Thursday, May 31, 2018

Fifteen Books of Summer

There's a meme going around for 20 books of summer, but when I started compiling this list I realized some of mine are real whoppers, so I'm cutting it back to fifteen. I'm not usually good at finishing specific lists, unless it's for a challenge, but I wrote a post a couple of months ago of the Top Ten Books on my Spring TBR List, and I'm happy to say that I've finished eight of them so far and started the ninth. Who knows, maybe I'll actually succeed with this list as well.

A detailed list:

1. Heat Lightning by Helen Hull. A Persephone I received as a Mother's Day gift a few years ago, it's on my TBR Pile Challenge List; also, there's a mini Persephone Readathon this weekend so I really want to finish it in time.

2. The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett. I bought this at a library sale about 10 years ago, it is probably one of the books I've had owned and unread the longest. I downloaded the audio from the San Antonio Public Library and I need to finish it before my library card expires! (It's not pictured because I can't actually find my print copy -- could I have donated it to the library before we moved two years ago?)

3. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. For my book group that meets next week before we break for the summer. Luckily  it's quite short, under 200 pages (which is why we chose it.) Highly recommended by Simon from Stuck in a Book.

4. London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes. Already started, but it's 450 pages of biweekly essays written for the New Yorker magazine. Not like I can zip through it. It's on my TBR Pile Challenge list, I'm making good progress this year.

5. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Also on my TBR Pile Challenge list -- it's almost 700 pages long! But I've heard it's amazing and there's a readlong that starts June 1.

4. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. One of my daughter's favorites, I've been putting it off forever because I am afraid of Dostoevsky. There's a new translation which I will try to get from the library. I can also use this for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

5. Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell. Book #6 in the Barsetshire series (I've actually skipped #3, The Demon in the House, but I'm told you can skip around the series).

6. In Confidence by Irene Nemirovsky. I thought her short story collection Dimanche and Other Stories was absolutely brilliant, so when I saw this new collection on a blog, I ordered it immediately. More than a year ago! It's quite short so I should be able to finish it quickly.

7. The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith. Published in 1963, it's by the author of I Capture the Castle, one of my favorites. I love mid-century fiction and I was actually able to get it from the library!

8. Tom Tiddler's Ground by Ursula Orange. This was a birthday gift -- a year ago, and I still haven't read it. It's a Furrowed Middlebrow reprint by Dean Street Press, highly recommended by Simon and Rachel in the Tea or Books? podcast.

11. An Old Man's Love by Anthony Trollope. Also available on audio from the library. Trollope is tough to find on audio, especially the standalone novels, so I was delighted to find this on OneClick Digital for download.

12. Barmy in Wonderland by P. G. Wodehouse. Because Wodehouse is the perfect summer read.

13. Bond Street Story by Norman Collins -- because I loved London Belongs to Me (and also recommend by Rachel from Booksnob. It's another doorstopper, almost 500 pages and also oddly oversized.

14. The Day of the Scorpion by Paul Scott. (Not pictured). Second in the Raj Quartet series, it's only on audio download from the library -- but, luckily, the library card that isn't expiring! I have a year left if I want to finish the series before we move back to the U. S. (though of course I can find in a library when I return).

15. Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy. Bought last year in a secondhand shop in Charing Cross Road on a trip to London.

Let's see if I can finish all of these by Labor Day which is September 3. Bloggers, which are your favorites? And what's on your summer reading list?

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A Pair of Blue Eyes is On the Verge of Victorian Sensation

I hadn't planned on reading two books by Thomas Hardy back-to-back, but Under the Greenwood Tree was so short that I felt like I hadn't given Hardy enough attention. (Also, my San Antonio library card is expiring soon, and the Air Force Library didn't have it on audio). A Pair of Blue Eyes is another of Hardy's lesser-known early works, but it was much better than I expected and I think I liked it nearly as much as Far From the Madding Crowd, which is my favorite Hardy book so far. It's got plenty of drama and pastoral scenes, and a really interesting premise. 

So. This is the story of young Elfride Swancourt, daughter of a widowed vicar in Wessex. When the story begins, she is awaiting the visit of an architect who is coming from London to make some drawings and plans for renovating her father's parish, where they have lived for a year or so. Unfortunately her father has had an attack of gout and is confined to his room, so Elfride will have to act as hostess to this dull man. Little does she know!

It turns out that this architect (assistant, really) is Stephen Smith, and he is young and handsome, and nearly the same age as she -- about twenty. Sparks fly, her father takes to Stephen, who is intelligent and well-spoken, and Stephen extends his visit as long as possible. Reverend Swancourt invites him to come back for a longer visit when he gets his holidays. Sounds great, right? But of course not, the path of true love never did run smoothly. It turns out Stephen is unworthy of Elfride, and after a secret engagement, he goes off to India to seek his fortune so he can make a proper offer. 

Meanwhile, Reverend Swancourt decides he needs to get Elfride married off as soon as possible, and produces a wealthy stepmother to help guide her along the way. After some time in London, the new Mrs. Swancourt (who is not the evil stepmother I was expecting) invites her cousin Henry Knight for a visit. Henry is a clever yet somewhat pedantic writer -- who happens to be Stephen's former tutor and mentor. (Where would Victorian literature be without these amazing coincidences?) Naturally, Henry becomes enamored of the beautiful Elfride, and she's challenged by his intellect. Of course, she begins to forget about Stephen, who is already en route from India. Thus the love triangle ensues. There is plenty of drama, and descriptions of walks in the woods, and a narrow escape from death on a cliff which I still can't picture exactly in my head. (Apparently this scene may be the origin of the literary term "cliffhanger.")

I really enjoyed this book but I definitely had some issues with some of the characters, especially Henry Knight, whom I would have loved throttling. Some of the symbolism was kind of heavy-handed and there was definitely a lot of foreshadowing, and a plot twist at the end that I saw coming from a mile away. 

Also, there's a lot of Victorian attitudes about women in this book that made me roll my eyes so hard I was afraid they'd fall out of my head -- hopefully that was Hardy's point. I don't want to give away too much but there were some parallels with this novel and Trollope's Linda Tressel -- but I liked this one much more, probably because there was a lot more character development and I guess I kind of expected the melodramatic ending from Hardy more than Trollope. I might even classify A Pair of Blue Eyes as a Victorian sensation novel -- it was published in 1873, only two years after Desperate Remedies, which apparently falls in the sensation category so I'd really like to read it also. 

I've never read any Victorian authors' works in order of publication, but I think that would be really interesting to see the progression -- I can see how A Pair of Blue Eyes is more complex and dramatic than Under the Greenwood Tree but it's not nearly as tragic as The Return of the Native or Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I still haven't read Jude the Obscure but I've definitely gained a new appreciation for Hardy -- I might even reread Tess and actually like it this time around.

I really did enjoy this book, which I've owned for more than ten years, and I'm looking forward to reading more Hardy. Which should I read next -- one of the early novels, like Desperate Remedies? Or should I skip to the end and tackle Jude the Obscure?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

According to my Goodreads account, I joined on March 3, 2008, and started making a list of books (mostly classics) that I wanted to read. Some of those book are still on my TBR shelves and have been haunting me for more than ten years. Two of them are less-famous works by Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree and A Pair of Blue Eyes -- which I recently discovered were available on audiobook download from the library. After ten years, I was finally inspired to take a crack at Under the Greenwood Tree, which sounded like just thing to listen to while walking the dog in my pastoral neighborhood.

Hill near my house.

Some of the neighbors.

The book begins with a group of local musicians in the rural village of Mellstock. They're out making the rounds on Christmas Day, as one does. There are fiddlers and singers from the choir, and as they're out and about, one of the members named Dick Dewy sees the young schoolmistress and is instantly smitten. Fancy Day (her real name) is beautiful and educated, and the local vicar is planning on replacing the traditional choir with Miss Day as the new organist. The vicar is also very attracted to Fancy, as is Frederic Shiner, a local farmer. It seems like the odds are against Dick and Fancy's match, especially because Fancy herself is rather flirtatious with other men, and seems to take Dick's love for granted.

This is Hardy's second published novel, and though I enjoyed it, there's not that much to it. The writing was good (despite my dislike of dialect) but the plot isn't terribly complex and I didn't think the characters were particularly well-developed -- it almost felt like this could have been part of a longer novel with more back story or plot complications. This book had some good points but I really expected more drama given the circumstances. It's a very quick read, under 200 pages, and it wouldn't be a bad place to start with Thomas Hardy if you're a little intimidated by Tess of the D'Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure.

I still have Jude on the TBR shelves and I've just started A Pair of Blue Eyes so I plan on making lots of progress with my Hardy reading list. I'm also intrigued by Desperate Remedies which is apparently more of a Victorian Sensation novel, which sounds like fun. 

Anyone else read Under the Greenwood Tree? How do you think it compares to other books by Hardy? 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

My Blog's Name in Books

This meme's been going around the blogosphere, I'll play. All of these are books from my TBR shelves. I did not realize until I wrote this post that my blog name has 18 letters.

B: Bella Poldark by Winston Graham. The twelfth and final book in the series, I still have two left to go. I was a little disappointed by the third season of Poldark so I haven't really been inspired to pick up the eleventh book, The Twisted Sword. Which is also on the TBR shelves, naturally.

O: One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens. Bought at Shakespeare & Company in Paris, from the used book table out front. My edition has an inscription "Wishing you a very happy Christmas and to visit England in the New Year, with love from Arch, Joan & the children -- Christmas 1952." I love it when old books have names and dates of the people who previously owned them.

O: Our Hidden Lives: The Remarkable Diaries of Postwar Britain by Simon Garfield. I'm fascinated by this period of history.

K: Kept in the Dark by Anthony Trollope. That's a terrible cover (her face is so white compared to her ears which are really pink!) but I only have two books on the TBR shelf that fit for the letter K, and the other one is also by Trollope (The Kellys and the O'Kellys).

S: Slipstream: A Memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I still haven't read any of her books other than the Cazalet series, which I loved. It sounds like she had a fascinating life.

A: At the Still Point by Mary Benson. I know nothing about this book other than it's a green-spined VMC and it's about South Africa under apartheid. Bought at the wonderful John King Books in Detroit.

N: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. I love this retro pulp-fiction inspired cover. It's one the last of the books I won in the Penguin Classics drawing a few years ago that are still unread (I've pretty much given up on The Metamorphosis as I cannot bring myself to read a book about a giant bug).

D: La Debacle by Emile Zola. Still working my way through the Rougon-Macquart series. This is supposed to one of the best war novels ever and was his bestselling novel during his lifetime, but I keep putting it off. It's really long and it looks rather dire, I feel like it's going to be full of extended battle scenes which are NOT my favorite.

C: The Caravaners by Elizabeth Von Arnim. It's supposed to be very funny so I'm saving it for next year when I include Classic Humor as one of the categories for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

H: The Hireling by L. P. Hartley. I've only read The Go-Between by Hartley but it was really good. I found this at Shakespeare and Company a couple of years ago and still haven't read it.

O: An Old Man's Love by Anthony Trollope. Probably my next Trollope, simply because there's an audio for free digital download at my library.

C: The Children by Edith Wharton. One of the books that's been on the TBR pile the longest. I would love to cross this off my to-read list.

O: The Other Day by Dorothy Whipple. Bought after hearing about it on the wonderful Tea or Books? podcast hosted by Simon and Rachel. It was a little pricy, and I suspect Persephone may reprint it now that they've published all her novels and most of her short stories.

L: Love Among the Ruins by Angela Thirkell. I have about a dozen Thirkells unread on my shelves. This is #17 in the series so it'll be a while before I get to this one, I've only read four so far.

A: Antidote to Venom by Freeman Willis Crofts. I bought four of these beautiful British Crime Classics on a trip to London last year and still haven't read any of them. I think I chose this one because the main character is a zoo director.

T: Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy. A Virago I found in a Charing Cross bookshop last year. Historical fiction written in 1953, about a Victorian man researching a scandalous Regency-era ancestor. Midcentury, Victorian, AND Regency, all in one book!

E: East Wind, West Wind by Pearl S. Buck. I love the covers of these Moyer-Bell editions.

Looking over these selections I realized how many of them are British authors so I did a quick count -- less than 25% of my unread books are by non-Brits! I suspect I bought them all because I tend not to buy books anymore unless I can't get them in the library.

I wouldn't mind reading any or all of these in the next couple of months -- bloggers, which of these books should I read first?

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott

After watching the Masterpiece drama Indian Summers in 2015/2016 I became fascinated with the British Raj. I was really annoyed when the series wasn't renewed so to comfort myself I searched for as many books as I could find about the period, and The Jewel in the Crown was at the top of my to-read list. I received the first book of the series for Christmas last year and realized is almost 500 pages of tiny print and it is dense. Luckily, it was also available on audio via digital download from my library! It took me more than a month to listen to the audio on 1.25 speed, but I finally finished it.

Here's the setup: most of the story takes place in 1942 in Mayapore, a fictional place in India, towards the end of the British Raj, or authority over India. It's pretty obvious the Indian population is ready for independence but the British are resisting, using the war with Japan as an excuse -- they are afraid that a Japanese invasion will loosen their final hold on India. After the Indian National Congress votes to support Gandhi, riots break out, and a young English woman named Daphne Manners is raped and a group of young men are arrested by the local police. The police sergeant has ulterior motives because he is in love with Daphne, but she's actually in love with an Indian journalist, Hari Kumar, who is among the group of innocent men arrested and tortured. The same evening, another British school teacher named Edwina Crane is attacked by a gang as she drives back to Myapore from a remote village. She isn't physically harmed but her companion, an Indian teacher from the school, is beaten to death by the gang as she looks on in horror.

The format of the book is unusual, not told in traditional chapters, but in different long sections which are alternately third person narration of different characters, police reports, interviews, and diary entries. It seemed a bit disjointed at first, changing viewpoints every 50 or 100 pages, but the reader begins to get a more complete picture of the complicated relationship between the British and the Indians in the years before the end of the Raj. The narrators and writers are both Indian and British, and though I liked the audio version (which clocked in at more than 22 hours), but the narrator has a very clipped, posh accent for the British characters, but I didn't much care for the accent he gave the Indians. 

Overall, though, I really found the story fascinating, even though the central event is quite brutal (though it's never described in specific detail). I feel like Daphne and Hari's relationship was symbolic of the relationship between India and Britain, and how things could go horribly wrong. It's always tricky reading colonial literature written by white people but Scott takes a really unflinching look at the British in India, and it isn't very flattering. He also takes some serious jabs at both the British and Indian class systems, and the racism between the British and Indians is just devastating and extremely timely. 

I found Hari and Daphne's story really heartbreaking, but the book is really engaging as soon as you get used to the format and I'm eager to read the next three volumes. The other three are also available on audio digital download but I think I need to take a break before diving into the next one as they're equally long -- the final volume is more than 600 pages in print and more than 27 hours of audio! There was also a TV adaptation filmed in the 1980s that was voted one of Masterpiece Theater's all-time favorites, but I will probably wait until I've finished reading (and listening) to the books before I watch it.  

I'm counting this as my 20th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge

Monday, May 7, 2018

Classics Spin # 17: One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

So I'm nearly a week behind with Classics Spin #17, but better late than never. My spin pick was One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, a slim novella of a mere 184 pages. One would think it would be easy enough to finish this book in time --I was so confident that I could zoom through this book in a day that I literally left it to the last minute. Of course, I was wrong.

It's a short book, but not one that I would recommend rushing. As the title suggests, it's a single day in the life of Laura Marshall, who lives in Wealding, a fictional English village in Sussex. It's shortly after the end of the war, and her husband Stephen commutes by train to his job in the city; daughter Victoria, about 9 or 10, is off to school and then visiting a friend afterward for tea.

Laura goes about her early summer day, filled with the normal tasks of cleaning, cooking, shopping and errands. The family live in a big house that once had several servants, but now must make do with a part-time daily charwoman and elderly gardener. Her tasks that day include asking a local youth to help out with the gardening maintenance, and putting an advertisement in the local paper for a cook.

The reader really gets a feeling of what life was like in the aftermath of the war. The book was published in 1947 and it's very obvious that WWII is still very fresh, with rationing, queueing, and German POWs still working on local farms. Laura picks a basket of gooseberries for her husband's work assistant who lives in London; there are mentions of the sudden availability of oranges, and daughter Victoria longs to live on a farm where milk and cream are there for the taking.

It seems like any ordinary day, it's really a microcosm of how life was changing in England, neatly encapsulated in less than 200 pages. Much of the story is also focused on how life was before the war and how it will never be the same due to changes in class and social structure. Laura and her family are faced with the impossibility of finding help, as all the working-class people are no longer interested in service. Laura's snobby mother can't understand why her daughter has to -- gasp -- do housework! but the local squire's wife has faced reality and is moving off her crumbling estate to smaller housing and has given over her mansion to the National Trust. The young man asked for gardening help has no interest in sticking around the little poky village, and is ready to move on to bigger and better things.

Overall, this book is just beautifully written, too good to zip through in a single sitting.

How hot it was! The midday heat was rising to a head, like milk to the boil, singing in a clotted hum of bees, of crickets among the sorrel and daisies, of gnats dancing above the cresses tugged all one way by the trickle of water running under the hedge. An old woman came out with a pail, hobbling across the lane to the tap dripping among the moss. She had lived to see men flying overhead like birds; to stand among the hollyhocks watching bombs spluttering across the stars to kill a family forty miles away; to turn a switch and hear the great voice from Westminster correcting her kitchen clock. 

I loved this book and it was the perfect read for a beautiful spring day. I read a good chunk of it on Saturday afternoon sitting outside in the Japanese garden in Kaiserslautern. I didn't take any photos this time but here's one of my favorites from last year.

Mollie Panter-Downes worked for years as a correspondent for the New Yorker magazine and as a short story writer; sadly, she really didn't write many novels. However, I've read and enjoyed both of her short story collections published by Persephone, and I also own London War Notes, a collection of her wartime columns which was thankfully republished (also by Persephone) because the previous edition from the 1970s was terribly expensive.  It's on my TBR Pile Challenge list so I'm hoping to get to it before the end of the summer.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Nina Balatka and Linda Tressel: Anthony Trollope Finally Disappoints

Sorry for the poor image quality.
Not a lot of editions of this book.
For a reason.
It was bound to happen eventually: my favorite, most trusted, most reliable author has disappointed me. And not just with a book I found mediocre -- a book that made me so annoyed, so frustrated I nearly threw the book across the room. The culprit? Nina Balatka and Linda Tressel, two short novels published in one volume by one of very favorite authors of all time, Anthony Trollope. Harrumph.

This wasn't even my top choice of Trollope novels to read, but I chose them simply because they were short, and because they're the only two of Trollope's works not set in England. Nina Balatka is set in Prague (which I was lucky enough to visit last year); and Linda Tressel is set just down the road (well, 3 1/2 hours) in Nuremberg.

So. Nina Balatka is the story of a young woman in Prague who is in love (gasp!) with a Jewish man, to the horror of her family. Her mother has long since died and her aged father has fallen on hard times, and signed over the ownership of his house to the Trendellsohns, the family of his former business partner. Nina's father is ill so she has been dealing with the Trendellsohns, particularly the son, Anton. One thing has led to another and they fall in love, to the displeasure of both families. Nina's cousin Ziska Zamenoy is in love with her, and his mother is dead set against her marrying a Jew. She vows to do everything within her power to split them up, planting seeds of doubt in the minds of the two lovers. The big issue is that Anton never actually received the deed to the Balatka house, which is rightfully his.

This was not Trollope's best work. I thought the dialogue and writing seemed rather stilted, quite unlike Trollope's easy style, and the plot seemed to go over and over the same points repeatedly -- interfaith marriages are hard! Relatives are manipulative! It was like Trollope was beating a literary horse to death; also, there was one character in particular who was so saintly as to be unrealistic. It took me nearly a month to read this 200 page novella because it really wasn't that interesting -- I actually started it at the end of April and it just didn't grab me.

On the other hand, I zipped through Linda Tressel in just over 24 hours.  Right away, this novella held my interest -- the writing was much better and faster-paced. Aha, I thought, now this is the Trollope I know and love. Young Linda Tressel, about 20, was orphaned at a young age and is under the care of her aunt, her mother's sister. They live together in Nuremberg, Germany, in the house left to Linda by her father. To make ends meet they have a lodger, the 50-something Peter Stenimarc, who works for the burgermeisters. Linda's Aunt Charlotte is very religious, a strict Calvinist who basically has sucked all the enjoyment out of Linda's life. She's not allowed to have any friends, dance, read novels, and heaven forbid she should have a suitor or make any kind of decision for herself. 

Aunt Charlotte has decided that Linda needs a stabilizing influence and that she should marry Mr. Stenimarc, who is old enough to be Linda's father. Mr. Stenimarc is flattered by the suggestion and begins to think that young Linda would be lucky to have him. He's very interested in controlling pretty young Linda -- and her property! He and her aunt decide They Know Best and pressure Linda to accept his hand in marriage, even though she's horrified. 

Meanwhile, there's a young man named Ludovic, a distant cousin of Peter's, who is also in love with Linda, but it turns out he may be disreputable -- or is this just what Charlotte and Peter say to keep him away from Linda? It seems like Linda has only a faithful servant to turn to, and there were some pretty surprising developments. The plot in this novel moved along much quicker than Nina Balatka, but I kept wanting to shout at her to grow a spine and tell Aunt Charlotte where to shove it (it's very hard for me as a 21st-century feminist to see people try to control women's decisions, even when they are fictional). Aunt Charlotte was masterful at using guilt to pressure Linda. And then PLOT TWIST [highlight for spoilers] after resisting Charlotte and Peter for months, Linda finally walks out and takes a train and a boat to Cologne to some distant relatives BUT CATCHES COLD ON THE BOAT. AND DIES. THANKS, TROLLOPE!!!!

I was so angry I can't stop thinking about this. It is a terrible thing when one's literary hero falls short. I'm taking it very personally. Anthony, I know you've been dead for 136 years, but seriously, how could you do this to me? I admit, after reading 28 of Trollope's novels (and his autobiography), I've been kind of spoiled because the quality is so high -- there have only been a couple so far that have been just meh -- all but one of them (Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite) have had at least parts that I really enjoyed. I did mostly like Linda Tressel but the ending made me so mad, I don't know if I want to read any more Trollope for a while.

Trollope, you hurt my soul.