Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

"Take my camel, dear," said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from the High Mass.

The Towers of Trebizond has been on my to-read shelf since 2007.  It popped up on some classic book list, possibly The Guardian's list of 1000 Books Everyone Must Read (it's one of the 100 Comedies -- I've read 37 so far).  Plus I really liked the cover of the NYRB Classic edition, above, so I bought my own copy which promptly gathered dust for about seven years until I picked it up the other day.

Published in 1956, this is ostensibly a humorous tale about some unlikely companions traveling around Turkey -- the narrator, Laurie, who is a companion and assistant to her widowed Aunt Dot as she embarks on a journey which is part research for a travel book, part missionary work to convert infidels to the Church of England, and part social work to empower women in a highly traditional and sexist culture. They're accompanied by an Anglican priest, Father Chantry-Pigg, and aunt Dot's nameless camel.  

It's quirky and the wit is mostly very dry:

It is not, therefore, strange that we should have inherited a firm and tenacious adherence to the Church of our country.  With it has come down to most of us a great enthusiasm for catching fish.  Aunt Dot maintains that this propensity is peculiarly Church of England; she has perhaps made a slight confusion between the words Anglican and angling.  To be sure the French fish even more, as I sometimes point out, and to be sure, the pre-Reformation monks fished greatly. "Mostly in fish-ponds," said Aunt Dot.  "Very unsporting, and only for food." 

After a time, the group ends up separating and Laurie spends much of the trip alone with the camel.  There are a lot of funny observations, but Laurie does a lot of soul-searching about the nature of love and religion -- a lot of the book discusses the differences between the different sects of the Church of England, not to mention the Roman Catholic church and Islam.  There's a lot of discussion about the plight of women in Turkey and whether they can be emancipated and empowered.  Laurie is actually an agnostic, and spends a lot of time pondering about the nature of religion.  This book spends a LOT of time discussing religion.  Parts of it are satirical, including some digs at Billy Graham, but some of it is just thoughtful.  

There were parts of the book I found delightful and quirky, and there are a lot of lovely travelogue-y bits when Laurie travels on her own through Turkey on the back of the camel, mostly in places where she can barely speak Turkish and few of the locals speak English.  Still, she gets by quite well, which is surprising for a woman traveling on her own in a Moslem country in the 1950s.  But the end of the book turns quite serious and I did find the ending very melancholy.  I went back and read the introduction of the book after I'd finished, and it was easy to see how some of the events in the book were inspired by author Rose Macauley's own life.   

This book was extremely popular in the late 1950s when it was published -- apparently people went around quoting the famous first line.  I do think that it is definitely a product of its time -- there are some parts in this book that definitely made me uncomfortable, which  some readers could find very offensive.  However, I do think it was satirizing many religions, not just Islam.   

I'm counting this as my Forgotten Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Anthony Trollope Bicentennial Celebration: Sign Up Here!

In exactly two months, on April 24, it will be the 200th anniversary of Anthony Trollope's birth.  In honor of one of my favorite writers, I'm hosting a month-long celebration of his life and work.  Here is where you can sign up to participate.  I've never hosted anything like this before, but I'm planning on posting weekly round-ups of anything relating to Trollope, awarding prizes (for U.S. and international bloggers) and reading as much Trollope as I can squeeze into a single month.  If you're interested, you can link any postings related to Trollope.  It could be a book review of one of his many novels, TV adaptations, or you could just ruminate about anything Trollope-related.  

Who's with me? Sign up with the Linky below!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham

Liza of Lambeth is the first novel published by W. Somerset Maugham, in 1897.  I've been a big fan of Maugham's work ever since I read Of Human Bondage as a freshman in college, so I thought Liza would be a good choice for my Classic Novella selection for the Back to the Classics Challenge. (It also counts towards the Reading England Challenge). 

This is the story of Liza Kemp, a young woman of about eighteen or twenty who lives in Vere Street in Lambeth, a neighborhood of London.  Liza is pretty and spirited, and she doesn't seem very satisfied with her life.  She lives with her widowed mother, who seems to do nothing but drink and complain about her rheumatism, and her boyfriend Tom bores her.  At the beginning of the story, it's a beautiful day in August, and the neighbors are hanging around outside when an organ player wanders down the street.  Spontaneous dancing breaks out as Liza is walking home in a new dress, and she joins in.  The sight of Liza dancing in that new dress catches the eye of a new neighbor, Jim Blakeston, who changes Liza's life forever.  He's married, with a houseful of children, and he's old enough to be her father.  But Jim is so different than her boyfriend, Liza starts a relationship with him that sends her on a downward spiral.  

It's quite short, only 137 pages, and one could easily read it in a day or possibly even a single sitting, but I had to put it down a few times because I did find the story quite depressing. It's quite obvious to the reader that this isn't going to end well, and it doesn't.  Maugham was working as a doctor in working-class London at the time he wrote the book, and it struck me that he must have seen many girls  like Liza. 

It was a little difficult to read because all the characters speak in a dialect which I can only assume was Cockney. (Please feel free to correct me in the comments I'm incorrect.) Though the story is well written, and the characters are well developed, I can't say I really recommend it because I found it so sad.  I did appreciate it as fan of Maugham, but I can't say I'd ever want to read it again.  I've read The Painted Veil and Up at the Villa several times but Liza of Lambeth won't be on my list of favorites. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Victoria's Daughters by Jerrold M. Packer

My fascination with Victorian writers has expanded to overlap with my love of non-fiction -- I find it so interesting to read the actual history that was going on during my favorite literary period.  I found Victoria's Daughters at one of the library sales a couple of years ago for a mere $1.  After the debacle of my last so-called nonfiction read, I needed some actual history to cleanse my reading palate.  Though it isn't nearly as scholarly as I expected, it was still a fascinating read. 

Queen Victoria had nine children over a period of seventeen years, and five of them were girls: Victoria, the Princess Royal (known as Vicky), Alice, Helena (known as Lenchen), Louise, and Beatrice (she eventually had forty grandchildren).  Though not nearly as well documented as their famous mother, this is still a very interesting insight into the lives of the Queen's household, how European royalty was intertwined through marriage, and the transition from the 19th century to the 20th. 

There are also some hints about the background of World War I, since Victoria's oldest daughter (also named Victoria and known as Vicky) married the oldest son of the German Emperor, and was the mother of William the Second of Germany, also known as Kaiser Wilhelm.  When Germany and England were at war, royal cousins were fighting on both sides.  

Basically, it was the duty of Queen Victoria's daughters to make brilliant marriages:  her second daughter Alice also married a German prince, Louis of Hesse (her daughter Alix married Nicholas of Russia, the final Tsar); her fourth daughter Louise married a future Scottish Duke; the other two daughters, Helen and Beatrice, also married minor German princes.  Well, the youngest daughter finally married at 28, even though Victoria was initially furious at the idea of her youngest daughter marrying at all -- it was her duty to stay with her mother for her entire life.  Beatrice was 17 years younger than Victoria and only four years old when her father Prince Albert died, so Beatrice spent her entire life taking care of her mother.  Eventually Queen Victoria agreed to her marriage, but only on the condition that Beatrice and her husband live with the Queen and Beatrice continue to act as her unofficial secretary.  

Princess Beatrice, the youngest daughter, in her wedding dress.

This was a really interesting book -- lots of history, several scandals, and much of it was quite tragic.  Hemophilia ran in the family, and besides Queen Victoria's son Leopold, some of the grandsons were also hemophiliac and died young.  The second daughter, Alice, died of diphtheria which she contracted while nursing her own children, one of whom had also just died during the same outbreak.

Princess Alice, the second of Queen Victoria's daughters.
I did have a few quibbles -- there weren't nearly enough photos, considering how many people are included in the book.  Also, though there's an excellent chart showing the immediate family tree (which runs horizontally across a two-page spread, so I was constantly turning the book sideways) I really wish the author had included a map or two.  There are a lot of references to various royal houses, palaces, and castles, and I'm a visual person, so I would have liked some geographical layout.  Also, a map of all the German kingdoms of the time would have been helpful -- four of the daughters married German princes, and there was a lot of traveling in the book back and forth between England and Germany.  

The writing in this book was pretty accessible, though a bit clunky at times.  Packard has this tendency to end sections with heavy foreshadowing and dramatic flourish, as though he were writing cliffhangers.  A lot.  For example:

From those earliest years, the little girl stored up constant approbation, in reserve for the day when she would turn it disastrously loose in her adult life.  (Cue ominous music).  Or how about:

Only a fiend could have predicted that such bliss would, starting in a few weeks, begin to turn to choking dust.

I also noticed that Packard had a tendency to editorialize instead of just presenting the facts and allowing the reader to form an opinion.  For example, after the death of Beatrice's husband, there was a rift between Beatrice and her sister Louise: 

Probably no family row would have occurred if [Louise] hadn't let her mouth get ahead of her brain when Liko's death was reported while the family was at Osborne. . . . It was a stupid and careless thing for one sister to tell another under the circumstances, and understandably, for a time it badly strained relations between Louise and Beatrice.

I'm sure that after spending years researching a subject for a book, a writer couldn't help but form opinions about them one way or another, but I did find a few of the comments a bit over the top.  Perhaps by merely including a quote the reader can come to his or her own conclusion about the stupid things that siblings say to each other.  

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this book.  I also have several other books about Victorian history on the to-read pile, and some more royal biographies.  My book group is reading Helen Rappaport's The Romanov Sisters in a few months, and I'm also really looking forward to that one.  Bloggers, which books about Victorian history do you recommend?  Which royal biographies? 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Modoc: the True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer

I had high hopes for this book -- what's not to love about elephants?  And the "true story" of an amazing elephant and his lifelong friendship with a trainer?  Well, it would be amazing, if it were, in fact, all true.  But sadly, not so much.

This book out pretty interesting, with a fairly good narrative.  Basically, it's the story of a young boy, Bram, who was raised with a circus elephant, and spent most of his life with her throughout fantastic events -- both wonderful and tragic -- around the globe.  There are ocean voyages, a shipwreck, mystical encounters in faraway lands, bandits, benevolent royalty, wars -- you name it.

But as I read this amazing narrative -- complete with dialogue, which is always slightly suspect in a book that's reporting elements of years ago -- I was slightly put off by the writing and its insider knowledge of people's thoughts and feelings.  And a lot of the events are so fantastic that they just don't ring true.  Plus, this story is oddly lacking in concrete details.  For starters, the date of this miraculous birth is never mentioned -- not even the year!  The reader can only assume that it is sometime in the early part of the 20th century.  In fact, there's not an actual date mentioned in the entire book.  The more I read this book, the more it started to feel like a fable or fantastic folk tale, not nonfiction.

Since I am a curious person (and because I spend far too much time surfing the internet) after I finished the book, I began Googling for actual facts.  It quickly became obvious that Ralph Helfer studied at the James Frey School of Nonfiction Writing -- that is, playing pretty fast and loose with the facts.  Modoc seems like an amalgamation of a lot of different stories, different elephants, etc.

If Helfer had just said the story was inspired by actual events, I might have bought it -- the story, though flawed and over-the-top, would probably have found some satisfied readers.  But the fact that he's trying to pass this as a TRUE STORY is just so irritating, it's really taken away from the experience of reading the book. (The fact that it is listed as nonfiction by the library is just eye-rolling).

I really need to be a little more discerning when I choose nonfiction.  I did take another look at the Goodreads reviews for the rest of the books on my TBR Pile Challenge List, which is all nonfiction, and it seems like those that aren't memoirs are fairly respected -- there are obviously some aren't necessarily universally loved, but they actually have footnotes, indices, and/or bibliographies.

Memoirs are another story altogether.  If an author states at the beginning, that basically, this is how I remember this incident, or that certain characters or events may have been combined, I might be forgiving.  How can someone remember an entire conversation years later?  It's different than if they're quoting a print document like a letter.  Essentially, the reader has to assume that this is the writer's memory (or interpretation) of certain events.  Looking back on my TBR Pile Challenge list, I realized that exactly half of these books are essentially memoirs or opinions.

As I've mentioned, I've been reading a lot more nonfiction in the past few years -- maybe this also means I need to be more selective.  Does the popularity of nonfiction also mean an increase in thinly veiled fiction?  (And is it really more popular, or do I just think so because I've finally embraced nonfiction?)  Bloggers, how discriminating are you about your nonfiction?  Are there any "true stories" that you later found out weren't completely accurate?