Monday, June 18, 2018

Obscure: A New Podcast about Jude the Obscure

I think the universe is telling me to read more Thomas Hardy. I just finished two of his early works, Under the Greenwood Tree and A Pair of Blue Eyes, and I had planned to take a break from Hardy until maybe next year. And then I saw this tweet about a new podcast called Obscure with Michael Ian Black :

Comedian Michael Ian Black is tackling a great work of literature. Actually, Tackling might be too strong a word. More like “light caressing” plus a lot of complaining. He's reading the Thomas Hardy classic, Jude the Obscure, out loud and commenting as he goes. Join Michael, some of his famous (and non-famous) friends and experts as he discovers Jude’s world and a few things about his own. Is it a terrible idea? Probably. But it’s a terrible idea he wants to do with you.

A read-along podcast of a work of classic literature? Sign me up! I've listened to the first episode, which is about half an hour long and is an introduction with Black explaining how the podcast came about, and his reading and commenting on the first chapter (which is very short). I'm also wondering if he's only going to read one chapter a week, which might take almost a year -- by my count, there are 50 chapters in this book. I'm pretty sure I can't stretch out an audiobook of only 400 pages for an entire year -- I tend to get impatient towards the end and just read a print or digital copy. 

But I'm definitely interested in listening to a comedian's thoughts and comments on a great work of literature. 

So, I've already downloaded a digital audio copy of Jude from library (only a three-week checkout), and listened to the first chapter -- you can definitely tell the difference with a professional reader. Coincidentally, it's the same narrator, Frederick Davidson, who read my previous audiobook (An Old Man's Love). He's an excellent narrator and does all different voices and accents -- it's always a little weird for me to hear an American narrating a British book, so I definitely prefer listening to the book narrated by Davidson. I really enjoyed the first podcast -- Michael Ian Black is a little snarky, but now I'm imagining a whole series of comedians reading and commenting classic literature. Comedians in Cars Discussing Literature, if you will. 

You can subscribe for automatic downloads or just listen online. It looks like it's going to be an entire summer of Thomas Hardy for me after all. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

An Old Man's Love by Anthony Trollope: Not Actually As Creepy As the Cover Images

I'm not into the May-December romance thing but he looks much older than 50.

My recent track record with Trollope's shorter novels hasn't been great (I haven't forgotten Linda Tressel) but my library had a free digital download of An Old Man's Love on audio and I needed something to listen to, so I decided to give him another shot. This is Trollope's last completed novel; it's listed as published in 1884, though he died in 1882. (I'm not sure if the 1884 date is a serialization or posthumous publication of the complete novel). It's another of his short works, about 250 pages, and it didn't take long to listen to the entire book on audio.

Basically, this is a love triangle between young Mary Lawrie, an orphan (naturally) of about 25; her benefactor, the 50ish Mr. Whittlestaff; and her absent lover, John Gordon. As the novel begins, Mr. Whittlestaff is informed that the wife of his late friend Mr. Lawrie has died, leaving young Mary (her stepdaughter) penniless. He takes it upon himself to give Mary a home at his small Hampshire estate, Croker's Hall. Mr. Whittlestaff isn't wealthy but he has a quiet and comfortable life and is happy to have Mary in the household, rather than force her to make her way in the world as a governess. 

Eventually, he begins to develop romantic feelings for Mary, though he's old enough to be her father. Mr. Whittlestaff proposes marriage, and Mary is fond of him and grateful for all he has done for her. She confesses that she was in love with a dashing young man named John Gordon; however, her stepmother sent him packing because he had no money, though he was well-born and hardworking. It's been three years and she hasn't heard from John, so after struggling with her feelings, she accepts Whittlestaff's proposal. Wouldn't you know it, John Gordon, having made a fortune in the diamond mines of South Africa, shows up looking for her the very next day after she accepts. Who could imagine the coincidence??

Thus the dilemma ensues. Should Mr. Whittlestaff hold Mary to her promise to accept his proposal? What does Mary owe Mr. Whittlestaff? And will his housekeeper Mrs. Baggett ever shut up? 

As one of the shorter novels, the plot isn't very complex, but the writing was good and there were some amusing side characters. The housekeeper Mrs. Baggett has a parallel plot with an estranged drunkard husband who shows up after years in absentia, demanding financial support to continue his gin habit. She moans and wails and rolls her eyes and doesn't think Mary is good enough for Mr. Whittlestaff, yet can't abide the thought of Mary turning him down. She wants Mary to accept him to make him happy, but at the same time Mrs. Bagette doesn't want Mary to become mistress of the household and threatens to leave. It's enough to make your head spin.

There's also a delightful and garrulous vicar, the newly engaged Mr. Montagu Blake, an old schoolmate of John Gordon who decides to play cupid and encourage the match between Gordon and Mary Lawrie. This leads to the world's most awkward dinner party ever. 

Some of the characters in this book made me guffaw, snort, and yell out loud in response. I've heard that the quality of Trollope's writing declined in his later years but I really enjoyed this book, with one small quibble -- there are several racist comments about the workers in the South African diamond mines which made me really uncomfortable. I realize this was written well over 100 years ago, but it does make me disappointed in Trollope.

And now on to the bad book covers! I do realize that age 50 in the 1880s was considered old, but the image on the paperback version looks like a man in this 70s, at the very least. 

And what about this cover? It's pretty bad. 

This one isn't much better:

And while I was searching for the original Overdrive image I found this one, 
which left me speechless:

I literally have no words for this. I don't even want to imagine what they were thinking.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Lacquer Lady: Victorian Intrigue in Mandalay

A few years ago I was spending a weekend in Austin, Texas, just about a 90 minute drive from our home in San Antonio. It was a rainy Friday night, and my idea of fun is poking around bookstores. Just a short drive from my hotel was a massive Half-Price Books. If you are not familiar with HPB, it is a family-owned chain of used bookstores that started in Dallas, and it's all over Texas and quite a few other states. There are several locations in San Antonio but this one in Austin was the biggest I've ever seen, with an amazing selection. There were really nice collectible books and classics, and the fiction section had a whole bunch of Viragos, some in green covers, some in the original black. That's where I found The Lacquer Lady by F. Tennyson Jesse, first published in 1929.

Set in the late 1800s, the story begins with a young woman named Fanny Moroni, who is at a boarding school in Brighton. Having made a reputation for herself at school as being a teller of tall-tales, she leaves school to return to Upper Burma, where her family live. Her mother is half English and half Burmese, and her father is Italian and has a weaving business. He had once been a favorite of the king but had recently fall out of the circle. Fanny takes the long boat ride back to Mandalay with her schoolmate Agatha, who is also going to Burma to live with her missionary father. (At the time, Lower Burma was a British colony, and Upper Burma was still under royal control). 

While Agatha joins her father and his curate saving souls, Fanny's social circle moves among the community of foreigners who are occasionally allowed into the inner circle of the Burmese royals in Mandalay, and becomes close to one of the princesses, Supaya-lat, eventually becoming one of the ladies-in-waiting. Fanny isn't a terribly likable heroine -- she's very selfish and self-serving, and has been compared to Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair. 

Fanny was very aware of what people were like; she couldn't read through a book of Dickens, she couldn't have picked up newspaper and understood was anything about except the police-court cases, she couldn't have held an impersonal conversation on any subject whatsoever, but she had a sensitiveness, within her limitations, to human beings, that amounted to a talent, whenever her judgement was not obscured by her personal wishes. She was aware that she knew what the three men in the room were like far better than did Agatha, who had been seeing them for several days past. (Ch. V)

The royal court is thrown into turmoil when King Mindoon dies, leaving many sons by various wives and no definite heir to the throne. Fanny is sometimes in and sometimes out, but her fate is intwined with her friend Supaya-lat, and eventually, she unwittingly becomes a key player of the British invasion and takeover of Upper Burma. 

This book started out rather slowly, but it really picked up about a third of the way after the king died and there were a lot of palace intrigues, some of them quite bloody and horrifying. This book is loosely based on actual events, and I didn't realize until I read the afterword Fanny isn't just a made-up character -- she's actually based on a real person, though the circumstances are not exactly the same. I'm also really intrigued by the writer -- F. Tennyson Jesse was not only a great-niece of the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, she was a criminologist and journalist and was one of the few women to report on WWI. Her most famous novel is A Pin to See the Peepshow, which is based the notorious 1920s murder case of Edith Thompson and Frederic Bywaters. (I bought of copy after listening to Simon and Rachel's Tea or Books? podcast from last year; naturally, I still haven't read it!)

I was particularly interested in this novel because I've actually been to Burma, albeit very briefly. Years ago we were stationed in Japan and I met a friend in Bangkok who was visiting her son who worked at the consulate. After a few days in the city, we drove with her son and his friend up to Chiang Rai, where the friend had bought a retirement home. It's near the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, and we were actually able to walk over the bridge to Myanmar and shop in the market. We couldn't stay very long because the border crossing closed at 5 p.m., but I can say that I've actually been there. 

This is my eighth book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018! I'm making great progress on my list. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

Mini Persephone Readathon: Heat Lightning by Helen Hull

In theory I should sit down instantly and record my thoughts about a novel as soon as I've finished it, but sometimes I really need to take a day or two to mull over and absorb first. I had hoped to write this post yesterday in time for the Mini Persephone Readathon hosted by Jessie at Dwell in Possibility but as is often the case, I'm a day or two behind. I did zoom through my selection, Heat Lightning, in just over two days, which isn't bad considering I had three other books in the rotation.

Nevertheless. Helen Hull's Heat Lightning, published in 1932, is one of the few American Persephone novels, and like many books about domestic life, it is about nothing in particular and everything at the same time. Set in the hot, airless summer of 1930 in a fictional small town in Michigan, it's the story of thirtyish Amy Norton, who has left New York City for a family visit. Her husband is off fishing in Canada (as my own father used to do); and her two children are away at camp.

Amy is the prodigal daughter, the only one to move Far Far Away from her hometown, where her extended family still live. Her late grandfather was a successful businessman, and her family are the prominent Westovers, who own a plough factory and like so many of the period, are facing hard times after the financial crisis of 1929. Amy's visit coincides with the early delivery of her younger sister's baby (her fourth or fifth daughter), plus a number of other family crises in which quite a few family secrets, prejudices, and scandals are revealed. The center of this story is the matriarch, Amy's grandmother, who lives next door to her parents and pretty much still rules the family with a firm but loving hand. 
An early edition of Heat Lightning

This novel started out a little slowly with Amy's arrival into town, but picked up pretty quickly with the reveal of a pretty big family secret, and kept on rolling from there. There are a lot of family members -- sisters, brothers, cousins, in-laws -- and I was happy to see a list of the characters and their relationships listed in the front. I'm sure I would have gotten the story quite confused without it. I'm not sure if it's the sign of good or bad writing if the author has to list it up front, but I was glad to have it.

Ostensibly this is a domestic novel, but it was really a sort of microcosm about life in that time period. It's rather timely with some talk about immigration and "foreign invasion" -- which include Italian immigrants (with a few slurs); a French sister-in-law who I can only assume is a war bride; a cousin's wife who is the child of German immigrants; and a Lithuanian domestic, who had been referred to as being of "a different race." I can only imagine how the Westovers would have reacted to  my mother's family of Polish/Germans, who were farmers in Alpena which is northern Michigan.

Heat Lightning also has some really good and insightful writing about family life and marriage, as Amy begins to reconcile her family's history and relationships, and the struggles within her own marriage are revealed. I really enjoyed this book and I'm glad that Persephone chose to reprint it as one of their American selections.

Finally, I have to make a comment about the endpapers, which are one of the nicest features of Persephone books. I imagine that the publishers tried to find an American fabric from the period to use, and I was delighted to see on the website that the name is "Memories of the Alamo" -- not quite the Midwestern setting of the book, but I love that this book set my home state of Michigan also incorporates a little bit of San Antonio, where I spent eleven years. If you look closely you can see that iconic Texas building in the print.

This is my seventh book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018. And thanks again to Jessie at Dwell in Possibility for hosting the Mini Persephone Readathon which inspired me to read this book.