Friday, August 31, 2018

Classics Spin #18: Whisky Galore: More Scottish than Outlander

I was delighted by the most recent Classics Club Spin selection. I had been actually hoping to visit Scotland this summer (after my trip to London to see Hamilton) but since we decided to visit Jane Austen country, reading Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie would have to suffice for my Scotland fix. It includes so many of my favorite bookish requirements: Mid-century -- Check! Scotland location -- check! Quirky characters -- check! I am sorry to say most of what I know about Scotland comes from reading and watching Outlander (which I realize was written by an American). This has a lot more drinking and a lot less kilts and steamy Scotsmen -- and no time-travel.

The setup: loosely based on actual events of the 1940s, this comic novel is set during WWII and is the story of the residents of Little Todday and Great Todday, two fictional islands in the Outer Hebrides. Of course there is rationing due to the war, but what hits everyone hardest is the lack of whisky -- as the story begins there hasn't been any Scotch for weeks, and everyone is rationed to one beer every other day. They are all miserable.  

The tale opens with the return of Sergeant Odd, a forty-something English solider who had been previously assigned to the island, and fallen in love with a local girl, Peggy Macroon, before he shipped off to Africa. He's ready to get married but her father keeps putting off the wedding. The locals tell him they can't possibly host a reiteach, a traditional Gaelic engagement party, when there's no whisky to be had. The first third of the book mostly deals with Odd visiting various locals so the reader is introduced to the various quirky locals. 

Finally, a miracle occurs -- a steamer called the Cabinet Minster is wrecked on a reef between the two islands, and it seems like manna from heaven when the locals realize the hold was filled with 15,000 cases of premium whisky bound for the United States (apparently much of the whisky has been diverted to sell to America to pay for the war effort -- it's not clear if the Americans have entered the war yet). The shipping company writes off the loss and the residents get busy salvaging what they can before the excise men arrive, and the engagement party is back on.

Hilarity ensues when the resident self-important gentry, Captain Wagget, decides that everyone is flaunting the law (and enjoying themselves), so he tries to get the police and military involved. There are also some really funny bits with the local school master, George Campbell, whose domineering mother is trying to prevent his engagement. 

I really enjoyed this book. I do think it started out a bit slow, and I had a little trouble with Gaelic references and some of the dialect written phonetically into the dialogue. It's not what I'd describe as a rip-roaring yarn but more of a simmer -- perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I'd been sipping a wee dram myself while I'd been reading it! It was definitely worth sticking with. I feel like I got a real flavor of the islands, so to speak, and I enjoyed all the colorful characters. I really wish now that I had been able to visit Scotland this summer. 

Eddie Izzard as Captain Wagget
There have been two film adaptations of Whisky Galore -- the first one from 1949 starred Gordon Jackson (Hudson from Upstairs, Downstairs) as Mr. Campbell and is a classic comedy from the British Ealing studios.  The 2016 remake stars Eddie Izzard as Captain Wagget which I think is brilliant -- I love his stand-up and he's wonderful in almost every film and TV role. Sadly neither version is available from Netflix or at my library so I'll have to see if I can get one via inter-library loan, or I may just suck it up and see if I can find a cheap copy on the internet. 

Bloggers, has anyone seen either version? And how did everyone do with their spin picks? 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Mystery of Edwin Drood: We Will Never Know Because It's Unfinished

It's taken me more than ten years, but I've finally finished all the major works of Charles Dickens. I had put off reading his unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, because I suspected I'd be frustrated with only half the story. I'm not going to lie, I was absolutely correct, but if you're a Dickens fan it's still worth reading.

Published serially in 1870, Drood is the story of a young engaged couple, the eponymous Edwin, and Rosa Bud. Both orphans, they have been betrothed since children by their parents, who were friends and partners. However, Edwin and Rosa don't really love one another. At the beginning of the novel, Edwin is introduced to a brother and sister, Neville and Helena Landless, who are studying in the town of Cloisterham, where Rosa is attending school. Neville finds himself attracted to Rosa, and Edwin is attracted to Rosa. Neville is also offended that Edwin treats Rosa in an offhand manner, and after several drinks, heated words are exchanged. Neville thus gets a reputation as a hothead with a grudge. 

The two seem to make it up on Christmas Eve, but the following day, Edwin is nowhere to be found. Naturally, suspicion falls on Neville. Eventually, Edwin's watch, chain, and shirt pin are found in a river, but no body. (There is also a pointed reference to a quicklime pit). After several months, Rosa gets a visit from Edwin's creepy uncle Jasper, the Cloisterham choirmaster (and a secret opium addict). He confesses that he's been desperately in love with her for years. Rosa is naturally revulsed and flees to London, to her guardian, Mr. Grewgious, and meets up with the Landlesses again. We also meet some other characters who may or may not be private detectives or spies -- but that's pretty much it. Dickens only wrote half the novel before he suffered a stroke in June of 1870 (after working a full day on Drood). He never regained consciousness and there is no written outline of the story; however, Dickens had discussed the novel with various people so it is generally believed that (highlight for spoiler) Uncle Jasper is indeed the murderer.

Having read many mysteries, (including Dickens' masterpiece Bleak House, one of my all-time favorite novels) I had my own suspicions about the real murderer. Since the fragment was published there have been various film and TV adaptations, most recently in 2012, and a musical. 

Clearly, this is Rosa cowering in in revulsion from Uncle Jasper.

I really liked this story, though it had been some time since I'd read Dickens, I'd forgotten how different his writing style is to Trollope and Hardy. He definitely tends toward more flowery descriptions and over-the-top, eccentric side characters (with particularly descriptive names); and as usual, the young ingenue Rosa has essentially no personality except she's so pretty, men fall in love with her at the drop of a hat (except Edwin, of course). Written just a few years after Our Mutual Friend, I'm sure this would have been among my favorite Dickens novels if it had been finished -- I felt like the story was just starting to get really good when it was sadly over. I'm not sure how the TV adaptations conclude the story but I've requested the 2012 miniseries from the library.

I was thinking about counting this as my Classic Crime novel for the Back to the Classics challenge -- my final category for the challenge. However, I'm a little torn because I don't know how the story is resolved or if there's a crime at all -- what if Edwin just took off or got hit on the head and is supposed to reappear at the end with amnesia? Or if it was just an accident? Bloggers, what do you think? 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Long View: A Marriage in Reverse

Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles is one of my favorite discoveries since I began book blogging.  I knew she'd written other books, so I was really pleased to find one a couple of years ago while on a trip to London (I think I bought ten books on a that trip in less than seven days). I was determined to read it this year, so I put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list for this year. 

Though I didn't love it as much as the Cazalets, The Light Years is still engrossing and the story is ultimately heartbreaking. Published in 1956, it's the tale of the marriage between Antonia and Conrad Fleming. The interesting twist of the story is that it's told in reverse. The book begins about 1950, on the evening of a dinner party held in honor of their son Julian's engagement, to a sweet but rather silly twenty-ish girl named June. 

Just as Antonia and Conrad's marriage is breaking down, Julian and June's marriage is about to begin, and Antonia suspects that history will ultimately repeat itself. As the book progresses, we go back through different periods of Conrad and Antonia's marriage, where we learn about love, jealousy, infidelity, and betrayal. The book traces Antonia's life with Conrad and we see how she developed from a shy young girl to the sophisticated yet jaded woman she becomes. 

I really liked this book thought it was harder to get into than the Cazalet series, which has a much more straightforward narrative. There's a lot more psychological insights into characters in this book; also, the characters aren't quite as likable, though they're very realistic. Conrad in particular is quite horrible -- basically, he only marries Antonia so he can mold her into someone he can admire and show off. I realize this is the first half of the 20th century when most wives were considered possessions, but he is particularly condescending to women. 

Here is an exchange between Antonia and Conrad about books and reading: 

"You do not want a well informed wife?"

"I am not an information addict. No. I want you to be informed about your pleasures. I do not like the people who read fifteen books by a man who was written three worth reading."

"But if one enjoys reading, one must be resigned to many disappointments."

"Disappointments -- certainly. But if you read a book and are disappointed, it is because you intended to be pleased." (pp. 262-263)

OK, not sure about this last statement -- frankly, I always intend to be pleased by a book, Even if I don't necessarily enjoy them overall, I usually appreciate them for some reason. I suppose that's not necessarily the same as being pleased, but at least I don't feel like I've wasted my time. But I digress.

I really like this cover from the Italian edition. 
Here is another insight that Antonia has about Conrad soon after their marriage: 

The trouble was that they were not now leading a married life. She was not certain what she meant by this, but essentially she felt that Conrad was not treating her as an equally responsible person. . . . He was kind, he was charming, but she felt like a child, or like that song that her mother's friends had hummed and whistled while they marked the tennis court, or prepared the bridge tables: a great big beautiful doll. He was deliberately preventing her from taking on those responsibilities which she felt should be hers -- or even discovering what those responsibilities were. . . (p. 270)

So, we learn eventually that Conrad isn't really interested in Antonia so much for herself, as much as he's just looking for a trophy. This section of the book is set nearly 90 years ago and clearly times have changed, but I still found it horribly offensive. Conrad is just toxic and I'm sorry Antonia put up with it for more than 20 years. However, it is an interesting character study, and I liked the reverse time structure. I have since bought another one of Howard's earlier novels called The Sea Change, and her memoir, Slipstream. Apparently she had a very interesting life -- she was an actress and model before she became an author, and was married three times; one of her husbands was Kingsley Amis and she ran in literary circles. 

This is my eleventh book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018 -- only one left to go and I'm finished!

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Back to the Classics 2018: Final Wrap-Up Posts

Have you finished the Back to the Classics Challenge?  Congratulations!  This is where you'll link up to your Challenge Wrap-Up Post, after you've completed a minimum of six different categories from the original challenge post.  This post is only for Challenge Wrap-Up Posts.  If you do not have a blog, or anywhere you post publicly, please write up your post-challenge thoughts/suggestions/etc in the comments section below.  Please read the directions carefully. 

By linking or commenting here, you are declaring that you have completed the challenge; that each book reviewed fits the correct definition of the category, and was published before 1968 (except for posthumous publications); and that your reviews for each category are linked to the correct post. If I cannot find links to your reviews, I cannot give you credit and thus enter you into the drawing.  THIS is where I will look at the end of the year and randomly choose the winner for the bookish prize. 

Please remember to indicate the following within THIS POST, linked below, or in the comments section below if you do not have your own blog:

1. Which book corresponds to each category;

2. The number of entries you have earned for the prize drawing; 
3. Links to your reviews. 

If you do NOT include links to your original reviews IN THIS POST, I CANNOT ENTER YOU INTO THE DRAWING.


  • If you've completed six categories and you get one entry.
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries.
  • Complete all twelve categories, and your name is entered into the drawing three times!
Please be sure and include some kind of contact for me within your final wrap-up post. This year, I will be contacting the winner privately BEFORE posting their name publicly on this blog. If I cannot contact you, I cannot award your prize. If there is no contact on your blog post, please email me at karenlibrarian13 [at] yahoo [dot] com. 

LATEST UPDATE: It looks like I can also message the winner via Goodreads, so if you are posting reviews via your Goodreads account, I can contact you that way also. Thanks to Rachel for suggesting it!

Congratulations, and thanks again for participating in the Back to the Classics Challenge!

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Kept in the Dark by Anthony Trollope: Victorian Masculinity is Fragile

Another Trollope novel! Another terrible cover!

My Facebook Trollope group is hosting a read-along of Kept in the Dark, another of Trollope's novellas. As I had an unread copy on the shelves, and it was quite short, I thought this was as good a time as any participate -- and I was hopeful that it wouldn't be nearly as dire as Jude the Obscure. Published in 1882 shortly before his death, it is the story of a young woman named Cecilia Holt and the conflict that arises when her new husband discovers that she was previously engaged to another man.

So, young Cecilia is first engaged to Sir Francis Geraldine, a man nearly twice her age. He is the uncle of her friend, whose father is the local vicar (having read Jane Austen, I immediately recognized the pattern -- older brother gets the title, second son often joins the church). Cecilia and Sir Francis are much thrown together when she visits her friend, and as Cecilia is beautiful and has some money, and Sir Francis is a baronet, it is no surprise when an engagement follows. However, as the wedding date draws closer, she has doubts about his character and breaks off the engagement. Sir Francis has a title, but he is no gentlemen, and is in fact a gambler and something of a scoundrel. His pride is hurt after Cecilia throws him over, so starts to spread around the story that he, in fact, jilted her. Cecilia does not care to dignify this rumor, and simply leaves Essex for the continent until it all blows over.

After about a year, she meets George Western, another older man, who has no title but does have a good character. One thing leads to another and Mr. Western confesses to her that he himself had been jilted. Naturally this would have been the obvious time for Cecilia to reveal her previous engagement, but Mr. Western says his fiancee left him for a younger man -- Sir Francis' cousin, Captain Geraldine. Gotta love those amazing coincidences in Victorian literature.

Eventually, Cecilia accepts a proposal from Mr. Western, but never reveals her previous engagement, even after they marry. She just keeps putting it off for a better time, which never arises -- until Sir Francis turns up like a bad penny. Of course things get worse from there. Mr. Western begins to imagine all kinds of terrible scenarios, and his jealousy gets the better of him.

At first I thought this book was going to be something like my previous Trollope read, An Old Man's Lovein fact, it's closer to He Knew He Was Right, which also has an overly jealous husband. It also reminded me strongly of Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes, in which another Victorian gentleman can't get over the fact the woman he loves had been in love with someone else before him.  I get that women were supposed to be virgins back in the day, but it's a bit much to expect that they've never had any love interests at all. It's bad enough with the men often being ten to twenty years older than the women, which you see over and over again. (I'm beginning to wonder how accurate this really was in the 18th century, or if it's just the fantasy of the male writers.)

I'm not saying Cecilia is blameless -- it would have been a lot easier if she'd told him before she got engaged (then of course there would be no story). But I could understand how it would be harder and harder to reveal this to her fiancee. Also, Western's overreaction is way over the top and I really wanted to give him a good talking-to. Based on this book, I'm not quite sure if Trollope supported women's rights or not..

Overall, I did enjoy it, and there are some interesting characters -- Sir Francis is an excellent villain, and Cecilia has a frenemy named Francesca Altifiorla who is really self-centered and manipulative. Given Trollope's penchant for descriptive character names, I suspected that "Altifiorla" was Italian for "old flower," but alas, it is not.  Still, an enjoyable quick read, just over 200 pages. Though it's one of Trollope's lesser works, it would be a good introduction for someone who isn't ready to tackle one of his 800 page doorstoppers.

And I've now completed thirty novels by Trollope -- only seventeen left to go!

Monday, August 6, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation: From Atonement to Persuasion

I have not participated in this particular meme (hosted by Books Are My Favorite And Best) before, but I was inspired by all the great posts I've been seeing the past week! I've decided to play along.

This month it's Ian McEwan's Atonement, which ticks off a lot of boxes for me: WWII, English country houses, class struggles, etc. 

I do love books set in English country houses. A recent favorite set between the wars is Pomfret Towers by Angela Thikell, though of course it's much more lighthearted than Atonement

Angela Thirkell's novels are set in fictional Barsetshire county, originally created by my beloved Anthony Trollope. One of his popular Pallisers series is The Prime Minister, in which the social climbing Lady Glencora Palliser hosts some house parties at her husband's country estate, Gatherum Castle.  

One of Anthony Trollope's Victorian contemporaries was Charles Dickens, probably the most popular  Victorian author of all time. Bleak House is considered his masterpiece and is one of my particular favorites. And it has at least two country houses, the titular Bleak House and the home of Lady Dedlock, Chesney Wold. 

Reading Dickens and Trollope made me fall in love with the Victorian era (though I'd never want to have lived back then!). There are a lot of wonderful modern novels set in the Victorian era. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is one of the finest and is probably my favorite neo-Victorian novel.

Another very popular neo-Victorian novel is The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles. It's a metafiction novel set in Lyme Regis about a love triangle. It was famously adapted into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons.

And a book set in Lyme Regis naturally leads me back to Jane Austen's Persuasion, one of my absolute favorites. There is a key plot point in which several of the characters take a stroll at the famous Cobb along the waterfront, with disastrous results. 

I was lucky enough to visit England in June and made a detour all the way down to the coast, just so I could walk along the Cobb (much to the chagrin of my mother!) I took lots of photos and just realized that it's also time for Austen in August so I need to write another post about my trip!

Thanks again to Books Are My Favorite and Best for hosting this meme! It was really fun and I'll definitely be participating again. 

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Back to the Classics 2018 Mid-Year Giveaway: The Winner!

Congratulations to O of On Bookes! She was the winner (via Random Number Generator) of my Mid-Year Giveaway and has won a Penguin Clothbound Classic! She chose a beautiful edition of The Ramayana by Valmiki.

Thanks to everyone who commented and entered the drawing. I know a lot of you are making great progress with the Back to the Classics Challenge! (O is already finished!) I only have one more book to read, my Crime Classic, and I'll have completed the challenge. I'll be posting a link for the Final Wrap-Up next week.