Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott

I often feel as if I'd gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom -- Rosamond Vivian, age 18.

What is that saying about being careful about you wish for, because you might actually get it? That is basically the theme of this book. Oh, and that men can be really, really, stalker-creepy. 

Believe it or not, Louisa May Alcott wrote novels that were NOT Little Women, Little Men, or Eight Cousins. In 1866, two years before the publication of Little Women, Alcott was in financial straits and quickly wrote a Gothic/Victorian sensation novel which was ultimately rejected by her publishers, even after major revisions. It remained unpublished until 1995 when it was sold and finally published by Random House, and became a posthumous best-seller. 

The plot is basically this: young Rosamond Vivian is living on an isolated island off the coast of England with her cranky grandfather, dreaming about an exciting life. She gets her wish when a mysterious stranger named Philip Tempest (I kid you not) comes to visit and steals her heart. He convinces her to run away with him on his yacht and all is well for about a year when she realizes he has a Really Big Secret, and that he may not be such a nice guy after all, so she grabs as much money and jewelry as she can in a few minutes and slips out the back; however, Philip loves her in a kind of twisted way and will not be denied, and he spends the remainder of the book chasing her all over Europe. She gives him the slip over and over, mostly with the aid of strangers who will help her because she is Beautiful and Good. There are a lot of intrigues, miraculous coincidences, and dubious characters. 

I enjoyed this book in the beginning, but as it wore on (and it's only about 250 pages) I began to get annoyed by Philip's character -- he just won't take no for an answer, and that's pretty disturbing. Obviously, women didn't have that many choices in the 1860s, but this guy is just a creepy stalker. He claims he loves her and she will always belong to him. Oh, please. Coincidentally, I just this morning read an excellent (and disturbing) post on Book Riot about the relationship between Jo March and Laurie, and which points out that Laurie is also obsessed and won't leave Jo alone. It is extremely eye-opening and it really makes me wonder if this is a theme running throughout Alcott's work. Alcott did write other potboilers that were published, sometimes under a pseudonym. If you're interested, here's a great  New York Times article from 1995 by novelist Stephen King.  

I had originally planned to read this for my Gothic classic for the Back to the Classics challenge, but as I was reading it I wondered if it really weren't more of a Victorian sensation novel. I'd say it's a bit of both -- Gothic novels tend to include mysterious strangers, locked rooms, and potentially haunted castles, etc. Victorian sensation novels are more about people with big secrets, and Philip's secret is revealed pretty quickly. I think this one could go either way. I'm actually going to count it as both, as a  Gothic Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and as my Genre/Subgenre of my choice for the Victorian Reading Challenge.

Bloggers, have any of you read this book? Were you as creeped out as I was? And is anyone else going to reread Little Women with a more critical eye? 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell

My cousin Phillis was like a rose that had come to full bloom on the sunny side of a lonely house, sheltered from storms. I have read in some book of poetry,—

A maid whom there were none to praise, And very few to love.

And somehow those lines always reminded me of Phillis; yet they were not true of her either. I never heard her praised; and out of her own household there were very few to love her; but though no one spoke out their approbation, she always did right in her parents' eyes out of her natural simple goodness and wisdom. 

I was happy to find this novella on audiobook available for digital download at my library. I thought I'd read nearly everything by Elizabeth Gaskell but apparently not! Published in 1864, this is one of Gaskell's lesser-known works and I think that's a shame, because I really enjoyed it.

The book's narrator, Paul Manning, is nineteen and working on the railways as an apprentice engineer. While on an assignment in Cheshire, he learns that he has cousins from his mother's side living nearby, and begins to visit them: the Reverend Holman, a pleasant clergyman-farmer; his devoted wife, and their daughter, Phillis, who is sixteen but is tall, pretty, and intelligent. They all become very fond of each other and are his surrogate home-away-from-home, spending weekends and holidays with the Holmans when it's too far to visit his own family back in Birmingham. 

Reverend Holman works hard as both a farmer and minister, and has a constant curiosity about the world that he's passed on to his daughter. Phillis is tall and beautiful, well out of Paul's league, but he loves her as his own sister. Eventually, Paul brings his best friend and railway supervisor, Edward Holdsworth, to meet the Holmans. Holdsworth is handsome, educated, and well-traveled, and as expected, a sort of love triangle ensues and there is heartbreak. 

This is a lovely, bittersweet novel, and Gaskell expertly describes life on the Holman farm which sounds absolutely idyllic, though it must have been isolating for a bright girl like Phillis. Gaskell also creates really well-defined characters that felt incredibly real, and several times I found myself yelling out loud at them. I also really liked that young Paul was the narrator -- I think she did a great job creating his voice.

My one quibble with the novella was the ending, which I found rather abrupt. Gaskell went into so much detail with the rest of the story that I was surprised how quickly it ended. I did a little research and according to Wikipedia, the novel was first published as a series in four parts and there were two more parts originally planned. I can't find any other sources to back this up but that would explain why it felt unfinished. It's also the work published just before Wives & Daughters, my favorite among her novels, and I think the writing style is quite similar compared to her earlier works which I find a bit harder to read. It's another side to her works which I really liked having read most of her major novels. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Classics Club: Five-Year Check-In

Exactly five years ago today I posted my list of 75 classics I want to read for the Classics Club. I'm proud to say I finished 69 of the books from my list, and reviewed 58 of them on this blog! Here's a link to my original list, with dates completed and all my reviews.

There are six books from my list that I still haven't completed:

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason
A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell
Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson

In my defense, I have actually attempted to read all of the final six at one point or another and just haven't gotten inspired enough to finish any of them. I haven't given up on them entirely -- maybe it's just not the right time for those books. I'm still hoping to tackle Portrait of a Lady this year for the Victorian Reading Challenge. 

Girl Reading, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Of the 69 that I did finish, here are some that I really enjoyed:

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
One of Ours by Willa Cather
Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A Bell for Adano by John Hersey
Lady Chattereley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Elephant
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
Kipps by H. G. Wells

And of course, just about everything on my list by Anthony Trollope, who rarely disappoints.

Least favorites:

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
Theater by W. Somerset Maugham
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
Nana by Emile Zola

Molly Reading a Book by Rose Mead
What surprises me most about this list is that includes books by some of my all-time favorite authors -- Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton and Emile Zola. So I guess there are no guarantees, even your favorite authors can fall short sometimes.

Now I'm trying to decide whether I should start another Classics Club list -- the books I want to read is never-ending! Bloggers, how is everyone else doing with their Classics Club lists?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Prettiest Town in Alsace-Lorraine

A few weeks ago there was a school holiday and I had cabin fever, so my daughter and I took a little road trip to Colmar, France, which is about 2 1/2 hours away, over the border in Alsace-Lorraine. It's about an hour south of Strasbourg. I'd heard it was the prettiest town in the world and was the model for Belle's village in Disney's animated Beauty and the Beast

I was able to get a good rate on one night in a hotel so we left on Sunday and got there just in time for dinner. Our hotel was adorably cute.

As I was driving, I passed a lot of vineyards and shops that advertised foie gras, which is a regional specialty. There's some really amazing food in Alsace and our hotel had a really good restaurant. We treated ourselves to a nice dinner. (Yes, my teenaged daughter will eat foie gras which is goose liver.)

That's the half-sized appetizer portion which is served with brioche and lovely breads. It's incredibly rich and we were barely able to finish it and our entrees as well, which were not large by American standards. Also I forgot that French restaurants include the service charge in the bill so I needn't have rushed downstairs at 10 p.m. to give them a tip which I realized I'd forgotten. At least I wasn't wearing a baseball cap and fanny pack.

And I found out the next day the reason our hotel room was so cheap was because everything in Colmar is closed on Mondays during the off-season. Except restaurants and museums, which I didn't visit because I was with a teenager.

Nevertheless, we walked around for a couple of hours until it was time for lunch. Even in winter, it's really cute. Many of the buildings date from the 1600s and even earlier. 

It's called Little Venice because there's a canal that runs right through town. I think it's only about two feet deep and apparently you can take boat rides. Didn't see anyone boating that day but it must be stunning in the summer. 

Basically the only places open were food-related. We wanted to eat at this restaurant but it didn't open until noon and we were starving, so we found a little cafe and the ultimate comfort food for a cold morning. 

This is called tartiflette and it's very popular. Basically, it's a casserole with potatoes, cheese and cream, with various add-ins. Ours had mushrooms and it was the perfect thing for a dreary, chilly day. The two of us could not finish it. 

Thus sustained, we shopped at the only stores open: the foie gras store (yes, there is such a thing) and the grocery store. As you'd expect, even the grocery stores are better in France. Even the canned goods are classy. I've never had salsify but apparently it's a root vegetable. 

There are lots of charming architectural details everywhere. This is a fountain outside the covered market, which dates from 1865. Closed on Monday, of course. 

Basically, this adorably cute town is a tourist magnet and has tons of restaurants, so there's great food and scenery. Even if you don't want French food, you can find something else to eat. 

Yes, that is a sushi restaurant. I think I saw Indian and Mexican food as well. 

I really want to go back and spend more time here -- on a day when there are more shops open, and I have time to visit all the historical things I missed. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Victorian Reading Challenge

I thought that two challenges this year would be enough, but the other day I stumbled upon this  Victorian Reading Challenge from Becky's Book Reviews and I don't think I can resist. The goal is to read at least four Victorian books, which will be easy for me -- I've already completed two lovely fat Victorian novels this year. Including nonfiction and translated books, I read 14 Victorian books in 2016, so I'm sure I can read that many in 2017, if not more. Here are the challenge categories, with the books I want to read for each (books with hyperlinks are already completed). 

  1. A book under 200 pages: The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott; The Rector & The Doctor's Family by Mrs. Oliphant
  2. A book over 400 pages: Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau
  3. A book that REALLY intimidates you: Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.
  4. A book you REALLY want to reread: Oliver Twist or Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  5. A new-to-you book by a favorite author: The Trail of the Serpent by Mary Elizabeth Braddon 
  6. A book with illustrations 
  7. A book that was originally published serially: A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott.
  8. A book published between 1837-1849: The Kellys and O'Kellys by Anthony Trollope
  9. A book published between 1850-1860: The Bertrams by Anthony Trollope
  10. A book published between 1861-1870: The Belton Estate by Anthony Trollope
  11. A book published between 1871-1880: The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens; Kept in the Dark by Anthony Trollope
  12. A book published between 1881-1890: The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
  13. A book published between 1891-1901: Who Is Lost and Is Found by Mrs. Oliphant
  14. A book published between 1902-1999 with a Victorian setting: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters;  To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
  15. A book published between 2000-2017 with a Victorian setting: The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
  16. A book by Charles Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood;  Pictures from Italy
  17. A book by Wilkie Collins: Basil
  18. A book by Anthony Trollope The Prime Minister, Kept in the Dark
  19. A book by Elizabeth Gaskell: Cousin Phillis
  20. A book by George Eliot: Adam Bede
  21. A book by a new-to-you male author: Esther Waters by George Moore
  22. A book by a new-to-you female author: Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondely
  23. A book translated into English: Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane
  24. A fiction or nonfiction book about Queen Victoria: Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rapport or Serving Victoria by Kate Hubbard
  25. A book that has been filmed as movie, miniseries, or television show: The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott
  26. A play OR a collection of short stories OR a collection of poems: A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde, After Supper Ghost Stories by Jerome K. Jerome
  27. A Biography, Autobiography, or NONFICTION book about the Victorian era: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin
  28. Genre or Subgenre of your choice (mystery, suspense, romance, Gothic, adventure, western, science fiction, fantasy) The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells; The Fixed Period by Anthony Trollope
  29. Book with a name as the title: The Claverings by Anthony Trollope
  30. Book You've Started but Never Finished: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot; The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells.
  31. A children's book: The Wouldbegoods by E. Nesbit
  • Fiction or nonfiction.
  • Books, e-books, audio books all are fine.
  • Books and movies can be reviewed together or separately.
  • You can create a reading list if you want, but it's not a requirement 
  • If you do make a list, consider adding a list of five books you'd recommend to others
  • If possible try to try a new-to-you author! I know it can be really tempting to stick with familiar favorites.
  • Children's books published during these years should not be forgotten! 
  • Rereads are definitely allowed if you have favorites!
  • A blog is not required, a review is not required, but, if you don't review please consider sharing what you read in a comment with one or two sentences of 'reaction' or 'response.' 
  • Any qualifying book reviewed in 2017 counts towards the challenge. If you're like me, perhaps you try to schedule posts a week ahead of time. So if it's reviewed in 2017, it counts. Even if you finished the book the last week or two of 2016! 
There are more than 30 categories and I know I can't possibly finish that many Victorians but I'm making good progress on both the European Reading Challenge and my own Back to the Classics Challenge, and some of them can cross over. I'm also in an online Trollope reading group so I can count some of those for this challenge.

Bloggers, have you read any of these Victorian novels? Which are your favorites? And is anyone else signing up for this challenge?

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Wine of Solitude by Irene Nemirovsky

She loved studying and books, the way other people love wine for its power to make you forget. What else did she have? She in a deserted, silent house. The sound of her own footsteps in the empty rooms, the silence of the cold streets beyond the closed windows, the rain and snow, the early darkness, the green lamp beside her that burned throughout the long evenings and which she watched for hours on end until its light began to waver before her weary eyes; this was the setting for her life.

After her unpublished novel Suite Francaise was discovered in the early 2000s, many of Irene Nemirovsky's works were republished. I've read five of her books so far, and am so glad that they are getting the attention they deserve, because I've loved every one of them so far. My latest Nemirovsky read, The Wine of Solitude, is her most autobiographical work and was originally published in 1935. 

Born in the Ukraine in 1903, Helene Karol is a lonely child, ignored by her vain and shallow mother, and loved but dismissed by her absent father. After losing a job, he leaves the family for two years to manage a Siberian gold mine and winds up making a fortune in speculating. Gambling is his passion, whether it's the stock market or the roulette table. The only one who truly seems to love and care about her is her governess, Mademoiselle Rose. As Helene grows up, she sees how her father's gambling and her mother's infidelities are destroying them. She becomes a keen and sometimes reckless observer of the dynamic between her parents and her mother's younger cousin and lover, Max, who basically lives with them. 

She stopped, twiddled the pencil round in her hand and a cruel, shy smile spread across her face. It made her feel better to write these things down. No one paid any attention to her or cared about her. She could amuse herself in any way she pleased; she continued writing, barely pressing down on the pencil, but with a strange rapidity and dexterity she had never experienced before, an agility of thought that made her aware of what she was writing and what was taking shape in her mind simultaneously, so they suddenly coincided.

The family moves back and forth between Ukraine, France, Russia, then flee to Finland during the Russian Revolution. During the 1920s they return to Paris where things finally come to a tragic climax and Helene is forced to make a decision about her future. There are a lot of terrible mothers in Nemirovsky's works and if her childhood was anything like Helene's, I can understand why. 

This is book was both sad and beautifully written, and I really liked it. So far my favorites of her books are Suite Francaise and her excellent short story collection, Dimanche and Other Stories. I do want to read the rest of her works and fortunately most of them are available through Overdrive from my library's online catalog. There's also another short story collection that was published last year called In Confidence and it's available from Raglan Books, an independent publisher in Ireland and I've just ordered it. I was really trying to cut back on my book purchases this year but already I'm failing miserably.

I'm counting this as for my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and as my Ukrainian read for the European Reading Challenge

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Dinner by Herman Koch

I've read hardly any contemporary fiction the last few years -- I looked back on my 2016 reading and I think I average only about a book a month that was published in the last ten years, and quite a few of those have been nonfiction. I think that reading the classics has sent me on a reading path where I keep finding so many older books and authors that I'll never catch up.

The Dinner was a huge hit when it was published a few years ago, but I never got around to reading it. However, I'm always intrigued by books in translation, and now that I'm living in Europe, I feel like I should read more Euro-centric reading, which is partly why I signed up for the European Reading Challenge. The base library has a decent selection which included this book (which I've actually checked out several times before I finally took a crack at it the other day.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot, as there are some pretty big reveals and twists in this book, as there are some real shockers. Set in Holland a couple of years ago, this is the story of two couples having dinner together, ostensibly to discuss their respective teenage sons and a particular troubling incident. Most of the action take place during one evening at an upscale restaurant, with a number of flashbacks, and we get a lot of insight into the narrator, Paul, and his family dynamic. It raises a lot of questions about parenting, marriage, and personal responsibility. This is definitely a book that I would love to discuss with someone but I don't want to reveal too much -- a major plot point was actually spoiled for me while I was searching for books set in the Netherlands. I thought that would ruin the book for me but there's so much going on it actually didn't, though I definitely would have preferred not knowing ahead of time.

It's not a very long book, but there's a lot happening, some of it quite shocking. It's one of those books like Gone Girl or Girl on the Train that would be great for a book discussion group (though it's definitely far superior and more plausible than either of those.) Once I got started, I could hardly put it down because I needed to find out what happened, and I was easily able to finish it in a few hours. However, once I was done I wanted to return it to the library right away because it made me really uncomfortable having it around. How far should people go to protect their children, and where do you draw the line at personal responsibility? This book was really insightful in parts, but it's also quite disturbing. However, I am glad that I read it.

I'm counting this as my book set in the Netherlands for the European Reading Challenge.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley

Another beautiful Virago cover. It's Regina Cordium: Alice Wilding by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Red Pottage is a Victorian novel that is sadly under-appreciated -- it has less than 100 ratings on Goodreads! I probably first heard of it from Simon at Stuck in a Book -- all I know is that I've owned it for at least five years, and the cover is really pretty. But this is one time the book even transcends the Pre-Raphaelite artwork on the cover. It's a smart, well-written novel with great character development and plot twists, and I think it rivals my favorite Trollope novels.

Written in 1899, this is the intertwining story of two life-long friends, Rachel West and Hester Gresley. Rachel was the daughter of a self-made man who lost his money to an unscrupulous business partner. As a young woman, Rachel struggled to make a living as a secretary and then suddenly became an heiress when the remorseful partner left his fortune to her. She's had her heart broken and is wary of loving again until she met Sir Hugh Scarlett, a dashing man-about-town with a past. He'd been trying to disentangle himself from a love affair when he met Rachel, and the repercussions from the affair continually haunt his attempts to win Rachel.

Rachel's oldest friend, Hester Gresley, comes from an old family whose fortunes have declined, but she's done quite well for herself as a writer. After the death of an aunt, Hester has moved in with her brother's family in the country. James Gresley is a minister and a pompous know-it-all (he does a lot of mansplaining in the novel), and though Hester loves his brood of children, she doesn't get on all that well with his wife. Hester is working hard on a new novel despite the distractions of nosy country neighbors, her judgmental brother, and a houseful of kids. Like most Victorian novels, everyone knows everyone else, and Rachel's story keeps overlapping with Hester's. There's a lot going on in this novel but it really captured my interest and once I got going, I zoomed through it in just a few days.

One could describe this as a satire, but it's also a feminist novel. There are also bits that remind me of a Victorian sensation novel, but much better written and with far better character development. Parts of this book are extremely witty. I can't quote the best lines because they would ruin the plot, but here is an example. A minor character named Sybell Odom is throwing a country fete and is welcoming the country society:

Sybell raised her eyebrows, and advanced with the prettiest air of empressement to meet her unexpected guests. No, clearly it was impossible that the two women should like each other. They were the same age, about the same height and coloring; their social position was too similar; their historic houses too near each other. Lady Newhaven was by far the best looking, but that was not a difference which attracted Sybell towards her. On this occasion Sybell's face assumed its most squirrel-like expression, for, as ill-luck would have it, they were dressed alike.

This was a surprise success for its author, Mary Cholmondeley. Sadly, none of her novels (including this one) are in print any longer, but they're all available for free downloads from Project Gutenberg and on iBooks.  It's a shame that nobody reads this novel any more because I thought it was just brilliant.  I'm quite sure this will make my list of top reads at the end of the year. 

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

Monday, March 6, 2017

Skylark by Dezso Kostolanyi

I'm a big fan of NYRB Classics -- they are really attractive and I'm always a fan of re-discovered classics. Skylark by Deszo Kostolanyi is one that had been on my to-read list for several years, and I was determined to read it this year because it dovetailed perfectly with the European Reading Challenge. 

Written in 1924 but set just before the turn of the century, Skylark is the story of a family living in a small Austro-Hungarian town called Sarszeg (inspired by Kostolanyi's own hometown of Szabadka, in which is now present-day Serbia). It's a dead-end place where not much happens. The Akos family consists of a husband and wife, Akos and Antonia, and their 35-year old spinster daughter, nicknamed Skylark. Akos is in his late fifties and is retired, spending much of his time researching ancient lineages and family histories. Skylark does most of the cooking and housework, and basically life revolves around her. Life is dull and routine, but one week in late summer 1899, Skylark takes the train to visit family for a week, and Akos and Antonia are left on their own.

This is another one of those book in which not much happens -- and yet, everything happens. Without Skylark, Akos and Antonia do things they haven't done in years. They eat out in restaurants and attend a performance in the theater, which never happens when Skylark is around, since she her cooking is better than any restaurant meal. Akos visits his gentleman's club, drinks, smokes cigars, and plays cards with his cronies -- before, Skylark wouldn't have approved.  Antonia plays the piano, which has barely been touched in years, since Skylark never really took to playing.

This description makes it sound like Skylark is some kind of tyrant, but I don't think she is. Kostolanyi is up-front about the fact that Skylark is a spinster because she's unattractive, which is why she's never married. While she's away from her parents, all three of them face some painful truths about themselves and their relationship, and I really found it rather sad, especially because that was an era when women had so few choices. Skylark is educated and hardworking, and in another time, she could have had a career -- even 15 years later, she could have been a nurse and served during WWI.

The publisher described this book as magical but I just found it really sad.

I'm counting this as my Hungarian read for the European Reading Challenge.