Thursday, March 24, 2016

Exciting News

So after nearly eight years in Texas, the military has decided that it's time for my family to relocate. . . (drumroll, please) and we're going to . . . . 


Not my new house. It's Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. 

We'll be moving sometime this summer, probably late June or early July -- only three months away. I'm going to do my best to keep up with blogging, but of course I have lots to do with sorting, packing, and putting our house up for sale. I hope everyone will understand if I'm not posting as much as usual. Of course we're sad to leave all our friends here in Texas, but I'm really excited to be moving to Europe -- especially because I lived in Germany on a summer exchange program back in high school.  

And what to do with all my books??? I have to decide how many to take with me -- unread books, or beloved favorites? A combination? And I have to decide if I should read as many library books as possible before I leave -- (the base library won't have nearly the selection as the millions of books here in our public library system) -- or read my own books so I don't have to pack them! 

I'm also trying to decide if I should read lots of shorter books and knock them off my TBR list, or try and read some of the big fat books because they're heavier and take longer. I'll have so much to do I suspect I won't be tackling any especially taxing books in the next few months -- probably a lot of easy comfort reads in the near future. Bloggers, what would you do? And which German authors do you recommend? 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

New Grub Street by George Gissing

I'm really trying no read as many as my own books as possible this year, so I picked New Grub Street by George Gissing as my Classic the a Place Name in the Title for my current read. (Also one of the last nine books on my Classics Club list -- a win/win!).

Basically, this is the story of how awful it was to be an unsuccessful or mildly successful writer in late 19th century London. Published in 1891, it follows several families: Jasper Milvain, a somewhat cynical and opportunistic journalist and writer, and his two sisters, Dora and Maud; the bitter Alfred Yule and his wife and grown daughter, Marian; and Marian's cousin Amy Reardon, and her husband Edwin, a semi-successful novelist on a downward spiral.

All three of these families are dealing with the financial difficulties of supporting one's family as a writer, to varying degrees. Alfred married a woman he considered beneath himself, and blames her for his not getting ahead among the society of writers. His daughter Marian is talented and does a lot of her father's research and some writing of her own, but rarely gets the credit for it. Alfred dreams  of editing his own literary journal, but lacks funds or connections. 

Edwin Reardon showed early promise, and after a legacy left him temporarily flush with cash, married the beautiful Amy. Now that they have a small child and money is tight, Amy doesn't want to economize and the subsequent stress over finances is causing Edwin to lose focus on his writing. 

Jasper is attracted to Marian, who seems his intellectual match, but he cynically believes that he needs a wealthy wife to help him get ahead in literary society. His sisters have become friendly with Marian but are also aware of their brother's character and ambition. Also, Alfred Yule is convinced that Jasper wrote an unflattering piece about him, so he is persona non grata. Their lives all intertwine in the literary London of the early 1890s, and the action really picks up after Alfred's brother dies, and his will changes the lives of these three families. 

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. George Gissing isn't nearly as popular as Dickens or Hardy or even Trollope -- he wrote 23 novels but as far as I can tell, only three of them are in print anymore. Gissing's writer is quite easy to read, and his characters were really well developed -- I found myself really rooting for some and booing others as the story progressed. Parts of it were quite sad, as these starving writers struggle to churn out enough pages to keep from being thrown into the workhouse and splitting up their families. Gissing makes some really good points about women writers. There were some really dramatic bits and in the end, I wanted to strangle one of the characters (though I wasn't surprised one bit how his story was going to shake out). 

Overall, a very satisfying book, and it's giving me courage to try reading some of the more obscure Victorian writers. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope

I'm really trying to read only books from my own shelves, and I know in my head it would be so much faster if I read all the short books so that the unread number would be smaller. But sometimes, I just get a craving for a big fat Victorian triple-decker that will just totally absorb me. And that's when it's time for some Trollope. 

I originally picked Phineas Redux because the audio was available on audio download free from my library -- it's a three-week checkout, but seriously, in a city of a million people, who else besides me would want to read it? I wanted a good classic on audio for dog walking, and I figured I could stretch it out for awhile. Well, I got completely hooked on the story and zoomed through it in just a couple of weeks. I was so pleasantly surprised, because this book is just brilliant. I knew the Pallisers were supposed to be as great as the Barchester Chronicles, but of the four books I've read in the series, this one is by far my favorite. It has satire, romance, politics, intrigue, and lots of my favorite characters from previous novels in the series. 

I should back up a little. Phineas Finn, the eponymous Irish politician from the second Palliser novel, is back in London after several years out of public life. At the end of Phineas Finn, he left Parliament, went back to Ireland, and married his childhood sweetheart Mary. She tragically died shortly after their marriage, leaving him childless, and he is approached by some MPs to see if he wouldn't consider attempting to try for a seat in a  borough which could be won without much trouble or financial output. Phineas has a little money and no family left, so he has nothing to lose. 

Of course, he's thrown back into society with three of his old paramours -- Lady Viola, now happily married to Lord Chiltern; her sister-in-law, Lady Laura, who is separated from her husband, the cantankerous George Kennedy; and Madame Max Goesler, the rich widow who proposed to Phineas and offered to support his political aspirations. (Madame Goesler very nearly became a Duchess when the elderly Duke of Omnium proposed to her, but she turned him down, since she could very well have been the mother to the next Duke, thereby ousting the heir apparent, Plantagenet Palliser. She sensitively turned him down rather then incur the wrath of of her friend Lady Glencora, Palliser's wife). Following all this so far? This is just the setup!

At first, I thought this was a pretty standard Trollope. There are love triangles, and proposals, and broken engagements, plus the aforementioned political machinations. (There's also the reappearance of the devious Lady Eustace from The Eustace Diamonds, who has a small but pivotal role.  However, just about halfway through, there's a pretty significant plot twist, and what I thought was a minor quarrel turns into a murder, and much of the book is taken up with the trial and its aftermath.  Although I suspected it would all turn out alright in the end, it was still riveting.

One thing I really love about Trollope is how great his female characters are -- unlike Dickens, who tends to write females as either brainless ingenues or comic older women. In this book alone, there are no less than six strong females with fully realized characterization. Of course, most of them had already been introduced in the previous books, but the female characters are the heart and soul of his books. Lady Glencora, Madame Goesler, and even the detestable Lizzie Eustace are all worth reading about. I just love that about Trollope -- the women get just as much time in the books as the men, or nearly so. (I wish some graduate student would do a study about this!)

My only quibble with the novel is that I'm really starting to see an anti-Semitic bias in Trollope that makes me uncomfortable. There's a character who is painted as an absolute villain who is Jewish, and there are some pretty derogatory remarks made about him. Also, one character is terribly jealous of Madame Max Goesler, who is a foreigner, and there are a couple of nasty jabs from her rival as well. I remember a minor Jewish character from Rachel Ray that had some anti-Semitic remarks about him, but at the time I read it, I was unsure if Trollope was satirizing anti-Semites or was one himself. I'm starting to think it was Trollope. I understand this is just a reflection of the times, but still, it's disappointing because I love Trollope's books so much. Even Charles Dickens responded to public pressure about Fagin and wrote a much more sympathetic character in Our Mutual Friend.

I also wish I had read it a little closer to Phineas Finn -- it had been almost a year, and some of the details from the first book were a little fuzzy. I suppose chronologically it comes after The Eustace Diamonds, but I certainly don't want to wait an entire year to read the final two books in the series!

I'm counting this as my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I'm also thinking about reading more Trollope for the other Back to the Classics categories -- I do have some unread volumes of his short stories, and I also have a couple more Trollopes that might qualify for the Classic With a Place in the Title category.

Has anyone else read the Palliser novels? Which are your favorites? How's everyone else doing with the Back to the Classics Challenge? 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Top Ten Books If You're Sad About Downton Abbey Ending

I haven't participated in a Top Ten Tuesday for a long time, but I'm a little bereft at the end of my favorite Masterpiece show. Sure, it was really a gorgeously shot period soap opera with fabulous costumes, and the ending was mostly predictable, but here are some suggestions to fill the void until there's a new Masterpiece obsession. All but one of these has been adapted into a movie or TV miniseries, some of them more than once. 

In no particular order, here are ten Downton-esque novels that I've read and loved (some are series):

1. The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford.  Two books in one! These are the first two in Mitford's hilarious satires of upper-crust life in country mansion. Mitford's own father is skewed as the bellowing Uncle Matthew. Also a great BBC adaptation with the luminous Rosamund Pike.

2. The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse. Bertie Wooster is ensnared by his Aunt Dahlia to steal an antique silver cow creamer while simultaneously trying to save the engagements of two friends. Jeeves just wants to go on a cruise around the world, but saves the day anyway. Highclere Castle (the real-life Downton Abbey) was the location for parts of the BBC episode of Jeeves & Wooster that adapted this book (it's Season 2, Episode 1 if you want to watch the DVD, or it's available on demand from Amazon.)

3. The Remains of the Day by Kazou Ishiguro. What if Carson wrote a book about his life at Downton? A long-suffering butler reflects on his years in service. 

4. The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton. Cora Crawley isn't the only American heiress to marry a cash-poor British aristocrat. Her last novel is the story of four American debs on the hunt for titled husbands. Wharton died before finishing the last third of the novel, which was completed based on her notes. 

5. The Light Years and the entire Cazalet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Great family saga about an extended British family that starts in the 1930s and continues through WWII and the aftermath. And there are five books, enough to fall in love with all the characters. 

6. The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley. Forbidden love on an estate between a wealthy young woman and a handsome farmer, as viewed by a twelve-year old boy. 

7. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Fanny Price isn't actually a servant, but her snobbish cousins treat her like a second-class citizen after they take her in. Lots of scandalous behavior upstairs, enough to rival Downton Abbey.

8. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. A shy, introverted paid companion of a rich American meets a handsome, wealthy English widower in Monte Carlo, and after a brief and odd courtship, he marries her and takes her home to the family estate in Cornwall, where the secrets of his first marriage are exposed. Great atmosphere and a seriously messed-up housekeeper make this one of my all-time favorites. 

9. The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. Another Masterpiece favorite, this book moves through the Victorian, Edwardian, and WWI eras of English history, and shows how an upper-class family changing to keep up with the times. Originally published as three books, it won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1932. 

10. The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt. Another saga about an extended family, this one in the Edwardian era and beyond. It's basically a really great history lesson about English society as it transitions from the Victorian Era to the horrors of the Great War, with the family of an eccentric children's book author as a microcosm. It hasn't been adapted as a TV miniseries yet, but it would be amazing if someone adapted it. BBC, are you reading this? 

And of course there are lots more books about the Edwardians, WWI, and 1920s, both fiction and nonfiction. Bloggers, what do you recommend? And what are you watching now that Downton is all over? 

Friday, March 4, 2016

Classics Spin #12

Another Classics Club Spin! If you're not familiar, participants post a list of 20 books on their Classics Club list. On Monday morning, a random number will be posted, and I'll read the corresponding title from my list and put up my post on May 2. I've had great like with the random spin picks, so it's always fun to have someone else choose the next read from my list.

I only have nine books left, so I'm going to have to repeat the list to get to an even 20.  In no particular order, here's my list:

1. Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
2. The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
3. The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason
4. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
5. New Grub Street by George Gissing
6. Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
7. The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas
8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
9. A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell

Now the repeats:

10. Portrait of a Lady
11. New Grub Street
12. The Mystery of Edwin Drood
13. The Man in the Iron Mask
14. The Four Feathers
15. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
16. The Mystery of Edwin Drood
17. A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement)
18. Lark Rise to Candleford
19. New Grub Street 
20. The Man in the Iron Mask

Right now I'm kind of hoping for The Man in the Iron Mask, Portrait of a Lady, or A Dance to the Music of Time.  I'm kind of dreading Hunchback -- I tried listening to the audio version and it's moving incredibly slow.

Bloggers, have you read any of these books? Which should I hope for?

Updated: The Spin has given me #8 -- The Hunchback of Notre Dame! I'll just have to buckle down and give it another try.