.

Nicholson's book describes a variety of women, some who became famous, like writer Vita Sackville-West and archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson.  Some of the women in the book were able to use this terrible situation to break down barriers and pursue other careers and dreams, such as becoming doctors, lawyers, and businesswomen.  Though it's probably a fraction of many of the women who were left single and childless, it's a very interesting look at how the era and their situation contributed to the changing role of women in the early part of the century.  

This book was very interesting and well-written, and I especially like how the author organized the works mentioned at the end of the book -- she quoted from so many novels and biographies, it was nice to have them organized so I can go back and find them again easily (and add them to my to-read list!)

I highly recommend this book, especially if you're interested in social history and about the aftermath of WWI.  It's particularly timely because of the upcoming anniversary of the Great War.  And another book I can check off my 2015 TBR Pile list!